Sci-fi author's book deal paves way for fellow writers
Book publishing deals are often announced in arcane terms, and even when the numbers are revealed, they can feel predictable: celebrity memoirs sell for millions of dollars, while mere mortals scrape by from contract to contract. But science fiction author John Scalzi has pulled off a feat: he made a book deal seem like important news. He and his publisher Tor announced that for US$3.4 million, Scalzi would write 13 books over the next 10 years. The contract sets a precedent for other sci-fi authors to use as a negotiating point, and it also gives him room to breathe. He talks to Alyssa Rosenberg
One of the most interesting trends in pop culture, and one you're now a part of, is long-term contracts that commit artists to a project or an ongoing series of projects. Beyond the financial and professional stability a deal like this affords you, what does it mean for your creative life?
I [went to Tor] and said I wanted a long-term deal. It wasn't the other way around. It is a big commitment. One of the nice things about Tor and the relationship we've had so far is … 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 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.
You brought in a series of pitches when you pitched this overall idea. Would this contract cover a new project that you wanted to do instead of one of the things on that pitch list?
One of the things we're clear about, when I showed them the list of "things I'm thinking about and how I would do them over the course of a decade", is that the future is unknown. So if, for example, one of the books I am imagining as a stand-alone becomes super-successful, then we can say, "Let's continue on that", and use one of those contracts to cover a series. Or there's a book in the contract that I know I'm probably not going to do, I will replace that with something else.
An author friend of mine says there's a lot of money to be made by building character back stories or details of fictional worlds in short fiction, separate from core novels. Is that something you're interested in?
When I finished writing Lock In, I wrote a novella called Unlocked, an oral history of the disease that is part of the world of Lock In. I had spent so much time world-building and building this disease and how it worked that I wanted to show it to people. But there was no place in the book to do it.
Do you think you'll be experimenting with form or release style at all, the way you did with the instalments that became ?
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 now is that there are things we can do to engage readers and to bring new readers in that we couldn't do 10 or 15 years ago.
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 deal-making. What has it been like to talk to other writers about this deal, and to read them writing about it?
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 strategise 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. The end result 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 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 Washington Post