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Saturday, June 5, 2021

Notes towards a manifesto • 3

 

In one of my recent web conferences I was asked, “What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?”

That one caught me a bit flat-footed. I tap-danced around the point and eventually gave my usual flippant reply, but seriously, I don‘t know that I can distill it down to one piece of advice. 

I have a lot of advice I could give, that I usually find it best to keep to myself. The reason is that it’s all based on my experiences as a beginning and developing writer in the land of long ago and far away, and that world doesn’t exist anymore. 

You, writing now, are trying to build your careers in a new world, one very different from the one in which I planted and grew my own writing career. For one thing, it is truly a world now, not just a single country on a single continent. 

When I was a short story writer in the 1980s, there were around a half-dozen genre magazines in the U.S. that paid “pro” rates to authors and sold around one hundred thousand copies each, every month. (The numbers were continuously in flux as new magazines were being launched and old magazines being put out of their misery all the time.) 

More significantly to me, it was overwhelmingly an American market. Due to the requirement that would-be contributors had to type and mail paper manuscripts to submissions editors, UK, Australian, and European writers were pretty much excluded from the American market, so there were far fewer writers competing for those publication slots. Editors couldn’t just stick to buying stories from well-known big-name authors, either. There simply weren’t enough well-known big-name authors writing new SF/F short stories to keep the magazine publication pipelines full…

Because all the well-known big-name authors were off writing novels, as that’s where the real money was.

The novel market then was very different, too. Back then there were at least a dozen major publishers with healthy lines of hardcovers and mass-market paperback originals, all competing for shelf space in the indie and chain bookstores. This led to a standard career progression almost every genre writer followed: 

  1. Write short stories until you break into the “pro” magazine market.
  2. Write and sell more short stories until you became a well-known name.
  3. Sign the standard “Rich & Famous” contract with a book publisher.
  4. Graduate to writing novels and never look back!

Again, this was overwhelmingly an American market. There was another world out there, of foreign publishers and translations and reprint rights and all that—and to tell the truth, there were years I made a lot more money off foreign translations and reprints than I did off new American sales—but still, the business of SF/F publishing was overwhelmingly an American genre.

But that’s all gone now.

So that’s the first piece of advice I would give to new writers. Never forget: it’s a world market now. 

...to be continued...

—Bruce Bethke

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