Second Thoughts

As cosmic-minded visionaries of the future, it's healthful for us – once in a while – to reappraise established books and authors. You wouldn't believe the number of Piers Anthony unreadables I've acquired in hope of another Chthon, another Macroscope, even another Prostho Plus.... This applies to reference works too: for ages I toddled along with the 1976 Concise Oxford Dictionary, secure in the knowledge that at least it included the word fanzine and defined it right, but now the 1983 Chambers goes further to include fandom as well, while the much-touted, computer-set, space-age Collins (1979) makes no mention of either. (Credit where credit's due, my 1979 Webster's Unabridged has both: take another bow, American culture.)

The reference work at which I've just been taking a cold second look is the book for writers, the one we instinctively recommend to the aspirant, the one officially approved by the Society of Authors: the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 1984, 77th edition of an "indispensable handbook for writers" (A & C Black, 510pp, £4.50). And though its coverage of British publishers is more or less OK, I come more and more to think that this respected institution deserves a swift kick in the rear.

What do we, as SF fans, look for in the famous tome? First, a quick perfunctory glance to confirm that Britain's only SF magazine is duly listed ... oh dear, no, there is no mention of Interzone. Have a look under the classified index for short-story markets: again no Interzone, but here and in the main listing we do find Ad Astra, which died the death in 1981. (Isn't Vole dead too? It's listed just the same.) We do not find Practical Computing at the back under fiction, despite an apparent awareness in the magazine listing that PC does at least exist and publishes short stories – usually SF – featuring computers. Granta, Penthouse, Mayfair, The Fiction Magazine and others are similarly acknowledged as existing but not, in the classified index, as publishing fiction. A number of widely distributed magazines are simply not mentioned at all: from my own pet markets I note Knave (occasional humorous SF between the tit pictures) and the games-oriented thingies Imagine (short fiction every issue, invariably SF or fantasy) and White Dwarf (occasional short fiction, and every month the supremely wonderful Langford SF review column).

The number of computer magazines likewise omitted is truly boggling. There are millions of the wretched things, as we all know, swarming over the newsstands and displacing everything we're actually looking for ... only according to this up-to-the-minute 1984 edition of the Yearbook there are only four. (Computing, Computing Today, Practical Computing and Your Computer, if you really must know. Three different ones, Which Micro?, Microcomputer Printout and Personal Computer World, are recommended as being "reasonably accessible" in the Yearbook article on word-processing, yet don't merit entries in the magazine list.)

Now admittedly there is a caveat in the Yearbook introduction. "Many journals do not appear in our lists because the market they offer for the freelance writer is either too small, or too specialised, or both." This is presumably why there are only four computer mags, along with eight devoted to stamp collecting, and twenty-seven under "Health, Medicine and Nursing", and the thirty-four publications for the blind. As for markets which are "too small" in financial terms, surely no one pays less than did Ad Astra....

I begin to suspect that the Yearbook's editors can't be bothered to keep in touch and do a decent job of all-round updating. So far this is only a suspicion, so let's try a small experiment. From year to year the same old articles on copyright, libel, tax and so on (useful articles, for the most part) are reprinted with minimal editing in each Yearbook. Though, to digress a moment, there's a lack of overall viewpoint: the high-tech article on word-processing comes immediately after one on book production which is still talking about metal type and gives no hint that computer-setting techniques are making proof corrections a whole lot cheaper.

Under "Public Lending Right", the subject of our experiment, there traditionally appears a history of the long-unsuccessful PLR campaign. Thus the 1979 Yearbook's two-page article stops with the defeat of the 1977 PLR bill in Parliament; 1980 adds two paragraphs recording the successful 1979 bill; 1981 has a slightly shorter piece, tactfully edited to remove a bit about vile librarians opposing PLR. By the time of the 1984 edition, though, PLR registration was in full swing. One would expect a completely rewritten article which, like those on tax or copyright, informed writers of all the fiddly details – how to register, eligibility restrictions, and all that. What one actually gets is the same old article as in 1981 (itself of some venerability), full of dusty historical detail, with one added paragraph giving the address of the PLR Registrar. It's as though the article on tax were highly informative on – say – the period from Morton's Fork to the introduction of VAT, then threw in the Inland Revenue's current address and left it at that.

In short: the Yearbook may well be worth £4.50 as a handy compilation of things like publishers' addresses (I mostly use it for their telephone numbers, since I don't live in London), but its coverage suffers from great holes. Like the British Rail Timetable in the field of transport, it's the most accessible reference to be found; like the BR timetable, though ... No need to finish that sentence. (Remind me to use this carefully devised simile next time I automatically recommend the Yearbook to a seeker after Total Literary Enlightenment.) Consult the book by all means, but warily.