Wednesday, July 14, 2010

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

Son of ManScience Fiction Grandmaster Robert Silverberg (whose Star of Gypsies and Son of Man we reprinted), at the Black Gate blog:

"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!"


Mark Chadbourn said...

I like the distinction he makes between SF and "highly commercial fantasy". Is he implying that SF cannot be commercial? That's quite an admission. What makes something commercial is not the genre but the ability to communicate.

Lou Anders said...

In the full piece he shows how most of the greats of the golden age held day jobs, SF became briefly a genre in which a writer could work full time, and is now returning to its original state. Mind you, he is saying this. I am merely running up a flag to see who salutes and who shoots.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

I enjoyed reading Silverberg's piece, but I do get confused by some of the apparently contrary pieces of information flying about the web concerning the professional writing life: I just read Dean Wesley Smith's articles on writing full-time, and he suggests that, in fact, a great deal of authors than is generally believed do make a living wage from writing (the main article is at So, y'know, I can't figure out which one is right, or if they're both wrong, or both kind of wrong or kind of right, or if it really just comes down to individual circumstances. Either way, it's a fascinating debate.

Joe Abercrombie said...

He basically seems to be saying:

"It is different, of course, for those who write things that people actually want to read..."

Which I suppose would have to therefore include Al Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Iain Banks and so on. I don't actually believe it is much different for those of us trotting out pseudo-tolkien dross, there are still a few writers that make a full time living, and a lot that are part-time or virtual hobbyists. It was ever thus. Bigger market, more competition. It seems to me a bit glib to imply that to write a successful book you just write in a successful genre. Damn tomato farmers, if only I grew tomatoes, instead of the potatoes I love, you can bet I'd be brilliant at it. Surely what you have to do in any genre is write a book that strikes a chord with a wide readership (that communicates, as Mark puts it). Easily said, not at all easily done. If hard sci-fi isn't selling well (and big, brash space opera seems to be in pretty rude health, far as I can tell, so we're talking about hard sci-fi here) it's because the writers within it aren't striking the chord as well as they used to, or that the tastes of the audience have shifted.

"My wonderful product would surely sell extremely well, if it were only the sort of product that people wanted to buy..."

is not really a compelling commercial argument.

Lou Anders said...

"Damn tomato farmers, if only I grew tomatoes, instead of the potatoes I love, you can bet I'd be brilliant at it."