Metropolitan: the Lawyers
I’m now delighted to report that Metropolitan is now available for the Nook. It always takes a little longer over at the brick-and-mortar store, but now it’s done. Mad downloading and rejoicing may commence!
This is the third of a series of essays on my novel Metropolitan, and will deal with its commercial and legal history. Fortunately a number of the principals are dead, and I am now free to tell the truth, insofar as I understand it.
But first, a note on Metropolitan’s setting. Many reviewers proclaimed with great confidence that the book was set “on a far-future Earth.” They had more confidence in that interpretation than I do.
Metropolitan has the same relationship to a future Earth that Lord of the Rings has to Europe’s past. In other words, it has the same relationship to our world and times than any other high fantasy neography.
Which is to say, Don’t think about it so much.
Right. Now back to our history.
Metropolitan appeared from a different publisher than my SF. All that had come from Tor, and now I was with HarperPrism.
There was actually a Whole Other Publisher in the middle there, which I will get to anon.
In the meantime, why leave Tor? I didn’t leave actually, they just let me drift away.
A big change happened in the early Nineties when my agent left the business, and “sold” me, more or less literally, to my new agent, Ralph M. Vicinanza. (I did consent to the sale.) Ralph had been with another agency as their foreign sales specialist, and had started his own agency. He was doing well with a large, prestigious client list, which happened to include Stephen King, the Biggest Bestseller Since King James.
First thing he said to me was, “You’re not making nearly enough money.” (Writers like to hear things like that.) Second thing was, “I’m sending Aristoi to auction.”
Tor had been gradually increasing my advances over the years in a traditional building-you-book-by-book strategy common to publishers at that time. Ralph viewed this strategy as obsolete, and saw no reason why they shouldn’t just hand me lots of money right then and get on with the business of making me famous.
(And in fact that book-by-book strategy is pretty much dead now. If you haven’t achieved mega-stardom by your second or third book, you’re generally out on your ear.)
My own analysis was that I was unlikely to achieve mega-stardom as a Tor author. What Tor seemed to have realized was that they could do as well or better by poaching authors from other publishers.
Here’s how they seemed to view the matter: suppose someone like David Brin breaks out of the pack and becomes hugely popular. Suppose you want David Brin, or at least his sales figures. You have two choices: you can spend money and time nurturing and promoting your own authors in hopes that one of them becomes the next David Brin— which is a risky strategy that might cost you time and money, with no increase in sales— or you can go after David Brin with a big check and steal him from his previous publisher!
Suddenly Tor’s list was flush with authors who had been made famous on other publishers’ lists. What of Tor’s other authors, who had been loyal all this time, plugging away with book after book? We were finding ourselves more and more in the shade. The only mega-star on Tor’s list who had come up as a Tor author seemed to be Robert Jordan, and he had an advantage the rest of us didn’t have— he was married to one of Tor’s publishers.
So Aristoi went out for bids between publishers, and Tor bought me back. I got a 65% raise over my previous book, which made me very happy.
Which brings us to Metropolitan, which was duly submitted to Tor. Tor made an offer, but cranked that 65% back. What, suddenly my new project wasn’t worth as much money as my previous book? WTF???
And then Tor refused to negotiate. For six whole months.
Now this came at a time when I was very much in demand. Other publishers were chasing me waving their checkbooks on high.
Enthusiasm vs. silence. Money vs. no money. Seemed like a no-brainer to me.
I sold Metropolitan to a new publisher for a pleasing increase in my advance. I was somewhat traumatized by leaving Tor, but not when Ralph relayed their final message: “When Walter finally realizes what he’s worth, he’s welcome to come back.”
To which anyone of spirit can only reply, Fuuuuuuck Yoooouuuuuuu!
I now found myself at Roc Books, a division of New American Library. NAL had originally been Penguin’s imprint in the US, but had wangled its independence in the 1940s, and had been through several different owners over the years. By the time I became a Roc author, NAL was a part of Penguin again.
The 1980s had been good to SF. Hard-charging empire builders like Lou Aronica, John Silbersack, Tom Doherty, and Jim Baen had founded science fiction lines with a careful admixture of enthusiasm and stacks of cash. Roc was one of the newer imprints, created just the year before by John Silbersack at the behest of Penguin’s chairman Peter Mayer.
A brand new fiction line! Run by a talented empire builder! With a dire need for new writers to make famous! What could go wrong?
Well, for one thing, Silbersack left for HarperCollins, taking with him his talented editor, John Douglas. My new editor was Amy Stout. But I knew Amy and got along with her, and saw no reason why the two of us should not thrive and prosper. After all, Roc still needed superstars, right?
All went well at first. I delivered Metropolitan, and Amy accepted it. There was a proposal for City on Fire on her desk. And then Ralph called my and said, “Walter, we’re in trouble.”
What had happened was that Amy’s boss had read Metropolitan, and decided it wasn’t worth the money she was contracted to pay for it. So she called Ralph with a demand: she would publish the book, she just wouldn’t pay me the half of the advance that was due on acceptance.
Now this meant that she was going to break a signed contract, and having broken it, publish a novel she no longer had the legal right to publish.
Wow. A move like that certainly takes some cojones. Who was this remarkable person?
Her name was Elaine Koster. She was a publisher at NAL, and also an editor. People in the industry loathed her, but were terrified of her because she wielded so much power in her bailiwick. She was, you see, Stephen King’s editor. She had picked Carrie from the garbage heap and turned it into a bestseller. And if you’re in publishing, you don’t fuck with the editor of the Biggest Bestseller Since King James.
Why had Koster chosen to fuck with me? The only answer I ever got was “Because she’s batshit crazy.”
(It has to be said that I have a history of attracting vindictive crazy people who try to fuck with me. They do not prosper. Read what follows, and take warning.)
As it happens, Kathy and I had made an offer on a house a few days before all this came down. The offer was a legally binding contract, much like mine with NAL. If I reneged on it, I could be sued.
The timing certainly could have been better.
I got a lawyer and set the lawyer to work. And I got Ralph busy finding another publisher for Metropolitan. Which he did— none other than John Silbersack, who had bought the book in the first place. He’d be happy to buy it, and its sequel, for more money.
But I had to negotiate my release from Roc first. Which eventually I, or rather my lawyer, did. Whatever Koster thought, NAL’s lawyers were less than enthusiastic about defending an untenable position. So they settled.
I got a new publisher and a new contract. I got to keep half Roc’s advance and the whole of Harper’s advance. I bought my house. Life was great. I was happy. I started work on City on Fire.
I also wrote letters to SFWA and MWA and other writers’ organization explaining what had happened, and pointed out that NAL might now be considered a publisher of last resort, insofar as they were now in the habit of breaking their own contracts. Though Elaine was still in the catbird seat at NAL, the very least I could do was shit in her breakfast.
As a result of one of these letters, I heard from one of Elaine’s other victims, a woman who had been subjected to the same treatment as I had. She had not been in a position to resist, and Elaine had kept her busy doing rewrite after rewrite for more or less ever, and eventually published the work, paying the author half the advance she’d initially promised.
This ends the tale of my involvement with Roc Books. But it’s not the end of the story.
What follows is speculative, though it fits with the facts such as I know them. This is is the Tale of Ralph’s Revenge.
Ralph and Elaine Koster were friends. One was Stephen King’s agent, the other his editor. They talked on the phone every day. Then Elaine chose to fuck over one of Ralph’s clients, namely me. Those friendly phone conversations ended. Whatever was between them after that was pure business.
And I believe that Ralph decided to get even. Who would win the war between King’s Agent and King’s Editor?
Ralph was smart, committed, loyal, and Not Crazy. (Loyal and Not Crazy is kind of an amazing combination, at least in publishing.) Ralph was the agent for Stephen King and a lot of high-powered people. He was also capable of an air of quiet, thoughtful menace, rather like that of a high-ranking cardinal in the Vatican Curia. Some days it was all I could do not to kiss his ring.
And Ralph wasn’t in a hurry. The Vatican Curia takes the long view. And the matter was difficult, because Stephen King was very loyal to Elaine Koster, who had rescued him from the literary dustbin.
But by and by, what I saw in the publishing news was this: Stephen King’s contract had expired, and he was willing to sign a new multi-book deal with Penguin/NAL/Signet, for a huge advance up front. A staggering advance. Millions upon millions of dollars. Money Penguin couldn’t afford.
They had to let King walk. Next thing I heard, he’d signed a multibook deal with Scribner, for a good deal less money up front, but instead a much bigger royalty.
Oooh, I thought. Good work there, Ralph!
Another shot came when Koster tried to play her game on a horror anthology edited by Douglas E. Winter— accepting the book, breaking the contract, and offering to pay less money.
As it happens, Douglas E. Winter isn’t just an author, editor, and biographer— he’s also a high-powered Washington litigator. And he could also afford to take the long view— he could pursue the issue through the courts at his own expense. I happily contributed an affidavit to the case. Winter won.
At this point the Powers at Penguin must have wondered, after Henry II, “Who will rid me of this turbulent editor?”
On the day that Elaine Koster left NAL, the phones began to ring throughout the publishing world. You’d pick up the phone, and a voice would say into your ear, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.”
And everybody knew who they were talking about.