My Inevitable and Utterly Redundant John Scalzi Multi-Million-Dollar Deal Hot Take
May 26, 2015
I arrived home late Sunday night from a gathering at which some pretty decent smoked pulled pork was served to discover a noticeable theme in my Twitter timeline. Everyone I follow was abuzz over the same news item. I also had several DM’s and text messages awaiting me from folks who were sending me the same link.
You’ve all no doubt heard about and/or read the announcement by now. SFF author John Scalzi has signed a very sizable ten-year deal with Tor Books worth $3.4 million (we do love and fixate over our dollar amounts, don’t we?).
I don’t know John Scalzi personally. I’ve never met him, never exchanged a word. I am friends with folks who know him, and apparently he is a heckuva nice guy by literally all reports. In the past I have been openly critical of both his blog and his fiction. I don’t regret the former, more than a little wish I’d kept my mouth shut on the latter. But I went through this whole ill advised self-righteous phase that danced to the tune of, “I’m an author, but I’m also a consumer. If I paid to read a novel I’ll say whatever the fuck I want about it.”
And yeah, that, but also maybe if you’re an author and you don’t have anything nice to say about other authors’ work just shut the fuck up.
In fact, more that second thing.
Trust me. I’ve done the research.
Anyway. Because of things I’ve said or written in the past, most of which I’d think better of now, folks who know me seemed to be expecting, even hoping for a rant of some length against Scalzi receiving what is perceived as a blockbuster publishing deal.
Hey, who am I to disappoint the five people reading my stuff?
So, although it would probably behoove me politically and professionally not to shoot my mouth off about a vastly more popular author, and I should’ve learned this lesson already, I am going to offer my controversial hot take on this.
I thought it was the best news I’ve read all year and I was genuinely fucking elated by it.
I felt no jealousy. No resentment. No bewilderment. Certainly no rage. I may not dig on the dude’s stories, but a whole lot of people do. It’s taken me many years to realize there’s nothing wrong with either of those things and that we’re all right. That’s what’s great about art. We can all look at the same thing and see something different and in an ideal world that would lead to some very interesting discourse from which we all learned something and gained a newfound perspective.
Now, I know the internet runs almost totally contrary to this concept, being a place where if someone disagrees with you about anything, even a little, your whole fucking life and theirs must stop until you’ve changed their mind or shamed/battered/harassed them into utter and eternal silence.
It’s pretty stupid.
I want to refer you briefly to a post from earlier in the year about publishing’s culture of extremes in which I wrote of the toxic optimism and cynicism that too often dominate said culture. I bring it up because this announcement of Scalzi’s deal, and the deal itself, is a brilliant and tragic proof-of-concept in that vein.
There is going to be, and already has been, so much hate-wanking over this deal, both because writers, like all working artists, are inherently jealous creatures and because a lot of people just hate the fuck out of John Scalzi personally for a plethora of imagined, half-imagined, or misunderstood reasons. His detractors will come up with no end of borderline insane reasons why this deal is somehow bad for the whole publishing industry, or at the very least how it’s a sham on its face or how its inception was the result of some kind of conspiratorial engineering.
I’m sure Adam Baldwin could explain this all much better than me.
That’s all crap, of course. John Scalzi is where he is because he writes books a bunch of people love and want to read. He has the numbers. The numbers don’t (or rarely do) lie. He got the deal that made sense for both him and the publisher because of those numbers. There’s just nothing to dispute about that.
Then you’ll have the opposite end of the spectrum, the deluded souls certain John Scalzi has won some mythic publishing lottery. They’ll envision him receiving a giant Publisher’s Clearing House-esque check for $3.4 million and then gradually transpose an image of themselves in his place. They’ll see it as proof that all they need do is finish that novel about the ordinary kid who suddenly realizes they have or is bestowed extraordinary powers and they’ll be an overnight literary sensation. All the wealth and fame and recognition will be theirs.
This is an equal fantasy, and for a needed reality check you can read Charles Stross’ thorough dissection of the deal, or hell, just read Scalzi himself putting it into proper perspective.
That is not to say, not at all, that this isn’t a highly lucrative deal made of real dollars. I mean, for fuck sake, the median wage per person in America is less than thirty thousand bucks.
But it’s not “fuck you” Gulfstream jet money, either.
Again, we’re a culture of extremes, and the above camps are those extremes in action.
Me, I’ve worked very hard to find the middle ground in all things (more realistically, most things. But I do try).
I’m excited precisely because John Scalzi didn’t win the publishing lottery, but nor am I hateful or envious enough to believe that $3.4 million is as big a lie as the cake and he’ll be begging for change at the bus station.
I’m excited because Scalzi isn’t a global phenomenon like JK Rowling. He’s never had a number-one best-selling novel. What he has is an ardent, broad readership and an expansive backlist that sells very well. What he does is deliver solid, steady, worthwhile numbers for his publisher. Because of that they were willing to make a long-term investment in him for a wholly reasonable, healthy sum of money that will be spread out over a number of years and depend heavily on his performance and the performance of his output.
Now, when you say it like that it’s no longer sexy. It’s not anyone’s fantasy of authorial nirvana. It’s not the “rock star” fantasy of being a best-selling author.
It almost makes it sound, gulp, like a regular-ass job.
And that terrifies most folks with dreams of being authors.
To me, however, it sounds like Heaven, and I’m utterly delighted and inspired by an SFF market that can support that kind of dependable vocational bliss. We’re inundated with bitter mantras, mostly published by Salon, reiterating that there is no money to be made as an author, especially of SFF. It’s refreshing and nourishing and needed to be reminded people are still buying and reading these books. A lot of people, in fact.
Scalzi has accomplished that most difficult and admirable of feats, he has turned writing novels into a steady, stable, well-paying day job.
The fact doing that is possible, especially good-goddamn-hallelujah in SFF of all markets, is what’s cause for celebration.
I also want to refer you to this tweet from author Greg van Eekhout, who nailed another important point here.
Publishers are not at all unlike movie studios. Both survive on their hits. Most books (and if it isn’t most, which I genuinely believe it is, it’s an overwhelming fucking amount) lose money. That’s just the crapshoot nature of the public and the business. Authors like Scalzi whose backlists pump their publisher full of cash each quarter are what keeps that publisher in business and able to afford your first book contract.
These are all good things. These are all necessary things.
They require only a scant bit of perspective.
Perspective is one of many qualities writers and the publishing community at large often lack.
So, yeah. The announcement of John Scalzi’s big damn $3.4 million deal with Tor is good news for every SFF author with realistic goals and expectations willing to put in a couple of decades of extremely hard work writing consistent, regular novels and building the platform and awareness to support those works and that author’s personal brand.
If that’s not you then you either need to reassess this industry and your potential place in it, or you need to get very, very, very astronomically fucking lucky.
Hey, it does happen.
And if you’re among those hate-wanking to this news because you loathe John Scalzi and probably yourself a little or more than a little for any number of dumbass reasons…just stop.
I know it’s difficult, what with the Twitter and the Facebook and your internet umbilical cord and you just can’t help having it thrown in your face, all these amazing things every other author seems to get that you don’t and it’s very easy for that to roll itself into a big sour ball of bitter and envy and hate in your stomach.
Unfurl the ball. Relax. Stop focusing on others and focus on your own shit.
I promise you, we’re all just geeks making it up as we go along.
You’ve been shown what’s possible.
Hopefully, you now understand what it takes to get there and what it actually means once you are there.
Hopefully, you’re motivated by all of this, and for the right reasons.
Now get to work.