Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dues, Paid and Unpaid

You have, as the saying goes, paid your dues, put in your time, done the unglamorous things associated with being an editor, tings such as the long, comprehensive reader reports you needed to write covering all submissions, even from well-established authors, things such as projecting break-even costs and sales projections and of growing importance, potentials for subsidiary rights. Within a short period of time, you experienced your first tidal shift in which a highly paid executive ran off for parts unknown, stiffing a number of antique furniture shops on Robertson Boulevard, a paranoid managing editor had a nervous breakdown, and the ownership of the company changed hands.

In a matter of a week, you were informed that you had not only survived all this sturm und drang, you had achieved for the first time a status you were fated to achieve four more times, each time to progressive horror. You were now listed on company stationery as editor in chief, a promotion that was the equivalent of swallowing a bipolar disorder pill. On the one hand you had the power and support to define the mission of the publishing company. On the other side of the equation, you were frequently required to delegate to others the chores you most enjoyed and considered yourself the best at.

One of the things you did to help establish the clout and reliability of the company was to set to work building lists in the field of science fiction and in mystery/suspense, in some part because you were conversant with these categories (we did not deign to call the genera), but also because, as another saying goes, some of your best friends were mystery and science fiction writers. Not to forget that at the time of which I speak, well received hardcover mysteries and science fiction titles could be counted upon to fetch offers for massmarket reprint here in the U.S. and as well in the UK, Europe, and into India. One of the first projects I signed was a collection of science fiction short stories about robots and androids, called The Pseudo People. Okay, so the editor, compiler, was a friend, who happened to know that I'd written a short story about an android who had a little problem--it liked to eat books. Not just any books, mind you, but rather juicy first editions. The Pseudo-People did indeed achieve a paperback reprint here in the U.S. as well as hardcover and paper editions in the UK, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Germany, and Hungary.

Thrilled with the success, the next venture was a collection called A Wilderness of Stars, which had an all-star cast of contributors, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, and Walter Miller, Jr., who at the time was hot for having done one of the major post-apocalypse novels, set in the American Southwest, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Call it what you will, politics, friendship? Guess who wrote the introduction to A Wilderness of Stars. By no means block busters in the financial sense, both titles brought in good reviews, helped establish the company name with book stores, and brought forth some subsidiary right sales to keep the momentum going. What was needed now was a venture into the field of mystery, suspense.

At the same time I was editor of the undergraduate humor magazine at UCLA, the UC Berkeley magazine was edited by a known writer and fan of pulp science fiction and mystery. Ron Goulart had gone on to the penny-a-word pulps, and by the time I got around to him, he was ready for a venture into the world of books. When I saw his idea, I knew I had to have it.

This collection had some of the defining traits of the early pulp fiction longer story, including my strong favorite from a writer with a tragically short career, Norbert Davis.
The Hardboiled Dicks and the two titles from Frank Gruber I referenced yesterday provided a serious momentum. Time to reach for some stars, starting with Steve Fisher, a close friend of Frank Gruber, and also a veteran from the pulp fiction days, and a major force in the film noir screenplay. From Steve, I got what I consider his finest work, a blend of noir and magical realism, Saxon's Ghost.

From this position of serious intent, I was ready to go after another author recently moved to L.A. for the film and TV industries, having just enough of a taste of both to feel nostalgic about books. As a younger reader, I'd discovered Bill S. Ballinger through a condensation of his fine, A Portrait in Smoke, back in the days when Cosmopolitan was a force in fiction. Over a few drinks at a dinner meeting of The Mystery Writers of America, I had a sense Bill and I could get along, so I swung for the fence. "Bill, how about a suspense novel that breaks all the conventions?" He thought for a few long minutes, drained his bourbon, wrinkled his classic brow, and asked, "What do you know about the Bardo plane?" For a moment, I was stunned, fearful we'd both had more to drink than we needed. Then a sideways thought came to me. "Tibetan Buddhism, right? Isn't that something about the time it takes for a soul to migrate from a body?" Ballinger nodded. "Monday at your office."
And thus the stage was set for one of his finest novels, The Forty-nine Days of Death.

The stage was also set for another noirish detective, Bart Challis, a sort of Frankenstein's monster with distinct origins in the old mystery pulps, with parts from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a bit of the brooding of Ross Macdonald thrown in. Bart Challis was the invention of the journeyman writer, William F. Nolan, best known for Logan's Run.

Those were epic, stepping-stone days across the borders separating generations, technologies, attitudes, and styles.


Lori Witzel said...

At that place in time, distribution channels, while tough and tangled as old vines, provided a clear path for authors to find readers. Not perfect, but a path.

I wonder what your thoughts are on the increasingly diffuse, "open source" world that the internet has spawned, where the paths between writer and reader are both more dynamic and more vaporous, and where -- at least in my opinion -- it is easier for both reader and writer to sit snugly in their micro-niche and not spend time wandering beyond.

Anonymous said...

A Canticle for Leibowitz! Somehow that book found its way into my hands when I was a teenager. I remember being overwhelmed by it and feeling I had stumbled across a truly wonderful book - could not put it down, and it filled my psyche. But I also remember being puzzled because no one else seemed to know about it. I've just looked at the pub date and see that I must have come across it shortly after it was printed. I must go back and look at that book!
- Karen