Science friction

Dallas author Patricia Anthony's sci-fi caught Hollywood's interest. But her decision to chuck the whole genre caught New York's wrath.

"This book will find a publisher. The question is, will the next book and the next book and the book after that be published? Patricia Anthony needs to find a house that will stick with her for several titles so she can build an audience. There is a lot of pressure in publishing today to have a hit. There's not much encouragement to stick by talented writers through slow sales. A lot of authors are simply washed out."

And when publishers do take a chance on an imaginative new voice, the changing nature of book retailing--the superstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, the price clubs and discount chains such as Sam's and WalMart--means that a very large first printing must be done on titles that may not have mass appeal. A large first run requires a large publicity budget to protect the investment. Yet even after all that money's spent, publishers too often hear a knock at their warehouse door and open it to see a truckload of unsold novels.

Patricia Anthony is, of course, well aware that she has stepped from behind the iron curtain of sci-fi and leaped into a gigantic, roiling shark-tank of commercial pressures, where some literary ambitions have managed to stay afloat but many have been dragged below before they could learn how to swim.

But she possesses the what-the-hell? confidence that happens only when someone realizes they will happily sacrifice everything without compromising anything. She could easily have stayed on the sci-fi money train, even if only as a side project to finance her more literary aspirations. But Anthony is determined to be taken seriously, no matter the price.

"The New York publishing world has its head up its butt," she says bluntly. "They're losing shitloads of money. They pay too damn much for authors. Even the genres, the ones with the supposedly stable readerships, are suffering. Sci-fi publishers are scrambling to get new readers to the shelves by doing tie-ins with movies and video games. 'We have to look for characters in new places.' How about hiring good writers to write them?"

Good writers like Patricia Anthony. But mainstream risks be damned; New York had better not expect her to fail and come crawling back to science fiction. As she says, flatly and finally, "That's not possible now.

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