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Writing Excuses 8.44: Talking Publishing with Tom Doherty

Writing Excuses 8.44: Talking Publishing with Tom Doherty


Key points: A publisher sets the direction for the editors to look. Editors are hired based on how their previous work fits the direction. Advice for new writers: Write from your heart, what you care about. Try to find an editor that your book will appeal to. To become an editor, plan on apprenticeship. Ebooks are wonderful, but we have lost the retail space, the impulse situations that used to be a launching point for new authors and that built readers. Where will readers browse and buy on impulse? Don't get caught by trends, write what you love, not what's popular.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, recording publishing with Tom Doherty at GenCon.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Tom] I'm Tom.
[Brandon] Dan's in Germany, but we have Tom Doherty. Tom Doherty is the publisher, founder, and president of Tor books, a little company you may have heard of that is also the largest and best publisher of science fiction and fantasy in the world.
[Whoo! Cheers!]
[Tom] I like that. Thank you.
[Brandon] So, we have had many luminaries on our podcast before, but I don't think we've had someone of Tom's stature. So it is a real true privilege to have you on, Tom. Thank you.
[Tom] Thank you. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.

[Brandon] Now I'm just going to start throwing questions at you that I think our audience is going to want to hear. Because as I said... Told you earlier, most of them are new writers or maybe journeymen writers. Would you explain to them what a publisher does, and how it's different from an editor?
[Tom] Yeah. A publisher sets the direction for the editors to look. A publisher is kind of like a general manager that the editors work with to formulate a publishing program. I will read... I used to read every book we published, but I just can't do it anymore. But I try and read every author. I'm pretty good about reading at least one book from an author. I often read many books from an author, but... Boy, I'm always behind.
[Brandon] That's actually... I don't know if a lot of people know, that's very rare that the publisher is reading all of the books or even some of the books. When I first sold to Tor, I think I've told you guys this story before, I got my editor's notes, and then Tom Doherty's notes on the book came in. Just a few comments here and... I'm like, "Tom Doherty read my book and gave me feedback?" It was really good feedback. My editor is like, "This doesn't happen with a lot of publishers, just so you know." Tom, do you hire the editors?
[Tom] Yeah.

[Brandon] How do you pick an editor?
[Tom] Well, there's several ways you... There's several things you bring to it. You look... Often the editor has worked in the field and you look at the books they've published and you read some of the books they've published and you try and decide how does this fit into what you see as the direction for Tor or where it should be moving. When I started Tor, I said we were going to do science fiction... We do more than that now, but we were going to do science fiction, past, present, and future. So we found that some things didn't sell as well if they were published as science fiction. For example, we got a series of Mike and Kathy Gear. They're husband and wife archaeologists, anthropologists. The series is People of the Lakes, the River. How people came to the basin of the Great Lakes, how people came to the Mississippi River Valley. How the first people came across the Bering Straits at the end of the last Ice Age and moved down the front flank... Moved across Canada and down the front flank of the Rockies and moved south beyond the Rockies and into Mexico and south into South America. So we thought that was science fiction, but if we presented it as science fiction, it limited the market for that kind of book. When you look forward, we found that Michael Crichton was doing things, Andromeda Strain... There was a field developing called technothriller. If we published certain what we used to think of as near-future hard science science fiction, if we published that as technothriller, we sold more.
[Brandon] Yeah, that was a brand-new thing back in the 90s and whatnot. I remember when Michael Crichton started really getting big. It was kind of mind blowing because this is science fiction, but everybody's reading it.
[Howard] I remember reading it and thinking why wasn't this shelved with science fiction.
[Brandon] It was in my bookstore. But it was also shelved other places. Tom, I want to kind of focus this a lot on the new writers. Now that we've kind of established... I mean, you've been in this business for a long time. You really know your stuff.
[Tom] Since 57.

[Brandon] Yeah, it's fun to go to New York. I went to Tom's office once and he pointed out all the buildings that he'd worked in over his career. They're all like in a couple blocks radius of one another. Tom, what advice can you give to new writers? Specifically, like writing wise, like if someone's trying to break-in right now and they just really want to be... Let's say they want to be published by Tor. What pieces of advice can you give them?
[Tom] Okay. Don't write to fashion. Write from your heart. Write the things you care about. I would say go... When you're submitting it and you're entirely unknown, go look at the books that you've read, and try and find out who edited the things that you think would appeal... Your book would appeal to. Because you know, you can have many good editors, they have different tastes. If you send it even in the right house to the wrong editor, it may get rejected. Who is doing books in the same vein as what you're doing? At Tor, any editor can put his name in front of a book, edited by. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But often, you'll find an editor's name. But you can always call up Tor and we will always tell you who edited the book. This, I think, is probably a basic important guidance for somebody who wants to get the book creatively read.
[Brandon] I've noticed specifically for Tor, Tor being such a big house, has a lot of editors. It seems like... I've often told people that Tor has less of a specific editorial slant. If you go to some publishers like Baen, you know what a Baen book is. But a Tor book is any good book.
[Tom] By the way, I'm a partner in Baen, too, so...
[Brandon] So really, I feel like at Tor, particularly you need to know your editors because what Moshe is going to be interested in is so different from what Patrick Nielsen Hayden is going to be interested in.
[Tom] Exactly. Exactly. That's my point.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week this week. Howard, did you have our book of the week?
[Howard] Well, one of the best-selling books right now for Tor is a 1985 book, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Fantastic book. You've probably all heard of it. Movie coming out, which has a lot to do with the increased interest in the book. I loved the book when I first read it. I loved it when I read it 10 years later. I'm looking forward to loving it again. You can pick it up at Audible. Head out to You can start a 14 day free trial membership, get Ender's Game for free and then pick up another fine Tor title for half off.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Tom] It's so rare that you see a book number one on the New York Times bestseller list published 28 years ago.
[Brandon] And it was number one last week, right?
[Tom] Last week and this week.

[Brandon] Awesome. So let's say we do have some people who listen to our podcast who actually are more interested in the editorial side. Can you give advice to someone... Let's say they want to be a Tor editor and they're just getting ready to go to college or something like that. What advice would you give them? How do you become an editor?
[Tom] Well, again, the way you become an editor, really, it's kind of old-fashioned. You apprentice. Often we get college interns who then we hire as assistant editors who then we promote to associate editors who then we promote to editors. They tend to be people who know what we do, who have read a lot of our books and are sympathetic to those kind of books and want to do somewhat similar books. Not the same, of course, but books in the same vein. So they come, they work with us, almost all our editors... We don't recruit outside very much. We like to have kind of homegrown people who wanted to be there and who can feel that if they come in out of college can get promoted.
[Brandon] Do you find a lot of those at the New York editing programs from the colleges there?
[Tom] Well, it's... Some come from the New York editing programs, but we really... We've gotten them from all around the country. I mean it's... Liberal arts colleges. We hired one from Amherst this year, one that...
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. I know my editor came a very strange route. He was editor for the Science Fiction Book Club, and wanted to move into an acquisitions editor position. So he came in and became... Actually took a pay cut to become an apprentice like you said, an assistant editor... Assistant to David Hartwell for several years.
[Mary] My editor also went the assistant route. Liz Gorinsky, started as Patrick Nielsen Hayden's assistant and worked her way up.

[Brandon] So, Tom, I'm sorry, I'm just plying you with question after question, but while we've got you for these last few minutes... What's a publisher's perspective on e-books? How they're changing the market and what you... What your opinion is on them?
[Tom] Well, e-books are wonderful. The problem really is the lack of retail space. Because we've lost Walden, we've lost Dalton, we've lost... In the magazine wholesaler area, we used to start a lot of authors with distribution in mass market paperbacks that went into... They used to have 100,000 retailers. Now none of those retailers were significant in and of themselves, but we found that if we could put a book in a drugstore and somebody waiting for a prescription who had no intention of buying a book... See the people who come to the big box stores or the people who go online tend to know what they're looking for. It's not a good place to browse, really, online. The big box is fine to browse, but it's a special trip. But the people who used to walk down the mall aisle to buy a pair of shoes or a sweater and saw books and walked in and bought them. The people waiting for a prescription who saw a book and bought it. The people going to a supermarket for a pound of coffee and saw a book and bought it. These people didn't intend... They tended to be less heavy readers and when we found... We found that when we satisfied them often enough in an impulse situation, they began to be heavy readers and go into the big box stores and go online and order more. But we captured them in impulse situations. This is our challenge. Now the Internet is wonderful for the backlist. Because once a person decides that they want an author, it's a very easy place to get extensive backlist. More than would normally be carried in a retailer. But it's a terrible place to browse for a new author. You just... You can't see the forest for the trees. So it's good in many ways and it's a problem in other ways.
[Brandon] Yeah, it seems like... I actually think I've spoken on the podcast about this before... It feels like this is a better... It's been really good for established authors in a lot of ways.
[Tom] Yes. Exactly.
[Brandon] Someone like myself, my backlist just sells crazy numbers. But the brand-new author getting discovered seems way harder.
[Tom] Much harder.
[Brandon] That seems like it's dangerous for the entire genre. Because you can't... This genre needs this refreshment of the new authors coming in. This scares me a bit.
[Tom] Brandon, you're exactly right. That's the problem. I mean, there's a great benefit to e-books, but there is a great problem, too, because it has taken business away from the retailer and we've lost all these impulse locations.

[Brandon] So you have kind of watched... I mean, you founded Tor in the early 80s?
[Tom] I actually... I founded it... It became a corporation in 79. We shipped our first book in 80. You don't ship a first book the first day you publish... You become a publisher.
[Brandon] You were before that at Ace books, which was primarily a science fiction and fantasy imprint, right?
[Tom] Well, I really had a pretty good background in science fiction and fantasy because I had kind of grown up in Simon & Schuster in sales. So I was sales manager for Ian and Betty Ballantine when they launched the very first science fiction line, when they launched the first fantasy line, when they hired Judy-Lynn del Rey from Galaxy and brought her in and taught her books. When Betty did this. I was the sales manager. The launch of Tolkien, McCaffrey's Pern... They were very generous of their time. Lovely people.
[Brandon] So you've kind of watched like the dominance of SF, the classic kind of silver age SF, and then the kind of rise of the dystopian SF and the cyberpunks, and then epic fantasy basically taking over the market. Do you have any kind of perspective on what's happening right now and what's going on, or what the trends... What's going on in science fiction and fantasy?
[Tom] The problem with trends... People see them as opportunity, and authors will often rush into areas they don't really have a heart for. A lot of mediocre books get produced. Then people say, "Oh, I guess I don't really like that category as well as I thought I did." That's why I said the first thing is do what you love. Don't do it because it's perceived as popular. What really counts is how good is the book.
[Mary] There is a saying in puppet theater that the only competition is a bad puppet show.
[Tom] Yeah, yeah.
[Brandon] Well, awesome. Tom, thank you so much for being on the podcast. We really appreciate you. Thank you, audience, for listening in. This has been Writing Excuses. Oh...

[Howard] We need a writing prompt.
[Brandon] We need a writing prompt. We do. Oh, dear. Tom, would you be capable of telling the listeners what they should write if they need a writing prompt?
[Tom] I thought I just did.
[Mary] All right. I can make a writing prompt for you out of that. Write a story about a publisher trying to predict the next trend, and the piece of technology he's using to try and predict it.
[Brandon] Oh, that's awesome. Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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