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Tor Books announces a new fiction imprint dedicated to experimental storytelling

Yesterday, one of the largest publishers of science fiction and fantasy novels, Tor Books, announced that it is launching a new fiction imprint: Tor Labs. The new venture will focus on “experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Its first podcast, Steal the Stars, will begin streaming this fall.

The imprint came out of a discussion between Tor editor Jennifer Gunnels and senior editor Marco Palmieri. Gunnels told The Verge that she used to work as a theater critic, and began talking to some of the people she knew in the theater world, eventually coming to the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do something to merge science fiction drama and publishing?”

Palmieri noted that while audiobooks have existed for decades — Macmillan, Tor’s parent company even runs its own talk show-style podcasts — “no US book publisher, as far as we knew, was doing audio dramas — plays written to be performed by voice actors.”

Tor describes Steal the Stars as a “noir science fiction thriller” about two government employees guarding a crashed UFO. The two fall in love and decide to steal the alien that they’ve been tasked with watching, and then sell the secrets of its existence to the highest bidder. The story will be written by Mac Rogers, who created two podcasts for GE, The Message and LifeAfter. The story will air weekly beginning on August 2nd, and will run for 14 episodes. Tor will then compile the podcast into a full audiobook and a printed novelization.

Novelization cover. Image: Tor Labs

“We decided to call our imprint Tor Labs because the entire undertaking made us feel like mad scientists,” Palmieri explained. “It grew out of a willingness to look at the business of publishing speculative fiction in a different way.”

As for what’s coming after Steal the Stars, Gunnels and Palmieri aren’t saying, but they have plans for the next big release. Palmieri notes that they aren’t looking at replicating the same output as Tor.com, which publishes dozens of books each year. Putting together an audio drama is a “massive undertaking,” he says, but notes that as they learn and develop the process, they’ll be able to produce more stories, quickly.

Gunnels says that part of that undertaking comes down to how the two different styles of production come together. “It’s challenging in that the scripts will go through multiple rounds of revision, some of which will come out of the production work with the voice actors.” On top of that, the stories are put through the traditional manuscript process that Tor puts its regular books through.

As a publisher, Tor has been experimenting with fiction for a couple of years now, launching ventures such as Tor.com as a separate imprint in 2015, which focuses on acquiring and publishing novellas and novelettes. Judging by the awards that its stories are racking up, it seems that the project is already paying off. Another experiment was John Scalzi’s serialized novels The Human Division and The End of All Things, which were later collected into full-length print editions.

This new venture is interesting because it isn’t focused on telling stories through the traditional means of physical, printed books, but as a testbed for figuring out how to tell stories as new technologies present themselves. “If the science fiction business teaches us anything,” Gunnels says, “it’s that we can’t fully imagine what new technologies will enable us to do until they’re upon us. We want Tor Labs to be open to these changes in how people tell and experience stories.”

Most of all, they’re excited for what’s to come. “American audiences are rediscovering what the UK has known for decades,” Palmieri says, “audio dramas are fun.”

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