Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Writing Biz Then and Now

Over the years I’ve had a fair number of tales included in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover and “Sword and Sorceress” anthologies. Recently her estate (which is still publishing Sword and Sorceress volumes) sent me the pleasantly surprising news that they’re posting all the stories for sale individually as e-books on Naturally, they requested electronic files of the stories if possible. The first lesson I learned from this offer is that one should, ideally, store all writing-related computer files permanently in currently readable formats. All I could find were the two latest Sword and Sorceress tales. Fortunately, the MZB editors are willing to scan the older pieces. They also offered to upload any previously published works I wanted included, even if they hadn’t appeared in an MZB book, so I sent them two stories that hadn’t been reprinted elsewhere. Now, I thought I still had at least the more recent Darkover stories in readable electronic form. I had doubts about the ones dating back to the days of WordPerfect 5.1 in DOS, but at least there was a chance MS Word could convert them. Because of a major rearrangement of our home office not too long ago, though, those old disks apparently vanished into a box, which I can’t find. Did it ever cross my mind that I could possibly need to revisit those archaic files? No, but now I’ve learned that one never knows when an old, almost forgotten piece of writing may become a potential source of fresh income. At least one of the Sword and Sorceress stories, “Late Blooming,” is posted on already; that and all my titles available from Fictionwise can be found by searching the site under “Margaret Carter.”

Another small project also reminded me of how writing for publication has changed since I started. The Horror Writers’ Association newsletter wants essays on the theme of “My First Book,” about the author’s introduction to the world of professional publication, so I’m thinking of writing one. My first book, when dinosaurs walked the Earth, was an anthology of vampire stories, intended to provide a chronological overview of the genre, starting with Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (early nineteenth century). I considered this project to be filling a need because I didn’t know of any other vampire anthologies, and in fact there weren’t many in print at that time. At age 22, I was completely ignorant of the publishing business. All I knew was that submissions had to be typed (double-spaced on one side of the paper) and include a SASE. Fawcett held the submission package for over a year without a reply. Sadly, in dealing with many mass market publishers, the typical wait time hasn’t changed much. I sent a follow-up query (in the form of a “why haven’t you written” funny greeting card, something I would never dare to do now). Fawcett immediately offered me a paperback contract for CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. One big difference between then and now is that today an unknown, unpublished editor could never sell an anthology to a mass market publisher. (As far as I’ve seen, it’s a hard sell for an editor WITH a track record, unless partnered with one of the major anthology packagers.)

Another difference is, of course, that home computers didn’t exist. If revisions were requested, one had to type the material over. Scanning texts or saving them electronically wasn’t an option. An anthologist sent photocopies of stories to be reprinted, which the publisher set in type from scratch the old-fashioned way, hard as that is to imagine now. That procedure had advantages for an editor who might want to reprint a long out-of-print work—no nonsense about having to scan the text into a file and clean up the resulting mess. Getting manuscripts into printable form was the PUBLISHER’S job. Nowadays, although e-publishing has been a wonderful boon for authors in many ways, it has the downside that almost every publisher requires its own house-approved format for book files, which the author is expected to provide. (When did the author become the designated typesetter, I sometimes silently fume while struggling with the arcane so-called “Help” provided by MS Word?) Unfortunately, one factor hasn’t changed much in all these decades—the pay rate. For my first two books, two anthologies from Fawcett, I received an advance of $2000 each (half of which was to be divided among contributors). Some paperback publishers still offer advances of only $4000 per book, merely doubled in over 30 years. Meanwhile, costs of books, gasoline, cars, and houses, just to name a few items for which I know the approximate prices, have risen tenfold.

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