In Conversation With Tom Doherty

Entering the Tor/Forge office is more exciting than being a kid in a candy shop. Bookshelves line the walls, carrying the titles of Robert Jordan, David Drake, Orson Scott Card, Steven Erikson, Ian C. Esslemont, and dozens upon dozens of other familiar names and titles. The Tor office is a place where fantastical imaginations are brought to fruition.

I still find myself slightly shell-shocked by the entire experience. Never had I anticipated that this blog would lead me to interviewing Tom Doherty. Nevertheless, it has, and the questions and answers are all in the transcribed text below. If you’re interested though, there’s more to be found in the audio.

Enjoy!

[For convenience, R = Rebecca (me), and TD = Tom Doherty]

R: Hello, I’m here with Tom Doherty, publisher, president, and founder of Tor Books. Tom, I think it’s safe to say that most readers know who you are, or have at least heard of you. So, could you tell us something about yourself that we might not know?

TD: Well, you might not know that I started out looking for a job in publishing when I got out of the army. My dad was the vice-president of a floor covering company. I was looking for a job in editorial, and couldn’t find one, because I had majored in chemical engineering in college. In the army, I had read a lot and decided, ‘it might be fun to be in publishing’. That’s what I really loved.

My dad’s company put in a floor for a guy who was the vice-president of sales for Pocket Books. So, when I wasn’t having much success in finding a job in publishing, it happened that this guy came in to complain about his floor. My father wouldn’t normally have gone out to adjust a single floor, but he did. He adjusted it, and told Mory Solomon that he had a son that looking for a job in publishing. Mory said, “Send him around to Pocket Books.”

When I got there, Mory said, “We’re not hiring, but we just signed a deal with Select Magazines to distribute our books to magazine wholesalers around North America. They’re hiring, and I’ll send you over there with a recommendation.” So, I went over to Select Magazines, and they hired me to be a salesman out of Boston north. Just had a little piece of Massachusetts along the coast. Lynn, Salem, Gloucester, Newburyport… all had wholesalers in those days.

I worked for them for about 8-9 months. They took me out to a really nice dinner and laid me off. They had just lost a major client. They said, “Kid, we’re really sorry. You were doing a good job, but we just lost this major client and we can’t have two men in Boston anymore. We can only have one, and Bill Burks has been with us for 22 years, and you’ve been with us for 9 months.” So, I was out of a job in publishing, and I liked books better than magazines. I called up Mory Solomon, and I said, “Mory, did you like anything I did for you, representing you through Select Magazines?”, and he said “Yeah kid, but we don’t have anything comparable. But, if you’ll agree to be assistant local salesman — it’s kind of like stock boy, you fill the shelves at the airport. If you want to move yourself to Philadelphia, there’s a job there.”

Well, nobody else was offering me a job, and my wife had literally the week before, told me that she was pregnant with what would turn out to be my eldest child, my daughter Linda. So, I got a U-Haul trailer and moved to Philadelphia.

That’s how I started book publishing.

R: You’ve come a long way since then.

TD: Well, I did all the sales jobs at Simon & Schuster through their national sales manager, and I got a chance to learn a lot about science fiction and fantasy as national sales manager at S&S. Ballantine was still an independent line, and we distributed them. So, I was sales manager for Ian and Betty when they launched the first fantasy line that had ever been launched in this country.

I was their sales manager for Tolkien, which was the first huge fantasy bestseller.

They were such generous people with their time. They mentored me, and they taught me things that you wouldn’t normally learn in sales. So, when I had a chance to become a publisher, I had a background that included knowledge that you wouldn’t normally have gotten with the background that I theoretically had.

R: Yep, which is good. And it lead to a lot of this <I gestured to the plethora of books surrounding us>. You were the publisher for Ace Books, and now Tor.

TD: Sure, well actually, first I was publisher for Grosset & Dunlap, and we had a YA line called Tempo. I hired a really brilliant young woman, Harriet McDougal, to be my editor-in-chief at Tempo. We began publishing science fiction and fantasy in this young adult line. We did well enough, so that when Ace came under hard times, Grosset bought it for us to play with. So, she got to be editorial direction, and I got to be publisher of Grosset Ace for the paperbacks.

R: And then her husband went on the write the Wheel of Time series.

TD: He did. She found him because… well, what happened was that she got divorced, she had a 5-year-old and she inherited the home she grew up in, in Charleston, SC., and she thought that would be a good place to bring Will up. So she moved home to Charleston.

I didn’t want to lose her, so we began telecommuting before the word was even invented. She shopped at a bookstore when she was young, and she went back to shopping in that bookstore. Bookstore owner asked her what brought her back to Charleston, she said: “I’m opening an editorial office, and I’m going to do some of my own things, and I’m going to represent a New York publisher.” The bookstore owner said, “Well, I’ve got this great customer who’s just written a novel. Would you take a look at it?”

It was a book that we published as The Fallon Blood. Which was under the pen-name Reagan O’Neal, because Jim Rigney, who was Robert Jordan for fantasy, was Reagan O’Neal for historicals. So, we did that trilogy. Then he wanted to write a fantasy. He said his dream was to write a big epic fantasy.

R: And he did indeed.

TD: He sure did. He thought it was going to be one book. Of course, he had thought that the story of the American Revolution in the south was going to be one book too… But it turned into a trilogy.

So, we said to him, “Jim, this is never going to be just one book; what you described.” He came back with, “Well, maybe a trilogy.” So, I said, “Well, let’s make it a contract for six books.” He said, “That’s silly!”

It turned out to be fourteen.

R: Fourteen and a prequel… And had he continued on, it might have even ended up being longer.

TD: Well, it would have. He was planning a spin-off. You’ve read The Wheel of Time, right?

R: Yes.

TD: Well, he couldn’t imagine that Mat would just let his wife — you know, her mother was overthrown and assassinated, and his wife should be empress of the Seanchan. Mat couldn’t just let that go… So, Mat was going to go back with Tuon to straighten out things in Seanchan. He had planned that, and actually sold it to us. The trilogy spinoff, but he didn’t do enough work on it… And Harriet didn’t feel good about it going forward.

She was betwixt and between. She knew that he wanted to do it, and that he did sell it to us, but he hadn’t really done the kind of detailed outline like he had done for what turned out to be the last three books — which he had always been telling us was only going to be one. That was typical Jim.

We would love it if Harriett were to turn around and decide that we could do that, because it’s something that a lot of the fans want. They’d like it.

R: Yep, still I see posts about it on an almost daily basis: “So, about those outrigger novels…”

It would be great. Hint, hint.

TD: Yes. But Harriet was always a brilliant editor, and I think she had edited six of his books by the time that they got married.

R: You and she made a great choice with Brandon to continue that series.

TD: Yeah, I thought he was the perfect guy. It was Harriett’s real decision. I didn’t want to do anything that she didn’t love. It worked out perfectly.

R: I agree, and I think most other people do as well.

TD: Good.

R: And, I believe you guys have won the Locus Award every year since 1988 or so–

TD: I forget what the year was, but it’s been 27 years. 27 consecutive years. I have the plaques over there.

R: Yeah, I was noticing those. What does it feel like, knowing that you and your company have had such a great influence on this industry the years.

TD: It feels good, but it feels like… Like I said, the Ballantines really started it all off, the real emphases on fantasy in this country. There’s something maybe you can influence: I really want Betty Ballantine to get a Hugo, for all the things that she did. You know, she’s 95 year’s old. Judy-Lynn del Rey was given a Hugo, and she well deserved it. She did a brilliant job of carrying forward what Betty had started, but  remember, she got a line that had already been established, which had been called Ballantine up until that point.

She got a line that was established, and had things like Tolkien in it, and a lot of other major things. So, I would love to see Betty get some recognition.

R: Or something like the Lifetime Achievement Award.

TD: Exactly. But, I think that for editing, it would be great to give her a Hugo. One of those retroactive Hugos.

R: That would be good.

TD: I think she did get a Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. She started the first science fiction line too.

R: I don’t quite think I’ve got the influence to make that happen.

TD: Hey, you do do things that influence people and I would just love to see her get — while she’s still with us, and able to appreciate it — get more recognition. A lot of people have forgotten her.

R: Which is a crime. We have an entire genre; hundreds upon hundreds of books to thank her for.

TD: Yep, exactly.

R: Another thing. With so many bookstores closing and the push for buying books online, are you guys at all worried about how — I know there’s still a huge market for it, but there’s not the ease of access for discovering new books.

TD: That is a worry. Discovery is the main worry. The internet is wonderful for things that you know about. If you fall in love with an author, you can get backlist that is too extensive for a bookstore to have stocked, and that would have had to been ordered anyway.

So, it’s great for finding deep backlists, and it’s great for accessibility on things that you already know you want… but it’s not good for discovery. There are too many trees in the forest.

R: Agreed, because you can just walk into a bookstore and see that one cover that catches your eye. You don’t get that on Amazon, or these other sites.

TD: And you know the mass-market system has kind of fallen apart. We used to look at surveys which would say: You’ve got bookstore readers from ‘impulse sale’. There were 100,000 retailers that had mass-market paperbacks, the person standing in a drugstore, waiting for a prescription… Buying from a wire-revolving rack; the person walking down the grocery aisle to get coffee, seeing a nice display of books and sampling one.

When they were pleased often enough, they began going to bookstores. Some people didn’t, some people just kept buying them in the impulse locations. But it also fed the bookstores, because they were happy with the entertainment and they wanted more of it. We’re losing that because the structure for that has broken down.

It’s broken down for a number of reasons. Mass-market paperback used to mainly be reprints of hardcover books a year after the hardcover book was published. It’s like anything else. If you buy a computer this year, next year it’ll be cheaper and maybe even better. If you buy women’s fashion this fall, it’ll be on a sale table next spring. People are used to waiting for the cheaper edition. With ebooks, they get instant gratification. Which, of course, in one place cuts into hardcovers, as they can get it cheaper already, but in another place, to the mass-market because they don’t have to wait for the cheap book.

So, we’ve got that problem. At the same time, we had a breakdown in the distribution system; there was a distribution system existing that had, in every town, book-truck drivers who sold only books to the retailers. They learned that you put different books in immigrant ghettos than you did in college situations, and a third kind by the military. They put the right books in the right spots.

What happened is the major chains forced an increase in discount, which caused the wholesalers to not to be able to afford two trucks running the same route: one for magazines, and one for books. So the distribution system was combined, which is a problem because books were pushed into a magazine bundle, and you don’t have book-truck drivers driving down the street with hundreds of titles, and able to put a different assortment at different stores. You have a much more limited assortment going everywhere. That’s not good. You should sell different books at different demographic areas.

We’re not getting them there anymore. So, between the instant gratification at a lower price, and the breakdown of the distribution system — I only get into this because it affects discovery. We lose huge numbers of places where people used to discover books.

R: Which is unfortunate, like Borders closing down a couple of years back, and independent bookstores seeming to close on a nearly daily basis.

TD: Yeah, well, I mean the other chains even worse than Borders for discovery were the Waldens, and Daltons, Crowns, and Lauriets… We lost several thousand mall stores.

I saw a focus study. This is an oversimplification of it, but essentially what it said: Did you miss the Walden that was in the shopping center? The answer was essentially: “Oh yeah, we’d come here to buy a sweater, or a pair of shoes, and we’d see the open and inviting display of books. We almost always had time to walk in. If we walked in, we almost always bought a book. Often we bought several.” When was the last time you bought a book? “Oh.. Yeah. We’ve got to go to a bookstore soon.”

If you don’t put books where people are… they don’t get in the car and drive 11 miles. Some of them will; they’ll drive to the Barnes & Noble now, or the big independent. So many of them won’t. They just won’t get around to making the special trip of any appreciable distance.

R: And it’s a shame, because there were a bunch of bookstores near me that I used to go to, but one by one I’ve been watching them disappear over the last 5-10 years.

TD: And you used to have chains like Waldon and Dalton, you had Classics, and Coles and Smith. All gone. How many impulse locations could have been handy, but are now gone?

R: And with that, we’re seeing the rise of ebooks more and more. Because, I guess, there is the convenience, the cheaper prices, and as you said — the instant gratification. But we’re losing something as well, because if you pick up a book, it’s got the weight to it, and there have been studies that state that you don’t retain as much when you read the ebooks.

TD: Yeah.

R: I think that’s a sad thing for the publishing industries.

TD: People will always will always want a good story.

R: Yes, definitely… and there have definitely been a lot of changes in the publishing industry over the past many years.. Besides for the ebooks, which has been the most surprising to you?

TD: Well, what I was just outlining — the breakdown of the mass-market distribution system, the physical breakdown, and it’s been the most damaging. Not being able to get the right book into the right store.

R: And… sorry, going back to ebooks, how do you think they’re going to affect the publishing industry in the long term? Do you think they’re going to plane out with physical books?

TD: I think it’ll level out, and I think that it’ll slowly gain market share. But you always do have the problem of discovery, and we haven’t worked out online how to best do that. I think, also, many people like a physical book, and I think that it’s a pretty darn efficient package.

R: It is. I will always choose a physical book.

TD: Me too.

R: Even though that means my luggage going home is overweight now…

Do you have any advice for people trying to get into the publishing industry in general, perhaps editorial? Publicity? I know a lot of jobs are also being done by freelancers now as well.

TD: Well, part of the thing about freelancers is there are an awful lot of people who want to work part-time. For example, we have a lot of people who don’t work full-time for us. Some of them were really fine editors who retired, but they would like to do a little bit. They just don’t want to work full-time; they don’t want to commute to an office. They may have one or two authors who want to work with them, and who they still want to work with. Well then, sure. If the author wants to work with them, if they want to work, and if they’re talented editors… Why wouldn’t we use them part-time? And I think, even at the very beginning we did that.

When I was starting the company, I knew a couple of editors who I thought were really fine editors. One of them had been retired, one of whom had been laid off; combination of companies coming together, mergers.. And I asked both of them if they’d like to edit for me. Both of them said yes, and neither one of them wanted to come into the office.

One of them actually became a ski instructor up in Killington; a guy by the name of Pat O’Connor. He had been the editor-and-chief of a couple companies. His number one author at the time was Andrew Greeley, who was a bestseller, and he said that he’d love to edit Andy. And Andy wanted to be edited by Pat.

Harriet McDougall, who I told you about — she didn’t want to come to a NY office. She was willing to work full-time, but she wanted to work in Charleston, SC., and we got Robert Jordan. You know, some of the things that people don’t remember about her, they just think Robert Jordan, but if you look at the acknowledgements in Ender’s Game, you’ll see the praise that Scott gives his editor, Harriet. She was responsible for many really great books in the early days.

R: She also edited the very first book you guys did, by Andre Norton.

TD: Yep, we had done Andre Norton together at Tempo. YA. I feel bad when people just remember her as Robert Jordan’s editor. She was the editor of many of our great early books. Beth Meacham had arthritis and wanted to live in Tucson, so she works out in there. I see no reason why any anyone has to come into the NY office.

R: Especially with the internet, there’s the ease of access.

TD: Well, we did it before the internet. We started telecommuting before they invented the word.

R: Yeah. Going back.. I know one of the ways for getting into publishing now is through internships and things. Do you have any other advice for people who want to get into this?

TD: Well, I think that what you need to do is look at the books in the bookstores. Become quite familiar with what a publisher does. Then, come to the publisher and say, “This is what you do, and this is what I care about. And I know what you do. I care enough to know. I didn’t come in because I wanted any old job. I came to you because I like what you do, and I want to be part of it.” And I think that impresses people. You try to learn about that particular thing that you really do want to be part of. It’s a win-win for both sides.

R: Alright, well, I know you do fantasy…

TD: <chuckles> Yes, yes we do.

R: So you guys, I imagine, get a lot of submissions pretty often. What do you guys look for when you’re trying to find the books that you’re going to publish?

TD: We have a lot of readers, and different editors like different things. If you’re an author, and you would like to be published by a publisher, you ought to look at the books from that publisher that you think are from the same market that your book is for. Then, you ought to look in the acknowledgements, because some of those books are going to acknowledge their editor. Then you ought to submit your book to that editor with a note saying why you think they might be interested. They’re much more likely to look at slush that way, than they are general slush.

If you’ve got an agent, so much the better. But, so many first-time authors can’t get an agent either. So, this is one of the ways to make your book a little more marketable.

R: Okay, thank you. And are there any books that you come across that still manage to surprise you?

TD: Sure. Always.

R: That’s good.

So, what would you say has been your proudest moment, working in the industry? After everything you’ve done through your illustrious career, has there been any one project that was just…

TD: I think it was really building this company. I think it has published a lot of things that people have loved and they continue to love. That I’ve been able to give a lot of dreams life. Things that are worth having been done.

R: As a reader, I definitely agree. You have done an amazing job.

TD: And I was lucky enough to start Tor, and I don’t know if you know, but I spun-off Baen. I’m still a partner with Baen. He wanted to do a different kind of thing, so we created a company for him to do it. He — They, it’s now Toni Weisskopf who’s running the company since Jim died. I think they do some things very well.

R: I think that’s pretty much all I’ve got, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add?

TD: Nope.

R: Alright, well, thank you very much for taking the time.

TD: You are entirely welcome.

R: It’s been an honour to meet you and talk to you. Thank you.

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