Writing Excuses 8.44: Talking Publishing with Tom Doherty

Tom Doherty, founder, publisher, and president of Tor books, joins us to talk about publishing. If you’ve ever wondered what a publisher does — not the company, the human being to whom the editors report — this is the episode for you. Whether you want to work as an editor, want to find the right editor, or just have a burning curiosity about this industry, Tom has the answers. He talks to us about the history of the industry, the changes it’s currently undergoing, and the direction it may take in the future.


Write a story about a publisher trying to predict the next trend, and the technology he’s using to do it.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki and Harlan Ellison. As Tom points out during the cast, it’s unusual for a book to make The New York Times Best Sellers list twenty-eight years after its publication.

18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.44: Talking Publishing with Tom Doherty”

  1. I’m a little bit confused by Mr. Doherty’s answer to the question about the rise of ebooks. First of all, are we really so sure that the number of retail points for print books is decreasing? According to Kris Rusch’s analysis of the data, the number of independent bookstores has been growing steadily since 2009, and what appears to be a decline in bookstore sales is actually a side effect of switching from a less efficient system of high print runs and expansive warehousing to a more technologically efficient one.

    Second, how does the supposedly shrinking number of retail spaces for print books hinder new writers’ ability to break out into the rapidly growing realm of ebooks? I know of lots of writers who could never get any sort of traction in the old system, querying their manuscripts and waiting months or even years for a response, but are building sizable audiences right now through epublishing directly to the readers. Unlike a lot of publishers who try to play the role of tastemaker, Amazon uses its algorithms to predict the kinds of books that each reader is most likely to read, and will recommend that regardless of who publishes it. The result has been a leveling of the playing field in the ebook realm which has allowed for several new writers to break out, including myself.

    This was an insightful interview and I appreciate Mr. Doherty coming onto the show, but I’m still having trouble understanding how the rise of ebooks and the (supposed) decline of print retail is hurting new writers. As a new writer myself, I can say that nothing else has helped to advance my career more than the rise of ebooks (with the exception of Brandon Sanderson’s English 318R class, of course).

  2. Alternative Writing Prompt: Write a story about a publisher trying to predict the next trend, and the magic she’s using to do it.

  3. I’m going to take a shot at answering your question Joe. The problem that publishers have with ebooks is that they’ve created more market volatility. Ebooks themselves provide another avenue for publishers to get books into the hands of readers and they can reduce some of the costs associated with print runs. However, ebooks also provided a platform for a large number of writers who wanted to self publish or who had been rejected by publishers. In the past publishers could make fairly good estimates about the numbers of books that were going to enter the market by looking at the average publishing counts of publishing companies and adjust advertising and other things to account for that. Similarly, publishers could count on (as mentioned by Doherty) impulse purchases of books at various locations that weren’t necessarily bookstores. With smart phones and internet access being widely available in the United States those impulse purchases are less likely to happen as people can simply look up the reviews for a book and check them against other books in the genre. As far as your article claiming that the number of retail points isn’t declining it’s unfortunately biased and makes several false conclusions ( I tracked it’s sources and it’s claim that there are 10,800 bookstores in 2012 is based on a statement in it’s source about a 2002 statistic and while the kobo offer is nice they only have about 3% of the market share in the US). Going back to the self publishers and ebooks the result thus far of this new platform has been an increase in the number of books published and because these books don’t have to meet the same standards as the books published by publishing companies readers find them to be hit or miss. All of this (and probably several factors not discussed here) lends to a general volatility in the market that makes publishers more conservative. They want to stick with established authors or pick up new authors that they are absolutely sure they can sell which can make it much more difficult to get picked up by a publisher.

    To sum up that large block of text it’s not necessarily becoming more difficult to publish. In general with the rise of new technology it’s becoming fairly easy to put your works out there for people to read. What’s becoming more difficult is getting published by a publishing company (which may or may not be your goal).

    Now making predictions about a market that is undergoing some large changes is generally a bad idea. If current market trends continue as they are then what’s likely to happen is that new authors will self publish their first few books using ebooks and/or print-on-demand. Once they’ve generated enough of a following they will either approach a publisher or be approached by a publisher to expand their name and make use of the resources at the disposal of the publishing companies.

    Now for some sources:

    Showing that bookstores are in fact declining: http://thedataweb.rm.census.gov/TheDataWeb_HotReport2/econsnapshot/snapshot.hrml?NAICS=4512

    It’s also worth mentioning that ebooks only recently reached a 20% share of the marke (article also states that brick and mortar sales for publishers declined): http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/business/media/e-book-sales-a-boon-to-publishers-in-2012.html?_r=0

  4. For some reason, I can’t subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. I just got a new computer and was subscribing to all my podcasts, and Writing Excuses isn’t available in the US store. Do you know why?

  5. One thing to consider Joe: Just because the number of Indie bookstores has gone up does NOT mean they have gone up more than the number of large chain stores has gone down.

    And to your other thought – It is good from the perspective that authors can reach an audience more easily, but you could argue it is also more of a crapshoot due to the amount of new material constantly coming onto the market. If you are discovered, great. But if no one finds you amidst all the other books, you are out of luck until you write that one book where Word of Mouth finally blows up.

    Though to me the more interesting point was the issue of how the best way to hook new readers was being in more secondary sales points (drug stores/grocery stores/etc) but since only top sellers ever seem to hit those locations now, they aren’t a way for someone to be discovered unless a publisher is willing to make a HUGE push and spend a lot of dough to get you there.

  6. Once again, it appears I’ve been put in comment moderation purgatory. :/ But to address your point, Patrick Sullivan, I’m not sure how much the “competition” is an issue, since bookselling is not a zero-sub game. I think that’s an excuse that a lot of people fall back on when their books don’t sell as much as they’d like, rather than looking honestly at the things that are under their control.

  7. I never considered the impulse buying aspect of selling books, such as people waiting in line in the pharmacy. That is hard to reproduce in the digital age; I mean, I think most people ignore online ads. Maybe posters of multiple books with scan bars that give you the first chapter could be put up in related stores that you still have to walk into, such as a coffee shop?

    I’m also curious–does anyone know of any stats regarding piracy of books in the digital age? I feel like it’s not nearly as bad as the boom of music piracy years ago and movies and tv shows, all of which are still highly prevalent.

    Loved the show.

  8. The big useful takeway for me is to choose an editor.

    I didn’t know I could even *do* that.

  9. Mr. Doherty’s statement about the decreasing number of venues for new and undiscovered writers is well taken. As one possible solution, what about the strategy Daniel Abraham and “James S.A. Corey” used in the kindle edition of Leviathan Wakes? When I bought the book, the file contained the complete text of The Dragon’s Path, which might not have read otherwise. Why not do the same with new authors, adding their books, at no extra charge, to the kindle files of the books of established authors?

  10. Great episode. I also think the route to NY publishing will be more and more linked to successful eBook self publishing. The publishers will have, I think, less failures. Yes, the quality of self pub is, generally, still wanting, but as more editors and designers will offer services for self pub, I think it will get better. People will still be able to self publish crap but they will not get to readers from the bottom of the amazon pit. Perhaps a new breed of agents will also emerge to take on this market.

  11. I’ve been having trouble subscribing to Writing Excuses on US iTunes as well — just thought I’d bring it up as other people seem to be having the same problem. It would be great if y’all could look into it :)

  12. I’ve been a subscriber through iTunes for years, and am trying to subscribe on my mother’s computer. I’m also finding that the feed is completely gone from the US store. It won’t even show up in search, not a single episode.

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