The characteristics of Samuel R. “Chip” Delany’s novel Dhalgren. were that it was long, it was densely written, it was a hard read and it was highly, not to say obsessively, erotic. It appeared to be set in the fairly near future, and it certainly took place in an America that did not seem to be the same country that the rest of us lived in. Was it science fiction? For sure it was not any kind of science fiction that anyone else was writing.
But it didn’t fit in any other category, either, and if, as Bantam Books’ science-fiction editor, I chose to publish it, who was authorized to question my decision?
The answer to that question is, “Nobody.” But that is not to say that that question didn’t cross a few minds.
It was a Bantam custom to Xerox multiple copies of every new accepted manuscript as it was signed, and as those copies began to circulate, I began to have one particular conversation, over and over, every time I chose to come in to the office. One of my colleagues would stop me in a hallway, placatory smile on his or her face, and say something like, “You know, Fred, I certainly would never dream of questioning your editorial decisions, you know that. But I was just wondering — well, why, exactly, did you buy that book?”
I finally figured out an answer that satisfied them. I said, “Because it’s the first book that told me anything I didn’t know about sex since Story of O.”
It was not, by the way, any of the boss editors who asked me that question. If any of them had reservations about my sanity, they kept them to themselves. I suppose that if the book had turned out to be a disastrous flop I would have had to face some unenjoyable conversations.
But it didn’t.
Another one of Bantam’s customs was to have an annual sales meeting at which all of its sales force flocked in from their territories all over the country to hear Bantam’s editors tell them about the books they would be persuading stores to order for the next season. That was a great plan. Its only flaw was that Bantam was very big. They published too many books — over 500, sometimes almost 1,000 — and had too many editors buying them, to give everyone a chance to meet the sales force. As the best available compromise only the top editors were invited to the sales meeting. Since I only brought out eight to ten new books a year, I was a long way too junior to get an invitation.
But I wanted to be there for two reasons. First, because Dhalgren was a very unusual book. I thought it would sell well enough, but I didn’t think that your average route salesman would be able to figure out why that was likely by reading it — as though they would — or by having one of the higher-up editors tell them its plot. I thought I could tell them what to say to get the orders, and I thought I needed to tell them that myself, in person.
So next time I was in the office, I grabbed Marc Jaffe, the editor in chief, and told him that I had to be at the sales meeting so I could tell them that Dhalgren was Delany’s masterwork, that it was odd but it was what his readers wanted from him, that it was his first new work in years and they were waiting for it, and if the salesmen just got the book into the stores his devotees would find it and come in and buy it. And if Marc would see that I got an official invitation that would be nice, but if he didn’t want to do that I’d be willing to book the trip myself and pay for it out of my expense account.
And he thought for a moment and then said, “Oh, all right.” And so I did, and so they did, and when the book was at last printed and distributed to the stores that first printing sold out briskly, and so did the next, and the next, and the next. If I remember correctly we went through sixteen or seventeen printings in that first year, and it didn’t stop there.
Shows what a genius editor I was, right? One word from me and a dog in the market, a manuscript that had been rejected 20 or 30 times before I offered a contract on it, was instantly transmuted into a runaway bestseller.
Well, all that’s true, but there are other truths that dull some of the glitter of that record. There’s another book I bought for Bantam called The Female Man. It’s by Joanna Russ, and it’s a very good book about lesbian issues, set in a science-fiction framework. I tried to do for The Female Man the same thing I had done for Dhalgren. I failed. It had its first printing, it sold a moderate number of copies, and then it folded its hands and passed into eternal rest.
I have a sort of explanation for this. I think that if you try a lot of weird ideas, and if you’re lucky, now and then one of them will work — magnificently, sometimes. But it’s very rare that they will work a second time.
I’m not really sure, by the way, of how much profit Dhalgren put into Bantam’s bank account in the final analysis. Maybe a few percentage points less than one might predict on the basis of actual sales, because about twice a month Chip’s spies would tell him when I was in the office, and he would race in to plead with me to open up the forms to make some tiny, but essential, correction. That sort of thing is cheap enough if you do it at the stage of galleys, but if you wait until the book is on the rotary presses it becomes a real luxury item. But I humored him — the first eight or nine times it happened.
And then, I didn’t linger at Bantam long after the Dhalgren triumph. The science-fiction line was taken over by an editor named Lou Aronica. Lou was a good editor and a smart one, but at the time, he didn’t have much of a feel for science fiction. Worse, he didn’t know that he didn’t. This proved expensive.
About the first thing he did was to sign Chip Delany up for two more novels — wondering, I am sure, just what the devil was wrong with me that I hadn’t done this myself, long since. Since Chip was now a bestseller author, Lou thought it reasonable to write the contracts to include a bestseller-sized advance — and then, when the first book manuscript was delivered, to order a hardcover edition with a bestseller-sized print order. This turned out to be bad news, because the new books were not Dhalgren-sized bestsellers, or anywhere near it. They sold, I think, somewhat better than Chip’s previous Ace books, but nowhere near enough to justify those vast advances and print orders.
To be sure, one presumably good feature of the boom was that Chip had some really large checks coming in. But even that involved some serious negatives. Chip wasn’t used to that kind of income, and as a result he got into trouble with the IRS.
And then there’s my own case, because the pestilence didn’t spare me. Lou Aronica called me up one day. The overprinting of Chip’s first contracted sf novel for Lou was bearing its poisoned fruit. The book dealers were shipping back floods of unsold books. The whole Bantam hardcover science fiction program was endangered.
“And,” as Lou said, sounding really dejected, “there’s this new one of yours that we signed, The Coming of the Quantum Cats. The contract calls for both a hardcover and a paper edition, but, Fred, the sales guys are reporting real resistance to our hardcover sf now. Would you give us permission to omit the hardcover edition?”
So I said, “All right.” Thus giving away maybe ten thousand dollars.
Don’t ask me why. About some things I am pretty smart, but not about all.