The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #1: The Specialty Press

SPECIAL NOTE: Barry Malzberg and I have been writing The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues for the quarterly SFWA Bulletin for more than 15 years. (We just handed in our 62nd.) And now that we’ve run through 60+ Ask Bwana columns (though I’ll add a new one whenever we get enough questions), we’ll be running these Dialogues every week or two. Some may be a bit out of date, and if they are I’ll put in a little comment or two alerting you to the fact, but they should prove reasonably useful. A number of them were collected by McFarland as The Business of Science Fiction, and made the 2011 Hugo ballot.

I think what accounts for the continuing popularity of the Dialogues is that Barry and I have an aggregate of 95 years in the field, we’ve produced well over 200 books between us, we’ve edited anthologies and magazines — and while we remain good friends, I think just about the only thing we’ve ever agreed upon is that God outdid Himself when He made Sophia Loren. So you’ll usually agree with one of us and disagree with the other, and at least that’ll put the little gray cells in motion.

— Mike

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 140, Winter, 1998.

MIKE: Today’s subject is the specialty press. They’ve been with us since the 1940s, and indeed discovered science fiction a few years ahead of Doubleday and Ballantine. There was Arkham House, which is still around, and Fantasy Press, and Gnome Press, and over the years there have been literally hundreds of specialty publishers. Some, like Phantasia Press and Underwood-Miller and Axolotl Press and Donald M. Grant, managed to put out a lot of titles; some published just one or two and then vanished. But they have always been an integral part of the science fiction field, so it seems that perhaps we should consider their advantages and disadvantages.

First, the good stuff:

1. They make it possible to get hard-to-sell books (and especially single-author collections) into print.

2. They make it possible to keep some or all of your backlist in print, which is just about impossible in mass market if your name isn’t Heinlein or Asimov or Bradbury.

3. If your book’s original publication was as a mass market paperback, sending an impressive-looking hardcover to those foreign markets that have not yet purchased it may very well sway at least a few overseas editors.

4. This isn’t exactly a financial consideration, but dealing with the specialty presses allows you to support that very important segment of the community in a very visible way—and I persist in believing that we need the specialty publishers.

5. The specialty presses will be more willing to take a chance on publishing some clearly non-commercial books—poetry, essays, experimental fiction, whatever. After all, they only have to sell 300 or 500 or 750 copies to a community that is already predisposed to buy what the author writes.

Now, the bad stuff:

1. The obvious: by virtue of being a small press, the publisher hasn’t got very much money. Which means you’re not going to get very much money for your book. I know of no small press that pays as much up front as a beginner would make for a mass market paperback original. Or anywhere near that, to be honest.

2. The corollary: since they don’t have any money, they’re not going to be able to afford a big print run, or much of an ad budget, or any serious publicity. That’s why they are small presses and not big presses.

3. If this is your book’s first publication, your eligibility for the Nebula and the Hugo will probably be used up before a mass market edition appears. Now, theoretically that shouldn’t matter; theoretically 200 or 300 (or even 50) motivated readers should be able to put a brilliant limited-edition novel on a ballot—but in the real world that just doesn’t happen.

4. Speaking of mass market, a specialty edition could make it more difficult to sell mass market rights, since some mass market publishers will insist on first book rights.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Specialty press is a complicated topic: it uncovers the usual duality or ambivalence with which I regard all too much. I respond to this in two ways: as a historian (however presumptuous or uncredentialed) of science fiction and fantasy, and as a writer who has had his difficult adventures within and without the genre.

Historian: specialty press is essential to the present state of the art. In the early postwar period Random House and Crown came out with enormous anthologies of so-called Golden Age Astounding (Adventures in Time and Space, The Best of Science Fiction) edited respectively by Healey/McComas and Groff Conklin, proving that there was a post-atomic bomb audience for this work, and that science fiction — as Asimov wrote retrospectively — “wasn’t only for a bunch of crazy kids”. But the first systematized effort to get the novels and short stories of this period into print came not from Random House, Crown, or Simon & Schuster, but from fan presses created to fulfill just that mission: Gnome Press, FPCI, Shasta Publishers, etc. It was they who published Asimov’s Foundation and Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon and Bester’s The Demolished Man and Kuttner’s Robots Have No Tails and dozens more of what we take to be the classics of science fiction: through small advertisements in the science fiction magazines, through mail order, and through a good deal of private industry these presses put into permanent form—and proved modestly profitable—work about whose viability the trade houses and mass market publishers were still not sure.

God’s work certainly, and in his first book review column for Galaxy in 1965 Algis Budrys wrote about it all with a Proustian precision and remorse—but all of these specialty publishers overextended, exploited, and in many cases simply failed to pay the writers and went out of business. Part of this was due to their own incompetence and venery, part of it had to do with the fact that the trade houses, persuaded by the evidence of the specialty press’s modest success, decided that they could have a better-than-modest success if they were to factor out the incompetence. (No one ever gets around to factoring out the venery.) Doubleday, Ballantine, Avon, Bantam Books got themselves science fiction specialists to advise and edit and moved into the field in a systematic fashion. By the mid-1950s the specialty publishers were used up, finished, bankrupt, among the missing, although many of the titles they had first published—think of Foundation—remain in print half a century later and have generated a continuing audience and income. (Arkham House is the sole exception; it remains a profitable publisher to this moment . . . but Arkham, concentrating upon the works of Lovecraft and associated writers for most of its existence, was willing to work a territory which no trade publisher could be persuaded to undertake until “horror” became a category of its own in the 1980s.)

There is no science fiction market as we understand it without those specialty presses of the 1950s. Any contemporary specialty press, many of them coming into existence in the last ten to fifteen years, partakes of that tradition and should be supported, both in the abstract and as a practical matter. Furthermore, with the trade markets progressively closed to collections (other than by the most successful writers), backlist items by almost all of us and eccentricity of all kinds, the specialty press has a more important place in publishing; the small publishers are willing to commit to print work which Avon, Bantam or del Rey might have undertaken ten to fifteen years ago but are no longer willing, for economic reasons, to publish. This fusion of tradition and practicality makes the specialty press a laudable institution, one which should be on the submission list of almost every writer with an ad hoc determination to negotiate the best deal realistically possible with publishers, many of whom simply don’t have the time, money or commitment to approximate the trade deal.

That’s the historian speaking. The historian is the guy to whom to listen.

The writer has an unsurprisingly more equivocal take on all of this. The writer—or at least this writer, the person writing this, me, I—started serious life wanting to publish in the mainstream equivalent of what we now take to be the specialty press—Epoch, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, etc.—moving on from there (I would hope) to collections published in trade and mass market but certainly originating in these small-audience outlets. A concatenation of misfortune in placing my work in these markets, and—as I came to actually study the magazines to which I was submitting—a disgust with the arcane, self- serving, insular nature of most of the work which I found there, led me to flee the writing fellowship and to take the form rejections of Epoch seriously. I went to work for Scott Meredith in June, 1965 and made my signatory statement to my friend Arlene Heyman a few months later. “As between selling The Hudson Review which pays 2.5 cents US a word on publication and selling Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine which pays 5 cents US a word on acceptance, there is no contest: I want Alfred Hitchcock. If I can’t make it in the commercial marketplace, find a wide or at least wider audience, I don’t want to make it at all.” I pretty well exercised that principle (or lack of principle) for the next quarter of a century. Well, we see how all of that worked out.

Most of the novels and collections published by the contemporary specialty press—well, a lot of it, maybe not most of it, I exclude reprints of the kind you discuss—shudderingly reconstruct for me the marginalized nature of the so-called “literary” markets which I fled such a long time ago. Practically, I know that for many of us, it’s not only a good place to go, it’s the only place to go. Privately and in a private way I wouldn’t recommend for anyone else, I shudder.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Okay, there’s another advantage, or at least a serious consideration, that I want to discuss, and that’s avoiding competition—not with other writers, which is both healthy and unavoidable, but with yourself.

I hear a lot of writers complaining that they can’t keep their backlist in print, and they blame everyone and everything from their hostile publishers to their spineless editors to the Thor Power Tools decision. And yet, I’m not so sure that having all your works available in mass market paperback at Barnes and Borders and Dalton’s and the rest of the chains is the brightest idea in the world.

Let me give you an example, and an explanation.

From 1991 through 1994 I edited about 20 anthologies. It was fun to do, and I got to bring a lot of new writers to the attention of the field.

And, I guiltily admit, I really liked the notion that in 1993 and early 1994 I could walk into a bookstore and find maybe 22 Resnick books on the racks—5 or 6 novels, which was par for the course, and 16 or 17 anthologies. Made a nice display.

Didn’t make a nice royalty statement, though.

Oh, I sold as many copies of Resnick books in 1992 and 1993 as I had in 1988 and 1989—maybe even a few more—but they were the wrong copies.

That’s when I learned that just selling 5,000 or 50,000 or 500,000 copies of books with your name on them didn’t matter. What mattered was how your most recent books—the ones for which you’d just cashed substantial checks, and which had not yet begun to earn out their advances—sold. And with 20 or 25 books on the stands, the Resnick readers were frequently choosing the wrong Resnick book.

My advances went down. They didn’t nosedive, but they were cause for concern, because I hadn’t figured out what I was doing wrong. I was winning awards, I knew I was writing better books than I had a few years earlier, and I knew I was known and read by more people each year.

Then I picked up some screenplay assignments, and because I was already working at capacity, I had to let something go, and I dropped the anthologies.

And lo and behold, I sold as many copies of my 5 or 6 novels as I had sold of my 5 or 6 novels plus my 15 or 20 anthologies. My advances went right back up, and I realized that I had stumbled on a Hidden Truth. I didn’t want to compete against all my old titles.

But I still wanted my backlist in print. I wanted fans who had missed my earlier books to be able to read them . . . and I wanted foreign markets that had passed on them one and two decades earlier to have another shot at them.

And here came the specialty press to the rescue—a trade paperback press in this instance. I made a deal to reprint Birthright: The Book of Man, a 1982 title that had been out of print for 13 or 14 years.

It would sell for $17.95 US, so it couldn’t possibly compete with my current mass market paperbacks.

It had a new cover, and a 1998 cover price and look to it, so I wasn’t sending around a $2.25 US paperback from 1982 to foreign markets.

It printed 2,500 copies, and has since gone back to press for another 1,500. Enough for fans, enough to send to 30 or 40 countries . . . but not enough to harm the sales of the mass market hardcovers and paperbacks that have to sell in order for me to make a living.

In other words, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and I just signed a contract that will allow the publisher to do a number of 3-in-1 and 4-in-1 editions of my old novels. The first 30 of each to come off the press will go directly to foreign markets who, 15 or 20 years ago, saw the mass market originals of these books and said, “Resnick? Never heard of him. Let’s buy someone we know.”

So, yeah, I guess you could say that’s another argument, however obtuse, in favor of the specialty presses.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: The specialty press is unequivocally, inarguably the proper outlet for backlist items, for the restoration to print of those novels or collections we published 15 years ago and which—unless we are among the golden 15 or 20 writers in our genre—would be less likely (or not likely at all) to be taken on by the trade publishers. Specialty press does not in any way compete with the mass market or trade publications, it has different outlets for the most part (science fiction specialty stores will carry both items but the chains will not and the airport newsstands never), and it’s possible that not only a given work but a writer could find an entirely new audience through the specialty press. Nothing obtuse about that.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Let’s move away from commercial considerations for just a moment and point out that a lot of specialty press books are fun.

For example, I edited a hardcover called Shaggy B.E.M. Stories a few years back. It consisted of 31 SF parodies, and even though it had stories by Asimov and Clarke and Poul Anderson, there was no way I could have sold it to mass market, because the problem with parodies is that you can’t appreciate them unless you know what they are parodying—and you’re simply not going to find 15,000 or 20,000 paperback readers who are that well versed in the field.

Since then I’ve edited Alternate Worldcons and Again, Alternate Worldcons, and Patrick Neilsen-Hayden and I co-edited Alternate Skiffy. A couple of years ago I brought back some stuff from the old Marvel Science Stories, stuff that was so terrible it was wonderful, in Girls for the Slime God. All four books went to specialty presses. Delightful experiences and delightful books, and about the time each of them sold its 600th copy, it had almost certainly reached 75% of its potential audience.

Bob Bloch’s Lefty Feep stories would never have found a mainstream publisher. Neither would Dick Lupoff’s Ova Hamlet stories. I doubt that any mass market publisher would have taken a chance on John Betancourt’s Swashbuckling Editor Stories.

So never overlook the fact that, along with trying to make a buck, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun as well, and specialty presses are simply more willing to go along with your crazier notions.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: I’d add George Alec Effinger’s Maureen Birnbaum collection to your list, or the 1994 NESFA Press collection of my own “recursive” science fiction: 160,000 words of novels and short stories about science fiction itself which would never have been taken on in that form by any trade publisher. There’s still sometimes a place in mass market for craziness—Baen’s Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three anthology of some years ago, for instance—or at least craziness of a certain kind, but not much of it, and the great collections of John Clute’s criticism which are not crazy at all would not have been made available by other than the specialty press.

It’s very important, always has been, we need it, it’s irreplaceable. I don’t want anyone (including me) to confuse my emotional reactions with what is a difficult and encroaching circumstance . . . idiosyncratic work is less likely each year to appear in mass market, and yet it is work originally perceived as idiosyncratic—Henry Miller, Lolita, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, The Story of O—that really marks the stations of the true way. Science fiction’s equivalent of Ulysses today would have been for more likely to have been published by White Wolf or Mark Ziesing than by TOR or Del Rey. That doesn’t discredit anyone but it’s a fact.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: I’ve dealt with a lot of specialty presses over the years: Don Grant, Misfit Press, Axolotl Press, NESFA Press, WSFA Press, Wildside Press, Phantasia Press, Obscura Press, Nolacon Press, Farthest Star, Old Earth Books, Dark Regions Press, a handful of others, and I’ve learned a few things about dealing with them.

The main thing you have to remember is that most—not all, but most—of them are operating on a shoestring, and most of them are doing it as a hobby.

This means that you can turn in a book in 1992 and have it appear in 1996 (it’s happened to me). But because they’re usually one-man operations, it also means that if they’re motivated you can turn in a book in mid-July of 1997, and have it appear at the 1997 Worldcon six weeks later (that happened to me, too.)

It means that you can be contractually promised a certain amount of money, and wait a long time—and I’m talking years here, not weeks or months—before you see it.

The thing you must always keep in mind—and sometimes it takes some work, I’ll admit—is that these amateur and semi-pro publishers are spending their lunch money and their vacation funds to bring your book into print. If sometimes the project crashes, or extends into the next year or two, or if they promise you a Michael Whelan dust jacket and give you Joe Unknown . . . well, if you were selling first rights to Dune or The Space Merchants, you wouldn’t be dealing with a specialty press in the first place, right?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Well, yes, that’s another fact. No one—not the publishers either—gets involved with specialty press in the hope of quick profit or much profit at all. Some places are, as we like to say, “businesslike” and reasonable—Arkham House notably—and quite a few are not. The publishers are indeed paying out of their lunch money or child support; if it’s you or the courts in line for the money guess who’s going to get paid? (Lawsuits aren’t going to do any more good now than they did in the early 1950s. “Judgment proof” are the last words that many of us will hear as our final confessions and complaints are taken.) But the money from mass market and trade doesn’t come that quickly either, and the conglomerates are no more eager to meet the terms of their contracts than the specialty publishers who were the subjects of Budrys’ exquisite first review column for Galaxy back in 1965. The conglomerates are not judgment proof, but do you want to undertake the time and expense and bad kharma involved in serious legal threats only to get marked as a troublemaker?

Thinking about this discussion I find myself at a slightly different place than I was at the beginning, which may be one indication of a remarkable dialogue . . . as the landscape for all but a narrowing range of mass market media-related science fiction and fantasy darkens, the differences presented to most writers by specialty press or the trade publishers are ever narrowing . . . and the specialty press publisher is less likely to have the voice mail permanently in an ON position.

But I’d still rather sell Hitchcock than The Hudson Review . . . (I did sell Hitchcock quite a lot through a very brief period almost twenty years ago. Never placed anything in The Hudson Review. Je regrette rien.)

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Time for an ounce of summary. I have on my desk a copy of the August, 1998 issue of Locus—the one that contains the annual Locus Poll.

28 novels got enough votes to be listed for Best SF Novel. Every single one of them comes from a mass market house.

22 novels got enough votes to be listed for Best Fantasy Novel. 20 came from mass market houses, and one of the other two is by Stephen King, who is going to be read no matter where he appears.

16 novels got enough votes to be listed for Best First Novel. 15 came from mass market houses (though one house—Farrar, Straus—is not exactly known for category SF.)

But when we turn to non-novels, the numbers tell a strikingly different story.

21 short story collections got enough votes to be listed as Best Collection. 16 of them were published by specialty presses.

10 non-fiction books got enough votes to be listed as Best Non-Fiction Book. It’s difficult to separate specialty presses and academic presses, but suffice it to say that 7 of the books were not from mass market houses.

8 art books got enough votes to be listed as Best Art Book. 4 of them were from specialty presses.

And, to cap it off, 3 of the 13 publishers with enough votes to be listed as Best Book Publisher were specialty presses.

I’m not saying to run right out and sell your magnum opus to a specialty press. That’s not what they’re there for. But I think the Locus Poll confirms a number of the conclusions we’ve reached here: the specialty publishers serve some meaningful and clearly-defined purposes, and I think the science fiction writer who disdains them is doing himself and his career a disservice.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the Locus Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest. Along with our 60+ Dialogues, we have collaboratd on four short stories.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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