Ask Bwana #38

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #38 — November, 2000

The Future is trying very hard to get born. Even the casual observer can see the Present’s contractions.

I’m talking about the future of publishing, of course; that’s the future that concerns the readers of this journal.

I’ve gone back over the first 30-plus Ask Bwana columns, and I see that not of one of them thought electric rights were worth fighting for at the time, though there was never any doubt that they’d be worth something someday.

There was a subtle change in the past half-dozen columns. Suddenly there were a few markets that paid in cash instead of promises. Then, almost overnight, there were a handful that were paying two, four, even six times as much as the long-established prozines.

So what’s the situation now?

Well, GalaxyOnline.com was the most fun, and alas, the first to fall. It was paying up to $500 US for articles of 1,000 words or more (top rate and bottom word count came to 50¢ US a word), and it displayed work by most of the top names in the field. Then they started up a fiction arm, and were paying $500 US for short stories, which meant the word rate depended on the length, but almost all the stories got a higher rate than the prozines paid.

And then some anticipated venture capital failed to materialize, and while GalaxyOnline is still a fascinating web site, it no longer runs new material.

(But wait! GalaxyOnline just purchased Amazing, The Magazine That Refuses To Die, from Wizards of the Coast. No word yet on editors or rates, but they should be announcing them any day now — and you can bet they’ll be more than competitive.)

Eileen Gunn is editing The Infinite Matrix. The rates are two to three times better than the best prozines, but I haven’t seen an issue yet — no one has — and we won’t know for a few months if it’s a viable e-zine or a shooting star due to burn itself out almost instantly.

The one that seems to have the best chance of being around at this time next year is Fictionwise.com, which pays about twice the going rate for reprint stories that you’ll get from a typical anthology — and then gives you a 30% cut of the royalties in addition to that. They’ve recently bought reprint novels from Bob Silverberg and myself, and will doubtless be buying from others soon. The reason I think it’ll last is because you can pull up a daily royalty count on your stories, and most of us have been very happy with the statements. I never expected to see a penny of royalties after the initial payment — yet one of my stories earned out in 4 months, and 4 more will be paying royalties before 7 months have passed. And I’m hardly in the automatic bestseller class.

There are at least two other web sites that are purchasing reprint science fiction novels, and three others paying decent (and in the case of scifi.com, far more than decent) rates for short stories. There’s even a new market that is paying $25.00 US for stories of 500 words or less, which is certainly a pro rate.

So, at this point, I would say that, while I can’t guarantee that any of the above will be in business next year, I think the trend is obvious enough so that it is finally worth the effort, even the potential blown sale, to fight for your e-rights when submitting to a print market.

2008 Update: Well, all of them are gone except the remarkable Fictionwise.com — but the e-markets are bigger and stronger that ever, with Jim Baen’s Universe, Subterranean Magazine, Clarkesworld, and half a dozen others, and more coming online every month. Welcome to the Future.

2012 Update: Make that more than a dozen others.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions.

QUESTION: What’s your advice to a very slow writer who has sold a first novel but has no other material in the pipeline? My editor wants the next book yesterday. Should I hurry up and jam something out, or keep plodding?

ANSWER: You know, there’s actually more than one answer to that, although in your case it’s an easy call. If you are fast and facile, if you can grind out 8 Trekbooks and Wookiebooks and Babblebooks in a year and you don’t have a potential masterpiece clawing at the inside of your belly trying to get out, sure, deliver as fast as you can, take the money, and run.

But if you’re a slow writer, as you are, you’ll find it’s not cost-productive to write grind-it-out hackbooks, so my advice would be to work at whatever speed you’re comfortable at (i.e., just keep plodding), and write at the highest level of literary ambition of which you are capable.

And hope that you can find an audience. If you do, the money will come your way. But if you’re a slow writer, you’ll never make enough writing interchangeable mediabooks or hack space operas. They’ll pay better in the beginning, but they reach their ceiling pretty fast, while your ceiling, in terms of sales and money, is potentially unlimited, at least until you’ve got a few books out there competing in the marketplace and establishing a likely top and bottom for yourself.

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QUESTION: Assuming I’m doing everything right in terms of submitting the right material to the proper markets, when should I give up writing for pay and just do it for fun? Ten rejects? A hundred? A thousand?

ANSWER: If you’re asking that, you’re not writing for pay now. You give it up when a) you can’t pay your bills, or b) you find you no longer can make yourself sit down at the keyboard on a regular basis and turn out saleable copy. There are writers who have had over a hundred rejects and gone on to fame and glory, Ray Bradbury being the most notable example. But there are also would-be writers who got ten or fifteen rejects, saw the handwriting on the wall, and were never heard from again. Eventually, it’s up to you to decide how badly you want to write for a living, how much you can reasonably expect to earn, and to properly evaluate your talent.

And always remember: one or two rejects on a story may merely mean that you’re sending it to the wrong markets; eight or ten rejects on the same story probably means the editors are trying to tell you something.

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QUESTION: What are the early warning signs that you’re working on a story — of whatever size, from a short-short to a series of novels — that’s not going to sell?

ANSWER: There’s no hard and fast objective answer to what is a subjective question, but a pretty good indication it won’t sell is if you yourself have no interest or enthusiasm for it by the midway point.

As for a series of novels, that’s an easy one. If the first two haven’t been able to sell, why are you wasting your time on Number Three?

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QUESTION: I see that you have collaborated with 15 or 20 other writers. Why? What benefit do you derive from it — or is it just fun? Who have you found to be the easiest writer to collaborate with? Who was the hardest? Which are your best?

ANSWER: I began collaborating when I got an anthology assignment and one day realized I probably couldn’t make the deadline, so I called a friend and asked him to do the first draft. Most of my collaborations have worked exactly that way: I get the assignment, my collaborator does the first draft, and I do the polish. It’s fun, it lets me see how a number of pros I admire work, it lets me help get a number of beginners into print, and it keeps anthology editors happy.

The easiest writer for me to collaborate with (and I hasten to point out that this is entirely subjective) is Nick DiChario. I enjoy it so much that I keep doing it; this autumn Obscura Press brought out Magic Feathers: The Mike and Nick Show, a collection of our eleven collaborations.

2008 update: I have continued to collaborate, and now number more than 40 partners. Among them are Eric Flint, Nancy Kress, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Harry Turtledove, Janis Ian, David Gerrold, Michael A. Burstein, Barry Malzberg, Catherine Asaro, James Patrick Kelly, Kevin J. Anderson, Robert Sheckley, Lezli Robyn (who, like Nick, will be a multiple collaborator), Kay Kenyon, Tobias S. Buckell, Dean Wesley Smith, and more. Along with all the above reasons, it’s also a way of bonding with a friend without having to leave home.

2012 update: I’m now up to 52 collaborators, and obviously still enjoying working with old friends and getting new writers into print.

The most difficult writer for me to collaborate with — for fiction, anyway; we’ve been doing a quarterly dialogue for the SFWA Bulletin for over 10 years now — is my friend Barry Malzberg, who has such a distinctive literary voice that I can’t match it, so I have to totally rewrite him to give our stories a consistent voice. It’s been worth it — we did some nice short stories and a hell of a novella — but I sweated blood to make the final drafts come out right.

I think the best collaborative stories I’ve done are “Birdie” (a HOmer nominee) with Nick, “Bibi” (a Hugo nominee) with Susan Shwartz, “Conspiracies: A 937-Page Condensed Novel” with Eric, and “Jellyfish” with David. I’m also very fond of “Working Stiff” with Nick, “Boot Hill” with Catherine Asaro; “Oceans Eleven” with Tom Gerencer; “A Small Skirmish in the Culture War” with Jim Kelly, and “Every Man a God” with Barry.

I’m up to 21 collaborations now, and when I hit 25, there’ll be a collection titled With a Little Help From My Friends. Should be out in maybe two more years.

2008 Update: the book came out a few years ago, with 26 collaborators, and I’m about 2/3 of the way to filling up With a Little More Help From My Friends with 20 new collaborators.

2012 update: With a Little More Help From My Friends will be out next summer. And I think my two best collaborative stores have appeared since the last update: “Soulmates” (1 award, 3 nominations thus far) and “Benchwarmer”, both with Lezli Robyn.

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QUESTION: I’m contemplating quitting my horrible day job for one as a technical writer, but one thing is bothering me. Is it possible to write decent fiction while holding down a technical or other non-fiction writing job? If so, can you please give me some examples of who’s done it successfully?

ANSWER: Well, there was this guy named Asimov . . .

Seriously, a lot of science fiction writers have written non-fiction as well. In the science field, you’ve got Asimov and Clarke, of course, but you also have Greg Benford, and Charles Sheffield. Joe Haldeman was once an assistant editor on Astronomy magazine. Cliff Simak wrote and edited for a Minneapolis newspaper. I wrote my first few SF novels while editing men’s magazines. And trust me, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, more.

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QUESTION: If a radio person reads your story on the air, what type of rights were used, and was he under a legal obligation to acquire those rights, even if it was a non-profit station?

ANSWER: These days publishers try to grab e-rights as well as printed ones, but I’ve never seen anyone make a grab for audio rights, which means they should reside with the author.

So, if you sold the audio rights, one-time or more, to the radio show, it’s legit; if you gave them written permission to use your story and didn’t charge them, it’s legit; but if they read your copyrighted story without asking you, they broke the law, even if they’re a non-profit NPR-type station. It will be hard to prove that such publicity as you received from it constitutes professional damages, especially if the book or magazine is out of print, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get them for punitive damages.

2012 update: Now that Audible.com has come to Amazon for something line $300 million US, I think we can be sure that publishers are going to start making grabs for audio rights.

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QUESTION: Follow-up question. I’ve heard of the Fair Use Doctrine. Does it mean that a non-profit station — or a college — doesn’t have to pay to use my material?

ANSWER: No. The Fair Use Doctrine permits the use of a portion of a copyrighted work for educational purposes, and it also allows reviewers to quote a small portion of a work in a review.

(Side note: the Fair Use Doctrine is where Napster tripped up and why they keep losing in court. They only bought the rights to listen to and/or sell the particular copy of a CD that they purchased. Contrary to their lawyers’ belief, they did not buy the rights to reproduce it and sell the copies.)

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QUESTION: I’m involved in a writer’s group that’s run by a pro who sounds quite a bit like your columns when she talks. The thing is, she hasn’t turned anything in for the group to critique since I’ve been there, nor has she actually sold anything in at least five years, according to the other members of the group. Is her advice worth listening to?

ANSWER: That all depends. (‘On what,’ I hear you ask?) On whether the advice she’s given you so far has proven to be useful.

Let me put it another way: if I were leading your writer’s group, what would be more important to you: the fact that my criticisms and marketing advice proved valid (or invalid), or the fact that I hadn’t given you any of my stories to critique?

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QUESTION: How harmful to my career will participating in an online short-short anthology — 1000 words, maximum — for zero cents per word?

ANSWER: No one amateur “sale” is going to destroy your career. When I rail against selling to penny-a-word markets, I’m talking to and about people who do it on a regular basis, who would rather be published, time and again, in magazines that practically scream “Not good enough to sell to the pro markets” than just put the story aside until they’re good enough to rewrite it and hit a major market.

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QUESTION: I really enjoyed your “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” and am desperately trying to come up with something as powerful — without ripping it off, of course — for the next SFF.NET anthology. Any tips for writing decent far-future stories, or examples of some that worked well for you?

ANSWER: You try to write stories that play to your strengths, and avoid your weaknesses. I’m good on character and dialogue, so my stories are strong in them; I’m very weak on science, so you don’t find much in my work. I write best when I deal with serious and ambiguous moral problems, so those are the ones I try to find and science-fictionalize. I feel very comfortable writing short fiction in the first person, and I see that 15 of my 17 Hugo nominees, and all 4 of my winners, are first-person stories.

2008 Update: I have now received 26 Hugo nominations for short fiction. 21 of those stories, and all 5 winners, were told in the first person.

2012 Update: Make that 25 out of 30.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I know how to write pretty good Resnick stories, and since I’m Resnick and you’re not, maybe you should try to figure out how to write pretty good Whoever-You-Are stories rather than wondering how I wrote “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge.”

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QUESTION: What’s the first thing I should do when an independent producer calls me up and wants to option one of my stories? How about the second and third things?

ANSWER: The very first thing to do — this is not a joke — is tell him you think your literary agent is negotiating to sell it to someone else and you’ll have to check on it and get back to him. (And no, it doesn’t matter whether you have a literary agent or not.)

Let me borrow this excerpt from my Ask Bwana #7 column to show you why:

One day, in early 1990, I got a phone call out of the blue from a producer who wanted to option my fantasy novel, Stalking the Unicorn. He flew into Cincinnati with his director, and they met me at La Maisonette, our pricey 5-star restaurant. They spent the next couple of hours feeding me, praising my writing, and telling me how much they wanted to make the movie.

I was really flying high when I got home, and I called my friend, Barry Malzberg, to tell him about it. And I mentioned, in passing, that I had commended them on their taste, for I always thought the book could make a pretty nice movie and yet no production companies had expressed any interest in it since its publication three years ago.

“Idiot!” muttered Barry.

“Why?” I asked.

“When you told them the book hadn’t had any Hollywood interest in three years, you as much as gave them a free option. Sure, they picked up a $100 US lunch check and a pair of $300 US airfares, but they saved a renewable $10,000 US option payment. Now they’ll take it around and try to make a deal, with the comforting knowledge that no one else is going to ace them out of it. If they make the deal, which is a one-in-a-thousand proposition, you’ll get a lot of money. But if they can’t make a development deal, you won’t see a penny of option money.”

And, sure enough, I never heard from them again.

I have been approached by a number of producers since that day. I invariably tell them that I don’t know the status of the book they’re asking about, that other producers are currently talking to my agent about that very same title, and I have no idea if an option contract is in the works or not. Sometimes it’s the truth; usually it’s a lie. But I’ve optioned 7 books since then.

2008 Update: it’s up to 11 books and 2 stories, and always with the same methodology. Always make them think someone else is negotiating, or about to negotiate, for the property they want.

End of parable, except to add that I’ve actually sold a couple of screenplays to producers who optioned my work.

2012 Update: Make that three screenplays.

As for the second and third things: If you don’t have an agent, or your agent doesn’t have a Hollywood associate, check with some writers who do business with Hollywood on a more-or-less regular basis and find out whether the offer is in line with those made for similar properties or not (or, if you haven’t yet heard a price, find out what you should be asking). Then remember that Hollywood will make about one movie for every 2,000 properties it options, and don’t make a fool of yourself by going up and down the internet bragging about how your latest opus is going to be a movie as soon as they decide whether to give the lead to Mel, Sly or Arnie.

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QUESTION: Up until Issue 36 of Speculations, my understanding of what made a writer a pro came from your comments in Issue Two: “The moment somebody pays you coin of the realm for something you’ve written, you’re a professional writer.”

In Issue #36, you had this to say:

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, you’re not a writer; you’re a wannabe, a dabbler, or a dilettante.

I’ve been selling since 1993, at anywhere from one to ten cents US a word. Up until last issue I felt pretty good about that; I thought I was a pro, or at least a writer.

Has something changed between 1995 and now? If so, what?

ANSWER: Nothing’s changed, except that someone wrote in and pointed out that a penny a word was nonetheless “coin of the realm,” so I had to modify/qualify it. Even Bwana needs a little editing from time to time.

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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