Why Dragonlance's Margaret Weis Left TSR: A Slaying the Dragon Excerpt

This excerpt from Ben Riggs' new book, Slaying The Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons describes how Dragonlance changed the course of Margaret Weis' life, and why she left TSR.

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TSR was a company that discovered geniuses, and paid them to create worlds for the rest of us to live in. The company knew it needed brilliant minds to do this work. It went to great lengths to find creative souls to employ. Yet it was less than careful about retaining them. Once these worlds were created, management's attitude seemed to be that these great minds could be replaced with cheaper labor. So New York Times-bestselling authors and pioneering game designers would be discovered, nurtured, and then allowed to leave the company. It happened to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. It was a fate that would also befall Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Margaret Weis said that the success of Dragonlance, “changed my life,” because it allowed her to leave TSR.

Why did Weis want to leave? Her work at the company transformed her from a book editor to a New York Times-bestselling author. And why couldn’t the company convince her to remain? It had discovered her, groomed her, and marketed her as an author for years. The company had a vested financial interest in keeping Weis right where she was, producing Dragonlance novels. Why couldn’t it do so?

When I asked Weis why she left, she immediately spoke of Lorraine Williams. She clearly felt that Williams took the company in the wrong direction. She said, “The creative spirit in the company seemed to die when Gary was gone. He truly cared about D&D. After he was ousted, management seemed to care only about making money, though without any real idea of how to do it. All the while spending money on wasteful projects such as remodeling offices and promoting self-interests (such as Buck Rogers).” Weis said, “I never really interacted a whole lot with Lorraine, but when I did, I really didn’t like it.”

Furthermore, TSR was simply not paying Margaret Weis what she was worth. Weis and Hickman proposed another book series, entitled the Darksword Trilogy. The books would tell the story of a man born into a world where everyone has magical powers, but he was born without them. The company decided to pass on it. Weis and Hickman then took the Darksword Trilogy to Bantam Books. A few weeks passed, and the pair’s agent, Ray Puechner, called Weis to say that Bantam wanted to make an offer.

Weis said, “Oh wow! That’s really cool.”

Puechner said, “And they want the whole trilogy.”

Weis said, “Great.”

“And they’re going to offer you $30,000.” (That’s almost $75,000 in today’s dollars.)

Weis was excited by that number. She said, “We’d been getting a pittance from TSR” for the novels they’d been writing so $30,000 for the trilogy seemed like a great deal of money.

Enthused, Weis said to Puechner, “$30,000 for three books!”

And Puechner said, “No no no. That’s for each book.”

Weis said, “Oh my gosh!”

At the time, Weis said that even though she was a bestselling author whose work had helped keep the company afloat during troubled times, she wasn’t making $30,000 a year. The company was paying her like a freight handler or entry level graphic designer.

She called Tracy Hickman to tell him the good news, and that was when they decided to leave the company. The capitalist calculus of it all was brutal and swift. Bantam was offering them more than their annual salary per novel. It was more money for less work. Who wouldn’t take that offer?

Success at TSR meant that Weis and Hickman could leave TSR.

When artist Larry Elmore heard that Weis and Hickman would be departing to write fantasy novels for Bantam, he wanted a piece of the action. Could they get him the job of painting the cover of the first novel?

It is worth noting that to the artists working in Lake Geneva, painting fantasy covers for the New York publishing houses was seen as the big time. Doing their novel cover for would be a real step up in terms of prestige for Elmore.

The publication of a book by Bantam was a similar step up for Weis and Hickman, and when she responded to Elmore’s request, she had skyscrapers and Times Square goggling her eyes. She said, “I don’t know Larry. This is a big New York publisher.”

But she wouldn’t forget his request.

Later, the pair were flown to New York by Bantam. There, in the city where shining towers touch the sky, and the subway trains rumble like dragons in their dens, the big wigs at Bantam took them out for lunch.

Margaret Weis of Independence, Missouri was meeting with a major publisher in a city so absolute and grand and final that on the east coast you can simply say, “the City,” and everyone knows you’re talking about New York. She described her emotional state at that moment on the day she was taken out for lunch in New York City with a single syllable of onomatopoeia: “Woo!”

But despite the majesty of her surroundings, and the corresponding majesty of the big wigs taking her out for lunch, she didn’t forget Larry Elmore, who was stuck back in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, painting in the former Q-tip factory on Sheridan Springs Road.

But the skyscrapers and the food and the suits! What would the big wigs say about Larry Elmore? Would they say they never heard of him? Would they laugh at her for being a mid-country rube to think that her friend who painted elves and dragons in outstate Wisconsin could make the grade in New York City?

Weis recalled that “with fear and trepidation, I said, ‘You know, if it would be at all possible Larry Elmore would really love to do the cover. . .’”

One of the big wigs replied, “‘Oh my God. We were going to ask you if there was any way you could get Larry Elmore to do the cover!’”

Elmore was hired, and not long after, he left the company as well.

The Darksword Trilogy was published by Bantam in 1988, along with a role-playing game called Darksword Adventures. Each had a cover by Larry Elmore. One can see in these books the outline of the product that might have been if it had been picked up by TSR. Clearly, a trilogy of novels would have been written, along with a series of adventures set in the world. But it was not to be. Weis and Hickman were gone.

Yet as was so often the case, TSR was not done with them.

Years passed. Weis and Hickman went on to write another trilogy, entitled Rose of the Prophet, again published by Bantam, again with covers by Larry Elmore, but set in a fantastic ideation of the middle east, with sheikhs and djinns and a pantheon of 20 gods.

Weis doesn’t remember at what convention or in what year Lorraine Williams threatened to sue her, but it was definitely at a convention. It wasn’t Gen Con, of that much she was certain. But it was at a convention, and Lorraine was there.

Weis was in the middle of a conversation when Williams appeared. She had a simple message to convey: She was considering suing her and Hickman over Rose of the Prophet. She believed that the pair had worked on material for the trilogy while at TSR. If so, it was company property under their contracts and she had standing to sue. With that, like a bad dream, Williams was gone.

If she had threatened to sue over the Darksword Trilogy, it would at least have made sense. The Darksword Trilogy was obviously developed while the pair had been at TSR. The company, after all, had turned the project down. The acceptance of the trilogy by Bantam and their commensurate pay raise was the reason the pair had left. The idea that Williams and her baying pack of lawyers could have found any hard, tangible, proof that the pair had worked on Rose of the Prophet at the company years after they left was at best unlikely. Furthermore, given the pair’s talents and proven sales track record, she should have been trying to woo them back by hook, crook, love, or money. Instead, she was haunting them at conventions to make illogical threats of legal action. That was likely to irritate Weis and Hickman, not win them back into the fold. And from the point of view of the bottom line, that was the winning move here: Get them back writing Dragonlance. After all, the pair were still making money for the company, selling tens of thousands of copies of their novels every year.

For their part, neither Weis nor Hickman took the threat to heart. She said, “It didn’t mean a whole lot. We actually thought it was just kind of funny.”

Yet to approach the pair of them at a convention to threaten a lawsuit seemed so excessively aggressive. Why would the CEO of a multimillion dollar company do that?

Weis said, “You had to know Lorraine.”

The break between TSR and Weis and Hickman seemed complete. Why would the pair ever come back while she was casually threatening frivolous lawsuits against them?

It is worth pausing for a moment to measure the caliber of disaster that the departure of Weis and Hickman represented. You couldn’t swing a vorpal sword in the company offices without beheading a genius. Every department was thick with them, women and men whose minds sparkled like obsidian in firelight. Given the success of Dragonlance, Weis and Hickman were certainly geniuses. But I believe I have interviewed dozens of company alumni that I would rank as creative geniuses for this book. So curiously, the quality that might make Weis and Hickman standout against the general populace was not what made them standout at the company.

They were, there is no other word for it, stars. Perhaps the first the company produced after Gygax himself. They had fanatical devotees who knew their names, even if in confusion they misgendered Tracy Hickman. The company sold 14 million copies of Dragonlance novels, settings, and adventures by 1997. At conventions, people would crowd their table for autographs. For years at Gen Con, Tracy Hickman hosted two hour sessions of what he called, “Killer Breakfast.” Fans came up on stage with D&D characters, and Hickman killed them as amusingly as possible, sometimes dispatching up to 200 in a go. Other fans have taken their books to war with them. One wounded veteran returned from Afghanistan and gifted the pair his Bronze Star and Purple Heart, saying they deserved them because the Dragonlance novels helped him earn those medals.

To call the people faithful to the works of Weis and Hickman a fanbase is to damn with faint praise. The pair reached out with their words and touched something elemental and profound within their readers.

Yet TSR seemed to believe that sort of allegiance from an audience could be replaced. It acted on a theory of interchangeable creativity, as though a novel or adventure would sell equally well irrespective of who produced it. Writers were machines that made words to sell. Other machines would make words if they would not.

Acting on this theory set a pattern that would recur again and again during the Williams era: the company would discover and support talent. That talent would mature, make amazing products, then leave, often due to low pay or perceived disrespect.

Once Weis and Hickman were gone, along came a crisis: What fantasy setting would replace Dragonlance, and what author would replace them?
 
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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

JLowder

Adventurer
So there was this idea when I took econ of 'compensating differentials'--basically, if the job is more interesting/exciting/whatever, it'll pay less. Garbage collectors actually make a pretty good living in many places because their jobs are smelly and dangerous, so you have to pay people more to take the job. Creative people are often passionate about what they do, which makes them easier to exploit. Given the number of people willing to produce game material for free, this puts a huge downward pressure on those who try to make a living doing it.

Absolutely. And many publishers and IP holders exploit this enthusiasm. The rise of social media has made that exploitation more difficult or at least more visible. It's harder to hide the inequity of a studio raking in billions in box office and a comics creator upon whose work the lucrative media is built running a GoFundMe to stop from being evicted.
 

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JLowder

Adventurer
Thanks for the comments (I think I ninja'd your first on the advance/royalties some posts back, but I didn't write about everything else).

A thought in regards to this...I'm not sure, but it could apply???

I think the above may apply to Dragonlance?? At least Chronicles and Legends? At first, it was probably the royalties, but later they published the omnibuses which would have probably been the basket case for them?

At least for the Omnibus editions?

You may be able to clarify, especially what the terms were if that happened with the Omnibuses in relation to the later printings of the individual novels (or when they were printed both at the same time, that may have happened after you though).

How the omnibuses of a work-for-hire series or trilogy are handled would be dictated by the individual contracts. New contracts for authors whose work the IP owner is likely to release in omnibus (Margaret and Tracy, Bob Salvatore, etc) will contain specific terms for omnibus editions, if the person negotiating the contract is doing their job.

If the original work-for-hire contracts did not include terms or clauses that would cover the omnibus publication, the publisher or IP owner might go back to the author or their agent with an offer--we'll pay $X for an advance against Y% of cover price for print royalties and Z% of net for audiobooks and ebooks and translations. That's if the IP owner wants to be collaborative. If all three books in the trilogy paid the same royalty originally and the IP owner or the publisher just wanted to move ahead without negotiating, they might apply that rate to the omnibus and maybe offer a new advance, maybe not. It all depends upon how hardline and confrontational they wanted to be.

If the IP owner is being openly hostile, they may try to jam the omnibus into the lowest-paying clause in the contract and dare the authors to challenge them. Or they might try to claim the contract did not specify any author payment for an omnibus, so the author gets nothing for that. They just get paid for the individual books.

With work-for-hire--which is the type of contract used for all the TSR shared-world novels--the IP owner holds all the rights, so they have a lot of power. The author only gets payments for the things specified in the agreement.

For accounting, the omnibus likely would be treated as a separate item from the individual books, with the omnibus sales accruing to that line item, not the individual books. From a practical publishing perspective, the publisher needs to keep track of the omnibus sales to see if releasing it was worth the cost and effort. (Ebooks and audiobooks of a single work are tracked as separate line items, as well, though they might be tallied against the original advance for the book, which also covered individual print.)

These are issues with work-for-hire contracts, when the publisher holds all the rights to the work and the author only gets what the publisher agrees to get them. Many work-for-hire fiction projects pay flat fee advances and do not pay royalties or a cut of translations or a cut of audiobooks. The TSR/WotC novels are, overall, okay deals that way.

With a creator-owned novel trilogy, the omnibus question will require a lot less thought. If an omnibus edition was not covered in the original contract, most legit publishers will have to go back to the author or their agent with an offer. That's because the baseline rights for the work belong to the author (not another IP owner) and the contract probably includes some variation of of the line "all rights not specifically covered in this agreement remain with the author."

In other words, if the deal does not include an omnibus and spell out what the author is paid for one, the publisher can't do an omnibus without securing the author's explicit permission.
 

JLowder

Adventurer
Fantasy novels do have a reputation for high quantity, precisely because of largely visible names like Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, R.A. Salvator etc.

That is a false impression of the market. Because a small number of authors can publish more than a book a year, that does not make that output the standard or worth noting as more than an aberration. At TSR, there were some authors through the early 90s who wrote quickly, but the pace wore on them and caused conflict with the company over the working conditions and pay--including all three of the authors you list. Bob Salvatore clashed with the company in the mid-90s specifically because they wanted him to write even more quickly, or use what amounted to ghosts to make it look like he was writing more quickly, and he said no.

I find your timeline a stretch (and as someone that writes by the word for a living, writing that much certainly isn't impossible or even unlikely,

The timeline I quoted for the average TSR novel was not my opinion. That's what the typical novel creation timeline was in the late 80s through the mid-90s at TSR. It's been pretty much the same at every fiction publisher I've worked with over the years, for the typical novel-length project. I provided a link to a Writer's Digest article covering that same sort of timeline. This is not speculation.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Let's not forget the time as well.

If you're writing in the 80's, it's entirely possible to be writing on a typewriter. Or, a very, very early version of a word processor. Layout and all that good stuff was done by hand a lot of the times. Editing is a LOT harder when you're doing it through hardcopy and email isn't really a thing yet. All that is going to play into how fast you can bang out another book. Imagine what it's like when your editor has to snail mail you revisions.

Comparing writing in the 80's and even the 90's with writing now just isn't a realistic comparison.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I have no idea if you posted in the thread earlier, but at the very least on this page you replied quoting to another user and myself.

I did not start this exchange, you did.

You did so by quoting when I said "Given the high turn over of fantasy novels, I wouldn't be surprised if they delivered them all in a year for a total of $90k at the time." And then proceeded to harp on about the writing pace of nameless fantasy authors not being discussed.

Fantasy novels do have a reputation for high quantity, precisely because of largely visible names like Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, R.A. Salvator etc.

So when I reference that reputation and say I wouldn't be surprised that they wrote that fast, you seem to be surprised when my position is that they wrote that fast. It has been my position all along. You seem to have taken from what I wrote that it's normal for all authors to write at that pace, if that is what you took from the post, let me correct that: I am not under that illusion. Most writers don't succeed, the conversation wasn't about them, or writers that peak at one book a year. Which is why I didn't agree with your replies, which seemed to be pointing towards her (them) not writing that fast, which is factually incorrect.

Hopefully that has cleared this up.
Dude. Why so hostile?
 

JLowder

Adventurer
Let's not forget the time as well.

If you're writing in the 80's, it's entirely possible to be writing on a typewriter. Or, a very, very early version of a word processor. Layout and all that good stuff was done by hand a lot of the times. Editing is a LOT harder when you're doing it through hardcopy and email isn't really a thing yet. All that is going to play into how fast you can bang out another book. Imagine what it's like when your editor has to snail mail you revisions.

Comparing writing in the 80's and even the 90's with writing now just isn't a realistic comparison.

Great point.

Most of the fiction manuscripts we got at TSR were paper copies up until the early 90s, at which point we required both printed manuscripts and discs, from those who could provide them. Editing notes were indeed sent back to writers as handwritten notes on the 400-page physical manuscripts, with some general notes typed and printed on a dot matrix printer unless it was important enough to use the one laser printer in our area of the building. Lots of manuscripts and editing notes and page proofs heading around the country via the post, or with Ed Greenwood, international post to Canada. Occasionally editors did phone reviews, once the authors got the edited manuscripts in hand, but most of the communication was written and sent via snail mail. (This was the state of publishing into the 2000s.)

Some authors worked on computers in the late 80s, but even then, with TSR you had to type the formatting codes into the manuscript (<bi> for begin italics, </ei> for end italics, and so on), and there were file formats TSR could not translate into the line editor program we were using circa 1989 for final editing (yes, whole 100,000-word books edited one line at a time). It was easier and cheaper for TSR to have a typist retype an entire 400-page printed manuscript onto a disc in a format we could use than pay to translate, say, a TRS-80 file. And TSR was actually years ahead of many of the publishers in New York, when it came to computer use.

(Even then, not without screw-ups. The TSR mainframe was, I think, a VAX, but at one point in late 88 or early 89, upper management all got brand new Apple II-somethings, which could not produce files that could be used anywhere else in the building. I ended up writing a file translation program we used around the office for a bit. I am not a computer guy and was not on any tech team; that says a lot about how seat-of-the-pants it all was.)

So, yes, all this added weeks to every book schedule with the writers and the publisher, sometimes months if the project was complicated enough.
 

Dioltach

Legend
Fantasy novels do have a reputation for high quantity, precisely because of largely visible names like Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, R.A. Salvator etc.
But at the same time I've also been waiting 9 years for the Thorn of Emberlain, and 11 years for The Doors of Stone and The Winds of Winter both.
 



Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Ok! Fine! I'll buy the damn book.

Sheesh.
And now I'm reading about other people reading the book and I REALLY want to read it myself, but I had to special order it from my local bookstore (they don't stock it) and of course it will arrive while I'm away at Gen Con.

Truly, my life is one of endless torment.
 



GreyLord

Legend
I kind of wonder if Martin's seen all the flamewars around the TV version of his epic and and decided to avoid releasing the end of his series.

I have a feeling it ended as he was wanting it, with the ending following a VERY rough outline of what he actually intended (but as it was not actually written, and probably very brief, so a LOT of it except for the most important point being written by D&D instead).

I'm not sure how he has reacted in regards to how people reacted to the end of the series (having to go back and rewrite causing further delay? Choosing just to ignore getting there and not publishing it?)
 

Staffan

Legend
I have a feeling it ended as he was wanting it, with the ending following a VERY rough outline of what he actually intended (but as it was not actually written, and probably very brief, so a LOT of it except for the most important point being written by D&D instead).

I'm not sure how he has reacted in regards to how people reacted to the end of the series (having to go back and rewrite causing further delay? Choosing just to ignore getting there and not publishing it?)
The overall direction, I can see: Danaerys becoming more and more fanatic about her own right to rule and willing to go to any lengths to put her own butt on the Iron Throne, leading to Jon having to put her down as he realizes she has turned into the grandfather his stepfather rebelled against.

The process leading up to that point? Ye gods, no.
 

Could be either, or both.

A long time ago, I worked for a while in a chain book-store of some renown for a short period of time. And they had a mandate to shelve by author, not by title (even for series). No matter what. Which made for ... curious shelving decisions which people were not allowed to change. So I can understand why a publisher might want to keep a certain continuity.

OTOH, every IP owner, from Marvel on has a vested interest in ensuring that the IP is more important than any individual creator. There is always a push-pull between individual talent, and the IP itself. Viewed cynically, it's because the company wants to make sure that the revenue accrues only to the company, not to the creative talent. Viewed less cynically, it's so that you don't get into a situation where the IP is so tied into a single person that issues with that creator tank or deleteriously effect the IP (.....Potter.....).
It’s honestly shocking how mask off JK became and has done her part to tarnish the brand. Also doesn’t help that the FBeasts films aren’t to good.

I mean Jeeze, there’s even a theme park!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It’s honestly shocking how mask off JK became and has done her part to tarnish the brand. Also doesn’t help that the FBeasts films aren’t to good.

I mean Jeeze, there’s even a theme park!

The sad thing is … the theme park is actually quite good.

Eh … no, the sad thing is the damage Rowling does to others. But still …

(And they are building more Potter-adjacent stuff at the massive Universal Park expansion - Epic Universe- as well, which normally I’d be stoked to go to, but I don’t want my money going to her.)
 

The sad thing is … the theme park is actually quite good.

Eh … no, the sad thing is the damage Rowling does to others. But still …

(And they are building more Potter-adjacent stuff at the massive Universal Park expansion - Epic Universe- as well, which normally I’d be stoked to go to, but I don’t want my money going to her.)
Very true.

Yeah ill still re-read/watch the old stuff I own but I’m not giving them any more cash.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
The timeline I quoted for the average TSR novel was not my opinion. That's what the typical novel creation timeline was in the late 80s through the mid-90s at TSR. It's been pretty much the same at every fiction publisher I've worked with over the years, for the typical novel-length project. I provided a link to a Writer's Digest article covering that same sort of timeline. This is not speculation.
I'll note that the stuff Jim has been writing in here is very much consistent with the details in Slaying the Dragon. The whole story of Bob Salvatore finally getting overwhelmed and quitting when TSR management insisted he write even faster for them and not write for another publisher is told in there.

Jim, thanks very much for contributing here and these additional details.
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
cough George R. R. Martin Cough
I've been waiting for The City in Stone by Phyllis Eisenstein since 1988. Darn thing is written, ready to publish, but will apparently never be published because the publisher went bankrupt and nobody else took it up before the author died.
 

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