Besides genre, another trait shared by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke is that all three broke into writing through independent presses. Not one of these giants of twentieth century speculative fiction was discovered by a major corporate publishing house. In fact, each of these authors was ignored by the corporate world until well after he had an established readership.
Speculative fiction sat for many years on the fringes of the publishing and literary worlds, its authors carrying about them a whiff of outlaw. The genre lived in pulp magazines and independent publishing houses that had little or no connection with “mainstream” publishers. Even today, authors of speculative fiction as a class are regarded as lesser talents by writers and readers of that mainstream—often for the very reasons that fans of the genre embrace it. The readers who sustained the pulps and independents from the late 1930s into the 1960s were less interested in values central to the major players of literary industry than in qualities the corporate publishing world still acknowledges only by accident. For many a genre reader the product consistency, identifiable marketing niche and regard for an ill-defined “realism” that characterize non-genre fiction take a back seat to different standards. Innovation, inventiveness, exploratory vision, patent unreality, grand schemes in small stories and little books, these were notes played by the piper of speculative fiction as it led an audience of tens of thousands into parallel pasts, strange presents and astonishing futures.
The point to stress is that independence—of form, of content, of publishing modality—sits at the core of speculative fiction’s heritage. One might think fans of the genre would celebrate, even exalt, this quality, especially since independent journals and presses remain vibrantly present in the genre landscape. Of some fans, this is true. Several of my favorite fan-organized conventions pointedly include within their programming authors presented to the world through independent venues. On the other hand, some fans and fan organizations celebrate great predecessors rooted in the independents—predecessors like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke—while marginalizing, even dismissing, independent voices from their events. A sad trend in fandom is to privilege authors published by New York corporate houses over voices not so mediated. This is true even as the corporate model fails. It is true even as technology puts the tools for high quality publishing directly into authors’ hands.
It would be one thing if the selection process of corporate publishers resulted in the very best work making it into print. It does not. I do not argue that writers of ability never make it into New York’s catalogs, but I do argue that they are exception rather than rule. Marketing pressures give more weight to product consistency than to innovation, and marketing pressures mean having an identifiable niche trumps inventiveness and exploratory vision. To put it bluntly, the majority of corporate publishing output is deadly dull and numbingly familiar. This is just as true for latter day speculative fiction rolling off physical and virtual presses as it is for any other category of writing.
Of course, publishing independence is no guarantee of numinous or superlative work. Every skill level is represented among the non-corporate voices, including vanity authors who now have the same apparata as everyone else on the street. Offsetting that pitfall is the fact that EVERY skill level is represented. True, some poor writing sees light under independent imprints, but so does some of the very best wordsmithing around. Is there an easy rule of thumb for separating grain from chaff? So far as I am aware, nothing yet has replaced reading.