How to Sell to John W. Campbell

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Here’s a piece Harry Harrison wrote for the Science Fiction Writers of America bulletin back in 1969, when John W. Campbell was still editor of Analog. Still worth a read for the advice and anecdotes I think – including the origins of that classic HH story The Man from P.I.G.

How to Sell to John W. Campbell, or, Psionics in One Easy Lesson
by Harry Harrison
(1969)

Two things have prompted this expose. Firstly, a writer friend of mine, one of the best in the business, asked me how it was done, since he had never managed a sale there. I would like to give him an honest answer. Secondly, I think the quality of most of the fiction in ASF is so low that we should all work hard to improve it. If the estimable Mr. Campbell receives only trash writing by literarily ambitious engineers he can print only t.w.b.l.a.e.

To begin with, it helps to be a born Campbell writer. I know, I know: I hear the screams now, this is no answer. If you grew up with ASF, panting monthly, waiting for the new copy to appear, you are halfway home. I did and I still love the magazine, hunchbacked and deformed as it is at times. If you do not like ASF type fiction from one of its many periods, then just give up, Jack, and try the other markets.

Alright, so you like one of the forms of ASF during its varied history. Think your stories in that era to begin with. Then face the idea that John Campbell buys ideas, concepts, not fancy writing. He is a mean and tough editor and can instantly put his finger on the holes in your plot or where you went wrong, but he does this as a secondary thing. It is the idea that counts. If the idea is right, all he asks of the writing is that it be literate and cover the ground well enough to convey the idea. He’ll buy great writing — he has in the past — but he does not ask for it nor look forward to receiving it. That is mainly what is wrong with the magazine now. His attitude, which he has expressed in print many times, “Come on, all you PhD’s, and lab types, earn yourself a new camera or such by batting out a little story…” has produced some of the most incredibly foul fiction ever to blind the eyes of western man. I assume that the concept is worked out correctly in every story, John would not have bought it if it wasn’t, but that does not make a readable story.

I also assume that John will read this so the preceding should prove the next very important point. You can argue with the man. I’m not saying that you’ll win, that’s a right difficult thing (even when you know you are right) but you can express your own point of view. So that it is not necessary to adhere slavishly to Campbellian theories expressed in the past. Break new ground and see what happens.

The next best thing you can do is come to New York and visit the editor on his home ground. Any writer with a decent excuse will be admitted to the lair. Come prepared to think, it will be expected of you. Come prepared to remember, because you’ll find ideas winging your way thick and fast. I’ve met a lot of writers in my lifetime but none ever came close to Campbell in sheer ability to produce ideas, concepts, complete plots and theories at such a continuous clip. Grab onto the ideas that fit your own interests, then rush home and write them. You may still get a reject, the writing up of a Campbell idea does not guarantee the man will buy, but at least you know that you are on the right track. What he talks about, he is interested in and if you can fit a workable concept and story to material the editor likes, you are already halfway home.

Enough theory. How about a frinstance? I was in the middle of Deathworld 3 (The Horse Barbarians in ASF) when John sent me a ream of material about pigs and how they might be used in combat. He suggested the use of war pigs in the novel. I balked, mainly because I think that there is something inherently funny about pigs and this kind of broad humor did not fit into the grim and bloody battle scenes I was doing. But the basic idea was still appealing. I kept thinking about it and dug the relevant articles and books out of the library. I was soon an amateur swineologist and even before I finished the novel, I took time off to do a story called The Man from P.I.G. which went off to ASF and was purchased. In this I pivoted a lot about the humor and the yarn reeks of bacon and lard jokes; squeals and flat flanks. Good fun! I have since expanded the novelette and sold it to Avon as a children’s book. (This was Avon’s editor’s idea; he must know a lot more about kids’ taste than I do.) Before I was through, I did a lot of work on pigs and turned a nice piece of cash. But let me not forget who suggested the basic idea in the first place and started to ball rolling.

All of this sage advice is worthless if you don’t know the difference between a concept-story and a writing-story. (These definitions are wholly artificial and germane only to their present usage in reference to selling ASF) Take an issue of ASF and one of F & SF and read them closely. On a sheet of paper write a single sentence describing the plot of each story. (Example, ‘The Cold Equations’: a girl who does not know the basic difference between manmade and natural laws must die of her ignorance.) On a second sheet do the same for F & SF. (Example, Vance Aandahl’s recent ‘An Adventure in the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness’: the consequences of forcing a primeval act and its implications upon an individual so insulated by technology from the natural as to be unable to comprehend or deal with it.) If you can’t see any difference, well, forget about selling Campbell. (Probably forget about writing for a living, too.)

Most important. Don’t be a slave to John Campbell’s theories and beliefs and feed them back to him as stories . He doesn’t buy them as often as you think. And even if he does buy them — for lack of anything better around — you have sold yourself down the river. What have you accomplished by repeating stale ideas? Wasted your own time and the readers’. Stand up, think, fight. Look at Mack Reynold’s Russian and African stories. You’ll see ideas there that are directly opposed to those the editor holds. All Campbell asks is equal time. I know. I have just danced this one in a novel titled In Our Hands, the Stars, that he bought for serialization… but only after we had exchanged a half dozen 6 and 7 page letters. He pointed out errors in science which I happily changed. He pointed out a propaganda speech by one of my characters that he disagreed with completely. I did not take it out — but gave the opposing opinions equal time instead and wrote in a speech by another character that presents the other point of View. Why not? It doesn’t alter my story in the slightest, and it assumes a measure of intelligence on the part of the reader who can then decided between the opposed attitudes.

If you don’t like the kind of stories you have been reading in Analog of late, don’t complain… write something better for the editor to buy. Dig in and read your file copies of the magazine. Discover what it means to take an idea or concept or postulate or invention and how to play with it in a story. Face the fact that at ASF this concept comes first and rules the form. Entertainment, character, story, plot — all hang from it and do not alter it.

There is a nickel a word waiting for anyone who can face the fact that this Concept is King at ASF — and who can then write a good story about a clear-cut and (hopefully) new idea.

First published in SFWA Bulletin, vol.7 no.1 (#25), 1969.

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