Ask Bwana #37

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #37 — September, 2000

Last issue I promised to explain exclusive and non-exclusive rights.

Well, exclusive rights are pretty much self-explanatory: when you sell exclusive worldwide rights to your short story to Publisher X, that’s the ball game. He now has the right to sell it anywhere he wants, and you do not. How much he pays you for each sale is determined by the contract: it may be 75%, or 50%, or if you are sufficiently gullible and he is sufficiently mendacious, you may get nothing at all.

If you sell exclusive North American rights, it’s the same situation, except now the damage is confined to just one continent.

So it should go without saying that you do not want to sell exclusive rights, in whole or in part, to anyone at any time.

Therefore, it stands to reason that you want to sell non-exclusive rights. But what, exactly, does that mean?

If you should sell “non-exclusive worldwide rights,” exactly as stated, you are giving Publisher X the right to sell your story anywhere in the world, while you yourself have that same right.

And what, in turn, does that really mean?

It means that he’s got a serious advantage over you. He buys your story in May, and prints it in November. That gives him six months to sell it to, say, Japan, where there is only one good-paying market for short story reprints (and a very good-paying market it is), before you can show them the story in print and prove that you actually sold the thing to Publisher X and are trying to sell the reprint. And if you jump the gun and send it in June, with, say, a copy of the contract, Publisher X still has an advantage. It’s an unspoken one, but it says, loud and clear: “You want the next story by Bestseller A, or that novella we have coming in from Hugo winner B? Then don’t get us mad by buying the same story we’re offering you from this writer, or we may just sell A and B for less money to one of your rivals. After all, we make a profit on the American sales of our magazine; this is just gravy to us, and we can dine without your brand of gravy until you learn who your friends are.”

So how do you avoid this problem?

By limiting Publisher X still further. You give him a non-exclusive worldwide right to sell the story only as part of the magazine (or the anthology).

So .. . . you sell a story to Heinlein’s SF Magazine, or to Alternate Vice Presidents. The publisher or editor can sell it anywhere in the world — but only if he is selling the entire book or magazine as a single item. This leaves you free to place it with any reprint anthology or any foreign magazine, and is as close to being an equitable arrangement as anyone’s yet been able to devise.

So remember: it’s not enough to avoid selling exclusive rights. You must also modify the definition of non-exclusive rights to the point where the publisher or editor can only sell your story as part of the whole.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Are there any mainstream markets for short stories that you consider to be a) worthy of your work and b) possible for a beginner to break into? If so, what are they?

ANSWER: Any mainstream market that pays a competitive price is “worthy.” The best (in terms of pay), such as Playboy or The New Yorker, are all but impossible for a beginner to break into (though for a truly outstanding story, they’re always worth a try), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other markets. And never forget that, for the moment at least, the four best-paying science fiction markets, each of which is offering twice or more what the print SF magazines pay, are all online:,,, and The Infinite Matrix. Now, the way the internet works, that may be a totally invalid statement by the time you read this — they could all have gone broke (doubtful, but possible), or there could be half a dozen more (also doubtful, also possible.) I haven’t checked mainstream e-markets, but it’s hard to imagine that some decent payers don’t exist.

2008 update: three of the four markets mentioned have gone the way of all electronic flesh, and Fictionwise is now paying no advances, just royalties. But the best-paying short fiction markets are still electronic: Jim Baen’s Universe, Subterranean Magazine, and Clarkesworld. And if one or more of these bites the dust, you can be sure there’ll be half a dozen new ones to take its place.

2012 update: Okay, there are now more than a dozen e-zines paying what SFWA considers professional rates, and some of them are paying more than the print magazines. I’d give you a list of them, but that list changes almost monthly. The only thing you can be sure of is that the future has arrived, and e-zines that pay pro rates aren’t going away.


QUESTION: How do you make your bad guys so human? Mine always come out either as cardboard cutouts or raving loonies.

ANSWER: The trick is to remember that they don’t think they’re the bad guys. Very few people say “I’m gonna cut this kid to pieces, bomb that church, and then rape these nuns because I enjoy being evil.” You tend not to go to war, or put your life on the line, if you don’t think Right is on your side; otherwise, we’d have an absence of propaganda machines convincing the populace that their leaders are moral and their goals are worthy.

Read your history. There are those who think the Earp Brothers cleaned up the West, and there are those who think they were what required cleaning. People hated Jesse James and people worshipped him. Hell, people hate Bill Clinton and love him. What you have to do is get inside your bad guy’s head, see what makes him tick, figure out how he justifies his actions to himself and those around him, and then take him seriously.

And, speaking personally, I think the only “bad guys” I’ve ever created — villains with absolutely no vestiges of decency or humanity — were both in the same 1983 novel, Walpurgis III . . . and having done it once, I’ve had no urge to do it again.


QUESTION: In the latest SFWA Bulletin, columnist Matt Nauman seems to be saying that the only way writers will make money in the future, after the publishing empires crumble and everything is done online or through print-on-demand, is by posting it for free and selling advertising. Stephen King seems to be proving that the converse is true: you can sell your work for a buck a chapter if you have enough interested fans. Would you care to comment on this, either way?

ANSWER: What King is doing works if you’re Stephen King. Or maybe Tom Clancy. But it doesn’t work for most people, and to tell the truth, I don’t think it works as well for King as publishing his book through traditional channels. Let’s examine it. He’s doing about 25 chapters, right? And he wants people to pay a dollar US a chapter. And he’s getting about 100,000 responses.

Do the math. If they all stay to the bitter end, he’s got $100,000 US times 25, or $2,500,000 US. Lot of money there. But there are two problems. First, if you buy a novel and decide not to read past Chapter 6, you’ve still paid for the whole book; but if you’re paying by the chapter for King’s online book, and you quit after Chapter 6, you’ve cost him $19 US of the $25 US he was hoping to make off you.

So who cares? After all, the man’s making between two and three million dollars US — before expenses, whatever they may be. True — but never forget that he could have sold the same book to Viking (or MacMillan, or whoever) for seventeen million dollars US.

Did he hurt his publisher? Sure. But he cost himself better than fourteen million dollars in the process, so let’s hope he really hated that publisher.

Now, as for Matt Nauman, he strikes me as being just as wrong in the opposite direction. King has proven people will part with money for new e-books. has proven they’ll part with money for reprint e-stories. I’m sure others are reinforcing both proofs every day. And if you’re no better known than the average writer, why should any company post ads to pay for your story?

Let’s put it at its bluntest and most insulting (and probably most likely as well). You’re a newcomer. There are a zillion things anyone can read for free on the internet. Who, besides your doting parents, your aunt Rhoda, and seventeen friends, is going to read your stories, free or not, when you post them? And if that’s your likely readership, what company’s going to take out enough advertising to pay for your mortgage, your utilities, your kid’s dentist, your health insurance, and that new(er) car you need?

2008 update: Okay, there are exceptions to every rule. John Scalzi is clearly the exception to this one . . . but never forget that his blog gets 30,000 hits a day, while the average blog falls far short of a thousand a day.

2012 update: Amanda Hocking to the contrary, it still behooves a beginner to sell to a print publisher until he’s developed an audience, before going into e-publishing on his own, and to harken back to the original question of 12 years ago, advertisers still aren’t taking out ads in e-books by new or even established writers.


QUESTION: Which mainstream writers’ magazines are trustworthy, please? And, conversely, which are not?

ANSWER: I wouldn’t recommend any of them. They all exist by selling the promise that anyone who reads and studies them can break into print and become a working professional writer — and that is demonstrably not true. The very best hopeful writers can . . . but the very best can also do it without reading any writers’ magazines.


QUESTION: Have any of your novels been selected by the Science Fiction Book Club? If so, how well did it work out for you? Any advice for someone who is looking at her very first SFBC sale?

ANSWER: Yes, I’ve had a number of novels selected by the SFBC. To this day, I’m not sure it’s a Good Thing, but it’s something that’s written into just about every contract: the publisher (not the writer) has a right to sell sub rights to book clubs.

The advantage? You reach an audience you might not otherwise have reached.

The disadvantages? Well, let’s start with the advance. Theoretically you get half and the publisher gets half — but in fact the publisher will keep it all, holding your half against the “unearned advance” of your mass market book, since the sale is usually made before the publisher’s edition sees print. (See some prior columns for an explanation of unearned advances.) The publisher and you split the royalties — but again, he’ll keep them all until you earn out his advance to you, so if you see royalties at all, it won’t be for a long time.

And there’s the flip side of the advantage: you might well be reaching an audience that would be happy to pay $7.00 US for the paperback, of which you’d get an 8% or possibly 10% royalty, but will now buy the discounted hardcover for $7.00 US, of which you get half of a 10% royalty, payable only when your own mass market edition earns out, and that earning out is made that much more difficult by the people who shell out for the book club edition instead of the paperback. Got it?

I think, overall, you lose a bit more than you gain . . . but as I say, it’s out of your hands. The Science Fiction Book Club doesn’t come to you with an offer; they come to your publisher, and you have no say whatsoever. (Well, unless the book is out of print and has reverted to you.)

Addendum: the one book club I am always happy to have my publisher sell to is Easton Press, the house that does the limited leatherbound editions. Your publisher will still pocket the advance, but you’ll get $3.00 US a sheet for autographing more than a thousand tip-in sheets, which is a nice chunk of found money for an afternoon’s work.


QUESTION: I’ve always thought that a cover letter for a short fiction piece should be as short as possible: here it is, would you like to buy it? I have here some anthology guidelines that specifically request a cover letter with credits, however . . . how detailed should I get? Should I mention small-press or semipro sales? What if they are all I have?

ANSWER: If they insist on credits and all you have are semi-pro credits, then that’s what you’ll have to list. If you have both pro and semi-pro, list only the pro. Better to let them think you’re a non-prolific writer or a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer who immediately hit the pro markets then to show them that you’ve labored in the semi-pro field. Remember, no matter how good just being in print feels to you, being in print in a semi-prozine tells the professional world that your story wasn’t good enough to sell to a pro market.


QUESTION: I saw you at Chicon 2000 last month. I’ve read your instructions on how to meet editors and make sales and such at a worldcon, but it seems that every time I saw you you were with fans, not pros. Were you giving out false advice?

ANSWER: No, I was not giving out false advice. Use your brain: do you think I was selling manuscripts to fans? I was with them because many of my friends are fans, and because — as I’ve suggested many times in this column — the trick is to get the editor off the premises where you won’t be bothered by autograph seekers and the editor won’t be bothered by eager writers, and the two of you can sit down comfortably, preferably over a nice meal (which is always paid for by the editor) and do some business.

I sold novels to two mass market publishers at Chicon 2000 (which is to say, I got commitments from them to buy; the contracts will take a month or three to negotiate.) I sold a story to Asimov’s and got assignments from four anthologies. I sold to an audio magazine. I sold to two foreign publishers. I pitched a couple of books that I’ll probably sell, but whose fates are currently undecided. In every case, I did my business at a restaurant table or at one of the uncrowded (i.e., not sponsored by publishers or SFWA) late-night parties.

As I’ve suggested in this column more than once, you line up your meals and meetings well in advance. I had four business dinners, all off the premises, two business lunches, and two business breakfasts, and all of them were set up in June and July. Except for a trio of small parties that couldn’t have taken an hour total, that was all the business I did. Because my business meetings were scheduled, the rest of my time was my own, except for panels and autograph sessions and the like, and that’s why I was able to be enjoying myself with fannish friends when you saw me.


QUESTION: How would you suggest a newbie go about telling a major editor that she’d completely screwed up his name or the title of his story in her best-of-the-year Honorable Mention list?

ANSWER: Just write them and tell them, perhaps avoiding the term “screwed up.” If the editor considers your story good enough for an honorable mention, she’s damaged you (very minimally, to be sure) by screwing it up. On the other hand, I wouldn’t lose my temper over it, for when all is said and done, she is honoring you by mentioning it, however inadequately.


QUESTION: Right now the only place you can find either of my novels is on Is it worth my while worrying about lousy reader reviews? (If you’re not familiar with this: anyone may claim to have read any book, and post whatever they want to say.)

ANSWER: If worrying did any good, I’d advise you to worry. Since it doesn’t, why bother?

Look, when you became a writer, you committed to a lifetime of living with reviews — good, bad and otherwise. Yeah, I know, these reviews are being written by readers and not professional critics — but readers are the people you’re writing for, the ones who pay your bills if they like you and send you into other professions if they don’t, so I hardly see how you can hold it against them that your books didn’t please them. All you can do is try harder next time.


QUESTION: Do you have any advice on building governments that make sense? Any source materials besides history?

ANSWER: Just ask yourself why you would have a government in the first place, given the world/society/race you’ve created. Is its function to protect the populace against threats from neighboring nations or planets? It is to fairly parcel out the limited supply of food and water? Is it to trade with other, wealthier worlds? To protect the downtrodden? There must be an initial reason.

Then ask yourself where it succeeds and where it fails. And yes, all governments fail in some things. Lyndon Johnson initiated a war on poverty, and poverty won. Ronald Reagan went to war against drugs, and drugs won. Richard Nixon went to war against the Constitution and came within one reel of tape of winning. We are a country built on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the same people who codified those magnificent words and concepts also legalized the practice of slavery.

Just remember: with governments, as with characters, there must be shadings and ambiguities, or else you’re reverting back to the pulp stories we’ve struggled so hard to put behind us.


QUESTION: Is it worth my time submitting a story to a special-interest anthology if I am not a member of the special-interest group in question? Should I ever lie about who I am? (I know . . . but the story is soooo perfect!)

ANSWER: If the special-interest anthology is an open anthology, submit. If it’s by invitation only, don’t . . . or else write a letter to the editor, honestly stating your credentials or interests or whatever you think you’re bringing to your story, and ask if you can submit it to him. And whatever his decision, abide by it.

No, never lie about who you are. And if the story is perfect, then by definition it’ll sell to any prozine you send it to, so what are you worrying about?


QUESTION: You have said, time and again, in print, on panels, in informal conversations, that no hopeful writer should submit to penny-a-word markets, that if you want to be a professional you must compete against professionals and appear in professional publications if you ever wish to be taken seriously, and it all makes sense to me. But if you feel that passionately about it, how do you justify the appearance of Ask Bwana in a magazine that lists dozens of semi-pro markets in every issue?

ANSWER: I’m not the publisher. I can’t control what Kent Brewster chooses to run in his magazine. But don’t you think that in a magazine aimed at hopeful writers, amidst all this cheering for penny-a-word markets and semi-pro sales, there ought to be one voice of professional reason? I do.

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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