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Robert Silverberg on “Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?”

Friday, July 9th, 2010 | Posted by Robert Silverberg

silverbergIn a post on his blog last week, Canadian science fiction author Robert Sawyer asked “Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?

When I broke into the business 55 years ago you could count the number of full-time science fiction writers who could pay the rent and eat regular meals on the fingers of one oddly proportioned hand. Poul Anderson, Gordy Dickson, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Robert Sheckley, maybe Jack Vance, and….well, who else? Jack Williamson? Perhaps he had begun teaching by then. Asimov was still a college professor who wrote s-f on the side. Ted Cogswell was a professor also. So was James Gunn. Phil Dick was a full-timer, but lived at the poverty level. Sturgeon didn’t do much better. Del Rey dabbled in editing and occasional agenting. Harry Harrison did editing work, wrote comics, whatnot. Leiber was an editor for Science Digest. Jim Blish wrote p-r stuff for the tobacco institute. Cyril Kornbluth worked for a wire service. Fred Pohl edited and agented. Alfred Bester wrote for the slicks and TV. I’m not sure what Phil Klass did for a living — he wasn’t teaching yet — but he couldn’t have lived on the proceeds of what he wrote. Kuttner and Moore — I don’t know; they did venture somewhat into television and mystery novels.Leigh Brackett was a part-time Hollywood writer and her husband Edmond Hamilton earned most of his living writing comic books. Mack Reynolds and Fred Brown had fled to Mexico, where a dime went as far as a dollar did here.

It just wasn’t a field for full-timers. I didn’t really know that, so I plunged right in and made a good living, but I did it by dint of writing and selling a couple of short stories a week, and even then the field vanished from under me by 1958 and I had to turn to all sorts of non-sf writing until things began to revive in the mid-1960s. The same happened to Harlan, and then he got drafted, and when he came out he went to Chicago to edit and on from there to Hollywood.

Now we are back to the same situation that obtained in the golden era of the Fifties — s-f is mainly a field for hobbyist writers, with just a few able to earn a living writing just the real stuff and nothing but. (It is different, of course, for those who write pseudo-Tolkien trilogies, vampire novels, zombie books, and other sorts of highly commercial fantasy.) For a while, in the late 70s and early 80s, the money flowed freely and all sorts of people set up in business as s-f writers full time. I remember Greg Bear, president of SFWA somewhere back in the mid-80s, warning the writers at the SFWA business session not to quit their day jobs, because the good times were just about over; and was he ever right!

14 Comments »

  1. First, let me say it’s a total thrill to have Bob Silverberg blogging at BLACK GATE. I’m nerding out, here people! :)

    For those of us who have been “breaking in” to the writing biz for ten or twenty years now, this comes as no surprise. The rule of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror writing game is definitely “don’t quit your day job.” Especially if you haven’t launched a successful novel. Short stories are rewarding creatively but they pay peanuts compared to what it costs to pay rent and eat three squares a day. Oh, for the days when Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith could actually pay ALL their bills by writing for the pulps! I can’t imagine…

    A few years ago I had an epiphany when I discovered the joy of teaching…teaching literature became a new passion for me, one that supports and enables my ongoing goals of writing. Summers and holidays are prime writing time for me. And when I’m not writing my own stuff, I’m usually teaching/analyzing/discussing great works of literature. Nobody gets rich teaching, but it’s the best job I ever had, and it fits my writing career like a glove.

    It seems that MOST novelists these days are otherwise employed. It took Jeff Vandermeer about 23 years to get to the point where he is now making a living from his writing (and he still teaches occasionally). The only writers who get to “go full-time” anymore are those who:

    a) Write best-seller or best-selling series (i.e. J.K. Rowling and the like)

    and/or

    b) Sell their novel to Hollywood for a huge paycheck (and often these checks aren’t really all that big)

    The idea of writing full-time remains an elusive dream…no different from that writer who tries for years to sell the first screenplay…or that band down the street that’s trying to get signed to a decent record deal.

    I feel about writing the same way I feel about teaching: It’s a calling, not a job. Nobody except the naive does it for the money. We write because we HAVE to, not because anybody wants us to.

    It’s a form of madness…but what a glorious and wonderful madness it is.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 9, 2010 8:21 pm

  2. If you were to create a list of SF writers today who can probably earn a living from writing, who would be on the list?

    Comment by Mark Lord - July 12, 2010 5:11 am

  3. This subject came up in a thread on the Asimov’s bbs a week or so ago. I’ll post pretty much the same thing here that I posted there:

    I made about $20k last year as a full-time fiction writer (with a little editing), yet I live in comfortable houses (in some beautiful parts of the world — right now I’m in Australia) and I never have to worry about paying a phone bill or having the heat and power cut off. My secret: I gave up having a home of my own in the fall of 2007 and since then I have also been a full-time housesitter.

    That’s the state of play (and pay) in this business today. And, by many standards (a dozen or so books published, three more contracted to write, forty-odd stories sold to pro-paying mags), I’m an established success in sf.

    Go figure.

    An economist would say that I’m addressing the problem from the demand side, rather than the supply side.

    Comment by Matt Hughes - July 13, 2010 6:22 am

  4. Not Jack Vance, except in a peculiar way. In the 1950s Vance was a card-carrying union carpenter. But when he made a significant sale, he and Norma would take the money and travel. When the money ran out, it would be back to the Bay Area and honest work. In 1955, Vance had recently returned from Mexico where he and Frank Herbert had resided with their families for several months, hoping to live inexpensively as writers; but neither made any sales and they eventually returned to California. In 1955 he was fulfilling his first contract (with Ballantine) for an adult SF novel (published as To Live Forever, 1956). Other than that, for the remainder of the decade he sold The Languages of Pao (1957, magazine, hardcover, and paperback) and a handful of stories to the SF digests. It wasn’t until the 1960s that his SF writing career got its second breath (The Demon Princes series beginning 1964, Planet of Adventure series 1968). In the late ’60s he returned from another jaunt overseas and discovered that he had more money in the bank than when he had departed. From that date he became a fulltime SF/F writer.

    Comment by dbwilyumz - July 13, 2010 1:29 pm

  5. There is a lot of truth in this posting. Though, I think it’s been quite a while since “pseudo-Tolkien trilogies” were considered “highly commercial.”

    Whatever sells well is, by definition, commercial. Anyone who has ever made a full-time living as a writer was, at the time, writing “highly commercial fiction.”

    The trouble is, what’s commercial changes from decade to decade, if not year to year. Anyone who made a killing selling high-carb snacks in the 80s is probably feeling a bit panicky right now if they’ve not changed their primary product.

    At the risk of beating a dead horse, my feeling is that I can either choose to market a product with the hopes of pleasing a large audience, or I can be content producing a product that is meant for myself and a few kindred spirits… and not expect to make a living at it. I can’t be dismissive of the tastes of the general reading population and at the same time relieve them of their equally hard-earned money.

    Comment by mishellbaker - July 14, 2010 11:11 am

  6. A friend linked to this blog in my Book Moguls forum at Delphi Forums.

    I think the decreasing interest in sci-fi is due to the time in which we live. We have to remember, a major part of what made sci-fi so appealing was what was going on during the early years. The turn of the century saw the the popularity of the car starting to take off, flight was something new, exciting and impossible, but here it was; man was flying!

    The 40′s during WWII, again, people’s imaginations were starving for good sci-fi. Due to what was going on on the world scene, fiction about attacks from alien races, space wars and the like would have been extremely popular.

    Then, the war goes away, the automobile and flight become standard, everyday stuff and in the 50′s sci-fi cools off. Then all of a sudden, in the 60′s, “Hey, let’s go to the moon!”

    Boy o boy, how exciting! Our imagination runs wild again! Through the mid-to-late 60′s mankind is rivited to their radios and TVs, gobbling up all the amazing accounts of trips around orbit, space walking then in 1969, we’re on the moon! Is there life there? What does it mean? What does this hold out for teh future??

    The 70′s, space flights and moon landings continue. The momentum carried through the 80′s somewhat, but soon, there was nothing else new, exciting happening anymore. Thus, the thirst for sci-fi slowly fades as our collective excitement regarding space exploration stalls. We expected to go to Mars, and beyond. To discover life other than our own. Nothing of the sort would happen.

    For sci-fi to thrive again, we need our space program or some incredible new advancement to ignite our collective imaginations again. Unless that happens, sci-fi will continue the slow descent into obscurity.

    Comment by BulletProofPoet - July 15, 2010 10:51 pm

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  9. Science fiction is not only about space travel. I currently see countless ‘new advancements to ignite our collective imaginations’–or devancements, to propose a new term. Nanotech, biotech, communications, weaponry and digital warfare, genetic engineering… It’s life on Earth now that is the new frontier of science fiction, and even life within ourselves.

    The best current example is Paulo Bacigalupi’s first novel The Windup Girl winning the Nebula Award (Gibson’s Neuromancer would be a past example). It’s about a near future world dominated by Biotech corporations, the genetic manipulation of organisms, especially humans, new–and lower-tech–energy sources, and drastic climate change.

    So I don’t think there is a lack of material to stimulate the public imagination. Science fiction dominates in the movies (Avatar!), and it can continue to capture the public imagination in books, perhaps more than ever. Many people are quietly overwhelmed by the pace of scientific and technological change (called Future Shock), and perhaps SF helps them understand and cope and adjust somewhat, even while it entertains. Star Trek had nothing like the iPhones out now.

    Bradbury and LeGuin used SF to explore human themes and issues, perhaps today’s SF writers can use it to secretly help readers understand and adjust to the accelerating pace of change, both positive and negative. Future Shock Therapy! For all of their time on Earth, select people have projected change into the future, but now the implications are so obvious that everyone does it. Let the SF writers do it better than anyone else–while still exploring the human condition, like RB and UKLG, and our market stays alive and viable.

    Comment by greggarious - July 18, 2010 2:27 pm

  10. [...] Robert Silverburg himself responded to the question. [...]

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  11. [...] back to Black Gate. Robert Silverberg (yes, him) has posted his own blog response about the subject raised by Mr. Sawyer. Then, Jerry Pournelle joined the [...]

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  14. [...] novels to his name, largely unknown except inside the genre. As Robert Silverberg observed in his famous comments on full-time SF writers, ” Phil Dick was a full-timer, but lived at the poverty [...]

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