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As the titan of Tor Books, Tom Doherty stands at the summit of SF publishing


By Rick Klaw

T om Doherty is a legend within the publishing community. Before establishing Tor Books, which is one of the most popular and influential science-fiction publishers of all time, Doherty teamed up with Ian Ballantine to help launch J.R.R. Tolkien in the United States. He's a partner in Baen Books and a man whom everyone seems to know and respect.

Recently Science Fiction Weekly was lucky enough to catch up with Tom Doherty at Armadillocon 24 in Austin, Texas, to discuss Tor, publishing, bounced checks and other points of interest.



What did you do leading up to the formation of Tor?

Doherty: I started in publishing at Select Magazines, the national distributor for Pocket Books; from there I went to Pocket. At Pocket, I did all the sales jobs, you know, from salesman to district manager, regional manager, divisional manager and national sales manager. When I was the national sales manager for the wholesale division, we were the distributors of Ballantine Books, and I got to know Ian Ballantine very well, and I was the sales manager, for example, during the time that he launched Tolkien.



That must have been pretty exciting.

Doherty: Yes, it was. I learned a lot from Ian and from his wife, Betty. Betty was the real mover in editorial. She was the editor for science fiction and fantasy. She was the one, for example, who brought in Judy-Lynn del Rey from Galaxy and trained her in books. Betty started the very first science-fiction line that very first year at Ballantine, with such books as Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. I got to work very closely with them, since I was functioning as their sales manager.

Ian was a wonderfully interesting man. You had to listen carefully, because he talked in parable, and Betty was a brilliant editor, and they both taught me a lot. I had always been interested in science fiction, always read it, but they were the pioneers. I went from there to Grosset & Dunlop. Harold Roth hired me to be the publisher of paperbacks. Grosset & Dunlop had a juvenile line called Tempo that published YA. I added science fiction, books like Weapon Shops of Isher, and Andre Norton and Harriet McDougal came aboard and we had some really nice successes.

Ace had gone on hard times, and Grosset acquired Ace. I became publisher of Ace. Harriet became my editorial director, she would eventually meet, edit and marry Robert Jordan. I brought Jim Baen in from Galaxy for science fiction. Our growth was fast enough so I could go to venture capital and borrow the money to start Tor in 1980. Dick Gallen, a venture capitalist, put up the money. For various reasons it seemed like the right thing to do. I'd always really wanted to run my own show.



Obviously it turned out to be the right thing to do.

Doherty: Yes! I started Tor in 1980. We shipped our first books in November.



How many books did you do the first time, the first shipment?

Doherty: The first shipment was only four books, and it was rushed. We really hadn't planned to start till '81. But we had tie-ins with Flash Gordon and with Popeye; they were Christmas movies, and so we rushed out the books so they would tie in.



Your first books were movie tie-ins?

Doherty: Yes.



Well, you've got to start somewhere.

Doherty: Our first full list began the following April, and Tor book number one was Andre Norton's Forerunner. We did Poul Anderson's Psychotechnic League, I believe, on that list as well.



What does a publisher do? What exactly do you do at Tor?

Doherty: A publisher is kind of like a coach. You've got a lot of people with different areas of effort that have to come together like fingers on a hand. You have built-in natural problems, as between editorial and sales. You get good, proud people and they think they do a wonderful job. Editors essentially think that they do these wonderful books, and if only they had a better sales effort, they'd have all these bestsellers. Sales people think they do a great job of selling and marketing, and if only the books were a little better they would have all these bestsellers. And there's the potential there to fight each other to no purpose but to defend their own ground. So when I started Tor, I wouldn't let them have an editorial department and a sales department. I made them sit in alternate offices. You're all the same team. The problem was in talking only to your own group you reinforce the positions. But if you were sitting next to the other guy, you had to be a little more careful and a little more thoughtful about what you said. I think it was one of the things that helped Tor, the fact that editorial and sales had to work very closely together.

The other thing, I think, was that we started telecommuting before the word was invented. In the very first year it seemed to me that, we're not like General Motors, we don't have a huge investment in plants and equipment, it's an idea business and the company's nothing but the sum of the talents of its people. How's a startup company to get good people away from companies like Random House and Simon & Schuster and MCA? It seemed to me that the only way you can do this is to really give people a chance for a lifestyle that they would prefer. For example, Harriet MacDougal wanted to live in Charleston, South Carolina. She had inherited a wonderful home down there on the Battery with a great walled garden, 500 feet deep. She was divorced and she thought that would be a nicer place to bring up her son. So she moved to Charleston. She was the best editor I had ever worked with, and I couldn't let such talent get away. While still at Ace we joint-ventured a number of books, including the first two Robert Jordans, American historicals published under the pen name Reagan O'Neal. When Tor started, we got her a computer and a modem and she'd modem in her copy and come to New York when she wanted to meet with agents.

Ben Bova was still at Omni, and he liked what he was doing, but he liked to write, too, and there came a day when he decided it would be nice to do some editing for us. He didn't want to give up editing, but he wanted time to write. So he moved to Naples, Florida, and he brought us some wonderful authors, and he wrote and we published many of his books. Beth Meacham joined us, but she had arthritis and wanted to live in the desert, so we worked out a way for Beth to go and live in Tucson. David Hartwell loved to fool with subrights, to go to London and Frankfurt, and he had been able to do that in the old days when he was at Berkeley, but he couldn't do that at Simon & Schuster. We didn't have some things set in concrete—we could structure things to suit the lifestyle that a person preferred. So people were willing to take a chance on us.



And you're still doing it. I know you have people like Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling editing for you, and neither one of them ... well, Ellen lives in New York, but that's not why she's editing for you. She could be anywhere.

Doherty: Jack Dann edits for us out of Australia, and Jim Frenkel is full-time out of Madison. Bob Gleason, from Cape Cod, does more books than most of our editors. More editors work outside our New York offices than in them.



I appreciate that thinking outside the box and thinking of different ways of doing things. Too often publishers like to take square peg and put it into the round hole.

Doherty: It was an advantage of growing up on the sales side. I mean, it's so obvious. No one follows the salesman around to see if he's working; you judge productivity. And why not judge an editor the same way? Why must an editor come to an office?



What's your relationship with Jim Baen?

Doherty: Jim Baen was with us in New York, coordinating things in the science-fiction area. That's kind of an interesting story, because Pocket Books offered Jim a job, and we made them a counteroffer. We said, "No, Jim won't join you, but suppose we create a line for you to distribute?" and Ron Bush was their president at the time and he bought into it. They would make the distributor profit, and we would make the publisher profit. It would be win-win. So we spun Jim off, and that's how come I'm a partner still with Baen.



A silent partner?

Doherty: Oh, totally silent. Jim makes all the decisions.



I can tell, because the books are radically different between Tor and Baen.

Doherty: It would be a conflict of interest for me to try to involve myself. Jim does all his own thing and does it beautifully, but it's fun to still be a partner in his company.



What is your role in Tor now? Are you still the publisher? Do you still have an active role in the day-to-day operations?

Doherty: Yeah.



What's your relationship with the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group?

Doherty: We're a wholly owned subsidiary, like Farrar, Strauss or Henry Holt or St. Martin's or Scientific American or Nature.



Do you have to call Holtzbrinck and say, "We're going to be doing these books. Are these OK?"

Doherty: No. We sold to the St. Martin's/Macmillan people and Holtzbrinck bought them; when they bought Macmillan they bought us. When I started, I had a bunch of ideas about how to start a company with no money. I knew how the distribution contracts worked, because I had negotiated them on the sales side. The president of Pinnacle had been the senior vice president of sales at Bantam, and Bantam was a sister company to Grosset. So when I was at Grosset we had worked together.

I said to [Pinnacle president] Stan Reisner, "Look. I would propose that we piggyback on your distribution contract through Independent." Independent was the Warner distribution arm. "You'll get all the escalators, and I'll get a better base contract than a startup company could negotiate, and, you know, we'll both win. You'll do some of our work for us like adding us to order forms, because your advertising department is set up to do these kinds of things, and we won't have very many titles in the beginning. We'll pay for the paper and printing and layout and everything. But your people will do some of these things. When the workload demands more people I'll add them. You'll buy paper better, because we'll do a combined paper and printing buy, you'll get better prices, and you'll get sales incentives."



You defeated the biggest problems small presses have when they start, which is the cost of printing and distribution.

Doherty: Right. So I piggybacked on his contracts, and this worked out very well for about five years. But Pinnacle belonged to a company by the name of Michigan General, which happened to be a Texas company located in Dallas. Michigan General had a bunch of other businesses. The company came on hard financial times. One day a check for $865,000 bounced, then another check for $1,550,000 bounced.



That's not like a $10 check bouncing.

Doherty: It'll spoil your whole afternoon. For still a comparatively young publisher, this was a problem. There was more I would not be paid for in the pipeline.



With checks that big, things must have been going really well—you were selling books.

Doherty: Yes. We were doing well enough and our books looked good enough that the banks could agree that it wasn't something we were doing wrong, and I could get the financing. But the debt was eating us up. We couldn't grow. All I could do was service the debt. So we decided that we would go public to raise some capital to pay off the debt. Then Simon and Schuster made us an offer and St. Martin's Press countered.



Not a bad place to be.

Doherty: No. It got to a place where people were saying to me you're crazy not to take this offer because you can't afford to risk another loss like this. I had a responsibility to all these people (staff, authors, printers, paper manufacturers) and to the people who had loaned me the money to start, like Dick Gallen. It was kind of irresponsible not to, and besides I did own a third of Baen, so I still had an interest in an independent. Dick was very understanding and agreed on the lower bid. It was $2 million less, but St. Martin's Press guaranteed autonomy I believed could not be maintained at Simon & Schuster. None of my people would lose their jobs and there would be no change in the way the company was run.



I'm impressed. I can't think of many people who would turn down the $2 million.

Doherty: I like money, but I don't like it that much.



You talk about Tor like it's you child, which you should. Like all fathers, there must be a moment that sticks out where you said, "Wow. I'm proud of this." What is your proudest moment with Tor?

Doherty: Well, actually, I think it's something that my daughter Kathleen did, and it wasn't something you'd think that was typical of Tor. She worked out a literacy program with Wal-Mart. She came to me one day and she had this idea for classics, and she wanted to do a line of classics that looked like fun. She said, "Dad, you know, you used to make me read some of these classics, and they all looked so deadly dull, and I would resist. And I'd finally read what you wanted me to read, and I'd like it, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." She named a bunch of books she loved and she said, "Everybody's publishing them for professors. And if we could do a line that looked like fun for kids ..." She did, and went to Wal-Mart. She worked within them on a literacy promotion, and she wrote an order, it was the biggest order I'd ever seen in publishing. It was an order for 17 and a half million books, non-returnable.



Is that the two-for-a-dollar books?

Doherty: Yeah. The idea was to put good books into little communities across the country that didn't have bookstores, to get books at a really low price that kids could afford, good books for millions of kids who wouldn't otherwise see them.



Lately, things have been changing a lot in publishing with bookstores collapsing, and there's been different things happening. What do you see as the future of e-books? And how do you see it affecting Tor, if at all? And what is Tor's role in e-books?

Doherty: I don't really know. I think as the readers get better, there will be certainly a lot more sales that way. But, you know, you look at something like Amazon, it's about 6 percent of our sales on hardcover and not a significant part of our sales in mass paper. It seems to me they're kind of the Sears Roebuck catalog of this generation. E-books, they're still experimental. The marketing is the real problem. You go up to a big bookstore, BookPeople, Barnes & Noble, and you look at these walls and walls of books, and your eye focuses and you see things that look wonderful to you. That's a pleasurable experience. You can scan a thousand books in a very short time. To scan a thousand books online is not fun. A significant part of everything we sell is impulse, so I think online is a great way, Amazon is a great way to get something you really want, and it may not be easy to find. But I think the shopping experience of a good bookstore is a pleasurable experience, and the real cost of a book is not a very large portion of the cover price. A significant part of our cost is in inefficiency of distribution. When we look at why people read books, a Gallup poll said that 27 percent buy because of the author, and 26 percent buy on the recommendation of a friend or relative, and 24 percent on physical packaging. From there, it dropped way down to 8 percent for bestsellers. A lot of people want to read what's in, or they figure if it's that popular it must be good. Six percent for advertising, that broke down 3 percent for magazine, 1 percent each for radio, television, newspaper. OK, if you're going to market a book and you get 1 percent for radio and 24 percent for physical packaging, you want to put that package in front of a lot of people.



What are you gonna spend your money on?

Doherty: Right. Put the books in a lot of different places, because the cover is a small billboard advertising the packaging. The physical package is attractive and it sells books. We don't yet have such an attractive way to buy e-books. And until that's solved, until we get to see more fun, maybe more social, even, 'cause shopping is a social thing, and it's nice to go to a bookstore with a friend and browse and talk about, suggest, and have a cup of coffee maybe.



I don't know how it is in New York bookstores, but every bookstore I've ever worked in [all in Austin, Texas], Friday night is date night. People come in to pick up on each other. It's a place to meet people.

Doherty: Yeah, yeah, that's what I'm saying. E-books don't answer any of that.



What role do you see the Internet playing? It's a little different. Do you see it just as an advertising tool?

Doherty: No, I see the Internet as being a wonderful vehicle for getting hard-to-find books to people. I think that it's an amazing vehicle for information. Anything that has to be updated quickly will move to electronic. It's the novel, I think, will take a long time to move to the electronic.



What do you see for Tor in the next 10 years? Do you see doing things the same way, or do you see it changing?

Doherty: I think that we're going to develop to a more efficient demographic matching with the product. Over the next 10 years, we're going to start to develop information probably by zip code, which will cause us to be better able to recommend what should be in a given place. And I think that the knowledgeable stores will always do it better on the spot, but I think that we can do something about this wholesale distribution, which has decided it has to have fewer and more universal titles. We want books in the supermarket. The great trend in American retailing is not toward less selection, it's toward more. Every area of the supermarket has bestsellers, you know, Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup, but they don't tell a person that wants horseradish to learn to like ketchup, it's a bestseller. And I think they're going to find a way because people want it: to get the right book into the right Safeway. And that's our outreach. I've always believed that mass-market books are a very democratizing factor in reading. Surveys used to show that something over 37 percent of our sales were impulse, OK?



That sounds low. I would have guessed closer to 90 percent.

Doherty: First comes the author. In a bookstore, buying a book may be an impulse, but it's an educated impulse—you know the author or a person you trust has recommended it. I'm talking about pure impulse, where you see something new that you don't recognize and you pick it up. And outside the bookstore, where people are not as well informed, the people who are shopping in the Wal-Mart, the Safeway, much of their sale was impulse, but you sold a whole different thing near a college campus than you did in an immigrant ghetto. Well, what's happened now is that distributors have trouble differentiating between Safeways or Albertsons, and they want to put the same book in every store. Doesn't work. And that's why we've got to get the right demographic information and find a way to get the right book into the right store.



One of your strengths is your regional sales reps. The Texas area sales rep, Jim Riggs, knows his region better than anybody. He knows what book's going to sell, and he's right most of the time. So good sales reps can make a big difference on that. Of course, getting the big stores to listen is another matter.

Doherty: The other problem is that people come to their decisions so subjectively. I had the darndest time early on, when I was first selling, just convincing many independent bookstores that science fiction was worth carrying. You're talking a long time ago, but I often thought that a big problem with many independents is that they stock what they thought the community ought to read rather than what the community wants to read. I think that the growth of the chains in a large part was about looking at their inventory in a very mechanical way and replacing things that sold, and if you saw that science fiction sold, increasing the space. I think a lot of independents didn't do that. Good independents compete very well. But too many people didn't.



Tor has published many wonderful writers. Is there any one writer that you like better than any of the others? That you go, "Man, this is my favorite?" The guy who puts a new book out and you think, "Man, I can't wait to read this?" I know it's a hard question for you; you love them all, they're all your children.

Doherty: Well, gosh. In different moods, I like different kinds of things. I don't always want to read one type. I really did, for example, love the first Robert Jordan. We printed 5,000 ARCs [advance readers' copies] for that in a time when people didn't do that. We gave one to every bloody person who would take one. Then two years later we took—the first part had a very natural break—the first 280 pages and we gave it away. We gave away a million copies we thought that would tell people what it was and they'll read it, and if they read it, they'll want more. We spent an awful lot to make that series, even though we didn't spend much as an advance. We bought it pretty cheaply because he wasn't yet established. But, yeah, I really love that kind of book.

I loved Ender's Game. That was a very special book for me, and we've done a lot to promote that over the years. We've done a tremendous number of giveaways in school systems to get it on school reading lists. We've given away ... I don't think we've given away a million, but we've given hundreds of thousands literally to get it into schools. I don't know. I can't answer.



Thank you for taking this time to talk to me. It was interesting.

Doherty: You know, it's been so much fun over the years. It's like I never had to stop playing.



In your very own sandbox.

Doherty: Right.

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