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Sean Wallace
Posted on Sunday, May 15, 2005 - 04:01 pm:   

"And by the way, do you get the SFWA Forum? There was a great letter in the April Forum by Darrell Schweitzer under the title State of the Market that discussed some of the things that you've been talking about on your board, like the rise of the small press."

I do, courtesy of Betancourt. I found it of great interest, serving as a counterbalance to Resnick/Malzberg. These days I find their column to be almost worthless, in the sense that it's not particularly reflective of true market realities.

I can probably post Darrell's entire letter, or portions, if you like, on Monday (the full text is at the office). Some of it is only applicable to Darrell, but there are some nuggets of interest buried within his letter.
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Sean Wallace
Posted on Sunday, May 15, 2005 - 04:59 pm:   

[In the latest SFWA Forum] "Mike and Barry go on at some length about the grim state of the short-story market. I actually agree with a good deal of what they say, and cannot challenge the facts they cite. [However] I do have to admit that both of our distinguished columnists are missing a good deal of the larger picture, as are, I suspect, many SFWAns. At times they remind me of Kurt Vonnegut in an interview on NPR a couple years ago. Old Kurt was bemoaning the fact that there really aren't any short story markets left anymore. He seemed befuddled and completely out of touch, still living in (or thinking in terms of) the early '50s, when there were "slicks" like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post which would pay for short stories far more (if you adjust for inflation) than most writers get for novels these days."

"That era is dead and gone. Let me suggest that, likewise, the era of the Resnickian/Malzbergian "pro" is nearly over. I think that Resnick, by virtue of hard work and the excellence of his fiction has achieved such rare success that he's lost perspective, like a World War I general in a comfortable chateau who has no idea how the troops get on in the trenches. Malzberg has gained much bitter and dark wisdom over the years, but he too is thinking in terms of the era when Silverberg, Garrett, and Ellison cranked out fiction on an assembly line for Amazing and Fantastic and Garrett and Silverberg ran races to see who could sell John W. Campbell's latest editorial back to him as a story fastest."

"That era is gone. It is not coming back. Let me emphasize, first, that the three remaining digests in our field are precious, and I hope everyone in SFWA subscribes to them, to support them, even if you don't have time to read them. But . . . here is the point that Mike and Barry completely miss . . . they comprise only a very small part of our field. For sheer lack of space, and also because these three digests do not cover the whole range of what is being written and published, a great number of writers in SF, fantasy, and horror, very likely the majority, are going to go through their entire careers without selling to any of the Big Three. They will still have careers.

"All those careers are going on below SFWA radar, certainly below Resnick and Malzberg's radar. I would compare writers to the heroine in The Perils of Pauline, who leaps from one piece of floating ice to the next to avoid being swept over the waterfall. You sell a story wherever you can, maybe two. The magazine or anthology folds. You go on. You do it again. That one folds, often before publication. You go on. There is a great deal of ferment and activity right now, below radar. The reality for the working writer is something like this: the average story sells for something between 1–3 cents a word. Sometimes a little more. You can go for a little less, but I don't care to. Payment on acceptance is a rarity.

"Suppose your primary publisher said to you: accept half as much as you were formerly paid or we will no longer be able to afford your work? Suppose, in effect, the whole field said that to you? You might face a very stark choice, either to give up writing, or to take the lower amount and continue with your career."

"The survivors are the ones who continue with their careers. Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog are all wonderful, but they are not everything, or even most of everything. The survivors are looking at Interzone, Third Alternative, Lady Churchill's Rosebug Wristlet, Jabberwocky, H.P.Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, Weird Tales, Strange Tales, Sheherezade, Inhuman, Space & Time, Cemetery Dance, The Book of Dark Wisdom . . . and anything else that pays for material, leaping from one ice floe to the next to avoid being plunged into the abyss.

The two things you must learn to do" are these: 1) ignore the whole concept of SFWA credit for short fiction publications and 2) don't even think about writing for a living. Think of yourself as being like a folksinger who gets lots of concert and coffeehouse gigs, but never got as big as Joan Baez or Pete Seeger. There are thousands of them, still doing good work. If somehow you get rich, that is wonderful, but be aware it doesn't happen to most writers, any more than it happens to most singers or actors.

"The model for the future, and increasingly, for the present is that of the "little magazine." A fiction magazine has subscriptions, and it is distributed in bookstores, achieving a national distribution in the magazine racks of Barnes & Noble & such in numbers that range from about five hundred to five thousand. If you do very well, you might sell 70% of that. So, an excellent bookstore sale might be about 3000 to 4000 copies. Most magazines do less than that.

"The publisher must learn to survive in those numbers. What is uncomfortable for the three digests is that they are shrinking into this model. A magazine like Weird Tales is growing into it. The digests survive because they still have large (but diminishing, as the figures in Locus tell us) subscription bases left over from the old days of newstand distribution, the Resnick/Malzberg "pro" era. My guess is that these magazines, fighting a heroic retreat, will last only as long as the Baby Boom generation does, unless they can adapt to the new realities.

"The larger reality is that much of the New York publishing industry is a closed shop, unable to innovate, unwilling to consider anything from beyond a small circle of familiar writers. Again, as in the short story markets, the survivors must adapt to new realities. Books published on a royalty-only basis. Advances in the low hundreds of dollars. All below SFWA's radar. I am not talking about vanity press, which, as we all know, means a suicidal plunge into oblivion. Indeed, the chief problem facing many writers (and publishers) today, down in the trenches, is how to distinguish yourself from vanity productions, since everybody uses the same technology. (Print On Demand.) Part of the answer is really good cover art and design.

"But much of the most creative work is being done at the small press level. Is it any coincidence that two of the five finalists for the World Fantasy Award last year were Prime books? (If you have to ask "What is Prime?" well, doesn't that prove my point?)

"I am really concerned that SFWA is becoming irrelevant to the majority of the field. One sign of this, I find, is that the SFWA Directory is no longer as useful as it used to be. Lots of the colleagues I write to, or deal with as an editor, are not SFWAns. Most of the new writers coming into Weird Tales are not SFWAns. They don't look to SFWA, because it does not recognize them or represent their interests.

"I myself don't have to worry about SFWA credentials, though I suspect about 75% of the sales I have made over the past 30 years would not count. I have enough that do. A lot of these newer writers, in the changed reality, may never have enough. SFWA will remain meaningless to them.

"I would agree with Resnick and Malzberg that we are looking at an economically grim future. But I have not given up. Survivors don't.

"Think lit-mags. Have you noticed that we're in a golden age of the literary short story? The racks at Borders and Barnes & Noble are loaded with mainstream literary magazines (most of which do pay). When I was in college you could only find The Paris Review in college libraries and a few specialty bookstores, most of them in New York or San Francisco. Now it is in most shopping malls. It conforms to the new operating model. It is a bookstore-distributed magazine with a good subscription base. I suspect that the "natural" circulation for a magazine of this type is about 8–10,000 copies. SF publishers—and writers—are going to have to survive in a world of such magazines.

But we haven't run out of ice-floes just yet."—Darrell
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Sean Wallace
Posted on Sunday, May 15, 2005 - 05:05 pm:   

Some authors are either dismissive or ignorant of the small press, oddly enough, an observation which was rather driven home when I informed a few midlist authors that some independent companies paid out cash advances of three thousand dollars or more. Their surprise was quite palpable. In some cases a small press can certainly package, market, and sell novels and collections better than some larger publishing companies. In others, no. It depends on the project.
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Amy Sisson
Posted on Friday, June 03, 2005 - 08:40 am:   

Coming late to the party on this one, but I just have to say: I really like Darrell's letter, which seems very well-reasoned and well-informed.
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Monday, June 13, 2005 - 08:50 pm:   

Thanks so much for posting this, Sean! I want to write more about it, hopefully tomorrow. It's an important topic . . .

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