The aspiring SF writer goes through many crises of confidence. Even Robert Heinlein asked himself "Am I good enough?" and "Is a tesseract just goofy stoner bullshit?" After he began publishing in the journal Astounding Heinlein wrote to editor John Campbell about what his rules for writing were, and under what terms he'd continue writing for the publication. This amazing epistle will either make you wonder when the transition "howsomever" went out of style, or stand up John Galt-style and trace a dollar sign in the air. We've got the full letter from the king of entertaining correspondence.


Heinlein and John W. Campbell were already friendly when he wrote him this letter on November 2, 1940. Heinlein had seen a short-story contest advertisement in another magazine, and wrote a story for it. Later he decided the story, called "Life-Line," was too good for the contest, so he sent it to Astounding. Campbell immediately accepted the story at 1 cent per word, which meant a total of $70 for the whole thing. (It appeared in the Astounding at right, and you can read it here.) In this letter — reproduced in Grumbles from the Grave, a collection of such letters — Heinlein seeks to the settle his arrangement with Astounding, and perhaps reconcile his own warring self.

He starts by describing how he rejected an offer of work from another magazine:

.. . I turned it down, stating that the rate for my own name was higher than that. (I may let them publish "Lost Legacy" under a pseudonym, as it is one that I really want to see published. I am going to give a slight amount of rewriting to make it science fiction rather than fantasy, but still let it say the things I want it to say.) Having touched on my personal policy to that extent, I feel obliged to be more specific, since it concerns you, too. I am going up, or out, in this business — never down. I don't want to write pulp bad enough to slip back into a lower word rate, a hack attitude. As long as you are editing, at Street and Smith or elsewhere, you can have my stuff, if you want it, at a cent and a quarter a word, or more if you see fit and the business office permits. I won't use an agent in dealing with you, although I now have one. Neither my name nor the name of Anson MacDonald will be made available to any other book at the rate at which you buy from me, and, if I get an offer of a better rate, I will let you know and give you refusal, as it were, before switching. I write for money and will sell elsewhere for a materially higher word rate but I feel a strong obligation to you. No other editor will get the two names you have advertised and built up at the rate you pay.


I seem to have drifted a long way from stating my own policy and intentions. I will probably go on writing, at least part time, indefinitely. If you someday find it necessary to start rejecting my stuff, I expect to take a crack at some other forms, slick perhaps, and book-form novels, and in particular a non-fiction book on finance and money theory which I have wanted to do for a long time, also some articles on various economic and social problems. I have an outlet for such things, but it would be largely a labor of love - maybe ten dollars for an article into which has gone a week of research, and slim royalties on books in that field. Howsomever, I might crack the high word rates on general fiction at the same time. One never knows - I never expected to be writing pulp, or fiction of any sort, but it has paid me my surprise! Addendum to remarks about my own policy: You may possibly feel that my wish to get out of the field of science fiction and into something else smacks of ungratefulness, in the view of the way you have treated me. That is the very reason why I am looking forward to another field. I dislike very much to have business relations with a close personal friend. The present condition in which you like and buy everything I write may go on for years. If so — fine! Everybody is happy. But it would be no pleasure to you to have to reject my stuff, and certainly no pleasure to me. And it can happen at any time — your editorial policy may change, or my style or approach may change, or I simply may go stale. When it does occur, I want to cut if off short without giving it a chance to place a strain on our friendship. I don't want it to reach a point where you would view the reception of one my manuscripts with a feeling of, "For Christ's sake, why doesn't he peddle his tripe somewhere else. He knows I hate to turn him down."

And I don't want to greet a series of returned manuscripts in my mailbox with a feeling of, "Good God, what does he expect for a cent and a quarter a word? The New Testament?" Nor do I want you taking borderline stories from me simply because you hate to bounce them. I suspected that might be the case with the tesseract story.


'Heinlein Gets The Last Word' by Kurt Vonnegut on December 9, 1990 [The New York Times]