Wednesday, November 19, 2014

First Novel Welcome to the wonderful world of big-time publishing – F. Paul Wilson

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Welcome to the wonderful world of big-time publishing – F. Paul Wilson

First novels are unpredictable. 

Sometimes it's the best thing a writer will do in his career, something into which he empties so much of his heart and talent and experience that he’s left with too little fuel to light much of a fire under future work. 

For another it sets the course for an entire career: he’s found the key in which his voice is most comfortable and he sticks to it. 

For some writers that first novel gives no hint as to what is to come, the restless been-there-done-that-don't-wanna-do-it-again school where every new work is a departure from the last. 

And then there’s that first novel, not terribly uncommon in the science fiction field during the 1970s, where the writer is learning his craft in public. 

Healer is one of those. 

I wrote it in 1975, using "Pard," a previously published novelette, as a springboard. I’d sold "Pard" to John Campbell for Analog at a nickel a word a few years before and had always intended to continue the story of Steven Dalt, a man who shares his brain with an alien.  The alien, Pard, was conscious down to the cellular level, making Dalt potentially immortal. With the novelette as the opening section, I outlined Dalt’s story starting a few decades after the end of the novelette and tracked him through the centuries as he becomes a mythical figure known as "The Healer." 

Okay, I had a partial and an outine.  All I needed was a publisher. (The idea of an agent never occurred to me.)  Naïve as can be, I decided to start at the top and work my way down, so I sent off the package to Doubleday. (Hey, they were good enough for Asimov.) A couple-three of months later I received a letter from Sharon Jarvis, Doubleday’s SF editor at that time, with a whopping $2,000 offer for world rights. 

Wow. My first book proposal, accepted by the first publisher I’d sent it to. As the saying goes: How long has this been going on and why didn't anybody tell me about it? Looking back later I realized that Healer had a significant advantage in that the anchoring novelette originally had been purchased and published by John W. Campbell, Jr., the Zeus of modern science fiction. That pedigree gave my partial and outline instant credibility and a definite advantage over the average proposal that landed in Sharon’s office via the transom. 

I mentioned naïve above.  I’m not yet done with naïve.  Get this:

Published in June of 1976, Healer garnered decent reviews, with paperback rights picked up almost immediately by Jim Frenkel at Dell. But I wasn’t satisfied. Month after month I scanned the New York Times Book Review, waiting for the full-page ad that would announce to the world the existence of this epochal novel and checked the Bestseller List every Sunday for the magic word Healer. (See?  I wasn’t kidding about naive.). I haunted the science fiction sections of bookstores but only rarely was I rewarded with a Healer sighting. Finally I gathered the courage to ask the manager of a Fifth Avenue Doubleday Bookstore – owned by my publisher – why he of all people wasn't carrying my Doubleday book. He looked up Healer on his microfiche and informed me that it was out of print. 

Out of print? It was published in June and this was only November! There had to be some mistake! 

I staggered home and called Sharon Jarvis who patiently explained that as soon as the libraries have their copies and paperback rights have been sold, Doubleday remainders most of its science fiction books – sanitary landfill! I’d be getting a letter soon allowing me to buy leftover copies for pennies on the dollar. 

Welcome to the wonderful world of big-time publishing. 

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

The good, the bad and the ultimate triumph. Thanks for sharing this.