119. Brevity

The publication of Jandrax is underway over in Serial. This post looks back at the spirit of the times during which it was published.

Things have changed since 1979, but probably not in ways you are aware of. Several barriers were broken shortly thereafter, and five years later there was technological breakthrough that opened the floodgates.

The first barrier was not racial, nor of gender, nor moral, nor technological. At the time, it was called the two-dollar barrier. I first heard it discussed at Charlie Brown’s house (publisher of Locus) in the Oakland hills where I had been invited along with a batch of other newbie authors just after Jandrax was published. It was a firmly held belief among the publishers gathered there that readers would not pay more than two dollars for a paperback novel.

Like the sound barrier, the two-dollar barrier disappeared with a poof and was forgotten soon after, but until then it had a critical effect on what kinds of books could be published.

Short books.

You see, if you could only charge two dollars for a book, printing costs limited how long that book could be. Throughout the sixties and seventies, science fiction books were short. Jandrax, at 50,000 words, came in near the end of that era. I’ll say more about the full effect that had in a moment.

You don’t have to take my word for it, by the way. Go to any well stocked used book store and make a stack of science fiction novels from that era. Make another stack of recently published science fiction novels. Prepare to be amazed.

The second barrier was related to the first. It was the big-money barrier. It was the notion that advances for science fiction or fantasy novels were and always would be peanuts. David Harwell broke that barrier by offering a massive advance on the fantasy novel The Book of the Dun Cow, which was slated to shake up the world. It didn’t, but the massive advances remained and set us on the path to today when new authors get no advance and Stephen King could single-handedly retire the national debt.

Then, in the early to mid eighties, computers became readily available. They didn’t make writing easy, but they made typing – or rather, re-typing – easy. Every pro switched over and refused to go back. No wonder; I know that in the early days I spent much more time repairing mangled typescript than I did actually writing.

Suddenly, new writers were multiplying like fruit flies. Books were getting longer, and cost more. Advances to the elite were soaring. Advances to newbies were shrinking.

Welcome to now.

Before all this happened, books were different. Not better, not worse, just different. There was a premium on brevity and conciseness. Take a look at Dorsai! by Dickson, then look at his Final Encyclopedia for the maximum shock version of the contrast.

New books are not just longer; they are leisurely. Books of the seventies were frenetic. Newer, longer books have a little more story and a lot more words.

Jandrax is short and fast, but that was the norm. It could use fewer shock cuts and more phrases like “the next day …” or “they returned to the compound where they …” or “after the hunt was over, they …”. About another seven thousand words would smooth things out nicely.

It’s a good book and I recommend you slip on over to Serial and start reading. But finish your coffee first. You’ll need the caffeine to keep up.


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