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.