Orbit has been riding high recently. As an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group, it was named publisher of the year at The Bookseller Awards, and a number of the novels it published in 2013 have been nominated for something of a smorgasbord of genre honours. Most notably, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has won a slew of said already, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association’s Award for Best Novel. It’s also up for a Locus, and a Hugo, too.
And here’s where the situation gets iffy. Last week, you see, Orbit released a statement saying that they wouldn’t be giving away thousands of copies of three of their books for free this year, and people on the internet got a little pissy.
But let’s start at the start, with the press release that explained the imprint’s decision to include in the Hugo Voters Packet extended extracts of the nominated novels—namely Parasite by Mira Grant, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross—as opposed to electronic editions of the texts in their entirety:
We are of course very much in favour of initiatives that help readers to engage with important awards, and we are always looking for new ways to help readers discover new authors. However, in the case of the voter packets, authors and rights holders are increasingly feeling that if their work is not included in the packet it will be at a disadvantage in the awards. It’s difficult for anyone to know for certain whether this is the case, but either way we don’t feel that authors and rights holders should feel under pressure to make their work available for free. There are a lot of different attitudes to the idea of giving work away for free, but we hope most people would agree that writers and rights holders should be able to make their own choice, without feeling that their decision might have negative consequences.
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.
Orbit can’t have expected this "complex issue" to gather the negative momentum it has, however. More than fifty comments followed the blog post above, many of which we might politely describe as declarations of outrage. Boycotts have been plotted; Orbit has been called any number of names; and several of its employees have been singled out on social media.
Which is to say—and I hope we can agree here—the situation’s gotten rather out of hand, hasn’t it? Because whether or not Orbit’s decision to include excerpts rather than entire texts was the right one, at the end of the day, this is not how a community which we all wish the wider world would treat seriously behaves.
To be clear, I’m also disappointed in Orbit’s decision. It stinks of business. But it is what it is—a perspective reflected by the three authors implicated in the publisher’s policy, who put out the following open letter together:
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.
This year, Orbit—the publisher of Mira Grant's Parasite, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, and Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood—have decided that for policy reasons they can't permit the shortlisted novels to be distributed for free in their entirety. Instead, substantial extracts from the books will be included in the Hugo Voters Packet.
We feel your disappointment keenly and regret any misunderstandings that may have arisen about the availability of our work to Hugo voters, but we are bound by the terms of our publishing contracts. The decision to give away free copies of our novels is simply not ours to take. However, we are discussing the matter with other interested parties, and working towards finding a solution that will satisfy the needs of the WSFS voters and our publishers in future years.
Finally, please do not pester our editors: the decision was taken above their level.
At the very least, let’s take that last statement seriously—and please, leave off the authors also.
So what now? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. The backlash has been bad enough that Orbit could conceivably admit their mistake and put aside a policy that is undoubtedly detrimental... though I dare say the damage is done.
And not just to Orbit’s image; the fact is that this negativity is apt to have an impact on the three awesome genre novels nominated in the first for a Hugo Award—and that’s not just right, readers. Agreed?