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 All the published books in the deal have been optioned for film/TV, and some of the currently unpublished ones have been, too.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 (If — if 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.