High in Manhattan’s famous Flatiron Building you’ll find the headquarters of Tor Books, the most successful science fiction publisher in the world. The Flatiron is a monument to mad Belle Epoque futurism, with a wedge shape that makes right angles rare. Inside Tor’s cramped office, drifts of books cover every horizontal surface and most of the vertical ones. The mind boggles at the destruction that could be wrought here by a dropped match, let alone a misfired laser gun.
Tor publishes between 110 and 120 new original titles each year, routinely topping the science fiction bestseller list compiled by the industry magazine Locus. For 20 years running, it also has won the highly respected Locus Award for the best science fiction publishing house. This year Tor earned yet another distinction when its authors claimed all five finalist spots for the Prometheus Award, the annual prize for best science fiction novel of the year handed out by the Libertarian Futurist Society.
So is this the most successful libertarian propaganda venture in modern history? Publisher and founder Tom Doherty denies any ideological agenda. “First comes the story,” he says. His only stated goal is to “do a story in a way that’s honest.”
Science fiction has long served as a kind of mad scientist’s basement lab for testing out different political,economic, and social arrangements. Tor’s success suggests that science fiction’s commitment to meditations on the importance of human freedom remains strong, as mainstream writers borrow more freely from the once-ghettoized genre, indulging in science fiction–style hypotheticals that probe both the outer limits of and existential threats to liberty.
“Libertarianism is very much part of the intellectual argument of science fiction,” says longtime Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. “It’s impossible to be a part of the argument of science fiction without engaging both broad libertarian ideas and also specifically the whole American free market intellectual tradition.”
Science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, a self-described civil libertarian whose Tor titles include the brilliantly paranoid young adult novel Little Brother, suggests why science fiction writers think so much about alternative worlds. “It’s completely unsurprising that people who, you can imagine, aren’t at the top of the pecking order in high school would turn to science fiction,” says Doctorow, who is also co-author of the wildly popular geek blog Boing Boing. “The people who write it have often not been beneficiaries of the authoritarian system. They’re the people who don’t fit in exactly, and if you always rub up against social constraints, you’re the kind of person who’s willing to sit down and have a good hard think about whether this is the best way to do things.”
Two decades after the death of the trailblazing author Robert Heinlein, the connection between science fiction and libertarianism remains strong, continuing to yield fascinating results. Some of the most interesting are coming out of Tor Books.
Tom Doherty, who started out as a salesman of cheap paperbacks for Pocket Books, founded Tor on his birthday in the spring of 1980. (Tor is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “summit” or “peak.” This image also provides the imprint’s logo.) Doherty was publisher at the time of the science fiction imprint Ace but decided it was time to strike out on his own. That first year Tor shipped just four books, and two were movie tie-ins: Flash Gordon and Popeye. The new publisher announced his arrival in earnest in 1981 with Psychotechnic League, by libertarian favorite Poul Anderson.*
“The American public is pretty bright, and they will buy things that are good,” Doherty told Locus in 2003. “A lot of the story of Tor,” says Nielsen Hayden, “is Tom Doherty refusing to be only a science fiction and fantasy line. And yet we’ve managed to be huge in science fiction anyway.”
Legend has it that when trying to come up with a motto for his new imprint, Doherty fell in love with “Tor Books: We’re history!” because of his belief that novels featuring anthropology and archaeology were just as much science fiction as were shoot ’em ups on alien spaceships. He settled on the slightly more politic “History: Past, Present, and Future” as the guiding idea for his unorthodox house.
Doherty’s management philosophy centers on hiring good people and letting them have their way. He lured fellow Ace employee Jim Baen to Tor soon after it was founded, and they quickly built the company into a powerhouse before Baen left in 1983 to found his own imprint, Baen Books. To this day Tor maintains a friendly rivalry with Baen, and Doherty retains a silent partner stake in Baen Books. Tor minimizes meetings (in part by always allowing its employees to work remotely in various far-flung locations, long before telecommuting was a household world), and individual editors are given leeway to pursue unorthodox projects. One editor, for instance, splits his time between space operas and Middle Eastern women’s fiction.
Doherty sold Tor to St. Martin’s in 1986 but maintained editorial control. Although St. Martin’s later became part of the German publishing conglomerate Holtzbrinck, Tor has retained a large degree of independence. This is deliberate, in part because Tor has an unusual editorial process. At most fiction publishing houses, decisions are made by consensus. All the editors, often drawn from many genres, sit down together and decide which authors to sign and how much to spend on promotions and advances. The result, Doherty argues, is an unwillingness to try something new or unusual. Tor decided to do things differently. “We don’t do things by committee and we don’t expect anyone to take care of us,” Doherty says. “We can stray outside the genre as long as they sell. We’ve got to be self-supporting.”
Despite being part of a large multinational publishing concern, Tor sometimes behaves more like a mom-and-pop shop—though not without that profit motive in mind. Doherty’s two daughters work for the company. So when his daughter Kathleen, who was working with Wal-Mart on a literacy promotion program, came to him with a plan to publish cheap copies of classics that were bound and illustrated in ways that appealed to kids instead of teachers, Doherty gave the green light. That order wound up totaling 17.5 million books.
Doherty says he also has given away “hundreds of thousands of copies” of Orson Scott Card’s young adult favorite Ender’s Game over the years, as a kind of science fiction gateway drug. He writes his congressman once a month, just to tell him what’s on his mind. Today he plays the role of grand old man with style—Nielsen Hayden calls him an “old-fashioned captain of industry, entrepreneur type”—presiding over Tor’s burrow from his award-cluttered office in the Flatiron’s pointed end.
Tor enjoys strong name recognition and brand loyalty among fans, thanks to its quirky catalog, industry recognition, and strong record of hits. Besides earning multiple honors in the two major science fiction awards—the Hugo (awarded by fans) and the Nebula (awarded by fellow writers)—Tor has racked up some more unusual prizes, such as the Lambda Literary Award for gay and lesbian fiction.