Cover Story Extra: Ted Chiang vs. Tor Publishing

When science fiction author Ted Chiang inked a deal with Tor Publishing to release a collection of his short stories around the turn of the millennium, it seemed like a dream come true. Instead, the Hugo Award-winning forty-two-year-old claims, he ran into a buzz-saw. An online bonus to our cover story on Chiang, now in print.

“The decision to go with a New York publisher, I guess I was naïve,” Chiang recalls, “but at the time I thought that a New York publisher would be a good thing; wider distribution would be a good thing and I thought that we would be working on the same team, my editor and I, but that turned out not to be the case.”

The difficulty, Chiang says, started with the editing process, a process during which the author was forced to publish a short story – the collection’s titular work, “Liking What You See” – that he was so displeased with that he pulled it from consideration for that year’s Hugo Award, the greatest award in science fiction.

“My editor told me to make up a deadline and if I needed an extension, then my editor sad he would grant me the extension, as he had in one hundred percent of the cases where an author has asked,” Chiang recalls. “So, I made up a date, time passed and I came up with an idea for a story, but I needed more time. So I asked for more time and he said, ‘No can do.’ So I had to change my plans for the story to meet the agreed-upon deadline. So I had to write a shorter story than I had envisioned; I would say a simpler story than I had envisioned. I should say that I am not unhappy with the story, I like it just fine, but I didn’t feel like I should accept an award for something that, if I had my druthers, I would have done differently. It was not what I had envisioned.”

That was a challenging experience, but, according to Chiang, it was nothing compared to his battle with the publisher over his cover art, for which the author had very definite ideas.

“Most science fiction cover art falls into a very specific mode,” he says, “which is a highly finished realistic rendering of a specific scene in the novel or something. But there is all sorts of other art out there. I like the idea of having the art reflect the story without being a literal illustration of the story, so that the art would act as a parallel storytelling medium. I am trying to use a style of representation, a style of rendering that is not usually seen in science fiction books.”

Tor, though, had different ideas for Stories of Your Life and Others, says Chiang.

“The hard cover has this nude heavily muscled man and his lower body forms this collage with various things like a galloping white horse, some monkeys and I think some vultures; it’s sort of a collage. None of [those animals] were in any of the stories. I asked that, if we do this, can we at least have something that reflects my work? Nope.”

Chiang never again worked with Tor, but his career has continued despite his separation from the New York publishing world. The collection that caused him so much trouble eight years ago will be reprinted this fall by Small Beer Press, only two-months after the author’s first novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, is released to much anticipation in the science fiction community.

“The reprint is letting me use the cover I want,” Chiang says. “It’s a piece of art I commissioned back in 2002 when the collection first came out. I hired an artist who had done work for the publisher to create something for the paperback and they said, ‘No.’”

Now Chiang is working with boutique presses that are willing to offer him creative control such as Subterranean Press, which is allowing the author to control the full packaging of Lifestyle. Asked about his bold move to risk mainstream appeal for artistic vision, Chiang is clear that he considers the move a no-brainer.

“When you’ve been told to fuck off as definitively as I have,” he says, “it is no longer such a bold move. I think the really bold move would be if someone were embraced by New York publishing and then they rejected it.” •


Pick up your copy of the July issue of City Arts Eastside or Seattle to read our complete feature story on Ted Chiang.