November 2002

Joseph J. Finn

sf libertine

Things That Never Happen

Now, something has come to my attention that is, the more I think of it) really starting to cheese me off. Of late, I have been reading Things That Never Happen, by a Mr. M. John Harrison. It's a United States publication, and I became more and more annoyed that almost none of these stories (going back to 1974), had been published in the States before. Mr. Harrison, apparently very successful and well-regarded in Britain, is almost entirely unavailable on this side of the Pond.

Well. Imagine if Stephen King, for example, was almost entirely unpublished in the United Kingdom, despite all his successes in North America. It's a nearly incomprehensible situation, and one that illustrates the weird and wacky publishing situation between countries right now.

Now, obviously, you have separate publishing companies in separate countries. Oh, but many of these companies are well established in both the United States and Britain. You would think that a book that a company feels has enough potential to be published in the United States should at least be given something of a release in the UK. Sadly, this is a situation that appears to be either too complicated or too intelligent for certain publishing companies.

Basically, unless you are a well-established author on both sides of the ocean (say, Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett), your book may be published up to a year later in the other country. For instance, there is the case of Lindsey Davis, a well-regarded writer of mystery novels set in Imperial Rome. Her books, published at the moment by Century in the UK, take up to a year to show up in US (published by Warner Books). Now, I fully realize that there are publishing rights to negotiate, contracts to sign, blah blah blah, but what does such a long delay really serve? It's not like Davis having a new book in the works would be a secret to her American publishers. All I can think of is that somehow the American publishers want to protect their sales, or the British publishers want to protect theirs.

Well, poppycock. This protective situation is silly. I can go onto Amazon UK right now and buy Davis' latest book and have it in my hands within a week; why should I wait a year? A British reader, conversely, could order an American book with no problem at all, and not have to wait for some slow publisher to published the volume in the UK.

Frankly, it's a small example of the isolationism that still plagues the publishing industry. What wonderful author is now typing away in Canberra, whose works I may never have the chance to read because he is only published by a company in Sydney? What Peruvian historian will never have his grand study of the colonization of South America because so few books are translated into English? What are we losing by these islands of publishing we sit on in the United States and Britain? It's high time that publishers stretched their legs again and start looking around a bit. Really, it's the perfect time. The post-World War II literary boom led to a lull, then the New Wave writers of the 60's came about, then the horror boom of Ramsey Campbell and his like in the 80's. What great writing is now slouching from Bethlehem?


Sadly, I had not yet heard of the passing of Doctor Robert Forward by the time of my last column. He was one of the stalwarts of "hard" science-fiction, emphasizing realistic (if experimental) science above whiz-bang style fiction. His classics were undoubtedly Dragon's Egg and Starquake, about humans discovering life evolving on the surface of a neutron star - a civilization that advanced beyond us in a day. A fascinating writer, who brought great characterization to an incredibly alien race, Doctor Forward was also an accomplished physicist. He was a fine novelist and will be missed.