One by one, I showed the tearsheets of Gravy Planet, to every publisher in America who had ever published a science-fiction book or given any sign that some day he might. One by one, they turned it down cold. These publishers, remember, were firms to whom I had been regularly selling scores of science-fiction books, more than any other agency — indeed, to the most important markets frequently more than all other sources combined. With many of the editors, they and I had come to look on each other as personal friends.
That didn’t mean they would buy our book. As one of the better-paying editors said, “Since we’re friends, Fred, I can be candid with you.. This manuscript is simply not of professional caliber. What you need is to find a professional writer to pull it all together.”
What I have sometimes said about that since is that we couldn’t find a professional writer to help us, we found an amateur publisher, Ian Ballantine, who had just started his own company of Ballantine Books and didn’t know that our book wasn’t publishable. So he went ahead and published it, and made a good profit doing so.
That joke is unfair to Ian. He had had a good many years of experience running other book publishing companies before starting his own. But it’s true that he knew nothing about science fiction.
He did, however, know me, and had for some time.. He decided to trust my judgment, and that turned out generally well for him, not just on The Space Merchants (as two of his editors retitled the book), but in the many years thereafter that I served as an unofficial advisor and trouble-shooter for the firm. (Over those years, Ian himself lost control of his publishing company, but not because of taking on the sf program.)
The Space Merchants began showing off its legs in other ways, not just in the sales at Ballantine Books but in unexpected other income. We began to get requests for foreign editions and translations, first England and France and then, over the years, in more than twenty other languages, perhaps double that. And we very quickly sold the film rights for what seemed like all the money in the world: fifty thousand 1950s dollars, equal to perhaps half a million in today’s limp currency. And it became a steady seller on Ballantine’s backlist for many years after that, with a sizeable check coming our way every royalty period, right up to the time when Judy-Lynn del Rey agreed to revert it to me so I could accept a multi-book offer involving it.
That was a mistake After a few brief weeks of sales, the novel rapidly disappeared from sight into the dungeons of the backlist of St. Martin’s Press. Although from time to time I pleaded with them to revert it so we could let one of the other publishers bring it back to life, all I ever got from Tom Dunne, the editor in charge, was a polite little note saying no, and so the book stayed there, invisibly, and unprofitably, until a couple years ago, when the 21st Century edition. came out.
And sold out almost immediately.
To be continued. . . .