Book publishing deals are often announced in arcane terms, and even when the actual numbers are revealed, they can feel awfully predictable: Celebrity memoirs sell for millions of dollars, while mere mortals scrape by from contract to contract. But on Sunday, science fiction author John Scalzi pulled off a feat as impossible as something in his novels: He made a book deal seem like important, relevant news.
He and his publisher Tor announced that for $3.4 million, Scalzi would write 13 books over the next 10 years. The only prior deal I know of that even comes close to matching Scalzi’s in scale and significance is the contract Alastair Reynolds signed in 2009, which committed him to write 10 books in 10 years for a million British pounds ($1.5 million). Scalzi’s contract sets a very public precedent for other science fiction authors to use as a negotiating point, and it also gives him room to breathe: In addition to sequels to several of his most popular series, Scalzi pitched Tor three ideas for young adult novels, a genre he hasn’t worked in before.
Scalzi took time out of BookExpo America to talk to me about what his new contract means for him and for other authors, why he chose not to take the increasingly popular route of self-publishing, experimenting with new ways to release books to readers, writing from perspectives not his own — and oh, yeah, those three television shows he has in development, too. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the most interesting trends in pop culture, and one you’re now a part of, is very long-term contracts that commit artists to a project or an ongoing series of projects. I’m thinking of things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which requires actors to sign nine-movie contracts. Now, beyond the financial and professional stability a deal like this affords you, which you’ve written about and talked about some already, what does it mean for your creative life to have made this kind of commitment? Do you feel like you have space to breathe, or to change direction and pursue new ideas as they come to you?
To be clear, I was the one who came to them and said I want a long-term deal. It wasn’t the other way around. It is a big commitment. The thing for me is, one of the nice things about Tor and the relationship that we’ve had so far is honestly, a lot of the books I do, I’ve basically shown up at their door and said, “Hey, I’ve written a book!” And they’ve said “Great, we’ll take it!” So in the sense of their interest in me has been more about me doing what interests me as opposed to trying to force me to do one particular thing or another.
They obviously want me to do the stuff that people already like, like the “Lock In” series or “Old Man’s War,” but part of the deal is I have the creative freedom to basically take a flier. I’ve said to [Tor executive editor] Patrick [Nielsen Hayden] some completely strange ideas that are not necessarily immediately salable, and he’s just sort of ridden with them. An example of that would be “Fuzzy Nation,” which was “I’m going to take this old book that is well regarded and I’m going to completely completely reboot it. It potentially will piss off a whole bunch of people who remember the old book. And a bunch of other people who have no idea what this book is or the context of it. And do you want it?” And he’s like, “Yup, let’s go ahead and take that.”
You brought in a series of pitches when you pitched this overall idea. Would this contract cover a new project that you came up with that you wanted to do instead of one of the things on that pitch list?
Oh, yeah. One of the things that we’re very clear about, when I showed them the list of “Here are the things that I’m thinking about and how I would do them over the course of a decade,” one thing we were clear about is that the future is unknown. So, if, for example, one of the books that I am imagining as a stand-alone becomes super-successful, then we can say, “Let’s continue on that” and make a series out of that and use one of those contracts to cover a series. Or for another thing, there is a book in the contract already that I know, in the list that I showed them, that I know already that I’m probably not going to do, or that I’m not going to do any time soon, because the moon is a critical element of it, and “Seveneves,” by Neal Stephenson, has made the moon a major, major element of that story, and significant enough that I’m like, “All right, someone else has covered this very general territory,” so I will probably replace that with something else.
I write about movies a lot, and one of the persistent laments about that particular form is that studios are obsessively focused on blockbusters to the detriment of projects that have smaller budgets, and that might not top the box office on opening weekend, but that will win devoted followings and have a long tail of rental income over the years. Your deal with Tor seems to be built on the opposite assumption: that it’s better to be steadily profitable over a long period of time. From a creative perspective, are there things that working in this sort of business framework either let you do, or mean that you don’t have to do? Can you have longer character arcs? Do you feel you can avoid certain tropes or practices?
I think the real advantage to this is to some extent we can let the books find their audience. We don’t have to worry necessarily about hitting the New York Times bestseller list with every single outing. Some of my most successful books have never been anywhere near a New York Times bestseller list. “Old Man’s War” has never been on the New York Times bestseller list or the USA Today bestseller list. All it does is week in, week out, year in, year out, sell tons of books. And so the thing is to some extent, the performance anxiety that you have to go out and you have to immediately hit it big is alleviated. … But quite frankly, because we are looking at this thing as a long-term project, and that we are assuming that backlist is going to be a significant reason for this contract in the first place, it really does mean that we have flexibility. …
It is in some ways different from the Hollywood model, but in some ways it’s kind of similar, because as much as Hollywood is addicted to blockbusters, there is the understanding that there are ancillary markets. If the box office is first, then it goes to home video, then it goes to streaming, then it goes to cable networks and so on and so forth. There are opportunities at every chance, opportunities at every step to go ahead and build. There are some things in film, we know for a fact have blossomed in different places. The most recent obvious example of that has been “Pitch Perfect,” which did reasonably well in the movie theaters. It did like $70 million worth of business, which was great. But it really blossomed when it hit cable. That’s when I first saw it, and that’s when people were talking about it, and that’s when “Cups” actually hit the music lists.
One of the things you addressed in your post answering questions about the deal is why you prefer to stay with a traditional publisher rather than going the self-publishing route. You mentioned the value of having someone else do the production and promotional aspects of putting out a book. But what about editing? What are your relationships with your editors at Tor like? Do you think that outside observers and advocates of self-publishing tend to undervalue editing?
I do think they undervalue editing. And I think it’s because to some extent, it’s invisible to the end user. Really good editing is not something that you will notice because you’re not sitting there admiring the edit. If the edit is good, what you’re doing is enjoying the story or admiring the prose. The editor’s job is to make the author look good. And it’s really hard to quantify that in a way to people who don’t actually work with editors in any sort of of significant capacity.
But the simple fact of the matter is ones who get the first look at the text. They’re the ones who point out to you the things you’re not going to see because you’re too close to it. They are the people you can bounce ideas off of. They’re the people who are going to advocate for the story even when that means advocating for the story to you, to get you out of whatever little particular rut you’re in, or to keep you from overvaluing one aspect that doesn’t really work for the story at all. They are the advocate of the book. They are the advocate of the story. They are the advocate of the tale you want to tell.
Believe me, I am an author with an ego like any of the rest of them. I really am a believer that my vision of the story is always the correct one. But a good editor shows you that your vision can be clouded, and what your story needs is sometimes just a little tweak, sometimes a significant overhaul. But the end result of it is you look at the book that is completed and you go, “Actually that is truer to what I wanted to have in the first place.” But again, it’s difficult to say that to people who are not used to working with an editor, or who feel that any sort of interference is meddling. For me, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who is my editor at Tor, one of the nice things about him for me is that we kind of operate on the same wavelength. He really is a person who believes if it’s not broke don’t fix it, so when he points out something in the text or something in the story that really is jarring for him, that means to me that I should be paying attention to it. And it’s a good and congenial relationship.
And then there are the other things, not just editors, but like, copy editors. Oh my God, if I had to be the person finally responsible for the copy editing of my books before they go out, I would never hear the end of it, right? I am not the right person. When I worked in journalism, I once had a copy editor come over and start to strangle me because my own copy editing was so bad.
An author friend of mine pointed out that there’s a lot of money to be made by building out character backstories or details of fictional worlds in short fiction, separate from core novels. Is that something you’re interested in? Would Tor let you do that? Or do you think it makes more sense to save that material for the books themselves?
For me, well, when “Lock In” came out, when I finished writing “Lock In,” I immediately went and wrote a novella which was called “Unlocked,” an oral history of the disease that is part of the world of “Lock In.” And part of the reason I did that was I had spent so much time world-building and building out this disease and how it worked that I really wanted to show it to people. But there was no place in the book to do it.
The book was a murder mystery, and it took place in a world where this disease had been around for 25 years, so people were not going to respond to the disease the way they would when it first hit. It was part of the landscape as opposed to the central story of the day. One of the things I think that is fun about these ancillary short stories or novellas or guides and stuff is that it is in some way a release for people who want to geek out about the world. But it’s not at the expense of story. If I had put all that stuff into “Lock In,” the book would have been overstuffed, the book would have been meandering, the book would have been distracted from what it was supposed to do, which was this murder mystery in this particular time in this particular place. But I still wanted to show it to people because I have a writer’s ego and I also knew there was a group of people who would go “Wow, this is super-cool. I can’t wait to read the book and immerse more into this world.”
Do you think you’ll be experimenting with form or release style at all, the way you did with the installments that became “The Human Division“?
Well, “The End of All Things,” which is the upcoming book, is also going to have an electronic release prior to the print release. It’s constructed as four novellas, and we’re going to do those four novellas every week or every other week. I don’t know that we’re going to continue to do the same sort of experimental stuff. But one of the nice things about publishing in the era we publish in now is that there are things that we can do to engage readers and to bring new readers in that we literally couldn’t do 10 or 15 years ago….This is another reason I was happy to be with Tor is because they are willing to try new things just to see if they will work. I tell people that “The Human Division” and “The End of All Things” are basically research projects, not just for Tor, but for all of Macmillan. We’re seeing if the audience is there, if they’re going to respond to this sort of stuff and if that means that there are opportunities to do fiction, to distribute fiction, to present fiction, that we’re not currently taking advantage of.
People think of traditional publishing as old and slow and all that sort of stuff. But traditional publishing and many of these houses have been around for a hundred years or more for a reason. These are not organizations that are necessarily frightened of change. They’re not going to do it stupidly. They’re going to preserve their revenue streams and bases as much as they can, but at the same time, the electronic book revolution is not the first revolution in books. We had a massive revolution in books 30 years ago when sales went from supermarket racks to chain bookstores. There were other revolutions before that. There have been things that have been as intensive and as significant as what’s happening right now, and these companies understood and adapted and changed.
Were there any particular insights that came out of the experiment with “The Human Division”? Did people who bought it in installments also buy hardcovers? I’d be curious what behavior you observed there.
One of the things that we saw is that it didn’t really have an effect on the sales of the hardcover that we could see. There’s a market of people who are really into digital, and there’s a market of people who are really into print, and there’s some overlap. But by and large it was an opportunity to address two markets in a significant way. There’s a third market as well, which is audio book, which has expanded tremendously, and that’s the same kind of dynamic that’s going on there. Audio people really like the audio book, digital people really like to read in digital, and print people really like to read in print. So what we actually found, we sold hundreds of thousands of individual copies of the episodes of “The Human Division.” And then when the book came out, the book sold exactly in line with previous “Old Man’s War” books. So we didn’t lose any readers. We didn’t cannibalize our readership in any significant way as far as we could see. So that was a really useful insight: There are distinct markets if you take the time to address them.
One of the things that really seems to define your career, at least to me, is the idea that you’re part of a community with other writers. And one way you’ve served that community is by being transparent about money and dealmaking? What has it been like to talk to other writers about this deal, and to read them writing about it? Was setting a precedent one of the reasons you wanted a deal like this? Were you motivated at all by the idea that your backlist might create space for Tor to take chances on other new authors?
When I came in to say I want a long term-deal, I’m going to be totally blunt: A lot of it was selfish, because I want to not have to think about where I’m going to place this next book. I want a partner that will let me strategize in the long term. So yes, a lot of it was about me.
But at the same time, I was aware that someone who is like me, who sells a lot, presents an opportunity for Tor to take that money, turn it around and cultivate new writers….I think a lot of people from the outside would be like, “Well, that’s $3.4 million that I’m not going to get.” And the answer is no. Tor is not going to give me money that they are not absolutely convinced in some way or another that they are going to make back. They’re going to be prudent about what they’re going to offer me. …The end result of that is if we are successful, aside from me doing very well and Tor doing very well, that expands opportunities for Tor to continue to publish new authors, to continue to take new chances not only with new authors, but with authors who have been around for a while who can reach people who haven’t read them before.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m being selfless about it. Because initially it was about what I want. But I am cognizant of the fact that there is a community here. That it is not just about me. It’s not just about what I can get out of it. I really do like the fact that science fiction and fantasy is community-based. It has always been that way since the very first time someone sent letters into Hugo Gernsback’s magazine. The fandom found each other. They started talking to each other. They started writing for each other. There has never been a time in science fiction where there has not been that community. And that is an advantage, honestly, that genre has over a lot of traditional classifications of literature. We talk to each other. We go on about trends. We go on about the past. We go on about the future. We worry a lot. Science fiction is a community of people obsessed with what it all means, not just in the sense of the future and technology, but as writers, as readers. And if you connect with that community and you’re a part of that community, there can be some real advantages.
To be clear, sometimes it’s a real pain in the a–. In addition to all the beneficial things about the community that we have, right now we’re having this thing going on with the Hugos and the Sad and Rabid Puppies, and what does it all mean? But you have these spasms. And at the end of the day, for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. And that’s why I have always been a person who’s like “I will talk to you about what’s going on in my career as much as it’s possible for me to do.” My wife eventually told me to stop talking about money because she didn’t want it to sound like bragging. But I’ll tell you the breakdown of what my sales are. I’ll tell you what’s going on in terms of distribution. I will be as transparent as possible, because more information for other writers is good. I have the blog where I do the Big Idea pieces, and the reason I do that is I have a platform that people come and visit, and why wouldn’t I promote other writers? When the field is doing well, then it’s better for everybody.
I know transparency can be awkward, but when you’re transparent about your sales and what you’re making, you create a lot of leverage for other authors to use in negotiations.
Right. And not only that, but to make clear to people that this is — and this something I have been hammering basically since day one — this is a business. If you want to get published, you are in the stream of commerce, and you have to treat it like business. And while writing can be a mystical, transporting, artistic thing, it’s also a job, it’s about selling units, it’s about getting out there, it’s about doing publicity. And the more you hide that away and keep writing as this sort of romantic thing, the more you allow people to believe myths, or fables, or tales. The more time you spend demystifying, “Look, this is my job, and this is what I do and this is how I do it,” and encourage people to share information, then it becomes harder for the myths of publishers to take hold and basically be used to the disadvantage of writers.
I’m curious to hear more about your move into young adult fiction. Both science fiction and young adult are marginalized genres that have really broken out and fought for respectability in recent years. Are there things you’ve learned about working in the former genre that made you curious about the latter, or that you think will help you make the transition? And are there things you want to do with YA that don’t feel possible in the genres you’ve worked in before?
We should all be as marginalized as YA, because it’s a huge engine for publishing. But I actually think you point out something that’s smart, that there are a lot of quote unquote marginalized communities in literature that are huge engines of the business. One of the most marginalized groups in publishing is romance publishing, which is literally 40 percent of the business. It is the largest single thing in publishing, and yet there are so many people who dismiss it or don’t give it the time of day.
YA is, I think, very similar. Science fiction is very similar. I don’t know that for me, that science fiction in and of itself led to any sort of interest in YA. I’ve always had an interest in doing something in YA. It’s just not time or opportunity to do so. … The one thing that I do think people in science fiction do to their detriment with regard to YA is they’re like, “Well, I’ll just write science fiction or fantasy and have a kid or a teenager as the protagonist, and suddenly that’s YA.” And in a very obvious sense, maybe that’s true. But in the sense of no, it’s a completely different market, with a completely different dynamic and a completely different way of selling and completely different tastes, it’s a mistake. You can’t just write a science fiction story or a fantasy story and the main character is a 15-year-old boy or a 16-year-old girl and think that’s going to make any inroads with what YA is.
These are also both genres that have been the subject of diversity movements; there’s the We Need Diverse Books campaign in YA, and then the debates over the Hugos this year. One of the things I appreciate about your work is your curiosity about perspectives and experiences that aren’t your own, and also about character tropes that tend to be marginalized or belittled, whether they’re blonde bombshells like Michelle in “Agent to the Stars,” the main characters in “Redshirts” or various alien species. Maybe exploring those perspectives just comes naturally to you, but I’d be interested to know if there’s any particular research or workshopping you do to try to make these characters with whom you don’t share experiences feel authentic and specific?
I have the advantage of having a fairly diverse group of friends, both in high school and college and in real life with writers. So part of it is just doing what writers do and paying attention. And not just paying attention in the sense of recognizing and seeing them as people, but when they’re talking or when they’re tweeting, seeing the things they’re writing and talking and tweeting about.
I am as guilty as any straight white man is, if guilty is the word of it, of being lazy. If I’m not careful, I do the white man default. So somewhere along the way, I decided to make it a thing that I was going to actively make a more diverse cast of people in my books. The first time I tried to do this, I don’t think I did a particularly good job of it. Because I don’t do a lot of description, and so my characters, I don’t describe what they look like. So I was thinking to myself, and I thought because I don’t describe what they look like, they can be any color, or any race, or anything. It’s completely dependent upon the reader. So someone who is African American can see my characters as African American if they want, someone who is Native American can see them as Native American, so on and so forth.
I thought I was doing a good job with that. And then I was told by my friends who are minorities that actually, that’s not the way it works. Everyone defaults to white. And it was hard for me, in my ego, to accept that this thing I was doing that I thought was so progressive was not actually that progressive at all. But once that got kind of drilled into my head, once I did the crazy radical act of White Man Listening, I started making it more obvious that these characters are clearly diverse. I gave them names that are clearly from places other than Massachusetts. And it does make a difference in the sense that people don’t feel like it is just another white writer universe, that there is a mix of things.
The thing for me is not necessarily to get cookies for it. I don’t spend a lot of time calling attention to the fact that I try to be diverse. One of the things I try to be very conscious of, for example, in “The Human Division,” was making sure that the people who are named characters and the people who are in command, and the people who are characters with agency are, as much as possible, male and female 50-50. I didn’t talk about it, or go out of my way to say, “Did you see this thing I did? Aren’t I great?” I just put it in the book and with the exception of one review from one of the trades that said, “Oh, yeah, it’s got a diverse cast,” it took a year before somebody noticed it, and that person complained, “You’ve got so many women in this. What happened?” And in fact, it’s not “so many women.” It’s 50-50.
But the fact that I could make 50 percent of my characters with agency women and it takes a year for people to complain about it suggests to me that this is not anything that anybody should be afraid of. “Lock In,” the protagonist character, what I intended going in, the gender is not specified. We don’t know if Chris Shane is male or female. And I don’t know if Chris Shane is male or female, because I knew going in that I wasn’t going to specify gender. I didn’t tell people that when the book came out. We didn’t make a big deal about it. We didn’t say anything about it. We literally just let it go out. And part of the reason to do that is that when people figured it out and they did, it meant that people went back and started thinking about why did they think Chris was a guy? Why did they think she was a girl? And in a way, without hitting people over the head with it, you can get people to think about what their base assumptions are and what their defaults are.
In addition to these new projects, you’ve got three television adaptations in development, and I know you’re involved on some level in each of those. I’d love to know more about what those experiences have been like. And I’m also curious if they’ve influenced your writing at all. Do you think, as you’re writing, about whether something would be cinematic, or about how chapters might be packaged together as episodes?
No, I mean, the thing about me is I actually do believe that novels should be novels. If you’re writing a book and your thought is this would make a great TV series some day, you’re probably not paying attention to what you’re doing with the novel. You have to write a great story for the format that the story’s in. … My inclination is not to do that. That said, my first job was working at a newspaper as a film critic, so I literally spent five years looking at how story got done in film. And so when it came time for me to write my novels, a lot of my storytelling came from that sort of school of storytelling. So to some extent a lot of what I’m writing is seen as cinematic. As far as it goes, I’m totally happy to cop that there is some aspect of that here …
It’s fun to look on the other side of the sausage-making machine, if you know what I mean. I’ve been very fortunate that the people I’ve been working with in all cases have been pretty open to my participation … They’ve been open, they’ve been communicative, I know what’s going on, I’ve been able to give my thoughts. I understand that my position as executive producer is not the same as the actual producer or the actual director, and it’s no longer my baby per se, but part of a collaborative process … A few years ago I was the creative consultant for “Stargate Universe.” They would send me the scripts, I would give them notes, and say this scene, you might think about changing this … In all those cases, you learn that quite honestly, there are limits to how much people are going to be able to do and there are limits to how much any one person is going to move the needle. For me, that was very good training to understand that, in fact, it is a collaborative process, and if you are going to be working in film or television, you really need to be accepting of that simple fact or it’s going to drive you absolutely, totally, incontrovertibly insane.