Robert Sheckley was a great — and greatly funny — writer of science-fiction short stories. Along with “William Tenn” (aka Phil Klass) and damon knight, he filled the magazines in that thrice-blessed decade of the ’60s with an apparently infinite supply of great little comic stories. When I say there was nothing like them before or after I know whereof I speak, because by the time the ’60s came along, I was a magazine editor desperate to find writers like them that I could publish. Oh, I did find some, including some really good ones, but no masterpiece-a-week humor generators like those.
I had met Sheckley when he was just beginning his run of great comic stories. Harlan Ellison had written about him, saying, “If the Marx Brothers had been writers they would have been Robert Sheckley,” and I had made a point of getting some of his published stories to check it out for myself. When we turned out to be attending the same party I made it a point to get a conversation going with him. We were getting along pretty well, and when I mentioned that my house was on a tidal river he got interested quickly. “You do? Well, I’ve got this boat that I don’t take out much because I don’t know many people who live on the water. Maybe I could come get you and take you out for a spin.”
That sounded like a great idea. It kept on sounding that way until I mentioned that the river had three low bridges between the ocean and my house and he, glumly, announced that his sailboat had an eighteen-foot mast. Then he told me how much he’d liked a book of mine that had just come out, and I told him how some of his stories had made me laugh out loud.
Then, when we started talking business, he asked if I could get him better pay than he had been receiving for his short stories. I assured him I could, and I did. Actually I doubled his monthly income almost at once. It wasn’t hard. I just changed the destination of each new manuscript that came popping out of his typewriter, for, like many new writers, Bob had convinced himself of a crippling fallacy. The fallacy is that beginners would have to work their way up through the low-paying markets — then paying about a penny a word, like Imagination — before they would be able to earn the rates that were double or triple that from Galaxy or the other leaders in the field.
What makes that a fallacy is that submitted stories come in roughly three levels of quality. There are the winners, which almost editor will buy as soon as he shakes it out of its envelope. Then there are the total losers that hardly anybody is desperate enough to buy and, finally, the stories that need a little work, and an editor will generally help the writer work its flaws away. The only sensible procedure in marketing a story is to send it to the highest-paying markets first, and work your way down if you have to.
Some times a higher-paying editor will help a writer along, as Playboy’s fiction editor did for me at a party when he poured me a drink and said, “You know, I would have bought about half of those stories you’ve been running in Galaxy.” To which I said, “Oh,” and quickly changed my ways.
Of course, those weren’t the only sales I made for Bob. I got him into some TV spots, from which he later got himself into better and better ones, and into double-selling reprints of his work to mostly paperback book publishers, and we became friends.
Then for quite a while I pretty much lost touch with Bob. It wasn’t as much of a blow as you might think, because nearly everyone did. He was doing well, but he was wandering the face of the Earth. What brought him back to New York was a job with Omni. When Ben Bova was elevated from Fiction Editor to Editor in Chief he chose Bob to take over the fiction. It was a good job, paid pretty well. And Bob had always wanted to be an editor for a while.
Only, of course, there were problems.