Jealous Much?

In the part of the Internet where I hang out, the biggest news over the long weekend was that John Scalzi signed a deal with Tor Books. It’s a small deal: 13 books over 10 years for $3.4 million.

If nothing else, this proves that I’m probably hanging out in the wrong part of the Internet.

That aside, it does give me a chance to talk about the publishing industry and my place in it, something I should do more often than I have in the past.

Here’s a hint for those of you who aren’t intimately familiar with publishing and the way it works: when I said it was a small deal, I was fibbing. This is actually a huge flipping deal. Seven figure deals are unusual. Especially when the author and publisher work in science fiction and/or fantasy. Double-especially when the author is (a) not a world-famous celebrity and (b) can be expected to write his own books, rather than hiring a ghostwriter.

It may not be a record-breaking deal in terms of either the number of books or the number of dollars, but the combination of the numbers is, as Scalzi himself put it, “unusually big”.

So, as the title of this post asks, am I jealous?

Well, yeah, I am. I could try to deny it, but nobody would believe me.

But.

Not as much as you might think.

Allow me to explain.

It’s easy to fixate on that seven digit number and lose sight of the fact that it’s not going to be paid in a lump sum. Scalzi will get a chunk of money–and I’ll admit, a good-sized chunk of money–each time he sends a completed novel to Tor, and another chunk some time later* when the novel hits the shelves. He’s not suddenly filthy rich**, he’s just got a contract giving him a salary that falls somewhere between “non-CEO in the tech industry” and “well-regarded, non-superstar major league baseball player”.

* And, again for those of you not deeply involved in publishing, “some time” can often mean “a year or more”. Even for a successful, well-known author whose brand is been well established.

** Assuming that a single-digit number of millions still qualifies as “filthy”. With all of the tech millionaires around, I suspect the lower end of “filthy rich” is now somewhere in the double digits. Can we get an official ruling from the IRS on that?

I’ll skip the social commentary on the relative worth of developers, authors, and athletes. You can fill it in for yourselves. Would I like that kind of income? Of course. But it’s not as drool-worthy as it sounds at first blush.

Then there’s the nagging little matter of Scalzi’s side of the deal. He has to write thirteen novels–call it a million to a million and a half words–in the next ten years. I have no doubt he can do it. He wrote eleven novels and assorted other stuff over the last ten years. As the standard disclaimer has it, “Past performance is not a guarantee of future results,” but in the writing game, it’s about the only data point we’ve got. Looking at it another way, let’s not forget that Scalzi is, by all reports, one of the faster writers out there. Even if you allow time for plotting and world building before he starts formal composition, nine months start to finish is well-within his demonstrated capabilities. It looks even more manageable when you consider that several of the books will be sequels, which means they’ll need (at least a little) less world building.

But.

As part of negotiating the deal, Scalzi and Tor agreed to a release schedule for those thirteen books. That’s right: Scalzi now knows what books he’s going to be writing and in what order. There is some flexibility built into the plan, but still, that’s a long stretch of time to plan. Heck, even the Soviet Union only worked in five year plans.

Looking at that kind of plan from my perspective isn’t just intimidating. It’s downright crazy. I’m not talking about whether I could do something of the same sort. I’m sure I could. But would I want to? Honestly, probably not. I’m still on track to finish my current novel-in-progress in early summer. I know what the next novel will be–heck, I’ve actually started the first draft. I’ve enough ideas in my planning file that I could schedule the next ten years, without even considering sequels. But that sounds stifling.

Note to my agent-to-be: Let’s have a long talk before you cut me a ten year, seven figure deal. I’m not saying I’m unalterably opposed to the idea, but you’re going to need to persuade me before you persuade a publisher. Multi-year, multi-book deals in general, absolutely. But not at that scale.

In short, congratulations to Scalzi, along with my thanks for stretching the bounds of what authors in our field can aspire to. But the more I think about it, the less jealous I feel.

4 thoughts on “Jealous Much?

  1. I’ve been writing mystery novels (and some nonfiction) full-time for 20 years now, and for some 20 years part-time before that, and have 11 commercially-published works in print, all of which have done well with reviewers and readers. Income? Modest but acceptable. Would I like to have 3.4 million dollars coming in from writing over the next 10 years? Sure. Would I agree to produce 13 books – 13 particular books – over those 10 years to earn that money? No way. I have had a ball following my inclination, one book after the other, at my own pace, and I could never have predicted where I was going to wander and find satisfaction, even joy. To lock myself into a Scalziesque deal would feel like a prison sentence. I have a friend, an excellent writer, who badly wants to write a particular book but can’t because he is locked into an arrangement with his agent and his publisher to write what they believe will sell Offer me 3.4 mill to write what goes down during my next ten years, and you have a deal. Otherwise, don’t let the door hit you…

    Enjoy your writing, Casey.

    Like

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