Publishing 101

In the wake of Scalzi’s Big Book Deal, folks have been saying some rather ignorant or ill-informed stuff about how publishing works. I wanted to address a few of those points here.

Let’s start with the easiest, in which folks over on Theodore Beale’s blog claim that by Tor giving Scalzi a $3.4 million advance, they’re “squeezing out” approximately “523 initial advances to new science fiction authors.” In other words, Beale claims that “Patrick Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi have combined to prevent more than 500 authors from getting published and receiving paid advances.”

Ha Ha Ha Oh wait you're serious?

This is a particularly egregious bit of ignorance coming from Mister Beale, who fancies himself a publisher.

Publishing is a business. As a business, Tor not only spends money on things like acquiring and publishing books, they also earn money by selling said books. Assuming Scalzi shut out 500 authors assumes that Tor is simply pissing away that $3.4 million. This is a rather asinine assumption. John Scalzi has repeatedly hit the NYT Bestseller list, earned a Best Novel Hugo, and has several TV/film deals in development for his work. Tor buys books from John Scalzi for the same reason they buy books from Orson Scott Card: those books sell a hell of a lot of copies, and earn Tor significant profits.

Very often it’s those profits — the income from reliable bestsellers like Card and Scalzi — that allow publishers to take a chance on new and unknown authors.

I’d love to see more marginalized writers getting this kind of deal and publicity from publishers. But in the meantime, no, Scalzi’s 13-book deal is not hogging up 523 novel slots. He’s not book-blocking hundreds of new authors. Tor isn’t going to switch from multiple books a month to a One-Scalzi-Book-Every-Nine-Months schedule and stop publishing everyone else. Trying to pretend otherwise is an impressive tangle of ignorance, malice, and old fashioned dumbassery.


I’ve also seen a number of people second-guessing Scalzi’s decision to sign a $3.4 million deal because they believe he would have made so much more money by self-publishing. Which…um…okay, there are a number of things to consider here.

  1. You might be right. He might have made more money self-publishing. He might not have. Ignoring all other factors, neither you nor I know for certain.
  2. $3.4 million is the advance. It’s not the sum total he’s going to earn from this deal. There are also ancillary rights such as movie and TV deals, foreign sales, audio books, etc. (Depending on the details of his contracts.) In addition, if some or all of these books earn out their advances, he’ll likely see royalty payments as well.
  3. Publishing with Tor allows him to concentrate on writing without having to invest his own time and money in typesetting, cover design, marketing, and so on.
  4. Signing this deal doesn’t mean he can’t also self-publish. Tor signed him for one book every nine months. I suspect Scalzi could squeeze out a few other projects between those books, if he felt like it. (And if he wasn’t too busy swimming in his churro-shaped pool full of money.)

Go read Scalzi’s blog post on this one, as he gets into additional thoughts and details.

The takeaway here? Self-publishing and commercial/traditional/whatever-you-want-to-call-it publishing are both legitimate, viable options, but they’re not interchangeable. You can’t assume Author A who sold 50,000 books traditionally would also sell 50,000 books if they’d self-published, or vice versa. Likewise, you can’t assume successful self-published Author B would do equally well signing with a traditional publisher.

Deciding which path to take as an author is a lot more complicated than that, and the Right Path is going to be different for every one of us depending on our strengths, goals, resources, family situation, finances, and so much more.


This has been today’s blog post against publishing ignorance. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely day!