Ask Bwana #27

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #27 — May, 1999

Somebody once said that there were lies, damned lies, and statistics.

He obviously wasn’t a writer.

There are lies, damned lies, and royalties.

In the past few months hopeful Internet publishers have been springing up like plagues of locusts. They have two things in common: they’re going to make everyone rich tomorrow, and they don’t have any money today.

They can’t pay advances, or at least not meaningful ones. (Which makes sense. No electronic fiction publishing venture has yet shown a profit. It’s fun to hear them explain why they’re different — and yes, the day will come when electronic publishing is indeed profitable . . . but that day’s still a few years in the future.)

Anyway, since they can’t give you anything up front, they’ll boost the royalty rate. The term I’ve heard most often is 40%, which seems perfectly reasonable and not wildly generous, since they don’t have to pay for paper, cover art, color separations, printing, binding, and shipping. If they’re buying reprints — and almost all of them are, since they can’t compete with the mass market book publishers for new work — they also don’t have to pay for editors, copy editors, and the like. So, like I said, 40% is nice, but it’s no big deal, and constitutes no sacrifice on their part.

But wait!

I’m going to quote from the actual prospectus of one such publisher whose offer is no better or worse than the rest of them:

“Every CD created has actually multiple prices associated with it. The first price is for a CD without any books on it, just the reader software. This is right now $5.99 US. Then each work has a price associated with it, most commonly $2.00 US for text. Our royalties are designed to return about 10% of the retail price for a novel in text only for each sale. So if you have a novel on a CD by itself it is priced at $7.99 US and your royalty is 40% of the $2.00 US work price or $0.80 US per copy sold.”

End of quote. And beginning of an alternate universe of mathematics.

It’s as if Tor or Bantam approached you and said, “We’re going to charge $8.00 US for your new novel. Now, our expenses — overhead, printing, shipping, advertising, bookkeeping, and all that — comes to $6.00 US a copy. That means the actual profit, assuming a 100% sell-through, is $2.00 US, and we feel so generous that we’re going to pay you a 40% royalty on that. That means every time we sell a book for $8.00 US, you’re going to get 80 cents US.”

Now, in the real world — as any outraged agent will tell you — that’s a 10% royalty.

And 80 cents US is still 10% of $8.00 US, whether that’s an $8.00 US book or an $8.00 US CD. Yet I’ve heard several enthusiastic wannabees claiming that it’s a wonderful, generous, remarkable offer. The pros who know better think that what’s mostly remarkable is the math.

So next time someone makes you an offer, or you see an offer in print, remember: otherworldly math may sound good, but you’re trying to earn your living in this world, and you’d like to be paid this world’s wages for your work.

A letter from Dave Anderson follows:

“In Ask Bwana #24 you comment on my favorite anthology series — L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future. It is the highest paying market for new writers — those with less than three short stories or one novelette or one novella or one novel sale.

“Each quarter 1st prize is $1,000 US; 2nd $750 US; and 3rd $500 US. In addition, the annual grand prize winner gets $4,000 US.

“In addition, 17 stories make up the anthology (I am not sure of the pay rate but Julia West received about $6,000 US for her story — quarter $1,000 + grand prize $4,000 + first publication rights)

“I do not know of any other one market that pays as well.”

I suspect this letter was sent because my good friend Algis Budrys went online and took exception to my statement a few issues back that the two awards most worth winning were the Hugo and the Nebula, and that almost no one could tell you who the current Writers of the Future winner was.

(I just checked, and here is my entire comment on Writers of the Future: “I don’t know what Writers of the Future pays its contest winners. If the pay is good, fine — enter it. If not, I wouldn’t bother, and for the same reason: most fans can tell you who won the most recent Hugos and Nebulas, but I doubt that fans or pros can name the current Writers of the Future winners.”)

I’ll stand by that. It pays decent money, so enter it. But I still hold that the ratio of fans who can name the current or previous Hugo winners to those who can name the current or previous Writers of the Future winners is probably in the vicinity of 40 to 1.

As for pay, the prozines probably average around $500 US for a short story. But you can dope it out yourself: the top five fantasy and science fiction markets pay from 7 to 10 cents US a word. Hence, a 6,000-word short story will go from $420 US to $600 US. A 35,000-word novella will go proportionately more.

As for knowing no other market that pays as well, try Playboy, which buys science fiction and pays about $5,000 US for a short story.

2012 update: Okay, the future has arrived. As I write these words, there are 17 e-zines paying what SFWA considers pro rates, and only three printzines — the three digests. So clearly the nature of the field has changed. This far Amanda Hocking, a romance writer, has been the poster child for self-publishing (as opposed to selling to an e-publisher) but there will be more as time goes on. And I persist in thinking that, Amanda to the contrary, new writers will want to go the traditional route, earn some advances, and establish an audience before the compete in the e-marketplace. But who knows? That may change too.

Further 2012 update: I have judged the last couple of Writers of the Future contests, I’m judging it again, and there is no longer any question in my mind that it ranks with Clarion — and maybe even a bit ahead of Clarion — in producing writers of quality. You just take a look at the winners — Patrrick Rothfuss, Eric Flint, Nick DiChario, Tobias S. Buckell, David D. Levine, Jay Lake, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Karen Joy Fowler, Dave Wolverton, R. Garcia y Robertson, Stephen Baxter. Diana Rowland, and the list goes on and on. Can’t go wrong with a program that produces writers like that.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions.


QUESTION: A friend of mine has a story up for an award this year. It was in what the editor insists is a professional fiction market, but she never received a contract, check, or proof copy of the issue in question. She doesn’t want to be seen as pushy or to screw up her chances of selling to this market again, but I think she needs to chew the editor out and get what’s hers. Any comments?

ANSWER: Read what you wrote: she hasn’t sold to this market a first time. It isn’t pushy to demand a day’s pay for a day’s work; it’s stupid not to.


QUESTION: Is a college education necessary to write good sf? If so, what would you recommend?

ANSWER: No, it isn’t. All I can recommend is that whether you go to college or not, you spend a few hours every day writing and honing your craft. And even then, with or without a degree, you’re going to have to be very good and a little bit lucky to make it in this field.


QUESTION: When is voice appropriation (writing from a viewpoint outside of one’s own life’s experience) justified? When is it not? Should the author somehow step outside the story to inform the reader that yes, he acknowledges that writing outside his own envelope is a dangerous act and needs to be handled with respect?

ANSWER: I hate terms like “voice appropriation”; it lends an academic mystique to the art of writing that doesn’t really belong there.

If you write about a fist fight, or a sexual perversion, or a space flight, or anything else that you have never personally experienced, that’s what you call voice appropriation. It’s what I call fiction writing, and if you don’t do it, you’re writing an autobiography and nothing more.

Writing outside your own envelope is a dangerous act only if you’re carving words onto a cave wall with a chisel and your hand tends to slip. I hate to come on too strong, but this is the kind of idiot notion that teachers who can’t write constantly come up with.


QUESTION: In a very early Ask Bwana, you used the term “accessibility” to indicate a desirable attribute. Is this the same thing as “transparent prose?” Can you please give a few examples of what you consider to be accessible and non-accessible prose?

ANSWER: “Transparent prose” is a stripped-down bare-bones prose that is totally unintrusive. Isaac Asimov used it, was very proud of it, and frequently argued that it was the very best way to write.

Now, how a guy who could annotate Shakespeare could be opposed to prose that soars on wings of poetry is beyond me, but that’s another question. Yours concerned accessibility.

OK. Accessible prose is not necessarily transparent prose. It is prose that allows the reader to effortlessly turn the pages, prose that may (and should) challenge his preconceptions but never his ability to read through to The End. Alfred Bester had it in The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, and I don’t think anyone would call his prose transparent. Bradbury had it in The Martian Chronicles. To me, the greatest exemplar was Robert Sheckley in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bwana’s Memsaab has a more succinct definition: you’ll find accessible prose in the book you can’t put down. Simple as that.

Examples of non-accessible prose? Sure. Try Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (And compare it to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is accessible.) Try some of the cyberpunks (not Bill Gibson), especially from that period when they were trying to overload their sentences with information. Or try Olaf Stapledon’s classic Star Maker — probably the most brilliant novel in our field’s history in terms of ideas, but not exactly a page-turner.

Got it straight now?


QUESTION: I need to create a believable religion for a novel. Any tips?

ANSWER: Try creating one you’d like to believe in. I’ve seen too many ridiculous religions, filled with pain and penalty and obscene basement ceremonies, that no one would willingly belong to, and of course this will hurt the believability of the rest of your story. Also, try not to use Latin or stilted English; be creative.

But in the long run, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. You see, if it was important to the plot, your question would have been worded differently. You would have told me that your religion requires all priesthood candidates to be castrated, or that the practitioners have to spend 364 days a year in a Lent-like abstinence, or that the future High Priestess must sacrifice her favorite pet on her 15th birthday. But as you worded it, I suspect it’s just for background and flavor.


QUESTION: I keep hearing from certain professionals that the midlist is dying. What is the midlist, please, and is it worth saving? If so, how would you go about doing it?

ANSWER: Let’s start by defining our terms. The top of the list is where the Leaders live. Those are the people with the advances you read about in Locus, the cover art by Whelan and Eggleton and Giancola and the like, the raised metallic type, the full-page ads in Locus and Chronicle, the Guest-of-Honorships at conventions around the country.

At the bottom of the list are the beginners, the unknowns, and those who are on the way down. They get the $4,000 US and $5,000 US advances, the 6% royalty rates, the anonymous cover art. They share a page ad in Locus with 7 other books the publisher is pushing. Foreign publishers are not beating a path to their doors.

The midlist is what’s between the two extremes. You used to have a logical progression: bottom-dweller to midlist to Leader. The midlist might pay from $10,000 US to $30,000 US, perhaps a bit more, while you are building your readership and solidifying your position in the field, both artistically and in terms of sales.

But yes, it’s gone. Mostly replaced by the endless rows of mediabooks.

Is it worth saving? I don’t think it can be saved — in fact, I think it’s dead and buried — but it’s sure as hell worth having if someone else can figure out how to save it. The problem its absence presents is simple: you must now jump from bottom-feeder to Leader with no intermediate steps, and it’s awfully difficult to do. Writers as different as Gene Wolfe, Harry Turtledove, and myself were all fortunate in that we entered the field at a time when we could spend some time as midlist authors, establishing our literary and economic bona fides. For today’s Wolfes and Turtledoves and Resnicks to become Leaders requires a leap of faith on the part of the publisher, and very few publishers are willing to make that leap.

2012 update: Still dead as a doornail.


QUESTION: In the wake of last month’s horrible events in Colorado, I’m taking a very hard look at the level of violence in my material. Do you ever worry that something in one of your books might trigger a psychotic episode in one of your readers? If it did, would you feel responsible? (And if not, why not?)

ANSWER: Certainly not. No sane person does what those two idiots did, and the writer isn’t responsible for their being insane. I would feel no more responsible for the tragedy in Colorado if they found one of my books in one of the killer’s pockets than Robert A. Heinlein felt (or should have felt) when they found a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land in Charles Manson’s pocket. Writers are not responsible for all the whackos abroad in the land, nor are we their keepers.

Also, let’s remember that we’re writing fiction, and fiction doesn’t work until you introduce a conflict that the protagonist must try to overcome. And who is to say that a conflict involving guns or brutality will set another psycho off any faster than, oh, say Sir Thomas More’s inner conflict in A Man For All Seasons? I am responsible for my sins only.


QUESTION: How do you make your bad guys sympathetic enough to be interesting?

ANSWER: You try to see things from their point of view. Remember: neither Caligula nor Attila nor Hitler nor Pol Pot thought he was a bad guy. Billy the Kid thought he was oppressed; Jesse James was evening the score for the Civil War; Doc Holliday actually wore a badge during some of his killings and was sure he was fighting on the side of the Good Guys.

Look at your great science-fictional villains. What makes them interesting? Blackie DuQuesne, Ben Reich, the Mule, they’re all rational beings, they all have a point of view which they do not think is villainous, they all have the guts and brains to be heroes under different circumstances.

Or, to put it at its most simplistic, they are three-dimensional rather than cardboard.


QUESTION: I’m in contact with an independent filmmaker who is offering me $1,500 US for all film rights to a novella which ran once in a small press magazine and will probably never see the light of day again. Would taking this money be a Dumb Thing To Do?

ANSWER: No, it would be a Very Dumb Thing To Do. Emphasis on the “Very.”

In this day and age, rock bottom option price — the price a producer pays you to keep your story off the movie market for from 6 to 12 months while he tries to get a development deal — is $3,000 US. 98% of all options pay $5,000 US or more, for a year or less. And these are options, not purchases.

And you’re talking about some con artist offering you $1,500 US for all rights? The average pick-up fee (which is what you’re describing) is well into six figures. $75,000 US would be considered cheap in this year of 1999 A.D.

Tell him to get real or stop wasting your time.


QUESTION: How much personal rudeness will you stand for from an editor before writing the market off?

ANSWER: That’s a very odd question, because when I tried to remember an instance of personal rudeness toward myself on the part of any book or magazine editor during the past third of a century, I realized I’ve never experienced any.

But since we’re hypothesizing here, the answer is: None. There are dozens of viable markets, so why should you put up with rude behavior from any single one of them?


QUESTION: Here’s a rejection letter I received recently, sans names:

Dear Hapless Writer,

Sorry to take so long getting back to you about “Really Wonderful Story.” I’m afraid that after long consideration, I’m not going to be able to use it for Glossy Anthology. However — if you can stand me holding on to it a little while longer, I would like to consider it for Unrelated Magazine. I can probably get back to you on it within a couple of weeks. Sound okay?


Mr. Editor

This is the second time Mr. Editor has asked to hold the same story, the first time for Glossy Anthology, and now for Unrelated Magazine.

If he’d said he wanted to buy it for Unrelated Magazine, I’d go for it.

But he didn’t, he just wants to think about it some more. I don’t feel this is a respectful, professional way to treat a writer, and I don’t feel good about submitting to it. I would rather send it elsewhere. How do I get out of this gracefully?

ANSWER: Let me paraphrase from a previous column that dealt with much the same problem:

You never ever EVER let an editor hold a story for free. If he wants to keep it a month, fine . . . he can buy a one-month option on it, for, say, 25% or 33% of the final price. If he buys it, the option can be applied to the sales price. If he won’t buy an option, pull the sucker. He’s asking you to keep it off the market without promising to buy it; for you to comply with such an unreasonable request, he must shell out some money.


QUESTION: What do I do when reality and public perception don’t coincide?

I have a protagonist who’s a violist in a military orchestra of the far future. I put the piece through a few online workshops and I was SHOCKED! SHOCKED! I tell you, at the number of comments I received about two items that I knew I had right which I thought were trivial matters.

First, about half the people pointed out that the protagonist should have long, slender fingers and not the broad hands I described (after doing research and learning that broad hands with fingers of roughly the same length were the ideal hands for a violist). Okay, that wasn’t important. I could drop the hand description.

Second, and critical to my story, several people told me that the idea of a military orchestra was just far too bizarre and impossible. Excuse me? The only difference between a military concert band and a military orchestra is the addition of string instruments and the military already has concert bands. The best known one from the Marines performed with the Boston Pops last year. Why can’t people believe that we’ll have military orchestras a thousand years from now?

I am stunned that readers can believe in dragons, elves, trolls and FTL transportation, but can’t believe existing military bands would ever add stringed instruments. Should I just throw this manuscript against the wall and write something different? Or should I turn the viola player into a bugle player in the military marching band? (shudder)

FWIW — I REALLY wanted a viola player. You need BOTH hands to play a viola and the protagonist has an accident.

ANSWER: When reality and public perception don’t coincide, stick with reality, especially if it’s important to you. You know you’re right. Are you going to change your story because a number of people who are ignorant of the facts find those facts (and their subsequent extrapolations) difficult or uncomfortable? Bill Clinton may govern by polls; that doesn’t mean you have to write by them.


QUESTION: Thanks to technology, new publishers are popping up everywhere. What signs ought we novel writers look for to tell if a publisher is one we should work with or not? How can we tell if it is worth letting them publish our book?

ANSWER: No new mass market publishers are popping up — and believe me, you can’t making a living writing for the specialty press or the Internet.

2012 update. That was absolutely true in 1999. It is usually but not always true today.

There’s only one sign a novel writer has to look for to tell if the publisher is one you can work with: how much will he pay up front? If his advances are commensurate with Tor, Ace, Baen, Bantam and the rest, fine, go with him. If not, then you’re deluding yourself if you think you can enhance your career or your bank account by signing with him.

2012 update: Again, usually but not always true. Contrary example, which couldn’t have existed in 1999: Paulo Bacigalupi’s wonderful The Windup Girl, a bonafide New York Times bestseller, was published by Night Shade, one of our better small presses.


QUESTION: Bwana, sometimes I am so tired after work (I have two jobs, both part-time, but both essential in order to feed, clothe, and shelter myself) that I can barely write. I do what I can, but my output is small compared to other writers who have spouses that support them, either financially, or in other ways, like doing half the chores. I don’t see how I can become a more prolific writer without becoming, a) a totally myopic workaholic, b) ill, both emotionally and physically, or c) a kept woman. Any advice?

ANSWER: The advice is strictly psychological (and I hasten to point out that I’m no psychologist).

Stop feeling sorry for yourself and write when you can. No one says you have to be as prolific as Piers Anthony, no one says you have to spend as many hours at the keyboard as Stephen King, and no one says you have to become such a workaholic that it negatively affects all other aspects of your life. I will say that if you want to write badly enough, you’ll find the time, just as so many others have done.

You don’t have to write 50 pages this week or this month, you don’t have to break into print this year — and indeed, if you’re not obsessed to the point where you will write every day come hell or high water, then I suggest you follow your own muse at your own pace and don’t try to compete with those who are obsessed.

Being obsessed doesn’t necessarily make you a poorer writer (usually it’s quite the opposite, in fact), but it often makes you a poorer human being. It’s not a trade I would recommend to anyone who isn’t obsessed. See you next issue.

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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