Since its inception, Tor Books has become one of the biggest names in science-fiction publishing. Tom Doherty is its founding father.
Doherty was born on April 23, 1935. From an early age, he was introduced to reading. His grandfather and mother read to him as a child, and when he was old enough to read on his own, they got him a subscription to Astounding Science Fiction. He took to the magazine quickly and then began to branch out, eventually reading other magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction.
Throughout the war years, Doherty’s father was an engineer for Pratt & Whitney and was part of the team that designed the country’s first jet engines. His father’s work inspired Doherty, who decided to attend Trinity College as a chemical engineering major.
“I had won a science award in high school. I enjoyed chemistry until quantitative analysis—it was always interesting to see what the compound was composed of. When I got to quantitative analysis and beyond, I began to figure out the micrograms, and that this was more than I really wanted to know about it—as far as spending my life doing it,” Doherty said in a recent interview.
After abruptly switching majors, he found that the only thing that he could graduate with was a degree in Philosophy. Doherty had been a member of the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps and also played college football. As the Korean War raged throughout his time at college, he had anticipated a career as a pilot. However, upon graduating, the war was winding down, and the Air Force cut back on their recruiting efforts. Doherty was also over the required weight for flying. “They told me ‘No problem, just lose the weight.’ In those days, I was solid. If you’re solid, you don’t go from 232 to 178 between March and May. And you don’t explain to the Army that you’re losing weight for the Air Force. So I got drafted.”
He ended up at Fort Polk, Indiana, in fire direction control as an artillery man. He spent most of his off-time reading. “I got to thinking: this is what I really like to do. Read. So when I got out of the Army, I looked for a job in publishing.”
Lacking the qualifications to edit, he found a job with a magazine distributor, which had picked up a large contract with Pocket Books, covering Northern New England. That job didn’t last long: he was laid off after 9 months when the distributor lost a major client. He called his contact at Pocket, who told him that they had a local sales position at Pocket in Philadelphia. “I didn’t particularly like that,” Doherty recounted, “but my wife had told me a week before that she was pregnant. Nobody else was offering me a job, so I moved to Philadelphia.”
From there, he rose through the ranks at Simon & Schuster, rising to national sales manager. One of the publishers that he helped distribute was Ballantine Books, run by Ian and Betty Ballantine, and he got to know them well. He spoke with them often and learned much about the science-fiction community, and helped as they launched their own fantasy line of books, starting with an authorized edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Doherty then Doherty became the publisher of Grosset & Dunlap, where he took their existing YA imprint, Tempo, and along with editor in chief Harriet McDougal, began publishing fantasy and science fiction. They were incredibly successful, enough so that Grosset & Dunlap went out and purchased struggling publisher Ace Books in 1972. Ace was managed by Charter Communications and fell on hard times following the departure of its founder, Donald Wollheim, and editor Terry Carr.
Doherty found himself in trouble with the science-fiction community at large. Ace had failed to pay a number of its authors, and when he arrived at his first World Science Fiction convention, he was greeted by members of SFWA’s Grievance Committee, who informed him that they would be auditing his books. Upon returning home, he looked in on the situation and began paying back authors who were owed money from Ace. It was the first step in many that helped bring Ace’s fortunes around.
After several years at Grosset & Dunlap, Doherty saw a new opportunity, one in which afforded him more freedom to operate as a publisher: launching his own publishing house. Based on his successes with Ace and Tempo books, he went to venture capitalists and made a pitch.
With money behind him, he left Grosset & Dunlap in 1980 and founded Tor Books alongside venture capitalist Richard Gallen and fellow editors Jim Baen and Harriet McDougal, who followed Doherty to his new house.
They then got to work publishing science-fiction and fantasy novels. Their first book was one from Andre Norton, Forerunner, along with a collection from Poul Anderson, The Pycho-Technic League.
Baen worked on Tor’s science fiction and “brought in a number of strong authors, and was doing a great job,” Doherty recalled. “Ron Bush had been publisher at Ballantine, and went over to Pocket. Ron decided at some point that he wanted his own sciencefiction line, and he tried to hire Jim.”
Doherty made Baen a counteroffer: he knew that he didn’t want to join a big corporation, and that he wanted his own company. Doherty proposed that he and Bush help him found his own company. Bush would distribute the books, and Doherty would be a partner. All three parties agreed, and in 1984, Baen left and formed Baen Books. In the same year, Tor hired two new editors, Beth Meacham (who came over from Ace Books) and David G. Hartwell (who came from Pocket’s sci-fi imprint Timescape), each having considerable skill and expertise in genre fiction.
In 1985, Tor had its first major hit: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Card met Doherty a couple of years earlier and pitched him a book, Speaker for the Dead, based on Card's novella, Ender's Game, while at a conference. When he stalled, he realized that he had to write another book in order to set up the first; Doherty agreed, and Card began working on Ender’s Game, which went on to become a major bestseller, earning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel—a first for the publisher.
Between its founding and 1986, Tor grew rapidly, becoming the dominant publisher of SF/F fiction in the United States. Tor published 137 books that year alone began acquiring books from enormously popular genre authors, such as Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, and Gene Wolf, to name just a few.
However, their rapid expansion came up against problems in the larger publishing industry. Tor’s paperback distributor, Pinnacle Books, filed for bankruptcy, and the publisher lost out on months worth of sales to major magazine wholesalers. As a result, the company was short on funds, prompting Doherty and his partners to sell the publisher to St. Martin’s Press in 1987. Their numbers continued to push upward, publishing over 250 titles at their peak in 1988. From that year to the present, Tor has won the Locus Award for best publisher.
By the end of the 1980s, Tor had hired other long-time editors, including Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Robert Gleason, and they entered the 1990s with a strong portfolio of books, including a new fantasy book from James Rigney, under the name Robert Jordan, titled The Eye of the World, the first in a new epic fantasy series. The series became an enormous hit and one of Tor’s biggest sellers. In the next couple of years, Tor launched a handful of new imprints: Orb Books (Trade paperbacks) and Forge Books (general fiction, thrillers, and historical novels), and later, Starscape (teens and YA novels). A sister imprint, Tor UK, began to publish books in the United Kingdom.
Tor has also pursued other, innovative ways to produce science fiction: in 2011, they formed a partnership with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to produce a new series of books, NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction, using “concepts pertinent to current and future agency missions and operations.” The first book in the series, William Forstchen’s Pillar to the Sky, arrived in bookstores in 2014, while the next, Solar Express by L. E. Modesitt Jr., was published in 2015.
As publishing shifted with the advent of online bookselling and publishing, Tor launched Tor.com in July 2008, a website dedicated to short genre fiction and related news in the community, and spun it off into a separate imprint in 2014 which publishes novellas and serialized fiction. The company also announced that it would only sell DRM-Free e-books in 2012. Doherty noted in a statement to Tor.com that it was something that readers had been asking for: “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”
When asked about what legacy he hoped he’s brought to the genre community, Doherty put it simply: “I hope just good stories. I mean, first comes the story. What I want to do is we give people stories that pull them in and intrigue them.”