View From a Hotel Window, 5/26/15 + Thoughts on the Deal Money

Here I am, back in New York City, where I will be interviewing Cixin Liu tomorrow night and working BEA on Thursday (details here). I kinda love this town, although the view from my hotel window is not exactly classic this time, except in a Rear Window sort of way, I suppose. But who cares! New York! The city that never sleeps! Etc! And then off to North Carolina, where I will be at ConCarolinas. Busy week.

On a separate matter entirely, I’ve naturally been watching with interest the various reactions to the book deal. The vast majority of responses have been along the lines of “Dude! Congratulations!” which is, of course, immensely appreciated. Thank you. It’s been a surreal few days. Good, but surreal.

Beyond that, there is of course a lot of chatter about the financial particulars of the deal, because when you throw words like “millions” about, people are naturally going to pick things apart. And interestingly enough, there’s been some criticism of the deal, which comes substantially in two flavors:

1. When you divide the $3.4 million across ten years and thirteen books, it apparently doesn’t seem like a lot to some folks — “just” $340,000 a year or $261,000 per book, and that’s before agent fees and taxes and tithes to the SJW cabal, etc.;

2. A major author should be making more, which means (depending on your feelings toward me, I suppose) either I should be making more, or I’m not a major author. Also, that I could make more if I would just [insert the thing you think I should do], instead of what I am doing.

So, some thoughts.

First, a lot of the conversation I see about the deal is predicated on the idea that $3.4M/$340K per year/$261k per book is the total sum of money regarding the earning potential of the books. It’s more accurate to say that it’s the floor — in other words, the guaranteed minimum sum I will get. Some of what else is possible:

a) Royalties, if/when the books earn out their advance;
b) Audio rights, which will be a separate deal;
c) Foreign language rights, also separate deals;
d) Film/TV rights, again separate deals (also, fairly rare, so don’t count on these);
e) Other various subrights.

As an example, take Old Man’s War, which I sold to Tor for an advance of $6,500. By the thinking above, $6,500 would have been the sum total I would have been paid for it. In fact, the sum total I’ve made from the novel — so far — is literally orders of magnitude higher. That comes from royalties, the movie/TV deals, and the foreign sales (OMW is now in something like two dozen languages).

To be clear, one cannot assume that any of these additional revenue streams will happen (the ancillary rights are more likely to happen if you have a good agent, which I do. But even then it’s still not always a sure thing). But if and when they do happen, they are added to the base sum. So in the case of this deal (and indeed, most book deals you might hear about), the numbers announced are the starting point, not the end point.

Bear in mind also that this deal is added to everything else that I have going on, revenue-wise, which includes a decade’s worth of previous novels (all still in print and generating sales and royalties) and other writing. So, again, when you’re looking at the deal, think of it as a starting point. A lot goes on from there.

Second, note that the goal of the deal was not only money. Don’t get me wrong, daddy wants to be paid. But to be blunt, if all I wanted out of the deal was fat stacks of cash, I could have probably gotten more up front on a per book basis (although probably not across thirteen books). At this point I have the sales and presence that would make that possible.

But my goal wasn’t just a lot of money; my goal was a partnership to sell books, lots of them, over time, and to support several ancillary income streams, some of which are noted above. I know my career pretty well, and I know the dynamics of how my books sell, and to whom — and I know pretty well what I’ll need to do to expand the career from here. It’s a long-term project, and I need a partner committed to working that long-term project with me. Money is good, money is nice, money pays the mortgage. But, per above, my money isn’t made all up front; in fact, most of my money isn’t made up front. This deal is about two partners knowing how to structure a plan that builds for the both of them, leveraging established strengths in each camp, over time.

To be clear, the money involved ain’t exactly chump change. It’s enough to motivate me to be creative and crafty and make books that should sell like the proverbial hotcakes, and it’s enough that if Tor can’t manage to build on my sales base, it’s gonna take a hit. We’re both amply motivated. But we also have the luxury — a kind of unheard of luxury, honestly — to take a long view and to do things that we might not otherwise be able to do without the timeframe we’re working in. That’s the deal I wanted, and that Tor wanted too. That’s the deal we made.

(This is why, incidentally, the comments of “Scalzi should do/should have done [x]” mostly fill me with amusement. You do [x], my friend, and I wish all the success in the world to you as you do it. But if I’m not doing [x], there’s probably a good reason for it, in terms of what I want for my own career. You do you; I’m gonna do me.)

Third, gotta be honest: I think what I’m going to get paid up front for each book is enough, you know? If it turns out we underestimated sales, the good news is that royalties kick in and I’ll get paid, so that’s good. And if we overestimated? Then I’ll still have done just fine. I’m not supporting a $30k-a-month cocaine jones over here. I’m not going to trade in the Scalzi Compound for an estate in Malibu. And I look at super-sweet sports cars and go, meh, I like my Mini. I mean, I appreciate people thinking I should get more. Thanks, guys. But seriously, ten years ago I was getting $6,500 advances for novels, and now I’m going to average 40 times that. For ten years. Guaranteed. I think it’s okay to be happy with that.

So, that a little more nuts-and-bolts about the finances of the deal. Hope it clarifies some things.

The Big Idea: Greg Keyes

How many worlds must a people travel before they are at peace with themselves? Greg Keyes asked himself this question while writing Footsteps in the Sky, and the answer takes us back to our world, and his studies in graduate school.

GREG KEYES:

Once, at a book fair in Belgium, I was asked what purpose science fiction and fantasy should serve. Put on the spot, I somewhat glibly replied that science fiction helps us imagine the future, and fantasy helps us decide what is relevant to bring with us from the past. By that (flawed) definition, Footsteps in the Sky is fantasy, because the central questions are how, why, and in what form belief is transmitted through and affected by time, technology, and social change.

When I wrote Footsteps, I was a graduate student in Anthropology, and I was writing a thesis detailing the change in belief and mythology of the native peoples of the Southeastern U.S.—the peoples now known and Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee—over a nearly 500-year span. The first century of that period saw an enormous demographic and social collapse due to the introduction of European diseases, followed by centuries of natives being victims of and participants in slaving, warfare, and a trade system that left them dependent on European powers for weapons and other commodities. Eventually, most were removed from their homelands entirely. A few tribes—such as the Apalachee—were exterminated.

Not surprisingly, their belief systems underwent a significant amount of restructuring over the centuries. For instance, they stopped telling stories about hereditary elites being descended from the gods, because hereditary elites were long gone. Yet certain elements of belief remained consistent for a very long time, even in the face of considerable social stress. The stories of their ancestors weren’t so much abandoned as adapted to changing circumstances.

That’s part one of what was happening in my life when I wrote Footsteps. Part two is that I was also involved in a Choctaw game called kapucha toli, a relative of lacrosse. I played on a Choctaw team, but I also started a club at the University of Georgia, which in turn brought me into the world of the Pow Wow festivals where we were often asked to play exhibition games. In that subculture, there existed a good bit of tension between people who were unquestionably Native Americans—genetically and culturally—and those who were seen as “playing Indian” or Wannabees. The latter of which, my team, the Flying Rats, was often seen as belonging to. To curb this perception, we added “Naholo” to our team name, which is the Choctaw word for a white person. We wanted to be clear that we just wanted to play the sport.

Others, however, were trying to do much more. I met and associated with certain people who were desperately trying to “rediscover” their lost heritage or “recreate” a pre-European religion and way of life.

Here, my academic studies and my personal experiences collided, and from that pileup emerged my Big Idea. I thought there was a story there, about a group of people who manage to isolate themselves on a remote planet so they can return to a past way of life. I imagined that at least some of the grandchildren of those people would be pretty pissed off at being stuck on a barely habitable rock because of their ancestors’ good intentions.

I tried using the Choctaw first, since it was that culture and those beliefs I was most intimate with.  It was probably for that reason that I couldn’t make it work. I was too close to it, and I just couldn’t see my way in. Another problem was that returning to pre-Columbian way of life for the natives of the Southeast would mean reverting to powerful chiefdoms ruled by divine elites. This sort of culture would probably not be the best fit for a story about terraforming.

And then I remembered the Hopi.

When I was a child, my father took a job in the Navajo Nation, so at an early age I became fascinated with southwestern cultures. The Hopi, in particular, with their baroque pantheon of gods and spirits, captivated me. It dawned on me that the Hopi were perfect for what I had in mind because they believe that they have already lived on four different worlds.

In the First World, they weren’t human, but rather insect-like creatures who quarreled a lot. The creator realized he had botched the job in making them, so he sent Spider Woman to lead them to the Second World. On the journey, they transformed into creatures with fur, webbed fingers, and tails. Things went well for a while, but they began to fight again, and the creator saw they still didn’t have an understanding of how to live properly.

So he made a third world, and on the journey there, the creatures became human. They built villages, farmed corn, and at first had good lives. But some of these people became sorcerers and two-hearts, and eventually corruption and evil became overwhelming. Once again, the people began to look for a place to start over. They found refuge in the Fourth World, ruled by Masaw, the god of death. It was a cold, hard place that they would have to work at to make livable, but they set themselves to the task because they wanted to live proper lives.

So here was a story that had transformation built into it already, which, in essence, harmonized with the narrative of persistence, change, invention, and adaptation I wanted to tell. Better yet, according to some Hopi authorities, they are destined to one day move to a Fifth World when this one becomes too corrupt. I imagined a future in which only shreds of pueblo culture remained; one in which some group of people who consider themselves to be the rightful inheritors of that culture take the opportunity to put it back together and begin again.

But just as in the first four worlds, things don’t go smoothly or according to plan.

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Footsteps in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s