Ask Bwana #43

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations some time in 2001-2002?

Well, another Worldcon — Millennium Philcon — is over, and I think instead of telling you what I did this year, I’ll tell you what I didn’t do.

1. I never went to the Green Room. This seems to come as a shock to the Worldcon program committee every year, but any writer who can read his pocket program can find his way to his panel (or kaffeeklatsch, or reading, or autograph session) without showing up in the Green Room and being escorted as if he were a child of kindergarten age.

2. I never went to the Meet the Pros party, or whatever they called it this year. I know most of the pros, and I hate noisy crowds. In six days’ time, I can meet just about every pro I want to see and every fan who wants to see me one-on-one.

3. I never went on any of the tours. I don’t come to a Worldcon to leave the Worldcon; just how counter-productive can you get?

4. I never went to the Fan Lounge. It exists to give fans a place to sit and rest and set their tons of books down during the Worldcon. So why in the world was it on the fourth floor of the Marriott, rather than in the convention center where the fans, panels, readings, dealers, and art show were?

5. I never went to the Fanzine Room. I didn’t even know they had one until after I’d returned home and read about it in someone’s trip report.

6. I didn’t read any novelettes or six-thousand-word short stories during my reading. How could I, when for the first time in history readings were held to a ridiculous limit of thirty minutes?

7. I didn’t go to the Hugo Ceremony Run-Through. Twenty-two nominations into my career, I don’t need someone to tell me how to look tense as the Toastmaster or Presenter reads off the nominations and prepares to open the envelope.

There’s a lot you can and should do at Worldcon, as this column is always pointing out. I thought perhaps it was time to point out that there’s also a lot you needn’t do.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: Do you foresee a chilling effect on SF, in print or on film, after the events of September 11th? Should I avoid mention of terrorists, hijacking, and that sort of thing?

ANSWER: Quite the opposite. Terrorism in America is here, welcome to the 21st Century, and it would be foolish to write only of conventional wars in the near future. I think some people are going to look back nostalgically to the days when there were two near-equal superpowers. With only one — us — every half-baked crazy suddenly has a target, and no sponsor (such as the Soviet Union) to restrain him from fear of massive atomic reprisal.

Actually, science fiction should have been writing about terrorism twenty years ago, and a few practitioners did. But now that it’s here and a fact, it would be foolish to ignore it.

For the members of one generation, the assassinations of the 1960s — JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King — were the defining moments of their lives. For others it was Viet Nam. For an earlier generation, it was obviously World War II, and before that, the Depression. I suspect that for anyone too young to have experienced those events — anyone, say, under forty — the destruction of the World Trade Center will be the defining moment of their lives. What writer could or should ignore it?

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QUESTION: I went to Worldcon — I even got your autograph — but I couldn’t find any editors. Either they were hiding, or they were in such crowded parties (I never saw anything like the Tor party for packing them in like sardines!) I couldn’t get near them. So how do I connect with them at a Worldcon? That s what I went to do, and it was not an inexpensive five days.

ANSWER: They were all there. They weren’t hiding. The TOR party was uncomfortable — it spit me out twice — but that was not unexpected. This column has pointed out time and again that the best way to get some time alone with an editor is to contact him or her a couple of months before the Worldcon and set up a meeting. Then, make sure you know what you have to say and to sell; time is at a premium at Worldcon, and no editor will appreciate your wasting it. This column has also pointed out that you’ll never get any business done at the publishers’ parties, of which TOR’s is always the most crowded. When two hundred writers cram themselves into one suite with no more than half a dozen editors, of course nothing gets done.

Okay, I hear you ask, when did I do my business at the recent Worldcon? I had two dinners with editors, a dinner with my agent, two breakfasts with editors, a lunch with an editor, coffee with an editor, a 3:00 AM meeting with a publisher, and drinks with an editor and two different publishers — all scheduled before August. And for the most part these are friends that I’ve known for twenty years or more. I could have approached them cold and they’d probably have found time for me . . . but why take pot luck when it’s so easy to make arrangements before I get there?

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QUESTION: Any guesses on how cost-effective throwing a party or having (or sharing) a table in a Worldcon dealers’ room would be for a new small-to-medium press magazine?

ANSWER: I seem to remember Larry Smith, who ran the dealers’ room at Millennium Philcon, telling me that tables ran three hundred dollars apiece. If you’re a small press magazine, that three hundred dollars probably eats up your profits for an entire issue or two, so you might consider sharing — paying one hundred dollars for a third of a table, which is more than enough room to display half a dozen issues.

A party is probably even more expensive. First of all, you’ll need a suite if you’re expecting to attract any kind of a crowd (and if you’re not, why bother?), so you’re probably looking at an extra two hundred and fifty to three hundred dollars just for one evening’s facilities. Then you have to stock it; depending on what you stock it with, you could spend from seventy-five to four hundred dollars more, Do the math and see if you think it’s worthwhile.

If you’re creative, there are ways around the expenses. Fur example, for the past two years my Listserv has held a party at Worldcon. We borrow Gordie Meyer’s (Obscura Press, one of my small press publishers) suite for the night, and a number of the ladies wear their official Babes For Bwana t-shirts. (No, I’m not kidding.) This year, Speculations’ own Kent Brewster brought us three belly dancers whose services had been turned down by the SFWA Suite (doubtless, my daughter suggests, because the music meant writers would have had to be silent for entire minutes at a time). They were a huge hit and filled the suite to overflowing — and after they saw the t-shirts and asked about them, they formed a subsidiary group: the Harem Division of the Babes For Bwana. So Bwana asked them to dance in the dealers’ room while he was autographing at Larry Smith’s table on Saturday afternoon. They showed up on schedule, they drew huge crowds, and Larry sold about five hundred dollars worth of Resnick books in about forty-five minutes.
Moral: sometimes being creative buys better publicity than spending excessively.

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QUESTION: I went to the Philadelphia Worldcon, and I met with a number of magazine editors. They all expressed interest and enthusiasm in me and my work and asked me to submit to them. Well, I sent to three of them, and all three gave me form rejections, Now I feel somehow betrayed. Am I right to feel that way?

ANSWER: No, you are not right. Those editors were flown (or otherwise conveyed) to Philadelphia at their publisher’s expense. They were housed, at one hundred and forty-five dollars a night or thereabouts, at their publisher’s expense. They were given fifteen to twenty-one meals at their publisher’s expense. They invited dozens of writers to breakfast, lunch, and dinner at their publisher’s expense. They spent considerable time in the bar, buying drinks for writers, at their publisher’s expense. So it’s not unfair to assume that every editor you spoke to cost his or her publisher between three thousand to forty-five hundred dollars for the week. Do you really think the publishers spend that kind of money on them so they can discourage new writers and just schmooze with old friends? Gardner Dozois doesn’t have to spend money on Connie Willis or me to get us to contribute to his magazine; Anne Groell doesn’t have to feed David Brin to find out more about him. Some of that money is spent on “regulars,” but a lot of it is earmarked for meeting new writers and stealing old ones away from other publishers. So of course the editors expressed (an earnest) interest and enthusiasm in you and your work. After all, everyone wants to discover the next Isaac Asimov. But they hadn’t yet seen your work. Well, now they have, and their judgment seems to be that you need more seasoning. Probably you do. But would you have felt better if they’d told you to go away and never darken their slush pile before they’d read you?

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QUESTION: What’s your opinion of writers who run their own listservs and web sites? Is it a waste of time and energy, or is it productive marketing? Where’s the line between self-promotion and self-publishing, anyway?

ANSWER: I’m in favor of web sites, and I’ve gotten enormous enjoyment (and even some story and book ideas) from my Listserv. I don’t run them because I’m a computer semi-literate. A fan runs them. My computer can’t merely be user-friendly; it has to be user-servile or I’m in deep trouble. But if I could run them, and no fan volunteered, I would. It’s fun, and it’s ego-gratifying, but it also qualifies as promotion. There’s nothing wrong with promotion — but promotion isn’t self-publishing. Self-publishing is a public admission that you weren’t able to compete in the marketplace, that you are publishing yourself because no one else would. I hardly consider that promotion. In fact, it comes very close to anti-promotion.

2012 update: The above still applies to paying money out of your own pocked to print, publish and ship copies of your own book. But it clearly does not apply to e-publishing. There are many caveats to consider before e-publishing your own book, but it is no longer a public admission that you couldn’t sell your book.

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QUESTION: My first novel just came out, and I hate my cover art. How long before I can choose the scene that goes on my cover?

ANSWER: How many lifetimes have you got? Seriously, no author chooses the scene that goes on his cover. That’s the function of the artist and the art director. They don’t tell you how to write, no matter how much they want to. You don’t tell them how to package a book.

A tiny handful of mega-selling authors can name their artists. Most of the established ones can suggest an artist or two they think would fit the material, and usually the publisher will try to accommodate them. This does not include a beginner choosing Whelan or Eggleton, or a mid-lister choosing Frazetta. One must be realistic.

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QUESTION: My son’s middle-school English teacher has discovered that I am a science fiction writer. She wants me to address the class for a few minutes. What should I talk about?

ANSWER: Of course you should talk about science fiction. I assume middle-school means aged about ten to thirteen, so there’s not much sense talking Willis, Haldeman, Kress, or even Bradbury. Probably you should begin with Star Trek and Star Wars, and try to delicately explain that both are entry-level science fiction and gently give them some mind-blowing concepts that they can graduate to. Toss out a couple of names and titles, but don’t overload them. I mean, hell, the majority of attendees at a Worldcon these days would rather watch than read, so don’t expect too much of school kids who haven’t yet been weaned from what Harlan Ellison aptly calls the Glass Teat.

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QUESTION: I need to write a convincing alien pet that isn’t a thinly-disguised cat. Can you give me any pointers, or examples of the thing done right?

ANSWER: This column exists to give objective answers to questions about the profession of writing science fiction. If you need advice on creating an alien pet that doesn’t resemble a cat, you haven’t reached the point of salability yet, and there’s very little Bwana can do for you.

I will suggest, however, that no one has surpassed the late Stanley G. Weinbaum at the creation of (incomprehensible) aliens. Pick up his “A Martian Odyssey” or “The Lotus Eaters” and see if you can borrow, not his aliens, but his methodology.

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QUESTION: I’ve been offered a nonfiction column in a major metropolitan newspaper; apparently on the strength of my speculative fiction. (Go figure) Where are the gotchas, please? Do I need an agent now?

ANSWER: If you’re a selling writer, and not a hopeful beginner, you need an agent to sell your novels and your foreign rights, period. Most writers don’t use their agents for short fiction or articles. I can’t imagine why you’d go out and acquire an agent to negotiate a non-fiction newspaper column, since the offer’s already on the table. Perhaps a literary lawyer might look at the contract. The odds are that the newspaper or syndicate (if you’re that lucky) will own the copyright, and outside of money I don’t know what else you’d negotiate. But if the column is to appear, say, three days a week, do you really want to hire an agent and give her fifteen percent of three checks a week for the next few years for negotiating one single contract — especially one that will essentially act as a job description and a salary agreement?

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QUESTION: What s your opinion of Time-Warner’s iPublish? SFWA seems to have a serious problem with their contract, but I’m not in SFWA, so I can’t quite tell what the problem

ANSWER: It stinks. You don’t have to be a member of SFWA to learn about it. The Author’s Guild has posted warnings all over the Internet. Let me quote them: “Among the Guild’s concerns are low royalties for book rights and the author’s exposure to substantial liability for frivolous lawsuits.”

Let me add that you can surrender your digital rights to your first two works for as little as twenty-five dollars, or even less. To repeat: it stinks.

2012 update: Now that writers know they can get 100% of the royalties from selling off their web page, 70% at Amazon, and 65% at Barnes, they are becoming more and more reluctant to accept bullshit rates being offered by publishers. The industry standard these days is 25% of net, which at Amazon means 17.5% of cover price, very little more than a hardcover or trade paperback…and more and more authors, especially those with established readerships, are deciding that at those rates, they don’t want or need a traditional publisher.

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QUESTION: Bridge Publications — publisher of the Writers of the Future contest anthologies — had brought the first few volumes back out via print-on-demand technology. These are fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen-year-old anthologies. Shouldn’t there be some extra payment to the authors?

ANSWER: It all depends on the contract. Of course you should get an extra payment, but right, wrong, justice, and morality have nothing to do with it.

What rights did you sell when you initially sold the story — first North American serial rights? (You get an extra payment.) Worldwide rights? (You don’t.) Non- exclusive worldwide rights? (You may, depending on the wording.)

Was there a reversion (time limit) clause? Did it kick in automatically (almost never happens) or did you have to request the rights back after a specified period of time (the usual), and did you request them (if not, it’s probably too late now until the books go out of print again, but of course with print-on-demand technology now available they probably never will.)

Too many writers are content to be Artists, which is fine, indeed mandatory, until you type “The End,” at which time you’d better morph into a well-informed, hard-nosed businessman or suffer the consequences.

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QUESTION: I’ve been invited to participate in a large book-signing event at a regional con. I only have one novel in print. What should 1 expect?

ANSWER: Expect a few people to come up and ask for your autograph . . . and hope you’re not sitting next to Jack Williamson or Lois McMaster Bujold. They’re very nice people, but their autograph lines can do terrible things to a beginner’s self-confidence when sitting next to them. Still, you have to start somewhere, so by all means agree to the autographing – and try to make sure that at least one dealer is carrying your book.

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QUESTION: I just watched terrorists destroy the World Trade Center on television. I understand Tom Clancy wrote a novel predicting “the airplane as bomb,” but no science fiction writer has. Why did we miss the boat?

ANSWER: Our job as science fiction writers, believe it or not, isn’t to predict the future. At the highest literary level, we use the future and all of its artifacts — planets, aliens, technology — as metaphors for the present and the human condition. When we predict something that comes true, it’s usually dumb luck, and it adds very little more to what we’re writing than the thousands of fictional suppositions that don’t come true.

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QUESTION: I know you’ve covered this before, but I’m not sure I understood it. I’ve just been offered a contract to sell my short story to an original anthology, and along with buying First Rights they’re asking for “non-exclusive worldwide right”, which scares me. I don’t want to give away worldwide rights to anything, so what do I do?

ANSWER: Okay, let’s take it from the top. When you sell first rights (or First North American rights, or First Serial rights) you are selling the right to be the first to publish your story. Anthologist X buys first rights to your story. You cannot sell it anywhere else until he publishes it. Though there should be a time limit in there. He must publish within eighteen or twenty-four or thirty months, or the rights revert to you, and the money stays with you.

Now, if he buys worldwide rights, or exclusive worldwide rights, it means you have sold him the story for all eternity. Only he can sell it, and if he decides never to market it, it will never appear again. Even in this case, it does not mean he will keep all the money. The contract should specify the division of monies received for each resale between the two of you. The important thing is not that you’ll never make another cent, but that you will have no control over where it is resold, or for how much.

If you retain all rights except first rights, that means that after your story appears in his anthology, you own it again. You can sell it anywhere in the world, or not, as you choose, and you don’t have to share the money with anyone. It also means that he cannot resell the anthology with your story in it without your express permission.

The most common way for an anthology (or a magazine) to buy a story is to buy first rights and non-exclusive worldwide rights, with those rights clearly defined. And the way they should be defined is this: the anthologist has the right to sell your story anywhere in the world, but only as part of the anthology. The magazine publisher has the right to sell your story anywhere in the world, but only as a part of the foreign edition of that magazine. You retain the right to sell it whenever and wherever you can. You just can’t prevent them from selling it as part of the book or magazine. Usually you’ll get a fifty-fifty pro rata split with the anthologist on a resale or a foreign sale. In other words, the anthologist will keep half the advance and royalties, and he will divide the other fifty percent among the writers. Usually, the magazines keep all the revenues from their foreign editions. But they also put an option clause into the contract, giving them the right to include your story in an anthology clearly labeled as a compendium of stories from that magazine and that magazine alone for an agreed-upon stipend.

Hope that clears it up. It’s a complex topic, but it’s essential for you to understand it, since far more stories are sold to anthologies than to magazines.

Good questions. 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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