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Tom Doherty: On Publishing October 2003

Tor publisher Tom Doherty attended Trinity College in the '50s, where he majored in philosophy and played guard in football, before serving nearly two years in the US Army. He was a salesman for Pocket Books in 1959 when he met Ian Ballantine, who taught him about publishing. A variety of sales and publishing jobs later, Doherty became publisher of Ace in 1975, where he remained for five years until starting Tor Books in 1980. Tor was sold to St. Martin's, which in turn was acquired by Holtzbrinck, with Tor retaining autonomy along the way. Currently Holtzbrinck is making Tor a global name, through an arrangement with Pan Macmillan Australia to use the name there, and through the launch of Tor UK as a joint venture with Pan Macmillan UK in March 2003. Doherty lives in New York City.    
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Tor Books

Excerpts from the interview:


“The way I defined Tor in the beginning was 'History -- past, present and future.' Archaeology and anthropology are also sciences, which a science fiction editor ought to relate easily to: First Contact. The problems of the relationship between Stone Age North American and Industrial European could be very similar to possible problems in first contact with aliens. This leads you into historical novels of the opening of the North American continent. In the last few years, we've been the major winner of the Spur Award for both best historical and best novel of the West. On the other end, we found we were publishing people like Dean Ing, who was doing things set ten years in the future, kind of as Tom Clancy was. When we took Dean Ing's The Ransom of Black Stealth One (1989) and called it a technothriller instead of science fiction, all of a sudden he made the New York Times bestseller list. So this led us to do more technothrillers, and the technothrillers led us to do thrillers, which leads you back to World War II...

"That sense of broad definition was the general theory of Tor. The other theory was that we wanted to let editors have the freedom to do other things that interested them, to work with authors they wanted to work with. Some authors would come in for one thing and go on to do another. Carole Nelson Douglas has been most successful for us doing a series of mysteries, but she came to us through fantasy. If it really is fantasy or science fiction, you can label it that with any but the most established authors -- Michael Crichton never wrote anything but science fiction, but they never called it science fiction. By the time we took on Andrew Greeley for his fantasy and SF, he was a major New York Times bestselling author for another kind of book. We now do all his fiction.”


“I'm not really concerned with getting books to people who really want them. The superstores have more space and more selection than was ever available in most cities of this country. What I'm worried about is ways to attract new people and grow the market. We are not putting books in front of as many people as we once were, and that has slowed our growth. There's growth in the space given to books, but a loss of location. Dalton and Waldenbooks have far fewer stores. Many regional chains are gone. We've heard about the independents going, but we don't hear about these chains going. We've lost nearly 2,000 stores that put books where people walk down a mall to buy a shirt or a pair of shoes and see books and buy them. This particularly affects the entry to the mass-market category. We're still good as an industry at distributing bestsellers, but in SF and fantasy our outreach has narrowed.”


“You've got to care about what you're doing -- you even make more money that way. The American public is pretty bright, and they will buy things that are good. When you get in trouble is when you try to do things mechanically: 'I'm gonna manufacture this because I perceive this to be the market.' I don't think you can do it, not consistently. You can't manufacture something that supports a sense of wonder.”


“Continuing to predict the death of the genre is silly. I not only started Tor, but was involved in the founding of Baen, and I'm still a partner in Baen, a very healthy independent publishing company. So there are two startup science fiction lines I've been a part of that are still healthy and growing. I don't see any cause to assume doom and gloom. The big question is, how do we continue to grow at the rate we've been growing? Tor is publishing more science fiction right now than the entire industry published when I was at Tempo. It's not like we let everything go out of print or we can't publish new books. There's tremendous opportunity in this field.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the October 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.

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