In a move that’s sure to create even more controversy over this year’s Hugo Awards, Tim Holman, the CEO of Orbit Books, has stated that only excerpts of Orbit titles will be provided in this year’s Hugo Voters Packet. I think this is a bad idea for reasons I’ll detail at the end of this post.
Holman, in a statement on the company’s website, in part had this to say:
We would like to make it clear that this was our decision, and not one requested by any of our authors. It is a complex issue, with many different perspectives and opinions, and we believe that we are acting in the best interests of our authors while continuing to support the voter packet.
Note the wording: “this was our decision, and not one requested by any of our authors” and “we believe that we are acting in the best interests of our authors”. I have to wonder to what extent the authors had a say in the matter at all.
The books in question are Parasite (Mira Grant AKA Seanan McGuire), Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie), and Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross). The Wheel of Time is licensed by Orbit in the UK, but since Tor is the original publisher, Orbit has no say in its distribution. Tor has promised to include the entire series in the Voters Packet.
In a joint statement on Stross’s blog, the three authors said this:
It has become customary in recent years for authors of Hugo-nominated works to provide the members of the World Science Fiction convention who get to vote for the awards with electronic copies of their stories. The ball started rolling a few years ago when John Scalzi kindly took the initiative in preparing the first Hugo voters packet; since then it has become almost mandatory to distribute shortlisted works this way.
Unfortunately, as professionally published authors, we can’t do this without obtaining the consent of our publishers. We are bound by contracts that give our publishers the exclusive rights to distribute our books: so we sought their permission first.
And we all know how that turned out. There’s a good summary of things here. Also, Grant, Leckie, and Stross have requested that annoyed readers not bug anyone at Orbit about this. They seem to fear retaliation from Orbit if this happens. Now why would they need to fear that? (For the record , I think this suggestion is a good one and intend to honor their wishes. I won’t be forwarding this post on to Orbit nor contacting them in any way.)
A few thoughts. First, Orbit seems to be pretty ham-fisted about providing digital copies. (This may or may not be imposed from above. Orbit is a subsidiary of Hatchette, so what the boss company says, the peon company has to go along with. Stross points out that might be the case here.)
A couple of years ago I requested an eARC through NetGalley of a fantasy novel that looked pretty interesting. The book was twice as long as I expected, and so I put off reading it for a few weeks because I had some other titles I’d made commitments to that I needed to clear from the docket first. When I tried to read the book, electronic access had been cut off. This would not have happened with a paper ARC. I still haven’t read it, although I did track down a used copy of the British edition which had a far better cover than the US edition. Haven’t bought much from Orbit since, either, other than Brian McClellan’s work.
Second, a close reading of the two statements at the very least implies that Orbit higher-ups disregarded the wishes of their authors concerning their own works. Which calls into question the whole ” we are acting in the best interests of our authors” line. If that’s the case, why are they afraid of retaliation.
Third, several people have pointed out in various places that Worldcon members were not entitled to free copies of anything, but that the Hugo Voter Packets were just a nice (and very recent) bonus for being a member and voting. This is true. I don’t disagree.
I, however, think Orbit is being extremely short-sighted. Someone in the comments at The Passive Voice calculated that with three titles on the ballot, Orbit would give away nearly 23, 000 copies. On the surface, that sounds like a lot of money to lose.
But…and you knew there would be a “but”, didn’t you…Grant and Stross have multi-volume series with Orbit. Ancillary Justice is Leckie’s first novel. Given the way publishing contracts work, she almost certainly has at least one other under contract.
Assume you gave away those books in their entirety, and let’s assume that for each of the three Orbit titles on the ballot, half of the people receiving the voter packets haven’t already bought that particular title. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about a different half for each title.) And let’s assume that half of those people read and like the title enough to read others in the series, either previously published or forthcoming.
So what you’ve just done created new customers who will go out an buy not only exiting products but products in the future. It wouldn’t take long to recoup your investment. An average of four Orbit titles for the one-fourth of the voters. And considering how some people buy a whole series at once, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Orbit could see a bump in sales over the course of a few months to a year. Yes, I realize these numbers are purely speculative, but my point is that Orbit could in the long run see an increase in sales. I call this approach Your First Sample is Free, Kid (YFSIF).
What Orbit is hoping on the other hand is to create customers by getting them hooked on the book and having them go out and buy the thing to see how it ends. This could also result in a bump in sales, assuming it doesn’t cost sales by the annoyance factor. I call this approach Please Deposit Another Five Dollars for the Next Three Minutes (PDAFDFTNTM).
It remains to be seen how well this approach will work. I have no idea. I can only speak for my own buying habits, which I know are not always typical. I rarely bother with excerpts from novels for a couple of reasons. First, and this is somewhat a holdover from the dead-tree-only days, I don’t like the interruption while I wait for the next book. (This stems to a large degree from the practice of printing the first chapter of the next book at the end of the current one when usually the next book won’t be available for some time.) Second, there are enough novels in my pile (real and virtual) that I don’t need to go looking for something else to read. I need to find more time to read what I’ve got.
So if I were voting, and I probably will buy a supporting membership so I can, I wouldn’t (and won’t) read the excerpts. Nor would I be inclined to read any more titles from Orbit or any other publisher that pulled a stunt like this. Personally, I prefer YFSIF to PDAFDFTNTM. I think that’s a better approach, especially in the long term. But that’s just me. Your mileage may vary considerably.
And before someone accuses me of wanting more free books, let me assure you that’s not the case. Not only do I have more than I can read, none of these three titles interest me. I wouldn’t read them if the entire books were available. I’m more interested in the novella, novelette, and short story categories. Those I have time to read, and those are the ones I’m interested in voting on.
All I’m saying is that Orbit seems to be taking the short view rather than the long view. I think they’re misguided, but they have every right to make that call. There’s been a lot of talk in some circles about how certain freedoms aren’t free from consequences, including backlash. While Orbit has every right to only provide excerpts, I have every right to not do business with them for their business practices.
Now, I’ve got some reading to do for the award that I think is more significant to the field.