A few weeks ago I wrote a short item about Tor Books planning to focus more closely around commercial sales trends and principles, meaning they'd likely require stronger commercial potential in books they accept from now on.
So what exactly does this mean? And is one of the science fiction and fantasy genre's most influential and important publishers actually changing course on what they publish?
For those not familiar with Tor, the publisher is a long-time SF/F imprint of Tom Doherty Associates. Founded by Tom Doherty in 1980, Tor is today owned by Macmillan Publishers.
The last few years have seen a number of changes at Tor. In early 2016 influential editor David Hartwell unexpectedly passed away. Later that year Tor veteran Patrick Nielsen Hayden was named associate publisher of Tor at the same time that Devi Pillai, who previously led the US division of Orbit, was brought in and also named associate publisher.
Then in March of this year Doherty announced restructuring and leadership changes at both Tom Doherty Associates and Tor. Fritz Foy, formerly publisher of Tor.com, became president and publisher of Tom Doherty Associates, succeeding Doherty. Pillai was named vice president and publisher of Tor while Nielsen Hayden was named vice president and editor-in-chief of Tor.
Some of these personnel changes can be attributed to the need for Tor to promote new leadership after Doherty's decision to step down from leading the company. But I suspect another reason for the changes is Tor wants to build for the future and ensure they maintain their position as the leading English-language SF/F publisher.
Tor is facing increased pressure from other publishers along with non-traditional publishing outlets such as Amazon. In addition, over the last decade Tor published a decent number of titles which sold rather poorly compared to their other titles. Other publishers such as Orbit, where Pillai formerly worked, have generally focused to a greater degree than Tor did in the past on ensuring their books have commercial potential.
Now, though, this is changing. In Pillai's role as Tor's publisher she appears to be wanting editors to present more detailed cases for the books they pitch. Gone are the days when an editor's reputation alone might result in both a book's acceptance and/or large advances.
As one editor at another publisher told me, "The business model at Orbit was probably a bit more cutthroat than it is with Tor, in some ways. Devi is well positioned to leverage Tor’s resources to publish books with a bit more focus on each individual title." (Note: This editor, like others I spoke to while researching this analysis, requested to remain anonymous.)
One downside to this change in approach is that books which fail to present a solid commercial upside may no longer be accepted by Tor. I spoke to one author who recently experienced this. A Tor editor loved the author's book, but the acquisition board didn't believe the book had enough commercial potential. The editor told the author that in previous years they could have pushed Tor to accept the book based on the editor's reputation, but that couldn't happen now.
But all that said, this may not be as big a change as it sounds.
A long-serving editor at Tor told me that in all the time they’ve been with the publisher that “editors who wanted to acquire something have almost always had to do a P&L (profit and loss statement) and make a case that it'll be profitable. And this has always been coupled with the understanding that sometimes we're going to publish books that will probably struggle to be profitable, for reasons ranging from ‘we think this author with a tiny audience is going to find a really big one someday,’ to ‘publishing this book will make the world a better place so we're bloody well going to do it,’ to ‘this book is so awesome that we're simply going to publish it, period the end.’ Publishing is gardening. Nobody actually knows what the next bestsellers are going to be.”
According to this editor, the biggest difference between Tor in previous years and Tor as it is run now is that before editors could walk into Tom Doherty's office and have a conversation with him about the P&L and try to convince Doherty why Tor should accept a book.
Today, though, the process entails making the P&L case to a small acquisition board which has been set up by Doherty, with the board’s job to basically balance the commercial imperative and the do-good-stuff imperative from before.
“We ask editors to bring some relatively simple paperwork in addition to a P&L,” the Tor editor said, “telling us (to the extent possible) what other books this is comparable too, what kind of sales track they think we can aspire to, who they think is the book's core audience, and so forth. It sounds scary, but in practice the board makes very quick decisions, usually in email within a day or two. I can't actually remember the last time the board had to meet in person.”
This Tor editor finished the interview by saying “We do want our editors to buy books that will sell well — and we also recognize that sometimes there are books we're going to publish for reasons that go beyond calculations of profitability. This is pretty much exactly the balance of priorities that Tor had when Tom was single-handedly overseeing acquisitions.”