The Resnick/Malzberg Dialoges #18: Professionalism

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 158, Summer, 2003.

MIKE: Since I’ve been writing a column (elsewhere) for beginning writers, I’ve been asked, from time to time, exactly what a writer owes his editor and publisher, and what they in turn owe the writer.

First and foremost, of course, each of them owes a certain adherence to the terms of the contract. The writer owes his editor a manuscript of X number of words that bears at least a passing resemblance to the synopsis that was used to make the sale. The editor owes the writer his support and his best editorial judgment. The publisher owes the writer Z dollars upon acceptance, and whatever the contract calls for in terms of promotion.

But what else do they owe one another? What other obligations has a writer got—if any? How about an editor? A publisher? Are the terms of the contract the end-all be-all, other that a certain degree of civility, or are there certain general obligations of professionalism that accrue to every writer and editor and publisher, whether spelled out in terms of the contract or not?

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BARRY: Here are the obligations of professionalism: you deliver contracted or promised manuscripts on time, you answer your mail, return phone calls promptly and treat editors and colleagues with civility unless severely provoked, and then you treat them with somewhat less civility. Simple, huh? No mystery to any of this. And yet—

And yet I am reminded of my essay many years ago reminiscing none too warmly about my brief tenure (4/68-l0/68) as editor of Sol Cohen’s Amazing/Fantastic: “I could tell the difference between a good story and a bad story. At the time I thought that this represented the base level of how an editor should function. I learned that it was instead the most that could be expected of an editor.” I would have expected that my first paragraph articulated the minimum level of professional conduct when as you and I know it represents perhaps the outer limit. Not to berate the members of SFWA and by inference the reader of these columns. We all have our problems and me too; somewhere in my dark history is a contracted but undelivered novel (terms were altered so that I did not have to return the advance) and several of our household names, writers who I will not dishonor by identifying here, made pocket-careers in their failing decades by signing contracts and taking advances for work that they not only did not deliver but knew they would not deliver . . . proposals which in many cases were sold in identical format to multiple publishers. Didn’t keep any of them out of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and I don’t think it should. Many writers carry so much resentment, a burning, aching recrimination which deepens with the years, that they find a lack of civility the only way that they can strike at the system. (Of course in so doing they hurt their friends, not their enemies; the SMOFs are always fully sequestered from retaliation.)

I see that I am making a series of excuses; that what my first paragraph has given I am in the procedure of taking away. Without excusing unprofessional behavior (at least unprofessional behavior by the members of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame) I do note that it can be explained, if not necessarily justified. Well, justified by most standards anyway. It sure can be justified by me: get to know any writer well enough, someone (not me!) wrote somewhere, “and you will inevitably find that unsolaced bitterness, that feeling of entitlement which comes from what is felt to be great injury.”

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MIKE: I think I’m going to start with the minimal professionalism a writer owes his editor and publisher:

1. He owes them the best writing of which he is capable, whether he likes the assignment or not.

2. He owes them a professional manuscript, which is to say, one that has been proofread and corrected. After all, if a writer shows contempt for his work by not going over it and correcting it before handing it in, why should an editor treat it with any greater respect?

3. He owes them an honest effort to meet his deadline.

4. In this day and age, he owes them a computer copy in a common, readable format, especially with shorter-than-booklength works. Since most business correspondence is now carried on through e-mail, he owes it to them to check his e-mailbox frequently, respond promptly, and to have a computer and system that is compatible with most other systems.

5. He owes them civil behavior.

6. He owes them a fast, competent turnaround when proofreading galleys.

7. He owes them whatever small extras are requested to promote the book or story, from having an autograph session at a convention to supplying a photo or brief bio for the dust jacket or introductory material.

And what is the minimum owed the writer by his editor and publisher?

1. An honest appraisal of his work when it is delivered. (That would seem to be an absolute given, but we’ve all seen what happens to orphaned books after inter-office wars.)

2. A prompt reading and a prompt decision.

3. Prompt pay.

4. Prompt and honest royalty statements on books.

5. An honest effort to promote the book or story to the best of the editor’s and publisher’s ability.

6. A caring handling of the material, by which I mean a good and competent copy editor (they’re hard to find and always to be cherished when found), an artist who will do justice to the work, ample amounts of time to read the copy-edited manuscript and the galleys.

7. Prompt delivery of the author’s copies.

8. A willingness to share, if not all reviews (some books get hundreds), at least all major ones.

9. Civil behavior.

Those lists came out shorter than I thought they would. What am I missing?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: What you’re missing—what we have been intermittently missing through the course of these exchanges although I try to be alert—is a sense of history, is an awareness that new campaigns are simply old campaigns with a few labels changed and of course a different set of characters. The opposite of repertory theatre—same play, same masks, different actors. In l966 Damon Knight had an article in this very SFWA Bulletin on the subject of editorial courtesy and ranked the markets in those terms . . . from hardcover publishers (nice and thoughtful) all the way down to men’s magazines (“unbelievably rude”). Knight felt that editorial courtesy should be contractual, that the obligations of the publisher should be explicit and part of the terms of the agreement, if they weren’t then such courtesies could not be expected. “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it is written on” and so forth.

And here we are, 37 years later, still worrying the same issue: writers should do this, editors should do that and why the hell so often do they do neither? I think that Damon was on to something: unless we can get it codified in contracts—all of it, the writer’s obligations, the editor’s necessity—the situation will never change, there will be a range of response, some will exhibit apropos behavior and some will not. But how willing would the membership be (let alone publishers) to make this part of the model contract? Isn’t lying to one’s publisher, for so many (“Just polishing it up, boss”) part of Standard Operating Procedure? Didn’t Avram Davidson, may his soul rest in piece, have an essay in the SFWA Forum decades ago bragging on the various and ingenious ways he had found to defraud his publishers, obtain and keep advances for books he had no intention of ever writing? What was that essay doing in an official publication, come to think of it?

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MIKE: Actually, the most honest and courteous guys I ever dealt with were in the sex field during my starving-writer days 35 years ago. If they said they were going to buy something from you, it was written in stone. If they said they were going to pay you, you got the money within 48 hours and their checks were good as gold. (If they said they were going to kill you, they did that pretty promptly and efficiently, too—but no one ever said it to me.)

If Avram wrote that essay—and if he did, I missed it— then he was in opposition to pretty much everything I believe about professionalism. I think when you make a commitment, either verbal or contractual, to anyone for any reason, you keep it. Period.

As for lying to editors, I don’t think it’s necessary. A lot of novels come in late; they get published. The only time I can remember a publisher going to court to cancel a contract on a late book was in 1975, when a journalist was two years late handing in a book on the Nixon White House, which of course had been the Ford White House for over a year. For what it’s worth, I think the publisher was justified.

But I’m not aware of any publisher suing to reject a late novel. Oh, a few years back a couple of our more venal mass market houses used it as an excuse to get rid of writers they no longer wanted—but I noticed that they never pulled that shit on a leader, just on writers they wanted to dump.

Anyway, that’s why major novels are hardly ever scheduled until they come in. Otherwise, the publisher explains away a lot of ads and eats a lot of crow, like Scholastic recently did for the fifth Harry Potter book.

Well, you’ve told me that our founder, Damon Knight, felt that editorial courtesy should be written into a contract. Since I knew Damon, I have to ask: what did he say about authorial courtesy?

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BARRY: Damon, to my recollection, had nothing to say about authorial courtesy. Damon proceeded under a series of assumptions which still govern the reflexes of much of the SFWA membership and for that matter most of the membership of the Author’s Guild: a) Writers are special, b) because they are special their suffering is special, c) writers are victims, d) publishers are intractably venal, e) given a chance to treat a writer inequitably publishers will always take it, f) because of the inequity of power held by publishers and writers, writers breaching contracts or otherwise trying to find their way through a situation by delay, lying, deliberately incompetent work (to break an option) should be understood and forgiven.

Perhaps these assumptions are defensible. Damon, after all, founded a writers’ organization and he did so believing that such an organization was needed because writers needed to be defended in an overall situation where they had very little protection. If publishers or editors felt abused, Damon might have said (I do not wish to appropriate his voice or to speak for him; this is speculation) then they were free to form their own organizations or craft guilds . . . their problems were really not our problems. There was, at least in the earlier years of SFWA, little concern for mutuality of interest and any collegiality was on the basis of individual relationships, it was not organizational.

As with so much else in these 37 years there have been changes and there is perhaps a somewhat greater perception of common interest than there was at that time. But Avram’s essay in that Cogswell-edited Forum could be viewed as something very close to bragging about the way in which he had circumvented contracts and could also be seen as a covert instruction to other writers . . . here’s a shopping list, here’s how to do it. (I should note that there were a couple of letters to the Forum, one of them mine, raising questions about that essay and that in a sequel in the next issue Davidson claimed to have delivered an overdue contract and was now calmly awaiting the riches would descend upon him.) This was not a helpful point of view for what had to be perceived as the covert sanction of an organization whose official publication would print that essay and in fact—but hardly for that one reason—Cogswell departed as editor of the Forum shortly thereafter.

I know that writers are by no means special and it is very hard—I have come to know a lot of writers—to see them as victims but I’ll say this: there is an imbalance in power and it is an imbalance which publishers have always been willing to exploit. There are a relatively few writers whose names are known and which make a difference in sales, but publishers perceive most writers as interchangeable or (in the case of those who have published several books to flat or declining sales figures) absolutely disposable. We might raise the issue of what in light of all this members of this organization might expect of it in terms of practical assistance: I did Grievance work for half a decade some time ago and I know that the organization does see some kind of obligation . . . but how much in those practical terms should SFWA attempt? Or should there be any obligation at all? Doesn’t a Grievance function, if it is going to be at all effective, have to be ascribed to a union rather than the anomalous organization which we have today?

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MIKE: I might believe writers were special if I hadn’t been rubbing shoulders with them for 40 years. I’m not aware that their suffering is any more special than anyone else’s. If they are victims, it is because they choose to be; no one holds a gun to their heads and insists that they write for a living until the day they die. I won’t argue about publishers being venal; they certainly are—but I’ll argue that that’s no excuse or justification for venality in a writer. And, finally, I have a difficult time believing that there is ever a reason for purposely, almost by design, breaching a contract that no one forced the writer to sign.

Because I’ve been a writer, and many of my friends are writers, I’ve heard all these arguments (I’m inclined to say: all this pap) for decades. I didn’t believe it then; I don’t believe it now.

But I’ve also been an editor (weekly tabloids and monthly men’s magazines in my starving-writer days, and science fiction anthologies more recently) and a publisher (racy mass market paperbacks, back in the earlies), and I have to say that almost every writer’s ruse is not only venal but totally transparent. Science fiction conventions don’t reinvent the wheel anywhere near as often as new writers reinvent every tired lie and scam. It didn’t make me mad as an editor; it just made me feel tired, and maybe a bit old before my time.

I think what it comes down to is this: you either have a sense of personal honor or you don’t. And if you do, you stick to it whether the publisher and editor behave with equal honor or not. It’s easy to think of them as the enemy, but they really aren’t. They want a bestseller as much as you do—and depending on how much they’ve invested in you, maybe more. They do not sign a contract with the hope that you will be late, that you’ll deliver a deliberate turkey to bust an option clause, that you’ll use wide margins and tons of brief dialog in order to deliver a 400-page, 100,000-word manuscript that actually measures out at 64,000 words.

A publisher puts his money on the line when you sell him a book. He pays you, and if he’s lucky, he sees a finished manuscript a year or two later. I think you’d have to be awfully foolish, perhaps even unbalanced, to truly believe that he hopes it will bomb and that he’ll do his best to sabotage it.

What SFWA should do, in terms of Grievance or any other function, is a fascinating question, and we’ll deal with it in another essay, one devoted to SFWA—but this one’s devoted to professionalism, and (let me duck behind this rock here) if Avram actually wrote what you said and SFWA actually published it, I’m suddenly not so sure that SFWA and professionalism have all that much in common.

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BARRY: Oh, Avram wrote it and Cogswell published and shortly thereafter Cogswell and the Forum went speedily in different directions. It was not only the Davidson instruction booklet on how to shaft publishers which got Cogswell canned but his vicious attack on Keith Laumer’s Analog story, “The Plague,” his photos of underdressed ladies on the cheap pulp paper, his printing of a photograph of a five-year-old child over the caption, “Don Pfeihl, editor of Vertex enjoys socializing at the annual SFWA cocktail party.” Cogswell got away with this stuff in the late fifties working out of the Dept. of English offices at Ball State University, but the Administration of the SFWA in the mid-seventies found this intolerable and one can well suspect why. I realize that this is a low blow to a man already dead . . . but I always felt that Keith Laumer’s nearly fatal stroke two months after Cogswell’s mockery of “The Plague” in the Forum might have been triggered by that article. Certainly the explosion of rage a man with high blood pressure must have felt could not have done him any good.

But Cogswell is gone and the Forum is but a shadow of its once ever-industrious self, now devoted—forty percent of its pagination—to long lists of Nebula nominations and near-nominations and almost-nominations and non-nominations—and we can focus upon the somewhat more conterminous issue of the SFWA as a professional organization, one which we agree deserves a column of its own and which we should for the moment defer but certainly one to be pondered. I have pondered and reached some tentative conclusions (which will surprise few) and which I will in course Discuss, Compare and Contrast.

Meanwhile: do writers as a class and—as you suggest—reinvent the scams, duplicity, deceits of previous generations of writers? Well, they would be atypical examples of humanity if they failed to do so and one thing writers are not (consider your earlier remark) is atypical. Writers are very much like people except that in understanding less they find themselves driven to extremes of articulacy to first explore, then explain, their ignorance. Every generation of writers approaches the scams as if they were new, of course. I am reminded of Platoon Sergeant Wheeler who gathered the Third Platoon of I Company around him at Fort Dix in the barracks at first nightfall of the first day of Basic Training to say, “All of you guys at this moment are trying to figure out a way to beat the system. Forget it. Hundreds of thousands of the finest and the worst minds have passed through this system over these hundred years and there is nothing you can try that hasn’t been tried, nothing you can do that hasn’t already failed. You can fight the system and start on your way to the Stockade or you can give it up and go along and have a relatively easy time. It’s up to you.”

This masterful speech applied to the circumstances of numb or terrified recruits; it wouldn’t work so well in Writing Basic Training. Writers are not put through the obstacle course, writers don’t face 4:00 AM Reveille, writers do not do 20-mile forced marches with full field pack. If they were subject to this they would not be writing articles for the house publication bragging about how they had made fools of the system.

On the other hand, a few recruits made it to OCS and a scattering went further than that; there are some Majors, Light Colonels, maybe even a General who came from that mix. Where did Avram go?

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MIKE: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that it’s all right for a writer to lie, to cheat, to mislead his editor in any way whatsoever because of the way (generic) editors treat (generic) writers, and that the only reason not to do so is because editors have seen it all and it won’t work. Is that essentially your position? Because if it is, then I imagine you would also toss out all the points of Professionalism I listed early on.

Anyway, my question is not do writers as a class reinvent all the scams? You’ve made it clear that at least a sizeable minority of them do. What I want to know is: do you think they should?

Or, to put it as simply as I can: do you owe the previously-defined professionalism to yourself, or to your editor and publisher? If you owe it to them, then perhaps—and only perhaps —there are extenuating circumstances in individual cases that would allow you to ignore it. But if you owe it to yourself, as I believe, then who you’re dealing with and how they treat you personally (and how they treat writers as a group) makes no difference; you must behave honorably and professionally for the simple reason that you are trying your best to be an honorable man who takes pride in his behavior and his profession.

So which is it?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: No, I am not recommending that writers should cheat, steal, lie or vote a straight ticket. Writers are quite capable of finding misalliance on their own without advice from me. To the contrary I believe that writers should be honest, ethical, prompt on delivery dates, courteous to publishers and should split their ballot judiciously when the best candidates for Governor and Senator come from opposite party affiliation. You seem to have missed the point of my paragraphs and of First Sergeant Wheeler’s advice to the troops.

Wheeler was saying, “Don’t try this, everyone has tried everything and there’s nothing new you can do to beat the system, you might as well go along.” For practical if not ideological reasons. Third Platoon India Company did go along with the system, most of them and went on to lead decent civilian post-military lives in that pre-Vietnam, Cuban Missile Crisis pre-Reserve call-up in l962 time. Wheeler’s point was that it could only be easier that way. That was my point too, although newer writers, looking at the often horrid examples presented by some older writers might think that if these practices worked for them they might still be working. Sometimes they do.

Writers and publishers are not in fundamental concord; I wish that such were the case, it is not: publishers are often unfair to writers, writers to publishers, would that this were not the case. We should all work in mutuality toward a better outcome. I have been looking for this through my own many decades in the business and perhaps matters are getting better although they may be getting worse. This is, as we have agreed, a subjective business.

What Theodore Cogswell (l9l8-l987) did which was very wrong, let me pick up on this for a moment, was to use an organization publication—funded by the dues of members—as a medium to attack a member, to hold up that writer before his peers as a fool. Cogswell did not do this as a correspondent to the SFWA Forum, he did not do it as the contributor of an article. Both would have been questionable . . . but Cogswell did this in his capacity as editor of the publication and this, speaking of professionalism, decency, and courtesy among writers, should not have been done.

But in fact I don’t think that his attack on “The Plague” was the reason that he was fired. I don’t think that he was fired for his questionable taste in pictures. No, I think that it was the photograph whose caption identified Don Pfeihl as a little boy which got the old Brigadier The Axe. Make a fool of a fellow writer, sure . . . but don’t offend an editor, even the editor of a minor and soon-to-be-departed magazine. Courage!

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MIKE: You think it was wrong to attack a member—I’ve only seen it done about every other issue of the Forum for a third of a century—but it wasn’t wrong to run a piece by a respected writer telling other writers how to lie and cheat on their contracts? I find that . . . ah . . . interesting.

(I think it’s wrong to attack members under any circumstance—in print or in person. That’s why I skip most SFWA meetings and spend so little time in the SFWA Suite or its online equivalent.)

This, incidentally, was nothing new in Cogswell-edited publications. The most fascinating reading in the last few years was the huge (and expensive) volume of the near-complete PITFCS, the forerunner to the Forum that Cogswell edited before there was a SFWA. (For the curious: Advent published it; it’s being distributed by NESFA.)

Well, the initial question was what do a writer and an editor/publisher owe each other beyond the terms of the contract—and there would seem to be considerable doubt, currently and historically.

So maybe I should conclude by saying that what they owe each other isn’t really all that important. If they break the contract, the lawyers will step in and see that it’s fulfilled or that the side that breached it suffers some consequence.

But that doesn’t let them off the hook. I think what each owes himself, in terms of personal integrity and honor, remains vitally important and probably comes to the same thing in the end. If you have it, you’ll exercise it; and if you don’t have it, no contract or consequence can force it upon you.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

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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