Ask Bwana #42


NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations some time in 2001?

2012 update: when these articles were re-run at the Baen’s Bar web forum in 2008, a bit of confusion developed regarding the existence of Bwanas 42, 43 and 44. Nobody could find them. Well, I recently dug up some hardcopy editions of Speculations and lo and behold, what did I find? Thank goodness for optical character recognition. Also, my apologies in advance for the hiccup in sequence. Better late than never.

There are more questions each month about e-books — electronically published books — so I think it’s time to take a serious new look at the field.

With one exception —, which currently buys only reprints and only from established authors – it’s still not a lucrative field. But that’s starting to change. The money’s so close you can almost taste it — and of course, so can the New York publishers, every single one of whom now makes a non-negotiable grab for your e-rights, even though not one of them has shown that they have the slightest idea of how to market them.

However, if you have one or more books in print to which you own the e-rights, the likelihood is that sooner or later — probably sooner — someone is going to be making you an offer for it/them.

How much should you ask? Just as in the New York publishing scene, that depends on who you are and what your name is worth, but under no circumstances would I let them go without an advance.

As for royalties, I see no reason why you should ever agree to take less than 30% at the very minimum. This is not traditional publishing. If you give your e-publisher a disk, it costs him next to nothing to turn it into something that can be read by Palm Pilots or whatever people are reading e-books with these days. Even if you give him the hardcover or paperback, his expenses for scanning it and proofing it are minimal. He has no editor to pay, because your book has already been sold amd edited. He has no printing costs. He has no shipping costs. Clearly, his expenses are so minimal that you would be crazy to accept 8% or 10%, or even 15% royalties.

How about new books? Well, there’s a ton of unreadable crap on the Internet, so theoretically a new book of quality should stand out like a sore thumb. Problem is, it’s hard to stand out when there are 400 million web pages currently in the English language, and thousands more being added every day. Also, selling your book for bottom dollar to an e-publisher implies that it wasn’t good enough to sell to a traditional publisher, and that your name wasn’t enough to get it sold, so you have the added problem of no or minimal name recognition. (And let’s not forget that Stephen King, who can get $18 million US for any book he wants to sell to New York, was on track to earn about $2 million US on his internet novel before the whole process ground to a halt.)

Conclusion? If anyone offers you 4 digits for your previously published novel, and is willing to pay 30% or more royalties, jump at it. If they offer appreciably less, or under 25% royalties, laugh in their faces and wait for a better offer.

And that unsold novel? Until the internet can afford to pay a competitive price for it — and that’s still years off – work at making it good enough to sell to a New York mass market publisher, rather that dumping it to run side-by-side with a million other unpublishable novels.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.


QUESTION: Given the rate of change of human knowledge, how careful should I be about including present-day technology — the Internet, for instance — in my work? Will the presence of “last year’s news” in my novel make it harder to sell?

ANSWER: Arthur C. Clarke, who should know about these things, once suggested that any near-future prediction — by which he meant the next decade — was likely to be too optimistic, whereas every far-future prediction was certain to be too pessimistic.

I’ve been broadsided by this problem a few times. In Second Contact, which I wrote in 1989 and which was set halfway through the 21st Century, I had reference to a computer modem. The standard speed then was 300 baud, and it didn’t seem to be increasing, so I decided that 4,000 baud in 2050 A.D. wasn’t unreasonable. *sigh* They were doing 28,000 baud when the hardcover came out, 56,000 baud by the time the paperback hit the stands, and with cable modems today, who the hell knows how fast they’re going?

I was lucky, because it was just a tiny background detail, not important to the plot. These things will happen, especially if you’re as scientifically ignorant as I am. (I created a really complex security system for the Velvet Comet, my orbiting brothel, in 1984. When we built our house in 1986, I found out from the guy who installed our home security system that the army had been using something far more sophisticated than the Velvet Comet’s since 1981.)

The only thing to be truly careful about is if your plot hinges on a near-future detail; then you’d better check with as many experts as you can (and you’ll probably still get it wrong.)


QUESTION: I need to include computers in my novel, but everything I come up with either look\’ too much like today — laptops and such — or like on Star Trek, where they talk to disembodied voices in the air: Any ideas where I could look for a model 2020 system?

ANSWER: I’d talk to some serious hackers — but even then, I’d assume that, given the speed of technology, nothing in a 2020 computer will be recognizable to today’s user. I’d postulate cubes or bubbles rather than disks or CDs or DVDs (I’m just naming them; you get to describe them); holographic screens, or simply holographs projected in the air by a tiny processor; total absence of keyboards; trillion-gigabyte storage capacity in something the size of a thumbnail; multi-tasking on a scale never imagined; voice-activated and verbal computers; perhaps some form of self- awareness.

Or it might be none of these. You’re the science fiction writer. Earn your money and create a 2020 computer.


QUESTION: What is a “said-book-ism,” please, and why is it such an awful thing?

ANSWER: I think it’s not a very accessible expression, but we seem to be stuck with it. It refers to finding more (and sillier) substitutes for the word “said”.

As in, “he growled,” “he yelled,” “he whispered,” “he blithered” “he gibbered,” and the favorite of James Blish, the man who popularized the term, “he pole-vaulted”. Anyway, the gist of it all is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the words “he said.”


QUESTION: I’ve completed a fairly long large-scale space opera, and I like everything except the prologue, which I stuck in at the last minute, after several first readers I trust didn’t like the way they were dropped into the action. How do you tell if your prologue is nothing but info dump, and if it is, how do you punch it up?

ANSWER: I suppose the easiest way is to gather some fans around you and read nothing but the prologue. If they feel it’s an info dump, it probably is. If they feel it doesn’t make them eager to get to the first chapter, they’re almost certainly right. If their attitude is that, yeah, that sounds like an interesting premise (or character, or world) and they’d like to know more about it, then you did it right.

Prologues and epilogues are two of my affectations; I probably use them more than is necessary, but I find a certain near-mathematical elegance in framing a story with both, so I’m predisposed to like and approve of them. Which is a roundabout way of saying that your “first readers” may not have been right at all, and you may not need a ptologue . . . especially since you yourself don’t like it.

And that, by the way, is one of the keys to knowing when to use a blue pencil: if the author doesn’t like it, there’s no reason to assume the reader will, and indeed every reason to assume the author’s distaste for what he wrote will shine through like a beacon.


QUESTION: How’s Fictionwise treating you? Making any money yet?

ANSWER: That latter is a very personal question, but Bwana’s on record as being willing to answer any question that comes in, though I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to generalize a bit.

How is Fictionwise treating me? Like a god — or at least like the second coming of Isaac Asimov. In general, I sell all right. I’ve had the occasional bestseller, and I sell well enough so I’ve never had to worry about placing my next novel — but I’m not Ray Feist or Robert A. Heinlein. Or, at least, I wasn’t until I joined forces with Fictionwise. At one point I had their five top-rated books, at another I had four of their five top-selling books. They’re selling e-books through Amazon as well, and I just checked — my novel Soothsayer, which made a little splash, not much, when it came out from Ace in 1991, is Amazon’s #1 selling science fiction e-book for the ninth week in a row. I have two others in the top five. I don’t know why. They sure as hell weren’t bestsellers when they came out in book form. I keep expecting to wake up and find that my e-sales have tanked and Fictionwise doesn’t want me anymore, but so far it hasn’t happened.

Making any money yet? That’s the wild part. Yeah, I’m making a lot of money from Fictionwise. E-places that were buying original material have pretty much dried up and died (excepting, as of this moment,, but here’s, doing almost nothing but reprints, and they’re doing phenomenally. For example, in exactly one year, I had over 23,000 paid hits there — all for reprints. Three of my novels have earned out their (non-insubstantial) advances, and two more will do so by year’s end. Five of my stories have earned out their advances, and this is a place that pays about twice the going rate for reprint stories. When I signed, I never thought I’d see a penny in royalties; I was perfectly happy with the advances. So yeah, you might say I’m pleasantly flabbergasted.

And I hasten to point out it’s not just me. They’ve got a couple of hundred writers now. Ask Bob Silverberg how he likes them. Or Larry Niven. Or Nancy Kress. Or Geoff Landis. Or etc. You’ll get pretty much the same answers I gave you. I don’t know what Fictionwise’s secret is, but if they’d bottle it and sell it to other e-publishers, they could retire ng week.

2012 update: Fictionwise was the first e-publisher to learn how to market their books in the 21st Century, nd they did phenomenally well while almost everyone else was strugging. But eventually the world caught up with them, and the Pendregrast brothers sold a major interest in Fictionwise to Barnes & Noble. I left to publish my own reverted e-titles at that point, so I can’t say how Fictionwise is doing these days, but I know that it’s still around and still leasing properties.


QUESTION: I’m in receipt of an interesting “thought experiment” from Speculations contributor Wil McCarthy. In it he talks about putting together a cooperative publishing venture for SF authors, and it seems like it ought to work. Say (hypothetically) that I’m the author of one series that did reasonably well and another that never made it to Volume Three, thanks to Wil McCarthy’s aptly-named “death spiral.” Would joining Wil’s cabal be a good idea, in your estimation? What if on the otherhand, I were an unpublished novelist?

ANSWER: I haven’t seen Wil’s proposal, but in general I believe in a separation of powers- writers write, and publishers publish.

More specifically: there is no reason why a Robert Jordan or a Terry Goodkind or a William Gibson or an Anne McCaffrey, all of whom make half a million dollars or more per advance, should let someone else stop paying them and begin self-publishing.

But wait! (I hear you cry). Of course they have a reason to self-publish — the profits are greater.

True. But Tor manages to put two million copies of a Jordan book into the stores. Del Rey distributes a million or more copies every time Anne hands in a Pern novel. How many copies does the self-publisher get into circulation? One percent of that total? HaIfa percent?

Ah, (you say), but we’ll publish on the Internet too . . . Anything’s possible, as witness Fictionwise’s success. But that said, I can count the number of successful internet publishers of new science fiction on the fingers of one badly-mangled hand. I need a lot more fingers and toes than I have to count the ones that didn’t make it. If you go into this, you’d better find people as skilled as the Pendergrast brothers, who run Fictionwise, to be your President and C.E.O.

Now, it’s fair to say that the writers I named-and Ray Feist, and David Eddings, and Stephen Donaldson, and etc. — don’t suffer any serious dips in sales. But the guys who make $25,000 US to $60,000 US a book sure do. The ground is littered with them — so surely they have no reason to gamble their own money by self-publishing.

So what’s left? I hate to put it in these blunt terms, but what’s left are the losers, the might-have-beens, and the never-weres, and I have no more interest in investing in such a publishing venture than do Tor or Ace or Bantam or del Ray or Avon or DAW or ROC — which is to say, none at all. If any of the major publishers saw it differently, if their figures didn’t all lead to the same depressing conclusion as mine, they’d be publishing all these books, and the notion of a cabal of writers publishing them would never have come up.

2012 ipdate: OK, the world has changed, more with e-books than any other part of the industry. It’s no longer a stigma to self-publish an e-book, but I remain convinced that with a million titles a year coming out, and hundreds of thousands selling for 99¢ US or thereabouts, you’d better have a fan following before giving up your advance, and it wouldn’t hurt t remember that so far in this century there’s only been one Amanda Hocking.


QUESTION: My creative writing coach thinks I ought to rewrite everything from the first person, to increase the “immediacy” of the story. I have a few favorite novels — Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, and others — that are written in first person, so I see his point. But I also don’t see a lot of non-young-adult SF out there that isn’t in traditional third-person viewpoint. What s your point of view on point of view, anyway?

ANSWER: I have been nominated for nineteen fiction Hugos; seventeen of those stories were in the first person, so I have no problem with it at all.

I think your story — and not your creative writing coach — should dictate your approach. Certainly the field is not without examples of brilliant first-person novels — there’s a ton just by Heinlein, Malzberg and Silverberg, and most writers have done a few — and there are even more first-person short stories.

There are advantages to first person stories — you don’t have an omniscient narrator, so your narrator and the reader can both be kept in the dark for lengthy periods of time. You don’t have to construct your sentences as formally. You don’t have to worry about transitions as much.

And there are disadvantages — your narrator must be in every scene, on every line, and he’d better be interesting enough so that the reader doesn’t get bored with or tired of him. Your narrator’s voice and dialect must be absolutely consistent. Your reader knows that no matter how many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune you throw at him, your narrator survives to tell the tale.

So I guess my point of view is that it’s a very important choice, but not an arbitrary one, and it should be made solely for the good of the story, with no concern for the marketplace or the creative writing coach.


QUESTION: How do you write taut, suspenseful fight and chase scenes? Mine always either bog down in the details or skip ahead of the action and confuse the reader: Can you please recommend some good examples to read, and say why they work

ANSWER: Seriously? Go read the Western and space opera stories of the 1930s, back when the authors were laboring for a quarter of a cent a word in the pulp magazines, the stories were pretty much interchangable, and the ability to describe action was the only thing that kept the authors in business.

(Then remember that this is 2001, not 1931, and be sure to clean up your prose and aim a little higher.)

Another trick: read it to an audience of teens who like action movies. The second you see you’re losing their attention, you know you’ve taken a Wrong Turn.


QUESTION: I have a science fiction novel in the hands of a mainstream agent. I just found out that his wife is an SF agent. Would it be advisable for me to suggest that he hand it over to her?

ANSWER: I think it’s a fair assumption that he talks to his wife, and that he has no problem making use of her expertise. I think it would be an insult, a clear vote of No Confodence if you wrote to tell him you trust his wife more than you trust him.

I also have to wonder: what kind of research did you, a science fiction writer, do when looking for a literary agent, if you found a mainstream one and never knew his spouse was a science fiction specialist?


QUESTION: If your writing advice is so good, how come it’s not being published by Writer s Digest Books, right next to Stan Schmidt? Why is it always little hole-in-the- wall outfits like Speculations, Obscura Press, and Wildside?

ANSWER: It’s not being published by Writer’s Digest Books because I disapprove of their organization, and I choose not to submit my manuscripts to them. I explained my problem with Writer s Market (which they publish) a few columns back; I don’t propose to repeat my objections here.

Why do I sell this column to Speculations? For the same reason I sell the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues column to the SFWA Bulletin, and the same reason I’ve sold columns to F&SF and in the past: they sought me out and asked me to write a column. And having agreed to do it, I remain loyal to the people who first asked me.

Why do I sell to Obscura Press and Wildside Press? For the same reason that, for all of my thirty-five years as a professional science fiction writer, I have sold to Donald M. Grant, and Phantasia Press, and Misfit Press, and NESFA Press, and WSFA Press, and Dark Regions Press, and Pulphouse Press, and Axolotl Press, and Farthest Star, and a ton of other science fiction specialty presses. This is where I live, and I support those small publishers who labor in our field. I don’t give them my novels — I have to make a living with them — but I would much rather place my books on writing, or indeed any of my less commercial projects, to a science fiction press where I know they will be marketed to the people they were meant for. than to a small mainstream press that wouldn’t know what to do with them.

As for their being little hole-in-the-wall outfits, I wonder what your source for that statement is. NESFA Press has sold more than 10,000 copies, in hardcover, of their Cordwainer Smith book; he never sold anywhere close to that many hardcovers from a New York mass market house in his life. Farthest Star has paid me far more money — advance and royalties combined — for Birthright: The Book of Man, than I ever got from its initial mass market publisher. And so on.

And now that I’ve answered your question, let me ask you one: Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners?

2012 update: I still sell collections and the like to smaller presses. First, it’s a way to support these guys, who really are the backbone of the field. And second, if your name isn’t Neil or Connie, New York mass market houses probably aren’t wildly interested in your collections in the first place.

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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