Book View Cafe is pleased to present its first guest blog post. CJ Cherryh and friends, Jane Fancher and Lynn Abbey, have a new website, Closed Circle, which, like BVC, is an authors’ collective. We salute Closed Circle in their efforts and are happy to have the esteemed Ms. Cherryh here to talk a bit about it and one of our favorite topics: publishing. Thanks, CJ!
I started out in this business officially back in 1975. That means I’ve been at it 35 years, and don’t plan to quit.
But the business has changed. A lot.
In 1975 there were far more publishers doing science fiction: DAW was newborn. There was Ace, Ballantine, Pocket, Bantam, Warner, Belmont-Tower, Lancer, among others, and various magazines, including the venerable Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog.
Well, they weren’t quite the good old days. Belmont-Tower used to buy “all rights”, meaning the writer sold his copyright to the publisher, and got about 300 dollars for his effort. Flat. A writer I knew well used to do a novel every time the rent came due. There was only paperback publishing for science fiction, and the idea that a genre writer got to see his copyedits or had any right to correct them, well, that didn’t happen. A science fiction novel was 75,000 to 80,000 words, skinny, printed in fine type, and cost a buck twenty-five. Earlier than that—well, one book in my possession was all of thirty-five cents cover price. So 300 flat wasn’t quite as outrageous as it sounds, because trying to get a living out of 3 percent of thirty-five cents was pretty hard.
Belmont-Tower was dying when I started submitting manuscripts. Lancer went belly-up after rejecting one of my first books. I don’t think it was cause and effect. That publisher was in trouble, that early.
Early on, too, the accuracy of publisher accounting to writers went unchallenged. A publisher ‘estimated’ they printed 50,000 copies of a given science fiction novel. They estimated they ‘always’ got 40% of the covers back, stripped…(until they discovered an enterprising outfit in the central US was counterfeiting the covers and collecting the book dealer refund)—so that’s the basis of the check they cut for the writer, never mind how it actually sold.
Funny thing, if you had more returns coming back than you estimated had printed books…you ought to be suspicious.
And computers were starting to make inroads into the business—slowly. It took years for me to convince my publishers to take a computer file and not to key in the book all over again, and I became one of the first turning in computer files.
By the middle 1970’s, writers were getting real advances. And science fiction had become a lively market. It was fairly easy to break in: if you were good, if you had something unusual—some new concept—there were editors who’d grown up in the business who’d appreciate originality. Don Wollheim, Lester del Rey, among others—valued good writing. The Literature of Ideas, we called it. And writers actually began to get money beyond the initial sale. You got 5-6% of cover price, but if you wrote fast, you could make a living out of it. For a while, life was good.
By the 1980’s the big advances began to happen, and book prices started upward, driving by, among other things, the cost of transportation: it was the big bubble. In science fiction, StarWars and the like happened, and publishing companies with science fiction lines began to look like cash cows about the time changes in the tax laws began to convince really big corporations that owning publishing houses would be a nice way to demonstrate a tax loss. Oil companies began to gobble up publishing houses—and things went crazy. Advances were paid that never would earn out, with clever clauses that made sure the writers got less than what was advertised they got; and the editors that actually knew what they were doing with science fiction were getting older. Ultimately, at many houses, with the new corporate superstructure, younger editors arrived on the scene, not all of whom had any background in science fiction…or historicals…or several other marketing areas that were also getting hit hard.
The Victorian business of printing books tottered: the bean counters took over. And a tax ruling that taxed printed books in a warehouse all of a sudden meant that print runs had to shrink to nothing. You could not afford to print big and distribute slowly.
The ceiling fell in—at the same time all these corporations were thinking they were going to hit it big with best sellers. They thought they had found just the brand new business model (based on computer returns) that was going to make it all work.
It didn’t work: the costs of keeping everything in trucks on the highway or in stores being distributed just didn’t work smoothly, especially when the people in charge did things like…print more of book three of a trilogy but not of one and two, because their computer model showed that book three was a better seller with better reviews. This is an actual case, mind you.
Keeping series books available grew harder and harder. Getting a new writer known and distributed became very much harder…especially when publishers were used to genre fiction selling with no advertising.
Then their ‘model’ showed that movie tie-ins or things that could be blurbed like movie tie-ins would be the best thing for science fiction.
But reprint the backlist that enables new readers to get used to the give-and-take of science fiction, to learn the concepts and branch out into the classics of our field? No. There’s no market for ‘old’ books. Just ask the bean counters…not just employed at the publishers, but at the distribution end of things.
It’s a brand new world out there. Those of us writers who have backlist are not going to accept this verdict—and those of us computer-savvy and who have been keeping up with change for three and four decades now, are determined to survive. This literature will survive. Books will survive. What our survival relies on is the knowledge that we have readers who support us, who want us to survive, and who are interested in being connected in communities like this one, and like our own Closed Circle. At Closed Circle, which is myself, Jane Fancher, and Lynn Abbey, we’ve been in this long enough that many of our contracts are too old to have sold e-book rights. They’re ours. And we’re going to use them.
Science fiction as we know it started with a little magazine and a group of readers who liked to get together and exchange ideas. It’s that getting-together part and that exchanging-ideas part that we came close to losing with the advent of the mega-corporations. But here we are again, in little groups, exchanging ideas, being a community.
I’m not worried about us. Science fiction, along with a growing chain of writers, is being revived on the internet as what it was born to be—again the Literature of Ideas, everybody’s ideas, tossed back and forth at the cosmic roundtable: the ideas of a schoolteacher, of a fireman, of a writer, a diplomat, a computer programmer, a cook, a construction worker, all talking about the future, all believing we’re going to make it, and that the trip is going to be interesting.