The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #12: Electronic Publishing

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 152, Winter, 2001.

ALSO: This Dialogue was written at the dawn of the serious e-publishing age, more than a dozen years ago. It was true and accurate for its time, but you should know that we tackled the subject again perhaps a decade later, and that column will eventually show up here. — Mike, 22 DEC 2013

MIKE: Welcome to the 21st Century. Not much has changed. Magazines haven’t upped their rates. Neither have book publishers. Science fiction movies are still pretty awful.

But suddenly, finally, electronic rights are starting to look like they’re finally worth fighting over when your publisher makes his inevitable grab for them—and from what I can glean, just about every publisher in the business is grabbing with both hands these days, even though they have no idea what to do with them.

For the period of 1994-1999, I got perhaps one solicitation per week from a different start-up web publisher. They were all the same: they would make me rich tomorrow if I’d just give them stuff for free today. Just about every one of them is dead and mostly unmourned.

But in late 1999, people starting paying for e-rights. The one I mourn the most is Galaxyonline.com. They bought tons of articles—1,000 words minimum for $500 US, which meant if you wrote the minimum wordage you got 50 cents US a word—and they had some of the best writers in the field: Silverberg, Haldeman, McCaffrey, Benford, Rusch, etc. I originally agreed to write one article a month for them; within a few weeks they had asked for two a month, and their checks were good as gold. Ben Bova was the publisher, and M. Shayne Bell and Rick Wilber, both accomplished gentlemen with long histories in the field, were his assistants. They even began publishing fiction—and then, by Labor Day, they were moribund.

But others weren’t. Ellen Datlow has been beating the magazine rates at scifi.com, and if anyone ever had any doubts about the acceptance of e-stories, this year’s Nebula Awards laid those doubts to rest, because Linda Nagata won the Nebula for a novella that appeared nowhere except scifi.com.

Then there’s the greatest success story of them all (so far, anyway), and that’s Fictionwise.com. They started with reprints from me, Kress, Silverberg, a handful of others. You had to wonder about their viability—sites with new material were dying by the hundreds, so why should a reprint site survive?

But survive it did, and prosper. Today they have a couple of hundred writers from all categories, and they’re increasing every week. More to the point, they paid double the going rate for reprint short stories, and a substantial amount (especially for e-publishers) for novels. Less than 14 months into Fictionwise’s existence 3 of my novels and 5 of my short stories have already earned out their advances and are receiving royalties, something I never anticipated when I signed with them. I have had 23,000+ paid hits—for reprints, for Ghod’s sake! And I’m no Ray Feist or Anne McCaffrey, who hit the bestseller list every time out; I’m just me, and I still can’t believe Steve Pendergrast (owner of Fictionwise.com) found a way to resell me—and everyone else—so many times.

It was when I saw my most recent Fictionwise royalty statement that I knew e-publishing was here to stay. If they can do that with reprints, think of what someone is going to do with new novels one of these days.

Surely you’ve got some views on the subject?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: E-publishing is coming. It’s coming as surely as, in l90l, any alert social observer could see that the horseless carriage was coming. Blacksmiths didn’t see it, maybe, or didn’t want to, all that they could see was that this expensive, smelly, undependable, ugly device was attracting more interest than owners and that it didn’t seem likely to replace that old reliable horse and buggy which got the job done . . . but even though there was no market base, even though there seemed no economic base, the automobile was an inevitability. If only alert social critics could see this in l90l, everyone could by l906. By l920 it had rejiggered everything and we live wholly in the penumbra of its circumstance.

E-publishing is coming. Right now there is no apparent revenue stream, there is no apparent audience, reading devices are expensive, clunky and undependable; the cheap paperback seems to have it over the e-book in every conceivable fashion . . . but the major publishers (and the minor publishers as well) and agents and writers’ organizations, all of them have come already to the conclusion that this is a major division of publishing, that it may in good time be the leading publishing division. In an article in Time Magazine in l999, Daniel Okrent wrote that the end of print is inevitable, that e-publishing will wholly overtake. “We spend a billion and a half dollars a year in this country on paper for print,” Okrent said. The paper budget for e-publishing is nonexistent. “Case closed,” Okrent said. Only a matter of when.

But it’s all in the journey. No one has yet found a viable model other than Fictionwise which would appear to have found a means of profit (although their start-up and marketing costs must have been enormous). Sales figures for most of the e-publishers are entirely embarrassing; I don’t want to release information I’ve heard on Peanut Press but it’s fair to cite my own experience which I do with alacrity: Underlay (Avon Books, l974), reissued as an e-book by Electron Press two years ago has sold—according to the latest royalty statement—a dozen copies. That’s a dozen copies and that’s with a front-page article in the l05,000 circulation New York Press concurrent with its publication. I don’t know how typical my experience has been but it is—as I always say in such instances—interesting.

It’s plenty interesting and although Fictionwise has apparently found a novel way to sell that most of the e-publishers have not, it is yet to be proven that anyone can really make money over an extended period of time in this business. And yet, proof or otherwise, the assumption is that in one form or another e-publishing will dominate. Nine-tenths of the entrepreneurs, optimists and charlatans who comprised the early auto industry were out of business in five years. But Henry Ford wasn’t, nor was Barney Olds. Who, other than Francis Ford Coppola, remembers Tucker nowadays? But many of his innovations were incorporated into mass production within five years after the failure of his own automobile.

Okay, it’s coming. That’s kind of scary, not only to print types like me but to the traditional publishers (most of whom are frantically starting their own electronic divisions) and we are all being spewed, blinking and howling, into this world we never made. Great risk but great opportunity. The question is what will survive in the e-market of the decades to come? A revitalized and utterly accessible backlist? Or—in David Hartwell’s phrase—that great gift to the public which had previously been the hoarded domain of publishers, the Universal Slush Pile?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Well, as long as it’s coming, let’s look at some of the positives.

The first is that science fiction writers will no longer be at the mercy of seven or eight publishing houses.

When I started selling, they were printing fewer titles, but there were a lot more houses and editors to go to. One by one they got gobbled up—major houses like Pyramid and Fawcett, medium houses like Playboy Press and Jove and Doubleday’s SF line, minor houses like Tower and Leisure—and today you’d better please one of seven or eight editors on a regular basis or you can’t make a living in this field.

But with the advent of e-books, that won’t be true any longer. There will be a lot more than seven or eight entrepreneurs publishing on the web. There will be thousands (there are hundreds already), and if 80% of them go broke, well, 20% won’t—and that’s a lot of publishers. Hell, if you can generate enough publicity, you can publish your own books on the net. Stephen King did. Others have. One romance writer whose book was turned down by all the print houses put it on the web, and thousands of hits later was rewarded with a lucrative multi-book contract from one of the houses that had turned her down.

So TOR and Bantam and DAW and that whole crowd are not going to be the only games in town in the Electronic Age. In fact, if they continue to make possession of e-rights a contract-buster, they’re going to lose some major authors sooner than they should. When? On the day a writer’s agent decides there’s more money for him or her in e-publishing than print publishing.

Next, you’re going to see royalty rates skyrocket. E-publishers don’t have to pay print costs. Or color separation costs for their covers (if they have covers). Or shipping. Or from 40% to 60% of the cover price to distributors and bookstores. Assuming you’re computer-literate enough to sell an e-book, they won’t even have to pay typesetting costs.

Which means that 8% and 10% and even 15% royalty rates will be laughed out of the ballpark even by beginners. 75% seems fair, 50% seems likely. (Remember: along with all the other costs your publisher saves by doing e-books, he also doesn’t have to store unsold copies, so there are no warehouse rents and fees.)

Third, assuming you go this route—not today, not tomorrow, but when it’s been paved and streamlined—you’re going to find you are much better able to sell foreign rights, because any foreigner can find you on his computer, can read good reviews and read good word-of-mouth instantly, and can help establish a demand for your work in his country . . . and of course your foreign publisher will save even more expenses than your American publisher: he won’t need an editor, since your book will already have been published on the net; all he’ll need is a translator, or when they become much more sophisticated, a translating program.

Fourth, starting an e-magazine overseas will be a matter of a few hundred dollars, rather than fifty thousand or so—along with all the other costs they save, there’ll be no postage expenses—and this will enable you to reach foreign markets that never existed before with your short stories. And once you establish an audience and a demand for your name with them, you’ll find that foreign rights to your novels will be that much easier to sell.

Fifth, once the highway becomes really efficient, you probably will not require the services of a foreign agent anymore, and certainly an extra 10% is better in your pocket than in someone else’s.

OK, it’s not here yet, not as described. It might take a decade, probably (though I doubt it) two. But if science fiction has taught its practitioners anything, it’s how to extrapolate—and extrapolating the above is one of the easier exercises I’ve had to do this year.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: I think that we’re on the verge, trembling and dangerous, of real agreement here and what will that do to my reputation? But I will point out that Tower and Leisure weren’t “gobbled up” by the conglomerates, Tower kind of morphed into Leisure which latter is one of the few independent trade publishers remaining and one of the even fewer independent mass-market paperback publishers (I believe Kensington is still unaffiliated). Leisure isn’t much of a market though, very low advances and because they are publishing work which no longer interests any other mass-market publisher—Westerns, genre short story collections—the submission pressures are daunting. I was given to understand a few years ago that Leisure (which publishes one Western a month) had a pool of perhaps a thousand submissions a month, most of them by superannuated Western writers who had watched all of their markets disintegrate.

And which reminds me of those heady days of my youth and Scott Meredith Agency’s middle age when the Western was, although on the decline, still a living genre: Ballantine, NAL, Paperback Library, Doubleday, Pyramid, Ace all had continuing programs, brought out Westerns monthly. One by one all of these markets closed. In fact, one by one, seemingly all trade markets in all genres have closed; for the writer on the margins, a sale is now an event of fortune rather than a routine occurrence.

But this is not true in e-publishing. Certainly I sense—both as writer and as agent—a kind of interest from e-publishers reminiscent of that which the trade publishers displayed decades ago; they are genuinely pursuing material, are willing to take reasonable risks, are willing to err on the side of acceptance, are willing to take on anything (I am talking mostly of out-of-print titles, of course, but this applies also to new work) which portends some kind of sales possibility. The same is certainly true of the print-on-demand publishers. John Betancourt has, I believe, committed to over a thousand titles. That’s a staggering amount. Of course there’s very little money in any of this now. Fictionwise is the notable exception; they are paying decent advances, are not attaching any prospects of final return to royalties. Fictionwise has adopted the traditional trade model; they are willing to assume risk-as-impetus and endeavor to justify their advances with sales. Most e-publishers don’t operate this way and many of them—Peanut Press comes to mind immediately—refuse to pay any advances at all.

But if the start-up for a new trade publisher (if anyone were foolish enough to become one) would be somewhere in the range of two million dollars just to open the doors, an e-publisher can open the virtual doors for a couple of hundred dollars. Well, a few thousand. A computer, a scanner, a server, an e-mail account . . . how much more would one need, at least as a start-up? But the little entrepreneur can command the same virtual space and the same prospective audience as the big entrepreneur. If ever there was a literary equivalent of Jack Williamson’s Equalizer, it is electronic publishing. All of the bits and the bytes look the same on the screen and in the download and they can be produced for the most modest expenditure.

This is clearly a good thing although the sorting out process—constantly evolving, ever in flux—will take many years and in the absence of a consistent working model (Fictionwise may have solved this though) there will be many failures, many noble or ignoble attempts going nowhere. But it is for me an unusual experience—the first time this has happened in a long time— to find publishers actually pursuing material. Being persistent about that pursuit. Being in fact, demanding. This was where I came in so long ago and thought I would never go there again.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Well, all that seems pretty optimistic. So much so, in fact, that I think we’d better look at the downside before we get totally carried away.

First—and this is one they’re not even close to solving—is piracy. I wonder if there’s any major author in the world who hasn’t been pirated? Now, often it’s just a kid who doesn’t know any better and wants to share his favorite writer with his friends. Sometimes it’s a well-meaning dweeb who thinks if he posts your stuff in countries where your books are non-existent or at least hard to find, he’s doing you a favor. But frequently it’s someone who knows exactly what he’s doing, and is making money illegally off the sweat of your brow.

The problem is that almost anyone can become a pirate, and hundreds of millions of people have access to computers. Stephen King used the finest, state-of-the-art encryption for his e-novel—and three kids broke it and pirated the book within 24 hours. And I truly do not see publishers fighting as hard and spending as much money to protect your books and stories as King fought to protect his own book.

And, along with all the pirates we’ve been able to find and threaten, there are some that are impervious to threats. There’s a huge pirate web site, publishing not just you and me, but King and Clancy and Koontz and that whole crowd, and we know exactly where it is and who’s running it, and there’s not a damned thing we can do. It’s run out of the University of Moscow, and the Russian government won’t lift a finger to stop it.

It’s not a problem that’s going to go away tomorrow, or next year, or next decade . . . but I do believe it’s a problem that’s no longer confined to e-publishing. Any idiot can go buy a scanner for $100.00 US, maybe less, and make electronic copies of everything from Moby-Dick to Valley of the Dolls and post them on the web—so while piracy is unquestionably a problem, I think since it needn’t be confined to what’s been published on the web, it’s not a sufficient reason to avoid e-publishing.

The second problem is money. I am not saying that no New York publisher ever goes belly-up—but most of them have a track record, and various assets, and you can feel a certain sense of security that they’ll pay what they owe, if not always (or even usually) when they owe it. It’s certainly not so for the kid who starts e-publishing with a couple of hundred bucks. But even here, I think if you handle the transaction like a professional—i.e., you get the money up front, and the contract a) forbids him to publish until you’re paid, and b) reverts the story to you if it’s not posted in a given amount of time—you should make out okay. Besides, I think it’s obvious: no e-book publisher is currently competing for your manuscript against the mass market New York print houses; that’s still a few years off.

The third problem is reversion. It used to be that your standard contract said that if your book wasn’t in print five years from the date of publication, you wrote the publisher a registered letter demanding he reprint it, and if he failed to do so within six months the rights reverted to you.

But that’s no longer valid. With print-on-demand, a publisher could print five books every six months and keep your title forever. With e-publishing, it’s even simpler: he posts your book, and it never goes out of print.

So the reversion clause is about to go the way of the dinosaur and the dodo, to be replaced by the term-of-lease clause, which is to say you give the publisher the book for X number of years, weeks, and days period, and even if it’s Number One on the New York Times bestseller list on the appointed day, it reverts to you.

The fourth problem is award eligibility. When the electric magazines have large circulations, this will be a moot point . . . but right now the situation’s still up in the air. Example: you sell a story to Asimov’s or Analog or F&SF, then get permission to sell it to the net (or even post it yourself). It gets posted on March 1. It gets printed on November 1. Now, ordinarily, you’d have until October 31 of the following year to get your ten Nebula recommendations and make the Preliminary Ballot—but because of your March 1 posting, you now have until February 28 of next year, four months instead of twelve, with the almost 100% certainty that no SFWAn bothered reading it—or recommending it—in electronic form.

Fifth, they still haven’t created a computer that’s as lightweight, dust-and-sand-resistant, and comfortable to read as a paperback book. Very few people, circa 2001, will take their computers into the bathroom with them, or chance getting them filled with sand and/or water on the beach. Also, the book is cheap and disposable; the computer is neither.

Are there other problems? Sure, every new industry has problems, especially when the old dinosaurs aren’t ready to give up the ghost yet. And I think we have to be aware of them.

But on the other hand, I think they’re all solvable.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: The problems better yield to solution because the future is upon us and resistance is hopeless. E-publishing in the long run will overtake; it will make print a small special interest just as the true quill of science fiction is a small special interest within the body of the fantasy/games/futurism market. Solutions will protect and engage and make it possible for the whole range of backlist and frontlist to be displayed in a way which will aggrandize authors and if they do not then authors (and would-be reputable publishers) will be in terrible trouble because e-publishing is happening, has happened. I don’t think it can be stopped (assuming that to “stop” would be a value and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case) and just as licensing and traffic laws and highways evolved to accommodate that automobile which was not going to go away, so the technology which brings us the future may save us from some of its more awful aspects.

I’m not particularly happy about this, you understand, but my unhappiness is more generational than objective. It would be nice to imagine a world eternally safe for print—does anyone remember Lafferty’s wonderful Suburban Queen positing the world we might have had without the automobile?—and I do so every so often but that isn’t the way it is going. The other side of gloom is to remember Horace Gold’s aside to James Gunn, “Good science fiction is forever.” New lives for old. (William Bade, Astounding Science Fiction, February l948.)

I don’t hunger for this future but I can await it with something approaching equanimity. Why not? Torment, resistance, will get me nowhere. Hell may be forever, as Alfred Bester noted, but now may be forever also. And then. Let’s all sing a song your mother will know.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Well, I’m sure that was very helpful, though I don’t know quite to whom.

Look, the Internet and the World Wide Web will eventually prove to be Good Things. Once we get the glitches out—and there are a lot of them—this much seems likely:

1. You can keep your backlist eternally in print. (Try that today.)

2. A handful of New York publishers will not make all the rules or call all the shots.

3. Even authors with modest reputations and mediocre advances will be able to reach audiences currently undreamed-of.

4. Best of all, contracts will become far more favorable to authors, as the publishing industry inevitably changes from centuries as a Buyer’s Market to a future as a Seller’s Market.

And on the minus side, one depressing factoid seems inevitable: just about everyone will be able to sell (for however minimal a price and to however shady a publisher) just about every word of science fiction and fantasy they write, and it will become one hell of a challenge for the readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But I have faith in those readers. They have almost always managed in the past, and they’ll adjust to new circumstances as fast (or probably even faster) than the writers and the publishers.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: This is all sensible and I agree with your three overriding concerns—pirating of work, getting paid for the work, and somehow working out an equitable reversion process. And I also agree that the one overriding problem which may remain when these practicalities have been more or less solved or at least contained is that of the Universal Slushpile. Everyone will be able to publish; the issue will—for the reader—have to do with sorting out the material, with somehow establishing some hierarchy of interest and effectiveness in what will be a bewildering accumulation of material. Frank Gruber’s “Pulp Jungle” will be not even a blot upon the jungle of the internet to come, there are going to be billions of words, billions of virtual pages out there and the public will have to contend with a new set of difficulties. As Hartwell’s remark implies, the reader will in many ways have to take on the role traditionally played by the editor and readers aren’t as well equipped to do this. (Well, some readers are and some editors aren’t. But let the generalization hold.)

What may happen is that in what we can call the Virtual Jungle, readers will of necessity gravitate to the familiar, to the pre-sold, to the already known. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.S. Lewis, William Gibson, writers living or dead with enormous market penetration. The writers who stand where Asimov did in l940 or Bradley in l953 will have to compete against the overwhelming past and find attention among a bewildered readership gravitating out of self-defense toward what industry now calls the “branded names.” That’s going to be a problem and there won’t be a solution or series of solutions until an ongoing process has produced a good deal of failure or misdirection. That’s just the way it is. A new language, an entirely new set of protocols may be necessary and no one has a text on this. There have already been many failures and the technology of electronic publishing is changing daily.

But, bewildering or otherwise, it is coming—and overwhelming or otherwise, I find myself guardedly optimistic. The traditional publishing model had, in my opinion, convincingly failed a decade ago; publishing was a desperately distressed, dated, anachronistic industry focused upon the replication of past methods which had already convincingly failed; if electronic publishing and print-on-demand had not, through evolving technology, happened, then publishing itself may have collapsed. Distribution problems which Joanna Russ had noted in the mid-seventies as strangling publishing and about which she had written obsessively and helplessly in her F&SF book review columns for years, were throttling publishers. The conglomerates could take the losses in a way that the independents could not (one of the reasons for conglomeratization) but they were struggling too, some of them abandoning publishing. Without these massive and ineradicable changes publishing would have been even more resistant to new writers, new approaches, new possibilities. As is the case in all human history: change or die. Publishing, not voluntarily, has been forced to change.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: When the need arises, one or two consumer reports (or e-reviewzines, or whatever you wish to call them) will stand out above the rest, will be acknowledged as the cream of the crop just as Campbell’s Astounding was universally acknowledged to be head and shoulders above its competitors in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and most readers will take their hint from them.

In the meantime, let’s look forward to that happy day when there are a thousand viable e-publishers, and they come to us hats in hand, instead of the other way around.

It’s a consummation devoutly to be cherished.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

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.

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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