Killed!

In e-mail, someone wondering if I had thoughts on the most recent outrage in the science fiction community, which is that Asimov’s magazine killed a story it had bought from writer Jim Grimsley, called “Wendy.” As Grimsley writes at the Asimov magazine message boards:

The story’s protagonist is a person with known genetic tendencies toward child abuse, at a time when these can be firmly predicted. The story is being killed due to the child abuse content… I’m not posting this here to start a discussion about this action since I’m not likely to hang around for it. But this forum is a convenient way of letting other Asimovs writers know that this has happened.

Of course, a discussion has ensued, with lots of folks angry and etc. It should be noted that Asimov’s editor apparently offered Mr. Grimsley the full payment of the story as a kill fee (the term used in publishing for the money you get if a story is cut after you’ve got it under contract), but he refused it.

I’ll address the last of these first: Look, people, take kill fee money. It’s free money. It’s money for a story you can still sell for the first time. Are people in science fiction not aware of the kill fee concept or something? I won’t gainsay Mr. Grimley’s reasons for not taking the money, but for the rest of you, understand that a kill fee isn’t pity money, it’s money to compensate you for your time, effort and the loss of putative professional advantages of having your story appear in a particular forum (in this case, Asimov’s). The Asimov’s editor offering the kill fee wasn’t being nice, she was being professional. Good on her.

As for the story being killed: It happens. I’ve killed stuff as an editor. Back when I was editing a humor area for AOL, I commissioned a cartoon from Ted Rall about e-mail snobbery; Ted sent back a viciously spot-on piece. I was delighted by it; my boss was not, and I was required to reject it. Which I did — and offered Ted a kill fee (which he took, by the way, as he should have). I subsequently bought lots of other cartoons from Ted, so everyone ended up happy. There were a couple of other times where I had bought or commissioned a piece which for various reasons I didn’t run, and when that happened I offered kill fees for those as well.

As a writer, I’ve had pieces killed — fortunately never because something I’ve written is substandard (as far as I know), but because there wasn’t enough space, or the editor decided it didn’t fit with the issue, or, frankly, for reasons I wasn’t informed of other than “we’ve had to kill this piece.” I may be more mercenary about these things than other people, but as long as I got paid for my time and effort (nb: your kill fee should be in your contract), I moved on. Sometimes I sold the killed piece elsewhere; sometimes it would just get filed away in my vasty archives.

In the commentary thread over at Asimov’s, there’s bitching and complaining that this is further proof that the SF is too timid, or whatever. I haven’t seen the story in question, so I can’t comment much about that. I do think that one story killed does not a trend make in the world of science fiction publishing. There are lots of reasons an editor can buy a story one day and kill it the next, beginning with being overruled from above (which is what happened to me in the Rall case I mentioned, and as appeared to have happened here), down to an editor simply changing his or her mind (i.e., “I bought this, but now that I re-read it I wish I hadn’t”).

I’m not the editor this time around so I’m not privy to the decision-making process; all I know is what Mr. Grimsley has said. But I’d want to see this happen a couple more times before we all go on an “SF has no balls” orgy of outrage, or an “Asimov’s has no balls” orgy of outrage. Toward the latter, if Asimov’s is only publishing safe and bland stories, you’ll know it soon enough (and so will Asimov’s, by way of declining subscriptions). Toward the former, if the story is good enough for Asimov’s it has a good chance of selling elsewhere, and if it doesn’t, it can still get out via the Web (this is another reason to have taken the kill fee; to get paid and still release it online, via CC license, thus possibly getting a Boing Boing mention). As a genre, SF has balls aplenty, I think, and from my own personal point of view, there are so many other issues with traditional SF magazine publishing these days, starting with the genres’ overall esthetic and going all the way down to the fact the “big three” SF magazines don’t accept e-mailed submissions, that this particlar event doesn’t really register on my outrage meter.

One can argue that Asimov’s shouldn’t have bought a story they decided not to run, but as I noted earlier, this sort of thing happens all the time all over publishing for all sorts of reasons. The question is: What did Asimov’s do then? In this case, offer a kill fee, which was the professional and courteous thing to do. As I said, I wouldn’t gainsay Mr. Grimsley’s choices in the matter, and having a story killed stinks, whatever the reason. But if it had happened to me, I would have taken the free money and been somewhat pleased to get a second bite at the publishing apple.

18 Comments on “Killed!”

  1. I can’t really see what all the fuss is about. Would it have been better if Asimov had rejected the story from the beginning stating “not suitable” or maybe stating nothing at all?

    I can understand getting your hopes up and feeling like a success having sold a story and then being told later it was rejected – I’d be disappointed, I’m sure, but the kill fee (what a name) would help the feeling somewhat. At least my story was accepted for awhile.

    As for SF getting timid or whatever – pish tush. With the internet any writer can self-publish darn near anything. Yeah, they won’t get paid, but there is pretty much nothing one can do to get someone else to pay for something they don’t want.

    I mean yeah, it would be swell if my crayon drawings were seen as masterpieces and sold for a fortune but that’s not very realistic.

  2. Yeah, if that happened to me I think I’d take the kill fee and then start working on a way to get “too edgy for Asimov’s!” into my new cover letter. But that’s just me.

  3. If they bought it, they can run it or not, depending on their whim. It seems to be a very simple matter.

    Not taking the kill fee smacks of unprofessionalism. YMMV.

  4. My first fiction “sale” would have gone to a market that pays .25/word. It was comissioned from me as fiction based on a query letter. The editor didn’t want the article I proposed, but wanted to see a fiction piece on a related topic instead. I delivered on time. Nine or ten months later, I heard back that the editor had opted not to use it because my piece had turned out too similar to a non-fiction piece they’d also commissioned. They gave me a 50% kill fee. The story wasn’t really re-salable because of the specific guidelines it was written under. I was disappointed, but happy.

    The only embarrassing thing was the number of cover letters I’d sent out saying that my first fiction publication would be coming out in the “(month) issue of (magazine),” but really it wasn’t a big deal.

    Of course, this was a fiction piece written to an editor’s specifications, not a story wrenched from my heart in the throes of inspiration, so maybe that had something to do with my nonchalant reaction.

  5. Yeh, they probably shouldn’t have bought it. Ideal world and all that.

    The thing is, I don’t see what all the fuss is about either. It comes down to this: the writer is there to write the stories. The editor is there to decide what’s relevant. When the writer starts telling the editor what is relevant to their goals (i.e. selling a buttload of magazines) it begins to reek of arrogance.

    Also, as John says, double pay! Come on!

  6. Hmm, I DO see what the fuss is about, and it has got nothing to do with Asimov offering a kill fee (rightly) and with the author accepting it or not (both his prerogative).

    The problem with me is that child abuse has become such an absolutely taboo subject that it cannot be discussed, period. I can understand what Asimov is coming from, but killing uncomfortable thoughts is killing uncomfortable thoughts, whoever does it, and it is scary that this goes on in our society; and scarier that it happens in relation to child abuse.

  7. “child abuse has become such an absolutely taboo subject that it cannot be discussed, period”

    What planet is this happening on? I published Susan Palwick’s Flying in Place fourteen years ago–and Tor reissued it in a new edition last year. If there’s some kind of absolute taboo in operation it would appear to have missed us.

  8. There doesn’t seem to be any taboo against writing about child abuse that I’ve found. It’s the back story for more fictional characters than I care to think about at the moment. In fact, there was a period when I was more than a little irritated about how many people were using child abuse as a tool to explain a screwed-up character, when the rationale could just as easily have been drugs, neglectful parents, or a bad planetary alignment. These writers weren’t adding anything to the conversation, in other words: it was just another Topic of the Week, used without thought or particular insight. THAT was irritating.

    Flying in Place, by the way, was brilliant. Made me cry, and very few books do that. Thanks for keeping it in print, Patrick.

  9. John Scalzi,

    You said, “It’s money for a story you can still sell for the first time”.

    Is that always the case or does it vary by contract? I read a book, from an opinion journalist, that implied that some publishers paid kill fees to essentially prevent some people or opinions from being published and that by paying the kill fee they still retained some kind of exclusivity to the piece.

  10. If anyone thinks child abuse is taboo in publishing, they need to grab a handful of the umpty-zillion JD Robbs “In Death” books. Not only were both main characters abused as a child (each in their own horrific and brutal manner), the abuse is ongoingingly flashbacked, nightmared, contemplated, referred to, dealt with, breakthroughed and used as plot bait to within an inch of its life. In 3-D, HD, stereoscopic surround-sound realism. In every book. And in some books, depending on how bad a time the heroine or hero is having, in damn near every chapter.

    JD Robb doesn’t discuss child abuse. She paints the town red with it, for good or ill, and her publishers have seen fit to let it go on like that for what amounts to an entire library shelf of books with no front-face stacking. And the public isn’t exactly shunning her, either.

  11. My gut feeling is that while the quote-on-quote subject matter is child abuse regardless of what POV it’s being told from, there’s a big difference in how it’s received if it’s told from the POV of the abuser rather than the POV of the child (or the grown child working through those demons, ala Robb). Telling about a child surviving those experiences, growing up, and working through their past to become a stronger person is — I find “empowering” an annoying word, but I think it fits here. The child-overcoming-abuse trope is one we’re uncomfortable but ultimately okay with.

    A story told from the POV of the child molester, though? It’s dealing with the same subject matter, yeah, but it’s a totally different sort of a story which gets entirely different reactions. I haven’t read the story in question, of course, but from the description it sounds more like it deals with the potential molester rather than a molestee.

  12. Still… the editor DID intend to print the story, but the publisher stopped it. If the story was unpublishable, the editor would have rejected it herself.

    See how this intrigues people? “What was in this story that an editor wanted to publish but the publisher wouldn’t?”

  13. On the Abuse Taboo. Yes it does seem to be out there. I started on a story a couple years ago about a Child Molester and the the Cop who eventually catches him. Unfortunately I got pretty much talked out of ever delivering a finsihed product as everyone who read the openning chapters found it entirely too disturbing. I edited and re-edited to tone down the story. However it just got to the point where it became bland, pale, and the abusers motivations were no longer clear. It became a basic chase the bad guy story, and the cognitive leaps of the cop didn’t even make sense since there was nothing about “bad guy” to base his conclusions upon and lead him to the eventual capture.

    It finally occuried to be that people were having trouble dealing with the subject of the story in its entirety. They didn’t like the story because it was an abuser/molester of children.

    I think its a lesson learned, don’t listen to them if you have something you think is working. I got quite discouraged for a while.