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An Interview with Patrick Nielsen Hayden
by Darrell Schweitzer
DS: Let's start with the basics. Describe beginnings of your career and what position you hold at Tor right now.
PNH: It's hard to say what the beginnings of my career were because I have been involved in science fiction fandom, in fanzine publishing and convention organizing and so forth, for twenty-five years, since the mid-1970's at least. I've been reading Locus since 1970 because my godparents bought me a subscription when I was eleven.
But, I made a conscious decision in 1983 that I really wanted to work professionally in science fiction publishing and that the thing to do to accomplish that was to go to New York. That's what both Teresa and I did. I knew perfectly well that I wasn't just going to walk into New York and have a dandy little job in science fiction publishing. I needed to get some publishing chops, so I took whatever work I could get. I worked at the Literary Guild for several months. I worked for a weird, semi-fly-by-night academic reference publisher called Chelsea House for several years, editing the Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism under the general editorship of Harold Bloom. We had a staff of several editors who put together this huge anthology of literary criticism. At one point it could be truly said that no volume of the Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism series was touched by mundane hands, because our general editor was S.T. Joshi. The associate editors were myself, Teresa, Peter Cannon, Tom Webber. It was almost entirely a science fiction production.
This went on throughout much of the 1980s and gradually I got a little bit of freelance work, copyediting, proofreading, a little bit of copy-writing. I hung around the field. I continued to go to conventions. I helped start The New York Review of Science Fiction, and just in the general course of things I wound up doing a lot of work for and with Tor. So I hung around and did freelance in the field, kept my connections green, and developed skills in publishing.
Debbie Notkin, the co-owner of The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley had come out to New York to work for a year with Beth Meacham, who was the well-overworked editor of Tor at the time. But Debbie had only promised to come out for a year. So as she prepared to depart, I wound up doing more in-house work at Tor and more or less taking over her job full-time. So I really date my full-time presence at Tor from right after the 1988 Worldcon, when this all started. I was initially hired by Beth Meacham as an administrative editor, and was promoted a couple of times and was made a senior editor two or three years later. Some years after that I took on the title of Manager of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which basically what I do.
We don't really have strong genre divisions inside the staff of Tor and Forge. We don't even have "Tor editors" and "Forge editors." We are a unitary publishing company. We do a variety of different kinds of books, and we put whatever imprints on the books we think are appropriate and useful for selling them. Certainly we have editors who do more mysteries and thrillers than other kinds of books, and we have editors (me included)who do a lot more science fiction and fantasy than other kinds of books, but I don't think there's anybody at Tor and Forge who is a complete purist. The only two people who have publishing-category, genre-specific jobs at Tor, in fact, are myself, who has in addition to handling my own list, the overall task of sheepdogging all the science fiction and fantasy efforts of all the many editors; and Melissa Singer, who does something fairly similar over on the mainstream side of the house. It tells you everything you need to know about Tor and Forge, that I think we are the only publishing company in New York that talks unselfconsciously inside our own staff meetings about "the mainstream side of the house." As I think we all know, mainstream is a term that's evolved inside science fiction.
DS: You have a wide variety of editors who acquire books. What happens next? Do you all have to agree on a book, or does the individual editor just have to convince Tom Doherty?
PNH: No, we don't have an editorial board meeting every week. Thank God. That was something Tom hated at the other publishing companies he worked for. I remember those kinds of meetings at the Doubleday Book Club when I worked for the Enclosures program of the Literary Guild. There is something to be said for that and it is not a totally invalid way of structuring a publishing company, but those things can turn into a kind of cockpit of knife-in-the-back politics. They tend to encourage a kind of beggar-thy-neighbor attitude, where basically everybody views it as being in their own interest to undermine everybody else's projects. This is not to say this always happens, but it doesn't happen at Tor because we don't do it that way.
Although we have had various people with the title of editor-in-chief -- Harriett MacDougal was editor-in-chief in the early '80s when Tor was first started and Jim Baen was the science fiction honcho; and I think Beth Meacham had the title of editor-in-chief in the late '80s; and we had Bob Gleason was editor-in-chief for a few years in the early '90s -- by and large, in effect, Tom Doherty has always been his own editor-in-chief. He is a very editorially hands-on publisher. Tom has a case of non-sum-dignus about this and will say, "Oh, I'm not really an editor," but he has a mind like a steel trap when it comes to plot points and really paying attention to how it works in the experience of reading a book. I think that just goes to show that marketing and sales savvy and editorial savvy are really very close to one another as intellectual skills.
At any rate, we buy the books that editors want to buy and that they convince Tom to buy. We are so overbought these days that Melissa and I perform something of a gatekeeper function of basically reminding Tom and the editor in question just how long it might take to actually we schedule a book, or that we already own seventeen vampire/Nazi books and perhaps we need to space out this kind of acquisition. I am making that up as a variable. We don't actually own any vampire/Nazi books to my knowledge.
But that's basically the system. It's pretty straightforward. Tom runs things. We have a fairly flat hierarchy. As we've gotten larger we have had to put a little bit of depth into that hierarchy. I suspect this process will continue. In a sense it's a shame. The Tor that I joined had twelve employees, all on the 29th floor of West 24th St., and the walls didn't go all the way to the ceiling. You could literally sit there quietly in your own office or cubicle and just listen to the tenor of the company on that afternoon and get a sense of what was going on everywhere. You really did get that kind of group-telepathy of a small enterprise. These days we occupy the entire 14th floor of the Flatiron Building, the walls do go to the ceiling, so there is a lot more separation and alienation. Nevertheless Tom has always believed passionately -- I think this stems from the days when he worked at Simon and Schuster and they actually forbade the editors to talk to the sales department or the salesmen to talk to the editorial department -- he has always believed, and I think rightfully so, that this is insane and has always tried to run things in such a way that encourages a lot of mixing between departments, because we really are pretty much in the same business. ((Laughs))
DS: What is the power-relationship between the sales department and the editorial department. Can the sales department overrule you and say, "We don't know how to sell that one, don't publish it"?
PNH: I can't say that I've ever felt that I was overruled by the sales department. There have been times when I had a book that I wanted to do but I found after talking about it around the house, as any sensible editor would do before making an acquisition, that I just couldn't get any editor to imagine doing it. I describe it as being unable to raise anybody's blood temperature one iota. I happen to be totally alone. I cases like that I know that I can in fact go to Tom with the credibility I have and say, "Forget that. I'm going to do this anyway. It's fabulous. We must do this." But it's not always a great idea. I will do that if I feel that with time I can actually sell the house on it.
But my ambition is not to publish every book in the world that I like. I always tell the story because I know that Jack doesn't mind, but for a while I was Jack Womack's editor and I worked on Heathern and I helped bring Ambient back into print. And he submitted his next book through his agent and that was Random Acts of Senseless Violence. I loved it, and I could tell from the start that virtually everything in this book was just not going to work in the Tor of that time. I think the Tor of today could have published it quite well. But for the Tor of eight years ago, everything about this book, from its relentlessly downbeat attitude and everything connected to that, was just going to make it a complete disaster for Tor. It deserved better. It's a great book. But I basically passed on this book not because I didn't like it -- nobody had told me not to publish this book -- but because for Tor to publish this book would have been a disservice to the book. I think I was right. It was picked up by Morgan Entrican ((spell this for me --DS)) at Atlantic Monthly Press and it's still in print.
So I can't think of any instances of the sales department and the marketing department marching in and saying, "You must not buy this book." The book-buying decision is usually between the editor and Tom Doherty.
DS: Then Tom is the one who makes the guess on "Can we actually sell this?"
PNH: Indeed. The two real power halves of the house, like in any publishing company, are editorial and marketing. Marketing contains sales, publicity, marketing per se and so on. But we really do try to minimize the amount of bureaucratic meetings of the barons. Team decisions ought to be able to be made without having every self-important person in the house in the room at the same time. ((Laughs.)) You might want to cut "self-important," though I am just as guilty as anyone else.
DS: Writers have this paranoid view that there is a great bureaucracy, or that the ultimate power lies with the buyers for the big bookstore chains.
PNH: Writers have a lot of reasons to have paranoid views. Writing is the ultimate paranoia-producing profession. You sit alone in a room and you brood.... God knows there is a lot of power centralized in the big bookstore chains. But I've had a lot more experiences of actually buying something that otherwise seemed marginal because I happened to know that the bookstore chains had actually had a great experience with something similar. The buyer in one or the other chain was particularly friendly toward this kind of material. Again, I can't think of a lot of instances of being completely vetoed on something. Certainly the kind of distribution we can expect from chains or ID wholesalers -- the outfits that distribute mass-market paperbacks to non bookstore outlets, like grocery stores -- or from independent bookstores, is going to affect what we can offer. Certainly shifts in the market, in the balance between IDs, chains, and direct independent accounts has changed what are particularly successful kinds of books. There are certainly writers who were doing quite well in the late '80s in mass-market and doing quite well in the ID bookstore, wire-racks, and are not doing nearly as well these days, now that that's no longer a large part of the science fiction market. Correspondingly, there are a lot of people who are more hardcover/trade-paperback authors who are doing much better. So I can't really think of a scenario in my career that fulfills that wonderfully paranoid notion of the evil sales-person or the evil bookstore-buyer just up and vetoing something. We certainly keep in mind what is practical and what can happen and what is likely to happen. We'd be stupid not to. That's our job. And once again, us declining to publish a book is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to a book. There are other publishers. There are other publishers who do some things better than we do. Sometimes the better part of valor for everybody is for somebody else to do it.
Despite this, we seem to publish half the books in the field.
DS: By way of paranoid scenarios, we have what is informally known as the Robin Hobb Syndrome. You may be able to confirm how much of this is true. This is based on the belief that if the bookstore buyers order ten thousand copies of a book, and it sells eight, they will order eight thousand next time; and then it sells six, so they order six, and it sells four, and so on until they finally say "This author doesn't sell!" So you have to change the byline to fool them and start over, as Megan Lindholm did when she became Robin Hobb.
PNH: I've seen that happen. I have not seen that happen reliably enough to say that it always happens. It is amazingly frustrating when it does happen. It seems like a cycle that some writers get onto. I think that Megan Lindholm taking on the Robin Hobb name was a great thing. I was the underbidder on those books. I feel that they were great books that I should have campaigned for more aggressively. They have certainly done very well and they're great books, and she's a terrific writer. So whoever was willing her that second chance, instead of being ragged on for making Megan Lindholm change her name, somebody needs to be given some credit for being willing to go to the wall and give this writer another shot. It worked. It worked very well. There are more books in the world Megan Lindholm is not a discouraged, not-selling-any-books writer out there. She is a bestseller.
DS: This suggests several things. For one thing it suggests that many times a new writer has a better chance than a flatlined established writer.
PNH: Yes. It's funny you should say that. Just ten months ago, Gordon Van Gelder walked up to me about a block away from Tor, and said, "I just told --" some interviewer, I forget who -- "that in fact it is much easier to buy a first novel than a third one." And I said, "You're absolutely right." That is, a third novel from somebody whose first and second novels didn't go anywhere at all. We try to be pretty patient with these things. A first and second novel that didn't sell spectacular numbers but got really excited reviews, award-nominations, a buzz � and we're likely to keep going for a while. We are really seriously author-oriented. Tom Doherty likes to purchase publishing programs, not just a book. If we're going to do a first novel, Tom's first question is usually, "Does this writer have more novels going? How frequently is he or she going to write?" If all the answers are encouraging, Tom will frequently say, "Well, let's sign up three." That's a real commitment. Tom genuinely has the gardening approach to publishing.
DS: I've always told people that publishers don't buy the book; they buy the upward curve.
PNH: Yes, exactly so.
DS: Which makes a problem for a writer who is, say, fifty-five or sixty, so, let's say, published stories in Analog in the early '60s and a couple of paperbacks twenty-five years ago, and then nothing. My serious advice to a writer like that would be to use a pseudonym and lie about your age.
PNH: We're just not that bloody methodical. A perfect example of the kind of writer you're talking about is Pauline Ashwell. And yet we did a book by her thirty-five years after she was briefly in vogue in Analog in the early 1960's. It was just because we had an editor in house, in this case Greg Cox, who was just passionately for this project.
Tom is a salesman, and I mean this in the best possible sense, in that he responds very strongly to somebody displaying that they really care a lot. I think that if Tom thinks, "Well, if there is one person who cares a hell of a lot and is right here in my office, there is probably somebody else out there who is going to care about it too; and probably this editor who cares so much about this weird project is one of the best people in the world for figuring out who those others are."
This doesn't mean that every one of our books is a commercial success. We have had complete flops. But just the existence of sincere passion, the kind of sincerity you can't fake, is a lot of what runs Tor.
DS: There may be another trend we can see in the field right now that, other than Tor, very few publishers are doing short story collections. This may well be that the big bookstores can't distinguish between a short story collection and a novel, and to them a collection is a badly selling novel, and they will order the author's next novel accordingly.
PNH: Actually my experience is that the bookstore buyers certainly can tell the difference and they will drop the numbers on the collection rather than on the next novel.
DS: Will the numbers go back up for the next novel?
PNH: Generally they will. If we were more economically rational, it has to be said, we wouldn't publish nearly as many short story collections. We tend to do single-author story collections once we've got a run going with the author, when we know we're going to be working with them for a while, after we already have been working with them for a while. Recently we did the first story collection by Robert Charles Wilson, and we did it after doing only two novels by him, which is actually really fast for us. We do more of them in hardcover than most outfits, and we usually do a trade paperback after the hardcover these days. They tend to be, at best, break-even. The exception, obviously, is the collected stories of Arthur C. Clarke, which we're going to do in February and which is probably going to sell more than break-even numbers. That's a huge, 950-page omnibus of all the short fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. It was actually assembled in Britain by Malcolm Edwards. We're the American reprinter. And I recently signed up the complete short fiction of Greg Bear, which Greg is now pulling together and writing story intros for. This is an interesting new model for getting short fiction in print and keeping it there, these immense, $30, bug-crusher, definitive, complete collections.
But we urge our sales people to go out with story collections and say, "This is a story collection. We're not expecting novel numbers." This puts us in a better position to say, when the next novel comes along, "Just a reminder. The last book in the computers was a story collection. Look to the previous book for a good target for the novel."
DS: Is it a situation where the buyers say, "We can only take ten books from you this month; we'd rather have all novels"?
PNH: Certainly some buyers will skip the story collections. A lot of them will. Hardcover and trade-paperback publishing is not like mass-market. You don't have slots. They'll take as many or as few books as they want to. Anybody who is trying to cut marginal stuff is probably going to cut story collections. We don't have high expectations for most story collections. And I feel less and less obligation to support the world of story collections just because there is so much really good small-press publishing going on, really professional small-press publishing going on. I just picked up a copy of Andy Duncan's first story collection, Beluthahatchie, published by Golden Gryphon Press. It is just a totally professionally published book. I don't think we could have done a better job with it and I don't think we could have sold more copies, frankly, even assuming Andy Duncan had published three novels with Tor, and he's not published any novels with anyone.
DS: I note the movement away from mass-market into trade paperback for a lot of science fiction. Does this mean we're going for a tiny, upscale, elite audience and abandoning the mass audience?
PNH: I don't know how much we want to get into the whole wretched history of modern mass-market category fiction publishing. The fact of the matter is that we've had this enormous collapse and consolidation in the world of mass-market paperback and magazine distribution. This is the whole world of selling paperback books in outlets other than bookstores. This has nothing to do with the independents versus chains. This is, most significantly, those huge, 144-copy wire racks in Targets and Wallmarts and Safeway and so on. Science fiction and fantasy used to have an established chunk of turf in those places, and for a whole bunch of reasons which I'm not going to go into in enormous detail, the category itself, not just individual publishers, doesn't really have that claim anymore. There's an enormous amount of pressure on those slots and what few distributors are left are tending to fill them up with that genre known as Bestsellers, which does not include most of your stuff. So, as a result, though the field still publishes tons of "mass-market paperbacks," for most publishers the overwhelming majority of those copies are distributed into the direct market, into the bookstore market.
It used to be like fifty-fifty. Take your typical midlist science fiction paperback by a not-incredibly famous writer, but a decent writer, say, a new Jack Vance book. I'm going to make up some numbers. Fifteen years ago, you might ship 75,000, maybe 90,000 copies, and seventy percent of those would be into the ID market, which had a worse return rate because the books only sat out on those wire racks for a few days. But it still pumped up your copy count, and even selling one third of that one half of your distribution was a lot of sales, and quickly. Now that same book will probably distribute fewer than half that number and almost entirely to bookstores, chains and independents, with a better return rate.
But at then low end of that, you're seeing allegedly mass-market paperbacks in science fiction, from newer writers, from writers with small audiences, and so forth, you're getting print-runs -- not at Tor, but I've heard from other mass-market companies -- of nine thousand copies or twelve thousand copies. These are not <MI>mass<D>-market numbers. Despite the fact that the covers are stripable, they're really trade paperbacks with a small trim size and an insanely generous return scheme, where we don't even get the whole copy back. We just get the torn-off cover or an affidavit. So a lot of people are saying, "Wait a minute. If we're only going to get out nine thousand copies, maybe they should be nine thousand trade paperbacks." It'll be a much better return for the author. And the one thing about trade paperbacks is that they don't go into ID at all, by and large.
But they do tend to sit on shelves longer. Bookstores like them. They get a better return per inch of shelf space for a trade paperback. And if you print your trade paperbacks on acid-free paper as we do, instead of the pulpy, yellowing stuff, they will last longer as physical objects on the shelf. A lot of them will stand up to being reshipped after they've been returned from one company. This is the whole rationale of the Orb backlist line, and it is the rationale of much of the frontlist trade-paperback publishing we do.
The main reason we are doing more trade paperbacks is that there are fewer rack slots available for science fiction and fantasy. We have this immense and very successful hardcover list, but this hardcover list generates far more titles than we can possibly absorb in mass-market paperback. We could practically get out to the existing ID plus direct market maybe five science fiction titles a month. If you just look at our list you will see, right off the bat, that we are doing more than five, considerably more than five original science fiction and fantasy hardcovers every month. Now, short of coming up with a thirteenth and a fourteenth month of the year -- we actually managed a thirteen-month year a couple years ago because slipped our schedule around, but we can't do that every year. ((Laughs.)) Given that mass-market paperbacks are distributed on a monthly basis -- that's pretty much written in stone from the fact that the whole system is built on the back of magazine publishing -- we have to come up with other ways of doing it. Some of our trade paperbacks have done very well, and some less well.
In general fiction, look back twenty years. Look at an author like Gore Vidal, a bestselling author, not a transcendent bestseller, not a Stephen King or a Danielle Steele, but a significant author, much reviewed, much respected, books made into movies, new book always a big event, and so forth and so on. The absolutely classic publishing pattern for Gore Vidal was, twenty years ago, a new novel like Creation would come out in hardcover. A year later it would come out as a mass=market paperback. It would be everywhere as a mass-market paperback. These days Gore Vidal is just as popular. His hardcovers sell just as many if not more copies, and a year later it's a trade paperback. There's not even a <MI>thought<D> of doing it as mass-market. If you look at his backlist on the shelves today, you will see old Vidal titles, which are rapidly yellowing, and they're gradually being replaced by their publisher bringing them back out as trade paperbacks. And the new stuff is going straight into trade paperback. So this is the pattern all over serious fiction publishing, so it is not at all surprising to see something like that going on in science fiction and fantasy as well.
Some people, in fact, are doing very well. We have a whole lot of Charles de Lint backlist in trade paperback. Moonheart continues to sell in trade paperback like there's no tomorrow. Of course there are phenomenal trade-paperback successes like The Mists of Avalon which go on forever. It's never had a mass-market paperback edition, but it has sold a million trade paperbacks. That's of course off the scale.
But we are hardly alone in this. I think all the science fiction and fantasy publishers are trying to pick the trade-paperback lock. Of we get readers who complain, "I built all my shelves for my SF and fantasy paperbacks to mass-market size and you bastards are . . ." to which we say, well, the option is, in most of these cases, either we're going to do the book in hardcover and trade paperback, or we're not going to do the book. We're trying to figure out how to make minimal margins here. We're not getting rich, for crying out loud. The existence of the trade paperback format and the fact that some people like it -- certainly the chains like it -- has enabled us to bring back into print a lot of really cool stuff that would otherwise be sitting out there either in out-of-print or small-press land. It's really fuelled the Orb line. It has enabled us to do really good but commercially oddball, marginal books like Damon Knight's Humpty Dumpty, which was a Tor hardcover and a Tor trade paperback. I could name tons of stuff.
I don't want to sound like I'm saying these books' authors should be grovellingly grateful for our beneficence. In fact it's an unjust and terrible world. I think that Damon Knight's Humpty Dumpty should sell a million copies. But we're doing our best and staying alive.
DS: What does this imply for the field, or for literacy as a whole? The United States is a country with a population of about 230 million, and selling 9000 copies sold is regarded as good. That suggests a reading public the size of Liechtenstein.
PNH: That's not true. What we really have is an immense explosion of options, so that no individual thing is selling nearly as well as the mass-market phenomena of the past. The Gallup Organization has done all these surveys of America's reading habits and established conclusively that despite all the cocktail-party cliches about literacy being on the decline, in fact most Americans are buying more books and reading more books and talking about more books, and generally being more bookish on an overwhelming level than ever before. It's all classes of Americans. It's not just computer books or self-help books or cat books. We're in an absolute commercial explosion of literary publishing. You couldn't have supported a Barnes & Noble the size of Rhode Island at every other suburban intersection thirty years ago. People would have looked at what we have now with these giant chain superstores and thought that they'd died and gone to book heaven.
The explosion of publishing, buying, and reading in modern America is really quite phenomenal. There are a whole lot of other things involved, including really quite silly things, including the fact that fifty years ago people would get older sooner, and their eyesight would start failing them, and in the natural course of things they'd say, "Well, I just don't read as much as I used to." They'd be a little vain and hung-up about wearing glasses. Nobody cares about that anymore. You either get eye correction or you wear glasses. Nobody feels self-conscious about wearing glasses, or if they do they just wear contacts. So you have a lot more people continuing to read recreationally into middle age. This is all nicely laid out statistically in this endless series of Gallup polls. I get this all from Tom Doherty who has it all in binders in this office.
I'm going to integrate some of the observations of Tom Doherty with those of Paul Williams, the rock critic, who basically points out that the big difference between music today and music in the mid-'60s is that we no longer have that culturally central hit parade. You don't have the songs and the albums that absolutely everyone is listening to whether they like it or not. We have this enormous explosion of niches with very specific tastes they cater to, which is an enormous increase in that great American value of choice, but it also means that individual art objects are all likely to have somewhat smaller sales, with a few notable exceptions.
So, no, I don't think that selling 9000 hardcovers or 9000 trade paperbacks is all that terrible. I actually think it's a whole lot better than selling nothing. A world in which five hundred people can be published science fiction and fantasy writers is a very different world from one in which thirty-five or seventy-five people were making a living writing science fiction and fantasy. I think the chances of actually becoming seriously affluent off the field are about the same. What you do have however, is an arithmetically larger number of people who feel they ought to be doing just a little bit better and who grumble at each other in the bar. This is perfectly human.
DS: How do you avoid the pressure -- as some other publishers have clearly succumbed -- to let your line be taken over by media tie-ins, sharecrops, franchises of authors who may or may not be dead and little else?
PNH: We haven't avoided that at all. What are you talking about? ((Laughs.)) If anybody wants to offer us the Star Trek publishing program, we are there!((Laughs.))
DS: But you wouldn't let it take over your whole line.
PNH: Well, no. Of course not. At least those of us who are Tor are still Tor... Tom is a lifelong science fiction fan. He's not going to stop publishing the authors he likes. But, good grief -- we've just signed up the second Dune trilogy by Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert. Bantam is doing the first one. We do a lot of media tie-ins. Greg Cox is our specialist for the tie-in stuff. We're doing the tie-in series for the Cable TV show Gene Roddenberry's Earth: The Final Conflict. We have one novel by Fred Saberhagen, one by James White, one by Deborah Doyle and Jim McDonald, one coming up from Sherwood Smith. It's ironic that James White's last novel was his Earth: the Final Conflict novel, which he was delighted to do. I suggested him to Jim Frenkel, who was editing the series, because I knew that White had always really, really wanted to be asked to write a Star Trek novel, because in a sense the Sector General books were Star Trek before there was Star Trek. There was this humane, kind of liberal series all set in a big spacecraft, problem stories. Everything that's good about Star Trek was in the Sector General books. I like Sector General more than I like Star Trek, but I'm more of a written-SF fan than I ever was a visual-SF fan.
But if there's some kind of credit being given out for remaining simon-pure and not doing tie-ins and franchises, we don't get any of it. We haven't been first in line to grab some things like Star Wars and Star Trek, but we'd be happy to if someone wanted to offer them to us. But off and on, through a series of contracts, and then pausing during lacunae in the contracts, we've been doing Conan forever. That's pretty much the same thing. It looks like we're going to be back in the Conan business.
DS: I guess what I'm talking about is a subjective impression. As a book reviewer I will receive a monthly box from publisher X, and it will contain one original novel, one reprint, two TV tie-ins, and two other franchise books of some sort. This gives me the impression that, in the sense of opportunities for writers of original material, publisher X is now doing two books a month, not six.
PNH: One of the things Tom is good at is manipulating the whole ID system. I've always joked that the reason nobody can quite get a handle on what's a Tor book and what's a Forge book is that Tom comes up with a different answer every time. He's trying to keep people guessing so he can have maximum flexibility, which will enable him to do as many books as possible. It is definitely evident in the whole tie-in thing. We are locked in, I won't say with cast-iron, but with really, really sturdy foam rubber, into two science fiction mass-market paperbacks and two fantasy mass-market paperbacks a month. Those are almost always reprints of something we did in hardcover a year earlier. Plus, we can usually get away with one more, maybe two more mass-market specials. Anything that is a media tie-in is a special. It doesn't replace an existing book. It doesn't take up a slot that would otherwise be used to reprint a novel by Pat Murphy or L.E. Modesitt or Orson Scott Card or Terry Bisson. It's an add-on to the list. I think that's a really rational way to do it. The Conan books are extra to the list. Tor has never published a Conan book instead of an actual reprint of one of our -- I hate to say "serious" because it sounds so snobbish � one of our non-media-tie-in, non-franchise books.
DS: This gets back to what I suppose you could call Paranoid Author Tricks... by which I mean that a lot of people feel that the field is imploding, that there are fewer places to send a novel manuscript, fewer niches open for original material. What is your reading of the health of the field in that regard right now?
PNH: I don't know. I'm too far into the belly of the beast. I hear this sort of grumbling too. It's very hard for me to reconcile this sense that the field is imploding with the fact that I'm the guy who has to make up the schedule for science fiction and fantasy publishing on an ongoing basis . . . in fact the pile of paper right there ((points)) is tons of schedule work that I have to do over this weekend. And, I can count. We're doing more books every month, every season, every year than ever before. We're still growing in the number of books we do. So if it's imploding into a black hole, then we're the white hole at the other end where it's all winding up. ((Laughs.))
We can't publish every book in the field, and we have done books that we shouldn't have done and have done a bad job on, and so forth. We've had our share of failures, but we don't feel like science fiction and fantasy publishing is diminishing in its possibilities. Far from it. From where we stand, it looks like we are better able to do more and more all the time.
DS: Here's something for those paranoid authors out there. If a book has been turned down by one Tor editor, doesn't that pretty much settle it for Tor, that the manuscript cannot be sent to another one?
PNH: Yes, but remember that there are Tor editors and then there are people who consult for Tor. Perhaps we should go into the somewhat complex structure of Tor's editorial department; but the fact of the matter is that, yeah, if you or your agent has sent a book in to one of our in-house editors, to me, or to Beth Meacham, who is an in-house editor even though she works in Tucson, David Hartwell, Clare Eddy, Jenna Felice, Melissa Singer, Jim Minz, etc. etc., we do not want you shopping it around from editor to editor. There have been times when through a series of weird circumstances one of our editors has bought something that has been turned down by another one. I don't want to set up some kind of cast-iron rule that prevents us from doing something that seems like the right thing to do. There are exceptions to everything, but we really don't want you to go shopping from editor to editor, because it's a big waste of time.
On the other hand, there people out there like Jim Frenkel, who does a lot of consulting for Tor, to Delia Sherman who does a little bit, for whom turning down a book isn't so much a reflection of "I think this is bad for Tor" as "I'm not going to take this on. I'm a consultant. I work for Tor on a project-by-project basis and this isn't something I want to do." In that case, I have no objection to it being shown to somebody else.
We're not cops. I have a lot of other things to do rather than run around monitoring the exact details of everybody's submissions pile. But I will say that it is not a great way to win friends and influence people to overtly try to game the system by just bouncing from editor to editor. And it's not very effective. If I'm looking at something that might be promising and the first thing I hear about it is that my colleague Clare Eddy turned it down, that is not a plus.
DS: I am sure there must be a couple of ghastly manuscripts which must remain unnamed, which everybody has seen with a sense of, "Oh you got that one now? I guess it's your turn."
PNH: Sure. That's true in the rest of publishing as well.
DS: Why does Tor need so many editors and consultants?
PNH: The consulting structure, to some extent, is just an expression of Tom Doherty's desire to have a really great intake-scoop. Tom doesn't want to miss out on good stuff just because it doesn't happen to ring the chimes of a relatively finite number of in-house people. It's a scouting networks, almost, except we want to work with people who are also capable of copy-writing, the editorial side of the art direction, and so forth. Each of the consulting editors have somebody in-house who is not their assistant but their tracker. It is usually one of the younger editors, somebody like Jim Minz, like John Klima, my assistant, or Jenna Felice. It's good training for the younger editors, keeping track of their consultant's list, hustling them into meeting all their deadlines, but also making sure that all the t's get crossed and the i's get dotted. They make sure that the necessary information gets passed on to marketing so that they know something about these books, so that when there's some kind of screaming sales emergency, "Who can tell me about such-and-such," there will be somebody in-house who can. And the system is not perfect. I've seen it fall down completely, the information equivalent of attenuated long lines of supply. Sometimes it really does work better for an author to be handle in-house even if they were brought to us by a consulting editor. But by and large it works surprisingly well. It has been an enormous part of what has made us such a diverse line.
DS: One thing I've never done is edit books. So I wonder, how many manuscripts do you get a day, how much time do you actually get to read anything, and so forth. I know from my experience as an agent that mystery editors tend to respond faster than science fiction editors, but for all I know SF editors are faced with a Great Wall of Slushpile boxes. So how do you handle submissions? Is a manuscript immediately farmed out to a reader?
PNH: Different editors handle it differently. I have my own list in addition to being manager of the overall Tor fantasy and science fiction effort, and complicating matters a little more, Teresa Neilsen Hayden and I work together as, in effect, co-editors on a number of authors. Authors that I've worked with directly, or that Teresa and I have worked with, include Buzz Aldrin, Poul Anderson, John Barnes, Greg Bear, Ben Bova, Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Jonathan Carroll, Raphael Carter, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter, Glen Cook, Charles de Lint, Jack Dann & Jack C. Haldeman, Gordon R. Dickson, Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald, Esther Friesner, John M. Ford, Terry Goodkind, Harry Harrison, Graham Joyce, Damon Knight, Ellen Kushner, Shariann Lewitt, Jane Lindskold, Ken MacLeod, Maureen R. McHigh, Laura J. Mixon, Linda Nagata, Susan Palwick, Christopher Priest, Madeleine Robins, Frank Robinson, Mike Resnick, Judith Tarr, Harry Turtledove, Jo Walton, Lawrence Watt-Evans, James White, Robert Charles Wilson, Terri Windling, Jack Womack, and Jane Yolen. I'm probably leaving some people out.
All the submissions, which include all the stuff sent generically to the science fiction department (because I am the name that Writer's Digest lists), all get processed by my assistant, who does give it a good expert glance to see if it's something I need to look at right away, or whether it's something that's unusually promising. Everything is looked at eventually, at some point. It goes through a winnowing process. I don't get real involved in processing over-the-transom slush, by and large. My assistant is very good at noticing if something is actually being sent to me by somebody I know, although we have had embarrassing circumstances of my telling someone, "Yes, send that to me," and them sending it in and getting it bounced back with a rejection slip before it ever got to my desk. I think this happens at every publishing house. It is just an expression of human fallibility. Personally, behind the wall of my assistants, I usually have two or three dozen promising, intriguing things from unpublished or not-very-published writers stacked up behind my desk, which I will get to in an amount of time ranging from a couple of weeks to, I am afraid, sometimes as long as a year, which I'm embarrassed about. It is usually more like three to six months. In addition to that, though, much more importantly, I usually have at least a half-dozen more books that were actually contracted for and delivered and on which I am several weeks late in actually getting out reasonable responses. Also there are usually at least six to a dozen really significant submissions, often multiple-submissions for auctions from major agents like Russ Galen or Shawna McCarthy or whomever, of established authors who would like to move to Tor.
So that's what my work-load is like at any given time. And what do I have here in this hotel room? Just the stuff I brought to this convention to work with include as follows: I have a partial of about 300 pages from Linda Nagata. This is a book that's actually under contract that she's not done with, but she and her agent have asked me to read what she has so far. I am glad to do it. I'm enjoying it a lot. I've got, let's see, the blue box is a delivered novel by Madeline Robbins, who is somebody I'm already publishing. We published her first fantasy novel, and this is the next one. That's a book that's bought and paid for and I've bloody well got to read it. Of course she is a friend of mine, so she gets even more delay. ((Laughs.)) And the box above that is a novel -- I am not going to name people we haven't actually done a deal with -- by a known writer. I don't think this writer has sold a novel anywhere, but I have seen stories. This unpublished novel was raved about to me by Charles and Mary Ann De Lint, so I wrote and said, "Hey, I'd love to see this thing that the De Lints seem to think so highly of." I've got it with me and it does look quite good. And what else I have kicking around is a bunch of Starlight stories -- Oh, and in addition, I have just taken over being Terry Goodkind's editor, so I am going through his entire ouvre. I am in the middle of Wizard's Rule. That's a major piece of reading.
So, there you go. That's a pretty typical workload, a pretty typical amount of stuff I bring to a convention. I will probably get through about half of that at this convention.
DS: How often does it really happen that something really does come in out of the blue, a writer you've never heard of who is really good, like Jonathan Carroll coming out of nowhere in 1980?
PNH: Not often enough. Those are the moments you live for. It happened for me with Maureen McHugh. Although M.F. McHugh had sold a couple stories to Asimov's, I hadn't noticed them. I haven't been as assiduous about reading the magazines as I ought to be. So Mountain Zhangwas in the general, this-might-be-promising slush, and we were having a slush party. Beth tossed me a manuscript and I read the first four pages of it and I said, "Holy shit! This is not just good but great!" ((Laughs.)) So I just took it home and read it. It was the first novel I bought that I had to consider. That was early on in my career at Tor and it was a great energizing experience. A real, out-of-the-blue thing was Raphael Carter's The Fortunate Fall. It was a first novel, submitted to me by Valerie Smith, whom I've done a lot of work with. Apparently, on the writing discusion group on Fidonet, Raphael had been known to several of the established writers, like Pat Wrede and Pamela Dean, as a very promising newcomer, which is how Raphael got hooked up to Val Smith. But I didn't know any of this, so this nearly perfect science fiction novel, a minor classic, just showed up fully formed. Again, that was fabulous. I am very proud to have published that. So it happens every once in a while. I bought a first novel from a completely unknown writer named Stephen Zelinsky, whose work Teresa found in our slushpile. It's a great, wacky, Tim-Powersish (although darker and more violent), strange conspiracy-occult fantasy, which we will be publishing in about a year. It's called Bad Magic. He lives in the Bay Area. He is delighted to be published and was just writing as a hobby, and it's a really fabulous book. So it happens but it doesn't happen often enough. You must have some experience with this editing a magazine.
DS: A magazine is very different because the manuscripts are short. If we got two-hundred booksful of stories a month, I can't imagine how we'd be able to devote enough time to anything.
PNH: I am not actually a very fast reader. The sheer heavy-lifting of keeping up with all that reading has always been one of my Achilles' heels. But I sort of stagger through it and try to make up for my slownesses on being an actual manuscript reader by being good at other things. Part of the problem is that not only am I not an incredibly fast reader, but I don't usually have my most insightful comments in the first five seconds. I have to kind of chew on things. But figuring out how to organize my time so I will be less incredibly slow, both on the novels and doing Starlight is something I have focussed on in the last several months.
It's difficult to distinguish the standard editorial whine of "I'm so behind, I'm so behind," from "Holy Shit! This is a real problem." I am actually screwing up the careers of people I care about, like most of my authors. ((Laughs.)) So I am working on it. I don't like being behind all the time. I need to find ways to offload some of the less relevant work and really focus on this stuff, which is what I'd rather be doing anyway.
DS: Does a book editor have time to instruct a prospective writer, to nurse somebody along who isn't quite there yet? Magazine editors can do this. But can a book editor do it?
PNH: Various of us try in several ways. I tend to talk with authors about the overall direction of the book. I am not the best hands-on, super-detail editor I can think of. I think I have a pretty good capacity for appreciating what the author is trying to do and echoing it back to them, helping them focus their own thinking. My wife Teresa is a really good get-in-there-and-wrestle-with-the-text editor. She writes dynamite ten-page editorial letters, although it takes her a long time. So she has contracted a really good relationship with several writers she and I work with, based on that sort of thing. Everybody is better and worse at certain things.
For some authors, being their editor basically means being sympathetic to what they're trying to do and helping to expedite it as smoothly as possible. Some authors come to miss being really grappled with and say, "You're not editing me ferociously enough." I'll try to oblige them. Sometimes they mean it.
Sometimes it turns out that they didn't.
DS: We can't mention names, but surely there are some authors who can't be editing and should be.
PNH: Oh, yes. My devotion to the cause of good editing is not so great that I am going to alienate people who are huge bestsellers just because I think that input from glorious me might have made a difference. Editorial feedback is available to any author I work with. If they don't want it and the books are pretty good anyway and they seem to have an audience, I am not going to fire them because they refused to listen to my brilliant comments. After all, they're the author. It's their name on the book.
I do disapprove, when I see it, of editors just throwing something into the pipeline without any kind of pause for reflection, just for commercial advantage. This is not to say we've never committed that sin, but it's a sin. One of the things I've been noticing rather grumpily as that authors will sell North American rights to North American publishers like, for instance, us, and British rights to a British publisher; and there are honorable exceptions, but overall, he said with great chauvinistic nationalist prejudice, British publishing seems to have a tendency to grab the damn book and throw it into print with practically no editing whatsoever, and to do it as quickly as possible so as to beat us to the punch in the open market in those European English-language sales where we share territory. Often you'll see major works coming out months and months earlier in Britain, and, frankly, these are works that could have benefitted from, not so much some mythical Max Perkins sitting down and writing every sentence -- I mean, it's not the editor's book; it's the author's book -- but just some conversation and reflection. You know: "I really liked what your doing in this section, but I kept feeling that this ought to have happened," or "This character ought to be having this reaction a little more clearly." That sort of conversation. When you're trying to get a book published in six months, there just isn't time for that. This happens in some American and in a lot of British science fiction publishing lately.
DS: Considering we're largely addressing an audience of authors, would you say that the future at Tor and elsewhere is bright, or is this a time to pull in belts?
PNH: God, I don't know. I know that as Tom keeps insisting and as seems to be statistically born out, that there seem to be more people who want to read recreationally and are willing to put money down to do so than ever before. We don't feel that science fiction and fantasy are contracting for us. On the other hand, it has to be admitted that for a big outfit like Harper-Collins or Bertlesman, science fiction and fantasy is a small amount of the thing they do, whereas we're a small company that's more rooted emotionally in science fiction and fantasy. So of course we do cut it a lot more slack and go out of our way to make it work. I guess that's good and bad.
A lot of people seem to be making at least a reasonable living at it. We seem to be managing to publish a reasonably large and diverse list. It is after all the largest science fiction and fantasy list of any single publisher, in the English language, in history and have been for about five years. I don't think we sell the largest number of copies. I think that Del Rey probably beats us all hollow there. They've got Tolkien, for instance. But we're definitely not very far behind. We have our own immense, best-selling type authors, like Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan. In science fiction there's Orson Scott Card.
We're making money. A lot of our authors seem to be making money. There seem to be readers out there. There are a hell of a lot of structural problems in the bookselling industry. There are problems for independent booksellers. One of the things that concerns me the most, frankly, isn't that we're losing sales because of the readjustment of ID, the consolidization of the ID market, but rather that -- Tom Doherty points this out frequently -- those wire racks in grocery stores have been where kids who grow up in families that are not bookish get their first exposure to affordable books. Everybody goes to the grocery store. But the grocery-store racks disappear as the grocery-store manager quite reasonably says, "Why should I have this when there's a Barnes & Noble the size of Rhode Island across the street?" or those racks become less diverse. The books put into them by the local wholesaler are what is called Famous Author Distribution, a column of Stephen King, a column of Richard North Patterson, etc. So we're not getting that. We love the huge chains from a publishing standpoint, because they are very supportive of science fiction overall, and we like really smart, independent booksellers who are supportive of science fiction. We're less enthusiastic at the sort of independent booksellers who seem to turn their noses up at science fiction. But all of those bookstores are selling books to people who are conversant with books. The good news is that more and more Americans see themselves as regular book-buyers, and are regular book-buyers. Literacy is not anywhere near the minority-niche sort of thing that it used to be. The general popular consumption of fiction for recreation, despite what you'll hear from intellectuals in New York City, is hugely growing. But we're not reaching as deeply into the rest of society as we used to do with the ID market. That does concern me.
If there is a literate elite in our culture, it is hugely bigger than the core intellectual fashion would have it as being, but there is an extent to which bookselling, and category bookselling certainly, is more a matter of intense cultivation of that elite than reaching out beyond its borders.
Whether authors should pull in their belts, I don't know. I think people should tell stories that they're absolutely passionately committed to and obsessed with. The answer to the question that I'm always asked of "What are you looking for?" is almost always, "I am looking for the absolutely fabulous thing that I haven't thought of yet."
DS: Thank you, Patrick.
|Darrell Schweitzer is the author of The Mask of the Sorceror, The Shattered Goddess, and The White Isle plus about 250 published stories which have appeared in six collections so far, the most recent of which is Nightscapes. He has been nominated for The World Fantasy Award three times and won it once for co-editing Weird Tales. He has been one of the leading interviewers in SF since the early 1970's when he first interviewed Gardner Dozois while working as a mild-mannered reporter for (no kidding) The Daily Planet, a Philadelphia paper. Several volumes of his interviews exist, starting with SF Voices (1976).|
Copyright © 2001 by Darrell Schweitzer. First published in the Spring 2001 issue of the Bulletin of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.