Metropolitan: the Lawyers

by wjw on April 20, 2012

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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

DensityDuck April 20, 2012 at 6:15 am

“In other words, it has the same relationship to our world and times than any other high fantasy neography.”

If nothing else, I always did wonder what they’d done with the Marianas Trench. And then I thought “well, they probably filled it in when they leveled all of the continents down to the abyssal plain”. And then I thought about exactly how long it would take to perform engineering on that scale, and then I realized just how far in the future “Metropolitan” would have to be set. Like, REALLY FREAKING FAR.

Tim April 20, 2012 at 11:42 am

Fascinating. The most interesting thing in this series of posts to me, though, was the throwaway remark in part two the Metropolitan only covered the first two paragraphs of your original plot outline. I’m assuming City on Fire took it a bit further, but does that mean you had a rough plot for another book in the series?

I’m assuming that at this point there’s no way you’re going to write one, but I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in how you saw the series wrapping up, even in rough note form…

Ken Houghton April 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm

“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.”

I could be wrong, but my vague memory is that she’s an editor, not a publisher, at Tor.

TC/Writer Underground April 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm

I love the behind-the-scenes editing/publishing dirt when a glimpse is offered up (usually on a cold platter). Might be because it makes me feel better about dealing with clients.

And now I know why you spoke so reverently of Ralph when he passed.

wjw April 20, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Ken>> actually Harriet McDougal is both a fine editor =and= a publisher.

Tim, I will get more into the resolution of the series’ plot lines when I write my essay on City on Fire.

There is actually more to the NAL story than I related here, but I suspect some more people are going to have to die before I can tell it.

wjw April 20, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Oh, and they probably filled up the Marianas Trench with the Himalayas.

Max Kaehn April 20, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I had the far-future impression from it— very much the Shadowrun-style magic-comes-back notion, but with people figuring out how to integrate technology and magic instead of portraying them as at odds.

Shash April 21, 2012 at 2:31 am

Whenever I pick up Metropolitan or City on Fire to re-read, I automatically place it on Venus, not Earth, because Venus’ atmosphere shields it from the sun.

Loved to hear the scoop on publishing house shenanigans.

Allen April 21, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Okay, got the ebook, and just finished rereading Metropolitan for the first time since 1995-ish.

I remember liking it when I first read it, but on re-reading, it’s even better than I had recalled!

My (now ex-) wife also really liked it back in 1995. If there had been a “paranormal romance” market back then it might have done very well.

I didn’t really have a problem with the fantasy/science-fiction issue back then – I think I also categorized it as “Shadowrun-ish”, manuals and novelizations of which I remember seeing on the bookstore shelves back then.

I do recall being a little obsessed about The Shield – though note that Constantine tells Aiah that destroying it is his ultimate goal. And Sorya’s people’s whole religion is sort of based around it. And there are the tantalizing hints about the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Moon still being detectable. SO – it’s a little harder to avoid obsessing about The Shield than all that…

Though, while I enjoyed this book back then (and bought the sequel as soon as it came out), it didn’t have as much impact on me as Voice of the Whirlwind, which is what got me started buying your stuff.

I think that at the time I was mainly into science fiction, and as good as Metropolitan was, I didn’t think of it as science fiction, so I quickly moved on.

But now science fiction seems very “over” to me – for the last 5 years at least it’s just been rehashing the same basic ideas. For now anyway, science fiction has run it’s course. Some new “conceptual breakthrough” needs to happen before it’s worth revisiting.

Now I’m primarily interested in surrealism, magical realism, and “New Weird” – now I’m primarily interested in stuff like Metropolitan!

So, I eagerly await the ebook for City on Fire. And hopefully you’ll write some new stuff in this same vein soon as well!

DensityDuck April 22, 2012 at 6:23 am

Also, I think part of the problem is that plasm isn’t exactly new to your typical F&SF reader. Like, “magic power”, okay. “generated by buildings” is a little new but not too far outside the comfort zone.

“Giant magic barrier in the sky that stops anything from going through it, except gravity, and the result is that there is no such thing as night anywhere on the planet”. That’s bit more novel, and interesting, and other stories would have made it the story rather than a background element.

Anonymous April 22, 2012 at 6:50 pm

One thing that stands out about Metropolitan is its optimism. Yes, the planet is jam packed with people, but, all-in-all, they seem to be coping pretty well.

While not idyllic, it does seem both bearable and sustainable. The Barkazils are an oppressed minority, but seem generally better off than pre-”Civil Rights Act” African-Americans. They don’t seem much worse off than modern urban hispanic immigrants, really.

Also, no sign of out-of-control pollution. Famines don’t seem to be as big a problem as one would expect with so many people living with so few spare resources. Not much mention of epidemics either.

There are the “twisted”, but they are apparently a small minority, and not a growing problem. Widespread plasm use doesn’t seem to be corrupting the gene pool or leading to out-of-control mutation.

The humans on the planet seem to have gotten without much change for thousands of years, and entirely capable of persisting for thousands more…the only question being, how best to organize the political structure.

One path into weirder territory would have been to make the whole thing much darker. A similar world of similar age, but where the cracks were starting to show. Where things are starting to unravel. Where Entropy is winning. Where the plasm’s ability to alter things is spinning out of control – but mankind is still trapped within the Shield. And Constantine is thus more driven and desperate to break the Shield. And closer to nihilism if it proves unbreakable.

Another thought that occurs to me – if you were setting up a computer simulation of a planet, you might very well put in a “boundary condition” like the Shield, just to avoid having to simulate an entire universe for the planet’s inhabitants to look up at and and try to reach. Just to simplify the simulation and reduce the amount of computational power needed.

Allen April 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm

One thing that stands out about Metropolitan is its optimism. Yes, the planet is jam packed with people, but, all-in-all, they seem to be coping pretty well.

While not idyllic, it does seem both bearable and sustainable. The Barkazils are an oppressed minority, but seem generally better off than pre-”Civil Rights Act” African-Americans. They don’t seem much worse off than modern urban hispanic immigrants, really.

Also, no sign of out-of-control pollution. Famines don’t seem to be as big a problem as one would expect with so many people living with so few spare resources. Not much mention of epidemics either.

There are the “twisted”, but they are apparently a small minority, and not a growing problem. Widespread plasm use doesn’t seem to be corrupting the gene pool or leading to out-of-control mutation.

The humans on the planet seem to have gotten without much change for thousands of years, and entirely capable of persisting for thousands more…the only question being, how best to organize the political structure.

One path into weirder territory would have been to make the whole thing much darker. A similar world of similar age, but where the cracks were starting to show. Where things are starting to unravel. Where Entropy is winning. Where the plasm’s ability to alter things is spinning out of control – but mankind is still trapped within the Shield. And Constantine is thus more driven and desperate to break the Shield. And closer to nihilism if it proves unbreakable.

Another thought that occurs to me – if you were setting up a computer simulation of a planet, you might very well put in a “boundary condition” like the Shield, just to avoid having to simulate an entire universe for the planet’s inhabitants to look up at and and try to reach. Just to simplify the simulation and reduce the amount of computational power needed.

Allen April 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Maybe the world of Metropolitan *is* a giant computer simulation, run as part of a research program Maybe this world is one of a large number that are produced by a “genetic algorithm” that is searching the space of possible worlds for looking for even small efficiency gains that would allow higher population densities.

And the Shield is there as a way of limiting the scope of the solutions found to those that can be implemented on a single planet.

Wait – am I obsessing about the Shield again???

Foxessa April 22, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I was working still at Penguin USA (having started at Viking, before the acquisitions and mergers) when she went — it wasn’t just writers and agents who rang each other with Ding Dong the Witch’s Dead. She was as sincerely loathed in the org. as she was outside it.

Allen April 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Another possibility: There *is* nothing outside the Shield.

Which is not to say that outside the Shield is vacuum – but rather “outside the shield” has no meaning for this particular universe – which consists of only the Shield and what it encapsulates.

The Sun and the Moon and the Ascended and the world before the Shield all being just elements of an incorrect “creation myth”.

Perhaps the Shield doesn’t simply radiate energy, but rather “re-radiates” energy – having absorbed the systems energy at some point in the past.

This opens the door for interesting thermodynamic scenarios involving Poincare Recurrence and Loschmidt’s Paradox. Which could themselves lead to interesting questions about the nature of reason and rationality (e.g., Stephen Hawking’s “Fundamental Paradox”).

How to turn all that into an interesting story that builds on Metropolitan and City on Fire, I leave as an exercise for the writer…!

Mike Schilling April 23, 2012 at 1:21 am

Where wast thou when I himalayed the foundations of the seas?

DensityDuck April 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Allen: Interesting ideas but I think that a lot of your speculation is directly contradicted by events in City On Fire.

Interestingly, it now occurs to me that it is again possible for someone to come to this series entirely new, without getting the pair in one shot from a used book store. So it might indeed be the case that someone would not know what happens in the second book!

“Also, no sign of out-of-control pollution. ”

Well, it helps if your gas-burning engines all run on hydrogen created by electrolysis (or diesel fuel created by magic transmutation, which is entirely devoid of sulfur.)

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