SF Book Club

On Monday Publishers Weekly reported that Bertelsmann would overhaul its Book Club business, restructuring a number of specialty book clubs and eliminating 280 jobs. It also announced that it would close Madison Park Press, its 18-month-old original publishing arm, to focus on its book club business.

The impact of these decisions on the science fiction community was immediate. While there have been no official announcements, it appears that both long-serving Science Fiction Book Club Editor-in-Chief Ellen Asher and Senior Editor Andrew Wheeler have lost their positions with the company. Given that they were the only editors working for the fifty-four-year-old SFBC, it seems likely that Bertelsmann will ultimately combine the SFBC with its main Doubleday Book Club.

Bertelsmann’s decision to close Madison Park Press will also impact on the SF community. Although the SFBC has primarily reprinted existing trade books, it has a long history of publishing exclusive omnibus volumes, and has recently published a number of original anthologies edited by the likes of Marvin Kaye, Mike Resnick, Gardner Dozois, and Jack Dann, one of which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology last year. Although Bertelsmann’s announcement makes it clear that it will honor existing commitments (and my own queries have confirmed this), it seems certain that the books currently under contract will be the final original books to be published by the SFBC for the forseeable future.

It’s too early to say what the long-term impact of these decisions on the science fiction field will be. Certainly, losing highly respected and knowledgeable editors like Asher and Wheeler has got to be a bad thing for the industry, and any contraction of the SFBC, which has a history of providing access to economical editions of new science fiction and fantasy direct to readers that stretches back to 1953, would be enormously disappointing.

On a more personal note, I have been working with Andrew Wheeler at the SFBC since 2003, when we worked on the first volume of the ‘Best Short Novels’ series. During the past four years we’ve assembled four books (BSN: 2004; 2005; 2006; and 2007) that I’m incredibly proud of, and were in the midst of preparing another one (an original anthology called Godlike Machines). Andy, Ellen, Mike McCormack, and the various other people that I dealt with in design, accounting and so on were all highly professional and a pleasure to deal with. I can only hope that things will work out well for all of them. I’d certainly be happy to work with any of them again, and hope that I get the chance to do so.

25 thoughts on “SF Book Club”

  1. I can tell you that this will be hard on NESFA Press, for one; the SFBC often bought rights to our books, and served to get NESFA’s name more widely viewed. (Since they often used our covers, only changing the logo, it will be a blow to both authors and artists, who got to renegotiate SFBC contracts.) I believe NESFA isn’t the only small press that will be hurt by this move.

  2. Sorry to say, if things play out as you speculate, the SFBC will lose me as a member (of and on — mostly on — since 1965). I continued as a member almost entirely for the club’s original editions (these days of steep discounts from online retailers makes reprint bookclub editions less economically attractive). Your Best Short Novels and the original anthologies were highlights of recent Club offerings, and I would hope that Ellen and Andrew find homes elsewhere in the SF publishing community.

  3. Whatever happens now, it’s truly the end of an era.

    As a former book club colleague of Ellen’s and Andy’s (I was SFBC Assistant Editor when Andy came on board as Ellen’s Editorial Assistant), I find it hard to picture that great institution without them.

    Ellen and I used to joke that she would “die in the saddle” and only then would I succeed her. When I left the clubs in 1995 — by then having become editor of the Military Book Club — to try my hand in trade publishing, I was confident that Andy would make an even better heir apparent. Bertelsmannn’s management cadre should be ashamed that that will now not come to pass.

    Ellen can look back proudly on over 34 years of strong and principled leadership, profitable management, and service to the field during both the Doubleday and Bertelsmann eras. Having exceeded John W. Campbell’s record by 7 months, she will likely never be superseded as the longest-serving SF editor in history.

    She now faces some major adjustments in her life, a complete change from 34 years of relentless deadlines. I’m sure the whole SF industry joins me in wishing her a retirement at least as happy and fulfilling as her distinguished career has been.

    While Ellen’s graceful departure resembles the happy ending of a long, satisfying epic saga, Andrew Wheeler’s situation is more like a Russian (or should I say German?) tragedy of injustice. The fact that his name is on the list of laid off employees is mind boggling. That the club’s new BMG management would voluntarily deprive themselves of the services of such a talented and respected editor at a difficult time of transition attests to their shortsightedness, stupidity, and ignorance. Short of shutting down the club completely, it’s hard to imagine anything they could have done that would more completely ruin their reputation in the SF/Fantasy field and the wider world of publishing. If the club now fails as a result, the idiots responsible for this management fiasco and miscarriage of justice will well deserve to have their own heads roll.

    Meanwhile, any publisher out there in need of a solid, diligent, hardworking and smart editor, should snap up Andy post haste.

  4. Been a member since the early 60s and will hate to see it disappear. Even with all the review copies I receive, their originals and omnibus volumes are near and dear to my heart.

    Good luck to Ellen and Andrew, I’m sure someone will snap them up.

  5. This is hard to accept. I’ve been a member (on and off) for 35 years. I am not a “collector” but I like to keep books I have enjoyed and reread them. SFBC gave me the chance to buy hardcover books more cheaply. The original SFBC collections have been terrific. In fact the last book I bought was BEST SHORT NOVELS 2007. Perhaps it will unfortunately be the last.

  6. I was a member throughout my teens and twenties and only stopped once I began to get review copies because I was in the field.

    I thank Ellen and Andrew for their hard work and congratulate Ellen on her breaking the Campbell record!

  7. The SFBC helped change my life as a kid in the early 1950s and, like Ellen Datlow, I got review copies from the late 1980s onward. I worked at Signet books with Ellen in my first, and her first, publishing job, and regard her as one of the important living editors of SF, and of them perhaps the most underappreciated. This whole thing is a travesty.

    David

  8. Although I haven’t been a SFBC member for years I will nevertheless miss it. Back in the pre-Amazon.com days it was one of the few places that one could get reasonably priced hardbacks along with their great omnibus editions. It is truly the end of an era.

  9. I’ve been a member off and on since 1978. I recently rejoined soley for the omnibuses, originals and reprints. There’s always been something special about opening up the new SFBC brochure every month…

    Good luck Ellen and Andrew!

  10. This is serious, to Ellen, to Andy, to their supplying publishers, authors, artists . . . and to the libraries across the United States which benefitted so much from SFBC’s reliable productivity.

    Without SFBC, I doubt readers in small towns (such as where I grew up) would ever have seen so much top-flight and varied sfnal literature.

    Ellen, Andy – happy landings to you.

  11. The Bean Counters seem to have forgotten how to count beans.What’s the phrase? Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
    I’m another of those long time members of the SFBC. Since the mid=sixties. Most recent club purchase is Seeker. I also buy most of their original anthologies i.e. best short novels series, etc.
    It is not likely that I will remain a member of some amalgamated mutant of a number of clubs as that was not why I joined the SFBC.
    So – can we boycott Bertelsman or some other way make our displeasure known to them? Should we deluge them with e-mails? Or should we all send them ” nuts ” by the truck load?
    When MS. Asher and Mr. Wheeler get new editing jobs I shall purchase what they put out.

  12. I just got what will probably be my last SFBC book in the mail. It was the new Best Short Novels of 2007. It, and other original collections like it, were the major items I’ve purchased from the SFBC in recent years. (As an earlier poster said, their reprints of novels aren’t as atractive these days, with the discounts given by Amazon and others.)

    I’ll miss the SFBC. I’ve been a member since about 1970 or so, when, like many others, I got my copy of the Boucher two-volume Treasury of Great SF.

  13. Wow. I’m another long-term member (1976), who almost literally discovered SF through the club. I re-joined a few years ago because I got tired of trying to find all the SFBC original anthologies on eBay. I found myself very impressed with the editors, and Andrew in particular.

    This is a shame. I’ve run a few companies and had to do a number of layoffs myself, and I know that no matter how idiotic they look from the outside, companies rarely go through that kind of pain unless they’ve exhausted all other options. I have to assume SFBC was simply a marginal enterprise in this age of quick online ordering, and perhaps wasn’t growing the way it once did.

    Another shame. All the more so because I suspect the changing book-buying habits of SF fans are just as much (or perhaps, just a little bit more) to blame as “idiotic bean counters” across the ocean.

    – John

    John O’Neill

  14. I first joined the SFBC when I was 11 years old. My neighbor, an elderly man, encouraged me to read and helped me sign up for the club. That led to a lifetime of reading and critical thinking.

    I just rejoined a few months ago, and I interviewed Andrew for my podcast, Adventures in Scifi Publishing. He was very kind, and we’ve shared many emails since.

    This news saddens me deeply. I was looking forward to years of original collections. I wish Andrew and Ellen the best.

  15. What a shame! Ellen and Andrew are two of the best. I fail to see how this will serve readers better. The times they are a changin’. We’ll miss those SFBC collections and the editorial comments. Bad decision.

  16. I’d also like to note that also among those laid off from Bookspan was Senior Editor Jay Franco. Jay didn’t work exclusively for SFBC–he looked after the Military Book Club as well–but was very much a part of SFBC’s growth, particularly with its “Altiverse” subset devoted to graphic novels.

    Ellen, Andrew, and Jay–and the other Bookspan-ers who I’ve also heard were let go–are indeed class acts, and I hope that they land well soon.

  17. Don’t blame the beancounters. SFBC is the victim of VHS thinking in a DVD age. Science fiction showed us how contant and unpredictable change is, yet it was a lesson sf publishers refused to teach themselves. The future is here and sf never saw it coming.

  18. I’m not surprised. Publishing has been suffering more and more under Wall Street financials. I was worried about SFBC seeing all their specials — on shipping or books, as if they had to make more sales NOW. It was not a balanced situation.
    An editor in a company taken over by a Dutch conglomerate told me that, in a meeting, an accountant from the new boss company announced that they did not “like people.” As if their earnings came from robots! So it goes.

  19. Been a member since 66..and it truly sucks shince the change..no sf for the most part..not collections. It’s a dead sf club if you ask me.

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