John Brunner – The Writer In Black

Perfect freedom is reserved for the man who lives by his own work,
and in that work does what he wants to do.

I think it was in an installment of his Noise Level column that John Brunner made the claim that when science fiction authors got together they mostly talked about money. Now I’m not about to disagree with a statement like that given Brunner wrote science fiction for a living and was certainly in a position to know what his fellow authors said and did. Even so I do have to wonder if his views were biased by his own preoccupations. He certainly did write about the financial aspects of being a published author more than any other SF professional I’m familiar with.

I suspect this obsession with financial success was in large part due to his origins. The Brunner family started a company called Brunner Mond way back in 1873 (this company later on merged with a number of others to form ICI) so they were reasonably well-to-do, though perhaps not as well off as they had been by the time our Brunner was born in 1934. There are claims that despite the family having money none of it was passed on down to John Brunner once his school fees had been paid. Why this might be so I can’t say for certain though it’s possible the family disliked his lifestyle and/or politics. John Brunner was quite left-wing in many of his views, in particular he was quite anti-nuclear and vehemently opposed the war in Vietnam, opinions which might not have sat well with people who earned their living from a chemical company like Brunner Mond. It’s also possible that Brunner preferred to not receive what he may have perceived as ‘dirty’ money and became obsessed with achieving financial success without relying on his family.

Regardless of why he felt the need to do so I’m pleased he wrote about the financial side of the writing business as much as he did because the nuts and bolts of the trade fascinate me and I love reading descriptions of how the system once worked by those on the inside. As I assume I’m not the only one interested in such things I’ve reprinted one of the best examples of Brunner’s behind the scenes coverage here. It originally appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review #9 (published by John Bangsund way back in April 1967). It was a slightly updated version of an article that had already been published in Vector, the official journal of the British SF Association, a year or so before (just how much had been changed I can’t say as I don’t happen to own a copy of the relevant issue of Vector). To put this article into context I need to point out that Brunner’s professional career up until the writing of this article essentially fitted into what I like to think of as the transitory period of SF publishing.

This transitory period in SF publishing occurred when it became possible for an author to make appreciable amounts of money from magazine, paperback, and hardcover sales. Up until the end of WWII very few writers of science fiction were able to sell their stories to any market other than the magazines. Hardcover books were limited to the likes of Verne, Wells, and Burroughs until the rise of specialty hardcover houses such as Gnome Press, Prime Press, and Shasta Publishers in the late forties. Paperback science fiction didn’t become a force until well into the fifties at which point the amount of SF in softcover rose dramatically. This ushered in the transitory period during which SF authors could make a living by a careful combination of magazine, paperback, and hardcover sales. However the rise of the paperback corresponded with the decline of the fiction magazine and by the end of the seventies there were too few SF magazines left for sales to this market to be a significant portion of the average author’s income. During the period Brunner is writing about both authors and publishers were still feeling their way towards their part in the later paperback dominance of the industry.

To give everybody at least some idea of what all those sums Brunner quotes in the later part of his article might mean in current terms I’ve included estimates of what the money equivalent would be fifty years later (all figures are either in UK pounds or US dollars). Hopefully that will give you some idea of how well off the average author was back then. On the other hand I wouldn’t try to strain for a comparison with current conditions given how different the publishing industry is in this world of tomorrow. For example making those sort of comparisons won’t mean much in in relation to the earnings of anybody trying to make it as a self-published author.

I also like to reiterate Brunner’s comment about taking care when basing generalisations on this article. A lot of the minor details, such as a wife as who doesn’t want to go back to working or an author getting into a tangle with customs over the value of a manuscript, are clearly lifted from John Brunner’s own life (though, that said, I do recall another British author who mislabelled one of the manuscripts he mailed to the US and ended up in a ‘situation’ due to this). On the other hand the two Frishblitz children are complete fabrications as nothing I know about John Brunner suggests to me that he ever had, wanted, or liked children.

Given the length of this article and the many interesting details Brunner included I’ve interrupted him in a number of places to add some extra detail, or my own reactions to certain of his claims. Hopefully you’ll find these additions worth the interruption.

And now on with the show:

The Economics of SF
by John Brunner

“In an earlier instance the Meredith agency did sell the picture rights to a book then unwritten. That one, Evan Hunter’s Mothers & Daughters, has now been completed, and German rights have just gone to Kindler Verlag, in a deal closed with their representative here, Maximilian Becker, for a record $17,000 advance. Also, Corgi have just acquired British paperback rights on a £15,000 advance.”

Daniel J. Boorstin: The Image, p. 158)

It so happens that I’m represented by the Scott Meredith Agency which pulled this trick. Every now and again I feel tempted to photostat that excerpt and send it to Joe Elder, who handles my work, with a terse note asking what Evan Hunter has that I haven’t (apart from $17,000 and £15,000).

It’s small wonder that most people have an entirely false impression of what authors make, and this impression is distorted even further when one comes down to SF, a thoroughly anomalous field in other aspects than its content.

Let’s start by getting some of our perspectives straight. First, as to writers and their incomes in general: the British Society of Authors is conducting a survey at present which will clear up many misunderstandings when the findings are made public. Consider, meantime, that a reliable source (the Bulletin of the Authors Guild of America) has published an estimate that there are 250 full-time writers in the whole of the United States.

I’ll repeat that: 250. Out of a population approaching two hundred million. The remainder are at least partly supported by such jobs as magazine editing, reporting, permanent feature assignments involving non-writing activity, or hold down a professional post to which their writing is secondary. (Advertising is one of the current havens; it’s a bit like the jazz greats of the thirties who kept joining and leaving the Ted Lewis band.)

A young writer recently received tremendous acclaim from the British press. I’ve read the book he got it for, and allowing for slight exaggeration I think the praise was merited. I’ve lent my copy to somebody so I can only quote a sample from memory: “I doubt,” said one critic, “if there are half a dozen people who can match” Mr. X’s prose. He made the headlines recently when a publisher offered to pay him what amounts to a salary for the next two years, on condition they are given a couple of books they can publish. Amount of that “salary”? £800 (£13,803 in 2017). And he was probably glad to get it. Brother! Given a reasonable amount of overtime, he could probably collect more working on a building site!

Now the generous publisher isn’t buying his entire thinking time, of course. But he’s buying the cream of Mr. X’s output, and if Mr. X is halfway honest he’ll be turning down supplementary earnings which would infringe on the thinking time needed to create books reflecting his true abilities. Many – perhaps most – writers never stop working; everything they do from breakfast to bedtime, everything they read from advertisements to poetry, everything they see or hear or smell or touch or taste gets mortared into the foundations for their subsequent output. Isaac Asimov wasn’t joking when he said writing has the characteristics of an addictive drug. Once you’re hooked on it properly, your life revolves around it in the same way a junkie’s revolves around his next fix. It can be physically unpleasant to be deprived of the opportunity to write. (Believe me.)

What of the writer who , by misfortune, has a temperament inclining him towards SF? Well… I’m one, and a very atypical one, so most of the following remarks must be read as applying to me personally and generalizations should be made there from very tentatively indeed. Nonetheless, I feel they may be of interest as a kind of case-history cum guided tour of a thorny question.

Cardinal fact: SF is a minority taste, to the extent that hitherto one has been able to say it’s read by one person in every thousand of the English-speaking population. (I refer to habituated readers, and not to those who are exposed to an occasional freak best-seller serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.) For instance, I recall seeing Astounding’s public estimate at some 185,000 in a country of about as many million: similarly, the Atlas reprint edition used to sell about 45,000 in Britain.

There is a slow upward trend in these figures at present, due to such causes as the adoption of SF by “respectable” houses like Penguin and the discovery by literate readers that there are literate writers in the field. The impact of this has not yet been sufficient to alter much of the SF writer’s life. We will assign Arthur Clarke, John Wyndham, John Christopher and some few others to the stratospheric altitudes of the movie world (every writer dreams of selling film rights on every book he produces), and concentrate on the somewhat more mundane levels where the majority of the writers who appear in your Favourite Magazines float around.

(Doctor Strangemind: This article was originally written with a British audience in mind so it’s hardly surprising that he only mentioned British authors in this list. It’s also likely that Brunner didn’t want to include any US authors on the not unreasonable basis that he didn’t know enough to do more than guess at who might be earning enough to be added to his list. Even today, with all the advantages of 20/20 hindsight, I’d be hard pressed to name any US authors apart from perhaps Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as doing that well back in the early sixties.)

As pointed out, there is a three-to-one difference in the size of the audience for SF when you compare Britain and the USA. It’s reflected fairly accurately in the rates paid. To try to make a decent living by selling nothing but SF in Britain would be impossible. (John Lymington appears to have found a sort of solution to this, but I have no information regarding other earnings he may have.)

Example: Gollancz’s basic advance on a hardcover edition – to which royalties will be added after a very long lapse of time – is £100 (£1,725 in 2017). I received that for both The Brink, in 1959, and No Future In It, in 1962. Ace, not the largest or most prosperous of American paperback firms, would put down $1,000 ($7,186 in 2017) for the same manuscript, or about £350 (£6,037 in 2017). As to magazines, I recall how pleased I was when Ted Carnell gave me a bonus on a story he published by raising my rate from two guineas to £2.5.0 per thousand words. Near as dammit, two guineas is $6 ($43 in 2017). As far as I know the lowest rate paid in recent years by am American SF magazine has been that from Fantastic at 1.5 cents per word – i.e. $15 per thousand ($108 in 2017), or 2½ times as much.

The highest rate is Analog‘s 4 cents a word, plus a cent a word bonus for topping the An Lab, or half a cent for coming second. The less pretentious of the men’s magazines go no lower than a nickel a word – a cent higher that the best offered by an SF magazine in other words.

It’s a minor miracle that there are so many writers in the SF field, isn’t it?

There are basically two ways in which you can keep afloat in SF without resorting to devious expedients like writing continuity for a comic strip (e.g. Jack Williamson for Beyond Mars, Harry Harrison and heaven knows who else for Flash Gordon) or beating your brains out on a TV serial (a common disaster among American SF writers, I gather, but not so popular in Britain).

The first is to get out of the United States, if that’s where you happen to be, and settle in some country where a phony exchange rate stretches your dollar earnings. I live in Britain but almost exactly 90% of my income is from America.

The second is to be prolific as possible, and that’s a matter of temperament. I’m lucky; I have a very high rate of output because I actually enjoy the physical process of writing, and get unhappy when I’m kept away from my typewriter. I’ve been writing about eight books a year lately, and banking on selling six of them to get me a decent living. But I cant keep that up forever; I was just about at the end of my tether when I started getting serializations in American magazines – something I’d previously failed to secure – and was able to contemplate reducing my schedule because of the extra income thus obtained from the same investment of effort.

(Doctor Strangemind: I do wish Brunner had been clearer in his description at this point because one possible interpretation of his comment about writing eight books each year and selling six is that he was failing to sell 25% of the novels he completed. Surely after a year or two of frenetic production which results in only a 75% success rate an astute author learns to recognise what is likely to sell and what is likely to be passed over? Surely by year three a reasonably astute author can spot unsaleable product in its formative stage and not proceed. Surely?

Anyway, checking the listings for John Brunner on the  The Internet Speculative Fiction Database doesn’t shed much light on the matter either. According to the listings there the Brunner SF novels published prior to the writing of this article amounted to the following:

1959 – 3into the slave nebula lancer 1968
1960 – 4
1961 – 2
1962 – 2
1963 – 6
1964 – 2
1965 – 6

Clearly this is well short of the 8 Brunner claimed he was writing each year, and indeed is even short of the 6 he claimed he was selling. So either he was exaggerating or he was turning out as much non-genre material as he was SF. I’ve certainly seen mention of a couple of early non-genre novels, The Crutch of Memory – Barrie & Rockliff (1964) & Wear the Butcher’s Medal – Pocket (1965), so who knows what else might be lurking out there in the great paperback graveyard.)

(There’s a third solution: to live on bread and cheese in one room, preferably in a warm part of the country to save on heating bills. Some people can stand it. I can’t. When I first moved to London from my home, my earnings as a writer averaged four pounds a week and I was renting a two-guinea room. I gave up and went to work for Sam Youd and it was two and a half years before I plucked up the courage to try freelancing again – by which time I was married and Marjorie was still working, so it wasn’t so risky… This suggests another solution I’s overlooked: marry an heiress. Difficult. So few heiresses appreciate SF.)

All this stems from some comments in Vector #32, where Ken Slater was explaining the facts of life to those of his customers who wanted to know why they couldn’t have the Ballantine edition of The Whole Man (Telepathist in the UK) instead of the Faber hardcover edition to be followed in about two years time by a Penguin.

Well it’s nice to know that so many people are eager to read my stuff… and I’m not even much hurt by the fact that they aren’t eager enough to pay eighteen shillings for the privilege of reading it now, this minute. Among my colleagues I’m regarded as something of a subversive for approving of original paperbacks – but why not? After all, there are few books you read more than once. A typical novel is likely to give you an evening’s entertainment at the speed most moderately literate people read. It seems reasonable to pay for it what you’d pay for a seat at the local cinema or a gallery seat in a theatre; say 3/6 to 7/6, the price of a current paperback.

But look at the matter from the author’s point of view. Look at it, specifically, from mine. Turning out up to eight books a year means that at least one of those books is going to be really good; the rest will range from competent to barely passable, or even lousy, and would benefit immensely from being put on the shelf in manuscript form until I have the time and the inclination to revise, polish, or perhaps scrap them.

If, out of a given book, I’m making only £350 (£6,037 in 2017) less the 10% which the agent takes (which is what happens if I sell it solely to an American paperback publisher who then markets his own edition in Britain), I have to keep churning them out. From the outside, I should perhaps explain, writing books looks like a cheap way of running a business, but I often find when making up my tax returns that my deductible expenses – i.e. those incurred directly in connection with my work – have used up 20% of my gross income.

(Doctor Strangemind: I do wish he had added a little more detail at this point. I’m very curious to know just what those deductible expenses were that using up so much of his income. I strongly suspect, given some of the anecdotes I’ve read about him, that he had a tendency towards extravagance, but perhaps I’m being entirely unfair and it was prosaic matters such as the posting of manuscripts across the Atlantic which was eating up his funds.)

The sales of that American edition in Britain add practically nothing to my earnings; the book comes in, months or years after its first appearance in the States, attracts no attention whatever, isn’t reviewed anywhere, and does no more than spoil my chances of selling the same work to a publisher in this country. As a matter of fact, British sales may well add nothing to my earnings because the American publishers simply want to get their back stock out of the warehouse to make room for newer items. This is called ‘dumping’.

(Doctor Strangemind: Now this part really confuses me. I was under the impression that there was was some sort of legal agreement in place to ensure US publishers couldn’t sell in Britain & the Commonwealth and visa-versa. However Brunner is clearly suggesting he was dealing with US publishers who were doing just that. A quick look on The Internet Speculative Fiction Database however shows that nearly all his early US novel sales went to Ace. The only exceptions I can find are these four:

The Dreaming Earth – Pyramid (1963)
The Whole Man – Ballantine (1964)
The Squares of the City – Ballantine (1965)
The Long Result – Ballantine (1966)

I can’t see any of these publishers participating in a practise like ‘dumping’ that seems to be, at the very least, on the edge of legality. I can only wonder then if the books he is referring to were the non-genre novels whose existence I was speculating about earlier?

Not only that but he seems to think it unfair that he saw no money from this ‘dumping’ practise he claims was going on. If any publisher were actually selling to the remainder market (which seems the most likely explanation if something was indeed going on) then why does Brunner think he might earn anything from the process at all? Again, as I understand it, books are only remaindered after a contract is terminated and I doubt a publisher doing something as dubious as selling any leftover copies on the cheap is going to be keen to give the author a cut and thus provide the author with hard evidence of this practise. It all seems rather curious.)

By signing a contract which confines distribution rights of the American edition strictly to territories outside the sterling area (the wording varies, but this is an example), I can hang on to the chance of additional sales. Suppose, as happened with The Whole Man, Faber buys the manuscript: I get, eventually, another couple of hundred quid in small chunks; I get the chance of a Science Fiction Book Club selection which adds a bit more; I get the chance of a paperback sale in Britain which adds a great deal more; over a period of about three to five years I’ve comfortably doubled the proceeds. I know it’s an awful nuisance to have to wait for the Penguin edition in 1968 or whenever before you can read this book that all your fan friends in Oshkosh or Walla Walla are raving about. But it contains a blessing in disguise: by 1968 I shall have put together my long-awaited epic, Soul Slaves of the Umpteenth Continuum, and its going to make all my previous work look like Kid-dee Com-ics. Up until now force of circumstance and the wolf at the door have conspired to make me postpone work on it.

(Doctor Strangemind: Brunner was clearly joking about writing the above named long awaited epic but on the other hand his four major novels; Stand On Zanzibar (1968), The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972), & The Shockwave Rider (1975) were just a few years in the future at this point so the comments above are far closer to the truth than anybody realised in 1967.)stand on zanzibar doubleday 1968

More seriously, here are some hard figures by which you can gauge the economics of the field as they apply to a competent, diligent writer of average output and adequate persistence. Let’s call him Theokurt Frishblitz in honour of some of my personal idols.

(Doctor Strangemind: No, I’ve no idea who these personal idols Brunner was alluding to when he named his character Theokurt Frishblitz, possibly nobody but Brunner would ever have any idea. Still, feel free to speculate as I’d be interested in any suggestions.)

In Year One of his career Mr. Frishblitz breaks through the hitherto impenetrable wall of rejection slips, revises his long-standing opinion of all editors as purblind nits, and sells a short story to Unused Planets, a British magazine with a high reputation and low rates, Proceeds: about £10 (£172 in 2017).

Encouraged, he stands the editor a drink and makes a note in his diary: To Business Expenses, 3/6. The editor is favourably impressed with his idea for a novelette and promises it the cover if it turns out okay. He also suggests some alterations and improvements in the story line. Mr. Frishblitz gets it right on the second submission. Proceeds: about £50 (£862 in 2017).

One or two or possibly more stories later, he conceives his first novel, and offers it as a serial. It clicks. Proceeds: about £150 (£2,587 in 2017).

Provided he has had the good sense to to make two carbons of this novel he can now cast covetous eyes on the U.S. Market. So far he’s been getting nothing but bounces – from stories which Unused Planets thereupon bought at the minimal British rates. But a novel, surely, which has been serialised…?

Mr. Frishblitz wraps it up, fills out the customs declaration with an optimistic assessment of the book’s value (which will later cause some wrangling and delay in U.S. Customs), and mails it to Trump Books Inc., a small but voracious paperback house in New York with an enormous output of SF. It comes back, much later, with a reasonably kind letter saying they published more or less the same story in 1937 and just reprinted it, but would welcome more of his work; they pay a standard advance of $1,000 ($7,186 in 2017) and would rather the customs slip was marked NO COMMERCIAL VALUE because it makes things simpler at the New York end.

At the end of Year One Mr. Frishblitz tots up his earnings. Rejections included he’s written some hundred thousand words or so – which is a lot of words if you count them one by one. It’s even more if you take re-writes into account. He’s made about £250 (£4,312 in 2017), which is good going for his first year.

What to do? Well… how about an agent? He applies to Scotfree Cheeryble Inc., who – according to The Writer’s Annual – had the highest turnover in America last year and sold one book for a total of $175,000. A note comes back saying, with devastating honesty, that Cheeryble aren’t much interested until a writer is making $1,000 p.a. on his own; then they’ll consider accepting him.

He already knows how much $1,000 is – he worked it out when he got the letter from Trump Books. It’s £357. Anyway, what does he want to give 10% of his earnings for? He’s doing okay, isn’t he?

We-ell…

Let’s skip the interval during which he learns the basic economics of the job and jump to the year in which he quits his regular employment to take a flyer as a freelance; lets say that this is Year Five of his writing career. He’s saved up enough to risk an initial drop in his total income, though his wife is afraid of having to go back to work, and his two children are more expensive than racehorses to feed and keep. The accumulated frustration left over from part-time work, interrupted by having to go to the office every day, lets go with a surge and carries him through the first half of the year with three novels and a couple of good novelettes.

He sells the novelettes – totaling 30,000 words – to U.S. magazines and makes from them what he made in his first year’s work: £250 (£4,312 in 2017). He sells the first two novels to Trump, which he now regards as a safe market, for $1,000 ($7,186 in 2017) and $1250 ($8,982 in 2017) respectively.

Novel three comes back with a regretful note to say it’s below standard, try again.

To Mr. Frishblitz this is a sore blow. He does no more work for a month through worrying; then starts worrying about not working; then the worry fouls him up for a further month, during which time the children eat the proceeds of the sales so far this year. By year’s end he’s recovered enough to have completed a fourth novel. Proceeds this year amount to an acceptable £1500 (£25,880 in 2017), but he’s written about 300,000 words for that, some of which hasn’t found a home, and he’s not sure he can manage the wordage equivalent of five novels every year from now on. His imagination is getting a bit tattered around the edges and what he really wants to do is spend a month researching a magnum opus about colonising the ocean-bed, whereas Trump Books are asking for a sensational novel about adultery in free fall, tentatively titled Peyton Planet.

If he has any sense, this is when he writes to Cheeryble Inc. again. He has the sales behind to make them interested, but he lacks the specialised knowledge to exploit himself.

Lets wish him luck and see how he’s doing in Year Ten.

In this year he writes three books, one of them on commission from a publisher who bought an earlier novel. This is a comfortable pace to write at; it allows time for adequate research, second thoughts, re-reading, and if necessary complete revision which generally permits him to make sure that what he wraps and mails is as good as he can make it. Proceeds are roughly as follows:

The first novel appears, specially abridged by himself, as the lead short novel in a U.S. magazine and grosses $500 ($3,593 in 2017), then sells to a paperback house for $1500 ($10,779 in 2017) and to an English publisher for £150 (£2,587 in 2017), in the full-length version. The second is published as a two-part serial in a U.S. magazine, which pays $800 ($5,749 in 2017), and also goes to a paperback house for $1,500 ($10,779 in 2017), but is too far out to interest the rather conservative British publishers. Not to worry: number three marks two ‘first’ notches for him – his first U.S. hardback edition and his first double sale in Britain, to both hardback and paperback houses, as well as going to a U.S. paperback publisher, bringing some $2,000 ($14,372 in 2017) and £400 (£6,900 in 2017) from a single book. In addition he receives some small royalties from previous work, and there is no reason why novel number two should not later on find a home in Britain; moreover, by now he’s picking up the odd translation sale, and when the escudos, franks, marks, and whatsits are converted to sterling they add another 100-odd quid to the year’s total.

(Doctor Strangemind: This is where my point about there being a transitory period is best illustrated. It was only during those years between the early fifties and the eighties that it was possible to sell the same work in differing forms this many times.)

Year Ten therefore sees him comfortably established with an income of around £2,500 (£43,123 in 2017) plus past, future, and imponderable accretions from work not actually done during the year. He is doing very well considering the field he is in. Next year he may very well make less than £1,000 (£17,249 in 2017) because he breaks his wrist and can’t type, or he may make £10,000 (£172,493 in 2017) because his agent happens to be drinking within earshot of a film producer and seizes his chance on hearing the producer is looking for a science fiction property. He can’t tell. But he wouldn’t trade problems with anybody, He’s hooked on writing.

Mr. Frishblitz did everything right, and had the single essential attribute out of that list at the beginning of his career, which is persistence. He’s probably about thirty-five or forty; he gets half a dozen fan letters a year, is asked to speak at conventions, and when the BBC puts a programme together about SF they send someone around with a tape recorder and use two minutes forty seconds on the air. He’s okay. But if it hadn’t been SF he wanted to write – if it had been , say, TV serials and he sold an idea which caught on like Dr. Who – he might easily have made in the first two years enough to retire on, in a gracious modern house on Grand Bahama Island with his own private beach, and the seventeen Frishblitz books you so greatly enjoyed over the past ten years would never have been written at all.

Sometime I must ask Mr. Frishblitz which way he’d have preferred it to turn out back in Year One of his career…

If this article finds its way into the hands of any U.S. readers, they should remember the phoniness of the dollars-to-pounds exchange rate. In this country an annual income in the Frishblitz bracket will provide a comfortably furnished house, adequate food and clothing for a family of four, a medium priced car, and the occasional vacation abroad. At the current Stateside rate it would compare so badly with what one can earn in business that the writer’s wife would certainly leave him, unless she was desperately in love.

My guesstimate is that Mr. Frishblitz, living in the States, would have to earn some 50% more in order to survive, and at least 100% more to enjoy the U.S. Equivalent of Anglo-Frishblitz’s standard of living.

I couldn’t manage it. That’s why I live here. (Also I was born here, which counts for something…)

Some Achieve Greatness

Temporary Note: For reasons that I’m sure make sense to itself the company which has supplied my phone and Internet connection for the last decade recently decided to celebrate the upgrading of the local telecommunication network by closing my account with them and deleting my phone number. Currently I’m in the process of rectifying this but it’s taking longer than expected due to some uncertainty as to whether I and my home address actually exists. I’m pretty sure I exist and so does the apartment I’ve lived in for the last ten years but apparently my word doesn’t count for much within the telecommunications industry. Anyway, until such time as I have a home connection once more I’ve been reduced to using wi-fi wherever I can find it, a situation not really conducive to regularly posting at Doctor Strangemind. Normal service will be resumed just as soon as it’s agreed that I’m real and so indeed is my apartment (and if not, then why the heck did I have to pay all those phone bills?)

The green shoots of talent are hard to predict.

Like most of the mouldy hepcat set I see myself as being part of my absolute favourite John Belushi film is The Blues Brothers. I doubt many of you would find this fact, or the fact that my second favourite Belushi film is Animal House, particularly surprising. Just as few of you are likely to be shocked when I tell you my favourite line from Animal House has Belushi delving into alternate history:

Bluto: What? Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

My second favourite line from Animal House is, I believe, a more controversial choice. It’s uttered just after the boys return from the road trip and Flounder discovers the terrible things that has been done to his brother’s car. It’s at that point that Otter channels his inner politician and utters the most utterly perfect statesman-like line ever uttered:

Otter: Flounder, you can’t spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes! You screwed up… you trusted us! Hey, make the best of it! Maybe we can help.

Oh, and look, a science fiction reference at last. Flounder was of course played by Stephen Furst, who went on to play Vir Cotto in Babylon 5. And would you believe it, my two all time favourite scenes from Babylon 5 feature Stephen Furst as Vir (one involves Vir & Lennier stress relieving in the bar together, the other involves Vir telling Mr Morden that what he, Vir, wants is to live just long enough to see them cut Morden’s head off and put it on a pike so he can wave to it).

The speech I really want to quote however occurs early in the movie when the Deltas are deciding on which pledges to accept and Flounder’s picture appears on the screen. Most of the Deltas respond in a less than impressed manner but then Otter gets up and gives a speech about why he should be admitted:

Otter: Okay, okay, this guy is a real zero, that’s true. Just think back when you guys were freshmen, huh? Boon, you had a face like a pepperoni pizza, right? And Stork here, everybody thought the Stork was brain damaged. I myself was so obnoxious, the seniors use to beat me up once a week. So this guy is a total loser? Well let me tell you the story of another loser.

I love that speech because it reminds us all that no matter how successful or weird or clever or pompous we are we didn’t start that way, we had to work at it. Nobody starts as the mightiest tree in the forest, we might begin as a Flounder but only time will tell if we end up putting the burn on our very own Morden.

But you don’t have to believe Otter or myself. Let me quote from a speech made at the 1983 Disclave by one of the authors attending that con (for the record the text of this speech was reprinted in Bill Bower’s fanzine, Outworlds #34). Our mystery author begins thus:

I have been to Disclave before. Once. That was why I was so pleased when Alan Huff asked me to come east. Because it so happens that I attended the 1971 Disclave, and it so happens that it was my very first SF convention.

Interesting… Go on mystery author:

Maybe a few of you were here in ’71 too. If so, maybe you remember me. I looked a little different back then. My hair was shoulder length, just like everyone else’s, but I was still clean-shaven, I didn’t stop shaving until 1974. Even then, I was a snappy dresser. In fact, I was a hell of a lot snappier. As I recall, I wore my Psychedelic Hippie Pimp outfit to the con: ankle boots with zippers, burgundy bell-bottoms, a bright solid green tapered body shirt, a black satin scarf, and — the piece de resistance — my famous double-breasted pin-striped mustard-yellow sports jacket. Perhaps now you veterans recall me. I was the one wandering around the con suite doing permanent retinal damage.

Gah! I can’t imagine an outfit like that would be easy to forget. However, this doesn’t seem like a random wardrobe choice, oh mystery author:

You might wonder why I dressed up like I did. After all, it was only a con.

Yes, the thought did pass my mind:

…I figured I had to dress well because I was gonna be such a center of attention at Disclave, You see, I wasn’t no mere neofan wandering into his first con. Hell no! Not me! I was a filthy pro! Well, maybe not filthy, but dirty anyhow. Smudged a bit around the edges. I’d sold two stories. My first story had been published in Galaxy just that February. (Anyone here remember Galaxy?) My second I’d just sold the month before to Ted White for Amazing. It hadn’t even been published yet. In fact, I hadn’t even been paid for it. But I knew Ted was going to be at the con, and I was looking forward to meeting him. He was the editor of a major prozine, after all, and I was a brilliant new writer he’d just discovered, so I figured he’d certainly want to take me out to an expense-account dinner at Sans Souci, and I didn’t want to be under dressed. Besides, I figured I had to impress all the fans who’d be coming up to me for autographs. After all, I’d published a story! Hell, I’d made a career total of $94 from SF writing at that point, and I was gonna burst through into triple figures once Ted paid me.

Galaxy February 1971

Expectations, you can have all that you want because they don’t cost a cent (at first anyway). I guess making that first sale ensures every budding author feel like singing that line from I’m On My Way (as sung by The Proclaimers), “I’m on my way from misery to happiness today!”

Well, things didn’t quite work out the way I’d planned at that first Disclave. I must say, though, they started off promisingly enough. Once I found the con, that is. This was 1971, you must recall, and Washington didn’t have subways then, just holes-in-the-ground that screwed up traffic, plus a lot of buses. The con was at a different hotel, the Shoreham I believe, and I’d never been there, so I got on a bus Line I’d never ridden before and asked the driver to let me know when we came to the Shoreham Hotel, and settled down to read or look out the window or do something or other. Next thing I knew we were at the end of the line and everyone else had gotten off the bus. I had to ride all the way back, but finally I did find the hotel, and after that I managed to find the consuite. Just inside the door there was a table set up where they were taking registration. Sitting behind it was the very first science fiction fan I ever met. He was a very skinny guy with hair down to his waist and an extremely scraggly beard and a manic gleam in his eyes. He looked sort of like an orange Rasputin. He was not as well dressed as I was. But I forgave him that, because when I paid my money to register, he recognized my name! “Where have I heard that name before?” he asked me.

Oh yeah baby. The thrill the first time you arrive at a con and discover somebody you haven’t already met knows who you are. Notoriety is addictive! The world recognises that I exist! I have been validated!

I modestly allowed that I’d had a story in the February Galaxy and perhaps he had seen my by-line.

‘Shit!” he yelled. “I bought that story!” Then this skinny, hairy, orange guy introduced himself. His name was Gardner Dozois, he claimed, and he was an editor at Galaxy.

And now the plot thickens. At least for any of you familiar with the the name Gardner Dozois. I assume one or two of you who read this are (he assumes facetiously).

Then he buttonholed another skinny, hairy guy who’d come over to check on registration or something. “Jay,” he said. “here’s a guy I fished out of the slushpile.” Jay, as I recall, hadn’t read the story. In fact, although Gardner was to, introduce me to several other people at the con as a guy he’d fished out of the slushpile, none of then had read the story either. gr head of-it. Gardner was the only person at Disclave, or in the entire district of Columbia, it seemed, who was cognizant of the fact that I’d published a story.

I could suggest here that pride goeth before a fall but that would hardly be fair. Our mystery author later mentioned in his speech how in 1971 he was shy and something of a wallflower so I’m willing to bet he wasn’t as keen for mass adulation at the time as some of the material above suggests. He was surely sensible enough to realise he had done very well to encounter not one, but both editors who had bought a story of his (yes, he eventually met Ted White though he didn’t have much to say about that event).

I think that on the whole George R.R. Martin was pretty satisfied with his first public outing.

Yes, the man behind Game of Thrones was once a shy newbie wearing a mustard-yellow jacket and burgundy bell-bottoms. Would you have spotted him as a talent to watch? I doubt very much that I would have. So you see what I mean about nobody starting as the mightiest tree in the forest. George R.R. Martin may have begun his as career as the literary equivalent of Flounder but since then putting the equivalent of a burn on Morden is the least of his achievements. And that’s the thing, you might see somebody wearing an unlikely outfit talking excitably about the story they just had published and you may be tempted to roll your eyes. However, stay your contempt for at least a bit, unprepossessing as that individual may seem at first glance can you be really sure that they won’t become the next George R.R. Martin? And wouldn’t you like to be able to say, “I remember when…”

 

P.S. I have a theory by the way that Dave Jennings, the professor in Animal House, is actually Oddball, the tank commander from Kelly’s Heroes, fifteen years older (it helps that Donald Sutherland played both characters). I like to think it adds depth to both films, illustrating how the rebels of one generation can end up out of their depth when dealing with the next generation.

On the Newsstand

Adversity always inflames the enthusiast.

It’s 1955, Elvis Presley is on the radio, Dragnet is on the TV, and last but not least Astounding Science Fiction is on the magazine racks. So here is Joe Fan pushing open the door to his neighbourhood drugstore in Anytown, USA. It’s the start of of a new month and Joe is eager to begin searching for the latest instalment of his favourite form of fiction.

He pauses briefly in the doorway to take in the magnificent sight before his eyes. Row upon row of bright coloured covers hint at the wealth of wonders waiting just behind them. Everything sort of fiction magazine a keen reader could want is laid out in serried rows, detectives, westerns, sports, air war, jungle adventures, true romance, the choices seem endless.

But what is this, where is Joe Fan’s favourite form of reading? He can see everything but the science fiction he so desperately craves! How could this be he thinks to himself and turns towards the counter to inquire into the availability of current SF magazines. But before Joe can utter a single word the druggist has turned and scurried to the rear of the store. Joe sighs upon seeing the elderly gentleman’s retreating back and girding his loins strides to the nearest rack in order to begin pawing through the literature on display.

Eventually, in a corner assailable only by climbing three towering stacks of hot rod magazines and crawling over a dusty mound of fading newspapers does Joe at last find what he has been looking for. Scrambling back into into the afternoon sunlight he takes another look at the contents of his hand, only to discover what he holds are nothing but almost mint copies of Stirring Science Stories. He drops them with disgust.

Joe frowns and resignedly crouches behind the stacked magazines. Tearing the cover off a copy of Hot Rod’s he pokes out Jack Webb’s eyes and stares through the small holes as he lays in wait for the druggist. Eventually that elderly gentleman comes shuffling back from the shadowy and mysterious recesses of the store. Joe Fan leaps up, the Hot Rod’s cover held before him, “Hold it right there friend! I’d like to ask you some questions!”

The druggist recoils in surprise, staggering back against the counter, “Please Mr Webb! I ain’t done nothing wrong. You can’t take me in, I have a business to run!”

Joe waggled the magazine cover menacingly, “Now none of that. I just want the facts doc, just the facts. Where are you hiding Astounding and the other science fiction mags?”

The druggist frowned, “You’re not Jack Webb. An upstanding detective like him would never be interested in perverse trash like that. The science fiction is out the back where it belongs young fellow me lad and there it will stay. I only sell science fiction to customers who can prove they’re over 21. So unless you have some proof of identity be on your way!”

Joe Fan knew a losing battle when he saw one. The whole business with Ray Palmer and the Shaver Mystery had aged him beyond his tender years. Without another word he turned and strolled out of the drugstore as casually as possible. However if the druggist had but seen Joe Fan’s face lost in thought he would know that this was not the end of the matter, not by a long shot.

Drugstore Magazine Rack

Poor Joe Fan! All he wants is to buy the latest issues of Astounding, Galaxy, and if he’s feeling particularly sophisticated, F&SF. Unfortunately for Joe the delivery of his favourite reading material was a cooperative effort. In order for Joe to set eyes upon any magazine the delivery process required not just a publisher but a printer, distributor, and retailer as well. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that none these businesses cared about Joe’s reading preferences. In particular Joe’s druggist had little incentive to sell that one extra copy of any title. Even today the average retailer of magazines has hundreds of magazines in stock, and really, so long as all these titles as a group sell a decent number between them each month what does it matter to the business if a particular title sells 6 copies or only 5?

Luckily for Joe he had somebody looking out for him. Well to be honest that somebody was actually paid by certain publishers to look out for them but if the end result allowed Joe to buy his favourite magazines who are we to quibble?

Time for me to introduce Dave Mason. I doubt you’re familiar with the name because while he did sell a few stories over the years he was hardly prolific. While writing wasn’t the primary means by which Dave Mason earned a living he still knew something about the magazine business. According to an article by Mason published in the November 1955 issue of Ron Smith’s fanzine, Inside & Science Fiction Advertiser #12, he was as involved with the publishing business as most authors. In this article Mason put his two cents into the debate various authors had been having in the pages of Inside about why the science fiction field had recently gone from boom to bust. I’m sharing a slightly pruned down version of this article here because Mason goes into a lot of fascinating detail about how things worked at the coalface of the of the magazine trade in his day. (And are things so very different today? I suspect not.) He also offers a good many opinions that I found amusing and which will hopefully amuse you too.

But before you dive right in a couple of points. First of all Mason uses a couple of slang terms that have left me slightly confused as to their meaning. I included them in for that authentic fifties feel but don’t expect me to be able to explain what they mean. Secondly, I’d be curious to know if anybody can make an educated guess as to which magazine Mr Mason was referring to when he wrote about the situation with ‘Exasperating Tales‘. My first thought was that ‘Exasperating Tales‘ was really Imagination as published by William Hamling but I’m not sure if that guess makes sense or not.

Mason

I am getting awfully tired of this whole silly argument, chums. And I do mean the argument about what’s with the boom/bust/bwah of poor old science fiction. Look, I ain’t no lit’ry type, see? I wrote a story, and it got published by a fella named Shaw in a magazine called Infinity, but nobody invites me to pro parties, and H.L. Gold doesn’t know me from Hubbard.

But there’s one phase of this silly business I do know about. And it’s the one thing that all of the brilliant editors, publishers, authors, such who’ve been belaboring each other appear to know very, very little about, and care less. And that is a thing coarsely known as distribution.

I get paid for knowing something about it. Not as much as Horace gets for editing Galaxy, not even as much as an apprentice printer gets for running his fingers across the web to create that interesting smudged effect Beyond used to go for, before Beyond went annual. But for the mysteries whereof I am adept, I get a small purse of gold which may or may not prove that my services are worth something to somebody.

The firm for which I slave is a poor one, and one of many such; it’s generally called, before ladies, a publisher’s representative. This means that magazine publishers, on being confronted with the dark jungle that lies between the printer’s shipping room and the customer’s cash, cry aloud for a white hunter to guide them through, defend and preserve them, and lend them comfort when the drums beat loud. That’s us. We bedevil, pursue, and harry newsdealers; we ceaselessly shove excess copies about the highways and byways; we stick up posters, enchant with smiles and soap, make endless statistics, and perform similar mantic arts to the end that nowhere in the civilized world may any man, woman or fan step into a newsstand and be confronted with the absence of a magazine we represent.

Now, these arts are a dark mystery to nearly all editors and publishers. When they are handed the plain and simple results of a great deal of legwork, and those results fail to correspond with some airy theory they have may have about their publications, the genii simply ignore them. Therefore follows trouble, such as now, and for quite a while, has beset science fiction.

To cite an example: There is, upon the lists of my firm, a Certain Magazine, which we shall call Exasperating Tales. The publisher of ET pays us for our services, but apparently is not sufficiently interested to find out exactly what those services are. The editor, nobody’s fool otherwise, does not even know we exist. I know, because I met him once and mentioned that I worked for the firm that represented his publication. He appeared to think we had something to do with printing it.

Now, Exasperating is slipping. It’s slipping so badly that it’s a mystery as to how it keeps going. On the other hand, earnest efforts by us help keep it going (no, we don’t want gratitude – we get paid).

It doesn’t take much research to find out why. There is a strictly limited market for the magazine in question and too many copies are going out. But it wouldn’t be quite such a limited market if a few touches were added; the covers could be better, for instance, and certain other things might help. And, although we don’t advise on editorial policy, if enough newsstand buyers are saying the stories stink, we hear about it and report the fact. Mind you, we don’t say we think they stink, but that newsstand buyers do.

And this, together with other information such as the way the magazine sells, where, and during what part of the on-sale period, is reported to the publisher. If he does anything about it at all – and he often doesn’t – he seldom if ever mentions anything to the editor. The editor works in a vacuum, with only a few letters to tell him anything: and those letters are usually from rabid fans, who aren’t representative of the general reading public.

But now, just how does this whole set-up I’m speaking of work? What be these mysteries of which editors are blissfully ignorant? How is it that the vintner sells? Well…

You have thirty thousand nicely printed copies of Frenetic Fiction, Volume One, Number One. You are a publisher.

You aren’t going to wait around until enough people mail you subscriptions. You’re a publisher, but you have some sanity left. What you need is a distributor who will put copies on newsstands and in stores. You take a look at what’s available.

There are a few small time distributors who carry a few very popular magazines to routes in various areas. Those we don’t even think about. Then there are a couple of so-called Independents (since one man’s family owns ’em all, the term ‘Independent’ is by courtesy) and there is the Big ‘Un, American News. Your decision on which to use is based on the kind of magazine, the number of copies to be sold, its expected popularity, whether you can afford American News’ rates for national distribution, etc. Once you’ve made up your mind, the favored outfit gets your 30,000 hunks of deathless literature and proceeds to wreak.

The distributor’s method is usually to examine your mag and, after uffish thought, to decide that Frenetic Fiction is very like The Quarterly Fetishist, on the basis that the same sort of moron buys both. However, since the lad who makes this decision is probably a guy who moves his lips when he reads, and who thinks Amazing is science fiction, he can quite easily be fooled into using Boot & Shoe Industry as a comparison magazine for Boats & Ships.

Once his usual slightly wrong decision has been made, our distributor’s expert proceeds to make a distribution. He does this by opening up his lists of dealers and saying, “Well, Gooha’s Stationary Store gets six copies of The Quarterly Fetishist, sells four. Give him eight of Frenetic Fiction, on account we got twice as many copies to get rid of.” Thereafter the distributor using these figures carries copies of Frenetic, along with all the other magazines he handles, to Gooha, and to all the other stores and stands called for.

Gooha opens the bundle and sees a new magazine among the others. Gooha, you must remember, is a high grade moron, much smarter than the average fan. He is in the magazine business because at an early age his Aunt Tchasha bought it for him; she correctly figured that books and magazines were the only stock in trade he wouldn’t try to steal. He hates the magazine business – all newsdealers do. They make much more on candy bars and reefers, and they only keep magazines in the place so the cop on the beat can have something to paw over when he comes in for his weekly ice.

Gooha cannot read, but he can recognise a new magazine. He resents the very idea of a publisher trying to make him sell something. He grunts and flings it under the counter, to be returned at the end of the week without ever having been visible. If you ask Gooha about Frenetic he will say, quite truthfully, “Duh, it didn’t sell.” That’s right, it didn’t, none of his customers having X-ray vision.

The magazines are given to Gooha and his anthropoid brethren on consignment, which means he only has to pay for what he inadvertently sells. He has to pay a very small carrying charge and he has to keep a small sum on deposit with the distributor; also, he must return a magazine which has not been sold in order to get credit. The dealers resent these various small curbs on what they would like to do, which would be to evade their bills, swindle everybody involved, and possibly sell the unsold magazines for pulp.

Now, among other things, I make up distributions for publishers. Having personally visited Gooha and a thousand others of his ilk, I know him well. I know what his stand looks like, his habits, his prejudices, what sells well and what doesn’t. Judging by this, I try to give him enough copies so that he will have to return only two or three.

If he ‘prematures’, or returns copies before the end of sale period, or if he sells out rather quickly, I will find out about it. If, for instance, I don’t see Frenetic right out there in front, I’ll ask him where it is. I may try to do him little favors like adding up 3 and 7 so his accounts will come out straight. But with smiles and soap I’ll get copies of Frenetic out in front where the madding crowd can see it. If he returns copies, re-orders will appear in his mail the same day. If he tries to sell them out fast, I’ll be there with more. And, as returns come drifting back to the distributor, I’ll be there waiting with a list of dealers who have never received Frenetic, to whom returned copies can be sent, thereby making certain that no copies stop moving till the end of sale.

Now, there’s more to promotion than this; I’m not writing a book on the subject. But the whole basic concept of promoting is the same anywhere, in all fields. It’s this: Make a noise. Beat on a tin pan in the market place and cry loudly, “I have oil and wine, o ye Faithful!” And whether the wine be good or bad, the loudest pan-beater sells the most. Being an idealist I would prefer that the loudest pan-beater also be a good wine-maker, but there’s no necessary connection.

I shall now make some highly radical statements.

Number one. I know, better than – certain other parties – what kinds of science fiction will sell, which will sell best and which will not sell at all. Now, when I speak of promotion, I don’t mean that lousy stuff of the SF Plus or Amazing variety will naturally sell better than Astounding or Fantasy & Science Fiction. It doesn’t, unless, as in the case of Amazing, the enormous push of a big chain publisher’s sales and circulation staff are put behind it. Rap didn’t make Amazing into the leading seller single handed, and he didn’t do it simply by making it the awful crud that it was; he did it because Ziff-Davis knew how to make magazines sell. That’s nothing in Rap’s disfavor – it’s easy for him to think he was the prime mover, because, as usual, the editorial department lived in Parnassus, above the madding throng of circulation men.

On the other side of that coin, SF Plus, which did its best to be much worse than Amazing, and succeeded to a large extent, was a tee-total newsstand flop. That was not merely because it was as bad as it was, but because there was hardly any shadow of an attempt made to circulate it properly. It’s doubtful if any amount of promotion could have helped that item, but it might have; you never can tell.

Second radical statement. Science fiction – real science fiction, and good fantasy, adult stuff – will never have a really large market. On the other hand, there’s a good steady small market for a few magazines of quality. Unless you publish the kind of thing Imagination does, which simply cannot be classed as anything but comic book stuff, you aren’t going to get large sales. So don’t try.

Which to digress into another phase of the lunacy that is the publishing business. Whenever anything appears to be selling well, there will be seventeen other publishers, most of them of the sort that operate out of hats and strictly on credit, who will rush to supply the obvious public hunger with seventeen imitations of the successful item. There are three or four imitations of Mad on the stands now; there will be ten or fifteen imitations of Shock as soon as the other publishers find out how well it’s been selling. And every time there’s a slight upturn in SF there are seventeen hungry impresarios waiting to turn out imitations.

Third radical statement. Fantasy & Science Fiction and Astounding are going to last just as long as Boucher and Campbell feel like running them. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Galaxy suddenly went poof. I’d be sorry, because I like it. But I don’t think SF would feel the loss.

My reason for comparing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Astounding with Galaxy is this: Boucher and Campbell know a great deal about their public, and have been giving them a pretty consistent diet of what that public wants. Gold, on the other hand, is a guy who knows what he likes, and that’s what he’s going to publish. If you happen to share all of Gold’s personal tastes – which would be difficult – you’ll like Galaxy all the way, every issue. If you don’t, Galaxy will ultimately begin to bore you.

So, from an illiterate, hairy-hoofed, harrier of dealers and juggler of distribution, these words of wisdom: One of these days there will come out of the desserts a Great Man, some editor-publisher who will know how to put together a good general SF magazine. An editor who will put as much effort into promotion and distribution as he does convention activity. And then, we shall see…

Alas for Dave Mason his final prediction never came to pass. Indeed it can be argued that by 1960 the few remaining science fiction magazines had been relegated to a place behind the newly dominant paperbacks and would remain there for ever more.

Now before I finish we need check in on Joe Fan.

That night a shadowy figure crept across the roof of a certain drugstore and with trembling fingers eased open the skylight. A moment later that same figure lowered itself into the store down an Acme brand Chain of Logic and with a soft but gleeful laugh headed for the unlocked storeroom.

And so it was that sooner or later each month Joe Fan’s druggist foe would find his magazine racks mysteriously rearranged and the despised science fiction prominently displayed. He was so disheartened by this mysterious turn of events he could barely bring himself to accept the money customers kept pressing into his hands…