The newest marriage on publishers' row has ended in a divorce--before the honeymoon had even begun.
On June 15, over the protests of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), Pocket Books announced it was dropping its highly reputed but financially disappointing Timescape science-fiction line and starting a new imprint called Starscope, to be "edited and packaged" by the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.
But last Friday, the controversial arrangement was canceled abruptly. A joint statement issued yesterday said the venture had been dissolved "by mutual agreement" but stressed that "Pocket Books remains strongly committed to publishing science-fiction," although the Timescape series will end next spring as originally planned. Meanwhile, Pocket books president Ronald Busch said yesterday the house was "actively searching" for an editor. "But this time I'm not announcing anything until I'm sure."
"We pulled out," agency head Scott Meredith said yesterday. "The Timescape line had suffered a rather considerable loss, and we were called in to turn things around. But one element in the deal turned out to be unsatisfactory." It has been widely rumored in New York publishing circles that the problem was an acquisition budget Meredith considered too small to tempt major names into changing publishing houses. Neither Meredith nor Busch would comment on the issue.
Officials of the 800-member SFWA had condemned the packaging plan, arguing that the Meredith agency's role as both buyer and seller of manuscripts constituted a "damaging" conflict of interest. SFWA members protested in letters and phone calls to Pocket Books, its owner Simon & Schuster and parent company Gulf + Western, and the group's attorney began warning of a possible federal antitrust suit.
"This had nothing to do with the Sturm und Drang generated by a few people in the science-fiction community," Meredith said yesterday. "And it had nothing to do with the controversy over an agent functioning as both buyer and seller." Busch conceded that the SFWA had created "a high noise level," but had no effect on the decision.
But Norman Spinrad, grievance chairman and past president of the SFWA, credited the authors' clout with breaking the deal. "We came at them from a hundred directions. Arthur Clarke got involved and he may have influenced Meredith." Potential legal problems with restraint of trade, he said, may have swayed corporate executives away from the deal. He called the split-up "the single greatest labor relations victory ever won by a writers' group in this country, except for Hollywood and the screenwriters."
"They're entitled to their point of view," Busch said, "but you really would have to question anybody who thinks that this is a labor victory. It's a business decision."
The SFWA's official statement, issued Monday, said the authors had "forced the industry to face the fact that writers are full partners in the publishing enterprise, whose rights and interests may not be cavalierly superseded by amoral, bottom-line considerations."
Spinrad said the SFWA would remain vigilant: "Our people are used to looking centuries ahead in what they do. Whereas the publishing industry hasn't reached the 20th century yet."
"There's a certain amount of gratuitous muscle-flexing going on that's counterproductive," said Busch. "What do they want to do--change the name of the organization to Don Quixote?"