Saturday, 11 June 2011

The page worth $10

It was the name of a Ray Bradbury story too - okay, it was that to start with - but mainly it was a tiny, stuffy, absolutely brilliant science fiction bookshop tucked away in a maze of streets along of St Martin’s Lane. There was barely room to turn around between the shelves that were stuffed to bursting point with paperbacks from the US and copies of Galaxy, F&SF and Worlds of If. Every one of them priceless - and only seven shillings and sixpence.

It was there I discovered Coven 13, the Weird Tales of my generation for a brief, brief moment, but this isn’t a nostalgia trip. I want to talk about the value of giving stuff away. The value to the author, that is.

The shop was run by Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes, whose wife must’ve taken pity on a tubby schoolboy balancing a pile of books he could hardly see over, because she vanished out the back and returned with a load of stapled pages from SF magazines. The originals had got damaged in transit from the States, but they couldn’t bear to just throw them away so they'd salvaged the pages they could.

Okay, basically what I was being offered was a bunch of stories by the likes of Brunner and Moorcock and Pohl and Silverberg. For free. As long as I didn’t mind not having the covers. So, Moses, you want these tablets or not?

A few years ago, after moving to Surrey and then back to London, I was carrying boxes back into our renovated house when I came across that pile of salvaged stories. (Do I have hoarding issues? No no no, I sold my Stingray kit and my Corgi Aston Martin DB5 with box and secret code sheet.) Improvising a sofa out of cardboard boxes and the Ikea flatpacks I was supposed to be turning into bookshelves, I started reading “Wizard Ship” by F Haines Price, torn from the pages of Worlds of If for November 1968. And, you have to understand, this was from the days before Star Wars. SF was the real deal then - we even said it stood for ‘speculative fiction’ - and, despite its title, the story most definitely was not about sword-wielding heroes and mystical galactic princesses.

Anyway, just like that damned whodunit you find on holiday, the last page of the story was of course missing. After a gap of forty years, I could defer gratification no longer. Technology, though it withheld the flying cars and fusion drives we were promised, in the interim at least has given us eBay, so I only had to pay $10 and postage to see how the story ended. By curious coincidence, that's pretty much what 7s/6d would have inflated to over the four decades.

How does that sound as a sales model? You give away 99% of your story and people pay because, because… they just have to know. Okay, done just like that it mostly wouldn’t work. Too many other distractions, too many movies and books and music downloads demanding our time. But the idea of giving away the first third, say, of your story? That I like. If you’re gripped by what you’ve seen, you’ll want to read the rest. And if you aren’t - well, in that case we wouldn’t have done our job properly and we wouldn’t deserve your money, now, would we?

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