Ask Bwana #35

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #35 — May, 2000

I’m writing this from Florida, where I’m between conventions (DeepSouthCon and Oasis) before going back home to Cincinnati. Because we didn’t feel like driving from Jekyll Island, Georgia (DeepSouthCon) to Palm Beach (where we’re staying with a friend before going to Orlando for Oasis) — Florida is a long state — we chose to fly from Jacksonville to Palm Beach. (Yes, this is getting somewhere; bear with me.)

We checked our luggage at the Jacksonville airport and began making our way to the gate — and happened to pass the airport’s only bookstore. And sitting in front of it was a pleasant young man who had set up a table and was selling copies of a book he had written on the mysteries of the pyramids.

He tried to sell me a copy. I politely declined, we got to talking, and it came out that I was a professional writer. Bad plan for anyone with a plane to catch. He kept me there for 20 minutes, trying to find out how you got national distribution, how anyone could afford a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review section or maybe Publisher’s Weekly, and when the money started flowing in rather than out.

Yes, he was self-published. He was out thousands and thousands of dollars on his printing bill. He had answered one of those “We’ll publish your manuscript” ads you find in the backs of magazines, and this particular vanity press convinced him that all writers start out like this.

So, since we haven’t discussed vanity presses here for a few issues, perhaps it’s time to reiterate the ground rules:

1. Professional writers get paid for writing. They do not pay for the privilege of being published.

2. Most professional writers — easily 98% of them, probably more — do not start out by paying someone to publish their books.

3. If you self-publish, you will never get national distribution unless you contact hundreds of book stores, offer them an unbelievably deep discount on fully returnable merchandise, pay for all shipping, and are prepared to pay for thousands of extra books that will probably not get displayed and will almost certainly not get sold.

4. I wouldn’t believe 90% of anything a legitimate publisher tells me. (That’s why we have agents.) No one should believe anything a vanity publisher tells them. The legitimate publisher, however much of a fiend and a crook he is at heart, is putting his money into my book and could conceivably take a red-ink bath if the book bombs. The vanity publisher isn’t spending a penny, and the only way he gets hurt is if you disbelieve him and go elsewhere.

5. Yes, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mark Twain published some of their own works — a vanity publisher’s favorite argument. But Burroughs had already published numerous entries in the Tarzan, Mars and Pellucidar series, and Twain had already published Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. What have you published that will allow you to command such an audience that booksellers will handle your wares despite threats from other publishers? (Yes, it happens. Subtly. As in, “I see you’re carrying Jophan’s new book. It’s taking up so much display space” — 6 inches by 9 inches in a large store — “that you don’t have any room for the new Clancy, King, or Isaac Heinlein titles. I guess we’ll just have to give them to the superstore down the block. Unless, of course . . .”)

6. There are a hundred more good reasons not to go to a vanity press. I cannot think of a single reason to go. And no, the fact that no mass market house wants your book isn’t a valid reason. The solution is to write a better book. Yes, the market’s biased against newcomers now, but look at the Locus poll for Best First Novel, and year in and year out you’ll see 30 or more titles listed, which means someone is writing a good enough first novel to sell. A lot of someones, in fact.

2012 update: Let’s differentiate between paying money to self-publish a paper book, circa 2000, and self-publishing an e-book, circa 2012. If you’re not known and have no audience looking for books with your name on them, I think e-publishing your original novels is counter-productive, but it doesn’t scream “loser” the way paying a vanity press did/does. On the other hand, if your name isn’t Amanda Hocking, it does tend to whisper “clueless”.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions.

QUESTION: How seriously should I take Internet piracy? The very strong inference I’m drawing from watching alt.binaries.e-books is that authors who make a stink wind up getting hit the hardest. A professional novelist I know had one of his books posted immediately after speaking up . . . should I just be quiet and thank goodness than only one of my stories is out there?

ANSWER: Internet piracy is a crime. If you can show that it cost you as little as $100 US in lost income, it’s a felony. If you know a felony has been committed and you do nothing to fight against it, then you are inviting other felons to victimize you, because you are saying, in effect, that your work is not worth fighting for.

Yes, I know pirates can cause you enormous trouble, can fuck up your credit rating and post all your stories and hide their identities (at least for awhile), but I have always felt that it’s better to take a moral stand and fight for what you believe to be right than to stand by and hope the bad guys will attack some other innocent victim.

2012 update: The world has changed again. It’s hard to think of a single book that you can’t find for free on the internet if you look hard enough. All you can do is send DMCA notices and keep alert, because there’s no way you’re going to stop all the pirates.

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QUESTION: I have been solicited twice by a major game publisher based on a writing sample I sent in. Without offering any sort of contract, they asked for a completed (lengthy) short story in one case and for a thirty-page proposal (to include synopsis, first 10 pages, and character descriptions) based on cities not well developed in one of their universes. The latter one came with a warning not to call the editor under any circumstances but to “do your research” (difficult, as game sources and novel sources contradict each other left and right). My questions are: Is this a typical amount of work for a publisher to expect without a contract being offered in a work-for-hire situation, or are they taking advantage of eager but naive young authors and eliciting slave labor? Are writing credits linked to the game-based sub-genre of fantasy held in any less regard than the writing of completely original fiction? Do I want to put in the time under these conditions on what appears to be the very slim chance they’ll actually accept the work they solicited?

ANSWER: The definition of a professional writer is: a writer who gets paid for his work. Yes, you might from time to time write a one-page proposal or a brief outline to interest an editor, but you don’t write short stories or 30-page synopses/descriptions for free. This isn’t even, by definition, a spec job; there’s nothing speculative about an editor assigning you 30 pages and then not paying you for your time and trouble.

In answer to your second question, yes, writing credits linked to games are held in less regard than the writing (and of course selling) of original fiction. They are totally different disciplines, and demonstrating skill at creating a game does not necessarily mean you will produce fiction with the same degree of expertise.

In answer to your third question, I have no idea whether you want to put in the time under those conditions. I know whether I would, and of course the answer (note capital letter) is No.

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QUESTION: Have you or anyone you know had dealings with Alexandria Digital Library? If so, how do you feel about their contract?

ANSWER: Just once. As a courtesy, I allowed them to electronically publish my two current Hugo nominees in an “anthology” of all the 2000 Hugo nominees. (The stories will revert to me one month after the Hugo ceremony.) There’s nothing illegal about their contract, or even unethical, but it’s yet another in the endless Internet offers of “Give it to us free (or cheap) today and we’ll make you rich (maybe) tomorrow.”

From what I hear, Alexandria is one of the legitimate, honest, ethical online publishers, so my objection is based not on their contract but rather on the current nature of the beast.

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QUESTION: The last issue of Asimov’s had a two-page spread for Writer’s Digest Books on the inside front cover. This seems to me to be an ominous development. Has the top magazine in the field run out of sponsors to the point where they’re selling the very best ad space to somebody marketing to what has to be the single most penniless demographic out there? Are the reading and writing communities really converging that much, or did somebody just make a huge mistake?

ANSWER: Would you be happier if they sold it to the Rosicrucians/? The advertising department’s job is to produce revenues. Asimov’s circulation has fallen from over 100,000 in the late 1980s to about 35,000 right now, and any check that doesn’t bounce has to be good for the magazine.

You want a more ominous development? This afternoon I heard a news item that a major publishing company was going online, not with fiction, but with articles about how to write. And they added that they’ll be happy, for a fee, to work with any hopeful writer. Which means fee-reading, on a huge scale, is coming to the Internet. Worry about that. (And worry about the ads that Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF don’t sell, not the ones they do.)

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QUESTION: I’ve had about forty short stories published in the professional and semi-professional markets over the last five years. A friend whose abilities I respect in this arena — he’s an accomplished semi-pro publisher — wants to put out an anthology (a real one, no messing around on the Web) of my work. He’s offering a significant advance plus good royalties, which is fine. The only thing I’m not sure about is this: he wants me to write a new story for the book, which will comprise about 20% of the actual word count when it’s done. Should I do the story? If so, should I ask for extra money? Are there other gotchas to watch out for here?

ANSWER: Something is rotten in Denmark, and I have a feeling it’s not Danish blue cheese. You’ve sold 40 stories to pro and semi-pro markets. Since you don’t differentiate between them for me, I get the feeling we’re talking maybe 3 or 4 pro sales and 36 or 37 semi-pro.

Your friend is an accomplished semi-pro publisher. Okay. But semi-pro publishers don’t pay “significant” advances for collections. (If your name isn’t Bradbury, neither do pro publishers.)

Now he wants you to write a new story, which will comprise 20% of the book. Well, obviously, he’s not running all 40, or even 20, of your stories, or he’d be asking for a novella and you’d know enough not to write it for free without asking me. So we’re talking a thin collection, maybe just your pro stories and one or two of your best semi-pro ones, plus something new he can use to advertise the collection. (Yes, collection. An anthology is a book of stories by many authors; a collection is a book of stories by one author. If you’ve reached the point where you’re selling one for significant money, you really ought to learn the terminology.)

Should you do the story? If you want a book and you can’t sell one without it, then do it. Should you ask for more money because you’re doing it? Sure — but if he’s a semi-pro, he can’t afford it, and if most of your output has been semi-pro, you don’t have the name value to sell your collection elsewhere. If he just wants a pro quality story to bulk out the book, write it and sell it to a prozine before book publication.

Any other gotchas? Yeah, one: stop pulling Bwana’s leg. There’s too much wrong with this; it simply doesn’t ring true. (So why waste the space to publish it? So readers will have a little ammunition when they suspect — or know — that their friends are bullshitting.)

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QUESTION: How important is the science in novel-length science fiction? I’m not seeing very much hard-SF-with-rivets these days; is it permissible to gloss over the technology?

ANSWER: The next scientific fact you find in one of my books will be the first (or close to it anyway). I’ve never had any editors object, and the record will show that awards voters haven’t objected either.

Now, you have to understand that writing about the “soft” sciences, or avoiding science altogether, is acceptable, whereas wrong science is not.

Finally, may I rebut your statement that you aren’t seeing much hard science these days as follows: Gregory Benford. Greg Bear. Hal Clement. Ben Bova. Catherine Asaro. John Stith. David Brin. Kim Stanley Robinson. Larry Niven. Jerry Pournelle. Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

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QUESTION: Have you been to the Baen Internet site lately? They are doing a rather complicated thing called WebScriptions, where for $10 US you get bits and pieces of 4 books on their front list every month, sort of a return to serializations. According to my sources, they are doing fairly well with this service, and have seen very few cases of piracy. What do you think of this? Would it be a reason to avoid Baen?

ANSWER: They’re doing fairly well with this service, there are very few cases of piracy, the authors are doubtless making some percentage of that monthly $10 US, and in the worst publishing climate of the past third of a century you want to know if that’s a valid reason to avoid Baen?

The answer is No. (Aw, you guessed.)

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QUESTION: I’m hearing all sorts of moaning and gnashing of teeth over the death of the small press. Are small-press and semiprofessional markets worth saving? Do they act as a proving grounds for new writers, or do people with real talent just go straight to the majors?

ANSWER: Most people with real talent go straight to the pros. Which makes sense. If you can get 8 or 10 cents US a word and national (or even worldwide) recognition for your work, why would you sell it for a penny a word and let it languish where only a couple of hundred people might see it?

Are small-press and semi-pro markets worth saving? Speaking as a reader, sure they are, if what they print pleases you. Speaking as a writer, I would do everything I could to save the small press publishing house, which is to say, the small press book publisher who puts out short runs of collections and oddities that mass market won’t handle. I’m less concerned with the semi-pro magazines. As far as I’m concerned, they’re so close to fanzines as makes almost no difference.

2012 update: with fifteen or more e-zines — none of which were around when this column originally appeared — paying professional rates, there’s less reason than ever to want to save semi-prozines, and less reason to weep over them when they close shop.

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QUESTION: I didn’t see you at the Nebulas. Were you boycotting it? Are there conventions you won’t attend?

ANSWER: No, I wasn’t boycotting anything; I just had a prior commitment, at DeepSouthCon. Had I been nominated for a Nebula, I might have cancelled out and gone to the Nebs instead, but since I wasn’t, I kept the commitment. And while all but four people (I assume the movie winner didn’t show up, big surprise) were feeling unhappy about the results, I was sharing a sailboat with some fannish friends and talking to dolphins. I leave it to you to decide who had the better time.

Yes, there are conventions I won’t attend for a second time, if I didn’t like my first experience. There’s no sense listing them here. And of course there are a number I’ll never attend unless I’m the Guest of Honor or the Toastmaster and fly to them at the committee’s expense.

Every pro gets dozens of invitations to cons every year. Usually they promise a free membership and maybe even a free banquet ticket if you’ll sit on a few panels. It seems very generous on the part of the committee, I’m sure — but pros view it a little differently. We mentally paraphrase the invitation to read: “If you’ll pay your own planefare, pay for your own room, buy all but one of your own meals, do the same for your Significant Other, and forego your usual speaking fee of X hundred dollars US an hour, we’ll give you a free $20 US membership and a meal.” Is it any wonder we say no far more often than yes?

In fact, there was recently a convention that refused to give free admission to panelists’ Significant Others. I have reported this practice to ConAlert, the SFWA committee in charge of convention abuses, and suggested that, in future, whenever a convention pulls this stunt, the writer should respond by saying: Fine, I’ll pay my S.O.’s way, provided you pay me my standard public speaking fee for each panel I participate on and each speech I give.

If you stay in the field long enough, there are certain conventions you enjoy so much that you will attend, at your own expense if need be, just about every year. With me it’s been Midwestcon (Cincinnati), Rivercon (Louisville), Windycon (Chicago), Tropicon (Ft. Lauderdale), and Worldcon (wherever it might be.

2008 update: Rivercon and Tropicon no longer exist.

(There are some others, like Lunacon and Boskone, that I love, but I just can’t get to every year. And, as I said, there are a handful that no inducement could ever get me to revisit.)

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QUESTION: Why is the present tense so popular in science fiction?

ANSWER: I suspect it’s because two brilliant and prolific writers, Barry Malzberg and Robert Silverberg, made frequent use of it in the 1960s and 1970s, when many of today’s established pros were just learning how to write . . . and we all know what the most sincere form of flattery is, right?

This is not to denigrate the use of the present tense. I use it frequently in short fiction (never in novels), when I need a sense of urgency, or when I’m writing in the vernacular (go into a bar or a bowling alley and listen to the people recount their “adventures,” and you’ll find that 95% of them speak in the present tense.) There are other reasons, too — such as to differentiate eras described by the same narrator, as I did in my Hugo-winning “The 43 Antarean Dynasties.”

The important thing is to use it — just as you use first person, or distancing mechanisms, or framing devices, or italicized paragraphs, or any other tool of your trade — only when it fulfills the needs of the story, rather than the whims of the author.

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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