Distal Muse Archives

World Science Fiction... Some Observations

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     August 31st through September 4th, Chicago hosted the 58th World Science Fiction convention.  The 2000 worldcon took place in sight of the popular Navy Pier and Grant Park, a couple blocks up Wacker from the legendary "Magnificent Mile", and a good walk from the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum.
     Fifty-eight.  My, my.  It's hard to imagine sometimes.  When I began reading sf I knew nothing of the fan community.  Occasionally, I'd see notices for conventions in the backs of magazines, like Worlds of If, but if I thought about them at all I thought they were conferences for the professionals, by invitation only.  I think I was in my twenties before I realized that the Hugo Award was voted on by readers and given at that year's "worldcon."
     The first one was held in New York City, in 1939, and all of 200 people attended.  The main guest--not even "Guest of Honor"--was Frank R. Paul, an illustrator.
     When you look at the record it's obvious that the sf community was not rich.  New York had the largest early attendance because most of the principles lived in New York.  The following year in Chicago, attendance dropped to 128, and the year after that only 90 showed up in Denver.  It cost too much to travel and stay.
     There were no worldcons during World War II.  Many writers served in the military.  Isaac Asimov worked for the government as an R & D man, a "junior chemist" as he put it in his autobiography, working at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia.  The SF "community" was as busy as everyone else with the war.
     Worldcons began again in 1946, in L.A., and continued, unbroken, since.  The first Hugo was handed out in 1953--Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (which is still one of the best SF novels ever published)--and skipped a year before becoming a fixture in 1955.
     Interestingly, worldcon attendance didn't climb out of three digits till 1967, where it was held again in New York (the Big Apple's third time to host it), where the number climbed to a whopping 1500.  I can only surmise, given the nature of such things, that Star Trek was responsible for the jump.  It's hard to imagine the impact that show had on the field.  It carried it from cottage industry status up to the first rung as a global phenomenon.
     Ever since then, the only time worldcon attendance has dropped below a thousand were those times it was held out of the country.  The first one I attended was in 1984, in L.A., which was itself a record breaker for attendance at 8300.  That was a peak.  The numbers never reached that high again and I attribute those numbers to two factors: it was Los Angeles and the entire first Star Wars trilogy was out and had changed the industry forever.
     It marked the turn of SF from a primarily written form to a media-driven empire and has duly cost us all in some grief.
     Not to mention that prices have gotten--well, the word outrageous is tempting to use, but really not, just extreme.  We won't see "outrageous" till, possibly, 2007.  The Japanese are beginning their campaign to host a worldcon.  If people thought Chicago was expensive this time, wait till they see "convention rates" for hotels starting at four and five hundred bucks a night.
     Worldcons are big business in a small patch.
     Back in 1984 I spent a couple of hundred dollars on books and had to ship my purchases home in two large boxes.  This time I spent a little less than that on books and packed them in my suitcase.  The price of feeding the fix has gone up across the board.  I still remember buying brand new paperbacks for forty cents.  Unbelievable?  The fact is that now the so-called "trade paperback" is the most cost-effective purchase in books.  At between twelve and fifteen dollars, they are the size of a hardcover and only twice the price of a mass market paperback.  The words are the same, but it "feels" like you're getting more for your dollar.  Illusion, all illusion.
     My first novel is in trade, with no plans to print a mass market edition.  The Science Fiction Book Club has put out a slightly undersized hardcover.
     I'm sure if publishers could figure out how to get both covers on the front, the Ace Doubles would do very well in this market--two for the price of one.  But how do you figure royalties fairly?  Even when the Ace Doubles were being published, I never bought one for both books, just for one.  The other novel was a bonus.  So, okay, you just split the royalties down the middle, but then you have to decide--somehow--which book is responsible for the most sales so you can figure which writer gets cut from the stable and which gets the higher advance next time around.
     It may sound silly, but on such issues careers are made.
     What Chicon drove home to me in a serious way--something I've been paying some attention to for years, but now can see emerging powerfully--is how publishing itself is transforming, turning, in many ways, back into the cottage industry it was before Star Trek and Star Wars rocketed the field into the precincts of Big Business.  Small press publishing is moving into the gaps left by major publishers leaving behind the mid-list.
     The mid-list?
     Writers know immediately what this is, but let me explain.  The mid-list is the bulk of publishing.  It is comprised of all those novels that sell moderately well, sell through their advances (whether the publisher admits this or not) and earn modest profits.  The word "modest" is the kicker.  These books, cumulatively, make most of the money for publishers.  Combined, they supply the cashflow that feeds six and seven-figure advances, megabuck ad campaigns for the celebrity bio or exposé of the month, and the promotional grease to do movie deals for the few "best sellers".  The mid-list is a compendium of "little trains that could" which make up the vast bulk of what people actually read--as opposed to what they buy.
     Now, if you think I'm talking about novels that sell too few books to brag about, let me give you two examples, one I'll name and one I won't.
     The one I'll name I do so because he made this claim at a convention in front of an audience.  It is a public statement.  Walter Jon Williams, who is a fine novelist and has published a slew of gems, declared to my dismay that he has always been a mid-list writer.  I would love to have his career.  No, his books don't make the New York Times Best Seller List, not even the extended one, but he sells easily in the hundred thousand copy plus column.  I do not have exact figures, but his books tend to stay in print longer than the majority of writers, and he makes enough money to write full time.
     That last is important.  The grail quest of the writer is to be able to do this as a primary vocation.  Walter does it.  He still sells well.  He's recently moved into the publisher category of "thriller", a more mainstream label that is designed to snag more readers.  I doubt he could have done it had his publisher believed he was insignificant.
     But he says he is a mid-list writer.
     So be it.  If true, then we're talking about books and writers who are industry staples.
     Now, the second example--which I won't name, because the writer told me this stuff in private--has some numbers attached.  Back in the Eighties, when the country--if not the world--was gripped in a fever of corporate mergers and raiders were pillaging industries with the impunity of Wild West Banditoes, publishing entered into a cannibalistic phase which hasn't ended yet (and has given rise to the small press phenomenon I mentioned earlier).  The carnage could be measured in the number of writers forced to find new publishers.  There was a bewildering dance of musical logos as writer-publisher relationships suddenly fragmented all across the board.  Sales Figures seemed to be the determining factor, but how they were applied didn't make a lot of sense--unless you factor in the debt burden shouldered by large corporations that were gobbling up smaller firms and had to generate instant cash flow to cover the interest on their leveraged buyouts.  But the policies were next to suicidal anyway in publishing because you just can't tell what books will do well and which won't based on anything tangible.  This is, if you'll forgive the brief flight into the intangible, Art and Art is a fickle commodity.
     A writer of my acquaintance felt the bite.  This writer had been publishing since the early Sixties, had had a string of well-received, dependably-selling books, was prolific, had had one novel that is regarded as a classic in and out of the field, and who could depend on being able to sell most if not all these novels to new audience as reissues for years and decades to come.
     Steady sellers.  Several thousand copies a year.
     The number 250,000 copies each came up.  Per book.  Some went as high as half a million.  With a steady number each year after the peaks.
     The publisher, under rational conditions, could not possibly lose money on these.  In fact, they still generated income.  Royalties continued to flow.
     One merger too many and the word came down from somewhere on high to "cut all books that have sold less than five hundred thousand copies."
     Now, as I say, a couple of the novels in question had sold more than half a million, but most were still on their way.  Maybe in a few years or a decade they would have gotten there--making their modest profits along the way--but not yet.  And because the bulk of them had "only" sold a quarter million to four-hundred thousand, they were all cut.
     This writer lost a publisher.
     "I went from a nice comfortable forty to fifty thousand dollar a year income [!] to zero."
     There is no formulation of this that is not absurd.
     It is a policy that had us all scared through the Eighties and much of the Nineties.
     It is a policy that is beginning to cost Big Publishing.
     Not yet, not quite in numbers that will cause them to take notice, but soon.  Small press is taking up the slack.  The proliferation of independent publishers in the last ten years is enormous.
     Technology is fueling a lot of it.  Three people in a two room office can now put out books of the same if not higher quality than, say, Houghton-Miflin or Random House.  The overhead will kill the dinosaurs.  The mammals will move in and take over.
     And mid-list is perfect for small press.  They target their audiences more precisely and tailor their product accordingly.  The advances aren't as high, no, but that doesn't matter in the short run.  What matters is that there are advances and they will grow over time.  What matters is that most sales are mail order and do not depend as heavily on the all-important "shelf space" factor--which has gone hugely to media tie-ins.
     Thirty, forty years ago, small press existed as quasi-independent departments within the large publishers.  The department had to justify its existence by turning a profit within its own ledger domain.  That changed with the mergers.  Now every department must justify its existence in terms of the primary ledger, and if it slips behind it pays a penalty.
     Those "departments" are leaving the nest and setting up shop on their own.
     It was very visible at Chicon V.  Small presses had their own booths in fairly significant numbers.  And, based on what my own publisher told me, doing a brisk and encouraging business.
     Asimov stated at the end of Volume One of his autobiography--In Memory Yet Green--that in 1954 he reached what he had considered the top limit of income as a writer: $10,000.  Now, in 1954 that was a hell of a lot of money.  Still, it pales in comparison to what he ended up making in his "second" career as an SF writer.  But I think he would have been quite at home with the whole notion of small press and steady sales as opposed to Big Publishing and a six week window to cram as many books into as many hands as possible before pulling them.
     It may even be that one day--sooner than later--a writer can publish him or herself as easily and effectively as a separate house.  Or maybe that's just science fiction.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann