The Offer on Old Man’s War: A Ten-Year Retrospective

Today is a notable day in my personal history: Ten years ago today, I sold Old Man’s War to Tor Books.

People who have been following me for any amount of time know how this happened, but might not know the full story, and the newer folks might not know about it at all.  So here’s how it happened:

In 2001, I began writing a military science fiction book, the conceit of which was that the soldiers were old, but were given new lives in exchange for their service. I finished the book in October of 2001 and then sat on it for more than a year, mostly because the thought of whole tiresome process of submitting the book to agents and publishers filled me with ennui, and I couldn’t be bothered.

So instead I serialized it on Whatever in December of 2002. I had some precedent for this: in 1999, I took an earlier novel, Agent to the Stars (my “practice novel,” i.e., the novel I wrote to see if I could write a novel), and posted it on for people to read, and if they liked, to send me payment for. That had grossed me a couple of thousand bucks up to that time — a not inconsiderable sum in the days when people had to physically mail me a dollar — so I figured I could do it again. My plan was to serialize a chapter a day through December, and also offer the whole novel as a single document, so if someone was impatient, they could just send me $1.50 through that new-fangled PayPal, and read the whole thing at one time. Then after the serialization was done the book would sit on my site, and I would go on doing what I did at the time, which was writing for magazines and newspapers and putting out the occasional non-fiction book.

I finished the serialization on the 28th, and for the 29th, I wrote an essay on the experience of writing the novel, called “Lessons from Heinlein.” At the time I was a reader of Electrolite, the blog of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who was (and is) the senior editor of Tor Books, and I recalled him and his readers having a recent discussion of characters in science fiction. I thought he might find the essay interesting, so I pinged him about it. Here was the e-mail I sent him on the evening of December 28:

Hi, there. I’m John Scalzi, who writes the “Whatever” online column.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve serialized a science fiction novel I’ve written on my site. Having completed it, I’ve added an afterwards called “Lessons From Heinlein,” in which I discuss how RAH’s style of writing holds some important lessons for would-be writers, specifically relating to character development (I am an actual published author and science fiction writer, so I don’t feel too hinky about dispensing writing advice). The link is here: Some of the afterward necessarily relates to Old Man’s War, which is the novel I’ve serialized, but the comments about Heinlein are general enough in the matter of writing to be of interest even to those who have not read the novel.

Please note that this isn’t a backdoor attempt to get you to read the novel itself; had I wanted you to read it in your official capacity, I would have done the old-fashioned route of printing out the manuscript and shipping it off to your slush pile (being a former editor myself, I do appreciate when people follow submission guidelines). I simply thought the afterward might be in itself of interest to you and the Electrolite readership.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2003.

Less than 36 hours later, ten years ago today, I got this as a response (e-mail posted with Patrick’s permission):

It’s an interesting afterword, but it’s an even more interesting novel.  I read the whole thing last night; as the blurb cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down.

I understand being tired of the schlepping-to-agents-and-publishers thing, but would you be willing to entertain an offer for hard/soft publication of OLD MAN’S WAR?  I’m not talking about life-changing amounts of money, but this is exactly the kind of action-oriented-and-yet-not-stupid SF we never see enough of, and I’d like for Tor to publish it.

(If your first response is to point out that this or some other work by you has sat neglected in hardcopy our slushpile for $BIGNUMBER of months or years, I promise not to be surprised.)

Let me know if you’re open to this.

And, well. Yes. Yes I was.

I remember where I was when I read this e-mail, which as it happens is almost exactly where I am as I’m writing this: At my desk in my home office in Bradford, looking at a monitor, staring at the words there. It was morning (Patrick sent the e-mail at 8:22 am, which is not coincidentally the time I had this entry scheduled to publish on the site), and I was the only one up in the house; my sister and her family were visiting for the holidays and everyone was still crashed out. So there I was with some really big news, and no one awake to tell it to. Of course I told them, eventually, after they were all awake.

I date today as the anniversary of the sale of Old Man’s War, but Patrick has additional details:

I’m certain that I made the actual offer-in-detail on January 2, 2003, because that was the first day Tor’s offices were open after the holiday break, and I distinctly remember that the first thing I did on returning was go straight to Tom Doherty to enthuse about this terrific SF novel I’d found. I conveyed the actual offer to you in a phone call. But it makes just as much sense to date it from December 30, since my email of that date pretty clearly says I intend to make you a detailed offer if you confirm that you’re up for one.

(January 2, 2003 was, by coincidence, my 44th birthday–and I think most acquiring editors would agree that scoring a book that good makes a heck of a fine birthday present.)

This conforms to my memory of it as well. I held back until January 3, 2003 to tell people about it; Patrick followed up with a post on his own site. At the time, ten years ago, people selling books they originally published on their Web sites was still novel enough that neither Patrick nor I could come up with another example of it happening. When it did happen with me, there was a bit of conversation about it online. These days a blog-to-book conversion is less unusual, although at this point, with all the more direct ways to self-publish online and to get that work into the retail channel, putting a book on one’s blog first might seem a little roundabout. It’s a reminder that the world of 2002 and the world of 2012 are different places, publishing-wise.

I was asked then and am still asked whether I posted OMW on my site as a way to get around submitting into a slushpile. The answer now is the same as then: No, I posted OMW on my site because I didn’t want to deal with submitting the book. I fully expected the novel to live its life as part of my site, and maybe be a calling card to sell another novel somewhere down the line. The skeptical response to this is, yeah, but as soon as the whole thing was up you sent an e-mail to an editor at a science fiction publisher, so who are you trying to fool? My response to this would be, yes, but it was not about the novel itself, and I went out of my way to point out that I wasn’t attempting a backdoor submission. To which a further skeptical response would be, then why mention the novel at all?

At which point I will throw up my hands. After ten years I can admit that as I writing the e-mail to Patrick, yes, part of me was hoping that he might be intrigued enough to check out the novel itself, and that when he did and made an offer, one of the first thoughts to come to my head was, well, that worked out nicely. But honestly it wasn’t the intent. Having been an acquiring editor myself, I was well aware of how irritating it was to have someone try to get around the submission process because they think they’re special. I assumed Patrick wouldn’t look at the novel because if I were in his shoes, getting the same e-mail, I probably wouldn’t have. At the time, I knew Patrick hardly at all; I was a reader on his site and had commented there just enough that I felt okay sending him an e-mail. I had no idea at the time how he would respond to it. I know him better now, I will allow.

The original plan, as noted in Patrick’s first e-mail, was to have the book out sometime in late 2003, with paperback to follow. In fact the book came out January 1, 2005, so there was a two-year gap between when the book sold and when it hit the stores. At the time, this gap was frustrating; I was a newbie novelist, I wanted to be published now now now now. In retrospect, I think it was a very good thing. It gave people in science fiction time to get to know me, so that when Old Man’s War was published it seemed like I had been around longer than I had been — which worked, because when it was published some folks were surprised it was a debut novel. It also gave me time to grow Whatever; between December 2002 and January 2005, the readership of Whatever tripled, which was useful for a writer with a first novel. And the book benefited from certain intangibles — for example, it seems like in January 2005, just enough people were missing a particular flavor of Heinleinian/Campbellian science fiction that Old Man’s War offered to help the book take off like a shot.

The idea that waiting to publish to better position your work seems sort of heretical in these “do it now” days, but for me it paid off with benefits. It’s something to consider when you as an author (and especially a new/newer/newish author) are weighing the pros and cons of various publishing options and strategies.

Patrick making an offer on Old Man’s War quite literally changed my life, and almost entirely for the better. The eight novels I have written since are because of that offer and everything that’s resulted from it. I have worked on a television series and on a video game because people read and loved Old Man’s War. The book itself is in the (seemingly endless) process of being made into a movie. If actually becomes one, is likely to have interesting knock-on effects. I have sold hundred of thousands of books in 18 different languages, which have made hundreds of thousands of people happy (and a few unhappy; that’s life). Professionally, I have become who I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s amazing.

Personally — well. There are so many people who I have met because of Old Man’s War and everything that’s come from it that it’s hard to know where to begin with that. I think the best way that I can put it is that just before Patrick made an offer on Old Man’s War, I remarked to Krissy that I suspected I had by then met every person who would be important to me in my life. The thirty-three year old me was thankfully, laughably wrong. There have been so many people I have met in the last decade who are so much part of my life now that I can’t imagine it without them. People I like; people I love; people I wouldn’t want to have missed in this world, and gladly, did not have to.

So. Ten years ago today, my life changed. I thought it would be worth making note of the day.

Thank you, Patrick, for making an offer on the book. Thank you, Tor, for publishing it. Thank you all, for reading it.

Just thanks.

Now let’s see what happens in the next ten years.