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How Tor.com went from website to publisher of sci-fi’s most innovative stories

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From screen to paper

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

In July 2008, science fiction publisher Tor launched a new website called Tor.com to promote its upcoming releases. But the site was designed to go beyond Tor’s books. It was meant to provide coverage for books from other publishers as well as original fiction chosen by Tor editors.

Since its founding, Tor.com has gone from a simple website to a full-fledged publishing operation. In addition to publishing shorter works of fiction, it also publishes a range of novelettes, novellas, and even some short novels, with books like Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti and Martha Wells’ All Systems Red earning considerable acclaim from the science fiction community. This week, the site published the anthology Worlds Seen in Passing: 10 Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, which celebrates the best of the site’s fiction in the decade that it’s been in operation.

Image: Tor.com

Tor’s creative director Irene Gallo tells The Verge that the original idea for Tor.com came from Fritz Foy, who managed technology initiatives for Tor’s parent company Macmillan. (He’s now Tor’s president and publisher.) Foy arrived at a Christmas party in 2007 carting a stack of science fiction and fantasy magazines, and he proposed a new site that would highlight genre novels, publish short fiction, and generally talk about what readers were interested in. “It was really trying to talk to readers really directly,” she explains. “Right from the start, we wanted it to be publisher- and media-neutral,” covering not just written fiction, but also science fiction television and film.

Over the years, Tor.com experimented with short fiction in ways that its predecessor print publications like Asimov’s Science Fiction or Analog Science Fact and Fiction didn’t. It released stories on its website for anyone to read, along with artwork. It made individual stories available through online retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s iBooks, and it bundled together free ebook anthologies that collected the site’s best stories of the year, or along some specific, topical theme, like Nevertheless, She Persisted or Fierce Reads, an anthology for YA readers.

Gallo noted that the internet has changed a lot in the years since they’ve begun. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have changed how people converse online, but the site was still able to find a place amid the online noise to tell good stories. “The more we focus on quality and good content.. we realize people will enjoy it, share it, and talk about it,” she says.

In 2014, Macmillan announced a big change to Tor.com: the site would become a full-fledged imprint, and it would release its own line of printed books, focusing on works that were shorter than an average novel, but longer than a traditional novelette, alongside the fiction that it was already publishing online. Traditionally published in science fiction magazines or through specialty publishers, Tor.com’s novellas and short novels have a distinct advantage for an online audience: their shorter length allows them to be read in just a sitting or two, making them perfect for digital reading or commutes.

Gallo notes that the change in format allows them to publish very different stories from their bigger counterparts. Not every character or world needs a novel-length story. The shorter length also allows authors to experiment, testing out a character and world to see how readers react. Martha Wells’ recent Murderbot novellas, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, and War Cry by Brian McClellan are prime examples of a small exploration into a much larger world. Gallo noted that Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti was originally intended as a single story. But after playing with the character and world, Okorafor went back for two sequels. “For new authors,” says Gallo, “it could be a foot in the door. But for established authors, it could maybe play in an arena that they hadn’t [played in] yet. If you have a smaller idea that you don’t want to have to pad out into something bigger, or if you write fantasy and want to try science fiction, they can try that out.”

“I have very little patience for novels now. It’s terrible,” Gallo says. “I’m like ‘move forward!’ I still love reading novels, but my expectation is now that every word counts, or every paragraph does something.” But the imprint doesn’t exclusively focus on just sub-novel-length works: it’s published some novels, like Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the Edge of Time or Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys. In the early days of science fiction publishing, the typical length for a novel was around 60,000 words, rather than the 100,000 to 120,000-word mark they can reach today. Gallo notes that Tor.com will publish more novels in the future, and that those shorter novels certainly fit with the types it’s released.

As to where the site goes in the next decade, Gallo says that a lot of that will depend on how the internet continues to evolve. But while those things change, “hopefully it just keeps coming back to doing the best work you possibly can, and knowing that that will punch through whatever the sort of delivery system of the day.”