The writer’s life is a numbers game, and the numbers don’t look good

The Way the Future Was: A Memoir
Frederik Pohl, 1978

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) had the amazing good fortune to be one of the New York City teenagers and young adults who formed the Futurians in the late 1930s. These brilliant, arrogant kids (mostly male, completely white) became the writers, editors, and publishers who created the Golden Age of SF in the 1940s and ’50s.

The entrepreneurial, hard-working Pohl deserved his success. He wrote a hundred thousand words a year, was an ace at editing, won four Hugos and three Nebulas, was voted a Grand Master of science fiction, and was inducted into the genre’s Hall of Fame. But you have to admit, as an example of a person who was born in the right place at the right time, Fred Pohl is hard to beat.

The Way the Future Was has its quirks. Pohl prefers to confine any emotional upheaval to a page or two; his mother’s death was a page, his daughter’s cognitive challenges three pages. John Updike could’ve gotten a novel out of the musical beds Pohl’s circle indulged in in the 1950s, but Pohl casts it off in a paragraph. He resolves the mid-life crisis that ends the book by taking his doctor’s advice to exercise, watch his weight, and get more sleep. Thump.

What I enjoyed was Pohl’s account of editing SF zines and writing freelance in the wake of the war. His goal of writing four pages per day, every day, whether it took him 45 minutes or 12 hours, is a good reminder for miscreants like me: create a routine and stick to it. That’s how you make progress. Even John McPhee, who said he rarely wrote more than 500 words per day, explained his prolificacy by saying, “You put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

Out where the paychecks begin

In 1959, right before the collapse of the pulp magazine market, there were more than 30 SF zines. (And plenty more pulp zines publishing detective, western, railroading, romance, and war stories.) According to Pohl, the best rate a writer could shoot for in that era was 3 cents a word. Today there are online zines publishing SF, fantasy, and horror short fiction that pay 10 or 12 cents a word; they are not dragged down by the costs of printing on paper. But check any inflation calculator: to match a rate of 3 cents per word in 1959, genre magazines today would have to pay writers 27 cents per word.

Writers will see 27 cents per word in 2100, if the oceans don’t rise up and swallow us first.

The other thing that strikes me about the writer’s life in 1959 is that you could expect to publish something and get paid for it many more times. Pohl estimated his total income for 1959 as a freelance writer at about $9,000. Half that money was from reprints. Everything he published was published again, in the herd of SF reprint anthologies that once roamed the plains. Stories he published in the ’40s were still being reprinted in the ’70s! Today we call that “passive income,” but for writers, we might as well call it “impossible.” Only one of my stories has ever been reprinted. It appeared in a magazine in Latvia that never paid its writers. I know they never paid me.

Reading The Way the Future Was is a voyeuristic pleasure in an age when writers are commonly offered nothing for what they write (meaning no money) or the glory of “exposure” (meaning no money).

Most individuals don’t have time to write for no compensation and no hope of compensation, which only increases barriers to entry for minorities, low-income individuals, those with families, those with disabilities and so many more.

Brenton Weyi, “Literary Entrepreneurship in the Twenty-First Century,” Boulevard magazine, Spring 2020

If you are a writer, prepare to be amazed by the tales in this book.

The way the future was on Earth 2

In the alternate universe where I was born in 1919, if I had survived World War II (not all of the Futurians did), and if I had had 30 or more science fiction magazines to write for in the 1950s, I would’ve published dozens of stories and two novels (Poor Little Starman and Nomads of the Galaxy) before being wiped out by the New Wave of the ’60s. Finding myself unable to adapt to new themes and approaches, and increasingly ridiculed for the recurring virgins-in-peril motif in my stories, I would’ve given up writing and gone into advertising.

My last credits would’ve been a script for the third season of Star Trek (Episode 25, “Ring Around Rigel,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola, three years before The Godfather) and “They Only Send Their Heads,” a story Harlan Ellison wheedled out of me for the infamous The Last Dangerous Visions. Some of my work might be fondly remembered today, and perhaps praised for injecting some humor into the genre, but it would all seem hopelessly dated. I would’ve had a great time, though, plus I would’ve made actual money for what I wrote!

Two interesting books on the writing life

Manjula Martin, editor. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living (2019). Emphasis on strategies to get through the day-to-day. The overall tone is stubborn but not wildly hopeful.

Lesley Conger. To Writers, with Love (1971). Leslie Conger was the pen name of Shirley Suttles, a Vancouver, B.C., mother of seven who wrote a monthly column (collected in this volume) for The Writer magazine. The writing is witty, supportive, and philosophical, plus you get a look back at the tumultuous ’60s.