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Sci-fi author John Scalzi on the future of publishing: ‘I aspire to be a cockroach’

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The author of Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire lays out his plan for his 10-year book contract, and the future of science fiction publishing

John Scalzi at The Verge office in NYC.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Two years ago, author John Scalzi signed a $3.4 million deal with leading science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor Books to publish 13 novels over the course of the decade. The novel that kicks off this new contract, The Collapsing Empire, is just now hitting bookstores. For Scalzi, there’s a lot riding on this book: it’s the start of a 10-year collaboration between him and his publisher, at a time when the publishing and bookselling industries have been undergoing significant changes.

Set in a brand-new universe, the novel is about an interstellar human empire that faces a major upheaval when its faster-than-light transportation routes begin to vanish. Scalzi has been a rising star in the science fiction world over the past decade, bolstered by a popular body of work and a legion of devoted fans he built through his blog, Whatever. His latest book is a thoughtful, exciting read, and it’s a good indication that his career will continue to rise.

Image: Tor Books

Scalzi’s career to date has been a mixture of experimentation and practical market assessment. He wasn’t able to sell his first novel, a science fiction / humor book called Agent to the Stars, so in 1999, he published it on his website, asking readers to donate a dollar if they liked it. He earned around $4,000 before he closed donations. (Tor published it in 2005.) In 2002, he began serializing his next novel online: Old Man’s War, which attracted the attention of his current editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and helped launch his career.

Old Man’s War is a Robert Heinlein-style novel about soldiers fighting to secure a foothold for humanity across the galaxy. The book earned Scalzi the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, given by the science fiction community to a promising new author. In the years since, Scalzi has published a dozen popular novels: sequels to Old Man’s War, and standalones like The Android’s Dream, Agent to the Stars, and Fuzzy Nation. His books are frequently humorous, and easy to sink into. In 2012, his meta novel Redshirts, about a starship crew who discover they’re in a cheesy Star Trek-like television show, earned him a Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

With The Collapsing Empire now on bookstore shelves, Scalzi has entered a new phase of writing he wanted to kick off as strongly as possible. He says his first book out of the gate is a space opera because his audience is familiar with that genre. The book focuses on a space-faring human civilization ruled by an Emperox, and a number of powerful trade guilds that connect the distant planets of the empire. Then the collapse of the Flow, which links the planets, threatens the entire system.

While readers can look into that as a metaphor for current social and political challenges, Scalzi says his inspiration isn’t a contemporary one at all. He was thinking about ocean currents. “So, what would have happened to that exploration, exploitation, and trade in an age of sail power if — for some reason not well understood by the humans at the time — those ocean currents just… went away?”

Ten years is a long time for the publishing world. Since Tor first published Old Man’s War, the industry has seen huge shifts. Ebooks and audiobooks have exploded in popularity. As Amazon has expanded, brick-and-mortar bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble have suffered. But Scalzi remains upbeat. “I think the people in publishing do feel optimistic that not only are they going to be around for the next 10 years, but that they are actually going to still do what they have always done, which is to bring exciting stories and people into the market, to keep people engaged in the genre, and to be a presence.”

For Scalzi, that comes with a 10-year plan, including a new installment of Old Man’s War, a sequel to his 2014 novel Lock In, and a sequel to The Collapsing Empire. (He claims his tentative title is Collapsing Empire 2: The Collapsination.) I recently sat down with Scalzi to discuss what a decade-long contract signifies in a changing industry, how he’s driven by market innovation as well as an urge to tell stories, and how he sees present American politics playing out in miniature in the speculative fiction world.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How does this 10-year deal weigh on your shoulders looking forward? By the time you’re out of it, it’s going to be 2027, the future.

It doesn’t weigh on my shoulders at all. The whole point is that novelists do not have job security, right? You go from book to book, or you’ll sometimes get a two-book contract, or maybe even, “Oh, I’m going to write a trilogy.” But at the end of it, you have to go out into the market and prove yourself again.

In this particular case, literally for a decade, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to sell my next book. I don’t have to worry about whether the publisher is going to make a good-faith effort to actually sell the book, that it’s not going to get shoved down a hole somewhere. Rather than a burden of, “Oh my God, now I have 10 books to write” — or 13 books, because it’s 10 adult and three YA — it’s, “Oh boy, now I can write my books, and I don’t have to worry what happens to them from there.” Until 2027, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to be able to pay for my daughter’s college, I don’t have to worry about if I fall down a hole, whether I’ll be able to afford my medical insurance, so on and so forth.

It’s about the freedom to say, for the next 10 years, the only thing I have to worry about is writing the books. So for me, it’s great. The night of the election, I woke up the next morning knowing, “The next four years, for better or for worse, are going to be completely different, and there’s probably going to be a lot of turmoil.” And the one thing I thought relating directly to me — I had lots of thoughts not relating to me — was, “Thank God I have that contract.” Because no matter what, I can wait out the next few years.

With concerns about publishers dying off, it’s intriguing that Tor is making this long-term commitment.

I think there’s a number of things going on there. I do think it was signaling. It is Tor and Macmillan saying: “We’re going to stay in business, and we’re going to do a good job of it.” This is part of an overall thing going on with Tor. Tor recently reorganized; brought in Devi Pillai [from rival publisher Hachette]; moved Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who’s my editor, from senior editor to associate publisher; brought in some new editors and some other new folks; and Macmillan basically gave it a huge vote of confidence.

It’s been fun and fashionable to talk about the death of publishing, and certainly publishing has had “exciting times,” I think that’s the euphemism we want to use, over the last decade. But the people who are in it do feel optimistic that not only are they going to be around for the next 10 years, but that they are going to do what they have always done, which is to bring exciting stories and people into the market, to keep people engaged in the genre, and to be a presence.

Right now is an extraordinary time to be an author, because you have the digital renaissance, and audiobooks exploding all over the place. It’s great for authors, but it’s also unsettling. It used to be, you would do X, Y, and Z, and that would lead to your book going out, and then you could repeat that process until it stopped working for you. And now, in addition to conventional publishing, you have micropublishing, you have small presses expanding — like Subterranean Press, which I do a lot of work with — you have the folks who are doing Kindle exclusives, who are actually making a good living. There are lots of options for writers to get their words out there, and develop an audience.

So it’s both exciting and unsettling. Exciting because you can have a career in different ways than you were ever able to have before, unsettling because nobody knows where this is going, or how it’s going to turn out. So Tor saying, “We will be here in 10 years, so will John Scalzi,” is for me, very reassuring, obviously, but also a signal of intent that no matter what happens, they’re still going to be a player. This is just one part of an overall puzzle piece.

How do you anticipate the books you’re writing in the next 10 years changing style and format? Are you planning more straight-up novels or experiments?

I think we’ll experiment some more. We like to think of a past where everything was set in stone, but there have always been eras: the mass-market paperback era, the hardcover era, the digital era. During those times, things worked a certain way, but things changed. I like to say there are dinosaur authors, mammal authors, and cockroach authors.

The dinosaur authors are wedded to a format and distribution system that is waning, so the fortunes of their career will go out with it. So if you’ve always been someone who sold books through supermarket racks, when the supermarket-rack consolidation happened in the ‘70s, that was bad news for you. Same if you’ve always been wedded to bookstores. Borders closes, that’s going to be trouble for you. Mammal authors ride the wave of a new publishing paradigm, like the authors who are pure digital. That’s going to go great for them until it doesn’t.

Then there are the cockroach authors, where it doesn’t matter, they’re going to do just fine, because they’re always going, “Wow, is this what people want? Let’s try this and see how it works, and adapt to it.”

Did you just describe yourself as a cockroach?

I am a cockroach. I aspire to be a cockroach. But in all honesty, what that means is that as a writer, you have to recognize that nothing lasts and things change, that there’s no one time in the history of publishing where everything was one way, and then all of a sudden there was change. It’s always changing. So we will definitely try new things to see if they work. And if they don’t, you don’t do them again, or you wait for the market to come around to them again, whatever. I’m totally open to that.

Nothing ever gets completely replaced, either, you know? The novel isn’t going anywhere. People do like novels, books of 60,000 to 120,000 words or whatever, they like that length, the rhythm of that particular thing. And that’s great. Certainly assume I will be writing those indefinitely, as long as there’s a market for them. At the same time, I wrote an audio novella for Audible, The Dispatcher. And it did really well, so I’m totally open to doing more in that particular format. When we did the short story serialization for The Human Division, that did really well for us, too.

What about The God Engines?

I wanted to write that because I was being pigeonholed as a writer who wrote funny stuff that was light and had snappy dialogue and was sarcastic. The point of God Engines was, I write that stuff because I like it, not because that’s the only thing I can do. I went to Bill Schafer, the publisher of Subterranean, and said, “I want to write something horrible where everybody dies at the end,” and he’s like, “Yes!” And so I did.

You do different things because you’re interested in doing them, and sometimes there’s a market for them, and sometimes there’s not. And you have to have that balance. If you’re a commercial writer, you have to accept the fact that you do want to write stuff that sells, but also as a writer, you have to try to push your own boundaries, or you’re going to trap yourself, and that’s going to screw you when the market changes, when the wind changes. When the wind starts blowing the other direction, you want to be able to put your sails into it, as opposed to being stuck in the same spot.

Serializations seem to be gaining new traction online. What did you learn from serializing The Human Division and The End of All Things online?

We learned that there is an appetite for serialized fiction. We also learned that it’s possible to sell fiction in shorter lengths, that people will go, “Sure, I’ll spend 99 cents on this, or $2.99.” I suspect what we learned was added into the knowledge base that created the Tor.com publishing imprint, which is digital-plus, which frees us from having to have works at a specific length, so it looks good on a bookshelf. We are now able to try different lengths and get different stories out of that.

We thought that The Human Division was risky, so that’s why we decided to do it in the Old Man’s War universe. [I suggested] “the Avatar method” — James Cameron pushes the technology in Avatar, in such an extensive way that if he had also pushed narrative in an equally extensive way, he could have lost everybody. So he made a conventional story, wedded it to technological advances, and got people to go along for the ride. To the same extent, we were fiddling with format, and to compensate for that, to hold people’s hands while we did this weird stuff, we gave them Old Man’s War, which we already knew they liked and were comfortable with. So it was the content hedging the distribution.

That sounds manufactured, rather than driven by inspiration and the storytelling urge. Especially when you factor in the input of so many people at Tor.

Yes. And this has always been the case with my career, and I’ve never made any bones about it. I’m aware of what my role is with Tor. I am their easily accessible, gateway science fiction author. That is my job. That is why I have a ridiculously long contract for a ridiculous amount of money. Not only do I accept that, but for me, it means I get to do a lot of things I want to do in the way I want to do them, and still pull a few things off.

Did you do anything stylistically with The Collapsing Empire to make it stand apart from Old Man’s War?

Well there are three protagonists, and they’re basically equal players in the book. The way third-person omniscient voice works for each of them is different, and relates to their personalities. So Kiva Lagos, the starship owners’ representative, is profane, sarcastic, and kind of punchy. Cardenia, who becomes The Emperox, is more tentative, and Marce is more observing and taking notes. So it’s not only writing separate characters, but writing the way they apprehend the world.

What challenges do you have launching a big space opera after being known for a big space opera?

Well, the one question I get a lot is, “Is this part of The Old Man’s War universe?” No. And people either respond, “Well, that’s okay,” or, “Oh, we want more Old Man’s War.” There’s going to be at least one more Old Man’s War, because it’s in the contract.

You want it to stand apart from what you’ve done before, right? You don’t want it to be Old Man’s War-like, but everybody is purple-skinned. So you do have to pay attention to your world-building. “Is this something I’ve done before? If it is something I’ve done before, how do I justify it?”

Regardless, people will try to make connections. I have fans who are superinvested in tying the universe of The Android’s Dream and into the Old Man’s War universe. I will get these emails that are paragraphs long, like, “Here’s my theory of how this all ties in, the Grand Unified Theory of Scalzi.” And all you can do is appreciate the effort, right? So there will be people who will try to tie this in. And that’s fine, that’s their prerogative as readers and as fans. But certainly when I’m writing it, I want it to have this completely different space. The governance of the thing is different, the faster-than-light Flow is a different thing than a Skip Drive. For me, it has a lot more in common with Dune, right? Particularly because it’s a mercantile empire.

What are your long-term plans with The Collapsing Empire’s world?

We’re definitely locked in for at least one more sequel. There might actually be three books in the series. But the thing about The Collapsing Empire is that they’re fighting an imminent catastrophe. Ultimately, there is going to be something that entirely changes their world. And the good news for that is that it does make this series finite. There’s only so far that it can be dragged out. It’s not going to go out to 20 books. If we get to three, that’s going to be it. We may just end up having two, because that’s what I’m contracted for, and the story may just resolve itself at the end of book two. I think that’s fine. People do love inhabiting these worlds, but there’s something to be said about, “It’s going to be X length, and if you want more in this universe, you’d better be writing fan fiction.” [Laughs]

How have you improved since your first novel?

I worry about fewer things than when I was starting off. I mean, I have an audience now, I have the faith of a publisher, I am assured that what I write is going to get fairly large play within the universe of fantasy and science fiction publishing. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself, or jockey for position. I don’t know that much has changed with the writing. It’s still just, “Sit your ass in a chair, make it up as you go along,” which is the way I’ve always done things. I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote Old Man’s War, when I wrote Agent to the Stars. It’s obvious to me, at least in terms of the flow of the story, and the construction of the novels themselves. But I don’t know that it’s immediately visible to anybody who is not functionally engaged in writing, editing, and publishing. Part of the job is not to show the seams.

One thing I think has been consistent across 20 years is my voice. The thing that has changed for me is being comfortable with the fact that I have stories I want to tell, so I have the freedom to say them the way I want to. That’s in contradiction to where I was like, “My job is to be a commercial writer and to write stuff that sells.” But the two aren't necessarily in opposition. I’ve always written in that approachable style. But I guess the difference is, when I wrote Old Man’s War, I went into a bookstore to see what was selling, right? And I was like, “Oh, military science fiction, I’ll go write military science fiction.” These days — and this is hugely egotistical — I don’t worry about what other people are doing in the genre. I don’t worry about what the next wave is, what’s coming up, what’s peaked. I just write what I want to write, and I assume the market is going to accommodate me.

What does the future of the Old Man’s War series look like?

I have no idea! It just exists on a contract. I wrote four books into Old Man’s War, and then I walked away for five years. And part of the reason was, I had no idea where to go with it from there. It wasn't that I was done with this universe, it was more, I have no idea what to do in this universe. And I didn’t want to be one of those dudes who’s like, “And now, another Old Man’s War universe,” and just crank them out.

What do you think the state of science fiction is right now?

I think it’s very healthy. For TV, film, and video games, it’s great, because so many things in those genres are dominating in their respective fields. I think it’s better now in publishing than it has been, both in terms of quality and quantity of work. After literally decades of science fiction and fantasy publishing being left behind on the wave TV, film, and video games were riding, publishing is finally beginning to catch up. People have decided it’s okay to be seen in public reading fantasy and science fiction. Things like Game of Thrones and The Expanse are a signal that they are acceptable. Just like Fifty Shades of Grey made erotica respectable again. You could read Fifty Shades of Grey in public, and no one would make fun of you for reading erotica. Game of Thrones made it okay to read fantasy in public. Things like The Expanse made it okay to read science fiction in public.

You’re very outspoken about social issues and politics. What do you see happening to the arts in the current political climate?

Well, I think two things are going to happen. Once again, we’re going to have an attempt to purge arts from the governmental budget, “Because fuck you, that’s why.” I suspect art is already being made now in protest. We’re going to get a lot of protest art. One of the things that just drives me up the fucking wall are the people who are like, “Wow, there’s going to be such great art in the Trump era.” You know what? There would have been great art in the Clinton era, too. This is not the argument for incipient fascism in our country.

But it’s also difficult. I was two months late turning in The Collapsing Empire, because I was watching the whole thing with the elections, and I was so stressed out. I didn’t know what the hell we were doing with ourselves. I should’ve been writing, and I was just watching Twitter and CNN and everything else. It was really hard to concentrate, and I was like, “I can’t wait for this election to be done.” Now I’ve got three books to write this year, and it’s still incredibly hard to concentrate. I went to a movie with my wife last week, and when we got out, something had exploded that would have been a monthlong scandal in any other administration, but in this administration, it was “Here’s today’s outrage.”

You’ve been posting about optimism recently. What are you hopeful for in the future of science fiction and writing in general?

Oh I’m optimistic. I mean, I’m angry at the state of the world. This was entirely avoidable, like, “Don’t stab yourself in the eye!” “What do you mean, like this? You can’t tell me not to stab myself in the eye! This hurts, why am I doing this? Because you told me not to.”

But the effect of this election, the immediate response of people going “Oh, hell no,” has given me reason to be optimistic. We’re going to go through a world of shit, there’s no way around it. Our tunnel has been made, and we’ve got to muck through it. It is an argument about what sort of nation we are.

I think to a smaller extent, a lot of what our nation and the world are going through, we had a very small, localized version of it over the last couple years of science fiction. There were a number of bad actors, who had a point of view and managed it poorly. And then you had the people who were actively malicious, and used that first group of people to plant as many bombs as possible. The result was, science fiction has come out of it with a stronger sense of “No, as a community, we are for as many voices as possible. We are for hearing the voices that are not otherwise heard, imaging the scenarios we might not otherwise imagine.” So we came out of that stronger. It was a fight we didn’t need to have, but we had it anyway.

We have a lot of art that is going to set the agenda for a decade or more. I’m optimistic about science fiction because we have this multiplicity of voices. It’s not just me, or George R.R. Martin, or Brandon Sanderson, or James S.A. Corey. It’s N.K. Jemisin, Alyssa Wong, Charlie Jane Anders, any number of people who in a previous era would have struggled to make their voices heard. And instead of them struggling, they are at or near the top of the field.

We’re a better genre because of it, and we’re better as art because they are on the same level as I am, or Neil Gaiman is, or George Martin is. I feel optimistic that we have affirmed ourself as a genre that says, “We are open to anyone, and anybody can excel in it, and anybody can tell a story.” I am casting this more optimistically than someone who is not me, and in my position, might. But ultimately, I think in the long term, we’re going to see some really good things out of science fiction and fantasy in the next 20 years. And I’m glad I’m here for it.