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Writing Fantasy

 
Wizard Oil
  by Carol Pinchefsky
January 2008

Is There Nepotism in Science Fiction?

Although science fiction and fantasy is a genre of far-flung universes, the business itself is actually a small world. Tiny, actually. With a little over 50 professional novel and story markets (http://www.sfwa.org/org/qualify.htm#Q4), some of which have only two or three staff members, every editor working in science fiction and fantasy today knows almost every other editor.

Editors mingle with each other, as well as professional and fledgling writers, publishers, agents at science fiction conventions and other events. Many of them have longstanding personal as well as business relationships, including traveling together, sharing hotel rooms, and dating, marrying, and sometimes divorcing one another.

Add fans into the mix, some of whom have been attending conventions and meeting their favorite writers and editors for decades, and well, the word "incestuous" springs to mind.

Because of this ultra-socialization in the genre, editors tend to buy stories and novels from people that they often already know, at least tangentially.

Does knowing an editor personally -- and buying him a round at the bar -- increase a writer's chances of getting published? Are editors swayed by the charms of friendship and the chance to write off every lunch as a business expense? Is there favoritism in science fiction?

Making business decisions while trying to navigate the query-infested waters of personal relationships is not a problem, according to David Hartwell, but it certainly is a concern. The senior editor at Tor books says, "There is a lot of ethical questioning that has to go on internally in the science fiction field precisely because everybody knows everybody. You have to be operating according to some standards of professionalism, and to feel as if you can defend yourself objectively on those decisions."

But not all editors internally question their ethics or bow to art as a higher authority: one editor of a major publication house gave his girlfriend, an author, a large advance and bragged to his colleagues about making his next house payment. However, the editors I interviewed said they all made their decisions based on what they felt was right.

Scott Edelman, editor of SciFi Weekly and former editor of Science Fiction Age says, "My feeling is that if you owe that allegiance to a higher authority, the art is more important than friendships and lovers and anything else you have to deal with."

Stanley Schmidt, editor for Analog magazine, says, "I don't dare make my choices on any basis except how well I think my readers will like the story in front of me; if I did, I wouldn't last very long." Buying a story based on one's friendship with the writer, rather than the quality of the writing, not only does the reader a disservice, but also can call into question the editor's taste.

This nepotism does not merely favor friends and close family. Name authors may also get preferential treatment, based on their fame.

Edelman shared an old quote from the late author Damon Knight. "…Tony Boucher mentioned casually that in a recent issue of F&SF, there was only one story that he had bought solely because of the author's name. I thought that was one too many. Famous names may help sell a magazine; they don't always, but if they do, it's because those writers have written good stories in the past. Every time you publish a poor story by a famous writer, you diminish the value of that name and defeat your purpose."

Edelman rejected famous authors (like the late Jack Williamson) because he did not care for the submission. And most editors read the submissions of the people they personally dislike with as much professional distance and clarity as they can manage. "I bought stories at Science Fiction Age from people who I know didn't like me," he says. "You have to buy stories from your worst enemy, and you have to reject your closest friends."

Editors who do buy their friends' work are not always emotionally rewarded for their decision. Ace senior editor Susan Allison finds working with friends difficult for one reason: "I would be less inclined to take a flyer on someone that I cared about, because I would fear failing them more." Allison finds this close relationship a potential cause of distress when a book written by a friend fails to sell. "I'm not convinced that the fact that we all know and like each other is much more than a cause for heartbreak, to be perfectly honest about it."

This potential heartbreak does not stop authors from chatting up editors. Author Jay Lake meets with editors at every convention because "one-on-one time with an editor can speed existing negotiations, smooth over old squabbles, or just facilitate mutual understanding. We are monkeys after all -- we want to see the other guy's teeth."

Developing and maintaining friendships with editors has not, "not that I could ever tell," helped Lake crawl his way out of the slush pile and onto the printed page. "I got a lot further with building name recognition via reviewing, editing, and steady submission. Still, being a known quantity -- and a friendly fellow -- never hurts," he says.

With all of this socializing, networking, and general schmoozing occurring at the right parties at the right conventions, one may wonder if writers who lurk outside this inner circle have a chance at selling their manuscripts.

Hartwell says, "Sometimes you buy from people you are not acquainted with, but most often you buy from people you know, you sell to people you know."

"On the other side of the coin," Schmidt says, "I [more often] reject stories from people I know and like -- and they reject mine."

"Knowing an editor only gets you so far," says author Andrea Kail, who is personally acquainted with at least two editors. "If you know an editor, it would be like taking an express elevator, but if you're talented, you're still on that elevator." Although she has published two short stories, neither of them have been to her friends' market.

Nepotism also works in reverse: although an author is qualified, an editor may reject his/her story or book because of a prior relationship.

Edelman, an assistant editor at Marvel Comics in the mid 1970s, was the first person to hire award-winning artist John Romita Jr., whose father at the time was the art director of Marvel. Edelman said that the other Marvel editors would not give JRJ work because they did not want to be seen hiring John Romita's son. He told JRJ at the time, "The one thing I hate more than nepotism is anti-nepotism -- not giving someone who's qualified a chance because they're related."

Perhaps to sidestep the question of favoritism when reading manuscripts, editor D.F. Lewis at Nemonymous magazine accepts anonymous submissions and publishes short story collections without crediting the author; the next collection includes the author's bylines from the previous collection.

Edelman knows that editorial decisions can't be made based on whether or not he happens to be friends with a writer. "It has to be about the work."

However, these friendships are born of common interest: editors respect talented writers, and writers adore editors who like their work. So editors do not buy books and stories from their friends . . . but they have friends who happen to be talented writers.

Allison believes these very close relationships among professionals is an occupational hazard shared with other genres. "Those things are standard for a business that tends to involve groups of people that are relatively small and have common interests [. . . like the genres of . . .] romance and mystery." However, the Mystery Writers of America have almost 100 professional markets, and romance writing outsells science fiction almost 3 to 1. Science fiction writers have fewer chances to make sales, and impressing an editor just enough for them to put a face to the name on the manuscript, even when the editor rejects it, is satisfying enough for some.

Science fiction is a genre that pays in emotional rewards rather than financial: the chance to create great writing that resonates for years. By impressing editors who eschew favoritism, authors can take pride in knowing that publication really is the result of their work.

As Hartwell said, "In the science fiction field you have to believe it's the work that matters . . . because it certainly isn't about the money."

*

And speaking of everyone knowing everyone else in the genre, Carol Pinchefsky has previously interviewed both Jay Lake and Stanley Schmidt for Writer's Market. She has edited for David Hartwell at the New York Review of Science Fiction and has written for Scott Edelman at SciFi Weekly. She knows Andrea Kail socially. But she has never met Susan Allison.


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