The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #17: The State of the Field

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 157, Spring, 2003.

MIKE: I’ve heard some mighty dire predictions about the future of science fiction. There are those who say it’s moribund, and others who say that’s an optimistic appraisal. Publishers are cutting back, advances are in the toilet, sales have never been worse—you know the litany.

I think it certainly deserves some consideration. I don’t think it’s ever been harder to break in, and sales are down, and there are probably less of us making a living from the literature than there were 3 years ago.

But, being a contrarian, I think the reports of science fiction’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Let’s take a serious look at the situation:

1. “Sales are down.” Well, yeah, the average book sells less than it used to. But when I broke in, I was getting a 4% royalty on a 50-cent US cover price. That was 2 cents US a book. Today the average writer gets an 8% royalty of a $7.00 US cover price. That’s 56 cents US a book—28 times as much, and I guarantee sales haven’t dropped by 2800%.

2. “Advances are down.” Compared to a couple of years ago? Some are, that’s for sure. Compared to the decade of the 1960s, when you and I broke in? No way. I got $400 US for my first hardcover, $1,000 US for my first paperback. From what I gather, the average first novel today pays about $5,000 US for a paperback—and again, inflation hasn’t increased 500%.

3. “Publishers are dying.” No, they’re amalgamating. In 1980, I had 17 mass market houses I could submit to. Today there’s TOR, Baen, Bantam, Del Rey, Eos, Ace, DAW and Roc—but they’re printing far more books than those 17 houses printed in 1980. Take a look at any recent year-end edition of Locus, and you’ll see that the field is producing better than 100 books a month. OK, so the average book sells less than when we were producing 10 books a month, but there are a lot more advances to go around.

4. “The New York Literary Establishment still doesn’t recognize our existence.” True. But we don’t need them. All the 8-digit earners—from Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz to Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel—are category writers, not the darlings of the New York Review of Books. Check the bestseller lists; there’s always a fair representation of SF and Fantasy and horror titles on it. Check the all-time top-grossing movies; more than half are SF or Fantasy. Maybe the New York Literary Establishment should start worrying that we don’t recognize them.

5. “Blink and you’ve missed your book’s shelf life.” That may have been true of non-leaders 15 years ago . . . but no longer. The superstores, the Barnes and Nobles and the Borders and the Joseph Beths and the rest, need product. I submit to you that its easier to find a 2-year-old midlist or bottomlist paperback in a superstore today that it was to find a 4-month-old paperback by an established but not bestselling author 15 years ago.

I could go on, but you’re turning red in the face and your left eyelid’s starting to twitch, so I’ll turn it over to you.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: The average advance for a first novel may be $5000 US, Mike, but that’s an average and plenty are still being sold for $2000-$3000 US, the competition is brutal, the graduate workshops and media-related fandom and Clarion workshops (and their imitators) are pouring hundreds if not thousands of new writers into the markets every year, all of them fighting for that unexpanding territory which is insufficient for the present body of writers: this does not strike me as a good or optimistic situation. (You could argue that it’s an aesthetic boon; that fiercer competition raises the level of published work, but you and I know that this is not true . . . fiercer competition leads to an ever-increasing obsession with sales figures, with imitative publishing, with finding and staying with a winning formula.)

Of course this little cri de coueur replicates earlier discussions, goes back to our earliest dialogues; there have been many changes in the markets in the last 30 years (and plenty of changes as well in the four years since these dialogues began) but they seem to cast toward the same outcome; this has become a two-tier, polarized market, with exploitative media spin-offs, series fantasy, brand-name properties by brand-name authors (consider the Dune “prequels”) on one tier, and stand-alone science fiction and fantasy on the other; as the first has expanded the second has contracted.

Economically, we are in a situation similar to an analogous situation of more than half a decade ago when my friend Jack Callaghan observed in l962, “When I was going to college five percent of the students were getting ninety-five percent of the sex”. It’s not quite that extreme (and I don’t want to compare selling fiction to the sexual act although there are certain coincidences) but it would be fair to say that five percent of the SFWA membership is being paid sixty percent of the available money and that over fifty percent of the SFWA membership averages less than one thousand dollars a year from sales. This is as good a demonstration of polarization as I can find.

Publishers? Conglomeratizations, mergers, acquisitions have left us with five or six mass market publishers (a few subdivided like Penguin-Putnam or Bertelsmann into “divisions” which are repertory theatre; masks and different costumes for the familiar actors). There were about 25 mass market publishers independent from one another in l967 when I approached them with my first novel: Bantam and Doubleday and Dell Books and Ballantine and Random House were stand-alone houses as were Ace and Berkley and Viking and New American Library. Those are nine major markets that have become two. There are a whole range of small-press publishers, of course, but they do not represent substantial paying markets in the main, and despite the good efforts of some of those publishers the road to successful outcome still passes through the mass market publishers. That’s a tautology, son: by your own principle multiplying sales is the only indisputable, lasting indicator of success (remember our last dialogue)?

It’s not good. Of course it was never good and there was plenty of lamentation in Engines of the Night, completed 22 years ago. In l967 the glorious days of the Ace Double and the 500,000 copy mass market paperback run for original mysteries were mourned and behind us. In l936, there were letters in Tremaine’s “Brass Tacks” lamenting the diminution of the sense of wonder in science fiction: nothing had been any good at all since Harry Bates and Stanley Weinbaum went away. Nostalgia and retrospective falsification are the human condition. That stipulated, I’m unable to share your optimism. My left eyebrow can’t share it either.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Yeah, and Earl Kemp won a Hugo back in 1961 for Who Killed Science Fiction? But the body is doing more than twitching feebly. We’re selling more books now than ever before. And, at the top, for more money.

It’s not that there’s less money in the field. It’s that it’s going to the people who have done something for their publishers lately, rather than to the kings of hype. It’s going to the Rawns and Robersons and Andersons and Feists and many others like them, writers who don’t spend most of their time screaming for attention but just sit at their desks and write. The world has changed since 1975, and so has the way publishers figure who to give the big advances to. Blame it—or credit it—on computerized returns, but for perhaps the first time in our history the money’s going to the people who earn it, rather than the people who merely perform, in print or in editorial offices, for it.

What else? You know my feeling about media books. I don’t like them. But when all is said and done, they’re a part of the field, and a very lucrative part. I think Alan Dean Foster was the first to bring some of his media audience to his “straight” novels, but look at how Kevin J. Anderson and some of the others have parleyed movie novelizations into major contracts for “their own” books.

Magazines? On the surface, a sad sight, with all three digests losing from half to three-quarters of their readers of only 15 years ago. But you’ve got Ellen Datlow paying 20 US cents a word, and Warren Lapine is paying a dime US, and the digests are still paying 7 and 8 cents US, and where there were no paying markets for electronic stories except for Ellen a handful of years ago, now there are a lot. Marty Greenberg hasn’t slowed down, and no one can seriously suggest that he isn’t far more beneficial to the field than Roger Elwood. And of course there’s Fictionwise.com, which just keeps making liars out of the doomsayers and handing out literally hundreds of royalty checks every quarter.

As for there not being enough markets for the current SFWA membership, let alone all the newcomers and wannabees, my answer is: of course not. SFWA’s probably got 800 members who couldn’t renew their credentials every three years, even if renewal meant selling an average of a story a year. It’s got a couple of hundred more who couldn’t renew if they had to sell a book every 5 years. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you don’t have to be a professional writer to be an active member in good standing of SFWA.

(You think not? By every criterion yet devised or suggested, even by those who want credentials renewed, one 5,000-word story sale a year, at 7 cents US a word, will allow you to keep your active status. That’s $350 US a year. That means you can average less than a dollar a day for the rest of your life and never lose your Active status. And that means suggesting that the field is in serious trouble because not all of SFWA’s members can make a living at it is a rather specious argument.)

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: You know, Mike, it’s not an easy job this—being the Eeyore of science fiction—but someone’s got to do it, right? Someone has to lay out other than the glam worldview which pervades your writing. Someone has to speak for the failed, the discontented, the blocked, the shoaled. (As Mr. Lincoln might have said, ‘God must love the failures, he made so many of them.’) Someone has to take into account the miserable economic conditions which prevail for 90% of all self-identified “freelance writers” and certainly that, in some variegate of Sturgeon’s Law, has got to apply to science fiction. Ninety percent of the SFWA would fall into that winterland of discontent. Don’t you yourself note that a yearly income of $350 US from science fiction and fantasy will keep one eligible for membership indefinitely? You seem to think that this is indicative of good news. This is good news? That a professional organization must open its doors to—must in fact be dominated by—an electorate the preponderance of whose members may well earn at those levels?

Science fiction has been good for you and you’re not the only writer who can say that; there are, as you say and I certainly concede the point, more people making good money from Science Fiction and Fantasy writing (tilted toward fantasy) than at any time in the past and next year there may well be even more. But the skewing of this market toward the successful, the abandonment by the market of the overwhelming majority of those who would write for it, the collapse in average income (I would risk noting that the income of the average SFWA member is less now than it was in l965, largely because of the factors you’ve noted, but this is not what would constitute an endorsement) . . . these are issues which cannot be elided by your saying “I’m Mike Resnick, I’m successful and Raymond E. Feist is successful and Alan Dean Foster is successful” with its unstated implication, “And if you’re not successful it’s your own damned fault, you’ve elected not to join the club of success.” That’s Reagonomics for you or in its slightly later manifestation Bush Economics, it all goes back to John Calvin’s sinners before an angry God whose sin is an unwillingness to be successful. I do not accept this.

Economic and market conditions are difficult for most writers; more writers replicate my experience than yours. How much of that is the fault of the unsuccessful writers themselves I cannot quantify but it isn’t all sales figures and mass markets out there and it never was. Alfred Bester reminded us through his career that The Demolished Man had been rejected by every science fiction market before it was finally taken on by Shasta, a fan press. Fred Pohl has reminded us that The Space Merchants took an innumerable number of rejections until Ian Ballantine took it on at the inception of Ballantine Books. If we were to accept the market as the final judgment we would lose many or most of our canonic work. You write Ask Bwana which puts you in constant contact with struggling writers. Turn it around: Ask The Writer. How good is it for your correspondents? To what degree do they share your cheerful view of them?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: “Don’t you yourself note that a yearly income of $350 from science fiction and fantasy will keep one eligible for membership indefinitely? You seem to think that this is indicative of good news.”

Absolutely not. I think it’s meaningless news. I used those figure to show why 75% of SFWA can’t make a living. It’s because, SFWA’s rules to the contrary, 75% of the membership are not professionals by any reasonable definition of the term.

And by the way, I’m not simply saying that there’s more money at the top. There is, of course—but there’s more money everywhere. You and I broke into the field within a year of each other, some 35 years ago. How many science fiction books were being published then? Surely not the 1,000+ that Locus has listed each of the past few years. Who cared about science fiction back then? If you read two Advent books and maybe one by another publisher, you read all the critical material that was published in book form in a calendar year; today if you read a critical book a week you’ll never catch up. Back then (this was pre-2001, remember) science fiction films were a joke; a lot of them still are, but more than a dozen have made the list of the Top 20 All-Time Moneymakers, and the better ones get the same serious attention according to films by Coppola, Huston and Lean. Back then if your name wasn’t Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, or maybe Asimov, no one outside of the field had ever heard of you; certainly that’s not true today.

For those who scream that it’s impossible to break in, just check the Campbell ballot. We manage to fill it every year. Or look at the Locus list of best first novels; it runs to 20 or more every year, and those are best first novels, not all first novels. And of course, more new writers break in with short fiction than with novels. Always have, always will.

Are we going through a temporary depression in the field? Yes. Is it the field’s death knell? Of course not.

When we were a magazine field, we went from 39 prozines to single digits in a year’s time back in the mid-1950s, and we survived. As a book field, we lost Berkley, Jove, Playboy Press, Doubleday, Dell, Pyramid, Fawcett, and half a dozen others, and we survived. As a movie field, we went better than 20 years without a science fiction film by Kubrick, who knew what he was doing, or Lucas, who at least knew how to reach an audience, and we survived. Tolkien convinced publishers to split the category into Science Fiction and Fantasy, and we survived. Okay, so the Nasdaq tanked and venture capital dried up for a couple of years; we’ll survive that too.

The history of our field has been an upward and expanding trajectory since 1926, punctuated here and there by a little turbulence in the orbit. This is just another bit of chop—and given the total quantity of Science Fiction and Fantasy being published, and the fact that it stays on the shelves a lot longer since the advent of the superstore, it’s not even all that much turbulence.

I know you’d rather hang around the losers’ locker room than the winners after a Super Bowl or a World Series, but in the long run, there aren’t any real losers until baseball or football— or, in our case, Science Fiction—folds up its tent and goes away forever.

Ain’t gonna happen, Eeyore. Not no way, not nohow.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: It’s a sure thing that I will fold up my tent (no doubt to the applause of thousands) and go away long before Science Fiction. Science Fiction will certainly outlast me and well it should. On the other hand, almost all of the expansion in money and books (and audience) over the past couple of decades can be ascribed to Fantasy and media-related Science Fiction. Take these away and Science Fiction is not doing well. Many editors—who I would not embarrass by putting their names out here—have told me that such is indeed the case. Even the acclaimed science fiction writers and titles do poorly as compared to ordinary Fantasy. To no small extent, Fantasy (and the media-related material) is subsidizing Science Fiction. (These comments concern the book market. The situation with the magazines is self-evident and in any case the core readership for the magazines represents only a small percentage of Science Fiction readership now, a complete reversal from the l950s.)

These are appraisals of the commercial situation, the practicality with which we deal. The aesthetic or philosophical circumstance is a different issue (although it is in many ways related to the situation I have described.) I am haunted by Norman Spinrad’s unnamed French acquaintance (quoted by Spinrad in an Asimov’s column a couple of years ago) who said: “Science fiction? That is a finished thing.” A corollary of vast technological changes which bridged the past and present (by evoking the future) which has essentially fulfilled its function. In that regard, I quote (again without giving the name) the distinguished knowledgeable figure who said to me around the time of the 200l Philadelphia World Convention, “I think that category science fiction is at an end because we won. We did our job all too well. We did exactly what we should have done, introduced and codified the future and introduced it to the world. There is no need for us just as there is no room in civilian society for a victorious army.” (Meaning that the army can’t be accommodated; its soldiers can if they leave the institution and rejoin the civilian population.) Of course there’s still plenty left; “there’s a long way between declining and death” as Isaac Bashevis Singer said of the Yiddish language in l970 (I used this as an epigraph to Herovit’s World and it’s a good thing too. There’s still room for successful careers and at least two of them are yours. I don’t know how it would look to me if I were 27 and trying to find a way in but I suspect that I would have had to find something else to do. (To the benefit of all, I am sure.)

I love Science Fiction you understand. I just don’t think that it has much of a future. I love Bruckner and Vaughan-Williams and Rachmaninoff to say nothing of the Big Three with equal passion, and frankly I don’t see much of a future for them either. Opera was the popular music of l8th century Vienna, l9th century Milan. That’s not going to happen again.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Things ebb and things flow. Science Fiction has been pronounced moribund three times and dead once since I’ve been a practitioner. Hell, there were those who swore John Campbell killed it when he replaced the sense-o-wonder with good writing and mature extrapolation. Everyone knew Mike Moorcock killed it with Ballard and the New Wave. Every practitioner who wrote literary 60,000-worders knew that Judy-Lynn del Rey and J. R. R. Tolkien were the joint murderers.

But here it is, still toddling along, still paying living wages and the occasional munificent advance. Yes, Fantasy is certainly outselling us—at present, anyway; but first, let’s remember that prior to Tolkien’s importation Fantasy used to be us and someday may be again; and second, that an awful lot of major writers who have entered the field in the past quarter century have looked at the markets, looked at the sales figures, and elected to write Science Fiction anyway.

To the claim that no one’s writing science fiction any more, I would make the following response: Benford. Bear. Brin. Swanwick. Haldeman. Asaro. Willis. Kress. Sheffield. Bujold. Steele. (Vernor) Vinge. Niven. Pournelle. Gibson. Sterling. Kube-McDowell. Le Guin. Reed. Sawyer. Card. Varley. (I could go on and on, especially since I’m getting paid by the word, but my point is made.)

There’s one other thing to consider, as long as we’re talking about dwindling audiences. Hollywood has always made better Fantasy films than Science Fiction. From Harvey and Field of Dreams on down, there are perhaps 50 Fantasy films of quality. I think you can count the outstanding Science Fiction movies on the fingers of one mangled hand—but when you look at the box office, Science Fiction, even wretched, intellectually insulting, horribly conceived Science Fiction, brings in far more money than just about any Fantasy that doesn’t have Tolkien’s or Rowling’s name attached to it. And that’s probably where a goodly portion of your future bookbuyers are coming from.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: I take your point, I guess. Science Fiction isn’t quite the theatre, it isn’t a Fabulous Invalid, call it a Mediocre Invalid . . . but it sure does hang around, sometimes on life-support, sometimes taking walks and fresh air in the park (the good times), sometimes going into Cheyne-Stokes (l959) but confounding the deathwatch with yet another anomalous miracle. I expect it to survive me, most certainly (which may not be a ringing endorsement of course) and probably everyone reading this current set of dialogues. It will exist in some form. So does the Western novel. So does twelve-tone composition. So does the audience for Theda Bara or Rory Calhoun. I don’t want to say that we’re fully as marginalized but we’re kind of marginalized.

And I concede that our Invalidated Invalid has been the subject of soliloquies, eulogies and farewell addresses for a long time now; as I think I’ve noted in the course of these dialogues, maybe even recently, is that letters in the early JWC Astounding deplored the absence of imagination, that good old magic and mystery which characterized Tremaine and his Thought Variants. Earl Kemp indeed won a Hugo for Who Killed Science Fiction?, a one-shot fanzine with fifty or sixty contributions by professionals announcing the death of the field. Every time you think the grand old party is over, here comes a Varley or a Gibson, a Bear or a Kress to prove that tonality is not dead, that the Giants still have a defense, that Fred Allen’s Treadmill to Oblivion is not necessarily the only way to go.

But the commercial situation, at least at present, is grim and Fantasy titles outsell Science Fiction by a multiple of two to one. I note Scott Card’s presence for a few weeks on recent bestseller lists and that’s commendable but it is the first time a Science Fiction title has appeared on those lists in quite a while. Moreover—and down in the galleys where more of us live—many authors of two or three or four novels are finding themselves suddenly depublished, dropped by their extant publishers, unable because of the inexorable messages of the sales force (available now to all, as you say) to find new publishers. We are, I remind you, living in an era where l0,000 copies of a mass market science fiction paperback constitute a good sale. Print orders are down, distribution is down, royalties may be up for a $7.95 US as opposed to a 60 cent US cover price but that doesn’t do you a great deal of good for low sales figures.

Harry Harrison told me two decades ago that he was leading a movement in First Fandom to draft honorary members; otherwise the future of First Fandom would have to be seen as finite . . . the youngest of its members, after all, might have been born in l930 and even the most optimistic actuary would see the membership utterly extinguished by 2030. Harry said he had put these figures and speculation to a few of the Old Guard at a Worldcon meeting and had met astonished and hostile reaction. “First Fandom will never die!” one of them said and the rest nodded. (I was told the name of the person who said this but will suppress. He’s still alive, by the way.)

First Fandom in a literal as well as a metaphoric sense may never die; Science Fiction won’t die either. But I question the form it will take and I question the influence it will have in decades to come upon the general culture. We have had enormous influence. We won the war. But we’re the occupied rather than the occupying army.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: The only problem with Science Fiction is that we’ve reached a confluence of moments here—on the one hand, we are in one of our periodic contractions, and on the other, the conglomeratization of the publishing industry has led to the single-minded pursuit of blockbusters.

Will it pass? Of course it will pass. Readers are discriminating enough to demand more than half a dozen choices a month, and even on good months all the publishers and categories put together don’t produce six blockbusters.

Will we outlive the other categories? I think so. There are just so many stories you can tell in a Western or mystery or romance framework; science fiction has no such restrictions. And we’re not exactly the new kid on the block, even though we feel like the latecomer; if you posit (as most people do) that Poe invented the Mystery story and Mary Shelly invented the Science Fiction story, our pedigree is older than theirs—and Frankenstein came out before there was a Wild West to write Westerns about.

As long as tomorrow will be different from today, there will be a market for Science Fiction. In good times it will be a lucrative market; in bad times it won’t be. But as long as readers wonder What Comes Next, we’ll be there to tell them.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

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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