Tuesday 31 March 2009

Greasing the Wheel of Time for all it's worth

I posted a few days ago about the news leaked last week about A Memory of Light, the final novel in The Wheel of Time series. At the time some of the news I took seriously and some I considered to be inaccurate or misreported. Fortunately, I was proven right about the cover, which has now been revealed to have been a very rough mock-up created by Tor's art department, and will not be the image used on the final book, whilst the tradeback-only edition was a misreport by the Dutch website that broke the news.

The Gathering Storm, Book 12 in The Wheel of...hang on a sec, sorry I got confused. The four-year wait since the last Wheel of Time book has obviously corrupted my brain cells.

Unfortunately, everything else turned out to be accurate. Tor's official press release can be read here, editor Harriet MacDougall's comments are here and writer Brandon Sanderson has a lengthy and eye-opening essay on the situation here. So far, Orbit have not commented on the situation and the plans for UK publication of the book remain unclear.

The fanbase's reaction to the news has been mixed and although Brandon's very well-written piece has mollified opinions somewhat, it simultaneously revealed some very odd messages coming from Tor about their reasoning for the book to be split into three, rather the previously-proposed two.

The primary reason for the split is because Tor wanted to get a Wheel of Time book out in 2009: the previous volume Knife of Dreams, had been published in 2005. This is no doubt laudable on one level, as the previous biggest gap in the series had been three years, with two more common. Keeping the gap to a minimum is sensible. Tor's other excuse that if it had been more than four years than the series' profile and sales would have suffered can be immediately and summarily dismissed as utter nonsense. A Song of Ice and Fire's sales and profile grew substantially in the five year publishing gap between A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. The gaps in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series have reached decade-long proportions and new books in the series continue to be immediate bestsellers. It's been six years since The Da Vinci Code came out and Dan Brown's next book will likely still be an immediate hit.

As Sanderson explains in depth, if the two-volume solution had been pursued, than A Memory of Light Vol I would not have come out until the spring or summer of 2010, followed by the second half 12-18 months later. He also explains that this is because the punishing pace he has set himself for the last year and a half has left him creatively exhausted, and he also now needs to break off for a time to work on two of his own projects that are under contract to other publishers. That is fully understandable and I doubt many people would complain at this. Also, given the wait that has already elapsed for this book, I doubt many fans would have balked at learning there was another 3-6 months to wait for the first book. This is not a huge deal to the fans. In fact, splitting the book in three has entailed more work for Brandon, since each book needs additional material to make it as self-contained as possible (according to the author, 25,000 words had to be added to Volume I solely to make it as independent an entity as possible, and more will be required for Volume II), and could extend the overall size of the project to something close to 900,000 words, which is a truly vast amount (the eleven published volumes and the prequel combine to form 3.4 million words).

That the fans would wait an extra few months for the two-volume option is obviously a given, but Tor continued to issue bizarre reasons why the book had to be split in three. They lamented that booksellers with their limited shelf space would be unhappy with a big, thick fantasy book and this wasn't the 1990s any more when such books were common. They also claimed that printing and binding would make such sized books economically unviable, which is a claim that had me blinking at its self-evident absurdity.

Tor is the publisher of all the previous Wheel of Time books in the USA. The two-volume solution for A Memory of Light had each book coming in at between 350,000 and 400,000 words. Those are big books, no doubt about it, but not unreasonably so. In fact, the previous longest books in the Wheel of Time series itself were The Shadow Rising (at 393,823 words) and Lord of Chaos (at 389,264), and each just about scraped over the 1,000 page mark in mass-market paperback (the normal cut-off point for most publishers is somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 pages in mmpb for large-selling authors). So this size of book is not unprecedented in this series, let alone the genre or for the publisher.

The 1990s: when books could be published that were so huge you could use them to beat elephants to death. But apparently not any more. This book is still in print, by the way, and has sold between 3 and 4 million copies since it came out.

Tor claim that it isn't ten years ago anymore and publishing such-sized books is difficult. Well, those earlier Wheel of Time books remain in print. Let's assume that older books are cheaper to keep in print than newer ones (replenishing backstock requires much smaller and therefore cheaper print runs than publishing a new book from scratch) and that just because Tor can keep pumping out new copies of The Shadow Rising regularly, that doesn't mean they can publish a new book of the same size (which would require a much vaster print run). Except of course they provably can. Steven Erikson's eighth Malazan novel, Toll the Hounds, will be published in mass-market paperback on 4 August this year. The book will be 1,280 pages long in mmpb (for those counting, that is almost 300 pages longer than The Shadow Rising). I'm not sure of the word count, but it clearly tops 400,000 words with change left over (unless Tor are using some whacked-out typeface and margin sizes). Erikson is a traditionally low-selling author who's now making some headway, but still the most generous description I've seen of his status is 'midlist'. His American sales are a barely appreciable fraction of Jordan's, yet Tor curiously seem able to keep his books in print in both hardcover and brick-sized mass-market paperbacks, and are still doing so in this current 'difficult economic climate' (a great buzz-phrase being used by many companies to justify steps that involve milking the customer for every penny they can).

So, the problem clearly is not the two-volume option's anticipated size, nor is it printing and binding practices. Tor themselves are printing books considerably larger than the books in the two-volume option as one novel with no problem, at this current time and for release this year.

This of course also by extension dismisses the bookshelf argument. Bookstores are complaining about big books taking up shelf space they could be spent on other, smaller, better-selling and more profitable books. This is especially notable in SF, where I am informed the US bookstores have seen significant section shrinkage in recent years. Again, all of that would be fine if it wasn't for the fact that Tor themselves are publishing 1,300-page paperbacks and presumably selling them to stores (if the stores weren't ordering them, the books wouldn't be selling and Tor would presumably be dropping the series or splitting the books, which they are not) at this time. In addition, the Wheel of Time series is one of the most recognisable and marketable franchises in the entire SF&F genre, a guaranteed seller with no less than four #1 New York Times bestsellers to its name. No, bookstores would clearly stock and sell this book, especially as the penultimate book in the series would be extremely marketable as well and could lead to improved sales of the prior eleven novels before it.

Apparently Tor can't afford to publish this book and stores will not stock it if they do. But they are publishing it and stores will be stocking it. This is truly an impenetrable paradox.

So it isn't the bookstores, it isn't binding technology and it isn't the profitability of the volumes. So why is the book really being split in three?

At this point we have to switch to supposition, which readily provides two answers. The first is purely financial. The best time to bring a book out is October-November, just before the Christmas rush (but not during it, at which time it would get swamped and lost). Bringing out one book for Christmas 2009, 2010 and 2011 is clearly a better and far more profitable option than bringing out one in summer 2010 and another a year later. Tor are not doing badly at the moment, but we have seen apparently watertight companies toppling like dominoes in this recession and it would be essential to our field to keep the USA's biggest SF&F publisher going. Tor shoring up their finances in this manner and giving them a healthy balance sheet for the 2009 financial year could be extremely important to them and to the wider genre. From the POV of someone working for Tor, this course of action is even understandable and a safe bet to take.

More convincing still is the creative argument. Brandon Sanderon's first estimate was that this book would be 200,000 words. He almost immediately raised that to 400,000, and very quickly put it up to 600,000 and then 650 and then 700 and now 800,000 words. There is no reason to think that, even with the best will in the world, the book might not still expand further. With two 400,000-word volumes, there isn't much room to maneuver if the author decides he needs another 50,000 words to do justice to the story. By expanding the novel to three volumes, the author suddenly gains a fairly substantial amount of leg room if he needs the second and third volumes to be bigger than previously thought, and if he doesn't then 250,000 words is still a very substantial novel (Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold is about that long, for example).

The problem, and the reason why a lot of fans are angry with this decision, is that these answers and explanations were not offered by Tor. Instead, they attempted to hide behind marketing-speak and unconvincing spin, and to do that to the fanbase of their flagship series (Tor is sometimes called the house that The Wheel of Time built, and the success of that series has subsidised them taking a chance on many other first-time authors over the years) is pretty low.

Whatever the reasoning, the situation is at least set and we know what is going on. The Wheel of Time Book 12, A Memory of Light Volume I: The Gathering Storm (try saying it whilst drunk) will be published by Tor in the United States in November 2009. I suspect that Orbit will follow suit in the UK, although they haven't issued any statements yet.


Neth said...

Adam, we have our disagreements on this issue, but this is a well-written blog post that does pose some interesting questions for Tor to answer. And I like that your 'bottom-line message' is that the real issue here is communication from Tor.

I didn't know that there was already a book by that title (not a surprise). I think that most people would agree that they should have spent more time on the title (even Sanderson from his comments).

Adam Whitehead said...

There's actually a much more famous book with the same title: the first volume of Sir Winston Churchill's war memoirs (the others being Their Finest Hour, The Grand Alliance, The Hinge of Fate, Closing the Ring & Triumph and Tragedy, any of which would make a good WoT title, actually), the first of which got made into an award-winning film starring Albert Finney a few years ago :-)

Neth said...

I'm less bothered by it being a title of Churchill's (in fact, that might have made it appealing to RJ). But the same title was used in another popular fantasy series (not as popular, but still popular) for a book that was published in 2004.

Unknown said...

I wonder if the relative size of the print runs between Erikson and the WoT isn't a big factor. WoT gets huge print runs, so much so that it is always quite easy to find tons of hardcover copies sold cheap in the remainder bins six months after release.

With a million copy print run, a 10% variance in sales between volumes can mean 100,000 copies overprinted, which is vastly more than most authors even get printed at all in HC.

A higher wordcount increases the cost of producing each volume, and makes overprinting that much more expensive.

I would expect the variance to be even larger with these final volumes- on one hand you expect the fact that it's the finale to the series to increase interest over the previous books (so maybe it sells more). But does Sanderson's name on the cover turn some people away as well?

Erikson's print runs are not only much smaller but I wouldn't be surprised to find that he has a pretty consistent and loyal base, making print runs easier to predict.

Adam Whitehead said...

Those are all valid points, but Tor does have eleven previous data-points to compare the sizes of their print runs to. I assume that CoT did very well in hardcover to justify KoD's print numbers, but if a lot of KoD copies ended up remaindered (and apart from anecdotal evidence I haven't seen lots of evidence for that), then I assume Tor would work out a new median between the two and use that as the basis of their next print run.

Unknown said...

It might be different in the UK (maybe they do a better job at estimating Jordan's print runs) but I've seen huge amounts of every one of Jordan's novels remaindered (at least since they went to HC first) several months after release here in the US. But it's the way for pretty much every major bestseller since their print runs are orders of magnitude bigger than most other authors (though oddly I almost never see any of Martin's hardcovers remaindered).

The worst was definitely "New Spring"- I think Tor way overestimated the demand on that one but that's probably not surprising since it was such a bit of an outlier in terms of series chronology.

And of course Tor will use the previous data but, as I mentioned in the other post, these books have variables that mid-series books did not.

In this environment, I'm not surprised to see Tor play things conservatively.

Adam Whitehead said...

In the UK the series seems to have done a good job of avoiding the remaindered bin. Oddly enough, it's NEW SPRING as well which you see far more often than the others. I think people were simply reluctant to pay the same price for a 300-page book as for a 700-page one just a year earlier. I've seen the paperback of the world book crop up a fair bit, which is odd because my local full-price bookshops which have the full range in stock usually have a copy of that as well.

James said...

Excellent article, Adam.

I'm not a WOT fan (read the first book years ago, loved it, put the second one down halfway through) and so ultimately what Tor do doesn't bother me, as I won't be buying the books anyway.

From a business perspective, Tor's decision makes perfect sense. They need to make as much money as possible, so they're taking steps to do that. It's annoying the fans get shafted in the process, but recessions have this sort of effect. If by doing this it secures Tor's long-term future, then great - the last thing we want is for Tor to go under.

What annoys me though is the way they've tried to pull the wool over everyone's eyes with the pathetic excuses. I don't expect them to come out and say "Hey guys - we're gonna shaft you for all you're worth!" but you think they'd at least come up with a better excuse than the ones they have done....

Btw, where was the bit where Tor made the comment about not wanting to leave it too long in case fans forgot about the series? Couldn't find that quote anywhere. Totally ridiculous thing to say.

Adam Whitehead said...

That was in Brandon's blog post, about Tor wanting to get the book out in 2009 because it's been four years since KoD and they were worried about people spontaneously forgetting the series existed. Very bizarre.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Yeah, I'd have more resepct for TOR if they had been open about their motives, together with an explanation how making money in publishing works. If they had said, you know folks, we have a few big earning horses that in a way pay for the new authors we take on, and since we a) still want to bring you new authors to read, b) there's that ugly recession that affects publishing, too, and c) Memory of Light will have to be split anyway because a 800K book is a monster to produce, we decided for a split that will enable us to bring the books out for the big Christmas sales, because yes, they will make more money that way, but a good deal of that money is used for investments like in any business, only our investments are new authors and keeping the midlisters alive.

Because that is what they're doing. Perhaps they need a new public relation spokesman. ;)

RobB said...

Adam, maybe you should be working in book publishing.

Seriously though, regarding Knife of Dreams remainders, I see them in almost every bookstore I visit knocked down to a 5.99 or 6.99 price point.

If Tor had just said, in a few words "Also, these books grow in the writing. We are doing some forethought and project three volumes now so it doesn't bite us in the ass later" or something to that effect, the internet wouldn't have broken in half this week.

Alexander Field said...

Great post Adam, I think you're right on. Now I just wish Tor would spend a bit more time and money on artwork for the series that sells millions of copies for them. Spend the money, get the cover right!