Tor Books: The Wind Does Not Respect a Fool

Kahless the Unforgettable will allow Tor's obstinacy--and recount it as a warning to others,
It's been six months since public slanders against Tor Books' readers and authors by company employees Irene Gallo, Moshe Feder, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden incited a boycott against the publisher.

How is business at Tor these days?

Depends on your opinion of Tor--and legacy publishers in general. I'll provide a few relevant data points.

Tor's Lost Halo
Publishing tie-in novels to the immensely popular Halo series of video games has been one of Tor Books' major revenue streams. At the time of this writing, Halo: The Fall of Reach stands among Tor's top ten best sellers alongside books by Orson Scott Card and Robert Jordan.

But now, Tor can kiss all of the no doubt massive sales of future Halo books goodbye.

"On February 4, 2014, it was announced that 343 Industries had contracted Gallery Books as their new publishing partner, marking the end of the deal with Tor."
 We’ve had the luxury of working with amazing novelists and publishing partners in the past – and we’re excited to continue that tradition and growth with the announcement of our new novel publishing partner, Gallery Books – and we can’t wait to share the worlds and wonders we’ll build together.
-Frank O'Connor, 343 Industries 
I couldn't dig up the specific reason why 343 chose not to renew their Halo contract with Tor. Blaming the boycott would be ridiculous, since the contract expired in 2014--a year before the Gallo affair even happened.

Still, Tor promotes itself as the world's leading publisher of science fiction. If that's true, it's odd indeed that they'd lose the novel rights to the biggest SF franchise in gaming.

It's worth noting that Gallery Books is an imprint of Simon and Schuster, who also publish Star Trek novels. I've heard anecdotal accounts that they do a good job of it, too--making them the only competent Star Trek license holders.
We are thrilled to be working with 343 Industries and Microsoft on these upcoming Halo books, it’s a phenomenal brand that continues to grow and we look forward to continuing the ascent with them.
-Louise Burke, President of Gallery Books
Yep, Halo is a growing brand, and other than the books they've already published, Tor won't be seeing a dime of that growth.

The Invisible Man likeness is apt, since Scalzi will be disappearing from Tor through 2016.
Earlier this year, SF author John Scalzi made waves in the trad publishing establishment when he announced the $3.4 million contract he'd signed with Tor. According to the deal, Tor will publish thirteen new Scalzi books over the next ten years.

Everything is coming up Milhouse for Tor's newly minted superstar--with the notable exception of this Very Important News.
So, here’s the Very Important News about my 2016 novel release:
Currently, there isn’t one. Not a new one, anyway.
Which isn’t to say I’m not writing a novel in 2016. In fact, I’m writing two(!). Merely that Tor has decided to wait until 2017 to release the next new one.
Now, I've been studying the publishing business for several years (and recently got into it myself), but a publisher delaying the release of a book--and one by a major league author, no less--by a whole year contradicts every industry rule I've seen.

Almost every publisher expects their authors to publish a book per year. And honestly, I think that's too slow. Regardless, there are many good reasons why releasing at least one book each year by a particular author is enshrined in the publishing status quo (and more is better).

  • A given piece of pop entertainment can only hold the public's attention for about six months.
  • The highest earning authors actually publish 3-5 books per year.
  • Most trad-published authors must release more titles than indie authors to earn the same amount of money.
  • A publisher's most valuable commodity isn't an author's books; it's his brand. A brand that's out of the public eye is a brand that's not growing.

How to explain Tor putting Scalzi's brand on hold? According to the author:
Why the wait? Among other things, because Tor just dropped a ton of money on me so we want to make sure we debut this next novel, the first in the new contract, just right. I’m on board with this plan — note the “we” in that last sentence — since (again, among other things) I actually want to try to earn out the silly large chunks of money Tor has dropped on me. I also don’t mind the extra time it gives me to write/tweak the novels I’m currently working on.
This explanation makes no sense. In particular, citing the need to earn out an advance is a total non-sequitur. A book advance is essentially a loan to be repaid with future royalties from that specific book. The only way to earn out the advance is to sell copies of the book; therefore the sooner you release a book, the sooner you start earning back the advance.

It's been speculated that Tor has demanded major rewrites on the first manuscript that Scalzi has submitted under his new contract. I think that scenario unlikely considering the time frame involved. Authors are routinely ordered to make massive revisions in six to eight weeks. Had Tor delayed the release by as much as six months, the rewrite theory may have been plausible.

One way I can see a Big Five publisher pushing back one of its biggest author's titles by a whole year is if they found the submitted work wholly unsatisfactory, requiring that an entirely new book be written.

This development could have something to do with the boycott. Scalzi was first signed, and later anointed Tor's next big thing, by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. There's not enough publicly available information to determine if the science fiction manager's disgraceful behavior and the resulting customer backlash has imperiled his position in the company, but it's certainly possible.

Of course, had an officer of a sane and customer-centered company behaved in a similar way, his position would be more than imperiled.

The flipping of the book industry script
According to Author Earnings, legacy publishing just had one of the worst eighteen month sales periods in recent history.

Between February, 2014 and September, 2015, the 1200 members of the AAP (including Tor) saw their share of the eBook market reduced:
  • from 45% of all Kindle books sold down to 32%
  • from 64% of Kindle publisher gross $ revenue down to 50%
  • from 48% of all Kindle author net $ earnings down to 32%

author earnings

In fact, the Amazon eBook market has turned upside down.
Today, traditionally-published authors are barely earning 40% of all Kindle ebook royalties paid, while self-published indie authors and those published by Amazon’s imprints are taking home almost 60%.
Meanwhile, reports that all eBook sales are in decline are, well...lies. Amazon themselves say that eBook sales are still growing.

That means readers are fleeing legacy publishers for indie authors and small publishers who give them the entertainment they want and don't call their customers neo-Nazis.

Again, ascribing Tor's plummeting eBook sales to the boycott would be presumptive. The proximate cause of trad publishers' sagging sales is their recent increase in eBook prices following Hachette's Pyrrhic victory over Amazon.

The Big Five sought to protect the paper book market they dominate by making eBooks unreasonably expensive. Once again mistaking their own declining eBook sales for a universal downturn, they've ceded dominance in the healthy Kindle market.

Though the Tor boycott didn't cause trad publishing's dismal state of affairs, it certainly hasn't helped them. As I've said before, boycotts like this shouldn't pursue the quixotic goal of running a billion dollar company out of business.

The point of boycotting Tor, as I see it, is twofold: first, to test the company's responsiveness to its customers; and second, to disentangle oneself form cooperation with the offending company if it obstinately refuses to mend its evil ways.

Tor partisans have gleefully asserted that the boycott has been ineffective. On the contrary, it's greasing the garbage chute that the former biggest sci-fi publisher in the world is already sliding down.


  1. This seems like a first rate analysis of the situation to me. Of course I know very little about traditional publishing, so I could be wrong about that. But it does seem to fit all of the known facts.

    1. Thanks. I'm glad you found this post informative.

      I do my best to let the facts shape my interpretations of events.