About That Deal, Five Years On

Today is a red-letter day in my personal history, because five years ago (and also on a Sunday, calendars are weird), the New York Times announced that I had signed a 13-book deal with Tor books for $3.4 million, a deal notable for its length (we expected it to run for roughly a decade) and for the amount of money being splashed out. In the wake of the announcement was a week of congratulations for me (which I appreciated) and a whole lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about whether this deal was actually a good deal for me, or for Tor (which I found mostly amusing). We’re now halfway through the expected decade of the deal, so I figure now is as good a time as any to offer some thoughts on it and how it’s been for me, living with it in the real world.

First, how has the deal been working out? Well, so far, four books covered by the contract have been released: The Collapsing Empire, Head On, The Consuming Fire and this year’s book, The Last Emperox. Of the four, three were New York Times bestsellers and the one that wasn’t was nominated for the Hugo and won the Locus Award (there was an additional bestseller in there too: The Dispatcher, which showed up on the NYT’s inaugural Audio Fiction best seller list). In terms of the Interdependency series, the sales and bestseller rankings grew from the first of the books to the last. All the published books in the deal have been optioned for film/TV, and some of the currently unpublished ones have been, too. All the published books have sold in multiple languages.

This isn’t (just) luck. The deal was designed, in large part, to allow Tor and me the luxury of time to strategically build on the sales and the following I already had. One of the things I said to Tor when we were negotiating the deal is that I was perfectly happy to be known and to be labeled as a science fiction writer — I didn’t want to suddenly go “mainstream,” but I would be happy to be science fiction’s ambassador to the mainstream. Since the deal, that’s been the general thrust of our efforts; I write unapologetically science fictional books that non-genre readers might find approachable, and Tor’s magnificent marketing and PR people pitch me to the usual suspects in terms of press and readership — and then beyond that, too.

So yes, the deal has absolutely been working out so far. I have been the beneficiary of intentionality, and the agreement of the two primary parties to work strategically toward a goal, that goal being selling loads and loads of books to as many people as possible. To my credit, I’m writing accessible books that people (mostly) seem to like, and to Tor’s credit, they’ve been very active and creative in marketing and selling the books, and me. I can’t overstate the importance of the latter, and I saw it in action in the last few months, when my physical book tour had to be scrapped and Tor’s PR/Marketing folks built an online tour for me in a matter of days. I am in awe of and grateful for Tor’s publicity machine (and particularly Alexis Saarela, my direct PR person), and in return I try to hold up my end of the deal, not just in what and how I write, but in helping them promote me, and in supporting Tor and the other writers they have and promote. This is how the deal is supposed to work, and how things get done.

I’ve been asked if having a contract with so many books on it exposes me to pressure, as in Oh Jesus, I just finished another book and yet I still have nine more books that I have to write please release me from my prison of words. The short answer to this is, lol, no. I get to write for a decade (at least!) and don’t have to worry about whether what I’m writing will sell and if I’ll get paid for it. There are very few writers who would turn down that deal.

The slightly longer answer is: Hello, have you looked at the global economy at the moment, it’s in a shambles and it’s absolutely the freelancers and gig economy workers of the world — including the writers — who are going to take it on the chin. It might be years before things hit a new equilibrium. Many if not most of the writers I know are incredibly apprehensive about what this means for their ability to support themselves and their families through writing. And then here’s me, who all he has to do is — write. If I write, I get paid. Someone is contractually obliged to pay me a specified amount for every single book they’ve already agreed that they will take from me when I finish writing it. I have many problems with the state of the world today — oh boy, let me tell you about that — but getting paid isn’t one of them. That is an actual gift.

(Well, no, not an actual gift, since I still have to, you know, write the books in order to get paid. But I think you know what I mean.)

When I first talked about the deal five years ago, one of the things that I noted was that it gave me stability — rare for a writer in any era, and it feels even more rare in this one. Stability, as it turns out, is a huge boost to my productivity. This should not be a surprise — strange how when you don’t have to devote brain cycles to how you’re going to afford eating or keeping a roof over your head, you might have more cycles to commit to creativity — but when talking about a large, long contract, I think people tend to see the obligation it requires rather than the constancy it affords. For me, I don’t really see the obligation, because, you know, as a commercially-oriented author whose only job is writing, I’m obliged anyway. If I didn’t have this bigass contract, I would still have to write a book a year, more or less, plus a bunch of other things, or else I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. That obligation was already baked in to how I live my professional life.

What the contract did, again, was alleviate the anxiety of whether what I wrote would sell, or whether I would get paid for it (or more accurately, if I would get paid what I thought was reasonable). Now, being the lucky dick that I am, I will cheerfully note that selling work was never really a problem for me prior to the contract; my modus operandi was to say to Tor, “Hey, here’s a book, want it?” and they would say “Thank you, yes, that would be lovely.” But on the other hand, there is a three-year gap in my novel publishing schedule between 2008 and 2011, and it’s there for business reasons, not because I didn’t want to write novels in there. Yes, it’s weirdly coincident to the last major global economic downturn. Strange, that. Lesson: There are no guarantees in this business, even if you’re already a best selling award magnet. Unless you get that guarantee in the form of a contract.

That stability has business applications aside from money. For example, Tor has, for print and eBook, my entire back list of novels — fourteen so far, and (obviously) more to come. Having them all with the same house means we plan and strategize on how to use the back list to our advantage. So, for example, this April we did a one-day giveaway of The Collapsing Empire and a one-day $2.99 eBook sale of The Consuming Fire, directly ahead of the release of The Last Emperox. Tor can also do things like make the entire backlist readily available to bookstores when a new release comes out, so people who like the newest book have no problem finding older work, to the benefit of us and to bookstores. Book sales aren’t just about new books and bestseller lists — Old Man’s War is still my biggest seller, and it’s never been near a NYT list — and having stability and continuity in who is distributing the Scalzi library is a huge competitive advantage not every author gets to have.

Mind you, when the deal came out, there were a number of commentators who suggested that I had traded stability for the opportunity to make real money, since, depending on how one decided to slice it, an average of $261,000 per book or $340,000 per year, guaranteed, wasn’t all that much money; it wasn’t, really, what a bestselling, award-winning author should be making, now, was it?

(This is where actual authors, and actual bestselling authors, throw their heads back and laugh outrageously loudly, by the way.)

But these commentators are not entirely wrong. I mean, they’re wrong about $261k not being “real” money for a book, honestly, that’s just a ridiculous assertion in a world where the average advance for a science fiction novel from a “Big Five” publisher is something like $12.5k. But they’re not wrong that stability was as important to me as the price tag on the deal. And this was for a couple of reasons.

The first is: Look, unless you’re buying yachts and helicopters and trophy spouses and cocaine, or live in San Francisco, there comes a certain financial threshold where all your life needs and wants are taken care of and more money just becomes more money and not much more. What that number is for you depends on several factors, including where you live (see: San Francisco above), what your debts and owes are, how important being flashy with your money is, whether it’s really critical to you that your kids go to an Ivy-level school rather than Eastern Michigan University (or your state’s equivalent), where you vacation and (hopefully) how much you save for the day when you’re not making money anymore.

Turns out, for me, that number is somewhere around $200,000. At $200,000 all my bills and debts are paid, I’m able to invest and save and pay for my kid’s college, I get to buy whatever thing it is I want to buy (usually tech stuff and musical instruments), I can donate to charities and most of all I can just stop worrying about whether I can afford to live. More money after that? Great! Love it! I’m a capitalist! Into savings and investments it goes. But for me, the quality of my day-to-day life is not manifestly changed above $200k — a sum which in itself, incidentally, would still put me in the top ten percent of income earners in the United States.

What that realization means for me is that after a certain point, I had the luxury of looking at a book deal not just in terms of what the money was, but what else I was getting from it and what that would mean in the long term, financially and otherwise. It might not surprise you to know that before Tor made their offer, I was actively being scouted by other science fiction imprints, and had more than one lunch with editors and publishers where we talked about how I would fit into their house and plans. I think it’s not unreasonable for me to suggest that I could have gotten something like a seven-figure, three-book deal from another Big Five publisher, where the average advance per book would have been significantly higher than what I got from Tor.

But here’s the other reason stability was as important as the money: Because the tradeoffs matter. Is it better, for example, to go for a book deal that offers more money up front but has a shorter term, and represents a concrete break with your publishing past (this is the back list thing again), requires you to get used to a new publisher, editor, PR/Marketing team and so on, with the knowledge that if those three books underperform, for whatever metrics “underperform” represents, you’re out on the pavement again and everyone knows why? Or is it better to get possibly less per book up front than you might get elsewhere (but still more than enough, I mean, Jesus), work with people you know, like, and respect professionally, know — because it’s in the contract — that your books will be a priority on release, and if one or two (or more!) underperform, you have time and resources to adjust and compensate? For a decade, at least?

There is no wrong answer to this, incidentally — the answer is entirely about one’s own tolerance for risk and/or desire for the ability to do long-term planning and strategy. By this point, I think, my own answer is obvious.

And part of that, and because I’m not entirely immune to the charms of money, even when I have enough, is because here’s a thing I know: Money makes more money, and calls attention to itself — which is to say that the longer you’re making significant amounts of money, the easier it is to make significant amounts of money, and to be visible to the people who will give you money. When commentators looked at the deal as $261k per book or at the $340k per year figure, they were only seeing the money in a blunt and not very useful breakdown that was only about the money in the contract. What they didn’t see was what the attention a $3.4 million, decade-long, 13-book deal, could get me.

Which was, in this case: a separate deal for the audiobook rights, mirroring the Tor deal in length, with the result being that each book release is a priority for a second publisher (Audible, who is a delight to work with), meaning more publicity and marketing, also from exceptionally smart folks. More long-term deals from foreign publishers with more money attached. Increased interest from Hollywood, with option deals following. Paid speaking gigs and other business opportunities. Write ups and profiles and analysis in mainstream media, not just genre and trade publications. A raised profile that Tor and my other publishers can work with and use to increase interest in my work and grow sales, which makes the next round of publicity and marketing easier, raising my profile further — something we can do over and over and over, not just two or three times. And — this is important — increased interest in my back list, which generates sales and royalties between new releases.

Money makes money, or can, anyway. With this deal, at least, that has absolutely been the case. Krissy does not like for me to talk specific sums and I think she has a reasonable basis for this. I can say, without being overly specific, that with respect to the contract and all the knock-on deals and benefits that accrued because of it, and after (absolutely earned) agency and lawyer fees, we left that $3.4 million figure in the dust a while back. With luck, we’ll close out the contract having made a respectable multiple of that amount (Ifif I don’t mess up and write something unreadable, if the economy doesn’t crash so hard that people just stop reading, or at least, paying for books, if I don’t die of coronavirus or marauding bears, if I don’t become such a complete jerk that people can’t bear the sight of my name on a book, if a meteor doesn’t dinosaur us all, if, if, if). Please note that if I’ve already cleared that sum, my partners, Tor most of all, are doing pretty well with the arrangement too. Sometimes things work like they should.

So yes, I paid for stability. I’m happy to say it’s paying me back.

Perhaps the best thing I could say about this contract five years in is that if I had to do it over again, I can’t think of much that I would do differently. It created for me the ability to write the books I want to write, and apparently the books that people want to read. All while knowing that I have partners I can trust to sell the work, and me, to the world, over and over again. Again, this is a gift that not every writer gets to have. I’m immensely grateful for it, and I look forward to writing more books under this contract. Nine more, in fact. I can’t wait.

52 Comments on “About That Deal, Five Years On”

  1. Notes:

    1. I am aware that this post may come across as more than usually self-congratulatory. And, well, it is — I made a good deal and have been benefiting from that and it makes me feel smart that I pulled it off.

    2. I should note that I would not have the deal I have, or the many subsequent deals that have come from it, without the immensely knowledgeable and canny efforts of my agent Ethan Ellenberg. He’s earned his 15% and I’m delighted to let him take it off the top. Agents matter.

  2. You are a very lucky man, John. I appreciate you worked hard for it and earned it. I guess the old adage that you make your own luck is true. But yeah, you are certainly blessed, sir.

  3. Congratulations on your anniversary! And we got the gift: another insightful look at how the writing-and-publishing sausage is made. Here’s to nine more, indeed.

    I just received The Last Emperox from Jay and Mary’s, and tore (Tor?) right through it. Good stuff. I actually said “Wow” out loud at the revelation on page 220, and chuckled heartily at the (perfectly valid and thematically accurate) Return of the Jedi quote a bit later. Well played, sir.

  4. You deserve the congrats, dude. Even from yourself. One thing I love about your writing is that it’s evident that you’re trying your best at every aspect. Every character is a person. Granted, I will never forgive you for doing that thing you did, but I understand why you felt you had to do it.

    Keep at it, dude. I truly look forward to what you do next.

  5. Super useful perspective that I’m sending to some other writers. Thanks!

    John or anyone – do you know how the current Covid situation has affected paperback versus e versus audiobook sales?

  6. Hillary Rettig:

    No idea but if I had to guess I would imagine paperback is down and ebook is up, if only because for the last two months getting physical books was more difficult than usual.

  7. Seriously weird that people think you’re taking a pay cut because maybe you’d get higher advances with a different deal. They’re just advances against royalties earned. Either you’d get the money later anyway, during regular royalty payments, or you’d never earn out.

    As someone who fell well short of earning back his advances, I can say that’s not a great thing. A publisher can still make a profit from a book that hasn’t earned out, but it’s not a good look.

    Unless, I guess, this contract has basket accounting. John, is that the case? (I’m guessing not.)

  8. Your repeated comparisons for cost of living re: San Francisco has now convinced me (not really) that you are secretly collaborating with Christopher Moore on a new book. One can dream.

    Other than that nonsense congratulations on reaching a landmark, but since it’s halfway to the ten years and you’ve “only” got four novels out does that mean you have to push out nine more in the next five years or do other lengths (ie-The Dispatcher) also apply to the contract?

  9. Harryjconnolly:

    The books are in baskets of 3-3-3-3-1, with the upcoming OMW book being the odd book out. I am not hugely concerned at this point about not earning out these particular baskets.


    The ten years was a guideline more than a rule. This particular contract will probably extend beyond 2026 at this point. And The Dispatcher is not covered in this contract (it originated at Audible).

  10. Thanks you, John. I deeply appreciate and have learned a lot about the book business from this and other essays you have written. The contract was a good deal all around, so yay!

  11. I wonder, given how successful this appears to be for both you and Tor, how many (if any) similar long-range deals are either in place or in the making between SF publishers and writers. I haven’t heard of any, though that’s not necessarily indicative given that writing is not my profession and I don’t spend a lot of time researching the field. It just seems that as positive and profitable this deal has been for both parties, one would think that other publishers and other writers in F/SF would be eager to emulate it.

    Of course, the basic requirements are somewhat restrictive, I realize. There probably is not a plethora of well-funded genre publishing houses with the willingness to enter into that kind of an arrangement. And while there are many, many, MANY excellent SF writers in the world, it seems logical to conclude that not all of them are comfortable taking on that kind of a long-term commitment, nor might some of them be willing or able to fulfill all the requirements.

    But it really does seem short-sighted in a way that there aren’t more long-term deals like that around. It makes me sad to think about how much more great science fiction might be out in the world if more writers could devote their cerebral functioning entirely to their craft, instead of trying to fit it in around worry about paying the rent or the doctor bill.

    Glad it is working well for you, sir. And please do not get eaten by bears.

  12. Your experience is a good argument for a Universal Basic Income.

    *Stands back*

  13. Thanks, John. A quite interesting perspective, and although you’ve got $3.4M (probably a lot more) in the bank, you don’t seem like an entitled asshole. Congratulations.

    The thing that that really impresses me about this post (and many others on Whatever) is your sense of transparency. Many organizations, including governments, could take a lesson on that from you.

  14. Congratulations. It is nice to have financial security and that it is working out. The millions sound shocking, but when you brake it down by year, it is nice but not outrageous. You do seem to enjoy the pressure. Do you have titles or hints about the next books?

  15. This was fascinating to read, thanks for taking the time to explain in simple terms the advantages to the contract you signed. Have to be honest, the best line was the last line… hearing that you are looking forward to writing 9 more novels made me do a happy dance!

  16. Congratulations Scalzi,
    meanwhile, as for Bathymeseus and the comment about basic universal income: It is an idea whose time is fast approaching.
    Despite all the weeping, the U.S. economy is “more productive” than ever before. Seriously. The “more money” has to circulate somewhere, right? It won’t trickle down by magic. Bill Gates was not joking when he proposed we tax the factory robots.

    Yes, robots can be a good thing for humanity.

    The b.u.i. would go equally to everyone, very-rich and poor alike: no income requirement means no stigma to receive.

    They already have a universal payment in Alaska, but I have never lived there, so I guess I shouldn’t talk about it.

  17. First, congratulations, John! What an amazing milestone.

    There are very few writers who would turn down that deal.

    I…want to question this? Not everyone prioritizes stability (even now) or wants to get their stability (if it is a priority) from writing. I am in the lucky position of getting my financial stability from my *husband’s* job. I actually remember, when I heard about your deal five years ago, turning to my husband and saying, “If they offered that to me, I would turn it flat down because that sounds like my idea of hell.” I admit it’s only been six and a half books for me now, but it would *still* be hell for me, and I still wouldn’t take it unless I had no other option; I would take a basic admin assistant day job over the equivalentt deal because it would be so bad for me, whereas a basic admin assistant day job is something I can survive and that will give me a minimum of income. I want different things out of my life and my writing (e.g. the freedom to hypothetically take a five-year break to pursue watercolors/cartooning/animation). I suspect I’m not the only writer who would find a deal similar to yours actively deleterious to their work. It’s still an excellent deal, it’s just not an excellent deal that is right for every writer?

  18. Yoon Ha Lee:

    Oh, sure. It could be a) you’re one of the few, or b) I’m just wrong. My own point of view is informed by being a full-time writer who neither wants to do anything else professionally other than write, nor (bluntly) has many other salable skills at this point.

  19. John –

    You’re underselling yourself. Given your massive online presence and number of followers, if your writing career ever goes south, you could be a burrito commentator on Food Network.

  20. “…you could be a burrito commentator on Food Network.”

    “John Scalzi Presents: Hateful Burritos”

    In two months there’d be enough new hate mail to revise and re-issue “Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded.” ;-)

    (Yeah, I stand with W.W.)

  21. Well deserved. Reading your books lets me escape reality for a few hours, which is needed more than ever in recent times.

    But I am forced to ask once again – whence can we expect 101 Uses for a Spare Goat?

  22. I’ve just discovered your musings here (rather, I was led here by your comments in “The Human Division) and am enjoyably reading your rambles. Belated congratulations on your deal. I agree that once one has enough money to pay for one’s lifestyle, the rest is just “nice to have.” A cushion against an unknown disaster is never a bad thing. It’s good to see that not everyone has to accumulate for the sake of self aggrandizement. Enjoy!

  23. Thanks for the insight into the thought process you went through and the benefits you see in the deal you took
    The “an average of $261,000 per book or $340,000 per year, guaranteed, wasn’t all that much money; it wasn’t, really, what a bestselling, award-winning author should be making, now, was it?”
    is a level of ignorance about author incomes that is absolutely cringeworthy.
    (I’m not claiming any huge insights but I’ve read enough comments from various best selling authors to know that a lot of them would be dancing in the streets if they got even half of that)

  24. I am looking forward to the next nine, John. (And it’s been funny. People I wouldn’t expect to be reading science fiction approach me and ask if I’ve read your books. And I say, “Oh, yeah, Scalzi’s awesome, and just as great in person. Let me tell you about the first time I met him…”)

  25. Well done, John!

    There is nothing quite as wonderful as getting paid handsomely for doing what you love to do.

    Congratulations on your success thus far; I wish you continued success and security going forward. 😊

  26. What’s occurring to me is that your circumstances – the luck you made for yourself, if you will, by dint of preparation – had a great deal to do with the Whatever. Not only the near-daily blogging – without pay, obviously, but of value in itself – since the late ’90s, but the posting of Old Man’s War and how it led Patrick Nielsen Hayden to offer you that first contract. The opportunity for another writer, with or without your nonfiction writing background, to follow the same path to the same rewards probably didn’t exist outside the few years during which that occurred. (Plus, you were able to sell books excerpted from the blog! How cool is that?)

    What I mean to say is that I hope the Whatever continues proudly; in my opinion it’s at least as representative of your career as your fiction is, irrespective of what it is that Tor pays you for.

  27. Wasn’t your last dog the one with the anti-bear laser? Do they make them lasers in cat size now?

  28. The most common deal for writers is an advance of about 10,000 $ and a share of the royalties after the advance, the agent’s commission and other costs have been deducted from that. The majority of the traditionally published writers have to get by with 2,000 $/month. That is: those few who were lucky enough to interest an agent for their work. There can every year only be one winner for all those prestigious prizes that are handed out every year.

  29. I thought that 13 books in 10 years would mean at least 1 book a year, but you’ve published 4 books in 5 years. Was this the plan or there are some delays? And what should we expect for the future, are there years with 2 books? Thanks!

  30. I am able to live comfortably in San Francisco on far less than $340k per annum, thank you very much. Granted, I don’t have children, a spouse, or a mortgage, but still. You deserve every penny you are paid for your work and I hope you and your family enjoy it as much as I enjoy reading your stories.

  31. Fascinating read. I am trying hard not to be envious (which is a me problen, not a you problem of course). Am also a creative type, albeit in a different medium, and I was thinking to myself: Would I take this offer if I had to relesse 13 albums over that time period? Yes, yes I would, I would jump at the chance, and probably do it for much less.

    All that to say congratulations, and I like reading your books.

  32. This is a great post, because it educates writers on what COULD happen if the planets align at just the right moment for them.

    Reality can really suck for writers. But there are times when the dream does come true. The wonderful thing about being a professional writer is while the pay may be awful, the job is wonderful.

  33. Thank you for sharing your story!
    I personally think that creative writers are still deserve better. Book business is changing but not as quick as it should be.

  34. As a huge fan of police procedurals, but normally less so of science fiction, I’d be thrilled if a number of the remaining contracted books were part of the Lock In ongoing series. Is there any reason to limit the number of books in this series?

    Congrats on your continued achievements in your field, John.

  35. Please permit me a little perspective on at least one of John’s numbers: $261K/book.

    I realize that writers don’t work regular hours, but a “standard work year” is 2000 of them—40 hours a week x 50 weeks. If it takes a year to write a book, that would be an hourly rate of $130 and change.

    Sounds high? Obviously it is, compared to many wage earners—but it’s at the low end compared to, say, attorneys. It’s about what a good therapist might charge—or what your car dealership charges for service, although obviously the folks actually turning wrenches don’t get nearly so much of it. Hell, depending on where you live, it’s what a _plumber_ would charge.

    Not that you can necessarily _get_ a plumber right now. I’ve had to travel out of state to do some needed plumbing repairs on a house we own, and count myself unbelievably lucky that (a) I can travel, and (b) happen to have the tools, and basic skills, to do the job myself. With travel expense, it’s costing me way more than $130 for each hour I’ve spent actually yanking on a pipe wrench. I’d have happily—OK, grudgingly, but still accepting the necessity—paid $130/hour if I could have found someone local to do the job for me.

    Apres-moi, le deluge…

  36. I made a similar trade-off long ago, working for a Large Tech Company, which has worked out quite nicely for me. Sure, at any point I could have done the startup lottery and *maybe* it would have worked out an order or magnitude (or three!) better for me, but that would have been just more money. (And it might have sent me down career paths which are not where my interests and ambitions lie.)

    And the stability over the last mumblemumble years has been very nice, especially when I’ve heard to deal with other upheavals in life.

  37. Having gotten my first degree from this institution, I thoroughly support the use of EMU as the definition of “setting the bar low” for college education.

  38. Stability is good, especially now. Stay safe and keep writing John!

  39. I’m reminded of the quote “You have to ask yourself, would you rather be Jim Morrison or Van Morrison? There’s no wrong answer.” You picked Van Morrision, the same way I would have.