Let’s talk for a bit about my career as an agent.
Mark Rich has a lot to say about my failings, especially my financial woes, which were considerable. A J Budrys told a funny story about them in one of the last speeches he gave, at the Heinlein Centennial, a year or two before he died. He had discovered what a great agent I was, he said, when I sold John Campbell a story of A J’s that Campbell had turned down cold before A J became my client. And then when he got my check, it bounced.
Funny story? Sadly, also a true one.
But the interesting thing there is that A J didn’t quit the agency. He remained my client until the waters finally closed over my head. And almost all of my other clients, Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement and John Wyndham and Fritz Leiber and all the other household names and the lesser names that I was bringing along gave me an amazing amount of patience, and most of them didn’t want to give up until I did.
And, most interesting of all, most of them were my good friends for the rest of my life.
Do you wonder why?
I’ll tell you why. It was because I was a hell of a good agent.
First, I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate, and then I worked with the — magazine writers to turn them into book authors, and I kept looking for new and better markets they could sell to. A few I managed to get into television deals, even into syndicated newspaper cartoon strips. Some I managed to promote from the pulps to the slicks, at many times the rate.
In short, I did everything a good agent did for his clients. (I would like to say that, even today, not all agents are quite that good.) But I did something rather more than that.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made a good writer — almost any of my dozens of good writers — sometimes be productive and profitable and sometimes be unable to get anything written for days or weeks at a time. I tried several different ways of, first, encouraging the writers to write, and, second, to do so at the top of their form. I finally invented one that worked.
I made a promise to eight or ten of my best (but not always solvent) writers that any time they brought in a new story I would hand them a check for that much wordage.. My rate was low for these incentive checks, at a half cent a word, but then when the story actually sold to a publisher the writer would be credited at the publisher’s scale, not that of my advances.
As a result, if you look at the stories published in the last year or so of my agency’s existence you will find that there were a larger number than usual of really good stories by Budrys, James Blish, Damon Knight and a dozen or so other clients who took me up on that offer. It worked. It got the writers writing more, and sometimes better. It even increased my sales to those markets, a little. And if I were unfortunate enough to become an agent again, I would at once start up something like that for at least a few clients.
But it also represented one more outflow of capital, and there wasn’t enough capital left to flow. Most of my clients didn’t want to leave, but finally, I gave up and folded the agency, and started paying everybody back.
Interestingly, maybe I should say ironically, then two unexpected new lifesavers were thrown to me.
The first was from the very successful agent Scott Meredith, whom I had known when he was a kid fan named Scott Feldman hanging around the Futurians to pick up writing talk. Listen, Fred, (he approximately said, I don’t remember his exact words,) you have all those agents’ commissions you have earned on those sales. They’ll be coming in as royalties for years. They belong to you, and I’d like to buy them from you.
Well, I hadn’t thought of that. He was right, though. All those novels of, for instance, Isaac that I had sold to Doubleday had my name on the contracts as agent, and by law that meant that as long as that contract stayed in force I would earn a dime out of every dollar Doubleday paid Isaac for those titles.
You know, that was getting into some pretty large amounts of money. How much? Well, how much do you think Doubleday paid Isaac over the next couple of decades on I, Robot, Pebble in the Sky, the Foundation series, The Stars, Like Dust and all the other books I had negotiated the contracts on for him? Not to mention all the other authors and all the other publishers, in the same situation
Don’t ask me to calculate it. It’s painful.
But I couldn’t accept it.
It was a moral question. I couldn’t sell Ole Isaac, or any of the couple dozen other authors stuck on that same slave block, down the river to Marse Meredith. I turned Scott’s offer down cold and returned my rights to that 10 percent to my clients.
Then, a little later, along came a different life preserver, this one from a man named Rogers Terrill.
Rog (that’s pronounced “Rahj”) had been the editor-in-chief of the whole Popular Publications chain of pulp magazines, back in the days when I was at the bottom of that totem pole. He and his wife were living on the same Jersey Shore as I, a few miles from my own home. Harry Steeger had folded that entire chain of pulps because pulps were no longer what the masses were buying and fired Rog in the process. And Rog had decided to become a literary agent.
His problem was that he didn’t really now exactly how to go about it. There were many things he did know. He had great personal connections with all sorts of writers he had worked with at Popular, and very good knowledge of the publishing business in general. And so, when he discovered that I was closing my doors just a few miles away, he dropped by for a chat.
I hadn’t known Rog particularly well, but most of what I did know about him was good. I told him everything he wanted to know. I showed him all the litter that was left of my office, including the special-purpose locator cards I had designed myself to keep track of manuscripts and payments, and the special die-cut manuscript covers — bright red, they were — I had also created so editors would know at once that I was offering them something to publish. And, indeed, everything.
Rog went away that first day rubbing his chin. He came back a day or two later with a lot more questions. I had given up the practice of hiding anything much, so I told him everything there was to tell about my doings as an agent. And then he came back a day or two later with an offer. Why didn’t I forget about retiring as an agent and, instead, join up in partnership with him to from the agency of Terrill and Pohl — or even Pohl and Terrill? He was pretty well fixed, having at least been paid pretty well by Steeger before getting fired and making careful investments. We could start tomorrow.
Now, that was a truly wonderful offer. If it had come along a year earlier, maybe even six months earlier, I would have jumped at it, slobbering with gratitude, and — who knows? Maybe I would still have been a literary agent today.
But it hadn’t come along then. Now it was just too late. I was simply used up. I didn’t want to do any more of that. And I told Rog no.
One last thing.
It makes me feel like a jerk to be tooting my own horn to this extent, so I’m going to ask you for a favor. I’m asking you to let some other people toot it for me for a little bit.
For instance. there exists this book I love that I’ve talked about before, the one called Gateways (don’t forget the “s”) that my beloved wife put together as a 90th birthday present for me. (It got done a little late, but joyously received.).
Anyway, here’s the thing. Betty asked a bunch of the best writers alive in the science-fiction field to write stories for this book. I had worked with them or edited them or discovered them or agented them, or in some other way done something helpful to their careers, and so she also asked each of them to write something about what they think I have meant to them, their own careers and the literature of science fiction in general. (A number of writers who just couldn’t do stories on time wrote comments of that sort, anyway.) So let’s let some of them talk, all right? They all knew me a lot better than Mark Rich does, and their opinions are available in the book itself.
Do you really want to know if anyone in the world, unlike Mark Rich, thinks I am a good writer? Check out Robert Sawyer’s bit. He’s been going around lecturing in universities and telling them they ought to give me an honorary doctorate because I am the author of the single best science-fiction novel written by any writer, ever. (Never did get that honorary doctorate. Last year, though, I did get an honorary high-school diploma.)
Then do you want to see if I am as lousy an editor as Rich thinks? Look at what Gardner Dozois says. For years I’ve maintained John Campbell was the greatest editor science fiction ever had, but Gardner says, no, Fred, you are.
If you want to know what my clients really thought of what I had done for their careers, see what the man who probably had the best career of any of them had to say. That was Isaac Asimov, who was with me through some of the roughest patches, and through the greatest of good luck for me, although he had died years ago, he had left behind a record of what he really thought of me. And his widow and his daughter gave Betty permission to use it.
And. Mr. Rich, if you’re among the people I’m talking to at this moment, look at what all those people had to say for yourself and be damned to you.
More later. Be patient. I have to think it through.