Reader Request Week 2023 #5: That Big Damn Contract, Revisited

John Scalzi

Will Glass wants to know:

How’s the Big Damn Contract going? Hard to believe it’s been 8 years.

Not that any of this is our business of course, but since you’ve talked about it a fair amount, your avid readers are curious.

Are you satisfied with the deal you got? From Tor’s perspective are they satisfied with what they are getting? How is the schedule for the 13 books?

I can’t imagine anyone here doesn’t know what Will is talking about, but just to be safe: In May of 2015, I signed a 13-book, $3.4 million dollar contract with Tor. We noted at the time that we expected the contract to last for about a decade; eight years on, it looks like we underestimated the length of time it would take to fulfill that contract. Starter Villain, out in September, will be the sixth book in the contract, after the three Interdependency books, Head On, and The Kaiju Preservation Society. That’s six books in eight years, with one year skipped at the beginning of the contract to help plan a push for The Collapsing Empire, the first book covered by it, and then 2021 skipped because COVID messed with book publishing and Tor thought — correctly! — that Kaiju would have a better chance in early 2022.

Of those five books published so far under the Big Damn Contract, four were New York Times bestsellers and all were bestsellers on other charts, three (Empire, Last Emperox, Kaiju) have been nominated for awards, with Empire winning the Locus and Emperox winning the Dragon, and the Interdependency series as a whole nominated for Best Series at the Hugo Awards. All of them, either individually or as part of a series, have been optioned for film or television. All of them are also sold into multiple languages, including Starter Villain, which isn’t out yet. It’s too early to know how Villain will do, but so far early signs have been encouraging.

Financially, because of all of the above plus backlist sales of previous titles, since 2015, and counting all my sources of income related to publishing, I’ve already earned to this point a multiple of the baseline figure quoted above. Be assured that Tor has done the same, just on the sales of the books in the contract; here at Scalzi HQ we’ve run the numbers. In short, everyone is already ahead on this deal and will continue to be so as we go through the remainder of it.

Which is great! It’s nice when things are working more or less the way they should. It should be noted that none of this comes as much of a surprise to me, because one of the great advantages of this deal is the flexibility it allows us to work with every part of my catalogue to maximize sales and, thus, income for both me and Tor. All of my novels are with one house, which means we never have to worry, for example, if that one novel that pairs really well with a novel that’s coming out is available to us to put on sale to prime the interest pump. It absolutely is, and we have a bunch of options open to us. It’s fantastic to be able to do whatever we need to, in order to stay on the reader radar.

The flexibility also applies to upcoming work. I’ve swapped out titles on the contract (most famously when the book I was working on in 2020 crashed and burned and I switched over to writing Kaiju instead), and we have the ability to move things around on the fly. Kaiju did great, so I wrote another book with that same kind of vibe to ride the wave it created. The contract has three YA books included in it but the YA market has cooled since 2015, so if we decide we want to swap some or all of those with general titles, we can do that. If something that’s been optioned for film/TV goes into production, we can work to have another book in the series ready for when the adaptation hits screens. It’s all baked in.

(And also, Tor has generally been great as a partner. I like the people and we work well together, and they’ve given me the support on both the editorial and marketing fronts that my books have needed to do well. Have they been perfect? No, but neither have I — see the thing up there about blowing up my 2020 novel. But that’s the other thing about having a Big Damn Contract: We both have time to course correct when we have to.)

If I had to do it over again, would I still sign up for the Big Damn Contract? I think so, yes. Eight years on, Tor’s place in the publishing universe is still very solid and possibly better than it was when I signed on; bookstores, both indie and chain, are generally doing better than they were eight years ago, and the wisdom of the deal both for me and Tor is at this point self-evident. There are still people who probably think I could have made more self-publishing and/or bumping up from book-to-book, but a) I know myself well enough to know I don’t want to self-publish unless there is no other option, b) there are no guarantees in publishing and it’s just as likely my advances might go down rather than up. Also, c) at least for me, at some point you say “that’s enough money for now.” I’m at “enough money for now,” and the rest can come in when it comes in, if it comes in at all. There are far more benefits to this contract than just the upfront money.

So, yes! It’s doing great, thanks for asking. And there are more books to come.

— JS

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Leave in the comment thread at this link.)

29 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2023 #5: That Big Damn Contract, Revisited”

  1. Fantastic! Thanks for the candid description of your book deal. Fascinating to learn the inner workings of the deal and all of the benefits it has bestowed upon you and your family.

  2. Loved the question and I appreciate you answering it for us fans.

    That’s so interesting how you have that flexibility with Tor to “swap” around books. As I understand a general book can become a YA book or vice versa. Their marketing folks must love this so you can as a team hit the iron when its hot, if something takes off for example.

    Gosh, I would love any of your works to move forwards in the visual space (theatrical movies, streaming as movie or series, …). I’ll spare you my favorites that I’d like to see first.

    Lastly, it’s so nice to read that you and Tor work well together. I know it’s a hard space to work in. But it’s also great that there are good stories out there.

    Glad you and your family are doing well. With that stress out of the way it must be so much nicer to focus on your work.

    Take care and enjoy.

  3. So cool to hear the details. I hadn’t been keeping track of the count since the original announcement, but I have to admit it makes me happy to know that there are more Scalzi books on tap. And I’m excited to see which of your options “takes” and makes it to a screen somewhere – big or small.

  4. I remember you talking about the big damn contract at ConCarolinas. I think it was the first public speaking about it and it was quite funny. I just remember really happy for you. I hated having fun people at the convention and never getting to spend time with them.

  5. I’m glad that this is working out well for you and Tor. It’s also good for your readers, I suspect.

    This is as good a place for me to mention my appreciation for the ways you support other writers, which is good for you, other writers, and the general ecosystem.

  6. Good for you — hope everything keeps on keeping on.

    Regarding your “enough money for now”…I read an anecdote about Joseph Heller (the author of Catch-22) at a fancy NYC cocktail party. He was with a small group in the party, drinks in hand, when one of the Masters of the Universe started on about how he had just bought a chateau in France, the problems he was having in renovating it dealing with the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, how it was taking so much time away from his other vacation homes in Aspen and the Hamptons, etc. The MotU walked away after a bit and Heller said “He’s sure got a lot of stuff. But I have something he’ll never have.” One of the others in the group asked Heller what that was. Heller replied “Enough. I have enough”.

    I’m like Heller. I don’t have anywhere near what those making $100M a year or so have, but I have enough — and that’s enough for me.

  7. As FL Transplant said, it is good to realize that you have enough.

    John, there is a problem with your contract, you need to write faster so I can get more of your books to read!

  8. I am really impressed with your writing 6 GOOD books in 8 years. I love your writing, and look forward to reading all your new and upcoming books.

  9. I appreciate the transparency which I think is both rare and healthy, but I’m intrigued by the mention of potential YA books.

    Former Young Adult here, but still love JYA & YA fiction. I grew up on Heinlein’s juveniles of which The Rolling Stones is a faraway favorite, others that come to mind are Lester Del Rey’s ‘The Runaway Robot’ and John Christopher’s ‘The White Mountains’ et al. These days I think of YA authors as Tamora Pierce, Garth Nix, and She Who Must Not Be Named. I’d love to see you come up with.

  10. Have you thought of taking one of your ‘regular’ book ideas and turning it into a YA? Or do you have enough YA concepts on tap to go forth if/when one blooms?

    (I assume there’s more to doing a YA than simply making the characters younger…)

  11. Huh, have you talked about that 2020 book on Whatever before? I don’t know if you can talk about it but it would be interesting to know what went wrong, especially since this partnership seems so successful otherwise.

  12. The Big Damn Contract and the fallout from the blown up 2020 novel resulted in just the right book at just the right time for me. Kaiju helped preserve my sanity when my wife underwent an all-day surgery for kidney cancer on March 18, 2023.

    She’s cancer-free now, and the book is due for a reread.

  13. @Jade, I don’t recall if it was discussed here on Whatever, but it’s discussed in the epilogue of Kaiju.

  14. I haven’t seen a lot of announcements like this Big Contract from Tor. Some quick searching showed a 4 book deal for Sanderson and Tor in 2009 for $2.5M but I haven’t seen much since. it was only 5 minutes of Google searching so I may very well be missing things. I wonder if it is a result of fewer contracts like this being handed out of few people being as open Sanderson and Scalzi.

  15. @Nortally: Loved the John Christopher reference. I think my first direct exposure to print SF was Blish’s Trek adaptations, but outside of ST, my first novels were in The White Mountains series and my first short stories were Ben Bova’s. . . . .

  16. Out of curiosity, John, do you think it likely you’ll ever revisit that 2020 book that got dropped in favor of Kaiju (or perhaps the Big Idea that sparked it) since your working environment has changed (not being in the middle of a pandemic)? Is it “only MOSTLY dead” or is it “go through its clothes looking for loose change” dead?

  17. Thank you for sharing this. It’s really interesting, especially how powerful that flexibility is in oublishing!

    I’m really curious: how did you (collectively) end up with a contract for 13 books? That seems like an oddly specific number. Why not 10 or 12?

  18. I liked your sentence that bookstores are doing better that eight years ago, because back then I was a little worried about the fate of shelf books that weren’t at amazon.

  19. We don’t have a tenth of what you have, but yeah, it’s enough.
    Enjoy what you have and don’t lose the appreciation for what you’ve got.

  20. RobMac:

    13 because that was the number of book ideas I came into the meeting with (10 adult books, 10 YA books). They bought them all.

    Jesse H:

    Both VE Schwab and Leigh Bardugo have similar multi-book, multimillion dollar contracts (Leigh’s one, announced recently, is rather larger than mine). So they’re out there.

  21. @ Kara, I’ve read and re-read both ‘The Last Colony’ and ‘Zoe’s Tale.’

    My thought is, for an idea that isn’t working, maybe could do what John did there and look at events from a totally different perspective.

  22. From my perspective as a reader, your virtue as an author is consistency – I have liked all of your books and look forward to the next one. I can see why your publisher thinks a long term contract is worthwhile.

  23. Thanks for this! It’s all fascinating. I appreciate the details, and I’m very glad to know you and Tor are happy working with each other.

    You wrote, “The contract has three YA books included in it but the YA market has cooled since 2015, so if we decide we want to swap some or all of those with general titles, we can do that.” How does that work? Does your agent write up a one-paragraph contract modification? I’m guessing you don’t just shake hands on the deal.

  24. The trick with wealth, I assume, is to keep from becoming a slave to one’s possessions. I’m not wealthy, but still I have more things than I have room for in my house. A very mixed blessing.

    The books alone are crowding me.

  25. The “I have what he’ll never have,…enough” sentiment is also in the movie Key Largo. (Bogie, Bacall, Edward G Robinson)

    Which reminds me: If you make Kiva Lagos the protagonist of the YA novels, Tor would probably agree to make them non-YA.

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