Ask Bwana #30

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #30 — November, 1999

Last issue I promised to show you why, though the size of the advance is the most important thing in a good contract, it’s of diminishing importance in a bad one. We discussed all the things that you should be aware of (and beware of) in an option clause.

Now let’s examine foreign rights. Obviously you want to sell foreign rights to your book — there are a lot of countries with science fiction publishers out there in the Great Beyond — so you insist upon the right to do so in your contract. And since the publisher hasn’t done a thing to help you, you insist on 100% of all foreign monies. Nothing wrong with that; it’s absolutely standard.

But now the publisher comes back to you and says: Listen, kid, we know a lot more about foreign rights than you do. We have people all over the world. We talk to them on the phone every day. We call ’em all by their first names.

Now, just because we like you so much, here’s what we’ll do: we’ll sell the foreign rights for you. Your US agent gets 15%, right? And your foreign agents get 10 to 15% each, right? Well, we’ll handle the whole deal, and take only 20% total for each sale we make. How can you possibly beat a deal like that?

The answer, though most beginners don’t know it, is: with a heavy stick, as hard as you can.

Okay, so what’s wrong with the proposition?

Simply this: we live in an era of global conglomerates. Let’s say you sell your book to Loyal American Library. What you don’t know is that they, and Loyal British Library, and Loyal French Library, are actually owned by Loyal Latvian Library.

So Loyal American Library sells your book to Loyal British Library and Loyal French Library for the equivalent of $1,000 US apiece. Sounds good. They make the sale in two weeks’ time, and they only take 20%, as promised.

It’s only later that you find out that Royal British Library and Royal French Library would have happily paid $6,000 US apiece for your book, but of course Loyal American Library never gave them a look at it. And Friendly Latvian Library, which owns these two companies, is a little miffed that you didn’t give them a shot, and has told its editors to lowball your next book on the unlikely assumption that they are offered it at all.

Get the picture?

Now that extra 5% for your own agent doesn’t seem so stupid, does it?

On to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: Congratulations on the fifth anniversary of Ask Bwana. Three questions come to mind: first, did you ever think it would last this long? Second, do you think Speculations is fulfilling its mission, and if not, where does it need to go? Finally, I noticed that you changed your tune somewhat on writers’ workshops; is there anything else you’ve said in the past 29 columns that you’d care to amend?

ANSWER: No, I never thought it would last this long. Truth to tell, I never thought it would last a year. The fact that it has done so shows you why we need more publishers like Kent Brewster in the field (and don’t forget, we’re already on our third editor, so I’d have to say it was Kent himself who has given Speculations its continuity.)

Yes, I think Speculations is fulfilling its mission. Circulation continues to rise, and it’s now an automatic for the Hugo ballot. I have some nits to pick with some of its policies, but you can’t argue with that kind of success.

Nope, I wouldn’t change a word. Doesn’t mean they’re all right — but they were right when I uttered them, and you can’t ask more than that. We live in a changing world.

2012 update: Readers of this web page will note that I am constantly updating the Ask Bwana answers now, in 2012 . . . but as I say, they were right when I was asked them a decade or more ago. No field has changed as fast as publishing, thanks especially to e-books.


QUESTION: In recent months two long-dormant markets — Century and Artemis — have finally seen print. Both of these fine publications took years to respond to submissions; how many more issues should I wait before trusting either of them enough to send material?

ANSWER: If they say they’re in business, submit your material right away — and be prepared to pull it if it takes them an inordinately long time to respond. (What’s an inordinately long time? For a magazine that might or might not be going out of business, I wouldn’t wait more than 3 or 4 months to pull it.)

This is another case where I feel the writer has an implicit contract with the editor: you will not make multiple submissions, and he will respond in a timely manner. When it takes years to respond, the editor has broken that contract, and the writer — whose one irreplaceable commodity is Time — has every right to submit elsewhere.

2012 update: Since printing and postage are no longer involved — almost all submissions these days are electronic — I wouldn’t pull the material at all. But I’d feel free to send copies elsewhere after waiting a fair amount of time for a response. If you see it elsewhere, you simply write and say, well, I waited and waited and when you didn’t respond I sent this clearly saleable material elsewhere. If they buy it, fine, and you write the second place you sent it, apologize for the mix-up, and ask them if you can send them an even better story to make up for it.


QUESTION: My spies at Xerox tell me that beginning in the first quarter of next year, books made of electronic paper — indistinguishable from regular wood pulp, except that you’ll plug a modem line into the spine and download whatever content you want — will be a reality. Would you please speculate about the potential impact of such a thing on traditional publishing?

ANSWER: I know technology is capable of things that seem like magic, but unless you’re leaving something out, I have a difficult time seeing the advantage here. You go to a bookstore and buy a book of blank pages. Then you must own a computer. Then you must tie in to their web page or program or whatever, and then you must pay a fee (I assume they’re not doing this for free), and then print will magically appear and lo and behold, you’ll have a book.

That seems about 5 steps harder than just going out to the bookstore and buying a book. Unless it’s cheaper and infinitely reusable (i.e., when you’re through with Moby Dick you can print Catch-22 on the same pages), I don’t think it’s an especially viable concept.

2012 update: clearly this gimmick never caught on, but even in 1999 publishing saw that books were not going to appeal to a lot of people who owned computers. And indeed they don’t. I went blind in one eye in early 2004; the other doesn’t see especially well. I went from reading five or six books a week to the point, in 2011, where I was reading about 2 books a month, in a bright room, with a magnifying glass. Then I purchased a color Nook — I don’t need the color, but I need the contrast provided by the backlighting — and I’m back up to half a dozen books a week.

Why the Nook instead of the Kindle, I hear you ask? Easy. The Kindle Fire wasn’t available until a few months ago, and I can’t read a Nook or a Kindle without backlighting. So I began with what was available, and now I have too many Nook books to change.


QUESTION: What do you think of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest? It seems to me I’d get a much faster read on my book . . . but do I really want a fast read?

ANSWER: You always want a fast read. More importantly, you want a fair and honest read. This is the contest that Nalo Hopkinson won, so I don’t think there’s any question that the judges can tell a good one from a bad one—so if you have confidence in your book, sure, go ahead and enter it.


QUESTION: What was your weakest area as a beginning writer, and what did you do to fix it?

ANSWER: Same problem I have now: background, or, if you prefer, verisimilitude. I am one of the few writers whose second drafts are longer than his first, because I have to go back and put in all the necessary details that I skimmed over in the rush to get everything down on paper (or disk, or whatever).

Another problem I had much more often than I do now was the choice of the right viewpoint character. I could be 20 or 30 pages into a book or story, and I knew it wasn’t working, and finally I’d hit upon the reason why: the viewpoint character had no business being involved in all the scenes he was in.


QUESTION: What is the future of book publishing in the next quarter century?

ANSWER: I think we’ll continue to see acquisitions and amalgamations among the mass market houses, until maybe only three or four remain. (We haven’t got all that many now, compared to, say, fifteen years ago.)

They’ll be corporate entities run by bean-counters, and since the bottom line is all that’ll matter to them, they’ll have what we call the blockbuster mentality (i.e., if you’re not Stephen King or Tom Clancy or Danielle Steel, they’re not interested).

Now, at the same time, superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and Joseph Beth will continue to proliferate, and they need product. What I see happening is that the small presses will start filling the superstores’ shelves with the non-blockbusters they need, and you’ll see a change — I think you can see it already — to trade paperbacks.

Most small presses can’t afford to print 4,000 hardcovers; too much chance of a red ink bath if it doesn’t sell. They can’t afford to print 20,000 mass market paperbacks because they don’t have the clout to put even half that many into bookstores.

But trade paperbacks are a different story. They sell for between $12.00 US and $20.00 US, and will only go higher. A small press can afford to print 4,000 of them; and 4,000 trades at $20.00 US will bring in just as much profit as 20,000 paperbacks at $7.00 US, maybe more, because there will be lower printing and shipping costs and less returns.

After 25 years, I don’t know; by then, maybe electronic book rights will actually be worth something.

2012 update: the proliferation of e-books has changed most of that. It helped lead to the bankruptcy of Borders, and the fact that Barnes and Books-a-Million could be a lot healthier. They’re also hurting the New York publishers, since most of their lucrative backlists were purchased and published before e-books existed, and if they didn’t buy all rights — and mighty few good agents would ever agree to selling all rights — they don’t own the rights to most of their backlist titles. The small presses have been hurt the least: there will always be a market for a signed, numbered, well-produced hardcover with good cover at — as long as it remains a collector’s item, and not part of a 6,500-copy print run.


QUESTION: What do you think of Novel Dares, in which the goal is to finish a book in a month, no matter how crappy it is?

ANSWER: I believe in learning to write to a deadline. But I believe even more in learning how to write well, so finishing a novel you know to be crappy, just for the sake of finishing it, seems counter-productive to me.


QUESTION: Will SF still exist a hundred years from now? Who will the readers in 2100 look back upon as the voices of our century?

ANSWER: Sure, SF will still exist a century from now. If you can view it as the mainstream literature of the future, as written for a contemporary audience, it will exist as long as Man has a future.

Who will the readers look back upon as the major SF voices of our century? H. G. Wells, certainly. Olaf Stapledon should head the list, but he’s probably too cerebral. Ray Bradbury, absolutely, because the things he writes about, unlike Asimov and most of Heinlein, will still be important to the reader of 2100 A.D. I can’t see Arthur C. Clarke being read; he basically gives travelogues of the future, and as brilliant as he is, he’ll be 90% wrong and 100% outdated. I think Connie Willis will say much more to the woman of 2100 than Joanna Russ will.

I should point out that, like any predictions, mine are probably wrong.


QUESTION: Short fiction has died or is dying in every other field; why should anyone think it will survive in science fiction?

ANSWER: The most basic form of science fiction is the short story (and this includes the novelette and novella, which are artificial categories). Science fiction, for better or worse (worse, I think) has always been concerned with ideas and extrapolations, and these do not require 100,000 words except in a few cases, whereas any character you know, any life you truly observe, is probably worth at least that many words.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics take far less than a page to state, and snowballed into maybe six novels and twenty short stories.

That’s pretty impressive until you remember that the Ten Commandments also take less than a page to state, and are responsible for a few hundred billion words with no end in sight.


QUESTION: I was at Tropicon when you and Herschell Gordon Lewis reminisced about how you used to write scripts for him. You couldn’t have been 25 years old. How did you break in with him?

ANSWER: I went to his office and told him I was the best scriptwriter he’d ever met. (Little did I realize that I was probably right.) This was on a Friday. He said he’d give me a chance, and that I was to hand him a completed script on Monday. Believe it or not, I did it — and believe it or not, it was in the theaters six weeks later. I don’t know that either of us ever got rich off it, but it showed a profit, and we’ve been friends for more than 30 years.

Herschell, as you may have guessed, was not a typical movie producer. Most of them would still be haggling over the structure of the deal 30 years later.


QUESTION: I have seen turkey after turkey at the theaters over the past couple of years. What does it take to get a good SF movie made?

ANSWER: I hate to sound cynical, but it takes good taste on the part of the audience. As long as moviegoers will spend over $100 million US on duds like Godzilla and Armageddon and Independence Day, Hollywood feels no compulsion to produce science fiction films of any ambition. Stop patronizing this junk and you’ll start getting Blade Runners and 2001s and other films that are more difficult to make and more demanding of both the creative talent and the audience.


QUESTION: Who are the most influential editors in the history of the field, and what made them so?

ANSWER: Let’s start with short fiction. The first would be Hugo Gernsback, not because of his taste (he had none), but because, almost by accident, he created the category of science fiction. The next would be John Campbell, the most influential of them all, who dragged science fiction kicking and screaming into the mid-20th century, and developed such writers as Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, and Sturgeon. Then would come Tony Boucher, who insisted on the highest degree of literacy, and a few months later there was Horace Gold, who was home to the great satirists of the day — Sheckley, Pohl, Tenn, Knight, Bester. Mike Moorcock makes the list for creating and nourishing the New Wave in the 1960s, and finally there’s Gardner Dozois, who seems to have a knack for balancing the finest cutting-edge stories with the finest traditional ones.

In novels, a much newer field, the first great editor was Judy-Lynn del Rey, who proved time and again that a science fiction novel could make the bestseller list. Terry Carr gets a special place in history for editing the two incarnations of the Ace Specials. And I don’t think there’s much doubt that Beth Meacham is the one editor who consistently comes up with books that please the critics and voters while managing to make decent money.

2012 update: There have been some fine editors since I wrote the above 13 years ago, but it’s probably too early to claim any of them to be among the most influential editors in the history of the field. We’ll have a better idea in 2025.


QUESTION: I just wrote a short story, and, as always, I set it aside for a week and then looked at it again — and I can’t find a single word I want to change. I’ve only sold two stories in my life. Can this one really be that good, or am I missing something? Have you ever sold a first draft without changing a word?

ANSWER: Let me give you two seemingly contradictory answers. No, it can’t really be that good, and yes, I’ve occasionally sold a first draft without changing a word.

It can be good enough to sell the first time around, and to the untrained (or, more likely, bleary) eye it looks perfect, but I’ve yet to encounter a perfect story.

When I send it out, I think it’s perfect. When I see the copy-edited manuscript, I find a couple of minor corrections. When I see the galleys, I find still more. And when I read it three years later, even if it’s a Hugo winner, I wince that I could let something that unpolished get out of the house.


QUESTION: Why do you keep using African themes in your stories? After all, hardly any of your readers are ever going to Africa.

ANSWER: My stories, like most sf stories, are allegorical. They are not about Africa; they are about humanity. Why does Kim Stanley Robinson keep writing about Mars, when probably none of his readers will ever set foot on that distant planet? And, on the subject of Mars, are Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories any the less powerful because we know there’s no oxygen on Mars?


QUESTION: I’ve heard you say on a few occasions that you and Carol will only give Hollywood a maximum of 8 weeks a year. Given how much they pay compared to what science fiction pays, why won’t you spend more time writing for movies?

ANSWER: I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make a good living writing what I want, and Carol, who is in charge of our money, has beat the stock market like a drum. So we are not at Hollywood’s mercy, just because they can throw money at us.

I don’t think you can create art by committee, which is what Hollywood is structured to do. The pay is nice, and the challenge of writing screenplays — a totally different discipline from writing books and stories — is exciting. But the frustration of dealing with a situation you can’t change — which is the way Hollywood does business, and the way writers rank at the bottom of the scale — is such that eight weeks a year is all we’ll give it. And I’m looking forward to giving it even less.

2012 update: I actually haven’t done any work for Hollywood in eleven years now. That could change tomorrow, but I like writing prose, and I especially like knowing that the book or story that gets published is 100% my work, that it hasn’t gone through 6 rewrites by people I don’t know, and hasn’t been changed to accommodate actors, directors, marketing managers, or the producer’s wife’s hairdresser.

Further 2012 update: Since writing those words 3 weeks ago, I have signed a contract to write a screenplay this summer, and have committed (though I haven’t signed yet) to write another one in 2013. Moral: you never know what’s coming next in this business.


QUESTION: Based on one of your answers in a previous column, I get the distinct impression that women editors are dominating the field. True or false? How about women agents? And whatever the answer, is it a good thing or a bad thing?

ANSWER: I’d say about three-quarters of the editors in the field are women. (Maybe more now, since the top three men from Harper Prism and Avon were just terminated, and two women are now running the lines.)

I have no problem with it at all. I have sold novels to Sheila Gilbert, Beth Meacham, Anne Groell, Amy Stout, Vicki Shockett, and Janna Silverstein. In fact, the only man I’ve sold one to is Brian Thomsen.

2012 update: I’ve since sold multiple books to Lou Anders and Bill Schafer…but I’m still selling to female editors as well. (Hi, Ginjer and Toni!)

Both of my agents have been women; one was pretty mediocre, one is pretty sensational. My Hollywood attorney, the one I use for film deals, in a woman. Come to think of it, so is my wife.

I couldn’t really say whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing — but I consider that an irrelevant question. The operative question is whether it’s true or false, and the answer is that it’s true. So you might as well think it’s a good thing; it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

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.
This entry was posted in Ask Bwana. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ask Bwana #30

  1. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/23/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

Leave a Reply