What’s a nice series like you doing with a publisher like this?

Written by Charles Stross

One of the realities of publishing that we don’t like to talk about is that a series generally lives or dies by grace of its first publisher. It’s extremely unusual for a series to hop from one publisher to another, yet with the publication of The Delirium Brief by Tor.com Publishing next month, the Laundry Files will be on its third US publisher (and fifth English language publisher overall). What happened and how did we get here?

Let’s rewind to the summer of 1999, when an aspiring SF novelist called Charlie had finished a space opera and was waiting to hear from the editor to whom he’d sent it. I was tired of far-future SF at that point and wanted to do something for light relief; a spy story, perhaps, or maybe something Lovecraftian. A year earlier I’d published a short story titled “A Colder War” which got some attention, but its tale of a 1980s cold war updated with Cthulhoid horrors was too bleak to expand into a novel. On the other hand, earlier in the decade I’d written an odd technothriller about a covert British government agency that protected us from the consequences of certain catastrophic mathematical discoveries. It didn’t work as a story (I was still working on my craft) but it occurred to me that if I mixed up the Len Deighton-esque British spy thriller ambiance with an incongruous protagonist and added tentacle monsters from beyond spacetime, maybe I could turn it into a cross-genre mash-up that would work. So I found myself writing a short novel titled The Atrocity Archive (no ‘s’). I then scratched my head over it for a while.

In 2001, by a stroke of luck, I acquired a literary agent and a novel contract from Ace, for the space opera and a sequel. “What else have you got?” asked my agent. I sent her The Atrocity Archive and she scratched her head over it too, before concluding “I can’t sell this: it’s too cross-genre.” (She was right-—at that time! The market today is very different.)

Back then self-publishing wasn’t an option, but I was selling short fiction to a digest format Scottish SF magazine, Spectrum SF, which serialized novels. As it happened Paul, the editor, was in the process of publishing John Christopher’s last novel at the time: he read The Atrocity Archive, gave a lot of editorial feedback on it, and eventually serialized it. After which, the magazine immediately folded: but at least I had the rights.

Around this time I was picking up a bit of attention in the US (my short fiction had finally debuted in Asimov’s Science Fiction and my first novel was coming out). Marty Halpern of Golden Gryphon, a small press spin-off of the venerable Arkham House Lovecraftian imprint, asked me if I could write a novella for a series of Lovecraftian novellas he was putting together.

“No, but will a short novel help?” I replied. Marty liked The Atrocity Archive, but… “it’s too short! Can you write some more material to go alongside it?” Which is how “The Concrete Jungle,” the second story in the Laundry Files, got written—to pad out a full-length book. And a very handsome small press hardcover, titled The Atrocity Archives, finally showed up from Golden Gryphon in 2004.

…Whereupon “The Concrete Jungle” won the 2005 Hugo Award for best novella, and all hell broke loose.

Golden Gryphon had asked for a sequel by then, which arrived as The Jennifer Morgue (a James Bond riff). My UK publisher, Orbit, wanted to publish the books too; meanwhile, my editor at Ace decided to offer for paperback rights to the first two titles and take it from there.

The Atrocity Archives was Golden Gryphon’s second best-selling title; The Jennifer Morgue nearly doubled those sales. By that point, it was pretty clear to me that this wanted to be a trilogy…or even a series. When we began looking at the numbers, it became apparent that Golden Gryphon simply couldn’t handle the likely print run for book three, The Fuller Memorandum; so the series ended up moving to Ace in hardcover in 2008, where it stayed for the next four novels. Meanwhile, Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor.com acquired and published the Laundry Files short stories, up to and including 2014’s Hugo-winning novella, “Equoid.”

All good times come to an end. Penguin, Ace’s parent company, merged with Random House in 2012-13, and corporate restructuring ensued. In early 2016 I got word that Ace wouldn’t offer for more Laundry Files books. (There’s no change in the UK, however: Orbit continue to happily publish the series in hardcover in the British market.)

Generally when a series is orphaned, it’s because of declining sales, and rival publishers are very wary about picking up a sequel to earlier titles that aren’t selling well and might go out of print. In the case of the Laundry Files, sales weren’t poor, and Tor had good reason to believe that the series is viable. So this July The Delirium Brief is coming out in hardcover and ebook from my new publisher, the third (or maybe fifth!) English language publisher in the series’ fifteen year lifetime!

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7 thoughts on “What’s a nice series like you doing with a publisher like this?

  1. That’s crazy that Ace decided to stop! Glad you found an intelligent publisher 🙂

  2. So what happens, business wise, to the previous novels? Will the rights eventually come back to you, or will the books only be found on the secondary/used market?

    1. It depends on whether Ace want to keep selling them. (Which they probably do.) If they lapse out of print then I can get the rights back, and will get them back into ebook availability at a minimum. But there’s no reason for Ace to stop selling the ebooks, so I don’t know if/when that will ever happen.

    1. Nope, it was an even earlier attempt at a novel, titled “Burn Time”. It had problems; I’m not going to try and resurrect it (especially as about 80% of the good stuff in it has already been recycled in other works).

  3. Blue Cole, it usually depends on whether the company is allowing the books to go out of print or continuing to print them, just not the later ones. Usually, though, they’re okay with handing back the rights if asked. A friend of mine had a series of six and had had four published when her publisher
    decided not to publish the last two, though they were doing fine. She self published the last two, then resold the lot to a big company which has an all-ebook list, so all six are now back in print, in ebook.

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