On This Day

More Than Thirty Years Later, Tom Doherty is Still Curating New Worlds

On this day in 1935, one of the great figures in science fiction publishing was born: Tom Doherty, president and publisher of Tor Books.

His career in books began in the late 1950s, when he worked as a salesman for Pocket Books, eventually rising to National Sales Manager. He was an avid SF and fantasy reader from an early age, and he paid particular attention to our genres even when he was responsible for selling all kinds of books. His first contact with science fiction’s social world was probably in the early 1960s, when his selling territory included Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home of the longtime SF writer (and reviewer for Analog) P. Schuyler Miller, with whom Tom became friends.

In those years, Pocket distributed Ballantine Books, which was still run by founders Ian and Betty Ballantine. In 1965, Ballantine published the first authorized North American paperback edition of a fantasy trilogy that had hitherto enjoyed cult success in hardcover, but which was still unknown to the general public: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It became the kind of bestseller that defines whole future categories of publishing. History does not record exactly when Tom first began to realize that publishing one’s own line of fantasy and SF might be a rewarding way to spend one’s life. But the tremendous success and impact of the Tolkien launch, with which he was crucially and instrumentally involved, has to have had an impact. Even more so, his developing relation with the Ballantines, who, Tom has said on more than one occasion, shared with him innumerable insights into the business not usually ventured by publishers to their sales managers.

Pocket acquired the distinguished trade publisher Simon and Schuster, and Tom spent some years there continuing in his national sales manager role. Then in the early 1970s he jumped at the opportunity to become publisher of a mass-market paperback line called Tempo Books. In almost no time he was publisher, not only of Tempo, but also of the venerable SF imprint Ace Books, which had gone through multiple owners and a rough several years in the early 1970s.

As it happens, the Ace that Tom inherited had some unresolved business problems and some unpaid debts. Tom tells the story of his first World Science Fiction Convention, in Kansas City in 1976. On entering the storied Muehlebach Hotel, he was confronted by a prominent SF author well-known for his, shall we say, forceful manner of speaking. “I’m with the Science Fiction Writers of America,” declared this writer, in a voice that shook potted plants thirty feet away. “And we are going to Audit. Your. Books.”

The background buzz of multiple conversations came to a sudden stop. “There he is!” Tom could hear a fan saying. “There’s that new publisher who’s trying to screw over Andre Norton!”

As Tom tells it, he spent about five seconds convinced that he was going to be lynched…and then walked over to the author in question, put his arm on his shoulder, and suggested they discuss the matter over a drink. In not very much time, Ace’s business problems were sorted out, and in the late 1970s it re-established itself as one of the leading imprints in the field.

In 1979 Tom founded Tor Books—actually, then and now, Tom Doherty Associates, a publishing company of which “Tor” is one of several imprints. They shipped their first titles in late 1980 and began shipping a full list in April 1981. Thirty-two years later, Tor is an important part of the worldwide Macmillan publishing conglomerate, and Tom is still running the place. Through decades of wrenching industry change, he’s been an innovator, a leader, and an incubator of talent. He still hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for finding something new and really good. He’s a living reminder that the job of “publisher” is a vocation, not just a box on an org chart. Tom loves to make things public, to share them with the world. Long may he publish.

This article was originally published April 23, 2013


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