The Long Goodbye

As 2003 slides into the dustbin of history, a major SF/fantasy imprint goes with it: Earthlight is no more. Launched in 1997 by the publishers Simon & Schuster UK, with long-time science fiction fan and editor John Jarrold at the helm, Earthlight rapidly became a high-profile player in the British SF scene. Now it's goodbye.

Why do these things happen? The word is that Simon & Schuster came under pressure from their parent multinational to do a little downsizing. Since SF and fantasy are reliable earners, accounting for roughly 10% of total book sales in Britain, you wouldn't expect the cuts to begin with an asset like Earthlight. Private Eye made pretty much this point in its coverage.

But mere logic may be helpless against prejudice. Pat Cadigan, who runs regular SF discussions at Borders in Oxford Street, made Earthlight the theme of her next event after the bad news. Afflicted authors and editors, and representatives of other publishers, gathered together and worked up a fine head of indignation. Some tasty stories emerged ...

Apparently the S&S supremo Ian Chapman, who became managing director in 2002, just doesn't like SF. Earthlight's founding editor John Jarrold – who left for undisclosed reasons very soon after Chapman came aboard – announced that even as he walked the plank he'd bet a pal that Earthlight would die in 12 to 18 months' time, just as soon as the vibrant new MD could fudge up an excuse to axe it. The end of the imprint was announced just within a year.

Michael Moorcock, in a letter to Ansible, expressed himself rather more robustly: 'S&S have gone to the dogs since John Jarrold and Co. left. Scribner went to the dogs, too.... They did Mother London and London Bone while S&S did the fantasy. Everyone left more or less at once. Ian Chapman's the common denominator in that, I'd say. Didn't like his dad and don't like him. I told them to fuck off.' (Originally I made the mistake of quoting this without a discreet asterisk, and the e-mail edition of my SF newsletter was bounced by prudish software in several places, including the Houses of Parliament.)

Scribner, mentioned in Moorcock's rant, is an S&S "mainstream" imprint. It acquired a dubious reputation among SF fans thanks to its cackhanded publication of Christopher Priest's alternate history novel The Separation. Announced as a June 2002 hardback, this wrong-footed the book trade by being furtively released two months late, in paperback only (a useful way to discourage newspaper reviews), with the promise of a special publicity effort as compensation. The special publicity budget, it seemed, was zero. Even so, The Separation rapidly sold out – many SF dealers found its status went straight from "not yet published" to "out of print". A mysterious reluctance to reprint despite rave reviews and award nominations made the book virtually unobtainable when it won the 2003 BSFA Award and, soon afterward, the coveted Arthur C. Clarke Award.

So Earthlight authors were not entirely thrilled by the promise that with the specialist imprint abolished, their books will now appear in one or other of the S&S mainstream lines under overall fiction editor Ben Ball, and "will enjoy the benefits of belonging to the main body of the fiction list." Exactly what happened to The Separation ... As Earthlight editor Darren Nash complained, "The trade press have printed Chapman's corporate double-speak without mentioning the obvious loss of focus on genre titles."

Indeed it's a depressing story. After all the effort of creating Earthlight, Jarrold felt that "five years of my life, heart and soul, have now gone for nothing." Still less happy is Nash, who took over from Jarrold as senior editor, giving up a lucrative marketing job after reassurances that Earthlight would of course be kept going. Then he learned in July 2003 that he'd be sacked at the end of September. What SF writers most of all want is an editor who knows, loves and supports their genre. S&S had one. They fired him.

Some Earthlight authors – Priest included – fled to more sympathetic publishers like Gollancz, but there won't be room for them all. Meanwhile Gollancz's parent company the Orion Group has had its own upheaval, with the Chief Executive, Anthony Cheetham, suddenly getting the boot in September. That's good news for Gollancz, though, because this reshuffle also elevated SF lover (and former fanzine publisher) Malcolm Edwards to the exalted role of "Deputy Chief Executive and Publisher" – second-in-command for the whole of Orion. Gollancz, unlike Earthlight, has a friend in high places ... unless the corporate wheel of fortune that did for Cheetham should take another random turn.

As if all this weren't enough excitement for 2003, the next surprise was that Rocket Publishing, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's corporate presence in Britain, is having a round of savage cutbacks. This means no more funding for the Clarke Award event, now a regular high spot of the SF social calendar. Sir Arthur's £2004 award cheque will still be presented in 2004, but will it happen in a pub or a Macdonald's rather than the luxurious surroundings of the Science Museum? Stay tuned ...

David Langford is still failing to downsize his stomach.

Afterword, April 2004: It's only fair to note that despite all the (justifiable, I think) viewing with alarm that appears above, Simon & Schuster have so far continued to issue and promote sf and fantasy titles as nice-looking S&S titles or Pocket paperbacks. In the longer term ... we shall see.