McFarland, 2010, 269 pages, ~C$35.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-7864-4797-8
Reading books about how to write are one of my not-so-secret vices. Jaded by endless convention panels repeating the same advice, I don’t read them to learn how to write as much as to learn how other writers write. A good how-to-write book is usually a window into an author’s career, or an inside look in the publishing business. The best of such books will tell stories, teach real-world pitfalls and be entertaining as well.
The Business of Science-Fiction is a collection of twenty-six columns published in the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) trade journal “The Bulletin”. SFWA is where speculative fiction writers go to talk shop, and it’s hard to get closer to the SF&F genre than to read its internal house publication. For more than a decade, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have been jointly writing a column on various aspects of SF writing and publishing. Those columns take the form of exchanges between the two of them; Resnick usually plays the role of the optimist, with Malzberg’s gloomy outlook balancing the dialogue.
To SF fans with short memories, Resnick and Malzberg may not be the obvious choices to write authoritative columns on the current state of SF writing. While Resnick regularly gets nominated for the shorter Hugo Award categories, it’s usually for cloying stories that seem designed to appeal to SF fans’ sense of nostalgia rather than try anything new. Meanwhile, Malzberg’s heyday as an author dates back to the seventies, without much of a public profile since then.
But that’s being myopic. Resnick has been tremendously influential in discovering and encouraging newer writers. If his own fiction is a bit bland, it’s usually solidly bolted together and as we discover through the columns, he has proven uncommonly effective at reselling his stories to markets other than first-run English-language paper publication. Few other writers in the genre are as knowledgeable about the business aspect of Science-Fiction. Meanwhile, Malzberg has developed a reputation as a cranky historian of the field: His Breakfast in the Ruins non-fiction collection brought together a number of highly astute pieces about the state of Science-Fiction over the past decades. Reading the columns, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the depth of his historical knowledge of the field. More crucially, readers may not see his continuing work for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which has let him keep an insider’s view of the business throughout the years.
The columns collected in The Business of Science-Fiction, taken together, show a snapshot of the changing publishing industry in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Resnick and Malzberg discuss the state of the business with the benefit of long memories, but they don’t forget to question themselves in trying to figure out what is changing along the way. They can also, writing for a professional audience, allow themselves to discuss “the next question” and pick up arguments aimed at professional writers rather than beginners. The references they make to SF publishing’s long history are filled with interesting details, and the advice they provide feels fresh and uncompromising. (SF convention organizers won’t like reading what they say about whether authors should attend conventions.) The dialogue format can be entertaining to read, especially when both of them are aware of the role they have picked for themselves. (Both refer to Malzberg as “Eeyore” more than once.)
Given that this is a re-packaging of existing content, it’s no surprise if some material and stories echo throughout the book, or that it’s not a good idea to read more than a few of the 4,000-word columns at a time. Academic publisher McFarland has done a fine job putting the collection together, not the least feature being a complete index at the end of the book. What’s missing, unfortunately, are dates of publication attached to each column: In discussing rapidly-changing topics such as e-books or the Google Settlement, for instance, it’s vital to know whether these are facts and opinions from 2003 or 2008. I also can’t help but be amused at the cover design, which takes some Shutterstock stock art to suggest a dialogue between the two authors: Having seen both Resnick and Malzberg in real life more than once, it’s obvious to me that neither of the silhouetted figures are even close to them in physical appearance.
But the book does live up to its subtitle as “Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publish”, and the quality of the advice here is good enough to justify its Hugo nomination in the non-fiction category. Both are charming and witty to read in print, and the advice has some real-world relevance. What more would you want from a how-to-write book?