July 5th, 2010

Fred Pohl's Deal with Robert Silverberg

I just read Robert Silverberg's memoir Other Spaces, Other Times: A Life Spent in the Future. There was one part in particular I thought was interesting. As a recent college grad, Silverberg was supporting himself by writing formulaic junk fiction for a number of second-tier sf pulp magazines that would accept anything he wrote -- often without bothering to read the stories -- and paid the equivalent of several thousand dollars per story. (Man, those were the days.) Silverberg was taking full advantage of this, churning out stories at a ferocious rate, sometimes two a day, and planning to retire by thirty. His friends thought he was squandering his talent, and encouraged him to slow down a bit and write more ambitious work and actually, you know, revise, and submit his work to the top markets, but Silverberg's response was that the top markets almost always bounced his stuff, and he didn't think they'd be interested in the sort of thing he really wanted to write anyway, so from a financial standpoint it just didn't make sense to take the time and risk of aiming higher. Finally one of his friends (Fred Pohl) assumed the editorship of one of the top-tier magazines (Galaxy) and made Silverberg a deal. He said basically, "I want you to write the best work you're capable of, and here's a chance for you to do it risk-free. If you send me a story and say, 'Fred, this is the best work I'm capable of,' I promise I'll buy it, no questions asked. Anything you send me like that, I'll buy. But if I read the story and don't feel it's the best you're capable of, I'll still publish it, as promised, but after that the deal's off ... Oh, and don't under any circumstances tell any other writers about this." Seems like a pretty ingenious tactic for getting the best work out of a writer, and it seems to have worked, as it motivated Silverberg to write some of his best material.