Frederik Pohl gives lifetime’s worth of tips for authors, editors, agents
September 13, 2013 | 12:05 pm
Frederik Pohl, who died recently after a long, illustrious, and industrious career as a science fiction magazine and book editor, and literary agent, as well as multiple-award-winning writer, covered enough ground in his seventy-five years in the saddle to have valuable experience to communicate to anyone in the genre. And he summed up much of this in a 1977 interview with David Truesdale for Tangent, reproduced in full here. The interview condenses his conclusions into some candid and very helpful observations that, adjusted for inflation, haven’t dated, and apply well outside the SF genre as well. As his longtime friend and collaborator Jack Williamson says of him in the introduction to the interview, “by the fall of 1939, aged 19, he was editing two science fiction magazines of his own and buying his own stories for them.” You don’t find many writers or editors in any genre with a pedigree like that.
Of the many ways of being a good editor, Pohl says: ”The way that strikes me as being most commendable is to have pretty good taste for yourself and follow it. If you can tell the difference between what’s good and bad, in some reasonable way, and if you stick with it, sooner or later you’ll accumulate enough people who agree with you to make it successful.” Plus, he adds, “It takes quite a lot to edit a magazine, or for a book publishing company the way that I think is ideal – which nobody ever comes up to. But one of the things it takes is a lot of energy and a lot of willingness to go out and get things, not just sit and wait for them to happen but to go out and talk to writers and persuade them to write something, to suggest something they may do. And not too many of the editors of today are doing that. They must be aggressive in a useful way.”
And for an anthology, he says, “Usually the anthologist gets something like 40% of the income … The hardest part is selling the idea to the publisher. Once you’ve done that, everything else comes easily, but every publisher, every company with a science fiction line, gets more proposals for a science fiction anthology than he can possibly use.”
Pohl also speaks of the virtues of the amateur press associations, precursors of today’s story blogs and online magazines, and examples for today’s self-publishers and smaller independent houses. “It’s a way for amateur publishers who can’t command an audience any other way to make sure there’s somebody to read what they’re doing, and responds to it. It’s useful training and it’s a nice hobby and kind of fun … for a long time it was a prestige thing to belong to.”
And he concludes, “The things that make me want to keep on living, and I think they’re probably true for most people, are the network of associations and relationships and projects, and so on, that I’m involved in.”