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Letters to the SF Site

We love letters. They make us think. They make us laugh. They make us sit up and take notice, and get a payment in before service is disconnected.

Mostly, though, we enjoy hearing what you have to say about the SF Site. No publishing enterprise can survive long without paying close attention to its audience, and we're no different. If you've got a comment or thoughtful suggestion, or if you just want to complain about that durned dead link, we want to hear about it.

A Word on Immortality

From: Ben Bova

Please thank Todd Jackson for me for his very perceptive review of my book, Immortality [Last issue]. He is absolutely correct that I avoided all mention of space flight and colonization because I, as he put it, wanted to fight one "giggle factor" battle at a time. Live long and prosper, Todd!

We certainly will. And thanks for producing one of the most optimistic (and intriguing) science books we've had the pleasure to read in some time.

Insite for New Authors

From: James Van Pelt


I enjoyed your overview of the Redwall books (The Redwall Books of Brian Jacques, last issue). I'm not familiar with the books, but now I want to be.

If you haven't looked at the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer Eligible Author Web Site for a while, you might drop in again. It's up to 35 authors now, and some unexpected items are cropping up for me.

First, when I read through how the authors made their professional debut, it becomes clear that there are multiple doors. Some are novelists with no short story sales, some have only made short fiction sales, some have made both. Some came through The Writers of the Future Anthology. Some sold stories to other anthologies.

Since the traditional advice for starting novelists is to establish a short story sales resume before trying to sell a novel, I was surprised by how many of the authors debut with a novel.

Second, most of the debut authors have more than one sale to their credit by the time they hit the list; in other words, the first sale was the hardest.

Third, the range in background of the debut authors is huge. Old, young, science educated, liberal arts educated, not highly educated (in the traditional sense). Several came through Clarion. Most said they'd been writing for a long time.

And fourth, how few of the authors broke in with a media-related title.

This all probably confirms things others have always known, but it's interesting for me to see how the real results come in.

I'm not sure how many total debut authors there are a year. The site lists 35 now for two years worth of eligibility. I'd be very surprised if there are 25 more debut authors out there (I have a list of the authors from most of the magazines--Analog leads the pack with 10 first time pro-sale authors in two years--I haven't heard from Realms of Fantasy or Asimov's yet), and I know how many novels are listed as "first novel" in Locus.

What this tells me is that breaking into the pro ranks is darned hard: fewer than one writer per state of the union per year, and, of course, this list is international.

I thought you might be interested.

Whew! Speaking for the aspiring authors among us, this is a little discouraging. But in a way, it's good to know that there are so many avenues into the field. Like you, we often assumed that media tie-ins would account for a disproportionate number. Good to see that's not the case.

The visitor counter on your site rolled to 200 during our last visit. Looks like plenty of people have discovered you. If there's anything else we can do to publicize the site, don't hesitate to let us know.

Jonathan Carroll, Man on the Move

From: Jonathan Carroll

The Jonathan Carroll site has been moved to Thanks

And a spiffy new site it is. Thanks for the update.

Looking for Asimov

From: Tao Hua

Hi, I would like to know where to find predictions about human resources and use of energy that he made around 1978. Thanks.

Uh-huh. Us too.

Looking for Tough Reviews

From: John Savage

I'm afraid that mindless optimism has infected the review system in this country; although the SF Site is somewhat better than most, it still does not have nearly the proportion of less-than-gushing reviews that it should. I'm not suggesting that reviewers find fault with every book; I am suggesting that turkeys get labelled as such. The failure to do so devalues reviews that do not read like marketing copy, and devalues reviews of the outstanding books of this era. And there are a lot more turkeys than the reviews will admit to, even among "name" authors. For example (and I'm probably going to be lynched for this, although I'm carefully picking on a dead man), I would argue that Heinlein did not write a "novel" worthy of the name after 1961.

On the other hand, we've all got to pay more attention to what we read, and why. The SF Site is actually far better than most on the web--and, for that matter, in print--in providing useful reviews of fiction. I do suggest less reliance on market copy as inspiration. (I'm an editor, so I know exactly how the little man behind the curtain creates the marketing image for a book.)

John Savage

Thanks for the thoughtful note. You're correct on your first point, of course -- the SF Site does publish more positive reviews than negative. This doesn't mean that we don't receive (or that we don't seek out) negative reviews. It means that, given the limited space we have each issue, we'd much rather focus attention on books we enjoyed than books we didn't. Frankly, we get a lot more pleasure out of spotlighting a neglected author or overlooked midlist title than roasting some sacrificial turkey, and I think our readers do as well.

If you want our honest opinion, it's substantially easier to be consistently critical than to maintain a high degree of sincere professional enthusiasm -- easier, but in the long run far less rewarding. We have deliberately recruited reviewers who demonstrate the latter ability, rather than the former. Why? Given a choice between being sought out for insightful academic criticism, or as a reliable snapshot of what's best and most exciting among recent releases, we choose the latter. And so far at least, our readers have supported our decision.

Perhaps what this comes down to is a true matter of philosophy. We note on your website that you rate books out of five stars, with 2 stars being "Mediocre -- in the bottom 80%." Your explanation for this fairly severe ranking system is frankly stated: "As the estimated percentages indicate, there's a lot of dreck out there."

You're certainly not alone in this opinion, but here at the SF Site we completely disagree. It's our charter to demonstrate that Science Fiction and Fantasy is better than generally perceived, and that the gaudy paperback tonnage at your local bookstore conceals true neglected gems. Every book -- from the latest Star Trek spinoff to the newest cat anthology, from characterless hard science novels to Conan clones -- has an audience which finds joy in it. It's easy to trash those novels based on criteria neither the author nor its readers care about. It's much harder to get that book in front of a reviewer who's likely to appreciate it, and who's more willing to judge it on the merits expected of it. And that's exactly what we try to do. We certainly don't always succeed, but any less of an effort is a pretty poor service to our readers, in our opinion.

Playing Favourites with Games?

From: Ola G. Nordhus

I just noticed your September Games column (Last issue). It looks like it could be a quite useful column. It would however be much more useful if someone would tell the compiler that there are other game publisher out there besides White Wolf and TSR.

It certainly would. However, our Games column (like our bi-weekly New Arrivals listing) is not intended to be a comprehensive list of everything new under the sun (that would be too ambitious a project, even for us). Rather, it are simply a listing of everything we receive for review here in our offices. And that more than keeps us busy, believe us...

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