13 Comments

The Future of Tor

Francis Turner/Contributor

Peter Grant has declared it Tor boycott season (http://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.jp/2015/06/the-tor-boycott-is-on.html ) and in principle I’d be happy to join. Unfortunately there’s a minor problemette that I discovered while reading about and commenting on this whole Tor thing, most recently Sanford’s post (https://otherwheregazette.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/being-lost-in-a-sea-of-authors/ ) and a post by Patri Freedman (http://patrissimo.livejournal.com/1500835.html ). The posts inspired me to take a look at my book buying habits and it turns out I jumped the shark gun on the boycott thing because it seems I’ve been boycotting Tor for a while now. Not intentionally, but that’s probably more serious for Tor and its owners than a straightforward determination to boycott. You see Tor don’t actually publish books I want to read and, Kevin J Anderson apart, haven’t done so for a few years.
I’ve got a bunch of older Tor books on various bookshelves. I’ve got a bare handful first published in the last decade and some of them I regret buying, for example  Scalzi’s “Redshirts” or which ever Weber Safehold book it was I bought twice by mistake (if you can’t remember reading a book until you are about 3/4ths the way through then you’ve lost interest in the series). Looking back with 20/20 hindsight there were signs of the problem earlier. Charlie Stross’ Family Trade books were, according to him, essentially edited by Tor so that each volume was the same length even though that meant that in vols 2-4 (or so, I forget precisely) each book ended on some kind of irritating cliffhanger with no plot resolution at all. I disagree with Stross’ politics and that certainly leaked over into those books, but he’s quite capable of creating books in a series that have actual satisfying endings even if you know about (and want to read) sequels – The Laundry series for example – so I tend to believe him when he says it wasn’t his choice. Given that the books were published a year apart that made no sense at all. Moreover, Scalzi and Stross aside, I don’t believe I’ve bought any new Tor author since 2000. Sure I’ve looked at them on Amazon or on the shelves of a bookshop but I’ve never apparently found one so interesting I wanted to buy it.

I’ve known for over a decade that the Baen logo meant a good book. I had not, until I did that review, realized just how bad it had got regarding the rest of the traditionally published world. The sort of good news, for Tor, is that they aren’t alone. It turns out that apart from Baen (webscription purchased every month + eARCs) I rarely buy any traditionally published fiction these days. The bad news for Tor and all the other trad publishers is that I don’t miss it. I buy lots of Indie fiction instead. And by lots I mean 1 -2 books a week on average.

While this is bad for traditional publishers, it’s far worse for the bookshops. Like many others I got kind of bored of the choice in the Borders/Barnes & Noble gienormous bookstore places a few years ago. Gradually I stopped finding stuff that I wanted to read and that I hadn’t already bought electronically from Baen so now I don’t even bother going in. When I started visiting San Diego frequently a few years back there was a period when I made regular trips down to Mysterious Galaxy but even that has palled. The choice is no better than Amazon and the prices are higher, so, despite occasional guilt pangs, I don’t bother to go there anymore either. I’m not actually sure when was the last time I bought a book in an actual store, but its probably getting on for a couple of years now. This is kind of ironic. After having spent many years in foreign lands where English language books are hard to find, I now live in Southern California where they are easy to get, but I’ve got out of the habit of browsing bookstores and yet I’m still feeding my fiction habit successfully.

One other thing I noticed a couple of weeks ago when I bought a traditionally published book (the final Paks book FWIW – http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345533119?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00 ) is that the publishers still haven’t grasped the concept of ebooks being significantly cheaper. Amazon sold me that book for less than 50 cents more as a paperback than it (or anyone else) was willing to sell it as an ebook ($8.99 vs $8.54). This of course brings up another point: $8.54 for an ebook that’s already out in MMPB? you bet I have sticker shock and bluntly that’s ridiculous. I can imagine paying that (just about) for an ebook that’s only available in hardcover – and I do regularly buy Baen eARCs for $15 that are unproofed and unavailable in any dead tree format – but if the book is out in MMPB as well as HC then it’s been out for a couple of years now so the way I look at things the price should have dropped to a level that gives author publisher and retailer similar profits without any of the overhead of creating and shipping a physical object. I refuse to believe that anyone makes the same money on the $8.99 paperback than they do on the $8.54 ebook except perhaps the author.

The good thing (in the faint silver-ish lining of the thunder-cloud category) about the Sad Puppies affair and the resulting fall out, is that it has caused me to evaluate my reading habit and to actually put numbers behind my vague feelings that something was rotten in the state of publishing. If I am not alone (and anecdotal data from comments on various blogs and Facebook pages suggests I’m very far from alone) then traditional publishing and book selling is in a world of hurt that can only get worse. I’m not sure what it would take to reverse the course (for book stores there may be nothing that can be done) but I’m pretty sure that bad mouthing voracious readers and denigrating the authors that write books for them, is not going to be a part of a successful strategy.

This leads to the question of whether Tor should continue to employ certain editors. From a business perspective, if I were a Tor exec then I’d fire at least Moshe Feder and Irene Gallo and quite possibly a bunch of others (PNH for example). This would have nothing to do with their right to free speech or their politics but everything to do with their attitudes to

  1. a) their (potential) customers – the readers
  2. b) their main sources of income – the best-selling authors

Why? Let me explain using Gallo as an example (a similar analysis is possible for Feder and probably PNH).

Calling (as Gallo did) a large chunk of the readership sexist, racist, homophobic far-right neo-nazis – particularly when it is demonstrably untrue and when such untruths were loudly pointed out at least a month previously – while gloating about making puppies sadder shows a total lack of professionalism and that she is either unable to empathise with a large chunk of potential readers (and hence unlikely to produce stuff that will attract them) or that she is in fact stupid.

When you combine that with her calling one of the books published by Tor and from a best-selling author “bad to reprehensible” the lack of professionalism becomes significantly worse. I am not a Tor insider and I have no idea how much of its gross sales are accounted for by Kevin J Anderson, but I suspect it is in the 5-10% range – at least when combined with co-author Brian Herbert. Publicly bad-mouthing the source of 5% of Tor’s gross income is dumb, particularly given that KJA is already writing Indie published books too. Were KJA to split and were some other likely sympathetic best-sellers (Orson Scott Card, David Weber …) to also quit I imagine Tor would see a massive drop in sales. And even if these authors don’t stop working with Tor, it is hard to imagine new best selling Indie authors such as Chris Nuttal (evidence suggests he’s selling tens of thousands of ebooks a year) or Marko Kloos (ditto) wanting to sign on with a company that disparages them or their books. While I’m sure both – and many other indie authors – would love to see their works in the local Barnes & Noble, both are business people who would also need to see that they didn’t lose money on a deal with Tor (or similar). Right now both get money that seems to be in a similar ball park to the recently announced 10 year Scalzi deal and they don’t have to deal with a publisher whose staff think they are “bad to reprehensible”.

On the other hand firing the loud mouths might encourage them to consider a traditional publisher for some of their output and every publisher needs new best selling authors. Hence termination of Gallo, Feder et al wouldn’t have anything to do with sexism or any other *ism except capitalism and the desire by Tor’s management to make a) payroll and b) profits. As it is, explicit boycott or not, chances are high that Tor will be downsizing soon anyway if it continues on the current course because on its current course it won’t be able to make acceptable profits or to afford to employ so many editors.

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13 comments on “The Future of Tor

  1. Pretty much my take as well, Francis. With one delta: I’ve bought John C. Wright’s “Count to a Trillion” books, and they’re TOR. But two of THOSE, I got used from Amazon. . .And then dumped 5 bucks per in John’s tip jar. . .

    TOR basically isn’t selling anything I particularly want anymore. .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Francis, I agree with you that e-books are in general priced too high from a major publisher. I think it’s counter-intuitive and certainly is not smart for the consumer. Whether it’s Tor, DAW, Roc, or anyone except for Baen (who’s still trying to give deals, at least with regards to Webscriptions), most of the major market publishers just haven’t figured out that they’re going to sell more e-books if they lower the price. (Give the author the same royalty, but lower the price down to something reasonable, like $5.99 or the like. I’ve seen indie authors with novel price-points like that, and it works for them, but that’s the upper level of what an e-book can be priced at and still make some sales.)

    Anyway, I slightly disagree with you as to already being uninterested in Tor books. I know there are at least two authors I regularly read from Tor: Mary Robinette Kowal (who has some excellent Regency-inspired romantic fantasy) and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (all sorts of things, from comic fantasy to serious military SF).

    And, I believe, the series with Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory is at Tor — I read those as soon as they come out, albeit from the library as I’m flat broke. (Wasn’t the recent YA series with Lackey and Rosemary Edghill also put out by Tor? That was well-done, I thought.)

    So long as those three-four authors are at Tor, I’m going to keep reading.

    But no, I don’t like what Ms. Gallo said. She has the right to air her opinion, even though I find it very ill-informed to voice and an extremely poor business practice, besides.

    A company that cares about its fans, though, usually would try to gently say something to a person like Ms. Gallo. Something like, “You have a right to your opinion, but please, speak it in private and try to keep it off social media. We need all the sales we can get, not negative word of mouth.”

    What I’ve noticed, Francis, is that Tor does seem to be making Mr. Feder and Ms. Gallo pull back a little bit. They appear to understand that people are upset and that many of them have patronized Tor Books in the past and are likely to do so in the future — providing they’re not unfairly maligned in the interim.

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  3. The end of TOR will probably be the contractual bear trap with Scalzi. How are they going to pay it when revenues keep dropping and sell-throughs fail?

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  4. This whole mess is simply a continuation of what the Western Intellectuals did to most of the art world starting as far back as 1815. The “Creators” and the gate keepers decided that The Common Folk didn’t know what was good, and went haring off in all kind sod directions, and then complained bitterly that revenue fell off.

    Tom Wolfe has covered this rather thoroughly in THE PAINTED WORD, FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE, and HOOKING UP. The core of it is that a bunch of opinionated nitwits decided that “Art” (painting, novels, opera, ballet, what have you) had to express The Right Ideas to be valid. This has, frankly, lead to pandering just as obvious and annoying as the Renaissance paintings that pro ported to show the holiness of various swine like the Medici. And the public, which was buying all sorts of art in quantities large enough for popular creators to make fortunes, has generally reacted to this new “edgy” art by putting it wallet back in its pocket and moving away swiftly.

    Oh, the Avant Guard still buy. But, as Tom Wolfe points out, Cultureburg is a fairly small city. It’s population probably amounts to about 60,000 people worldwide, with occasional visitors who pretend they like the stuff, and then go home to their LeRoy Neiman prints. So, increasingly, orchestral music, opera, painting, and many other “arts” have to be propped up by public funds, and the public gets restive about it. And now SF is going (or has gone) the same way.

    Fortunately, the final shift of the Publishing industry to full PC idiocy has come just as independent publishing became practical. So we can leave them festering in their tripe, and read what we damn please.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This whole mess lies squarely at the feet of Tor. They could have addressed this a long time ago. Instead they have decided to become the textbook example of how not to handle things. You simply don’t let your employee’s say anything public about your customers, even if you agree with them. You never alienate your customers.

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  6. Tor has probably made a few hundred off of me in the last year or two from Brandon Sanderson alone, especially since I _was_ (slowly, the prices are too high) buying them in ebook format as well as the (signed) hardbacks I already have.

    There are other authors I read from Tor, but the number has been dropping over the last decade.

    Really, I see so many boneheaded business decisions out of the big houses I’m amazed they’re all still afloat.

    Going back to the ebooks – I first discovered Mercedes Lackey through work (a library) and bought basically all of the Valdemar books as they were surplussed and reordered. A month or three ago I thought I’d look into picking them up in ebook format as well.

    Trouble is even the first book that has been out basically as long as I’ve been alive is still just shy of $6. No way am I paying that for books I already have copies of, especially that old. (Arrows of the Queen came out when Star Trek the Next Generation was just premiering, btw.)

    Paradoxically, if they had been $2 each for all but the most recent I would have gladly bought all of them. At once. That’s 40 books. The ones published in the last five years I haven’t even read yet. (Didn’t know they were out until just now when I went to count them, actually. That’s a problem too.) Those six I would have paid more for. So even at $2 for older and $5 for new I would have, without hesitation, paid $100 dollars for books that cost them nothing to store or ship. As it stands I’ve bought none of them in ebook and just dig out the old paperbacks as needed.

    Now, Valdemar is DAW, not Tor, but the principle is the same.

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  7. […] “The Future of Tor” – June 25 […]

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  8. Dangerous Women, an anthology published by TOR, I picked up only because Jim Butcher had a story in it. So he’d be included in the ‘TOR’ authors who Irene Gallo smeared as ‘bad to reprehensible’ by that technicality.

    Thank goodness that Jim is normally published by ROC.

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    • I do believe Ms. Gallo slandered all the puppy-nominated works as “bad-to-reprehensible,” in which case Jim Butcher is included by far more than a technicality. (I recall noticing that at the time as a sort of extra blot on Ms Gallo’s copy book)

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      • Indeed. Considering that Butcher is one of those rare authors you can throw random concepts at and he can make not just a story, but a series out of it, I hardly think he’s one to consider ‘bad to reprehensible.’

        Also The Martian was originally one of the works I recall being discussed as being worthy of a Hugo in Brad’s blog, and there was MUCH disappointment on finding out it wasn’t eligible. There’s the occasional mutter I’ve noticed that it ‘wasn’t included in the Puppy ballot.’

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        • There’s even a Butcher story vaguely related to the Puppies et al. Both Jim Butcher and Larry Corriea were on a panel about tech and magic in urban fantasy, An author named Maurice Broaddus described a scenario where his heroes were cornered, and the only tech they had was cell phones.

          And then Larry did it: he groans, out loud, “Tweetomancy”. The entire panel winces. . .and then Jim Butcher cast “Throw Red Solo Cup” at Larry. Reportedly, he made his saving throw, and it missed. . . (grin)

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          • *laughing* I remember Larry writing about that; and it was one of the reasons why Larry dibbed Jim Butcher in the Ice Bucket challenge.

            Still, it’s all kinds of awesome because from what it looks like, they became friends and Jim apparently has a short story (?) for an anthology of Monster Hunter universe stories…

            I’d kinda love to read a hilarious crossover, MHI and Dresden Files. Poor Harry. Poor, poor Harry.

            It’s the kind of scenario that I gather Butcher loves to see his favorite victim dumped headfirst into. (“…and watched it catch on fire.”)

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  9. How Tor could have handled the whole issue with no fuss, no conflict, and no publicity for the Puppies and Vox Day: “Congratulations to this year’s Hugo nominees.”

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