Ask Bwana #26

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #26 — March, 1999

What’s the sexiest word in the writing biz?

The word No.

If some publisher makes an offer and you think it’s not enough, say No.

Believe it or not, the world won’t come to an end. What will happen is that, in 97 cases out of 100, the offer at least will remain on the table for a considerable length of time. After all, the editor/publisher wanted your book enough to make that offer, and if you start feeling pressure to pay your bills, or you find out no one is willing to pay more, they’ll be happy to buy it for the amount they offered.

But in many cases — I’d say 20% to 60%, depending on the author’s name recognition and the quality of the book — saying No will precipitate a higher offer. And that goes for foreign markets as well as domestic ones.

(No, it doesn’t apply to magazines and anthologies, which have fixed word rates and are non-negotiable.)

Now, the interesting thing is that almost all beginners and even many established writers are afraid to utter that simple word. And the infuriating thing is that most publishers know this and count on it.

But it works. It works in New York and Hollywood, in London and Paris and Prague and Moscow. If you have confidence in yourself and in your work, and if you feel someone is lowballing you, trying to take advantage of your innocence and your insecurity, you might try saying it.


Simple word, simple concept. They’ll give in or they won’t. The word No is simply a business negotiating tool. Publishers use it all the time; writers have to learn to use it too.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Are the accounting and marketing departments really driving the acquisitions of new novels? Or do the editors still have the final say?

ANSWER: Any editor will tell you that he has the final say, and indeed he does. But if Marketing can’t sell the books he buys, and Accounting points out that he’s got non-commercial taste, he won’t be employed for long. You might look at Accounting and Marketing as means of evaluating the editor’s ability to choose properties that not only gain critical acclaim (which is nice) but can complete in the marketplace (which is essential).


QUESTION: Given that I know the editor has had the book for X number of months, how long should I wait before querying about my novel? And how tough should I be about insisting on a response?

ANSWER: The question implies that you don’t have an agent to make your queries for you. I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that an unagented novel will probably take from 6 to 12 months to work its way to the top of the slush pile.

And you should be polite when asking for a response. Remember: you want their money a lot more than they want your manuscript.

2008 update: these days, 6 months is lightning fast for an unagented novel, and 24 months is a lot more likely than 12 months.

2012 update: and just to make things more bothersome, most of the publishers now say they won’t consider unagented manuscriupts. There are ways around that, but most unagented newcomers are in no position to learn or apply those ways.


QUESTION: Why is it there are so many nuisance lawsuits filed in Hollywood, and so few in New York publishing?

ANSWER: The economics are different. In Hollywood we’re talking eight or nine digits per project, and in publishing we’re (usually) talking an average of five. And, more to the point, the timing is different.

Let me give you an example. A true one. Only the name of the film, which I shall call XYZ, has been changed to prevent even more lawsuits.

Carol and I were hired to write a number of drafts of the screenplay to XYZ. At one point the gentleman whom we thought would be directing it attended a story conference, and a couple of months later was replaced by a different director.

Shortly thereafter he announced that he would soon be suing the production company for a million dollars. It broke down this way: half a million because he had co-authored the screenplay (totally false) and wasn’t getting any money or credit for it, half a million because he had been attached as the director and wasn’t getting a “kill fee” for being replaced.

It was a nuisance suit. I had registered every draft of the screenplay with the Writers Guild West, and could prove that there was only about a 2% difference between the last draft we did before we had ever met him and the one we did after meeting him. The production company had never signed a contract with him to direct, but had merely discussed the possibility.

The upshot? They agreed to pay him $75,000 US to go away, which was exactly what he was after.

Why pay it when we could prove he didn’t write a word of the screenplay and he couldn’t produce a directing contract?


He wasn’t going to sue the production company now. They had only spent a couple of hundred grand US so far, which is lunch money in Hollywood; when they toted up the cost of the legal fees and the possibility, however small, of losing, they might very well decide that it was cheaper and easier to cancel the project than to go to court.

No, his threat was more meaningful: he wasn’t going to sue until actual production began.

Why? Because a $60 million US film with a 50-day shooting schedule costs more than a million US dollars a day. Let’s say he sues on a Tuesday, and gets an injunction to shut down production until the case is settled. Let’s say the studio gets it laughed out of court on Friday. It still costs them over $3 million US in wasted production time. Easier to give him $75,000 US and tell him to get lost. (The agreement, of course, stipulated that he wouldn’t get paid until shooting began — and since holding them up during shooting formed the gist of his threat, he of course agreed to that.)

(Can anyone file a nuisance suit? Sure. But Hollywood courts are aware of the situation, so that if you filed the same suit against the same film, you’d never get an injunction to shut it down. The would-be director couldn’t prove his case, but he could produce enough correspondence and phone records to show that he was in frequent contact with the production company for a few months, which would be enough for a temporary injunction.)

It’s hard to imagine how a nuisance suit (as opposed to a legitimate suit, such as provable libel or plagiarism) could come to so much money that a publisher who knows he’s right is willing to pay to make it go away.


QUESTION: Rather than referring to the bathroom of a generic gas station in a story, I prefer to lend a touch of verisimilitude to my fiction by naming the (insert the name of a large oil company of your choice) gas station as the setting for a rather macabre and unfortunate event. Am I asking for trouble?

ANSWER: No, you’re begging for trouble, since you’re implying that terrible things happen to people who enter a Shell or Marathon or Mobil gas station’s bathroom; you’re singling that particular company out as possessing bathrooms where these macabre and non-everyday things take place. If I were you I’d use the name of a non-existent company instead.

If you still feel compelled to use a real gas station, I suggest you check with a lawyer. If he disagrees with me, call it anything you want.


QUESTION: Do you make New Year’s resolutions or other long-term goals?

ANSWER: New Year’s resolutions, no. Long-term goals: absolutely. Our long-term goals probably have more to do with our investments and income than with writing, but I usually have my writing scheduled a couple of years in advance, with enough slack time so that I can sit down and write something new that appeals to me or accept an assignment that’s too lucrative to turn down.


QUESTION: I’m confused about the terms “out of print” versus “out of stock.” The former should start the clock ticking on a novel’s reversion clause, correct? What about the latter? How long can my publishers say my book is “out of stock” before they have to admit that it’s really out of print?

ANSWER: Yes, “out of print” starts the clock running on the reversion clause. “Out of stock” is a term that you almost never encounter these days. It’s usually either “Temporarily out of stock,” which means they plan to reprint it; or “Indefinitely out of stock,” which means they have no intention of reprinting it unless God drops everything else, but they don’t want to say “Out of print” precisely because that does start the reversion clock running.

I don’t think this situation has come to court yet. The only thing I can suggest is that, once your book is listed as “Indefinitely out of stock,” you or your agent act as if the term is identical to “Out of print” and send the publisher the standard registered letter demanding a new edition or reversion of rights within six months.

2008 update: print-on-demand has made the term “out of print” meaningless. Any publisher, given a reversion letter, can get Lightning Press or one of the other P.O.D. houses to print 5 copies overnight — and suddenly you’re back in print for another year. We’re still waiting for the courts to determine how this plays out, since the P.O.D. technology wasn’t around when 95% of all reversion clauses were written.

2012 update: these days if you have enough clout, you sign a term-of-lease contract, which states that on such-and-so a date — usually 7 years from signing or publication — the book reverts to you, even if it’s on the New York Times bestseller list. If you can’t get the publisher to agree to that, then you define “out of print” as having less than x hundred copies of the book in the warehouse (never “in the field”, which is impossible to ascertain if they’re fudging the figures.


QUESTION: I know you’ve covered this before: the answer was “Talk to Marty Greenberg.” Is this still the case if I want to sell an anthology? How’s the anthology market doing, anyway?

ANSWER: The anthology market is tanking, but it’s cyclical, so I imagine it’ll come back soon. (That’s the original anthology market; the reprint anthology market seems permanently comatose.)

It’s true that Marty Greenberg is behind most of the fantasy and science fiction anthologies that have appeared in the past few years. But it’s also true that he’s probably got an average of a dozen proposals on every editor’s desk on any given day and doesn’t really need your proposal.

If you can get commitments from major commercial names (and there’s a difference between a couple of names that have won awards and a couple of names that can sell an anthology), try it yourself. If you can’t, if all you’ve got going for you is the idea, the theme you want to build the book around, then try Marty or one of the names (mostly Marty’s collaborators) that you see listed as editors of the current spate of anthologies.

2008 update: nothing’s changed, except that anthologies are even harder to sell now than when I wrote the above.

2012 update: Marty Greenberg recently died — the field lost a giant, and I lost a dear personal friend — and the anthology market is still tanking . . . but if you have the right proposal and commitments from the right authors, you can still sell the occasional anthology.


QUESTION: Can a YA fantasy novel feature adult protagonists but be written primarily for older children or young adults, or must the protagonists actually be young adults?

ANSWER: I’ve seen YA books with adult protagonists, but I think it’s a tougher sell. YA fantasy is a bit out of my bailiwick; for a definitive answer, you might check with a YA fantasy editor, or one of the leading practitioners, such as Jane Yolen.


QUESTION: Given your past statements that writing cannot be taught and you’d never join a workshop yourself, what do you expect to be able to teach at Clarion next year?

ANSWER: Manners. Discipline. An understanding of the marketplace. More manners. More discipline. Some literary methods, tricks, short-cuts, and secrets (in other words: Mechanics, not Art). Still more manners. And an understanding of the sacrifices required if one truly plans to become a professional writer. (Probably we call that Discipline.)

2008 update: Clarion changed my opinion and made a believer out of me — with some stipulations. I think it worked because you had six weeks, long enough to see a story through as many rewrites as it took to get it into saleable shape. Most workshops last one or two days; you can point out what’s wrong, but you can’t stick around long enough to make sure the student is making it right.

2012 update: add L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest to Clarion as one of the two places where the results are outstanding and verifiable.


QUESTION: How soon after a first sale to a particular editor should I send a second story?

ANSWER: About the same length of time it takes for the car behind you to start honking after the light turns green.


QUESTION: When an editor questions some of the story elements in a rejection, is it a good idea to write back and explain what wasn’t understood?

ANSWER: No. You can’t send a little man out with each copy of the magazine to explain what wasn’t understood to the reader (who, by definition, is less likely to understand it than the editor.)

You either rewrite the story to answer the editor’s questions, or you send it elsewhere. Arguing with editors is like arguing with critics: it’s a no-win situation.

(“I hated this book.”)

(“No you didn’t! You only think you did! Actually, upon further reflection, you’ll discover that you loved it!”)


QUESTION: I’ve noticed that many of your stories and books have an overall lesson or theme, something mine seem to lack. When you start working, do you have a firm idea of what it is you’re trying to “say,” or does that come later?

ANSWER: I always know what I plan to say (if not precisely how I plan to say it) before I sit down to write.

As for overall lessons or themes, Ray Bradbury said, many years ago, that you should write about what you love or hate or fear. In other words, about what moves you.

As a commercial writer, I can’t always do that; I don’t love, hate or fear enough things year in and year out, I don’t have a new cause every week, and my creditors have expensive tastes. But I think there’s no question that my best writing does reflect my feelings about things that move me for better or worse.


QUESTION: Given that Randy’s list of major book publishers only shows eight who will read unsolicited or unagented submissions . . . what’s one to do after it bounces from all eight? Trunk the book? Or start shopping for agents?

ANSWER: I’d strongly recommend against trying to get an agent by submitting a manuscript that’s been turned down eight times.

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re unagented and you’ve been turned down eight times, you probably began submitting the book about six years ago. Certainly no less than four, possibly as many as twelve. Doubtless there have been changes in editors, so you might try the companies that have new editors. (They reject thousands every year; they won’t leave notes to their successors to be especially sure to reject yours if it comes in again. Honest.)

Or you can assume, based on the number of rejections, that they’re trying to tell you something. You might put the book away for a few years, and come back to it when you’ve further honed your skills.


QUESTION: I’m lucky enough to be financially supported by my spouse, so I can write full-time. After eighteen months of work I’ve sold exactly one short story, and I’m feeling very guilty. Should I be thinking about going back to work?

ANSWER: That’s between you and your spouse. No one living alone should ever try full-time writing until he’s either making enough part-time to live on, or at least earning as much part-time as his full-time job is paying him.

But you have a different situation. Is your spouse willing to keep working and supporting your hobby (it’s not your profession until you’re making a living at it) indefinitely? If so, and you’re happy with the situation, keep at it.

Is your spouse starting to feel a bit put upon? Come up with a deadline: You must sell so many stories or books by such-and-such a date or you’ll call the experiment a failure, go back to your day job, and just write at nights. (It’s no disgrace. James Blish had to do that two or three times during his career. So did a lot of other writers, some of whose names would shock you.)


QUESTION: I find the polishing process difficult because I am haunted by the fear that the reader won’t “get it.” I’m compelled to insert a few words to remind the reader that the gun now has only one bullet in it although this was already explained a few pages ago. My stories always get longer with rewriting as I add explanations. How do I quit this?

ANSWER: You edit your work. (I’m another one whose second draft is always longer than his first.) One of the best ways is to read it aloud, with or without an audience. You’ll not only spot correct-but-awkward wordings, but redundancies will leap out at you.

There also comes a point where you must show the reader some respect, where you have to assume he’s as bright as you and that just as you wouldn’t speak down to him, you shouldn’t write down to him.


QUESTION: Is it my imagination, or is it harder to break in now than it was in the past?

ANSWER: Yes, it’s harder to break in now. In the 1950s, there were, at one point, 56 different prozines being published simultaneously, and anyone with even minimal ability to push a noun up against a verb could break into print. Today there are less than 10, and only 4 with any prestige.

2008 update: and today there are only four print magazines in the USA, all of them in varying degrees of financial trouble.

As for books, they are publishing more today than when I broke in — but when I broke in, there were 17 publishers with science fiction programs, and today there are about half that many, which means the field is being shaped by far less editors.

And of course a third of the field today consists of media tie-ins. The better franchises pay enough so that it’s almost impossible for a first-time novelist to break in there. Thus, while we publish more titles, the actual chances for beginners to sell that first book are not a lot better than they were a decade or two ago. Probably less, considering all the one-to-five-book authors looking desperately for work.

Still, you must remember this (to coin a phrase): the odds have always been against the newcomer being able to break into print, and every writer whose name you know and whose work you admire (and even those whose work you loathe) beat those odds. If you’re good, disciplined, and determined, so will you.


QUESTION: What’s your all-time favorite short fiction anthology, and why?

ANSWER: I assume you mean “in the field of science fiction.” The answer is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I, edited by Robert Silverberg. The reason is simple: the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for the table of contents, and it thus reflects the artists’ analysis of the field’s best stories from 1926 to the cutoff date of 1963.

My second choice, not that anyone asked, would be the Healy & McComas anthology, Adventures in Time and Space, which has not been out of print for half a century.

My favorite of the 20-plus anthologies I edited would be Inside the Funhouse, a reprint anthology of recursive science fiction I did for Avon back in 1992 (and which, unlike the Healy & McComas book, vanished from sight with terrifying rapidity.)


QUESTION: When I get a reject saying “Send us your next,” should I?

ANSWER: Sure, why not? (Unless it’s part of a printed form rejection.)


QUESTION: Will there ever be a book of your Ask Bwana columns?

ANSWER: Yes, there will be.

Alexander Books approached me last winter about publishing The Collected Ask Bwana. I’d had some other inquiries, but I’ve done a lot of work with Alexander (I edit three non-fiction series for them, they’ve published my mystery novel, and they’re reprinting some of my science fiction), and I’m very comfortable with them.

And, to be honest, I was so annoyed by some of the questions in Ask Bwana #24 — there were a batch asking about selling amateur and semi-pro markets, which led me to believe that maybe no one was actually reading the damned column — that I agreed. I was ready to quit, reprint the first 24 columns, and never think about Bwana again.

But then the questions for Ask Bwana #25 came in, and they were a lot more intelligent, and I decided that 24 columns didn’t really fill up a trade paperback, so now we’ll print either the first 30 or the first 36, a decision we’ll make at the last possible moment. Alexander has been typesetting each column as I finish it — they’ll have this one set before you read it — and they assure me that they can get the book out within a month of my telling them to, so it won’t date too badly.

See you next issue.

2008 update: Alexander Books did indeed print the first seven years of Ask Bwana — it ran 12 years total — as The Science Fiction Professional; it came out in 2003 under their Farthest Star imprint, and is still available, probably from Amazon, certainly from

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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