Bewildering Stories Discusses
with Gary Inbinder and Don Webb
[Gary] I’ve encountered many — perhaps too many — writers, agents and editors who appear to be much more interested in marketing than writing. That’s understandable, I suppose. Publishing is a business, after all.
[Don] One can also read comments by successful authors like Stephen King, who at least deserves credit for admitting to being a “competent hack” even as he rakes in big bucks.
Are sales the measure of a writer’s worth? Mercantilism is rife on forums and elsewhere. Does the SFFWA determine its membership by how much and to whom you sell? If so, that would make the organization in effect a “company union” whose membership is determined by editors and publishers.
“Publish or perish” has a well-known precedent. At research universities, promotion and tenure are decided primarily by the editorial staffs of scholarly journals; faculty committees and deans have, in effect, a negative option. If the fields of science fiction and fantasy have fewer print publication outlets than academia, it’s that the exchange is made in money. Academic journals don’t pay their contributors, because the reward for academic research is tenure. But beyond tenure? On the Net, the motive is referred to dismissively as “4theLuv.” Which is ironic, because that’s the only kind of work worth doing.
Now, would Bewildering Stories accept submissions from big-bucked “competent hacks”? We’d consider them. Would they automatically qualify for a Quarterly Review? Not on the basis of an author’s name alone; they would go into the betting pool along with all the other titles.
Which reminds me: we really ought to start a virtual stock exchange for the Quarterly Reviews and the Year-End awards. Talk about generating reader interest: the participants could garner celebrity for well-informed guesses. Irony alert: put contestants around a table, bet real money, and Bewildering Stories could compete on TV with Texas Hold ’Em tournaments. The only drawback — if it is one — is that viewers would need to have read Bewildering Stories to know what the “cards” were worth.
[Gary] So, bottom line: when folks in a writers’ forum post about a ’zine, they want to know:
Does it pay, and if so how much?
Is it legit? That is, does it pay what the editors say they’ll pay, and on time?
If it doesn’t pay by the story or by the word, does it offer cash prizes for “Editors’ Choice” etc.?
If it don’t pay nothin’, never, nohow, does it at least have tremendous exposure that catches the eye of agents, editors and publishers? Does it nominate for fancy-schmancy awards that look good on a CV, etc.? That is, does it have cachet?
[Don] You’ve summed up concisely the criteria for a pecking order, and experience tells us that Bewildering Stories qualifies under section #d. Validation is the name of the game, and when validation is money alone, art becomes not communication but commodification, if indeed art has anything to do with it at all.
The trouble is that validation doesn’t go as far as it used to. James Adams, writing a series on the state of Canadian (read: “also U.S.”) publishing, in the Toronto Globe and Mail in February 2009, reports that average writers — not the very rare big-bucks outliers, of course — earn incomes well below the poverty line. The Canadian solution is to form professional associations — guilds, in effect — devoted in large part to assuring a measure of old-age assistance to professional artists.
But if money is the object of writing, then writers will be less badly off playing lotteries. Adams points out the obvious: publishers no longer market as they used to. It’s come down to a race for shelf space in a few places, namely supermarkets; bus stations or their latter-day equivalent, airports; and, oh yes, bookstores. Portable devices like the iPad and Kindle will make even that space less and less valuable.
Ink on paper will not go away, but books will become more of a luxury than a staple. The sea-change began in 1985: the advent of the Macintosh moved desktop publishing from dream to potential, one that soon began to be realized. And now, print on demand, the Internet, and e-books raise a new question: What will constitute “shelf space” in the virtual world? Probably iPad apps and the like.
The e-world is a democracy par excellence, but how is a reader to choose? Publishers are now in a position similar to that of the medieval scriptoria after Gutenberg. What will constitute validation now that the playing field has been leveled once again? As the power shifted from copyists to bookmakers between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it shifts from publishers to critics in the postmodern world. The mission of Bewildering Stories, our Quarterly Reviews, and our Reading Room is both educational and critical. And to that end we strive to adapt the written word to the new technology.
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