Check It Out

I was going to call this a minor note, but I know several of you will consider it more important than the main post.

Agent Extraordinaire Janet Reid is taking a vacation. Unlike me, she makes sure to leave some content for her blog readers. And so, today’s hiatus post features the very handsome Rufus. Drop by and say hello.

(And if you have any interest in the business side of writing novels–or long-form non-fiction–you really should be reading her blog.)

Plug over. (But if you don’t care about the business of writing, you may want to skip the rest of this post.)

Tor Books–one of the big name publishers in Science Fiction and Fantasy is taking a lot of heat in the publishing world over what they’re calling an experiment.

According to their press release, Tor–or possibly their parent company, Macmillan–believes making e-books available through public libraries lowers retail sales. Consequently, they’ve decided to hold all e-books out of libraries until four months after publication.

They’ve released no specific information to back up their claim, so it’s impossible to know what they’re thinking. Are they of the opinion that libraries are a bigger source of piracy than booksellers? Do they think libraries are buying one copy and lending it to multiple clients at once? We don’t know, and we may never know. But either way, it’s a pretty nonsensical call.

I don’t know about the library vendor who handles Tor’s e-books, but the ones I’m familiar with have interfaces to the libraries’ circulation system and only allow simultaneous check-outs up to the number of copies the library has purchased. My local library, for example, outsources their e-books to Overdrive, and I’ve had to wait for check-outs often enough to be sure they don’t lend more simultaneous copies than the library bought.

And libraries as a source of pirate copies? It is to laugh. As I’ve noted in the past, pirate copies often show up the day books are released, sometimes even before. In order to do that through a library, your hypothetical pirate would have to be first on the reserve list, not just for one book, but for every title they intend to steal. To get, say, six books on release day, User OX* would probably have to check several out, remove the copy protection, and check them back in before he could grab the next batch. Because most library e-book vendors limit the number of books users can check out simultaneously.

* That’s supposed to be a skull and cross-bones. Thus we see the limits of my ASCII art skills.

Maybe OX’s library won’t notice he has a habit of checking multiple books out for five minutes, but you better believe the vendors are watching for that sort of pattern.

So what’s Tor thinking?

Several articles suggest they may be hoping to beef up their First Day sales numbers, potentially helping their position on various best-seller lists. Which is, I suppose, a possibility, but it strikes me as unlikely.

Or maybe Phase Two is introducing a higher cost to libraries, “for expedited access”. Remember, we have no data to support Tor’s claims. If they come back in a few months and say, “Hey, sales did go up, so if libraries want books on Launch Day, they can damn well pay us for the income we’ll lose,” nobody can contradict them.

In any case, the embargo began with Tor’s July titles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens come December, when those titles are due to reach libraries. Will libraries bother to buy them, four months after their clients have presumably either bought the e-books themselves or borrowed the paper editions?

And, let’s not forget that libraries make their buying decisions when books are reviewed in library-oriented journals. That can be six months or more before publication. For well-known authors, the decision may even be made when the book is announced, and that can be a year or more before publication. So we may not see the effect on library purchases until late 2019.

Interesting times we live in, folks.

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.


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.


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.