Ask Bwana #36

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #36 — July, 2000

I just got back from flying to France and picking up a 100,000-franc check from the Mayor of Paris for the prestigious Tour Eiffel Award. I was the first American ever to win it — and I won it with a 1987 novel that had just appeared there last year. It beat nine other finalists, including a pair of Best Novel Hugo winners.

I was thrilled to win it. I was thrilled to cash the check. But I was also enough of a realist to know that I didn’t win the award. Pierre-Paul Durastanti did.

Pierre is my good friend — and more to the point, my French translator. And as far as I’m concerned, what the award basically means is that of nine good books, mine had the best translator.

In fact, when my “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” narrowly beat Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon” for Croatia’s Futura Award a couple of years ago, I dropped Dan a note telling him that all it meant was that my translator was better than his.

And it’s the same with every Japanese, Spanish, Polish, Italian and you-name-it award that I’ve ever won or lost. I’ve been blessed with some fine translators (Pierre in France, Masayuki Uchida in Japan, Victor Veber in Russia), and I’ve been cursed with some terrible ones (I won’t name names, but they’re in all the countries where my books hardly ever appear these days).

Your translator not only makes the difference at award time, he (or she) also has more than a little to do with your ability to sell to the foreign markets. Jack Vance is the best-selling American author in Scandinavia; we all know he’s a fine author to begin with, but he owes his Number One status to an outstanding translator. A. E. van Vogt sells better in France than in the States; again, it’s an honor he owes to his translator.

And of course, when you sell a couple of books to a country and then can’t sell them again, your translator has more than a little to do with that, too.

So learn who your translators are. Meet them at Worldcons. Befriend them. Cherish them. Find some way to make them walk that extra mile for you, and it’ll result in more money and more prestige for both of you.

And make friends, if only through the Internet, with fans in each country where your books appear — and if they tell you the translations are lousy, don’t wait for the sales figures to prove it. Start pushing for a new translator right away, and maybe you won’t find yourself on the outside looking in for the next couple of decades, while better translators turn poorer writers into major moneymakers.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: Once more for the record, please. What are the differences between professional, semiprofessional, and amateur publication? Are the standards different for online markets? As a new writer, what are the absolute minimum professional standards I should look for before allowing my short stories to be published?

ANSWER: Officially, according to the Science Fiction Writers of America, if you are receiving 4¢ US a word, you are getting a professional rate. Personally, I think you could starve on that particular professional rate; it should probably be 6¢ US a word, minimum . . . but SFWA, like certain religious institutions, moves forward only with extreme reluctance, so 4¢ US it is. (In fact, amazingly, it’s only been a couple of months since they raised it from 3¢ US — which is about a third of what Edgar Rice Burroughs was making for non-Tarzan stories from the pulp magazines 80 years ago.)

2008 update: it’s now 5¢ US a word. Still far too low, in my opinion.

I don’t think there’s any real difference between a semi-pro market and an amateur market; you’re either writing for pro rates or you’re not. Now, for purposes of defining the Hugo Award, a semi-prozine has a circulation of under 10,000 — but again, this is all but meaningless, since many anthologies also sell less than 10,000 copies and they are considered professional markets. And I suppose, by definition, an amateur market is a fanzine, a market that literally does not pay anything for the material it runs.

As a new writer, an old writer, or an in-between writer, you should sell for professional rates. Otherwise, you’re simply not a professional writer — and if you’re not a pro, then you’re not a writer; you’re a wannabee or a dabbler or a dilettante.

2012 update: the advent of e-publishing — where circulation is difficult to determine, but can reach phenomenal numbers — has screwed up the definition of semi-prozine to the point where, last time I looked, a semi-prozine is any publication that calls itself a semi-prozine.


QUESTION: Why, considering there are more popular fiction novels than ever, do most agents seem to only want to deal in literary fiction?

ANSWER: I think you’re laboring under a false impression. I’m not aware of any agent alive who would rather handle a literary work that will appeal only to the intelligentsia rather than a popular novel that might bring in six or seven digits in royalties. Agents aren’t artists; they’re businessmen . . . and as such, they’re always more interested in the bestseller (the ultimate popular novel) than in the Nobel Prize winner (the ultimate literary novel). Even down here in the ghetto, I can’t imagine an agent preferring to handle a Nebula winner rather than, say, the latest Jordan, Goodkind, Feist or Eddings novel.


QUESTION: I note that you’ve done some screenplay work. Have they all been for the movies, or do you have any experience working in television? If so — or if not, and you have some good advice — can you please talk about the difference between working in film and working in television?

ANSWER: I don’t watch television series, and I don’t write for TV for that reason.

But there are other reasons as well. It’s not generally known outside the entertainment industry, but there is a social as well as an economic ladder in the script-writing biz, and screenplays are at the top of both, while teleplays are at the bottom. Screenplays can pay seven digits, and it’s rare when one doesn’t make at least six. Most teleplays pay in the low-to-middle five digits. Also, if you do more than a couple of teleplays and your name isn’t Larry Gelbart, you’re likely to be branded as a TV writer (i.e., a scriptwriter who wasn’t/isn’t good enough to sell to the movies.)

In terms of clout, the TV writer has more, primarily because the TV director is a weekly hireling and the movie director is God. Also, come hell or high water, they have to churn out that TV episode in 7 days, which gives them almost no time for rewrites if the script isn’t working . . . whereas almost all screenplays are rewritten again and again and yet again.

(Part of the rewriting is to give cover to studio execs. If one okays a first draft of a script and the movie flops, his job’s on the line for greenlighting a lousy script . . . but if he has it rewritten 6 times by four different writing teams, then he can make the case that it was an impossible story to film and he chose the best of the many screenplays.

(The other part is because while most execs are absolutely brilliant at what they do — making deals — they are less brilliant at articulating exactly what displeases them in a screenplay and how to change it. They intuit that there are weaknesses, but they can’t pinpoint or define them, so they go from one scriptwriter to another until someone finally lucks out and figures out what they want.)

A final point is this: most Hollywood agents’ first loyalty goes to their agencies, not their clients. The agencies want cash flow, which means TV work; and paradoxically, cash flow provided by teleplays soon guarantees there’ll be no big screenplay payday.


QUESTION: Speculations ran an article in #34 about how to be a panelist at conventions. I’ve seen you at cons, and there were some statements there that I have a feeling you don’t agree with. So . . . do you? Or not?

ANSWER: I don’t like to publicly disagree with other columnists from the same magazine. On the other hand, Bwana has never ducked a question yet, and he won’t duck one now.

Yeah, I disagree with a lot of things in that article. To wit:

1. The easiest job on a panel is moderator. You don’t have to know a damned thing. You don’t even have to have anything to say. Just encourage the other panelists to talk, which is one hell of a lot easier than encouraging them to stop.

2. Don’t contact your fellow panelists in advance. Most of them have done hundreds of panels, have addressed every topic there is, and don’t want to be bothered by an over-active beginner.

3. Don’t waste your time preparing all kinds of notes. You can’t know what direction the discussion will take, but you can be pretty damned sure it will quickly move to where your notes won’t be of any use at all.

4. Only beginners show off their new books or covers on panels. Most established pros find the practice to be bush league.

5. You can wear “nice business clothes” if you like, but you’re going to be hugely outnumbered by Name writers wearing t-shirts and shorts and the like. A science fiction convention is not a business convention, and it doesn’t require business dress.

6. Most major cons, and all Worldcons, run “Green Rooms,” gathering places for panelists prior to the panels. Most established pros know how to get to the appointed panel room, see no reason to meet their fellow panelists (most of whom they know), and don’t bother stopping by the Green Room unless they’re hungry and are looking for something to eat or drink. If you don’t see them there, it does not mean they aren’t at the con and won’t attend the panel.

7. If you’re going to talk and/or hand out business cards(?) after the panel, first leave the room. The next panel is due to start as soon as yours is over, and if you stay in the room talking and visiting, you’re preventing them from starting on time.

Okay, I know this contradicts most of the article — and I could contradict more of it, but I’ve got a limited amount of space here.

So why should you believe me? Just one reason: I’ve been on more than 1,000 panels in 30+ years, and I know how these things work.


QUESTION: Please recommend some beginner-level fiction writing books, and some teachers you trust.

ANSWER: Orson Scott Card has a fine book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, a 1991 Hugo winner, published by Writer’s Digest. My own Putting It Together: Turning Sow’s Ear Drafts Into Silk Purse Stories came out this summer from Wildside Press. The editors of Asimov’s and Analog put out Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, published by St. Martin’s Press. Reginold Bretnor edited The Craft of Science Fiction for Harper and Row; it’s out of print, but well worth finding. If you check the dealers room at a large convention, you can probably still find copies of Science Fiction Writers of America Handbook: The Professional Writer’s Guide to Writing Professionally, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. And these just scratch the surface; there are dozens of books on writing science fiction, and a few of them, in addition to the ones listed here, are actually pretty good.

As for teachers I trust, first and foremost is Nancy Kress. As an anthology editor who was always looking for new writers, I quickly discovered that any newcomer who had been to Nancy’s workshops avoided most of the usual beginner’s mistakes and always handed in polished copy written at a professional level. Two of her students who come immediately to mind are Nick DiChario and Mark Bourne, but there were others as well.

2012 update: Nancy is still the best in the business, but there are a number of good ones. My Putting It Together was a 2001 Hugo nominee, as were two other books I’d like to recommend: one is I Have This Nifty Idea (Wildside Press), a 2002 Hugo nominee consisting of something like 35 outlines and proposals by 19 major science fiction writers, each of which resulted in a lucrative contract, so you can see how it’s done; and The Business of Science Fiction, a collection of 24 of my Dialogues with Barry Malzberg that appear in every issue of the SFWA Bulletin (we’re up to 58 now), which was a 2011 Hugo nominee.


QUESTION: I sold a story to a paper market which went belly-up before publishing it. I never received a contract but I did receive (and cash) a personal check from the publisher. She now tells me that by doing so I entered into a contract with her, and now she has the right to publish the story in her spiffy new e-zine. I can’t find the letter than came with the check, so I’ve got absolutely nothing in writing that supports my case. What are my options, please?

ANSWER: She’s blowing smoke. There was a time when publishers put truly onerous contracts in tiny print on the backs of their checks, so that if you signed the check you were also signing the contract. That was declared illegal, so even if she tried that, she has no contract at all. Whatever letter came with the check is legally meaningless; if you didn’t sign something expressly giving her the right to publish your story before anyone else does in any type of medium, then she doesn’t possess that right. You might gently suggest to her that if she runs the story against your wishes, she’d better have a contract handy to prove to the jury that she had a legal right to do so.


QUESTION: Any advice on dealing with a convention committee that is insisting they have the right to tape, transcribe, and possibly publish everything I say on panels? This is my first guest appearance anywhere and I don’t want to seem difficult . . . any advice?

ANSWER: You must sign a release before the committee can legally tape what you say, let alone sell copies of the tape or a transcription.

That said, I should point out that almost every professional in the field signs just such a release at every Worldcon. A couple of exceptionally difficult pros don’t, and they are subsequently never taped, their words are never preserved for posterity with the Science Fiction Oral History Association or any other group, and I personally don’t know why they refuse to sign a release that Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and hundreds of others had no problem signing, but that’s up to each individual.


QUESTION: You used to be a big GEnie booster. Do you spend any time online any more? If so, where? Is it worth the time?

ANSWER: GEnie died last winter. I’m told that the major networks for chatting these days are and I still belong to Delphi and CompuServe, though I’m not as active as I was. The reason for this is that the fan who runs my website ( for anyone who cares) also runs the Resnick Listserv, which can be joined from the website, and that Listserv generates enough e-mail to satisfy me. (And if it didn’t, I’m also on a couple of other Listservs.)

Is it worth the time? That depends what you get out of it. If you want to meet some editors online, yes, it’s worth the time. If you want to know the current state of the field and the markets, you’ll get all the information you need online (but beware of fools speaking with authority on subjects about which they know nothing). If you’re a slow writer, it’s probably too much of a time sink. It really depends on you and your needs.

2012 update: This was written before Facebook — and, to a far lesser extent, Google+ — changed the world. Personally, I don’t like Facebook; I don’t like the endless changes and arrogance that typifies its proprietors. But many of my friends, and just about every domestic and foreign editor I’ve got, are on Facebook, as are almost all of my movie contacts, so I stay.


QUESTION: I’ve noticed that if I talk about what I’m writing to anyone else while I’m working on it, it kills the story somehow and I never finish it. Has this ever happened to you? What’s bothering me here is that even outlining the story seems to take the juice out of it for me. Do you work from an outline? If so, how detailed do you make it? Do you stay with the outline, or does the story ever wander off on its own?

ANSWER: No, it’s never happened to me. I do work from an outline when I’m writing a book, but even when I’m writing a short story I always know exactly what’s going to happen and what I’m going to say before I sit down to write. My formal outline — the one I use to sell the book — is usually about 1,500 words, and as vague as I can make it, since I usually sell it at least a year before I have time to sit down and write it, and I don’t want to be boxed in if I get some better notions and characters in the coming year. But before I start, I’ll make a much more detailed outline for myself — totally informal, indeed almost incomprehensible to anyone else — and I’ll stick to that. No story of mine ever wanders off on its own; I’m the driver, it’s the vehicle, and I do the steering.


QUESTION: I’m scheduled to be interviewed for a not-so-small-press magazine and I’m petrified that I’m going to look like an idiot. What are the secrets of giving a good interview? Should I be allowed to review it before it goes out?

ANSWER: Just try to relax and enjoy it. After you’ve given enough of them, you’ll realize that you’ve heard 80% of the questions almost every time, and you’ll have honed your answers to them. A little wit never hurts, keeping your answers reasonably brief and to the point is a good idea, and try not to discuss your talent and your work with too much reverence. If I know and trust the interviewer, I don’t ask to review it; otherwise, I do. And you’d be amazed how badly some of them can misquote you, even when they’re tape-recording the interview and taking profuse notes.


QUESTION: I see you appearing on and Does that mean that electronic rights are finally worth something?

ANSWER: If they pay you, they’re worth something, and these two new companies (both established this year) pay extremely competitive rates. I’ve discussed GalaxyOnline before, but in the past couple of months Fictionwise has purchased packages of reprint stories from me, from Nancy Kress, from Bob Silverberg, from James Patrick Kelly, from Damon Knight and Michael Swanwick and Barry Malzberg and Kristine Kathryn Rusch — and they’ve paid about twice the going rate that a reprint anthology would pay. Will they stay in business? Will GalaxyOnline? I sure as hell hope so, but it’s too early to tell.

There’s a third company paying excellent rates —, edited by Ellen Datlow, who for years edited science fiction at Omni.

So does that mean a grab at your electronic rights has become a deal-buster?

Not yet, not with only three markets — but if they’re around in a year and they’re joined by half a dozen more, I’d say the time’s getting close. I think next issue we’d better discuss the difference between “exclusive” and “non-exclusive” reprint rights, because they’re going to become increasingly important in future contracts.

2008 update: Okay, the world has changed since the above
was written. Now JBU, Clarkesworld, Subterranean and others are all paying more than the print magazines, and it’s clear that keeping your e-rights is finally worth blowing a deal over.

2012 update: this is where the battle of literary Armageddon is going to be fought. It is entirely possible that e-books are bringing in more money today than paper books; if not, there’s no question that they will do so in the next few years. And since about 1995, an author’s refusal to part with his e-rights has been a deal-buster with every mass-market publisher in the business. When writers like myself mention that we’ve put a lot of our titles up on Amazon, Barnes, Kobo, Apple’s iBookstore, and the like, we are invariably talking about pre-1995 titles that have reverted to us, titles we originally sold when there was no such thing as e-rights so the publishers didn’t demand them.


QUESTION: Okay, this has nothing whatsoever to do with writing, but I have here an IPO for Fairwood Press, publisher of Talebones. They’re going into the print-on-demand business with trade paperbacks. Given that Patrick and Honna Swenson have gotten Talebones out on time every time for the last five years, and have done consistently excellent (and gorgeous!) work, should I consider investing?

ANSWER: I’m flattered that you asked my opinion, but Bwana’s not in the business of giving investment advice.

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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