Interviews

Behind the Scenes at Tor Labs

How and why Tor Books launched an "experimental genre publishing imprint."

If you’re even remotely geeky, you know the Tor media empire has long been a major force in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It began in the ’80s with Tor Books, which has since published everything from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time to Ken Liu’s translations of The Three-Body Problem. Then came Tor.com, home to award-winning short fiction from heavyweights like Nnedi Okorafor and Jeffrey Ford, as well as a huge fan community that participates in massive “re-reads” and “re-watches.”

But you might not know this: Tor is easily one of the most innovative, risk-taking publishers in the United States. Two years ago, responding to the rise of e-books, they launched a new line of novellas they believed to be better-suited for the platform than epic doorstoppers. And earlier in 2015, they signed sci-fi writer John Scalzi to an unprecedented 13-book deal worth more than $3 million.

This year, they launched something called Tor Labs, “a new imprint emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” The first podcast, Steal the Stars — about government employees guarding a crashed UFO — is a 14-episode sci-fi noir thriller that feels like listening to a feature film.

Tor Labs is the brainchild of Tor editors Jen Gunnels and Marco Palmieri, who have big plans for the experimental imprint. I recently spoke with them via email about the genesis of Tor Labs, audio dramas, and other avenues Tor Labs may explore in the future.


Adam Morgan

Tell me about this conversation between the two of you that sparked the idea for Tor Labs. What was the impetus? Of all the directions you could have experimented with, why dramatic podcasts?

Jen Gunnels

It started as all “That’s insane. It just might work!” ideas do — over drinks. I worked as a theatre critic with the New York Review of Science Fiction covering the various plays in New York and other far-flung places, so I knew the members of Gideon Productions. I thought that they would really enjoy meeting Marco, who has been a friend for years, even before I worked at Tor. I just thought that everyone would have a great time together. Then Sean Williams, Gideon’s artistic director, said, hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something with Tor? We all said, yes, and then ordered another round. A few days later, I was sitting with Marco in his office, and he just looked at me and said, could we do something? And I just thought, well, why not, no one said that it couldn’t be done.

Marco Palmieri

It’s really about thinking out the box. When most people hear the word “publishing,” they tend to think it means words printed on a page, or posted online. But what publishing is really, at its core, is the business of communicating ideas. So the question for us was, for the kind of fiction we publish at Tor, is any format really out of the question? And the answer was, of course, a resounding no, especially if the opportunity is right.

The advent of podcast technology has led directly to Americans’ rediscovery of the audio drama as a rich, enjoyable, easy-access storytelling format. Partnering with a company like Gideon, which specializes in staging science fiction plays, has allowed us to explore dramatic podcasts in an artistic and industrial fusion of theatre and publishing.

Jen Gunnels

The support that we received from Macmillan as well as the great partnership we developed with Macmillan Podcast Network and Macmillan Audio has led to this really wonderful intersection of publishing and performance production. We’ve made this very interesting new thing that we’re all very excited about.

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Adam Morgan

Why start with Steal the Stars? Had Mac Rogers already written it or were you involved in the development?

Jen Gunnels

We knew we wanted to work with Mac, and I’ve been familiar with his award-winning playwriting for years in addition to being a fan of The Message and LifeAfter, which he did for GE. We actually had a couple different proposals, but Marco and I really liked the noir angle of Steal the Stars. As editors, we both weighed in on the initial drafts of the episodes, and these were further refined in rehearsal with Jordana Williams, the director of STS. She and Mac make a formidable storytelling duo.

Marco Palmieri

We also worked extensively with Nat Cassidy, also a member of Gideon Media—and incidentally, the actor who plays the character of Lloyd in the Steal the Stars podcast—in the crafting of the novel. Nat has really excellent prose instincts. He’s freakishly talented in several artistic fields.

Adam Morgan

Why was a weekly release format important to you, as opposed to a straight audiobook? Why pair it with an eventual novelization?

Jen Gunnels

We really wanted to do an audio drama, something that has started to really take off, but with multiple voices. An audiobook usually relies on a single voice, or if there are multiple voices, they tend to not always be in actual conversation with one another–interacting and reacting. A dramatic playscript creates a level of intimacy and immersion and opens up the imagination of the listener. I’ve always been drawn to the intimacy of the theatre. Doing a weekly serial allows for a different kind of storytelling experience, one that allows us to build an audience over time.

Marco Palmieri

We’re primarily a book publisher, after all, so pairing our podcast with a tie-in novel was a no-brainer. But with Tor Labs, we’ve created an actual transmedia imprint that looks at the business of publishing in radically new ways—some in which a traditional book may not be the primary format. In the podcast model, we’re leading with audiodrama, and offering the novelization as an additional, different way to experience the story. From a business standpoint, it’s a win-win, because it affords us an opportunity to grow Tor’s audience beyond its primary readership, while still serving that readership with something that’s simultaneously familiar and entirely new.

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Adam Morgan

Do you have an estimated number of projects per year at this point?

Jen Gunnels

It really depends on the projects we elect to undertake. Some may be more ambitious than others. I think that Marco and I would like to see at least three or four projects per year as an ideal — at least as far as podcasting goes. There may be other platforms, formats and avenues other than podcasts which would have different timetables or run concurrently.

Adam Morgan

I know you can’t spoil future projects, but can you speak to whether the imprint will branch out beyond audio drama?

Marco Palmieri

That’s why we chose the name Tor Labs. Laboratories are where you test ideas and experiment, and podcast dramas are our first bit of creative chemistry. But we also know that other interdisciplinary collaborations are possible — other kinds of outside-the-box ways of looking at genre publishing.

Jen Gunnels

Part of what Marco and I envisioned is Tor Labs being nimble when it comes to catching potential technologies and techniques for new ways to publish genre fiction. We certainly would like to do more podcasts, but don’t see that as being the only kind of format for our interests. It’s hard to say where various new technologies and ideas will take us, but Tor Labs will be open to ways that these can be utilized to get stories to the fans of speculative fiction.

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