About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #8, Martial Law Pt 1

Military sf has been part of my existence as a literary agent for most of my career.

My first author in the genre was Bill Baldwin. Bill was a very, very successful author for Warner at a time when it didn't have a particularly successful sf program. There was Warner, then there was Questar, then there was Aspect, then there wasn't much, and eventually when the French publishing conglomerate Hachette came along and purchased Warner Books, they imported Tim Holman, who had done a great job building the Orbit UK list, moved the sf program from Warner to Little Brown/Grand Central, and have since had much better results. Not so back then, the Warner program wasn't much, and Bill and his Helmsman books were rare projects that would be displayed at the front of the bookstores. The Helmsman series was classic in its appeal, the lead character Wilf Brim a man's man of a space captain with a life full of women and adventure.

Working with Bill was one of the experiences that taught me that the first batches of royalty statements in the old days, before breaking out of reserves against returns, were good pretty much for toilet paper. The first statements would always be for really small numbers for books that were plastered at the front of bookstores, but mostly because there were 50% or 70% reserves or who knew how much, so if you looked just at those Bill was always magically in the midst of a collapsing career until two years later when the publisher stopped taking reserves and lo and behold the sales were nicely in line with all the earlier books.

When I went off on my own to start JABberwocky, Bill was incredibly supportive, except that he decided to go back to agent he had been with before joining Scott Meredith, who had lots of wonderful good ideas. Those ideas ended up being along the lines of "let's sell the next book in the Helmsman series!" Bill ended up coming back to the JABberwocky fold a few years later.

We still didn't have the best relationship. I tried hard to break him into the mainstream with a WWII thriller, but wasn't able to sell it. And I've always felt there are times that the best deals are the ones you don't do, that sometimes rights are valuable just sitting in the drawer until better things come along, while Bill really very much wanted to have his books "in print" even if it meant putting a book into iUniverse or with a smaller publisher on unfavorable terms. So we ended up parting ways again.

There would be an audience for the Helmsman books on Kindle, I expect. Those aren't available, but you can find the thriller of his that I wasn't able to sell available on Amazon, along with some of those small-press reissues and audios that I wasn't so fond of having. And if you think you like classic military sf, you'd probably have a good time with these.

Rick Shelley was my next military sf author. He'd started his career with stories in Analog and in Terry Carr's Universe anthologies (if you don't know Terry's name, he was the editor not just of the great Universe series but of the Ace Specials line, which discovered just a few wee important books to the field like Neuromancer by William Gibson and The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the very important editors in the history of sf/f, Terry was).

Rick is a little like Ronald Kelly, an author whose native gifts weren't as prodigious as for some, but who made the very very very best of them. The main thing with Rick, his batting average was really awful. For every published novel of his, there's probably one that wasn't and to be honest, shouldn't have been. It's not the nicest thing to have to say in one of my anniversary musings, but I think it's worth saying because it's an important thing for a writer to know, that you can have a long career and sell dozens of novels but still have a rough patch or an off outing, or can occasionally divert to something to try and stretch your aims and ambitions (though doesn't hurt to be prepared to return to home base if you need to), that you can have a relationship with an agent that can last even if there is sometimes a book that the agent can't sell or perhaps won't want to try selling. There are many kinds of careers in publishing, and they don't all consist of selling every word you write without anguish or setback.

And the books I liked of Rick's, I liked them. The first novel if his I sold, which wasn't the first novel that he sent to the Scott Meredith agency, it was something like the 4th or 5th (another lesson worth repeating for new writers, your first published novel is often not going to be the first novel you write, even some of my biggest clients like Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett have learning experiences on their hard drive), was Son of the Hero, the first book in the Varayan Memoir fantasy series. I think it would make a good movie, it's a good example of a very archetypal story about the kid who finds there's something more to his life than he knows about. The trilogy will soon be available in JABberwocky e-book.

After an interesting attempt at Moorcockian fantasy (The Wizard at Mecq, The Wizard at Home), Rick found his calling writing military sf, but again not without some ups and downs along the way. His Lucky 13th series did pretty well, his Buchanan novels somewhat less well. But when I read Officer Cadet, I knew this was something that could be destined for bigger things. I encouraged the editor at Ace to follow the model Warner was using for David Feintuch, which they did, and the DMC series, which is now available on e-book, really took off.

Neither Rick nor I was making so much money back then that we could afford to travel a lot, and I met Rick only once at the 2000 WorldCon in Chicago. We had a very tasty lunch at Pizzeria Due. It was an especially enjoyable lunch because the DMC books were doing very well, Rick was tasting true success for the first time in his life, and we had things to be happy about.

And then a few months later, Rick was dead. Massive heart attack in the hotel lobby at Chattacon the following January.

It was strange, because Rick had always been very aware of his own mortality, that his father had died young and the men in his family died young. And then Rick died in his early 50s, with only a couple years of enjoying success when he really should've had the opportunity to enjoy it for another 20 or 30 years.

And the odd thing is, for all the books Rick wrote that I didn't like, there are books he wrote that I wish were published (the third book in his Wizard series, which was completed and cancelled), books he proposed that I wish he could have written (the sequel series to the Varayan Memoir books), and all in all still a feeling of loss. And something like the third book in the Wizard series, that was written in the mid-1990s, I doubt I even still had that pile of paper in the office five years later, because why would I keep it around? And I didn't talk to his mom or his sister about doing an instant recovery mission for any old manuscripts or old diskettes. Must check if any of that's still laying around somewhere...

You can click here to find your way to the available JABberwocky e-books from Rick Shelley, six as of July 21 and more coming.

Maybe I'll have a chance before the slower summer months give way to the much busier fall months to continue the JABberwocky military sf story...

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