Ask Bwana #45

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — May, 2001. There was a numbering error; this followed #41 in the next issue of Speculations; there were no numbers #42-44

Time for a reality check.

I have a friend who recently “sold” a first novel to a small-press print-on-demand publisher. (Bear with me. There’s a reason the word is in quotes.) My friend has come up with all kinds of creative notions concerning unique ways to publicize it and market it. My friend thinks the future looks rosy as all get-out.

I think my friend is in for a painful surprise.

There are reasons to sell to small press publishers. I do it all the time. I will give them collections of articles, or the collected “Ask Bwana” columns, or short story collections that are anathema to mass market publishers, or how-to books on writing.

But I would never give one of them an original science fiction or fantasy novel. That’s how I make my living.

My friend took no advance whatsoever, which is why I hesitate to call it a legitimate sale. But even if the publisher had paid a small advance, it wouldn’t mean anything. Sales, with precious few exceptions (Catch-22, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Hunt For Red October, and no more than half a dozen others during the past half-century) are determined not by the writing but by the contract.

For example, if a publisher pays you $4,000 US for a novel, and uses generic cover art, and gives it minimal (or no) advertising, the only possible way he can get hurt is to pay for printing and shipping 150,000 copies and gobbling 138,735 returns a few months later . . . so of course he doesn’t do that. He prints what the contract suggests will be the proper number: maybe 16,000 paperbacks. And with a typical sell-through, you’ll sell about 7,500 copies and never see a penny’s worth of royalties.

2012 update: these days 16,000 paperbacks is a lot closer to a midlist writer’s print run that a beginner’s print run.

Another example. The publisher pays you $350,000 US for your novel. Now he stands to take a serious red-ink bath if the book doesn’t sell enough copies, so he’ll print maybe 800,000 copies, he’ll give you the best cover artist he can find, you’ll get raised metallic type on your cover, there will be dump displays and full-color posters in every bookstore, full-page ads in a dozen major publications, and the sales force will be told that this is the title they’re pushing this month. And because of this effort, the book sells 600,000 copies in three months and goes back to press for another quarter million. (No, the math isn’t wrong; the other 200,000 copies are still on the stands or in transit.)

Like I say, the sales are determined by the contract. Minimal variations will be determined by the quality of the book and the number of favorable or unfavorable reviews, but, like I say, they’re minimal.

So let’s consider my friend’s situation. The publisher paid no advance, so it has no money to recoup other than paying for a tiny print run. Being a small press, it will do almost no advertising. Since it’s print on demand, you can figure a first printing of maybe 200 to 250 copies if the book’s a trade paperback, maybe 100 if it’s a hardcover.

Yes, bigger names might get 1,000 or more copies printed right off the bat, but this is my friend’s first novel, and, like most first novelists, my friend’s name has never appeared on a Hugo or Nebula ballot. There is no reason for any casual shopper to recognize that name. Not that it matters: with a print run of 100 or 200 or even 500, how many copies do you think will be seen by the casual shopper?

Now, my friend is sending all kinds of promotional material to the chains — and it may well be that the chains will order copies. After all, it doesn’t cost them anything to order 75,000 copies and return 71,000. The publisher pays the printing bill and shipping both ways — and maybe a New York mass market house could take that kind of chance, but no small press will. If the publisher wants to stay in business, he’ll place a few copies with and and let it go at that. He can’t afford the kind of print run my friend is trying to generate unless he has a guarantee of the kind of sales my friend dreams about.

I don’t care how much my friend promotes and pushes and publicizes, when the dust clears that novel is almost certainly not going to sell 1,000 copies.

So what does all this mean?

First, that my friend will have earned far less than minimum wage for his novel, indeed far less than a substandard first novel advance from any mass market publisher.

Second, most people, seeing the novel, will assume, rightly or wrongly, that it wasn’t good enough to sell to mass market, since you don’t have to be a genius to know a small press can’t match advances with Baen, Tor, Ace, Bantam, Del Rey, Eos, Roc, DAW, and that whole crowd.

2008 update: add Pyr, Subterranean, Tachyon, Angry Robot, Orbit, and a small handful of others.

Third, when my friend wises up and goes to a mass market publisher with Novel #2, the very best thing that can happen is for the editor to be totally ignorant of Novel #1. Because if the editor asks how much the first novel sold, the answer, no matter how it’s sugar-coated, is not likely to encourage the purchase of #2, certainly not for a living wage.

Moral? No matter how badly you want to get that first novel into print, consider the consequences — short-term and long-term — very carefully before you bite the bullet and give it to a vanity press, a tiny press, a print-on-demand house, or an online publisher.

Okay, let’s get on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I see you’re Fictionwise’s first Author of the Year, beating out Larry Niven and Bob Silverberg. Congratulations — I think this award probably “means” more than popularity contests like the Hugos and Nebulas, since it is based solely on ratings submitted by people who actually paid money for the work. My Question: if Fictionwise started accepting original work — they don’t, according to their guidelines — would you sell them any?

ANSWER: Actually, it’s a combination of your ratings on each story and book multiplied by your sales, so it’s half-subjective and half-objective.

In answer to your question, I sold Fictionwise the only original story they’ve purchased thus far — a collaboration with pop singer Janis Ian — and we plan to sell them another this spring, as soon as I catch up with some book deadlines and she comes back off the road for awhile. So yes, I would sell them original work. Now, to be perfectly honest, until their reader base is a little larger, I wouldn’t sell them original work that I thought was Hugo ballot quality; that I reserve for Asimov’s and a tiny handful of other markets. (But Fictionwise eventually gets it anyway.)

2008 Update: I was Fictionwise’s Author of the Year again in 2004. Janis and I never wrote that second story — other commitments got in the way for both of us — but we’ve co-edited a major anthology and plan to collaborate on a novel in late 2009. And add Jim Baen’s Universe and Subterranean to those markets where I am willing to place works of Hugo ballot quality.

2012 update: We still plan to collaborate on a novel, and we still haven’t written it yet. But we have agreed to a Stellar Guild team-up in 2013.


QUESTION: I’ve had some success publishing short fiction and it’s time for me to write a novel. There are three ideas for books I’m kicking around. One is character-and-idea-driven far future SF, one is a thinking person’s bronze-age fantasy, and one is a funny, quirky contemporary borderline fantasy/litfic with metafictional touches. I want to write all these books and I don’t have any artistic reason for preferring a particular order to write them in. Is there an order that makes more business sense, given that the first book is (hopefully) going to get me the agent, the publisher, and create expectations from the reading public?

ANSWER: I’d suggest you write the one that interests you most. A writer’s fascination with and love of his subject matter usually shines through and is most likely to strike a responsive chord in the reader.

If you absolutely don’t care which you do in what order, I’d put the funny/quirky/litfic off for awhile. It’ll be the hardest to place, and it figures to draw by far the smallest audience. Publishers know how to market far future SF and even bronze-age fantasy, but funny/quirky/litfic is a tough sell.


QUESTION: Which is more important in the first chapter of a novel, establishing character or conflict?

ANSWER: Has it ever occurred to you to do both?


QUESTION: Do you have any tips on developing theme? My writers’ group — and just about every editor who bothers to send feedback — tell me that my stuff is technically proficient, mechanically perfect, and contains interesting ideas and characters . . . but it leaves them thinking “Okay, so what?”

ANSWER: All I can do is give you a nice generic answer, and I’m sure I must be the hundredth or possibly the thousandth writer/editor to give voice to it: write about what you love, or hate, or fear. If you don’t care passionately about your story and characters, it would be presumptuous to expect your readers to care.


QUESTION: Should I spend any time at all worrying about a bad short fiction review? If not, why do people bother writing (and reading) the stuff?

ANSWER: I don’t know. Do you think worrying about a bad short fiction review will do you any good?

Your story was good enough to sell, so what’s your problem? Not everyone is going to like everything. I’ve had Hugo winners panned by critics, and I’ve had stories I knew were far below my best praised to the skies. You can’t control critics, so you either learn from them (very rarely) or you don’t (most of the time), but the one thing you don’t do is worry about them.

Why do people bother writing and reading reviews? They write them because a) they get paid to do so, and/or b) they have an urge to share their opinions with the public. They read them to find out what the story or book is about before spending their time and money on it. Or perhaps just to see how their opinion compares with the critic’s.


QUESTION: Norman Spinrad’s “On Books” column in the March Asimov’s seems to agree with your take on media fiction: to wit, that since its upsurge ten or so years ago, people are losing interest in reading all science fiction. Bad SF drives out good, says Norman, and calls it Grisham’s Law. Comments, please?

ANSWER: Norman’s dead right, and I’ve been saying so, here and elsewhere, for more than a decade. It’s not limited to media fiction, either; check the SF bestseller list and eliminate all the media books, and what’s left is, by and large, inferior to books that didn’t make the list.

There are those who would say that science fiction readers are easily hyped, and it’s true. There are those who say that science fiction readers have no taste, and it’s frequently true as well. But since the bestselling mystery novels, Western novels, and mainstream novels are usually inferior to those that don’t make the bestseller list, since it is a phenomenon that is not confined only to science fiction, I think you can make this generalization: a work of literary ambition, which is to say, a work where the writer is working at the peak of his ability and does not genuflect to the Lowest Common Denominator, is likely to be much better that a book that does cater to that LCD — but by eliminating the LCD, the author loses a huge percentage of his audience.

It’s true in every area of entertainment. On television, neither The Prisoner nor The Avengers ever drew the ratings of Gilligan’s Island or The Beverly Hillbillies. The top-grossing films of all time are Titanic and Jurassic Park, not Lawrence of Arabia and The Maltese Falcon and The Third Man. If you want to make money today with a mystery, don’t emulate geniuses like Chandler or Hammett; write about a cat that’s also a gourmet chef in a cozy village.

Depressing, sure . . . but the operative question isn’t whether or not it’s depressing, but rather whether or not it’s true. And, unhappily, it is.

2012 note:Many of Norman’s columns were collected as Staying Alive: A Writer’s Guide, and published by Donning in 1983.


QUESTION: Do you complete a first draft and then revise, or do you edit on the way through?

ANSWER: I edit a bit as I go — I think everyone with a computer does that to some extent — but that’s not the answer you’re after. I can tell you my method, but because it works for me and I’m comfortable with it doesn’t mean it will work for anyone else. Okay, with that caveat . . .

I write at nights, usually from about 10:00 PM to 5:00 or 6:00 AM. When I’m done, and I try to do a chapter or a short story in a single sitting, or at most two, I print up the night’s work and leave it on the breakfast table where Carol, my wife, who has been my line-editor for 40 years, and who gets up ahead of me, will go over it, word by word, and make copious notes, sometimes as voluminous as the pages I’ve left. If it’s a relatively easy fix, I’ll edit/rewrite in the afternoon and go on to the next chapter that night. If it requires more extensive work, I’ll do it at night. I never go on to the next chapter until the last one’s set in stone . . . and halfway through a novel, we’ll both sit down (separately) and read it for flow and continuity.

Other people do it other ways. If you can write The Demolished Man or Herovit’s World or When Gravity Fails by writing longhand while standing on your head in the moonlight, I would never be the one to suggest that you change your methodology.


QUESTION: The galleys of my novel just came back with some really annoying changes. Throughout the book I use the grammatically correct “he” to indicate a generic person; my editor has changed most of these occurrences to the politically correct “they.” Insiders tell me that this is a very hot button for my editor . . . should I leave it alone, or risk losing favor?

ANSWER: How important is it to you? If you feel that “he” is proper and that “they” weakens your work, then stick with “he.” And you don’t have to make a fight of it before the book is published. The author is the last one to see the galleys, so that’s the time to change it. There’s probably a 50-50 chance your editor won’t ever know, because she’s done working on it and she’s got a few hundred new manuscripts to go through.

If you feel it’s not worth alienating your editor over, or that it doesn’t dilute the effect of your writing, then let it go (but if you felt that, you wouldn’t have asked me this question, would you?)


QUESTION: Is there any truth to the rumor that a book with a green cover won’t sell?

ANSWER: If publishers knew what sold and what didn’t sell, every book would be a blockbuster, since (sad but true) the packaging has a lot more to do with sales than the quality of the book.

I think the only sales that are totally predictable are those for totally generic books. Back in 1970, I was given a tour of Charles Levy’s warehouse. (Levy was the major — indeed the only — distributor of books and magazines in Chicago.) As we passed by the Gothic section — Gothics were wildly popular back then, and invariably had a cover illustration of a girl running away from a foreboding house which was usually on a hill — the warehouse manager pointed to a just-arrived title and told me it would sell 57%. I must have looked interested or impressed (I was both), because he began going through the Gothics, announcing that this one would sell 53%, this one 48%, this one 60%, and so on.

I remarked that he must have a remarkable knowledge of all the authors and stories to be so well-informed, and I wondered where he found the time to read them all.

He laughed, and explained that the average generic Gothic (and there were almost no Name authors writing Gothics for Ace, Lancer, and the rest of them back then) sold 54%. If there was a light in the house, you could subtract 3%. A high neckline on the girl, subtract another 2%. Yellow letters for the title, add 4%. If the curse on the house was English, add a point; American, subtract a point; French, subtract 7 points. He listed 20 or 25 factors that determined the sale of the book, and every single one concerned the packaging; the quality of the writing had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was a revelation.

I assume not much has changed. So if you really want to know whether or not you want a green cover on a generic book in any given field, ask your local distributor. And note that I stress the word generic. You give me a Stephen King or Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts book, and I’ll guarantee it’ll be a bestseller no matter what you do to the cover.


QUESTION: What happened to the open original anthology market? These days all I see are books of stories by established pros; did it turn out to be a bad idea to buy stories from new writers?

ANSWER: There hasn’t been an open original anthology market in close to a third of a century, ever since the number of SF writers became unmanageable. Oh, there are still a few open anthologies each year, but I’d say that 90 to 95% of them are by invitation only. And it has nothing to do with new writers.

I think I explained this a few years back, but I might as well do so again. I have edited 23 anthologies, 19 of them originals (and 4 reprint) in the past, and none of them were open. After a hiatus of seven or eight years, I am again editing four original anthologies as I write these words, and they, too, are all by invitation only.

2008 update: I am now up to 40 anthologies, and I have still never edited an open one, for the reasons that follow.


Simple. Let’s say the anthologies paid an $8,000 US advance, which is about what these averaged out, except for one that actually has a major-league budget for reasons I won’t go into here.

Let’s say I decide to pay 6 cents US a word (and I’ve never paid less for original stories in any anthology; I’ve frequently paid more.)

Let’s further say that my contract calls for a 120,000-word anthology.

And let’s say that every writer delivers exactly the length I ask for, that none of them come in too long (which, I might add, has never happened; somebody, or usually a group of somebodies, always come in too long.)

Okay. I must pay out $7,200 US. That leaves $800 US for the editor. Except that it doesn’t. I don’t sell the bulk of the anthologies; Marty Greenberg does, and as I’ve mentioned in this column before, Marty is behind more than 90% of the anthologies in the field, even when he chooses for various reasons to keep his name out of the book.

So if everyone gives me the right length, Marty and I will make $400 US each, Marty for selling it, doing the paperwork, making the payments, and handling all future royalties; me for assigning the stories and editing them when they come in.

It takes about 2 weeks of my time to do this — and that’s dealing with writers who hopefully don’t require extensive revisions. 2 weeks for $400 US.

If I can’t make $400 US a night writing, I’m in the wrong business.

So I’m already taking a huge loss by editing an invitation-only anthology. (Why do I do it? First, because I enjoy it; and second, to get new writers into print.)

If it was an open anthology, I would do all that PLUS have to read 500 slush stories, most of them terrible beyond imagining, for that same $400 US. At that point, it gives new meaning to the words “economically counter-productive”.

And that is the reason almost all anthologies are by invitation only.

(Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re closed to newcomers. I have four or five new writers each in the first couple of the four I’m currently editing. The big budget one won’t have any new writers for obvious reasons — the publisher is paying for Names, and so I’m delivering Names — but the fourth will also have more than its share of beginners. My proudest achievement as an anthology editor wasn’t making a couple of Hugo ballots as Best Editor, or putting seven stories [including a winner] on the Hugo ballot; it was putting eight beginners [including a winner] on the Campbell Ballot for Best New Writer.)

2012 update: add 2 more Campbell nominees. And Marty Greenberg, one of the best friends the science fiction field ever had, passed away last year.

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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One Response to Ask Bwana #45

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