The Business of Science Fiction by Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg

Sunday, 12 September 2010 12:13 Bryan Thomas Schmidt
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The Business of Science Fiction

by

Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg

Reviewed by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

If you’re one of those people who feels you really know the science fiction business, one read through these dialogues may convince you otherwise.  Listening to these two thirty year veterans discuss everything from myths of the business to such practical details as finding an agent quickly made me realize how little I knew about things I even thought I knew a lot about.

A collection of dialogues originally run in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s in house magazine, The Bulletin, the book consists of 25 chapters wherein the writers debate various aspects of the business of being a professional science fiction writer.  Their interactions vary from gentle teasing to mocking to genuine reflection, containing anecdotes, quotes and memories garnered from their combined sixty years in the business.

The book is broken down into three sections: Writing and Selling, The Business, and The Field.  Topics cover everything from Print On Demand and Specialty Presses to Contracts, Collaborations, Professionalism, and Commonly-held Myths.  Sometimes the authors seem full of useful advice and answers, and other times they seem as puzzled as the rest of us.

Both agree that while Print On Demand has its uses, it’s no way to start a professional writing career.  They debunk the assumption often made by aspiring writers that every one starts that way and instead warn of the difficulties of selling any sizable quantity of POD books as well as the pitfalls of POD publishing contracts.  In regard to specialty presses, however, both find a lot of positives, especially with the newer mid-level presses which pay nearly as much as the big houses in advances and have good distribution and marketing, thus offering writers additional viable markets for their works.  

In discussing contracts, they warn of the importance of agents in defending writers from publishers taking unfair advantage in regard to foreign and subsidiary rights, which to the authors provide the greatest opportunities for additional income to writers.  They cover a number of key clauses both in the contracts and abuses chapters discussing how they can be used to abuse writers and keep them from their rightful royalties.  In some cases, they believe the clauses can be avoided, but in others, they warn, it’s not so simple.

For the authors, professionalism on both the part of the writer and publisher is straight forward:  “you deliver on time as contracted, answer emails and phones promptly, and treat each other with civility.”  However, these minimums and ideals are often far from the reality.  They warn about late checks from publishers, who have made a science of delaying payments just long enough to avoid lawsuits.  They also advise:  “I’m not aware of any publisher suing to reject a late novel.”  For Resnick’s part, he insists that unprofessionalism from others is no excuse to be unprofessional yourself.  “I think what each owes himself, in terms of personal integrity and honor, remains vitally important...if you have it, you’ll exercise it; and if you don ‘t have it, no contract or consequence can force it upon you.”

Discussing collaborating, they explain the various possible methodologies and conclude:  “the method that best suits the work is the method best adapted.”  Collaborations can be challenging to relationships, and both suggest several key decisions must be made up front to avoid later conflict.  The field of science fiction and fantasy is one where relationships are key and they explain that keeping and building those relationships should be a core part of every writer’s work in building a career.

Debunking myths and false doctrines such as impressing an editor by turning in manuscripts early, the meaningfulness of options, and the advantage of starting with short stories, they analyze the bad advice repeatedly given by what they call the Writer’s Digest crowd and offer alternative approaches and explanations.

I think this is a book no serious aspiring science fiction or fantasy author can afford to be without.  You may find the price daunting for a paperback, but you’ll find it even more daunting if you discover later it could have saved you a lot of frustration, embarrassment or needless abuse from the industry.

I rather suspect many professional SF/F writers will also find benefit in reading this.  It’s from lines of communications between professionals which aren’t always widely available to non-SFWA members, and you couldn’t find better advisors than Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg.  Told with humility and wit, the dialogues are never dry, often surprising, and always informative.  Highly recommended.

The Business of Science Fiction
Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg
McFarland & Company, Inc. (www.mcfarlandpub.com)
(July 2010, Tpb, 269 pp., $35)