How did Harlan Ellison make a living?
July 5, 2020 4:27 PM   Subscribe

This is obviously none of my business, but I've always been curious and he's dead, so: how did Harlan Ellison make a living? He wrote a bunch of short fiction over the years, sure, and intermittently wrote for TV (mostly in the '60s and '70s), but it doesn't seem like it'd be enough to get by. Was one season of "The Starlost" plus the settlement from The Terminator plus short fiction royalties really enough to live on for the rest of his life? (I always wondered if he'd inherited money...)
posted by The Tensor to Work & Money (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: He was an incredibly prolific short story writer (1700 stories if Wikipedia is to be believed) and writing used to pay more. Later in his career he did public appearances in addition to writing. He also did voiceover work which pays decently. You can see his bibliography here.
posted by jessamyn at 4:34 PM on July 5, 2020 [12 favorites]

It used to be possible to make a living writing short fiction. It's still possible to make a living as a jobbing TV writer and as a voiceover artist. And you might be underestimating just how much TV writing he did. IMDB gives him writing credits for thirty different TV shows.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:43 PM on July 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, nothing about his career tracks to me as "How was this guy making money?" even before I got to the 1980 lawsuit where he won $337,000 (just over a million in today's dollars).
posted by General Malaise at 4:49 PM on July 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

He was a crank, and he was also a cranker (in terms of cranking out many words profligately). He was also a journalist and sold many articles to magazines.
posted by ovvl at 5:37 PM on July 5, 2020

Response by poster: 1700 stories if Wikipedia is to be believed

ISFDB lists 330 stories and another 575 essays. I guess they don't pay much individually, but it adds up over time. I'm just used to hearing that short fiction doesn't pay the bills, it's novels (and especially series of novels) that produce a long-term income for a writer.

IMDB gives him writing credits for thirty different TV shows.

Sure, but that's spread out over a forty-year career, and it thins out over time:
  • 1960-64: 10 credits
  • 1965-69: 7 credits
  • 1970-74: 18 credits (including that season of "The Starlost")
  • 1975-79: 1 credit
  • 1980-84: 3 credits
  • 1985-89: 5 credits (all from the new Twilight Zone)
  • the '90s: 8 credits
  • 21st century: 3 credits

posted by The Tensor at 5:47 PM on July 5, 2020

I don't remember the exact details (I'd have to dig through some books to find them), but sometime in the 70's he actually incorporated as The Kilimanjaro Corporation, and copyright & publishing control was under that name. I believe part of the reason for this was in order to gain more control of and better terms for older stories and books being reprinted and republished.

IOW, he was getting more money for older material than a lot of his contemporaries.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:50 PM on July 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm just used to hearing that short fiction doesn't pay the bills, it's novels (and especially series of novels) that produce a long-term income for a writer.

It doesn’t now, but it was very possible to make a decent living writing and selling short fiction before the 2000s and especially before the 1980s. Pretty much all magazines bought and published short fiction, and there were many short fiction only periodicals, as well.
posted by Automocar at 6:02 PM on July 5, 2020 [12 favorites]

Best answer: 1700 short stories, with the pay scale weighted much higher for earlier shorts, would have netted Harlan Ellison a couple of million, in old money. Add to that Creative Consultant/EP for Babylon 5 (show and movies) with syndication rights, over 100 episodes, would have led to a healthy annual residuals check. Same with Twilight Zone. His final net worth would have been reasonably in the tens of millions.
posted by lemon_icing at 6:17 PM on July 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

It didn't hurt that he wrote some very popular stories and got paid for them being anthologized. " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", for example, was translated into other languages 14 times and anthologized dozens and dozens of times.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:17 PM on July 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

I never read any of his works in magazines but rather short story collections sold as books. All he really needed to do was write an introduction to the story collections and then you have a book. And many of the more famous stories were republished in multiple collections. That's a small amount of work for him and another source of income (although I have no clue how much he would've earned from those).

Here's a list of publications just for one story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"
posted by acidnova at 6:19 PM on July 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ellison’s Pay The Writer rant is probably pertinent.
posted by zamboni at 6:57 PM on July 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: His IMDB credits only list the works he wrote that got made. Many screenwriters in Hollywood have made a career of optioning their scripts even if they never get made such as his unproductive script for “I, Robot.”
posted by cazoo at 6:59 PM on July 5, 2020 [10 favorites]

Which he then turned into a book for even more money!
posted by Chrysostom at 8:13 PM on July 5, 2020

Best answer: I guess they don't pay much individually, but it adds up over time. I'm just used to hearing that short fiction doesn't pay the bills, it's novels (and especially series of novels) that produce a long-term income for a writer.

IMO there's an element of lucky timing here - by the time the market & pay for short stories started to die out in the 80's, he'd already written enough "classics" that, as others have noted, a lot of his work was pretty constantly in print in anthologies and collections.

Many screenwriters in Hollywood have made a career of optioning their scripts even if they never get made

Yeah. I heard him speak a couple of times and I definitely got the impression that for all of his complaining about Hollywood he spent a pretty fair amount of time working on scripts and story ideas for movies and TV shows (that he would have been paid for) even if they never got made or retained enough of his material for him to receive an official WGA screen credit.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:16 PM on July 5, 2020

Best answer: Isaac Asimov was a close contemporary of Ellison, similarly prolific, worked in the same general genre and publishing milieu to a degree, and generally had a similar sort of career trajectory, though of course different in many particulars.

If you can stand to read Asimov's autobiographies (which, though long, are a pretty quick read and I personally enjoyed 20 years ago. But boy did they not age well in the aftermath of the #MeToo era . . . ), he details blow-by-blow in a pretty high level of detail, story by story, book by book, sale by sale, anthology by anthology, year by year and sometimes even month by month, exactly how he managed to take his career from a young guy who made $30 here and there writing short stories on the weekend, to someone who made a very respectable annual salary and eventually became rather well-to-do, as a writer.

Many of the things other posters have outlined above are exactly true to form. But just one example: Asimove realized that, once he had something of a back-catalog of short stories, that this back catalog had a pretty decent annual value as the various stories were anthologized. So you do what you can to promote that (in addition to realizing, the more new stuff you churn out the larger your back catalog becomes, and so it is a bit of a compound interest problem), but also: What if **I** become the anthologer?

Now you as the anthologer are getting the same cut of the book as all of the contributing author put together, and in addition you're almost certain to include one or two of your own short stories to round out the collection, so now you're making the $$$ on both ends.

Speaking engagements are also very lucrative (and still are, I guess).

And with all of these things, there is a sort of a virtuous cycle. The more groups you speak to, the better known you are as a speaker, thus the higher quality gigs you can bring in and the higher the fee you can command. Meanwhile you cachet gather as a well-known author adds to your cachet (and fee potential) as a speaker, and both of those make you more desirable as an anthologizer, and then all of that adds back into your stature and draw as a writer.

The particular niche the Asimov found that paid the rent and such, was non-fiction writing. He discovered that if he wrote a basic book aimed at 6th graders or 12th graders or whatever entitled "Young Persons's Guide to the Solar System" then there is an empty spot on the shelf of every library in the English-speaking world for that. A ready-made market. And once you have sold 2 or 3 of them, now you are a known quantity in the library world and every subsequent similar volume you can produce will sell predictably and well.

And then you can repeat this trick for literally every topic in the Dewey Decimal catalog. Not only that, but in ten years you can come back with "Asimov's UPDATED Young Person's Guide to the Solar System" and it will probably sell better than the first one did. Then you can repeat that across all your previous non-fiction works, ad infinitum.

So, there's you bread and butter.

I think Ellison's bread and butter was the TV and movie work. I'm sure it paid if anything quite a bit more than Asimov's non-fiction did. But it would similar in the sense that someone who can write quickly and well, who never has writer's block, who can always produce that workable script by 8am Monday morning from the mess that was dropped off on the doorstep at 10pm Saturday--that kind of person could always make a very respectable living writing for TV & film in those days.

(Maybe they still can--I don't know.)

And all that builds on itself when you have a reputation across the industry as someone who can do that, who is the go-to person for certain kinds of projects.
posted by flug at 10:52 PM on July 5, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: > I'm just used to hearing that short fiction doesn't pay the bills, it's novels (and especially series of novels) that produce a long-term income for a writer.

I don't think it is novels per se but rather books as opposed to short stories--which tend to be a one-time sale to a periodical. The short story sale pays for your time to write and re-write the story maybe, but that's it. One and done.

Whereas books had (have?) residuals, reprintings, etc etc etc. A steady annual source of income if you can get a number of them selling steadily. And the more you become a "known author" with a decent back catalog the more all of your new and old books reinforce each other and keep both the new sales and the back catalog sales going.

And series, yeah, but they can be series of novels or maybe . . . other things. Book things, but there are a lot more possibilities for things that are books and that can be made into series of some sort, beyond just novels.

The idea of the "series" is that the person (or, say, library) who buys volume 1 of X will probably buy volume 2 they next year and then volume 3 and so on to however many you can churn out.

But X can be novels or the kind of non-novel book series that Ellison churned out in spades. They have the exact same dynamic.

(Asimov and a bunch of other such authors followed a similar formula, which is as you have realized, a marketing scheme as much as anything. But once you have written "Asimov's Guide to Astronomy," "Asimov's Guide to Physics," "Asimov's Guide to Chemistry," "Asimov's Guide to Biology," etc etc then there is a series right there, and every new "Asimov's Guide to X" that you can pump out that might very well sell better than 99% of the series of novels on the market.)

If you take a gander at Ellison's bibliography, the first thing you will see is a respectable list of published novels. So yeah, novels. They are books and they sell and he has a respectable number of them.

But then . . . short story collections. A . . . whole lot of them. Lots more than the novels.

Then Retrospectives and omnibus collections. And yeah, there are more of these than novels, too. And, they're all books and don't forget to notice the series within that list.

Nonfiction - all the same points apply. They are books, they sell, there are a good number of them. About as many nonfiction books as novels.

Remember what I mentioned about anthologies above? Asimov caught onto this at some point in his career and pumped out a few anthologies every year from then on. (Relatively) easy to produce, lucrative, good for everyone involved, and they sell.

Anthologies are books. They sell at the same general price point as novels. They're as good as a novel in many ways and a lot easier to produce. And you can easily turn them into series, whether it's "Edgeworks 1, 2, 3, etc" or "Dangerous Visions" and then "Again, Dangerous Visions" or whether it's just the next volume of Ellison's short stories--which form a very, very lengthy and extensive sort of series of books in their own right. And a series that had a pretty decent audience for it, if I recall.

(In fact the long series of short story anthologies has a lot of the advantages of a series of novels in the sense of building an audience, but fewer disadvantages in the sense you can just jump into volume 12 or whatever with no problem at all. So you can foster an ever-growing audience for each volume as it comes along rather than deal with the audience drop-off you often see with multi-ilogies because the only audience for Volume 19 are the few die-hard fans who have slogged through every one of Volume 1 through 18.)

Anyway, many of the collections, retrospectives, etc listed above fall into this general category of anthologies edited or put together by Ellison, but in addition there is a decent list of actual Anthologies Edited. Again that list is roughly as extensive as his list of novels and just as a guess, were very probably a lot more lucrative--especially when measuring time and effort spent vs. income gained.

In short: books, yes, lots of books published. And series, yes, very many. Just maybe not the exact type of book or series you were expecting if you were thinking of novels and trilogies of novels or the like as your examples.
posted by flug at 11:24 PM on July 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

Don't know if this is helpful but I remember reading that when Ellison's buddy Ray Bradbury got started, his wife paid the bills by working a day job while Bradbury established his legend. I was surprised when I read this because I always assumed that his career took off right away after pounding out a few rocket ship stories on a typewriter in the UCLA basement.
posted by johngoren at 2:57 AM on July 6, 2020

Best answer: I believe I've read more than once that Ellison had more short stories published than any other writer in history. (First read that in the 80s).

He was also an editor, editing multiple volumes of award-winning story collections.

He was also employed by The Village Voice as a weekly columnist for years (The Glass Teat, More Glass Teat, and Edge In My Voice collects these articles).

He's written some of the most rebroadcast episodes of very popular syndicated tv shows: Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Twilight Zone.

I believe he was the creator or producer for one of the Twilight Zone reboots as well.

With the exception of live theatre, there isn't a medium I can think of he didn't work in (comics, short and long fiction, short and long non-fiction, graphic novels, television, film, video games, journalism, criticism) -- hell, I even have vinyl records of him reading his stories. He's simply one of the most prolific writers in history and, frankly, I find your question baffling. If Ellison couldn't make a decent living as a writer, no one can.
posted by dobbs at 5:52 AM on July 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Which he then turned into a book for even more money!

Ellison did the same thing with his original script for the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever," which Gene Roddenberry had substantially rewritten for broadcast, which in turn led to a famous falling-out between the two men. Ellison went on to publish the original as "the version you never got to see!," which appealed to both his own fans and Trekkies (though there is likely considerable overlap between the two).

Yes, I own a copy.
posted by Gelatin at 1:19 PM on July 6, 2020

I know some who’s favorite writer is Ellison and he still pays to be part of his fan club (annually?) to Ellison’s widow. I believe he also had a Kickstarter a few years before he died to help pay for someone to accurately catalog all of the work he had laying around - it came with special limited prints of certain works. He also used to sell autographed copies of his work for more money (I am not allowed to touch this book). Basically, as far as I can tell, he hustled and monetized his work as much and in every way possible.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:38 PM on July 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

...except for finishing The Last Dangerous Visions.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:08 AM on July 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

« Older Next Steps in a Friendship?   |   Seeking unbreakable fancy teacup Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments