Words from the Wise: CJ Cherryh

Closed CircleBook 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.

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Visit CJ Cherryh’s personal blog, Wave Without a Shore

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Words from the Wise: CJ Cherryh — 16 Comments

  1. CJ thank you for the excellent publishing history lesson. I’m a newbie, have always loved science fiction and didn’t know about the publishing side until now.

  2. I remember those wonderful thin, exciting SF books, and the thrill of finding new titles and authors in our local bookstore and at the library. When I broke in in ’95 my agent told me “the business is changing. Things are really tightening up.” I’ve heard that consistently ever since. It’s sad to see the big old imprints devouring each other. Bantam is Ballentine now. Pretty soon there’ll be one, owned by Exxon or some other bean counting corp. Exciting to see the new, small presses on the rise, though! Thanks for the overview!

  3. Has anybody ever tried to change that stupid tax law that screwed up printing and distribution?

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  5. A timely and well-written article. In the midst of the latest shake-up it’s good to be reminded that while the publishing industry of today doesn’t much resemble the industry as it existed when a somewhat-younger me bought a first novel by an author he’d never heard of called Gate of Ivrel (and I absolutely refuse to acknowledge that was 1975) good books continue, somehow, to be written, and published, and find an audience.

    And it’s equally good to be reminded that a few (I categorically refuse to admit the figure of 35) years from now when I’m reading The Eighth Adventure of Morgaine kri Chya and Nhi Vanye i Chya (hint-hint) the industry probably won’t resemble today’s either, but good books will continue to be written, and distributed, and read.

    JJ. Pierce: You’re referring to *spit* Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 1979. As far as I know, nobody’s seriously challenged the US Supreme Court decision on that case, no. Happily the doors being opened by electronic publishing (both e-books and print-on-demand) may finally enable us to put a stake in its heart, cut off its head, and bury it at a crossroads at midnight.

  6. And who could forget the accounting on the ACE Doubles? (two front covers, no back covers…start reading, finish in the middle, flip, and start over again.) One author wrote both halves under different names (happened a lot when you were writing for rent) and saw radically different sales numbers for the two titles! Ah…the Good Old Days…

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  8. I’m a reader, not a writer, so bear than in mind. The big problem with e-booking the back list is building enough visibility to be a go-to resource for e-books. It needs dozens of authors, and some way to get publicity. Maybe the SFWA might become a general clearing house. OR maybe a group of writers could put together an anthology of short stories and put them on Project Gutenberg (under creative commons) with links to your joint website. Baen has been successful partly because they have built up that go-to image, at least in their niche of S/F. Just some thought that might (or might not) be of help….

  9. This is a remarkable recapitulation of the last 35 years of publishing as viewed by a respected writer.

    I began reading science fiction in 1957. It was “Heinlein’s Heyday” and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”, as well as Galaxy Magazine and Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, not to mention the ACE doubles. There were very few sequels (I don’t remember any off hand.) and few continuing characters. Not much psychology either. Now the field is entirely different. An author can begin a complex tale and stands a chance of carrying it through.

    But nothing is certain. E-books are the newest thing. If the best writers are self-publishing their oldest (before e-rights existed) and newest works in e-media, what is to happen to us dinosaurs who prefer the printed page (in a nice, classic font)?

    I guess I am just mourning “progress”, but …
    How much of the reading experience lies in the “media”, that is, tactile books versus e-books? Will the community of “Ideas and Discussion” be formed if the “reading” experience is not positive?
    Just wondering …

  10. Speaking for Closed-Circle, from the outset, we’ve wanted to provide an all-inclusive experience. When we say “all formats” we mean ALL FORMATS. If you want to make yourself a printed copy of one of our titles, we want you to be able to do it (and we’d like you to do it on something other than self-destructing high-acid newsprint. We’ve not been able to find a truly competitive Print-on-Demand partner, but we haven’t given up the quest, either.

    My guess is that the printed book is going to become a tactile experience reserved for whichever stories an individual considers “five-star reads.” Kinda the way cotton has gone from a dirt-cheap to luxury fiber in my lifetime.

  11. In light of all the recent locking of horns between Amazon and Macmillan, I think it will be interesting to see how many authors take their careers into their own hands, and how the whole system changes in the next ten or twenty years. I think (hope?) those PoD options are going to change because I think New York and Amazon are going to become less important in the overall scheme of things. The more market there is for PoD, the more companies will be doing PoD, which means more competition and (hopefully) a lower price for a quality product.

    The idea of networking through SFWA is interesting. in the publishing environment I hope is coming it’s possible that SFWA could actually do something very useful, even beyond a network of their membership’s ebook sites. They could provide a jury past which the self-published author must get in order to join SFWA and so become a part of their as yet nonexistent estore web. (Right now, in order to be a member, you must have been published by “acknowledged” dead-tree publishers.) One of the problems with the ease of self publishing right now is helping connect the reader with those books which are not just Joe Dweeblethorpe’s thinly disguised shopping list. SFWA could become one of the “go to” spots on the internet!

  12. As a long-time reader and amateur (for now) writer, I think Closed Circle is a fabulous idea. I just posted a plug on my LJ blog, and have printed off a copy of the advertising flyer to distribute at conventions I attend (first up: RadCon in Pasco, WA next weekend!).

    While I love print books (and probably always will), more and more I think the Internet is the Way To Go for writers and audiences to connect. Exciting! 😀

  13. CJ – thanks for a wonderful piece.

    Back in 1980 when you and I and a bunch of others from the Balticon convention had dinner at the Japanese Steakhouse (remember the shitake mushrooms?) I learned that as an author and individual, you were a special person. This post, and your project, just confirms that all over again!