Wonder Stories, Jan. 1934

Donald Wollheim wasn’t satisfied with having his first story published in Wonder Stories. He wanted to be paid, too.

Hugo Gernsback wasn’t paying his writers. Johnny Michel had finally collected his five dollars, but not without endless annoyance, and Donald Wollheim had not been paid in full even then. They had come to the Brooklyn Science Fiction League to tell us their stories, and to seek vengeance.

All this inside information was revelatory to me. It was more exciting than anything that had happened to me before, at least since I discovered science fiction, maybe since I discovered sex. I don’t know what airy-fairy assumptions I had made about the mechanisms by which real authors supported themselves through their work. I suppose, if I thought at all, I guessed that once your work appeared in print, the government, or somebody, handed you a blank checkbook, which you filled out as you needed, or chose to want, their money.

Now that I have had some years of dealing with publishers on my own, and some of them even more reluctant than Hugo to cough up the scratch, I can see the picture in full holographic 3-D. Gernsback was not alone. Other publishers have been known to stiff their authors.

It is a matter of how much money is coming in, call it X, and how much is going out:Y. When X ≥ Y, all is serene. But when X < Y, then you have the problem of eleven holes in the dike and only ten fingers to plug them with. When you can’t pay all the bills, which bills do you pay? You placate the people who can hurt you the most. You pay your own salary, or at least enough to keep you going. You pay the printers, because if you don’t they won’t print your next issue, and then you’re out of business. You pay your paper supplier, because if you don’t he won’t give the printer any paper to print your next issue on. Out of what’s left you pay at least enough of your taxes, rent, and utilities to keep things from being turned off. And then you start to think about the writers.

All this is, of course, immoral. Without the writers none of the other things matter in the least. But it is the way it is, and one reason for it is that writers do not write only for money. They write to be published. All writers like to be paid for what they write, but few would stop writing just because the money was sparse or hard to collect. And those few are easily and instantly replaced out of the immense pool of millions, literally millions, of would-be writers who would sell their sisters to Buenos Aires for the chance to have one story published anywhere, paid for or not.

Of course, the stories written by the pros are probably likely to sell more copies for you than the cleaned-up salvage from the slush pile. But maybe you can’t afford to be choosy. If given the choice between publishing a magazine with so-so stories (but stories you can get) and a magazine made up of blank pages because the really good writers won’t give you any more credit, which would you do? You would probably hold your nose and publish. If you didn’t, your place, too, might well be taken by some would-be publisher ready to fill the vacuum.

Not all publishers think that way — in fact, let me put on the record right now that the business ethics in publishing seems to me a lot more praiseworthy than in most industries — but some do, even in the best of times. And in the Depression that was the Law of Nature, red in tooth and fang.

Clayton Magazines’ Astounding had paid its writers punctually and well. Clayton’s Astounding also had gone bust in 1933. Amazing and Wonder were a whole lot less benevolent, but they were still alive.

It’s interesting to try to calculate just how much money Gernsback traded the goodwill of his writers for. It probably was not very much — in the thousands, but probably not in the tens of thousands. But then there wasn’t all that much money around in the science-fiction field at that time. In the mid-’30s there were only three science-fiction magazines, often bimonthly.

I estimate that the total amount paid to writers by all three of them in an average year was not much over fifteen thousand dollars. All owing for pseudonyms, there may have been as many as fifty individuals selling stories to one or another of them in that period, and what they had to divide among themselves in return for feeding all us famished fans the fiction we lived on was something like six dollars per week per writer.

I could have made that calculation at the time, if I had wanted to. I didn’t want to. I didn’t care.

Listening to the wisdom that flowed from Johnny Michel and Don Wollheim was like standing on the mountain, staff in hand, while the Voice spoke from the burning bush. I could not believe I was so lucky, and I wanted to be part of it.

I came back from the meetings and reported all this Gospel to Dirk Wylie, who cursed his parents for settling in Queens Village, so far from Bay Ridge and the Brooklyn Science Fiction League, and worked out stratagems for making the next meetings with me. We came. We sat at the feet of the masters, in one soda fountain or another, while the ice cream melted in our sodas and our malteds went flat, and we resolved to be just like them.

And when it turned out that Johnny and Donald were inviting us to join a crusade to set these iniquities aright, we took it as not debatable that we should sign up at once. What Donald proposed was that all we SFL members should secede, start our own clubs, assert our independence of The Evil One, and let the world know him for what he was.

It sounded great. We thrilled to the idea of causing so much commotion and trouble for Gernsback that he would perforce reform. Or kill himself. Or be driven from the society of human beings — choice of any or all of the above — and so we entered into the great world of science-fiction feuds.

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  1. Scott Hauger says:

    Thank ypu for this fascinating history / autobiography!

  2. Greg Costikyan says:

    Buenos Aires isn’t so bad….

    But I’ve been in the position of choosing who gets paid, and it’s never easy, when resources are scarce. Failing to pay talent rarely puts you in jail. Failing to pay your accountants or lawyers might.

    Not that I’m a big fan of screwing talent.

  3. Steve Green says:

    Back in the mid-1990s, I had similar problems with a couple of magazines which had hired me to provide interviews, reviews, etc. I eventually received every penny I was owed, but many others were left out of pocket. And as you say, there are always plenty of people who will ignore that injustice just to see their name in print.