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Send us your letters! Locus Online has more room than the magazine for letters. They can be about Locus or the SF field in general.

April - May 1999

Letters on this page:

  • John Ordover responds (4 May)
  • Gordon Van Gelder responds (23 Apr)
  • S.L. Viehl responds (23 Apr)
  • Rick Hauptmann responds (23 Apr)
  • Susan R. Matthews wonders about the mid-list and day jobs (22 Apr)

    Dear Locus Online,
         Gotta say Iím with Gordon Van Gelder on the novelization/tie-in issue. One factor to consider is that script-based novelizations often take only about four weeks to write, and drain comparative little creative juice from the writer, and can often pay as much as two or three original novels from the same writer. That leaves the writer free to write their own original stuff that pays much less. So whatís the harm?

    John Ordover
    4 May 1999
    (posted Thu 6 May 1999)

    Dear Locus Online,
         Regarding Susan Matthews's comment, may I refer you to Jerry Pournelle's introduction to the Nebula Awards volume he edited (I think it was #16, in the early 1980s)? If I remember correctly, he says that before the boom in the 1970s, nobody but Heinlein made a living just from writing SF.
         Personally, I think media tie-in novels are more benign ways for writers to make money than were the sleaze novels so many writers churned out under pseudonyms in the 1960s and 1970s to pay the rent.

    Gordon Van Gelder
    23 April 1999
    (posted Sat 24 Apr 1999)

    [ You remember correctly, Gordon. Here's what Pournelle said, in 1982:

    We have just gone through the greatest boom in SF history. When I first started in this business, everyone in it was starving. Well, nearly everyone. Mr. Heinlein made a comfortable income, and there were one or two others who didn't do badly; but most full-time science fiction writers ate split-pea soup and their wives made their own clothing.

    -- ed. ]

    Dear Locus Online,
         This is in response to the letter by Susan R. Matthews and your own comments posted in Letters [below].
         I agree with Ms. Matthews view that the publishing industry has never supported more than a handful of full-time writers; thatís how it works. Expecting the industry to do otherwise is unrealistic -- publishing is a business, not a charitable foundation. Think about it in these terms: Would you go to your boss, and ask him to give you a two or three year advance on your salary, based solely on your promise to be a terrific employee? I donít think so.
         It is harder than ever to make a living as a novelist in any genre, for the reasons you cited. My suggestion to anyone who wants to freelance full-time is to diversify and seek other avenues to display your talent and earn some money. Sure, we all want to write the Great American Novel. While youíre waiting for your genius to be recognized, why not write short stories, articles, speeches, newsletters, etc.? Donít sit around and complain, get busy and submit.
         I signed my first contract last November for my science fiction novel series. Since then I have been busy working on a number of short pieces, and last week sold an article to Writersí Digest. Not only do I get paid for writing the article, but my work will be seen by WDís 225,000 subscribers, and the author bio provides publicity for my series.

    S.L. Viehl
    author of the ''StarDoc'' series
    published by ROC Science Fiction/Fantasy
    Executive Editor: Laura Anne Gilman

    23 April 1999
    (posted Sat 24 Apr 1999)

    Dear Locus Online,
         I was discussing the possibility of making a living as an SF writer with Jack Williamson the other day, and his response was, ''Good luck, but I was never able to.''

    Rick Hauptmann
    23 April 1999
    (posted Sat 24 Apr 1999)

    Dear Locus Online,
         I have a question about the Golden Age of science fiction as it pertains to the ''mid-list,'' but Iím having a hard time figuring out how to phrase it without offending people.
         In recent letters [survey 2 comments page 1] I noted the following:
         ''Do you believe that science fiction has really experienced a ''death'' of the midlist or is this just carping by writers who canít make the grade?''
         You responded ''When the likes of Pat Cadigan and Christopher Priest are apparently reduced to writing film novelizations, itís hard to believe itís merely carping.''
         My question is, during the Best Of Times, did the average mid-list science fiction writer ever make his or her living exclusively from writing his or her science fiction (no collaborations, no novelizations, no work-for-hire series under anotherís name, no ''day job'' at the local community college or adult education writerís seminar)?
         I suspect that most of the mid-list has a day job, but more than that, I suspect that most of the mid-list has always had to have a day job. I donít believe the publishing industry in this country has ever supported more than a mere handful of full-time writers who do nothing else but write the Great American (insert genre title here) Novel/Novella/Short Story.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Susan R. Matthews
    (probably just carping because I gotta have a day job!)
    21 April 1999
    (posted Thu 22 Apr 1999)

    [ (I have a day job too!) It's easy to be a bit flippant responding to anonymous survey comments, so I'll come out from behind the editorial 'we' at least for a moment. My reaction to the mid-list question came from having just seen Christopher Priest's eXistenZ novelization at the bookstore and wondering why a talented, award-winning novelist like him should spend his time writing something that presumably any half-competent writer could turn out. My understanding of the mid-list issue is that, increasingly, writers find it difficult to sell books that do not either have a sort of guaranteed minimum sales through association with popular TV shows, movies, or games, on the one hand; or books that are perceived by their publishers as having a break-out potential to reach bestseller status and make lots of money, on the other. Computer sales tracking makes it easier for bookstores and publishers to make publishing decisions based on the bottom-line; the old practice of investing several years or several books to develop a writer's career before expecting a big payoff -- or simply being satisfied with a modest payoff -- is now rare. This is why some writers publish their third novels under pseudonyms, as if they are someone new; to hide their unspectacular track records.

    At least this is what some people say. If it were entirely true, it would be amazing that there are as many books published as there are; as a reader, I see many more intriguing ''mid-list'' SF books than I or anyone else would ever have time to read.

    But are the writers of all those books making a living at it? This is what you're addressing, Susan, and I suspect you're absolutely right: that there's never been a time when more than a small minority of writers, in or out of SF, have made a living from writing alone. Maybe the difference now is that movie novelizations and other such things are available to a writer who chooses to pursue them, instead of taking the dull day job. But despite my webmastering position here, I'm not directly involved with the publishing industry, and there are undoubtedly many readers of Locus and Locus Online who can offer more accurate insights on these matters. Responses, anyone?
    -- ed. ]

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