The Scott Meredith Literary Agency, long a deal-maker to the stars, is now taking on the cosmos--as the new editor and packager of science fiction and fantasy titles for Pocket Books.
The unusual agreement, announced yesterday in New York, means the literal end of the line for Pocket's esteemed Timescape series, which had developed a reputation for literary vitality and commercial anemia. It means the end of a tradition whereby agents do not act as purchasers, which the Meredith group will do in providing 48 books a year for the renamed Starscope line. And it means the end of the tether for the Science Fiction Writers of America, which is protesting that possible conflicts of interest in the agency's role as both buyer and seller will be not only "detrimental to our writer and artist members" and their agents, but "damaging to publishing in general."
But Pocket sees potentially astronomical returns from the new line, which is set to debut next spring. Timescape "was losing a lot of money," Pocket Books president Ronald Busch said yesterday, and "we were paying too much for the product. We were getting great literary reviews and awards--but the science fiction audience is looking for more entertainment and fun than we were publishing."
In yesterday's joint announcement, agency head Scott Meredith said the behemoth popularity of "E.T." and the "Star Wars" trilogy, coupled with the fact that six of 15 titles on a recent best-seller list were science fiction novels, meant that the genre "has the power to reach beyond science-oriented readers to a broader national audience," including "women readers, who buy the largest percentage of books these days."
Marta Randall, president of the 800-member SFWA, said yesterday from her Oakland, Calif., home that "our objection stems from what we think is probably a conflict of interest. We fail to understand how a writer can benefit" from an agent "who is in a position, in effect, to sell the work to himself." Moreover, the Meredith agency, by acting as a packager, "would be under the same economic dictates as a publisher--that is, to acquire the maximum number of books at a minimum financial investment." Randall, whose latest novel, "Dangerous Games," was published by Pocket books, said she also feared that Meredith would not "actively solicit works from people not represented by that agency."
The SFWA, she said, has demanded a "complete and detailed accounting" of the new arrangement from Meredith and Pocket, and "it will be reviewed by our officers and our legal counsel." SFWA's attorney, Henry Holmes, said from Los Angeles that he could not comment on the joint venture before seeing details of the deal, but speculated that the agency's buyer-seller function "could be some sort of restraint of trade that the federal government might want to get involved in."
"The paranoia in science fiction people is a little higher than most," Busch said. "We thought there would be a fuss, but if they would quit crying wolf until the wolf is at their door, they'd see that the conflict of interest doesn't exist." Meredith said, "it's really a joining of interests. We check every deal with our clients anyway, and the client ultimately makes the decision and won't take anything he doesn't like. It's nonsense to assume that we're going to buy our own people too cheaply." As for favoritism, he said, "obviously we'll be publishing a lot of our own authors," and if forced to choose between two equally attractive books, one of them written by his client, "of course I'd buy our own manuscript. But what I'd really do is buy both."
Some of Meredith's clients--Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson and Lester Del Rey among them--have attachments to other publishing houses. Might Clarke, published by Ballantine, end up in Pocket? "The forces of the marketplace are going to dictate that," Busch said. "But Scott's not going to jeopardize his relationship with one of his stars." Judy-Lynn Del Rey, editor in chief of Ballantine's Del Rey Books, agreed: "Before this even hit the fan, Arthur and I discussed the situation. He considers us his publisher. We consider ourselves his publisher. And Scott considers us his publisher." Besides, she said, Del Rey has a new Clarke manuscript in hand.
Timescape, which Randall called "one of our major markets," has stopped acquiring manuscripts, although backlist titles will remain in print. Its editorial director, David Hartwell, will leave the company in October for editorial consulting work. "I simply agreed to a no-fault divorce," Hartwell said yesterday. "According to my own knowledge of my budget, I wasn't losing money. But they can do their accounting any way they choose. It's their company. I am leaving with my reputation for doing good books intact."