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January 3, 2003

Just to answer a question that’s already showing up in multiple emails: yes, this is true, I really did make a publication offer, on behalf of Tor Books, to a writer named John Scalzi for a science fiction novel he had serialized on his web journal. And he very graciously accepted.

It’s called Old Man’s War, and it can be best described as a Heinlein juvenile whose protagonist happens to be 75 years old. And I couldn’t stop reading it. We’ll publish it in hardcover in late 2003 or early 2004, and in paperback about a year after that.

Neither John or I are entirely sure that this is the very first instance of a novel being snapped up by a major publisher based on its being posted to the web, but whether it is or not, I’m very happy with the deal. Scalzi is in fact a professional writer, but primarily in nonfiction; this is his first novel sale.

I’ve just been tipped off that Andrew Sullivan’s weblog mentions this deal, and links to Scalzi’s own site, which I imagine accounts for the big wash of hits rolling over nielsenhayden.com this morning. Welcome, new readers. Have a look around, and do drop by Teresa’s Making Light as well, if you’re so inclined. [09:41 AM]

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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Just to answer:

spacewaitress ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 10:08 AM:

I'm so pleased! I thought Old Man's War was just fantastic. Laugh-out-loud funny in parts, too.

Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 11:40 AM:

That's cool. I've read Scalzi's online columns and they're absolutely hysterical. Now must take a look at the book. But will probably wait for the full read until it comes out in paper (that's the point, isn't it?)

Jeff Jarvis ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 02:36 PM:

Patrick: Good and smart work finding new voices online.
There was an earlier case of this: Claire Berlinksi sold her book, Loose Lips, to Random House after posting chapters online (and emailing them around to bloggers); she has also sold film rights. http://berlinski.com/novel/author.htm
I'd say this makes a trend.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 02:42 PM:

This is not the first time Patrick has found talent online.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 02:48 PM:

Indeed not, but it's definitely the first time I've found the actual material online.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 02:56 PM:

Now go ask him for that kidney, just to see what happens.

catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 04:23 PM:

Not that this has anything to do with M. Scalzi's sale, but the new blog breakdown over in the nav bar is incredibly spiffy and useful to passers-by. Thanks!

Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 04:41 PM:

Patrick, you are a planetary resource. I continue to marvel at how damn' good you are at what you do, i.e. voraciously wading through the vast ocean of *stuff* out there to find *good stuff* and point the rest of us at it. John Scalzi is a lovely find. He has that rare quality of radiating likeability through his prose, even while his prose is sharp, fresh, and intelligent. I look forward to picking up a copy
of the novel. At the moment, however, I admit that what I'm most excited about is the music that Mr. Scalzi has pointed me at via his IndieCrit site. I'm off to buy late Christmas prezzies for my sweetie, and thumb my nose at the big labels *at* *the* *same* *time*. How cool is that?

Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 08:15 PM:


A geekish question, which you are of course free to ignore if answering it would be inappropriate:

I've seen people say that you shouldn't post stuff online, since you are then unable to sell first publication rights (or whatever the technical term is). Is this inaccurate, inapplicable, or being worked around in this case?q

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 09:51 PM:

I've been getting that question in email, too.

There's a lot of floundering and confusion on this point. Many aspiring writers need to be reminded that stuff they do on the web, or with a xerox machine, can be just as "real" as what a "real" publisher does. It's possible to compromise certain rights so that you can't sell to a market you want to sell to. For instance, my Starlight anthology series consists, by agreement with Tor, of only original, never-before-published work. If someone has already published their story on a popular web site, I am probably not going to consider it for Starlight.

On the other hand, I'm interested in doing good books, not in scoring petty points. If something's prior web publication turns out to be nothing more than an obscure LiveJournal page, or if the author used a web server to share it among members of their workshop, and it's a brilliant piece of work, maybe I'll want the story for Starlight after all.

What it seems to me that we're learning about online free (or cheap) distribution of fiction e-texts is that, sometimes at least, it doesn't hurt the sale of print editions and may even help it. Data points: Scott Card giving away e-texts on his website. Baen Books' various promotions and sales of e-texts. The latest David Weber hardcover extravaganza included a CD-ROM bound into the back cover, containing e-texts of all the previous books in the series. I will bet you lunch that this caused the sale of more David Weber backlist print editions than it cost. With fiction, at any rate, people mostly don't say "I don't need a printed book, I have an e-text." I'm sure some do. But mostly they say "I'm intrigued by the taste I got from this e-text, so I'm going to go buy a more-comfortable-to-read printed book now."

But you know something? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe all this is just an artifact of a temporary "comfort gap" between e-texts and printed books. Maybe ten years from now it will be all different. Maybe aspiring writers should be entirely wary of letting their prose onto the net.

What I know is that I liked Scalzi's book and, in the two minutes I spent considering the fact that it had "already been published" on the Web, my basic conclusion was "so what." Right now, in his case at least, this seems not so much a bug as a feature. Applicability to other cases? Unknown.

Bill Peschel ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 10:29 PM:

I was one of the few who promoted Scalzi's novel on my blog, so I'm feeling particularly good about this sale. I'm even eating a little crow, because I e-mailed him saying that it probably would have been sold a few decades ago when Heinlein was writing books like this, but probably not today.

But "OMW" is still a dam good effort. Scalzi has shown that he produces clean copy and he's capable of being entertaining and informative. He deserves this.

BTW, there's an incremental difference between Scalzi and "Loose Lips." In that case, she offered the first chapter online, then sold you the e-text. Scalzi did the reverse by putting the whole book online, then selling it.

Now if Microsoft will get on the stick and develop that BrainPal . . .

Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:15 PM:

Patrick: thanks for the answer. I didn't realize the difference regarding marketes and the kinds of rights you want to be able to sell.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 02:03 PM:

I am happy and satisfied to see a prediction of mine (that the job of editor, especially as wader-through-scum or finder-of-diamonds-in-mountain-of-shit is the most essential function of creativity-as-business) borne out by developments, and immeasurably more so to see that one of my oldest friends is such a successful proof of my prediction. Patrick, I think it doesn't matter what happens to distribution, the job you excel at will always be found worth paying for.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 03:10 PM:

Small wordo, Patrick: "...it doesn't hurt the sale of print editions and may even hurt it." I'm sure everyone understands you meant "and may even help it," but my Inner Proofreader cried out for release.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 05:23 PM:

Oops. Gary, I fixed it already, before seeing your post here. Now I suppose I should go unfix it so your post will make sense. Decisions, decisions.

Ray ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 11:06 AM:

This is lovely news, all right, but I don't understand why none of the reports I've read have mentioned Geoff Ryman's "253," which was published on a personal website in 1995 or 1996 (still available there) and printed a few years later. Apparently the printed version sold fairly well, too, even though Ryman's hypertext (unlike most extended prose) arguably loses by the medium transfer. Is it because Ryman didn't originally have a print sale in mind?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 11:18 AM:

Probably because nobody thought of it. I know the book, but my impression was that the hyperlinked version was part of the same Grand Plan as the original (British) paper edition. I could easily be wrong.

Peter Tillman ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 11:07 AM:

And further news:

Nineteen-year-old Christopher Paolini of Paradise Valley, Montana, has sold self-published first novel Eragon and two unwritten sequels to Knopf for a deal reportedly over $500,000.
Locus, http://www.locusmag.com/2003/News/News01Log.html

Patrick, did you see this one? $500,000??

Cheers -- Pete Tillman