If wisdom means that from which we can learn, there is much wisdom in the nonfiction writings of Mike Resnick.
“Gardner Dozois, who was editing Asimov’s at the time, told me that he got about a thousand slush stories a month. How many did he buy? Three a year” (2010).
But Asimov’s publishes, what, five stories an issue? That’s 50 to 60 a year. Of which 3, Dozois tells us, are “slush stories.” That means the other 95% aren’t “slush stories.” So what are they?
A few clues:
“In the past decade, I have received 27 short fiction assignments at cons.”
“As an editor, I’ve probably assigned over 200 stories at conventions.”
“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.”
“It’s not difficult to e-mail Kris Rusch or Nancy Kress or Greg Benford or David Gerrold or any of my other award-winning friends and say, “Give me a story of X thousand words by Y date,” and they always deliver and it’s always a good story, and with a set word rate I don’t pay them any more than I pay a first-timer. And I do e-mail them and solicit stories from them—for maybe two-thirds of the anthology.”
“How two [collaborating] journeyman pros of equal stature decide is up to them. If it will provide a bit of a guideline, my own rule of thumb has always been that if the story is an assignment rather than a speculative job, whoever was given the assignment gets the final say, which seems only fair. Writer A and Writer B may be equal in ability, and may put in equal efforts on the story, but if Editor X specifically requested the story of Writer A, then it seems reasonable that Writer A, by virtue of getting a pre-sold assignment, should have the final word.”
Malzberg, ibid: “ConFusion (population 800) had me and one other editor, an editor who doesn’t want contributions but prefers to solicit those writers he wants.”
Malzberg: “Part of that True Unwritten History of Science Fiction is how much of it has been sold through direct contact between writers and editors (who were likely to switch roles or occupy both roles often enough). More than half of it, I would guess.”
Malzberg: “In 1972 Robert Hoskins, my editor at Lancer, looked at the completed manuscript of a science fiction novel I had delivered two weeks earlier on a virtually open contract (an outline in one paragraph of about 60 words), which sat rather uneasily on his desk, and raised his head to show me an expression of utter disgust. ‘Barry,’ he said, ‘Why did you do this? Will you please go home and write me a novel?'” [And he did, which Hoskins published. He also later sold, to Ace, the one Hoskins found so disgusting.]
Conclusion: most stories and novels are sold before they’re written. Every year, X stories and novels published. 0.9X are pre-sold, for which 2X writers compete. The other 10,000X writers compete for the remaining 0.1X places.
“A slush story can’t be as good as a story by a “name” writer; it’s got to be better.”
If that’s true, it means the published work of unknown writers is, on average, better than that of famous writers. But if Resnick believes this, he’s the only one who does. And if it’s true, stories are being published by famous writers that would be rejected if written by unknowns.
“The slush reader, when he or she would forward a story to Eric or me, would write a brief comment… and I came to too damned many comments that said, in essence, “It starts slow, but it gets really good on Page 7.” I didn’t even have to read those, because that’s an automatic reject. Our subscribers are not being paid to wade through all the junk to get to Page 7; if we haven’t captured them in the first couple of pages, the odds are that they’ll stop reading that story and go one [sic] to one by a major author (we don’t lack for them), or at least a known commodity.”
What if after abandoning the story by the unknown writer because it started slowly and going on to one by a major author, the subscriber finds that it also starts slowly? Does that happen, or do major writers never write stories that start slowly (v.s.: “…and it’s always a good story”)? Or do they sometimes write stories that start slowly, but the subscriber knows that when they do so it’s good, whereas when the unknown writer does so it’s bad? Or does the subscriber know it’s bad, and dislike it, but can’t abandon it and go on to another story because when one abandons a story one can only go to a new story by a better known author, never a lesser known one? Or if they do abandon the story and the whole magazine, does the editor knows that if the advantage of a well-known name couldn’t keep a reader reading, nothing could? If a major author does things that readers dislike when unknown writers do them, will he eventually cease to be a major author, or will readers forgive him for doing those things for which unknown writers are chastised and ignored? How did he become a major author in the first place if his stories start so slowly? Where does status as a major author come from, if the work of minor authors is better, as Resnick (ostensibly) believes? Or did his stories once start quickly and it’s only in his senescence that they start slowly, but now he’s grandfathered in?
“Lo and behold, you don’t get the usual form rejection slip, or even a personal rejection. Instead you get a letter from the editor, telling you how much he likes your story, that it has made the first cut, that it is under Serious Consideration (capitalized, which is even more impressive than italicized), and he’ll get back to you with a final decision when submissions close four months from now. You feel thrilled. You are under Serious Consideration. But what the editor has just done is to “purchase” a free option on your story for four months. Oh, he’ll buy it if nothing better comes along—but in the meantime he’s telling you to keep it off the market for four months, to not let any other editor see it.”
Why would the editor create that ruse, when he can achieve the same effect by doing nothing?
“If it was me, I’d say: You want a four-month option, which is to say, you want me to hold it off the market for four months? Fine. Give me two cents a word, applicable against the purchase fee, and forfeit if you don’t buy it.”
Great idea, Resnick. Every time Asimov’s held onto stories of mine for four, six, or eight months, they should have been paying me 2 cents a word. But what is this telling us? That Resnick perceives a monetary value to keeping a story “off the market” for four months, meaning all his stories sell in less than that.
On collaborating: “With newcomers, they always do the first draft, and I always do the polish. Which makes sense. But usually I have to restrain them a bit. Since they are newcomers, and I’m essentially offering them a guaranteed sale…”
The honesty is refreshing.
“I’d say that within four or five books you should have your advances up to $15,000 if you expect to have any kind of career at all. So let’s say you’ve been in the field four years, long enough to establish whether or not you can sell…”
Is that not clear enough, for all you fucking retards out there? It’s incredible how many people can read a sentence like that and not realize he’s saying that if you’ve been doing it for four years and haven’t made 15 G’s at a minimum, you’re a failure and should quit.
“Are there any tips for getting out of the slush pile? Yeah, there are. […] Third, spend 90% of your effort working on Page 1. If you don’t capture the slush reader by the bottom of that first page, the odds are hundreds to one that you’ve already lost the battle. Let me tell you a depressing little truth. Back in my starving-editor days in the late 1960’s, I edited a trio of men’s magazine. And it was company policy to fire any first reader who couldn’t reject a story every two minutes, because that’s how fast they arrived. That means he had to open the envelope, pull out the story, read that opening page, attach a rejection slip, stuff and seal the envelope, and put it in the outgoing mail trail, all in 120 seconds.”
So if the story fails to “capture” the slush reader, he will reject it inside of 120 seconds, but if it does “capture” him, presumably he has more time to read page 2, page 3, etc., even if he eventually rejects it. Stories may be rejected in less than two minutes but surely they cannot be accepted in less than two minutes. If the supervisor caught a slush reader taking over two minutes on a story, could the reader avoid firing by claiming to have been “captured” by the story? Did those 1960’s men’s magazines have a policy about how many stories per minute could “capture” the slush reader? They ought to just include that in their new-hire orientation: “If you are captured by a story, you may be fired. But you will never, ever be fired for rejecting anything, even if that thing goes on to sell more copies than the Bible.” Under such conditions, is it surprising that not many stories “capture” the slush readers?
What’s really going on? Malzberg gets paid for a novel he hasn’t written yet. Then he writes one and it’s so bad the editor rejects it. How bad does it have to be to get the editor to do that, when he’s already expended part of his budget, which he’s never getting back, on this contract? Furthermore, “rejection” for Malzberg doesn’t mean going to the end of the line. He still has the same contract. The editor didn’t say, “Y’know, I don’t think you’re as good a writer as I thought you were,” and withdraw the offer of guaranteed publication. He just gets a second try, and imagine how bad the second book would have to be for Hoskins to reject it. Is he really going to make Malzberg write three books for one contract? He’ll probably just accept the second one; it just has to be minimally competent. On the other hand, if you’re in the slush pile, your story needs to be better than competent, good, or even great. It needs to be transcendent, compelling, magical; it needs to be so amazing that it “captures” slush readers who have every incentive to hate it and none to like it. Write something that’s mind-blowingly wonderful, that cures cancer, that makes Simon Cowell weep with empathy, and you’ll knock the “big boys” off the cover. But the “big boys” aren’t doing any of those things either. And nobody’s asking them to. They don’t have write something that can cause hardened slush readers to literally risk their livelihoods to see it published, cuz they’re famous. How did they become famous, was it by writing something transcendent back in the day? Well, here’s Resnick’s bibliography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Mike_Resnick. You see any all-time masterpieces in there? Resnick tells us the stories he solicits from the “big boys” for anthologies are “always good.” Maybe. On the other hand, it would really be a dick move to say, “Hey, would you write me a new vampire story for my upcoming vampire anthology?” and then, after the guy sends you the story, to say, “No, that’s not good enough.” Imagine how horrifically, stupendously bad it would have to be to make a person reject a story after having specifically commissioned it. One would have to be an incredible asshole to do that; the necessity of avoiding being that kind of asshole would create a strong incentive to believe that the story was good. That kind of incentive exists in most relationships between major writers and their editors–who, Malzberg tells us, also constantly shift back and forth between the two roles–and not between slush pile writers and the envelope-stuffers who transfer their manuscripts between envelopes while cursorily glancing at the first paragraphs. When an editor receives a story by a “big name” she has a strong economic and social incentive to like it; just the reverse is true when she receives stories from the slush pile.
Analogy: a guy goes to try out for a football team.
“Are you a Heisman winner?”
“No, but I’m a good player.”
“Get lost. The team only accepts Heisman winners.”
“But look at all those guys over there; they’re not Heisman winners yet they’re on the team.”
“They don’t have to be Heisman winners. They’re on the team.”
The paradox is that what is required of the applicants to the club seem to be so much more stringent than what is required of the members of the club. In a blog post called “A Brief Note to Young Writers of Science Fiction,” under a Youtube clip of something he evidently finds very inspiring, Michael Swanwick (2015) writes: “Your task is twofold: 1. You must write something as powerful as this. 2. You must write something much better than this.” But N.B. it’s only young writers of science fiction who must do this; if you’re an old writer of science fiction you’re free to continue turning out the same mediocrities you’ve always turned out. Under these rules, how does anyone become a member of the club? Well, both Malzberg and Resnick wrote buttloads of porn novels under pseudonyms before being allowed to write things to which they were willing to append their names. So it was probably a personal connection with someone in a position of power in a publishing company. I have a feeling they would probable attempt to defend this by saying that the porn novels supplied the editor with proof they could write, though how a buttload of porn novels that one isn’t willing to put one’s name to proves that, I don’t know. Those myriads of porn novels may have been used to prove they were capable of writing and completing novel-length fictions, though when the slush-pile writer submits a complete novel hasn’t he already proved he can as well? They’d probably say they get the jobs because they’re “pros” who can “get the job done,” i.e., deliver salable prose on a deadline. But Malzberg tells us the deadlines in publishing contracts, although they are negotiated most intensely, are completely meaningless; most books, he says, are delivered months late, and he knows of one book that was delivered eight years after the deadline, without affecting anything. As to the salability of the prose, the thing for which editors supposedly receive paychecks is to discriminate between good books and bad books, yet saying that one must rely on reputations and resumes and past credits is an admission that they really can’t do that, but must rely on extraneous factors to tell the difference. The book the slush writer submits would be sufficient proof of its salability or lack thereof, if editors could actually do what they claim to be able to do.
It’s probably the same for the great majority, but it’s hard to find out because naturally they don’t advertise it. It’s embarrassing, and they’re not likely to bring it up, and if others bring it up they may deny it, but still we often find out about it. Even with the incomplete data we have, I would guess from one third to one half of writers are known to have become members of the club through personal connections. So when you have an embarrassing thing that reflects poorly on a person, and can easily be covered up, and still half the relevant population is known to have done it, what’s the multiplier to estimate the percentage who have done it that we don’t know about?
Neglect of the economic contingencies of behavior is one of the major failings of conventional analysis of the writing trade. No one—no agent, editor, slush reader, or any other person of any kind—has ever been punished for rejecting anything. Forget punished, they were never even talked to about it, it was never even mentioned. The people who rejected Harry Potter went on to thriving careers. No colleague said to them, “We’re real disappointed about not being millionaires because of you.” They never even knew it happened. Reject things, and you’ll always be safe. On the other hand every time you accept something you’re risking your career. What are you going to say at the next meeting when your boss asks you to explain why you spent a grand on some unknown author and it sold about as many copies as books by unknown authors usually do? Jesus! Do you think the company is made of money? Don’t you know the shareholders will be eating dogfood this Christmas because of your profligacy? You better have a damn good reason for buying that book. What are you going to say? “I liked it”? “I thought it would sell”? You just admitted your judgment is bad. You’re fired. The only reasons that are acceptable in that room are related to that writer’s previous credits, i.e., “I’m not the only one who got it wrong; here’s some other people who also wrongly thought this book was good.” Given this, why would any agent or editor bother to form a personal opinion on the work? In that room, trying to defend your judgment, you have only one weapon: that your judgment is just the same as everyone else’s and you were only doing what anybody would have done. Blend into the herd: there’s no point in firing me, boss, because any replacement will do the same thing I did. It’s just like they say about bankers: a good banker is one who, when he loses all your money, does so in the same way as everyone else. When an editor makes money, she’s a genius with a unique method no one else can duplicate; when she loses money, it’s not her fault because she’s only doing the same thing as everyone else.
A few years ago Tom Wolfe switched publishers. Before that, his book A Man in Full sold 1.4 million copies. His subsequent I am Charlotte Simmons sold less than half that and didn’t earn out its advance. His long-time publishers, FSG, wanted to pay a smaller advance next time around, but Wolfe wanted it to be even bigger. So Wolfe jumped ship to Little, Brown, who gave him 7 million for Back to Blood, which turned out to be an even bigger failure than Simmons. But: “There will always be someone who wants to publish Tom Wolfe because he’s an icon and someone who sells” (Rich, 2008). An icon, okay. And yes, copies of his books do get sold. However, the relevant question is do they sell in sufficient quantities to make a profit, and that depends on how much the publisher paid for them. It’s no good to spend 7 million to make 3 million. What, were they planning on making enough deals like that that they’ll make it up in volume? We can’t publish books by unknowns because they don’t sell, but we can publish Tom Wolfe who also doesn’t sell, or at least not enough, but he doesn’t have to sell, he’s Tom Wolfe! What do we think happened to the editor who acquired Back to Blood? Fired? Criticized? Or feted and praised? “You got Tom Wolfe!” “It’s like publishing Mark Twain” (that’s what the guy who did it thinks about it; he’s since been promoted to CEO) (Trachtenberg, 2008). Right now someone in the Little, Brown offices is saying we’d better give Wolfe a $10 million advance for his next book, lest we lose him!
“Kevin [J.] Anderson was not a major seller when I first met him, though he was a very talented writer.”
Resnick, M. D., & Malzberg, B. N. (2010). The business of science fiction: Two insiders discuss writing and publishing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Resnick, M. (2012). Resnick on the loose. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press.
Rich, M. (2008). Tom Wolfe Leaves Longtime Publisher, Taking His New Book. Retrieved July 28, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/03/books/03wolfe.html?_r=0
Swanwick, M. (12 May 2015). A Brief Note to Young Writers of Science Fiction, from Flogging Babel. Retrieved July 28, 2016, from http://floggingbabel.blogspot.com/2015/05/a-brief-note-to-young-writers-of.html
Trachtenberg, J. (2008, Jan 3) Tom Wolfe Changes Scenery. Wall Street Journal. Retrived July 28, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB119932268159163799