Locus Online

Spider Robinson's Screed

Just a few weeks after Norman Spinrad's internet open letter expressing distress with the publishing industry, Spider Robinson issued a similar expression of distress in an open letter posted September 15th. Robinson's concerns focus on the plight of being a mid-list writer in an era of declining advances and print runs.

Spinrad's open letter, available on his web page, describes his dissatisfaction with Bantam's treatment of his two previous books, and offers his new novel, He Walked Among Us, to any US publisher who will publish it "properly" for a $1 advance.

The text of Robinson's open letter follows:

I'd appreciate it a great deal if you would post, forward, link, and/or otherwise disseminate the following screed to all those at alt.callahans, #callahansIRC, the Compuserve SFLIT Forum, AOL's Callahan's Forum, and/or any related sites you can dig up or swing up out de jungle:


"Squeegee That Monitor For You, Sir?"


My toast tonight is, "To writers-may the saints add preservatives to them.

And FAST!"


This is something I swore I would never do.

But I'm too worried not to. The horse I ride on-the publishing industry, never exactly a thoroughbred-has just begun to stumble and cough up blood.

Suddenly I need your help too badly NOT to pull on your coat-tail.

You alt.callahans folk and related accomplices owe me nothing. You have made YOUR Callahan's Place all by yourselves, with no help from me, and I think it is in many ways a better, finer creation than my own-one in its way more wonderful than I COULD HAVE imagined. I'm not trying to call in some nonexistent marker-just asking for a minute of your time. I promise I'll play you out with a song when I'm done, at least, like the last time we spoke. Okay?

Let me try and give you an idea of HOW worried I am:

I have recently given serious thought to what else I might do for a living, besides write books.

No, really. I have even...God, this is hard...I have even contemplated honest work. Of some kind. There must be some trade you can pick up at age forty-eight...right?

As concise a statement of the problem as I can provide:

The publishing business has, in slow stages over the twenty-five years I've been writing, essentially been captured by the same kind of vampires that ruined Hollywood. Freebooters, parasites, looters...oh, come out and say it: SHAREHOLDERS, and their chieftains and goons...who want only to milk the industry-ANY industry-for the maximum possible short-term return, and don't mind at ALL if they bleed it dead in the process, so long as they personally get sufficient advance warning of the crunch. People who-for reasons I will NEVER comprehend-actually WANT to be Very Rich. (People, in other words, who either don't know or don't care whether they themselves are happy or long as they have all the marbles.)

They have the same swing-for-the-fences mentality that is screwing up cinema. All we want here are zillion-dollar superstar blockbusters...and a few "little" pictures in which to groom the superstars of tomorrow. Nothing in between; no second features. In like manner, many of the people making decisions in publishing today would like to have a list consisting of nothing but Clancys and Parkers...and a handful of talented newcomers who might be the NEXT Clancy or Parker, but meanwhile are willing to work for first-novel prices. (I hasten to add that I mean no slightest disrespect to either Tom Clancy or Robert Parker; I picked them because I respect them both highly, and buy their new books on sight.)

This isn't the editors and publishers themselves I'm talking about, either.

Many if not most of them love good books, even now. But their policies are being made for them by the conglomerates that swallowed them up in the last decade or so. Men and women who got into the business for the fundamental purpose of publishing (at least some) books they were proud of, are now working for people whose ONLY guiding principle is the mantra, "Place yourself between the talent and the money." The ultimate, industry-shaping decisions are being made, as in Hollywood, by people who don't give a toasted DAMN about the PRODUCT, much less the producer-slaves. What they want is simple: HUGE profits, NOW. Blockbusters...and good first novels, or hacks who are willing to work REAL cheap.

What they DON'T much want anymore are MID-LIST writers. Quirky scribblers.

Ones with faithful but not mammoth audiences. Ones difficult to sum up to a salesman in Paducah with a one-sentence soundbite. Ones PEOPLE magazine isn't talking about. Ones whose books haven't been a sma-shit (no, that's not misspelled) movie yet. Ones whose works not only reward, but REQUIRE a high-school education and some imagination. Ones who sell well...but not VERY well-or not all in one big lump, but over time.

They'll keep a few around, for show...but only if they're willing to accept a little serious downsizing.

I'm not the only one squawking. At least one colleague recently circulated an urgent open letter similar to this one, triggered when he learned that after over 25 years of award-winning publishing, he can literally no longer sell a book in New York-even to editors who like his work. The sales figures for his last book (and ONLY his last book) just weren't good enough...

Upon reading this, I suddenly became very interested in things I'd never paid any attention to, like my own sales figures and print runs. I was fairly cheered by what few numbers I could find, lurking under concealment on assorted "royalty statements"; my printruns were routinely well over 100,000 copies, always sold well enough to call for at least a second printing, always hit the Locus sf Best Seller list. The rent always got paid-often on time. But lately there has been all sorts of Bad News in the publishing biz, talk of "cutbacks," so I resolved to keep a weather eye out, or peeled, or whatever it is you're supposed to do with a weather eye...

Guess what I just found out? Tor, citing "industry retrenchment," only printed up less than ONE QUARTER AS MANY copies as usual of the latest Callahan paperback, CALLAHAN'S LEGACY.

That's right, a book which carries in it printed acknowledgment of all 60,000+ of you alt.callahans members out there plus all the related forums, channels and groups was not printed in sufficient numbers for HALF of you to buy a copy, should you be so inclined.

They will only go back to press if most of those sell out. Those pitifully few copies, like ALL paperbacks, have a maximum shelf-life of about a month. Tops. In some venues, a week. (If they GET to the shelf at all...)

So here at last is what I'm saying: if you were by any chance thinking of picking up a copy of Spider Robinson's new one-or the new one by ANY author you care about who isn't already a blockbuster superstar-for the love of God, PLEASE DON'T PUT IT OFF! This chance may not come again. If it's not on the shelf, ORDER it....FAST, before they pulp the returns and unshipped copies...

Times have changed. If you love books, you must now start to change your thinking, and come to see them as precious, evanescent fireflies, which flicker briefly and then are no more. If you do not stay alert for them, and grab them on sight, they will probably never be reprinted: the concept of backlist is on its way to the ash-heap. All of us who put words in a row for your enjoyment are in serious no-shit danger, and we need your help and support. I know *I* do.

How much? Let me give you a clue: I LEARNED the above information about my most recent print-run while trying to get an explanation for why the proposal I had submitted to Tor for my NEXT book about Jake Stonebender and his family and friends (working title: CALLAHAN'S KEY) had, after months of puzzling silence, just brought back an offer of...60 percent of what they paid me for the last one. (In devalued dollars.)

Cousins, I was just barely making it at the OLD rates. Until a month ago, when a miracle occurred, I was composing my books-all my work-on a computer which I just saw advertised in MacWorld for US$49 plus shipping. I can't TAKE a 40% pay cut and pay my rent. And at 48, I just haven't got the stamina to go back on the road as a musician; it's a young man's game.

The ONLY lever I can hope to apply is to show a LARGE sell-through for that miserable first printing...and the next (dear God let there BE a next)...and the next...and hope that eventually one of those illiterate but NOT innumerate bean-counters way up on the corporate ladder of unknown strangers who tell the publishers what to do will see numbers he or she likes, and decide that there just might be room for me somewhere on one of the bottom rungs of the Star section. "Knock that cat a living wage..." rather than "Throw a statue where that cat blew..." as Lord Buckley might have it. THEN I'll be able to write you all the next Callahan book...

(And again, I'm not trying to put a knock on Tor. They've showed strong commitment to the Callahan series; this must be the best they can do for me, the way things are these days.)

Christmas will be here all too soon. Why not get your shopping done early...down at the bookstore? They happen to have, or should have, THREE Spider Robinson paperbacks on the shelves at once, just now-another of those wizardly publisher decisions-containing a total of SIX complete Spider Robinson novels between their six covers. (See my website for details- A Sixpack of Spider (and Jeanne)--for under US$22/CAN$30!

And trust me: they won't be there long...

(The combined ad and promo for all three volumes, from two different publishers, has been far less than I'm used to seeing for a single novel in the past. I guess they now want to wait and see how the books sell, before deciding if it's worth advertising them...see what I mean? Typical Hollywood "thinking.")

As Homer and Jethro used to say at the end of every number, "Thanks for your sympathy." I appreciate your listening, and appreciate any help you may be able to throw my way. So-just like the last time I wrote to all you folks-I'm going to play you out with a song, to thank you for letting me jingle my cup.

I was sitting here in my office one night 'round midnight, last month, pecking away, and Jeanne was two open doors away, invisible to me, lying on the couch in the livingroom reading a Zen book...and all of a sudden for no particular reason I looked up and smiled and called out, softly, "I'm aware of you."

And she purred, and stretched on the couch, and called back, "That's a song title." So when I got dressed again and got back to the computer, I wrote it, and by the next day I had the tune right.

Slow ballad, attempted Ray Charles flavor, key of A. It goes:

I'm Aware of You, Jeanne
(c) 1997 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved
I'm aware of you
When I'm busy at my work and you are humming in the parlor
I'm aware of you
We don't have to say a word, I never need any reminder
I'm aware of you
And I care for you
I will be there for you
You're aware of me
You give me what I need most times before I know I need it
You're aware of me
I don't have to slay a dragon just to come to your attention
You're aware of me
And you care for me
You've been there for me
And this house is alive when you're home
When you're gone, it's a pleasant hotel
I don't ask if you're home as I come through the door
I can tell
I can tell...
I'm aware of you
While my mind is chasing characters across the Galaxy
I am aware of you
When I'm rapt at my computer playing poker with myself
I am aware of you
And I care for you
I know you know I do...
You know I know you do...
'Cause I'm aware of you





Well, okay, it IS...but it's a funny DISASTER, for our whole species.

And certainly for
* Spider Robinson
Vancouver, BC
15 September 1997

(posted 26 Oct)

© 1997 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.