We live in an age of miracles.
When you look at the current state of technology, of medicine, of transportation, that’s true in general (even if few people realize it), but it’s particularly true when it comes to publishing. I’ve lately been working my way through Barry Malzberg’s Engines of the Night, a collection of essays about the state of science fiction publishing prior to 1980 (republished by Baen as the first part of Breakfast in the Ruins), and wow is it pessimistic. An oft-repeated theme is how many works of high-quality SF never saw print because the magazine publishers simply didn’t have room for them.
For six months in 1968, Malzberg edited the magazines Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories. During that time, Malzberg wrote, he received sixty stories per month that were “as good as or better than anything published in the competing magazines, but could only buy about twenty of them, as well as perhaps fifteen of lower quality—meaning that he had to reject forty stories per month that were better than some he had bought. And even of those stories he did publish, only a few were ever republished elsewhere.
Looking back at this from 1980, Malzberg wrote:
I think of this now and then, think of it in a time when the magazine market is even more constricted and when there are close to a thousand (instead of the five hundred) writers eligible for membership in the SFWA and at least some definition of professionalism. If sixty publishable short stories a month were of necessity being rejected by a bottom-line, penny-a-word market at that time, exactly what is going on now? Worlds of If and Galaxy are gone, Amazing under a new ownership is producing six issues a year (Fantastic is gone), Venture is gone, Playboy no longer does science fiction. Omni and Isaac Asimov’s have appeared, of course, but the overall market is still in debit and there are almost twice as many professional writers, to say nothing of the hordes of creative-writing majors of the seventies driven toward science fiction because the quality lit market no longer exists. And there are the usual host of science fiction fans/readers led naturally through their experience to attempt to write.
What is being lost now? How many stories in oblivion, how many careers unable to begin?
For all that some people rail against the cascades of slush flooding the market now that any damn fool can self-publish anything for free, we only have to look back at Engines of the Night to see the alternative. Apart from Malzberg’s vignettes about publishing rejection, he also discusses various SF authors of the day whose careers ended despite writing just as well as they ever had, and who languished and died in obscurity (or who changed careers to something more profitable, like teaching college), because editors’ tastes had changed and nobody wanted to publish them anymore.
And for all that publishers are worried about Amazon driving them right out of business, writers now have ways to reach audiences—in some cases huge audiences—without needing the services of a publisher at all. And not just for books. If they can’t find a market for their short stories (and the professional magazine markets are even worse now than they were when Malzburg wrote Engines—I could count the remaining major SF/fantasy magazine markets on one hand), they can self-publish those directly, too.
Yes, some of those writers will be lousy, but a lot of them will be ones like those forty Malzberg had to reject as editor—good works that just don’t fit the small number of slots available. With self-publishing, there are infinite slots. The trick is how to find one’s way through all the crap, but as with any obvious problem, plenty of people are working on solutions. At least some of them will work.
Sure, it’s still a great big crapshoot and nobody’s guaranteed success—but at least this way the determinant of success is whether or not people can be convinced to buy the book, not whether some publisher rejects it for failing to fit the cookie-cutter mold of what they think will sell so the readers never even get that chance.
The current e-publishing world is replete with opportunity. And yet some people look at writers taking advantage of those opportunities and think they’re being “forced” to write more. I tend to suspect that, given the chance, writers would rather be more often read (and paid) than not.