Science Fiction Studies

#13 = Volume 4, Part 3 = November 1977

Wolfgang Jeschke

SF: A Publisher's View1

Translated by Peter Bruck and D. Suvin

The commodity-character of SF and the rules of the market have been recognized by Stanislaw Lem with great acuteness, and analysed by Dieter Hasselblatt in relation to the West German situation.2               

The fact that books are primarily a commodity even in the opinion of publishers and booksellers is also proved by the Bavarian Bookstores and Publishers Association's longtime refusal of collective bargaining with the Booktraders Union. The Association announced that its employees are under the jurisdiction of the Union for Wholesale and Retail Trade. Nonetheless, today thousands of salespersons in bookshops are still exploited by being led to believe that the job of the bookseller is something special and that one even has to make sacrifices when serving "the Beautiful, the Good, and the True" (as if baloney between two book-covers would be some special baloney, and bathing-oil and baby-food would not also be something delightful).                

Stanislaw Lem attributes a commodity-character especially to "popular literature," the "lower regions," as he calls it. The commodity-character applies also to the "upper regions" or "high literature"; the difference is a matter of degree, not of principle, and bears only indirectly on the quality of literature. There are much better SF novels than some of the stuff dumped upon the reader in the so-called belles lettres, despite the greater strictures imposed on a writer in the "lower regions," who has to write 8, 10 or even 15 novels a year to feed himself and his family.                

A belletristic or "mainstream" text (disregarding the few best sellers in the book-trade) is read by perhaps 2,000 to 5,000 mostly understanding people who are educated in literature. The deeper in the "lower regions," the broader the audience. An SF paperback in West Germany reaches between 20,000 and 50,000 readers, the majority of whom do not read anything else.3 This means that the vocabulary, language-use, thoughts, and values of these (often young) people are certainly to no little extent determined by these texts.                

The SF novels are generally—and there are important exceptions—products written for a special market, which follow the respective constraints. The American market with some 350 new publications yearly is a good example; it is the biggest market in the area of SF, and the West German market depends largely on it. The extent of the English linguistic area and the world-wide sales make it possible for US SF paperbacks to be sold for 75 to 95 cents for a length of 150 to 200 pages (as a hard-cover it is $4.95/5.95), and 95 cents to $1.50 for a length of 200 to 300 pages (hard-cover $6.95/9.95 or more). But most often a "normal" entertainment novel is of little more than 200 pages, and it is conceived of bearing this length in mind, even if its idea would not carry more than 100 pages. Most often, a preprint in 3 parts is organized with one of the SF magazines, then a hard-cover is published, finally a paperback is printed.                

A publisher of paperbacks in Germany cannot market such a length, for two reasons. First, there are the costs of translation which for the "normal" length amount from DM 1,800 to DM 2,500 (ca. $700-1,000) or, depending on the degree of difficulty, roughly between DM 6,50 and 12 per manuscript page (1DM=ca. 40 cents US). Second, and above all, the linguistic area of German is much smaller, and thus also the number of copies printed (the ratio varies from 1:5 to 1:10 in comparison to the US numbers).               

The "standard" length of an "entertainment" (i.e. not belles lettres) novel in Germany—where the price of a normal paperback is usually between DM 2,80 and 3,80—cannot today exceed 144 to 160 pages. For a long time nobody has dared (and many publishing houses do not dare even today) to exceed this threshold of price and length, and to offer "double," "triple" or even "quadruple" volumes out of fear of a "sliding effect."4 But in the meantime the readers got used to such "multiple" volumes, which are quite common in the "mainstream" paperback production. They are now accepted also in the thriller, horror and SF-sector without complaints; but the danger of the "sliding effect" still exists. Should the volumes be pushed to 400, 500 or even 600 pages, the translation costs would mount from DM 4,000 to 8,000, and the bookstore prices rise to DM 5,80 or even 7,80.5                

Until about 1973 the German publishers believed therefore that they had to shorten the original at the translation. In the case of the poorer titles, often artificially blown up to the size required by the American publisher, this was sometimes a positively healthy procedure, a beneficial shrinking to normal size. The strange situation arose that there exists a fair number of good German versions of inflated, boring originals. I am often reproachfully asked how I could presume to simply change texts according to my discretion and thereby adulterate, if not destroy, their "poetic content." Now even leaving aside that there is up to now no successful definition of the vague notion of "poetic content," three points have to be made in reply: First, this question arises out of the unrealistic thinking of academe, which views a priori every intervention into a text as a sacrilege. Second, this question ignores the commodity-character of books and demands for every printed production a kind of critical edition—a totally unrealistic demand, neither justifiable by the quality of the text nor economically feasible. Third, I put my shoes into the hands of a shoemaker, my letters into the hands of the mail service, and myself sometimes into the hands of the Federal Railways. I know that the shoemaker can sometimes have a bad day, that the mail service makes occasionally mistakes, and that train accidents happen. But I would not try to cope with the problems of my shoemaker, of the postmaster general, or of the president of the Federal Railways, for these people understand in their area much more than I do—I assume it at least. Hence I claim for myself as an editor that people should not try to cope with my problems. I should be trusted to understand, in my area of specialization, at least that much that I will not cut a Hemingway's, a Pasternak's, or a Le Guin's "poetic content." And every experienced writer will be grateful to the editor, most of the time, for eliminating inconsistencies in style, absurdities, unnecessary repetitions and shallow claptrap. As an author, one does not have the necessary critical distance to the text, particularly one generated under time pressure—as is in the "lower regions" regularly the case.                

No doubt, such an editorial policy becomes bad if novels of quality are coerced into a bed of Procrustes, sometimes by not very qualified people. It happened not seldom that the substance of the novel was attacked, the "content" adulterated, and the intentions of the author violated. SF in West Germany is now to some degree liberated from such market constaints. Nevertheless, a translator or editor is still well advised to cut from this or that title at least some too trivial cliché. I am thinking here of the sometimes too hymnic passages of a Barjavel, of the puberty-ridden, at times embarrassing stuttering of long passages in the (bestselling!) Gor novels, of the reactionary as well as senile chatter in the novels of the older Heinlein where old-age sex is garnished with platitudes, or the chewed curds of the far too many E.R. Burroughs imitators, etc., etc. When translators and editors take the trouble to cut a bit from the especially embarrassing and silly passages, they do it mostly in a good cause, not because of a craving after control or because they would profit from it—on the contrary, the cuts and reformulations make for more unpaid work.                

All four jobs concerned with mediating between manuscript and book—the publisher, the "reader" (Lektor), the translator and the editor function as something like a filter of the products offered by the foreign markets, for the material from domestic sources is still much too scarce. On the American market alone, 722 titles appeared in 1974, and 890 in 1975; on the German market, the original titles total to 100 to 120 a year (not counting the "Heft-" magazines such as the Perry Rhodan series, mostly original). I have the pleasure of being the copublisher of a paperback series which comes on the market with 4 titles a month, thus I need 48 titles a year. This is the series "Heyne Science Fiction," which I publish together with Dr. Herbert W. Franke; Dr. Franke takes care of the more out of the way literatures (Hungary, Rumania, Italy, the Slavic countries, etc.), while I cover the Anglo-American and French market as well as the Netherlands and Scandinavia. My job is to find a compromise between the ideal and the realizable. Certain contractual regulations limit my competencies, e.g. I have to produce 3 story-volumes a year from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Half of the program is taken up by titles of "easy entertainment" (Fantasy) and by titles which appeared before 1950/60 (Classics); the other half is only restricted insofar as there should be as many novels as possible and as few anthologies and short-story collections as possible. (This last rule follows what is to my mind a superstition, namely that SF novels sell better than short-story volumes: I have so far never encountered any proofs for this hypothesis. But this does not alter the fact that such a prejudice exists and constitutes one of the publishing constraints, although anybody who knows SF will say that it counts for more good stories than good novels.)                

The activity of a publisher under these conditions consists above all in observing foreign markets (particularly the American, English and French ones) through advertisements and reviews in journals and fanzines, and in making a primary selection. The same happens in material supplied by literary agencies and to the manuscripts of West German authors. The total offer varies between 200 and 250 titles a year. No publisher can deal with such a mass of texts without relying on reliable "readers" (Lektors). It is difficult to find the right people for this, though easier for the Anglo-American and French areas than for the areas of other literatures. For instance, it is very difficult to find somebody who not only knows Russian but also has an understanding of SF, and furthermore of the SF-market in Germany, and is able to recommend a book for translation. A general rule is that the smaller the linguistic area, the greater is the tendency of the "readers" familiar with the language to praise a book exceedingly; there is seldom a chance to get a second evaluation. It is therefore not the case, as is sometimes asserted, that publishing houses, out of fear of the risks involved, limit themselves to the marketable names of Anglo-American SF, or that they even wish to suppress offers from the Eastern block; who by the way (this must be added out of fairness) have to be willing to put a lot of work in for little money. For the reading of one detective or SF book, the "reader" gets paid — according to the volume of the book—between DM 20 and 30, only in exceptional cases DM 50.              

The editor then has to put together his yearly program using the work of the "readers" and the titles which he has read himself. This happens every year in February/March for the time period October of the same year to September of the next one. The long advance time has technical reasons: the program is examined by the management of the publishing house in the first place; the management proposes changes, has titles of its own; after that the rights are solicited from the agencies (it can take sometimes two to three months to get the contracts signed by the authors). When the program is ready, the German translation-titles are put under copyright and an advertising catalogue is printed. It has to be available in September for the book fair.                

In coordination with the management, the titles are then given to the translators whose strengths and weaknesses the editor has to know. The larger the pool of translators, the better; not only because of the plurality of temperaments (lyrical, science-oriented, etc.), but also because of pressing deadlines. A disadvantage of a large pool is that it is not possible to keep all translators regularly employed. In some special cases the editor talks the work over with the translator; for instance in the case of the novels which have to be shortened he communicates to him the reader's opinion, or he leaves it to the translator.               

When the translation of the manuscript is finished, the sub-editors start their work (the editor will naturally edit himself one or the other title which is dear to him). The amount of editing is dependent on the quality of the translation: it now boomerangs if the translator got a book he was not suited to and not keen to work on. The weaker titles cause most work, for they are only thrown together by the author, but also neglected by the translator (not the least because he is paid less). Mindful of the fact that 20-50,000 people will read the novel—many of whom do not read anything else and who rightly expect for their good money at least a somewhat proper German—the editor grits his teeth and tries to make good at least the grossest mistakes and to straighten out here and there a couple of stylistic dislocations.                

The editor is often asked why he puts such titles on his program at all? The answer is simple: fantasy-novel series (like Gor and Scorpio) sell best, and the publishing rights are as a rule bought even before all titles have appeared in the original; and those get usually thinner, more mediocre, more babbling and less imaginative as more sequels come out. But a good part of the reading public seems to buy this without opposition; it seems, indeed, even to be grateful for not having to envision new protagonists but being permitted to stick with the old and comfortable patterns to which it is used through the heroes of the TV-manufacture. But even without this "stuffing" of the publishing program with saleable but low-quality titles (pure "escape literature"), it would not be possible to produce the more demanding titles of the SF genre: for one can, through quality and with a lot of love for it, kill a paperback series rather quickly. There are examples: the last one is the Fischer-Verlag with its Orbit series. The situation is different in the hardcover business, for it offers single titles rather than series. The "sliding effect," so much feared by the paperback publishers, does not occur there.


                1. This article, written originally for German readers, has been much abridged in the English translation, with the consent of the author—DS.
                2. Stanislaw Lem, "Science Fiction: Ein Hoffnungsloser Fall—mit Ausnahmen," in Polaris 1, edited by Franz Rottensteiner (Frankfurt: Insel, 1973), pp 11-59; Dieter Hasselblatt, Gruene Maenchen vom Mars: Science Fiction fuer Leser und Macher (Duesseldorf: Droste, 1974), especially, p 114 ff.
                3. More precise figures are unfortunately not available, though the phenomenon would be worth investigating. The assumption is based on private interviews in the circles of fans and readers. The percentage is surprisingly high in the case of technicians and scientists. These people often do not know what to do with "high" literature and are not attracted by it. Does SF represent the literature of Snow's "others" culture? (See C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures: and A Second Look, UK 1959.)
                4. The Heyne publishing house has changed its policy, and now takes titles with high buying costs out of the SF-series to achieve a higher circulation (usually between 20,000 and 40,000, in some cases over 50,000). Examples are Asimov's The Gods Themselves and Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, both clearly SF-novels but published in the general program without special notification of content. The same was done with Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange and his The Clockwork Testament.
                5. It is not usual in the paperback business that bookstores (dealers) should order a certain number of single titles. They subscribe en bloc to a series (i.e. 10 titles of the "general" series, 6 thriller-titles, 5 from the SF series, etc.). If the dealer is used to getting (with four publication dates a month) five times four, i.e., 20 SF titles for a price of DM 2,80, the total amounts to DM 33.60 (with 40% off). If the monthly program contains one single volume DM 2,80), one double volume (DM 3,80), one triple volume (DM 4,80), and one quadruple volume DM 5,80), the total rises suddenly to DM 51,60. The dealer is thus confronted with a price increase of more than 50%, and reacts with a reduction of titles from 5 to 3; in consequence the future circulation would drastically "slide" down, and the publishing house would be deeply disturbed in its planning which often extends over 12 to 16 months.
                6. 172 hardcover originals, 50 hardcover reprints, 201 paperback originals, 288 paperback reprints, a total of 722 titles ("1974 Statistical Book Summary," Locus No. 169 of Feb. 16, 1975); 160 hardcover originals, 149 hardcover reprints, 257 paperback originals, 330 paperback reprints, a total of 890 titles ("1975 Statistical Book Summary," Locus No. 184 of Jan. 31, 1976).

  moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home