Why I Don't Write Science Fiction Novels Anymore
by Lawrence Watt-Evans

An Explanatory Essay Written in 2002

with Occasional Digressions

[Note that the publishing market situation described herein shifted drastically in the period from 2009 to 2012.]

There are actually multiple reasons why I no longer write SF novels as Lawrence Watt-Evans. Notice that I don't have any particular problem with writing short SF under that name.

So first the esthetic reason, which is by far the less important one: I don't like science fiction as much as I like fantasy.

It took me a long while to realize this. I grew up reading SF, rather than fantasy; my father was a hard SF fan who considered fantasy a sort of likeable idiot cousin of the True Genre. My mother was omnivorous, and liked SF and fantasy and mystery and lots of other things, but her first love was probably horror -- until she started dating my father, who despised horror because of his devotion to rationalism, whereupon she suppressed her liking for the dark nasty stuff and devoted herself to SF.

(There's a good potential tangent here -- my parents considered themselves feminists, but my mother smothering her own tastes to match my father's was never an issue. In fact I don't think my father ever realized how much of a horror fan my mother had been. After my father died the house suddenly began filling up with books by Stephen King and Dean Koontz and John Saul, but even then, it wasn't until Mother died and we read the letters she'd written back in the '40s that we realized she had always loved horror. Her early letters to Dad had little references and in-jokes about stuff like the old radio show "The Inner Sanctum" that my father Didn't Get, because he didn't approve of either horror or radio drama. When she realized this, the references abruptly stopped, and by the time they were engaged she had completely given up both horror and radio drama. It came as a complete surprise to her kids, more than twenty years later, when we learned that she had been a fan of the Shadow, and "Inner Sanctum," and "Lights Out," and the rest; there had been no hint.)

(And no, my father was not really as much of prig as he sounds here -- at least, not by the time I was old enough to know him; maybe having kids mellowed him. He was a strong personality devoted to science and rational thought, but he really wasn't the self-righteous jerk you'd think from the above. I'm not sure he ever knew what Mother had done.)

Anyway, I grew up thinking of science fiction as the One True Genre, with mystery as a respectable neighbor and fantasy the idiot cousin, while horror was the exiled black sheep no one talked about, romance the sluttish embarrassment down the street, and westerns the big dumb reliable guy you didn't really want to talk to because he had nothing to say.

Tolkien got an exception due to superb stefnal worldbuilding, and was seen as a Special Case, not fantasy.

In high school, however, I discovered Robert E. Howard, and Lord Dunsany, and the Unknown stable, and learned that some of my beloved SF-writing heroes -- Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, Michael Moorcock -- had had their flings in fantasy. I also found Lin Carter's essays about fantasy. This promoted fantasy, or at least sword-and-sorcery, from idiot cousin to the cool guy your parents warned you about.

I started trying to write when I was eight. My first story, which is still in an envelope addressed to F&SF complete with 5-cent stamp, was SF, of course, about a super-intelligent lab mouse.

In fifth grade I branched out and wrote a dreadful mystery, in which the detective is the killer; at the time I thought this was stunningly original. Sigh. Mystery, much as I love it, is not something I will ever write well.

In junior high I was writing alternate history -- plotless, shapeless, absolutely dreadful AH, much of it degenerating into weird semi-pornography, most of it set in a world where the barbarian invasions of the western Roman Empire never happened, though I didn't know enough history at the time to have a plausible reason for this. I am happy to say that I burned all these stories in 1972.

In high school it was back to SF at first, with odd hybrids combining ideas swiped from Larry Niven and Anne McCaffrey, or mixing Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein. Oh, and some parallel-world stuff that crossed Garrett's Lord Darcy with Leiber's Gather, Darkness! I don't know whether any of it survives; I probably have some in my files.

But junior year I discovered sword & sorcery, and by senior year I was writing it. Interestingly, some of this didn't totally suck -- I think I could easily salvage most of it. Most of it was set in a place called the Rhunweyl, which included the ancestral form of Ethsharitic warlockry, and also had a parallel to the Northern Waste of the Garth stories.

I got my first professional rejection in 1972, senior year of high school, for a weird piece of sophomoric humor that was technically, I suppose, dark fantasy. Also started selling non-fiction, writing features for the local paper.

By 1974 I was seriously trying to write. In the year and a half I was living in a garret in Pittsburgh playing writer, I produced twenty-six short stories; I don't remember exactly what they all were, but they were a mix of SF, fantasy, horror, mainstream, humor, and mystery, and I sent them off to markets as diverse as Ellery Queen and Redbook, as well as F&SF and Analog and Fantastic and Amazing. I wanted to be a writer, any kind of writer; my first attempt at a novel (not counting the S&S stuff in high school, where I had no idea what the eventual length would be) was a Gothic romance that never got past Chapter Three. (A Stranger At Dunmoor was the title.)

However, I still saw SF as the top of the heap and being an SF writer as the ultimate goal.

The first novel I sold was fantasy -- but that wasn't because I was concentrating on fantasy; I'd collected four rejections of an SF novel by that point, and A Stranger At Dunmoor was still theoretically in progress, and I had this murder mystery in mind involving a suicide note on a computer (which was a lot more exotic back then than it is now).

My second novel was fantasy because Lester del Rey asked for a sequel.

My third was SF, though, because I Wanted To Be An SF Writer.

For awhile I alternated SF and fantasy. I tried adding horror with The Nightmare People, and never entirely gave up on mystery or romance.

However, somewhere in the 1990s, a couple of things registered with me. First was the whole career issue, which I get to in detail later in this essay, having to do with the evolution of book distribution, my own career path, and other stuff. That was so much an elephant in the living room that it took me a long time to recognize the other thing -- sort of the broken table behind the elephant.

And that other thing, which this essay has been building up to, is that I like fantasy better than SF.

Admitting this was difficult, because I really did have to overcome intense childhood conditioning. SF was rational and forward-thinking and progressive, while fantasy was silly reactionary nonsense, you see. Fantasy is lightweight fluff, while SF is important.

Except after twenty years in the business, I don't believe that anymore. Not even close.

If I'm reading for fun, I'm far more likely to read fantasy than SF. If I'm writing just for fun, I'm far more likely to write fantasy than SF. I think fantasy has just as much to say about things I care about. Fantasy tends to be warmer, easier to read, easier to enjoy, with more emotional resonance, as far as I'm concerned. I was writing fantasy because I enjoyed it, and writing SF because I was an SF writer -- really, to some extent, to appease my father's ghost. Which would have appalled him, I think.

So I stopped.

Oh, not completely; there really are stories that I want to tell that call for SF, rather than fantasy, and I'll probably continue to write them. I do still love SF, though it's as much nostalgia as passion, and not as much as I love fantasy. But I'm no longer going to make any effort to keep a balance between SF and fantasy; I'm a fantasy writer who dabbles in SF and horror, by temperament and by choice.

So: Back in 1979 I sold my first novel, which was fantasy, to Del Rey Books. Del Rey was unique among the publishers of the day in that they had a very solid division between SF and fantasy. Fantasy was edited by Lester and his assistants, and published with the wyvern (or is it a cockatrice?) on a shield, and whenever possible given a Darrell K. Sweet cover, while SF was edited by Judy-Lynn and her assistants and associates, and published with the nested-circles logo, and usually had a spaceship on the cover.

Since The Lure of the Basilisk and The Seven Altars of Dusarra were fantasy, they were bought and edited by Lester. When I asked if I could send him an SF novel, he said no, absolutely not -- but I could send it to Judy-Lynn. So I did.

Other publishers emphatically did not work this way, and still don't -- editors all generally handle both, and an author selling to a given house pretty much always works with the same editor there. Del Rey was weird.

Anyway, so I sent The Cyborg and the Sorcerers to Judy-Lynn, and she bought it, and all was cool. It sold lots of copies -- more, even, than my first two, and I was told that careers often took off with the third novel. I was a happy fellow.

Then I sent Lester another fantasy, The Sword of Bheleu. I was figuring I would alternate SF and fantasy, you see, and then maybe add a third genre, like horror or mystery or romance, as I got the hang of this writing stuff, and so on. Working in different genres would keep me from getting stale.

Then I sent Judy-Lynn The Chromosomal Code -- and she rejected it. Said it was publishable, but just didn't excite her, wasn't a Del Rey sort of book. But Lester was eagerly waiting for my next fantasy.

This was when it registered with me that I might have underestimated the differences in the markets for SF and fantasy. It's also when I decided I needed an agent, and made one of those utterly stupid, boneheaded newbie mistakes you hear about that somehow worked out miraculously well -- not knowing any other writers or editors, I asked Lester if he could recommend an agent.

Lester then did something that violated publishing ethics but was staggeringly generous -- he didn't say anything to me in reply, so far as I can recall, but instead I got a letter from Russ Galen, Lester's own agent, saying Lester had suggested he contact me about representation. Editors aren't supposed to do that. Fellow writers, sure, and Lester's excuse was that he was acting as a writer, not an editor, in siccing Russ on me.

Anyway, I signed up with Russ, and he's represented me ever since except for a six-month gap when he left SMLA to form SCG and there were contractual complications.

Russ has been my most reliable adviser on the business side of writing ever since. Much of what follows is stuff I learned from him. (Some I learned from Tom Doherty of Tor Books.)

So Russ sold The Chromosomal Code to Avon, and for awhile I alternated between SF at Avon and fantasy at Del Rey, and I was happy doing it and expected to go on doing it indefinitely. I was blissfully ignoring changes in the publishing industry and the bookselling business.

Those changes included computerization, which allowed booksellers and publishers to keep better track of what was selling, where, and how fast; the rise of the bookstore chains; the decline of the independent mass-market distributors; and the fantasy boom of the '80s.

I was aware that my fantasy sold better than my SF -- my best SF sales were on The Cyborg and the Sorcerers, at about 90,000 copies in domestic mass market, while in fantasy The Misenchanted Sword moved around 160,000 copies. I always figured this was because Sword had that great bright-yellow, eye-catching Darrell Sweet cover. (I've heard people bitch about Darrell's art, and I even agree with some of the criticisms, but I don't care about its quality as art, I care about it as advertising, and back in '85 it was great advertising.) And once the SF moved to Avon, well, everyone knew Del Rey had a better sales force and better marketing than Avon, so of course The Chromosomal Code or Shining Steel didn't do as well.

What I had not realized was that this meant most casual browsers had labeled me a Del Rey fantasy author -- in fact, at least once I heard someone call me a Darrell Sweet author, since Lester deliberately put Sweet covers on stories of a certain sort, and I was in that category. Most readers never saw my Avon titles. Most readers never knew I wrote SF, and didn't look for it. I was getting typecast, pigeonholed, whatever you want to call it.

This didn't especially bother me, really. Even when I began getting lots more money for fantasy than for SF, it wasn't a big deal; writing SF was fun, and I didn't want to stop, I didn't want to get in a rut, so I settled for less money for every second novel. I was successful enough that I could afford to toss a book out there cheaply every so often -- which is how Crosstime Traffic happened, for example; I wanted a short story collection like the ones I'd read as a kid.

But then the changes in bookselling caught up with me.

There is this thing called "ordering to the net," colloquially known among writers as "the death spiral." This is where the chains look at how many copies they sold of an author's previous book, and order exactly that many of the next -- e.g., they ordered 40,000 copies of Joe Author's First Novel, sold 30,000, returned 10,000 for credit, so when they order Joe's Second Try they only order 30,000, to try to avoid all those returns.

Except it doesn't work, because you never get 100% sell-through -- there are stores that never get around to shelving them, stores that couldn't sell rice to starving Chinese, whatever. So suppose Second Try sells 24,000 copies, an 80% sell-through, which is really very good.

And the chain looks at those sales figures and only orders 24,000 copies of Third Time's the Charm...

And meanwhile, mind you, there are stores in the chain that could have sold another twenty copies of Second Try apiece, but they didn't get them because those copies went to the stores that couldn't sell them and got stripped and pulped, and the chain isn't going to re-order the title because they're getting those returns from the other stores, and they need the shelf-space for the next month's shipments.

You get the idea; sales spiral down.

Now, if your publisher's sales force pushes, if there's some indication that they maybe could've sold more copies if they'd tried, the chains won't cut orders to the net; not every author spirals in. The risk is always there, though. It never was prior to about 1988, when the ordering got computerized and centralized, but now it is.

There's also the problem that books need to sell fast. Shelf space is at a premium. If a bookstore has a choice between selling one copy each of twelve books in a year from a given unit of shelf space, or selling eight copies of one book from that space, they'll take the twelve different ones, as it's just more efficient use of a limited resource to get those twelve sales instead of eight -- even though from the point of view of the authors, publishers, and readers, a book that can sell eight copies is preferable to any of those books that can only sell one.

This is why books go out of print so quickly now -- because from the point of view of bookstores, who control the market, it's better to put a new title out there than to keep or re-order an old one. Online booksellers and POD are providing a way around this, but they're still only a small part of the picture.

Anyway, I was aware of this, but hey, what did it have to do with me?

Well, in 1991 I found out. That was when Russ took my next project, a proposal for a big fat novel called The War Against the Dark, to Del Rey. It went to the SF side, not because it was SF, but because Lester del Rey was running two years behind on everything on the fantasy side and already had a proposal, for The Spell of the Black Dagger, that he'd been sitting on for months. War Against the Dark was an SF/fantasy hybrid, and went to Owen Lock, Judy-Lynn's heir.

That was when Del Rey informed us that the chains had been cutting their orders for Watt-Evans books, because they didn't look to see whether it was SF or fantasy, novel or collection -- all they looked at was net sales of my last couple of books. I had enough of a track record that they looked back more than one book, but even so...

Newer York hadn't sold that well outside Greater New York. That it was an anthology from a different publisher didn't matter; it was a Watt-Evans book, wasn't it?

Crosstime Traffic hadn't sold that well. Oh, sure, it did great for a short story collection (it did, too), but that was another Watt-Evans book that hadn't moved that many copies off the shelves.

Nightside City hadn't sold that well, and that was a novel, published by Del Rey, so what was my excuse for that one? SF instead of fantasy? To booksellers they're the same damn category.

So if Del Rey was going to pay lots of money for a big fat book, they wanted something that would break this chain of apparent failures, something they could label as "by the author of The Misenchanted Sword!" If we called War Against the Dark SF, then they wouldn't pay more than two-thirds what I was then getting for Ethshar novels, and they weren't sure about that.

(It took them a strangely long time to figure out that War Against the Dark could be marketed as fantasy; I really wonder about that sometimes.)

That negotiation got weird and complicated, and The War Against the Dark wound up as the Three Worlds/Worlds of Shadow trilogy and was a commercial disaster, and I left Del Rey over that and certain other problems, but it also finally drove Russ to teach me the facts of life, and me to realize that things had changed and I couldn't just go on writing whatever I pleased and rely on selling it for big money. I was seen by publishers as a writer whose career was on the decline, and I couldn't afford to screw around or take any stupid risks -- I needed to write good commercial stuff to reverse the trend, and given my history and reputation and the state of the market, where big fat fantasy was booming and SF was in decline, that meant I had to write big fat fantasies.

So I did, once I got free of Del Rey and went to Tor -- which I should have done back in '91, instead of agreeing to that stupid three-book deal, but hindsight's always 20/20. I wrote Touched by the Gods, which did okay, and Dragon Weather, which did quite well, and Night of Madness, which did somewhere between, and I didn't mess around with SF or horror or collections.

My career's stable again, and everything's going pretty well -- but I've accepted the label and the niche; I'm a fantasy writer, and the Watt-Evans name is a fantasy brand, and it's going to stay one. Coca-Cola doesn't label their water "Coke Water," they call it Dasani, because "Coke" means cola to beverage consumers. Watt-Evans means fantasy to book consumers.

This doesn't mean I won't write SF, just that I won't put the Watt-Evans name on it; in fact, in the 1990s I wrote a bunch of stuff under other names, and never put "Watt-Evans" on any of it because I didn't want to damage the name's value in fantasy.

These days I'm too busy trying to get my production back up to speed, get the fantasy coming out more often than an annual book each Christmas, to spare the time to write anything else; fantasy novels are how I make my living, and anything else is a sideline. Moving over to Tor took some adjusting, learning to write really long novels took work, and then I got sick, so I dropped from three novels a year in the early nineties to less than one, and I'm just now getting past that and starting to produce steadily again.

But when I do get back up to speed -- and thank heavens, the fad for doorstops has largely passed and it's once again possible to sell fantasy novels of moderate length, which should help -- I hope to start writing SF novels again.

However, I'll put a different byline on them. One I've used before.

And when I finally manage to sell a novel under that byline where I get to keep the copyright -- so far, I've only used it on licensed material and short stuff -- I'll admit to it, and let you know what name I'm using. But it won't be Watt-Evans.

Addendum, February 2015: Things changed. I've once again taken to writing novels that could be considered science fiction (or science fantasy or alternate history) under the Watt-Evans name, rather than using the name I'd expected to use, Nathan Archer

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