Ask Bwana #33-34

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #33/34 — March, 2000

There’s a question about GalaxyOnline.com coming up a little later, but I want to address myself to this remarkable web page right now.

Ben Bova, who has more Hugos than any editor except Gardner Dozois, is the publisher of GalaxyOnline. The columnists are a virtual who’s who of Science Fiction: Gregory Benford, Anne McCaffrey, David Brin, David Gerrold, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Robert Silverberg, Jack Dann, Harlan Ellison, Orson Scott Card, Joe Haldeman, even me.

Each of us has been invited to write about anything we choose, so long as it relates to science fiction and the future. And I mean anything. Among my first few columns were pieces on cancer, Broadway musicals, African hunting, pulp heroes, pets, and lady editors. Others have been just as catholic in their choice of subjects.

I think that, taken as a whole, these columns represent more potential story material and more kinetic knowledge of how science fiction works than any comparable body of work, and I urge each of you to visit GalaxyOnline.com and see for yourself.

2008 note: GalaxyOnline.com died within a year. It was a loss leader to draw fans to the web page, which would then push the parent company’s (unproduced) movies and (unproduced) TV shows. It was a wonderful thing while it lasted, and it paved the way for upscale webzines like Jim Baen’s Universe and Subterranean.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I know that in the non-fiction world, it’s okay to write the same article for different markets (e.g., you sell it to a local market, then to a parenting magazine). Although the focus is different and the intros, etc., are written differently, paragraphs of information stay the same. My question is: Is this okay to do with fiction? Specifically, a friend and I are collaborating on a story. The current version is erotic fantasy and is fairly graphic; we have a specific market in mind. However, an upcoming anthology has a theme that coincides with one of the themes in our story. Is it acceptable to rewrite the story by taking out the graphic sex scenes, but leaving everything else intact, and try to sell it to the second market as well?

ANSWER: Once upon a time, the law defined plagiarism as lifting six words in a row and presenting them as new. That was a little harsh, and I’m sure the law has changed over the years — but I don’t see how you can represent a story as new when all you’ve done is remove some graphic sex scenes. Still, if you feel compelled to do so, I think the very least you owe your second editor is a copy of the story as it originally appeared, and then let him decide whether it’s a reprint or not, and whether he wants it under those circumstances (which obviously cannot remain hidden for long).

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QUESTION: What can you tell me about your deal with galaxyonline.com? Changed your mind about e-zines? Or are they onto something new?

ANSWER: No, it hasn’t changed my mind about e-zines. What I have said here is that no online publication specializing in fiction has yet shown a profit, and considering how little time it took hackers to break the encryption on Stephen King’s new online novella, I don’t imagine that’s changed.

2008 note: Times have changed, and that is a Good Thing. Now there’s JBU, and Subterranean, and Clarkesworld, and a number of others. Some will fall by the wayside, but they’ll instantly be replaced by others.

My deal with Galaxyonline.com is the same as most of the other writers. I do a column — not a work of fiction — twice a month, and they pay me approximately 5 times what Analog or Asimov’s would pay for the same thing. (And no, I don’t think any of the Galaxyonline columnists approached them; in each case, they approached us.)

The thing is, I don’t believe the Galaxyonline columns, expensive as they are to the publisher, were ever meant to show a profit. Rather, they’re there, presenting almost every major name in the field on a regular basis, to build up an enormous readership, at which point Galaxy Pictures and Galaxy TV can use the site to hype their movies and TV shows. You see, a budget of maybe $15,000 US or $20,000 US a month is enormous for an online magazine trying to make its own way in the electronic world; but that same budget is a drop in the bucket, less than lunch money, when applied to advertising and promoting movies and television shows.

So am I happy with them? Hell, yes; they pay me lots of money and let me write on just about any subject that appeals to me.

Do I think e-zines are the wave of the future? Not yet.

2012 update: It’s no longer a matter of do I think they’re the wave of the future. I know they are. As I write these words there are three remaining printzines — Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF — but look at all the e-zines that are paying professional rates: Clarkesworkd, Lightspeed, Flash Fiction, Cemetery Dance, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Chizine, Bull Spec, Cobblestone, Furutismic, Abyss & Apex, Cosmos, Strange Horizons, Subterranean, Tor.com, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, The Pedestal, Shock Totem… The list goes on and on. One or two may die in the handful of weeks between when I write this and you read it, but if they do, there’ll be a couple of new ones to take their place. Stories from the e-zines are being nominated for and winning our major awards, and will continue to do so. Welcome to the future.

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QUESTION: Are foreign markets really worth bothering with? Sure, there’s a certain amount of cachet associated with Interzone, but would you submit to any other markets outside the USA?

ANSWER: I wouldn’t submit a new story to any foreign market other than Interzone. Most of the others — Hayakawa SF in Japan, Fantastyka in Poland, Kaukas in Lithuania, Galaxies in France, and so on — only publish reprints of English-language writers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make an extra thousand or so per story overseas once you’ve sold it here.

2012 update: Add Postscripts to the list that will consider a new story — and where you’ll be in good company.

And of course, the main reason to sell short fiction, new or used, to foreign markets is to make yourself known in those markets so that the foreign book publishers will know your name, see that you are well-received by the local fans and readers, and throw some serious money at you. Work the foreign book market right and you’ll find that you make more money overseas than you make in America.

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QUESTION: A short story of mine has been critiqued by several groups and bounced by several editors, all of whom had the same thing to say: it’s a good story, but the central incident around which the whole thing hinges is completely unbelievable. The trouble is, it really did happen to me and I want to leave it in! Has this ever happened to you? If so, what did you do about it?

ANSWER: I’ve never had anything unbelievable happen to me, but that’s beside the point. The point, made by several editors, is that the central incident around which your story revolves is unbelievable. Enough editors seem to have mentioned it that you can take it as a given. At this point, it doesn’t matter if the incident is true or not; professional editors insist that they don’t believe it. You have two choices: remove the incident and perhaps sell the story . . . or leave it in and practically guarantee that you won’t sell the story. Seen in that light, it really isn’t such a hard choice, is it?

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QUESTION: After watching Stephen King make his publisher a quick million dollars from 400,000 Internet customers who paid $2.50 US apiece to download “Riding the Bullet,” I’m starting to question your advice about not self-publishing. If Stephen King can make a million bucks, why shouldn’t I be able to make a thousand or so?

ANSWER: First, because he’s Stephen King, and his track record proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that he has about five million loyal readers and another twenty million or so who read him occasionally; and your name is (fill in the blank) and your track record has yet to show that you’ve got a single reader.

Second, never forget just how quickly the encryption was broken and the story appeared all over the Internet.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Stephen King is the best-selling author of our time, perhaps of all time, and he does his reputation no harm by putting a novella up online. With a total unknown such as yourself, self-publishing will be seen — even, and perhaps especially, by editors — as a public admission that you were unable to place your story with a professional magazine.

2008 note: Okay, he’s not the best-selling author of our time any longer. J. K. Rowling is. But that doesn’t invalidate the point.

But you do what you think is best, and we’ll discuss what it did or didn’t do for your pocketbook and your career in, say, five years?

2008 note: John Scalzi has proven that it can be done, but I don’t think he invalidated the argument. If you can write as well as John Scalzi, and if your blog gets 30,000 hits a day, you can do it too. See anyone on the horizon with those credentials?

2012 update: The landscape has changed, and a total unknown, Amanda Hocking, has shown that you can be an unpublished writer who takes a bunch of rejected manuscripts, puts them up online, and make a few million sales the first year. But the reason everyone knows about Amanda Hocking is because she is unique. It’s estimated that there are more than a quarter million unpublished writers who have electronically published their own work and have not come close to making minimum wage for the hours they put into it.

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QUESTION: I’m looking at the market reports and all the novel publishers appear equally grim. If you had just completed your first novel and you somehow had access to all the publishing knowledge you currently have, where would you send it? If there are different answers for different genres — hard SF, cyberpunk, horror, high fantasy, urban fantasy — what would they be? Is it still a bad idea for an unpublished writer to look for an agent before she has a nibble from a publisher?

ANSWER: Yes, it’s still a bad idea for an unpublished writer to look for an agent before she’s had a nibble from a publisher. Groucho Marx once said he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member; an unpublished writer doesn’t want an agent who will handle an unpublished writer (except under very special circumstances).

2012 update: Enough people have asked, over the year, about the “special circumstances”. One, you’ve won a Hugo or Nebula for your short fiction and are now ready to market your first novel; and two, someone in the agent’s stable knows your work and acts as your ombudsman with the agent, singing your praises and urging him/her to consider you.

The market’s never been worse, during my third of a century in it, than it is right now — but that doesn’t mean it’s closed, just that it’s harder to break in and stay in than it used to be. The companies that historically have been friendliest to new writers are probably Ace and DAW; the company that’s publishing the most books and hence has the most need for product is Tor. If you’re doing high fantasy or very long fantasies with a romantic tint to them, I’d try DAW first. For military SF, Baen. For space opera, probably Del Rey, though if it’s well done everyone will want it. Cyberpunk’s falling out of favor, but if that’s what you want to write, probably Bantam and Tor. Urban fantasy, probably Avon, possibly Baen. But understand: these are just what I consider the likeliest markets, and I’m simply rattling them off as I write this. Any of the publishers will take just about any kind of book if it’s superbly written; any of them will take most books of any type if they’re well-written.

2008 note: Not much has changed, and it’s still a crap-shoot.

2012 update: Ditto.

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QUESTION: I just found out I’m on the Campbell ballot. Is this award worth campaigning for? If so, can you please give me some tips?

ANSWER: I know that a lot of people complain about other people campaigning for awards, but I truly don’t know how you’d go about it. Except for the Nebula recommendations, which lead up to the Preliminary Ballot and are two giant steps away from the Final Ballot, I’m not aware of any ballot — Hugo nomination, Hugo, Nebula Preliminary, Nebula, HOMer, Sturgeon, Campbell, Campbell Memorial, even the Locus and Asimov’s Polls — that isn’t secret. And if a ballot is secret, what’s the sense of campaigning? You can never be sure if a single person you lobbied actually voted for you.

2012 update: Nebula recommendations are no longer public, so all balloting is now secret.

So let’s change the question to: is the award worth anything?

Quick answer: all awards are worth something, at least in terms of recognition, and none of them are worth much to your bank account.

Separate but equal right answer: If you’re on the Campbell ballot because of a novel or two, no, it won’t mean any money to you. You’ve already got a track record, and the publisher will be much more likely to rely on the sales of your previous book(s) than on your nomination.

But if you’re on ballot with short stories and haven’t written that first novel yet, then as a Campbell winner you’ll be in some demand among book editors and you’ll be likely to get a little better treatment than the average first novelist.

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QUESTION: What advice would you give to a writing group that wants to publish their own magazine or anthology? (Personally, I’d say ‘are you nuts?’, but these people I know might want to hear from an expert. . . .)

ANSWER: If you’re talking about a limited edition of maybe 75 copies for a group of 30, so they can each keep one and give one to Ma and maybe Uncle Herbert, fine.

If you’re talking about anything that tries to pass itself off as a professional publication, forget it. One, it’ll be a laughing stock. Two, it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. Three, it’ll convince one or more contributors that they’re actually pros, and that could have psychologically devastating effects once they try to compete in the open marketplace.

2012 update: With the advent of e-publishing, you won’t go broke any longer . . . but all the other caveats still apply.

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QUESTION: Have you ever gone through a period where writing wasn’t easy — where Real Life kept raising its ugly little head and you got bogged down in Other Things?

I know that while Carol was sick you seemed to be a writing machine . . . but has anything made you so weary that you couldn’t face writing?

ANSWER: There have been many times when I didn’t feel like it, but there’s never been a time I couldn’t force myself to sit down and produce.

Part of it is discipline. Part is simple economic need. Part is a love of the work.

But I also think a major part is deadlines. I kid about them, but you learn to meet them — and except for a period of about 7 years, from about 1980 to 1987, I have always had close deadlines. That 7-year period I did almost nothing but novels . . . but all my life prior to that, along with the fiction, I’d written weekly and monthly columns. You write a weekly horse racing column or a monthly collie column for 17 and 11 years respectively, you learn how to sit down and go to work no matter what. From 1969 to 1975 I packaged 7 monthly tabloids — that came to about 160 newspaper pages, including ads and photos, every month. I had to write ’em, edit ’em, lay them out, proofread them — and I was working for guys where, if you screwed up (like by missing a deadline), you stood a pretty good chance of being found, perforated, in the trunk of a car. These days I still have deadlines — I’m doing a column every 15 days for Ben Bova and GalaxyOnline, I just turned in the 31st Ask Bwana column to Speculations without ever missing a deadline, Barry Malzberg and I have done 6 “Dialogues” for the SFWA Bulletin without missing a deadline, and of course every time I accept an assignment for an anthology I have a close deadline. You learn how to work through your apathy. Or at least, you do if it’s your primary source of income.

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QUESTION: I just got a rejection from one of the prozines, with the comment “Just missed!” scribbled on it, followed by the editor’s signature. As I went through the manuscript, I found five typos that my spellchecker missed. Can I sue the spellchecker manufacturer for costing me a sale?

ANSWER: I assume this is a serious question, though it’s difficult to believe it’s not one of my friends in disguise.

The answer is No, you can’t sue. (Well, that’s not exactly right. Anyone can sue anyone for anything. What you can’t do is win.)

This is going to come as a shock to you, but in the entire history of publishing, no story has ever been rejected for having a few typos in it.

Now go through that manuscript again and see if you can figure out the real reason it “just missed.”

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QUESTION: Just how salacious can a sex scene be before it’s too offensive and costs you a sale?

ANSWER: That all depends on whether you’re writing for Larry Flynt or Ladies Home Journal. Seriously, study your market and see what’s acceptable. (And you wouldn’t believe how many newcomers I meet who send stories off without ever having read the magazine they’re submitting to. Talk about putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage!)

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QUESTION: What do you think of electronic submissions?

ANSWER: I prefer reading printed pages, but I accepted electronic submissions when I was editing anthologies, and I’ve occasionally made electronic submissions to markets that accept them. But since I’m no longer actively editing, it’s not a question of what I think about them, but what the editor you’re trying to sell thinks of them. And if it’s not in the market listing, the easiest way to find out is just to ask.

2008 note: I think about 80% of all submissions I make these days are electronic. All the submissions for the last dozen anthologies I edited were electronic. And of course JBU is entirely electronic.

2012 update: Make that 95%. Minimum. And have you noticed about how 75% of my updates seem to involve some facet of electronic publishing/writing/submitting/editing?

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QUESTION: So what’s your opinion of this new-fangled print-on-demand publishing?

ANSWER: I think it’s an excellent way to keep your backlist at least minimally in print. Now, you may ask why, other than ego gratification, this is a good idea. The answer is simple: if you didn’t hit certain foreign markets the first time around, sending out a 15-year old book (with a 15-year-out-of-date cover price) is not going to impress foreign editors; they’ll assume their house rejected it years ago. But a good-looking brand new trade paperback (almost all print-on-demand is either hardcover or trade paper) just may convince them to part with their money.

That’s pretty much the same reason I sell collections to specialty publishers. Every once in a while I can twist some mass market publisher’s arm — Tor did a very nice collection of mine a few years ago — but by and large mass market doesn’t want your collection if your name isn’t Ray or Isaac or Connie. But by placing a collection with a small press every year or so, I create the possibility of foreign sales, since these are titles they’ve never seen (and hence have never rejected, and hence don’t have to justify buying this time after rejecting them last time.)

Example: I “sold” a collection to a West Coast house two years ago, and instead of money I took my advance in hardcover copies of the book. We then sent the hardcovers to publishers all over the world. Thus far we’ve sold the collection — a collection no New York house would want — to four countries for more than $10,000 total, which is found money . . . and which also sets those publishers up, now that they’ve committed money and publicity to me, to buying not only my mass market books but also my print-on-demand reprints that they rejected (or never saw) 15 or 20 years ago when they were first published.

Nice questions. See you next (even-numbered) 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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