Ask Bwana # 31-32

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #31-32 — January, 2000

The last two issues dealt in some detail with a couple of contract clauses which, when overlooked or misunderstood, can cost you an arm, a leg, and a considerable part of your career.

I see no reason to go into every way a publisher can screw you in such detail — there are books, articles, and long lectures, including a fine set of articles by science fiction’s own Raymond E. Feist — that do the job more than adequately.

But it probably wouldn’t hurt to point out the danger areas, other than option clauses and allowing your publisher to handle foreign rights, where you should be alert.

The first involves subsidiary rights. Sub rights, to use the lingo of the beginner.

Subsidiary rights are just that: all rights other than first publication rights. Now, the operative question is: which should you retain, and which should you part with?

The simplest answer is that you should allow your publisher 50% of all book club rights — even if you’re Stephen King or Tom Clancy your publisher’s going to make that a non-negotiable demand — and you should retain 100% of all other rights.

Which is to say, you do not share any portion of the following with your mass market publisher:

Foreign rights.

Magazine serialization rights prior to book publication.

Movie rights.

Theater rights.

Audio rights.

Role-playing game rights.

Computer game rights.

Limited edition rights. (There’s one exception: your publisher will demand 50% of the advance from Easton Press, since they’re going to use his typesetting and plates. But you retain all the money for autographing the tip-in sheets — and yes, they pay by the sheet.)

Comic book rights.

You’d like electronic rights. These days you’re probably not going to get them. Your only consolation is that they still aren’t worth the powder to blow them to hell. That’ll change, but hopefully not before your reversion clause kicks in.

2008 note: OK, they’re finally worth something. No publisher except Baen knows what to do with them, but they all try to grab them anyway. Fight to keep them, and if it’s a deal-breaker, don’t relinquish more than 50%.

2012 update: They’re now worth a bundle, occasionally more than print rights. Publishers know this, and it’s generally a deal-break to refuse to relinquish them. The battleground these days is for the royalty rate on e-books. Publishers reluctantly offer 25% of their take, which comes to 17.5% or less (they get 70% from Amazon, 65% from Barnes & Noble, etc.) which is ridiculous. By the time the dust clears, a few more writers’ careers are in ruins, and a few more publishers are bankrupt, it’ll probably level out at 50%.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions.

QUESTION: What the hell were those idiots at Sovereign Media THINKING when they canceled Science Fiction Age? It was gorgeous, fun to read, paid a ton, and the editor replied in ten days or less . . . why did they kill it?

ANSWER: They killed it because it wasn’t making any money (or enough money, depending on which story you believe). Yes, it was visually our most gorgeous professional magazine; yes, it paid the best word rates; yes, Scott Edelman made fast decisions; and yes, Scott knows the difference between Good and Bad, though he was handicapped by his format, which catered more than any of the other prozines to media fans.

But let’s take a look at the record, so you’ll know who to get mad at. The February, 2000 issue of Locus lists the magazine sales figures, year by year, for the decade. Science Fiction Age was born in 1993, and that year its average sale was 61,670 copies per issue.

It actually increased its circulation in 1994, averaging 62,234 copies per issue.

Then came the decline. It averaged 57,222 in 1995; 50,095 in 1996; 43, 284 in 1997; 34,082 in 1998; and 25,146 in 1999. Which is to say, it dropped 12.5% of its circulation in 1996, 14% of what was left in 1997, 21.3% of what remained in 1998, and 26.3% of that minimal total in 1999.

And this is not the kind of magazine that can be assembled in one’s living room, as Ed Ferman did for years with F&SF. Take a look and you’ll see that, fast reporter or not, Scott needed quite a staff: at the very least, an art director, an ad exec, and a copy-editor/proofreader.

And at this point in history, Science Fiction Age was selling less than any other professional SF magazine, and its sales were plummeting far faster than any of the others.

So . . . you want to blame someone? Fine. But don’t blame the publisher for refusing to bleed any more red ink.

Blame the readers who stopped buying it.

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QUESTION: When you’re on a roll, about how many words do you write per day?

ANSWER: It depends. Sometimes when I’m on a roll, I write 500 words in a day, but they’re awfully good words. Sometimes I write 10,000 words, and they’re at least passable (i.e., saleable).

And like most professionals, I find that nothing puts me on the kind of roll you refer to more than an impending deadline.

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QUESTION: Any tips on creating believable aliens and not just humans with bumps on their foreheads? What are your favorite fictional alien races, please?

ANSWER: If you can get your hands on the long out-of-print Discon I Proceedings, published by Advent, you’ll come to the transcript of a fabulous panel with Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Leigh Brackett, scientist Willy Ley, and artist Ed Emshwiller, addressing the subject of “What Should a B.E.M. Look Like?” (For the uninitiated, B.E.M. is an acronym for Bug-Eyed Monster.)

Anyway, whenever I’m stuck for an alien, I re-read that panel, and invariably I come up with one.

I’m not usually stuck, though, because I happen to believe that you can’t do much with real aliens. If we were to encounter one, he’d probably inhale chlorine, excrete bricks, and smell colors — which is to say, he’d be totally incomprehensible to us.

Therefore, my aliens tend to be metaphors for some aspect of the human condition that I want to explore or comment on. (Non sequitur: for years I constructed some of the most awkward sentences imaginable in my near-religious fervor never to end with a participle. Now I let ‘em dangle, and no one minds.)

Nothing puts me off more than sitting down with a science fiction book or story and finding that I practically have to learn a new language — or at least a couple of dozen names and words that have absolutely no meaning beyond the book I’m reading. So I go out of my way not to give my aliens alien names. If there’s one that looks like Frankenstein’s monster, you can bet the farm that the humans who have to interact with it will call it Boris or Frankie.

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QUESTION: How long do you let a story sit before sending it out? Every time I’ve sold something right out of the box, I’ve regretted it later; there’s always something that the editor (or I) didn’t catch.

ANSWER: Usually just until the next day’s mail. And there’s always something I didn’t catch, and that I’ll change in galleys. But there’d probably be something three weeks later, and I’d have had my income and my story’s appearance/scheduling delayed by three weeks, so what’s the point of waiting?

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QUESTION: Harry Potter books: threat or menace? Have you had a chance to read any of them? If so, how did you like them?

ANSWER: I haven’t read them, and at present I have no intention of reading them. I do admire the lady who writes them; I gather she wrote her first while living on the dole. That takes an admirable amount of self-confidence and discipline.

2008 note: Okay, I read the first one a couple of years ago. My reaction is like when I first saw Star Wars — it’s pleasant lightweight fun, but what the hell is all the fuss about?

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QUESTION: How do you pick compelling names for your characters?

ANSWER: You’re asking Art, and Bwana prefers to talk Business, which he’s pretty sure can be taught, where he’s reasonably sure Art can’t.

Your question presupposes that my characters have compelling names. I’d like to think so, but if I were to explain why they were compelling, the explanation of necessity would presuppose that everyone else’s names were, to some extent, less compelling, and even I am not egomaniacal enough to believe that.

I find that I tend to select one-syllable last names — not always, but more often than not — and multi-syllable first names. Some are clearly borrowed from historical characters, some are just names that I think fit the characters, others I couldn’t tell you at this late date how they occurred to me.

I do set a lot of my stories on a mythical Inner Frontier, where men change names the way you and I change clothes, so even if I don’t always think their names fit them, they do, and that’s probably more important.

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QUESTION: How do you feel about the phrase “Anybody who can be discouraged from writing should?”

ANSWER: I agree wholeheartedly, and have probably uttered it — or a close approximation — a few hundred times.

This is a tough profession. A lot of the readers of this magazine don’t realize how tough it is to make a living as a writer, because they tend to go to conventions and read fanzines and live a lifestyle that puts them next to a disproportionately high number of successful writers. The average writer makes less than $2,500 US a year — and that averages in King, Steele, Clancy, Koontz, and the rest of our 8-digit-a-book superstars.

There is a saying to the effect that actors, writers, and prostitutes have one thing in common: there are always talented amateurs willing to undercut their prices.

There are literally a million people turning in manuscripts every year. Less than half of one percent of them will ever sell what they’ve written — so yes, given the odds and the competition, anyone who can be discouraged should be.

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QUESTION: I’ve just discovered that several of my early short stories have been translated into (I think) Russian and posted on several pirate Internet sites. What, if anything, can I do about this?

ANSWER: If you’re a member of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) you can report it to Dave Smeds, who is in charge of foreign abuses, and he’ll determine what to do next — whether to contact the site owner himself, or have SFWA’s attorney do it.

2012 update: To its everlasting shame, SFWA no longer has an anti-piracy committee.

If you’re not a member of any writer’s organization, you’ve got a major problem, since you have no ombudsman out there fighting for your interests. If you find that a number of other stories have also been pirated, the best thing to do is try to get the other writers to join you in a strong letter on the assumption that there is strength in numbers.

If it’s a book that’s been pirated, you may decide to go to court. If it’s a story, perhaps you might go to the publisher and alert him, and possibly he’ll go to bat for you.

And if it’s a semi-pro or fanzine story, forget it; there’s no way you can prove that it’s worth anything or that you were done any damage. At any rate, you don’t want to spend a few thousand dollars protecting a 5,000-word story that paid you 2¢ US a word.

2012 update: There’s now a form, a DMCA, that you can file with the server to have your pirated book or story taken down. And if they ignore it, the Justice Department would love to hear about it.

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QUESTION: Do you speak any foreign languages? If so, has it helped your writing?

ANSWER: I speak some Swahili, and no, it hasn’t helped at all. I probably haven’t used 30 Swahili words in all my African-based stories — I don’t like to confuse my readers, who almost certainly don’t speak Swahili — and I could have found those words in any English/Swahili dictionary.

Once upon time I spoke some French, but a trio of trips to Paris in the past two years have forcefully brought home the fact that I don’t speak it any longer.

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QUESTION: I am seventeen and writing a novel. Do you have any advice?

ANSWER: Don’t get discouraged — but do remember that hardly any 17-year-olds sell novels. Yes, people who want to encourage you will mention everyone from Walter Farley to Gore Vidal — but they can name them only because they are exceptions.

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QUESTION: I’m thinking of sending a story to a British market. Should I be worried about British versus American spelling, color versus colour, for instance?

ANSWER: Absolutely not. That’s what copy editors are for. If it’s good enough to sell, someone will take care of British spellings — if they think it’s worth the effort. A lot of Brits sell here with no change in their sentence construction or spelling, and that same goes for Yanks selling to Britain.

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QUESTION: What is professional editorial behavior? Reasonable response times, good feedback, and encouraging new writers . . . or is it just seeking out and publishing the very best material, and damn the hurt feelings?

ANSWER: I’ve sat staring at this question for about five minutes now, and I have to finally suggest that there is no right answer.

Does a good editor report quickly? Sure. Does he encourage new writers? Absolutely — that’s where our next generation of superstars will come from.

But what about an editor who is slow to report, doesn’t encourage new writers, and consistently publishes the best stories in the genre? Obviously he’s a good editor too.

If you’re an established pro, I suspect you prefer the second editor — the one who publishes the best stories and lets it go at that. If you’re a beginner, than of course you want the editor who encourages new writers.

As for reporting times, usually the established pros will get prompt replies . . .which is why some editors are so far behind on their slush piles. The slush gets read when everything else — including reading the just-delivered stories by Name writers — is finished.

It’s not a matter of Fair or Unfair, but rather of True or False. It’s True, it’s not going to change, so learn to live with it. Every Name writer did, on the way to becoming a Name writer.

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QUESTION: Have you ever written a story around somebody else’s idea? I did . . . and now the person who told me the idea seems to think she owns half the story, and is very angry that her name doesn’t appear on the byline. What can I tell her?

ANSWER: Have I ever written a story around someone else’s idea? Maybe a dozen times — but always for shared-world anthologies where the ideas were practically force-fed to the writers, or for “tribute anthologies” (like Foundation’s Friends or The Williamson Effect) where the writers were told to use the author’s ideas and characters.

Sounds to me like you’ve got a totally different situation here. Someone suggested an idea to you. You wrote it and sold it. Probably you should have put a thank-you note to her at the beginning or the end, but you didn’t. No contract was signed. I assume she didn’t say she was busy writing it and that you decided to sit down and write it faster. Legally, you’re off the hook.

As for what you can tell her . . . you might tell her you’re sorry, you didn’t realize she felt she had proprietary rights on the idea, and that if it’s ever reprinted, you’ll add a note thanking her for the idea.

But you will never put her name on the byline, since she didn’t write a word of it.

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QUESTION: I am thinking of publishing a collection of my previously published stories electronically, either by myself or through an electronic publisher. Assuming that I retain all rights, will doing this harm my chances of publishing this collection in print by a traditional publisher?

ANSWER: My guess is that it’ll do more than harm your chances; it will kill them.

There is a difference between publishing a collection of stories that have appeared elsewhere; every collection since Roger Lee Vernon’s abominable collection of previously-unpublished science fiction stories, The Space Frontiers (Signet, 1955) has included stories that were published in the magazines. But no publisher wants to reprint some other publisher’s collection of reprinted stories. Publishers want to buy first rights to whatever book you’re selling. Further, self-publishing, even on the net, will be seen as a public admission that you couldn’t find a legitimate publisher for the first edition.

2008 note: there have been a very few notable exceptions in the past half dozen years, but this is still essentially true.

There are a lot of specialty publishers, which is where most of the pros are selling their collections these days. I think you’d be far better advised to seek them out than to publish on the net.

2012 update: Now that e-publishing has shown that it can be lucrative — romance writer Amanda Hocking is the poster child for this, but many other have been very good money at it — it’s no longer an admission of unsaleability to e-publish a collection, but if you’re not known and your stories are unpublished, it seems unlikely that you’re going to sell to much more than friends and family, as you’ll be up against a couple of million e-books, and why should someone accessing lists of them from the major sites seek out your name?

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QUESTION: When an editor writes me a personal rejection with questions about the story, should I take that as a request for rewrite?

ANSWER: That’s too general a question. If, for example, his question is “What’s your first language?” or “Didn’t you ever take physics in high school?” I don’t think he’s asking for a rewrite.

In fact, if he’s got specific questions about the story, I’d write him back and ask if he’s requesting a rewrite that will clear up his confusion. I certainly wouldn’t do it without an express request for one.

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QUESTION: Which is more important to win — the Hugo or the Nebula? How much campaigning goes on for each?

ANSWER: It depends on which is more important to you: praise from your fans (the Hugo) or your peers (the Nebula). I think the Hugo is worth a little more in the marketplace, at least for foreign markets.

I think there’s a little more campaigning for the Nebula than the Hugo, simply because there’s a smaller bloc of voters to influence — but despite all the sour grapes at award time, I honestly don’t know how politicking can influence an award that is voted on by secret ballot.

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 36 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 41 anthologies. My work has been translated into 26 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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2 Responses to Ask Bwana # 31-32

  1. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/30/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  2. Just got my first ‘real’ check for writing a story, and figured if I had to live on my income so far, I’d eat pretty good for a little while and then starve to death! Now I need to go back and look at the contract and see just what kind of rights I sold. I know they want first right to refuse if I write a novel from the story, can’t even remember what else.

    I need to get faster at producing product.

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