Monday, January 21, 2013

The Truth About Science Fiction Writers


Years ago, at a convention, I was spinning out one of my favorite fantasies about how pleasant it would be if there were such a thing as a mainstream literary conventions:  Big-name guests of honor, panels on the New Realistic, and so on.  Gordon Van Gelder listened patiently, and then said, "Nobody could afford it."

"Eh?" I said.

"Mainstream writers charge for public appearances.  It's a major part of how they make a living."

There then ensued a multi-person conversation on the economics of mainstream author appearances which I'll spare you because I remember none of the specifics, but which would have made a good panel, had it been premeditated.

Science fiction conventions are an accident of history.  Hugo Gernsback put letters columns in his magazines to boost circulation, and included the addresses in them.  Scientifiction enthusiasts started writing letters to each other, and thus fandom was born.  Fans wanted to get together, and so they created conventions.  Many of these fans were also writers and so editors like John W. Campbell were available for the conventions.  Science fiction writers got no respect from the literary world, so they were pleased to show up and be lionized.  Add time, shake, and you have what we have today.

Similarly, due to this accident of history, science fiction writers have a long history of helping other writers learn how to write and how to sell.  This is not how it works in the larger literary world, alas.  As a group, genre writers are nicer to each other than mainstream writers are.

This all comes to mind because at the Pen & Pencil club the other day, Gardner Dozois said, "Do you know how much money George R. R. Martin made last year?  I wouldn't mention it, except that I saw it in a newspaper, so it's a matter of public record."  Then he mentioned a number that was, let's say, remarkably large.

We were sitting at a table of writers and journalists and one nano-publisher, and after we'd discussed this matter for a bit, Tom Purdom remarked, "Do you see how remarkable this is?  We have a group of writers discussing the financial good fortune of a friend -- and nobody's said a bad word about him!"

Which made us all feel pretty good about the cohort we belong to.  Somebody raised a glass and proposed a toast:  "To George R. R. Martin!"

"To George R. R. Martin!" everybody cried, and drank to his health and continued prosperity.

It was a good moment, and I for one was grateful to George for it.



Margaret Organ-Kean said...

Childrens' illustrators and writers charge for school appearances. It never occurred to me to charge until I was in a mail list where they mentioned it.

Fran Friel said...

A good moment, indeed. :)

skyknyt said...

From the GRRM signings I've been to, I'm always amazed at how friendly and jovial he is with everyone present, willing to chat with people personally on their favorite parts of his books. I'm not surprised it's the same with his fellow writers. What a nice guy!

GordonVG said...

Did I also mention that editors are paid exorbitant fees to be quoted in blog posts?

Michael Swanwick said...

Send me an invoice and I'll get right on that, Gordon.

Michael Swanwick said...

Skyknyt, George is a good guy. I note that he's teaching at Clarion West this year, which s tremendous amount about him. A week at CW is a LOT of work and the money can't mean much to him at this stage of his career. He's just doing it because he's a Mensch.

Neil_in_Chicago said...

I was once in a con suite with Chip/Samuel R. Delaney GoH, whom I see as sort of Our Man in LitCrit land, and he was saying that if you get published in an important little magazine you get tearsheets and _maybe_ a letter. When he goes to parties with those people, in Manhattan, if he tells them he can go to a party with 800 people [the size of the con] who have all read his work and are more than happy to tell him everything they think about it, they are green with jealousy.
Our democracy is unique.

Unknown said...

I've made it point to point out stuff like this along with the very special and awesome relationship SF fans have with SF authors, and the fact the SF writers do not charge a fee for coming to SF cons in all my (numerous) appearances in media as part of SFeraKon PR. Although I did insist that Croatian mainstream literary festivals (who became interested in SF writers as a result of my acticities) that SF writers should be treated as any other writer when invited to a professional, mainstream, non-volunteer run event. I think it is only fair.

Meerkatdon said...

In the interests of full disclosure, it's not uncommon for attending writers to get free memberships to a con; sometimes we also get a free (or reduced-rate) membership for a spouse.

And Guests of Honor traditionally get travel and hotel expenses paid by the con.

For signatures, David Gerrold used to request a dollar donation to a charity. I don't know if he still does that.

Those are all the examples I can come up with.

Michael Swanwick said...

Meerkatdon, only in science fiction would these be considered inducements: Put in several hours of intellectual labor and you won't have to pay for the privilege of doing so. Let us use you as a draw for our convention and work like a horse all weekend and we'll pay your expenses. Only in science fiction would we feel we should mention these as mitigating factors.

I didn't know about Gerrold and the dollar charity contribution, but I've seen relatively minor TV actors charge ten dollars for an autograph and then pocket the moneh. So I can't think badly of him for it.

The fact that you think full disclosure requires that we mention such things speaks very well of you and by extension the rest of us.

So, um, well, good on you.

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