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Publisher: Bluejack

July 2006 : Feature:

How to Make Big Money Writing Science Fiction, and Other Dangerous Delusions

For a number of years, I found Locus magazine—subtitled The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field—to be the most consistently interesting magazine I received. Its undigested raw data—lists, tables, and charts—made for strangely involving reading material. When I preferred prose, there were news reports, announcements, interviews, letters, obituaries, and reviews. Though Charles Brown once told me that each part of Locus was aimed at a particular group of readers, so that nobody would read everything in the magazine, I increasingly found myself doing exactly that, absorbing a comprehensive picture of a vast and multifaceted community.

After becoming a regular reader, however, I gradually became troubled by one aspect of the magazine: at times, it read like a sort of Lifestyles of the Science Fiction Rich and Famous, with photographs of millionaire authors smiling at conventions, brief reports of authors receiving six-figure advances or huge sums for movie rights, news items about noteworthy authors receiving high honors or making lucrative deals. And the recent changes in the magazine’s format—more and more glossy pages, more and more color photographs, a higher price—further suggested an impulse to provide science fiction with more and more of an upscale image. Locus sometimes seemed to be relentlessly celebrating enormous wealth and lofty status as the natural attributes of the science fiction writer; and although careful perusal of the entire magazine revealed other, less philistine priorities, its desire to emphasize science fiction success stories was hard to deny, and eventually, I realized that I no longer enjoyed reading the magazine as much as I used to.

Long ago, another American magazine persistently emphasized success stories—Ebony—and it was criticized for focusing on the happy existence of certain selected African-Americans in an era when African-Americans generally endured shameful and deplorable treatment in all aspects of life. In parallel fashion, Locus might be criticized for misrepresenting the life of the average writer working in the field of science fiction, whose nearest approach to the big money will be reading about it in that magazine.

To provide a different and more accurate perspective on the typical writer’s situation, I once envisioned publication of a special "Loser's Issue" of Locus. Charts and diagrams would present information like the ratio of submitted manuscripts to accepted manuscripts (surely, at least 100 to 1) or the average annual income of persons describing themselves as science fiction writers (surely, well under $10,000 a year). Instead of paeans to recent masterpieces, reviewers would excoriate all the derivative drivel being churned out by writers desperately in need of income. And "People & Publishing" would feature these sorts of news items: Writer A just received her one hundredth rejection letter from Asimov's; Writer B is now writing hard-core pornography under a pseudonym; Writer C, having gone without a sale for two years, has sold his mobile home and moved back in with his parents. Enough such material to fill one issue, or several issues, of Locus would not be hard to find.

But why, one might ask, burden readers with all this doom and gloom? After all, shouldn't we be trying to encourage talented newcomers to try their hand at science fiction?

Actually, no, we shouldn't.

And this is precisely where any analogy between Ebony and Locus breaks down. African-Americans, then and now, have no choice but to be who they are, and at a time when their lives were often miserable, it was arguably appropriate to emphasize heartwarming, upbeat stories about African-Americans even if they were not exactly representative. But being part of the oppressed community of science fiction writers is entirely a matter of personal choice, something that its members can easily avoid or escape; hence, there is no reason to accentuate the positive or to encourage anyone seeking to join, or remain in, that group.

Certainly, there is no demonstrable need to encourage people to become science fiction writers. Today, one finds no shortage of writers producing intelligent, literate, first-rate science fiction, no shortage of writers producing execrable garbage, and no shortage of writers producing every form of science fiction that falls between these extremes. If someone declared a moratorium on new faces in science fiction for five years, or ten years, the genre could easily maintain its current output, or expand it, without any difficulty.

Beyond the question of necessity, there is the issue of ethics. As I once said in an essay submitted to a writer's magazine that was for some reason rejected, encouraging people to become writers, like encouraging people to play the lottery, should be a felony. The likely outcomes in both cases are roughly the same: an extraordinarily minuscule chance of tremendous success, a rather small chance of modest success, and an enormous chance of complete and utter failure.

Am I claiming that Locus is part of an evil conspiracy to lure hapless neophytes into fruitless expenditures of their energy and resources, inspired by unrealistic visions of future riches? Not at all, since that is manifestly not the magazine's intent. Indeed, Locus should be praised because, unlike other magazines with an audience composed in part of aspiring writers, it is obviously determined to exclude the seductive advertisements of predators eager to squeeze money out of unwary amateurs while promising prosperous careers that they cannot deliver. (Let's face it: when famous authors are asked about the secret of their success, they never answer, "I owe it all to my paid reader's comments" or "I owe it all to that book How to Write Science Fiction.") Still, even as Locus visibly and sincerely seeks to disassociate itself from such vultures, its tendency to examine science fiction news through rose-colored glasses makes the magazine their unwitting accomplice.

This doesn't mean that new science fiction writers should be brutally discouraged; eventually, if not now, we will need them, and there are many current writers who urgently need to be replaced. However, based on the biographies of most of the science fiction authors I admire, there is one first step that should always be recommended to the prospective professional writer: get a job.

No, not the sort of menial, dead-end job mandated by literary mythology that supposedly allows the talented young writer to gather anecdotes from colorful illiterates and pay the bills while waiting for The New Yorker to anoint him as the next John Updike. I mean a real job. One that offers a young woman a decent salary, health benefits, and a pension plan. A job that requires her to use her brain, and keeps her in contact with other capable and intelligent people who are using their brains. And a job that will, if she is ingenious and determined enough, still allow plenty of time and lots of opportunities for writing.

More often than not, this is what successful science fiction writers have done. Enough of them have been working scientists of various sorts to fill several anthologies, but there have also been soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, bureaucrats—almost every profession you can name—and writers from such backgrounds, in my experience at least, tend to be more involving than those who launched full-time careers immediately after earning a B.A. in Creative Writing or attending a Clarion Workshop. Indeed, since science fiction is a genre in which accessing and providing information is so crucially important, it may be especially beneficial for future science fiction writers to spend some time immersed in professions that demand a considerable amount of knowledge, professions that require and train young people to become lifelong learners. Other types of literature may be different, but you can't build a career as a science fiction writer by using all the tricks you learned in Creative Writing classes to retell the funny stories you heard from your fellow lumberjacks.

Along with the beneficial experiences gained from mentally demanding employment, it might also improve a writer's motives. People who enjoy the financial and psychological support of a solid professional career may be more inclined to write science fiction primarily to communicate something important to readers, while those who lack such support may be more inclined to write primarily to meet marketplace demands or to please a small coterie of influential figures. If we celebrate too conspicuously the potential financial rewards of writing science fiction, then we may be attracting exactly the type of writer that the genre today manifestly does not need.

Therefore, it might be appropriate for a magazine like Locus to pay a little less attention to the unrepresentative successes of the few, and a little more attention to the representative failures of the many. There is no reason for the science fiction community to entice young would-be writers fresh out of college, eager to achieve instant wealth; instead, by highlighting its financial pitfalls and stressing only its aesthetic rewards, science fiction might more profitably recruit middle-aged professionals who are looking for a new challenge in life or a possible career change. If history is any guide, these are the people most likely to produce science fiction that is worth reading, even if they fail to make the best-seller lists or garner mind-boggling advances.

And isn’t that, after all, the real issue—the quality of the product, not the amount of money it earns? Yet sometimes, when looking at Locus, I am unhappily not sure that its editors and writers would agree.

Copyright © 2006, Gary Westfahl. All Rights Reserved.

About Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-four books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005),The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the co-edited critical anthology Science Fiction and the Two Cultures (2009), and the recently published Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009) and its companion volume, The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009).


Jul 10, 23:14 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Locus, the financial plight of the midlist author, or any of Gary Westfahl's other observations...

The article can be found here
Jul 11, 05:14 by Chris Wright
Speaking as a middle aged professional who has just completed his first novel, I found this really encouraging. :)

I think it is all a matter of balance. A quick glance to the distance through rose tinted lenses does no harm as long as you enjoy the journey you've embarked upon, and don't fall for the "get rich quick" schemes.
Jul 11, 06:12 by A.R. Yngve
I'm not sure reading LOCUS would convince anyone the writers are rich... have you seen the way those people dress?

Seriously now: rap musicians are way better at "flashing their bling-bling" than writers ever were. (Perhaps because they actually earn much more dough than SF writers.)


Jul 11, 06:25 by David Soyka
I assume this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek? I don't think SF writers are any different than "regular" wriers in that the majority of them do something else to pay the bills -- teach, write technical manuals, temping, carpentry, managing mutal funds, lawyering, newspaper reporting etc. Indeed, one criticism of a lot of so-called literary fiction is that it "sounds" as if it comes out of a workshop or MFA class and that the authors might want to get a real job to fnd out what real life is about before attempting their next story. In any event, I remember as kid reading anthologies where authors were frequently identified as having a primary occupation. I always thought that was kind of cool to know how to do something else besides make up stories.
Jul 11, 12:11 by Bill Lengeman
Saith Irvin S. Cobb - "If writers were good businessmen, they'd have too much sense to be writers."

Jul 11, 14:58 by Lavie Tidhar
I think it makes perfect sense. SF writers should take on jobs as scientists or, even better, astronauts, while horror writers can get closer to real life by joining the police, working as social workers or taking on a challening and fulfilling role in a call centre.

Fantasy writers should obviously turn to politics.

It's a bit more difficult with cross-genre writers - maybe a retired astronaut who became a homicide detective but has now left to run for mayor? Wait - I think I've read that book already...

Jul 11, 19:25 by Rick Hauptmann
What was Westfahl's motivation in writing this article, other than getting an egoboo from seeing himself in print again? Complete drivel. What was IROSF's motivation in printing the article? That is a mindboggling question. Locus and Charlie continue to do a fine job, period.

Rick Hauptmann
Jul 11, 22:23 by Ryan Oakley
This article was snobbery. A real job?
Jul 12, 01:15 by J Andrews
But being part of the oppressed community of science fiction writers is entirely a matter of personal choice, something that its members can easily avoid or escape

It's hardly a choice!

Now, how much is 'nature' and how much is 'nurture' is debatable.

If sf writers are being oppressed, then it's time to rise up and overthrow the oppressors.
Jul 12, 05:14 by John Clute
The analogy with EBONY is hilarious. A note though: EBONY did not create a group of upward mobile people aspiring to membership in a booboisie that would corrode their souls and make them trustees for the underclass they never really left, the readers of EBONY asked for a magazine to legitimate those aspirations. Likewise LOCUS: it is a relatively open forum for the insertion of (fact-checked) news generated by those of its readers who may have something they think appropriate to impart. I think the appalling nature -- as a description of lives worth living -- of what tends to be imparted as news has far more to do with the SFWA's long campaign to "professionalize" the lives of its members than it has to do with LOCUS. (See Kristine Kathleen Rusch's SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA HANDBOOK for details beyond the ability of any satirist to exaggerate.) The professional self-publicists who flood LOCUS with boasting squibs about the size of their advances (etc) are SFWA's children. (Insert names HERE of those whose websites should be tested with a geiger counter modified to detect hype; insert names HERE of writers who display their books across the table in front of them at any panel they're on -- and then mention those books every time they open their mouths, WHATEVER the ostensible topic might be.)

Two small points: the photos in LOCUS of events are far more broad church than Gary suggests; the interviews, around which much of the new "gloss" of the magazine clusters, are similarly far more broad church than Gary allows us to think in his spate.

John Clute
Jul 12, 06:19 by A.R. Yngve
I saw a recent photo of Robert Jordan on the cover of LOCUS. He's one of the most commercially successful writers in the world and even he looks impoverished, judging by the photo.

Is there some sort of "austerity ideal" among American SF writers? "If you've got wealth, don't flaunt it or you might embarrass your poorer colleagues."


P.S.: Clute, I loved Appleseed. Please write more fiction.
Jul 12, 08:45 by Elizabeth Barrette
"I mean a real job. One that offers a young woman a decent salary, health benefits, and a pension plan. A job that requires her to use her brain, and keeps her in contact with other capable and intelligent people who are using their brains. And a job that will, if she is ingenious and determined enough, still allow plenty of time and lots of opportunities for writing. "

In what phantasmagoric iteration of America (or most of the rest of the world) did you find *that* idea, or expect that people will be able to find that kind of a job? In the area where I live, I know people who have been out of a job for *years* not because they are unable or unwilling to work, but because there are no job openings. Getting an ideal job such as you describe is about as likely as selling to Asimov's! Some people manage, but the vast majority are stuck with mediocre jobs, or wretched jobs, or no jobs at all. Jobs are hard to find and hard to hold. *Good* jobs that meet the above criteria are extremely scarce -- and while it would be ideal for writers (or anyone!) to have such jobs, recommending such jobs as if they were readily available just sounds insulting in an article that condemns the over-inflation of expectations.

Elizabeth Barrette
Jul 12, 09:43 by Ceallaigh MacCath-Moran
I am writing this from my dormitory room in East Lansing, Michigan, as I am currently enrolled in the Clarion East workshop. Because of my respect for my fellow authors here, I won't mention any specific demographics of the class. However, I can tell you that as a 37 year-old woman who has paid her dues in the professional world (and then some), I am somewhat representative of this year's group.

Having said that, I don't think any of us, young, mid-career or older have any illusions about the nature of science fiction publishing. Some of us already have small, but respectable portfolios, and we know how hard it was to build them. Those who don’t have not expressed (at least to me) anything but the most appropriate sort of realism about their future careers in writing.

I have read Mr. Westfahl’s article before. It is written once every few years by a different, well-established author in the field. The sentiment crops up occasionally on panels as well, where well-established authors use their positions to discourage new talent by hauling out the hoary, starvation bogey-man. The concern these senior authors express for their junior fellows is, of course, admirable, if indeed genuine concern is the motivator behind said sentiments. However, the sentiment itself is myopic in that it doesn’t take into account the reality of a junior writer’s life, which is, in my experience, taken up with the business of living and not with the business of sitting around waiting to be famous.

Locus does a good job and has a right to show us what is successful about our genre. In addition, those of us who are just starting out in the field, by and large, really do know where our bread is buttered and aren’t going to behave stupidly with regard to our futures. And frankly, I’d rather read Locus’ take on our community than Westfahl’s, because it shows me what is good and achievable about what I do and not what has failed.

I know all about failure my own self.

C.S. MacCath
Jul 12, 11:05 by Bluejack
What was IROSF's motivation in printing the article?

First of all, I did not read Wastfahl's article as an attack on Locus, which some people seem to be taking it as. Nor did I read it as intended as discouragement to aspiring writers. (Note to C.S. MacCath, I also attended Clarion (West) and understand the fine distinction between honest appraisal of the career potential of writing and mean spirited disencouragement.)

I published this article simply because it clearly and entertainingly articulates a different way of looking at both the field and one of the most hallowed institutions of our field.

Given Westfahl's sensitive and balanced understanding of both the plight of new writers, and the state of the field, and also given his obvious appreciation for what Locus is and what it does accomplish, I stand by this article 100%.

That said, I personally appreciate the upbeat nature of Locus. When the facts and charts are gloomy, I think the numbers speak for themselves, and thoughtful readers will draw their own conclusions -- or find their own opportunities in the changing markets.

Finally, I enjoy the juxtaposition of Westfahl's honest look at the field with Ruth and Jay's insightful encouragement.
Jul 12, 13:07 by Philip Kaldon
Read LOCUS for a year and you'll learn a whole lot about the business. About hopeful new ventures and closing down of old ones, of declines in subscribers, of thousands attending WorldCons. It's too easy to just look at the six-figure advance notices and call foul -- they're a part of the news as is the death notices and the announcements of new markets and new issues/books. And all those glossy color photos of ill-clad, not necessarily the most attractive people in the world? Hey, this isn't the articial crap world of PEOPLE magazine, where the rich and famous are miserable, these are friends and family of a whole SF&F world -- who are having a good time in each other's company, doing and reading and talking about the ideas they love. And they're comfortable.

These days, the beginnings of each month are made by the arrival of LOCUS. And then there are the days when I get an e-mail saying, "Hey! There's a new IROSF to check out!"

I need both those days. (grin)

Dr. Phil
Part-Time Physics Professor
Newbie Author With Very Small Publication List
Clarion Class of 2004
Haven't Worn A Tie in Ten Years
Haven't Shaved Since 1 May 1981
Bling-Free Lifestyle
Jul 12, 13:59 by Peter Rich
A very silly article. No one would want to read a magazine that featured a steady diet of stories about failures in any field. And there have been articles about how difficult it is to make money in SF/fantasy (as it is in the writing field generally). Locus is far more balanced than the vast majority of magazines that cover entertainment...
Jul 12, 14:02 by Peter Rich
And to Elizabeth, who says there are no good jobs with benefits, I have four words (other than "the public sector": the health care industry

(of course, you do need at least a BA or nursing degree...)
Jul 12, 23:02 by Marina Stern
Writers who don't sell aren't news, any more than it's news that the sun comes up in the morning. Personally, I'm immensely grateful for the information Locus offers; it was through Locus that I found the magazine to which I made my first two fiction sales. Locus reported the publication, and Locus provided links to the (mostly good) reviews of the piece that has already seen print. I'm not rich, and I'm virtually unknown, but Locus has played more than square by me.
Jul 13, 09:16 by k gaffney
I'm shocked AND appalled. Reading Locus and Ebony in my formative years assured me that success was right around the corner. What will this budding proverty-stricken black writer of speculative fic do?

I feel so betrayed.

The next time I feel like throwing a pity party, I'll ask Mr. Westfahl to play the little violin for me. ;)
Jul 14, 11:00 by Carl Glover
As with much of his writing, Mr. Westfahl is perhaps a shade too harsh in his assessments. But he does make some telling points, in a straightforward and unflinching manner that that has the virtue of consistency and should be employed more widely in the field. Obviously "Locus" wants to glamorize the "profession" of sf writer, both because the people who run the magazine wish it were so and because it legitimizes the existence of the magazine. Probably most aspiring writers who read the magazine know this and are not unduly influenced by it. But I congratulate Mr. Westfahl and "IROSF" for having the courage to publicly address the issue.
Jul 14, 12:57 by Lou Antonelli
I thought it was a pretty entertaining article. Yes, he was mostly kidding, but that sugar-coating helped some unpleasant truths go down - truths that I guess anybody who has spent more than a half hour studying the genre already knows.

I've always thought of Locus as a trade publication, but a fairly readable one, compared to others in the field. Actually, the real "trade publication" is the Market Report that runs in each issue of the SFWA Bulletin.

The problem with sarcasm and satire is that a lot depends on the tone and the delivery - things you don't get with ink or pixels. I though his article was pretty funny, but there were also chuckles of recognition in there, too - and that's usually a sign of incisiveness.

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