Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dan Sontup on Scott Meredith

Oops... sorry, my memory of this little piece was that it was more about Sontup's career, but it's almost only about his stint at Scott Meredith's literary agency. But here goes nevertheless. There's first someone's (I don't know whose) question and then follows Sontup's answer:

When I was a beginning writer back in the 70s, teachers 'in the know' advised beginners to avoid the Scott Meredith Agency, saying he would only demand money for a reading and after getting the money would tell the author the story had no chance in the market. Do you think that was true? I never sent him anything. Maybe I missed the boat.

Here's how it worked back in the '50s (can't speak for the setup in the '70s). I started with Scott on what was called the "fee desk." Writers would pay $5 for a reading and evaluation, of which the fee desk editor got $2. Our instructions were to type at least a two-page report on each submission. (An interesting sidelight here. Lester del Rey had reworked on old Czech manual typewriter with English alphabet keys for Scott. It required a real heavy hand on the keys, but it had one big advangage -- the characters were very large type. This meant I could do the required two-page report with less wordage than a conventional manual typewriter, which the other editors used -- and this was important when trying to do as many $2 fee reports as possible in a day to make some money at the end of the week.) Also, in each report, we had to be sure to mention Scott's book, Writing to Sell, and in the case of fiction, delineate what Scott called "The Plot Skeleton," which reduced the amount of space you'd have to devote to actually discussing the submission itself. Also, when rejecting the submission, we were to make sure it was worded
so that the writer couldn't come back and say, for instance, "Well, if that's all that's wrong with the story, I'll revise it and send it back to you." The rejection had to be final and irrevocable to forestall repeat submissions of obviously
unsalable material.

If we found a manuscript that might have salable potential (which would be a rare find), we were to pass it on to the editor at the "pro desk." who at that time (a little name dropping here) was Evan Hunter, and who would make a final decision on the marketability of the manuscript. I estimated that I read through more than 200 manuscripts when I first started with Scott before I found one that I could pass on.

So, to finally answer your question -- yes, a good story would get consideration and, if marketable, would be taken on by Scott. Needless to say, this hardly every happened, because most of the submissions were from people who had not yet learned how to write.

As I said earlier, Sontup wrote this for the ShortMystery e-mail list. Tapani Bagge, who's a personal friend, is a member of that list and e-mailed this to me several years back. I've also joined since, but I don't have the time to follow the discussions there.

I've also included the only book-length work Sontup wrote (at least that I know of) - it's a novelization of the M-Squad television series, under the pseudonym David Saunders. I haven't read it.


Todd Mason said...

Have you read Barry Malzberg's memoirs of his years at SMLA?

Juri said...

Sorry, no, but I can pretty much guess what it's like. Where was it published?

Todd Mason said...

THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION in the Malzberg issue, and reprinted in BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS, his new, expanded version of THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT.

Some details, at least, might surprise you.

Todd Mason said...

And, of course, Barry's Olympia Press essay, from the OLYMPIA PRESS READER and reprinted with comments in Earl Kemp's online fanzine _eI_, would also be relevant in part.