orbitWell, here’s some disappointing news. You know how, in recent years, the Hugo Voters Packet has included as many of the Hugo-nominated works as it was able to get out of its publishers? Including, this year, almost the entirety of the Wheel of Time series? (It’s lacking the prequel novel which isn’t directly connected to the storyline of the main series.)

There’s a fly in the ointment this year, and it’s that, apart from Wheel of Time and Baen author Larry Correia’s book, all the nominees for Best Novel were published by Orbit, the UK publisher and subsidiary of Hachette through which Charlie Stross, Ann Leckie, and Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) publish. And so, as Stross, Leckie, and Grant write in a joint statement which Stross has posted to his blog, Orbit has elected only to provide excerpts of each book rather than the complete book for the packet this year.

In a statement on Orbit’s web site, Orbit CEO Tim Holman complains that authors and rights holders shouldn’t feel “under pressure” to give their work away for free, and thinks awards administrators should think of other ways to encourage voter participation.

The writers ask that no one pester their editors, the publishing company’s CEOs, or anyone else about the decision, lest it appear the writers put them up to it and it have negative repercussions for their contract negotiations and relationships with their publisher. (In particular, Stross is in the middle of negotiating terms for books 6 and 7 of a series, which no other UK publisher would touch if this deal falls through.)

John Scalzi, who was the one who actually put together the first few Hugo voter packets, reminds readers that the voter packet is not something to which they’re entitled, but rather comes as a nice bonus with their membership because some rights holders do feel like giving their work away, and volunteers feel like putting it all together. Up until a few years ago, voters didn’t get it at all. However, Scalzi adds:

On a personal note, I will say that I think Orbit’s statement on why it’s not offering the full books in the packet is at least 63% utter bullshit; the whole “we’re so concerned about an author’s right of determination about their work that we’ve decided not to give them the right to decide whether to participate in the Hugo Voters Packet” bit is a particularly nice touch.

It’s a pity, but not exactly a surprise. Orbit hasn’t been exactly eager to provide its works at the best of times. In previous years, they provided them only as PDF files rather than in formats that would work on e-readers. This year, given that apart from the politically-motivated Larry Correia nomination every book on the ballot is an Orbit book (even Wheel of Time, which is published under license by Orbit in the UK), Orbit knows it’s going to have a winner no matter what it does and sees no benefit in undercutting a potential few thousand sales by giving away those titles for free to Hugo voters—especially since a Hugo win really doesn’t mean all that much in terms of sales for a book that’s already been out for a while.

And, as Stross points out in the discussion that follows the announcement, as a subsidiary of Hachette, Orbit may not have as much choice in the matter as it would like, even if it did want to provide those books.

Hachette, you will remember, is a French corporation. This has both good aspects and bad aspects. The good: they’re far more loyal to their people than observers used to the American corporate culture would ever expect. (Example: in the 2008 recession, in September, the New York publishing industry shat the bed and downsized by approximately 10%. The sole exception among the big six was Hachette: their line was, "this recession is temporary and we’d be fools to fire the experienced staff we’ll need when business picks up again." They settled for a hiring/pay freeze, and ran at a loss for a couple of years, as the price of maintaining their highly skilled work force.)

The bad: their entire attitude to intellectual policy is, shall we say, un-American. They come from the culture that gave us Victor Hugo’s Moral Rights model for copyright — an alternative to the UK/US copyright model — and the HADOPI law. They see themselves to some extent as a cultural touchstone, not merely a money-making company … and by the same token, they have to make money in order to keep the cultural banner flying. And they take a dirigiste approach to setting group-wide policy: people are consulted, but when a decision is taken it’s enforced as rigorously by the executives as a parliamentary party’s three-line whip. (The cost of a job in government is that after the discussions are over, you commit to supporting your government’s policies 100%.)

From the point of view of an SF fan, this is a disappointing decision. I can certainly sympathize with Stross, Leckie, and Grant for not wanting waves to be made that could rock their boats. Likewise, it’s entirely within the rights of the publisher to decide whether or not to give away its titles for free. But even without the Orbit titles, $40ish for the almost-complete Wheel of Time plus whatever assorted other Hugo noms do get included still isn’t that bad a deal.

It’s also worth pointing out that anyone who really wants to read those books without paying anything more for them can probably obtain them easily enough from their local libraries, via interlibrary loan if the library doesn’t have it. There is no need to download them illicitly.


  1. A short-sided decision, if you ask me. Weighing the cost of providing a free copy (potential lost sales, numbering no more than a few thousand of each title) versus the gain (potential new readers in the genre who care about it enough to buy a membership in Worldcon, and happy authors) it strikes me that Orbit will be the loser, especially since they have gotten a lot of negative publicity for this. It’s like they took out an ad that said “If you want control of your books, don’t publish with us.” Playing right into Hugh Howey’s hands.

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