Ask Bwana #49

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

Just got back from the 2002 Worldcon in San Jose. The field is still in the throes of recession and contraction. There are no new book publishers, no magazines have come along to replace Science Fiction Age, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Amazing or Aboriginal Science Fiction, and there are no new high-paying markets on the Internet.

But there is one area that seems to be expanding, and it’s not where I would have expected it to be. Three audio publishers were making their presence known at Worldcon, and at least one of them is paying more than competitive rates. Which, in retrospect, makes sense. Walk through any Borders or B&N superstore, and you’ll find more and more space being given over to audio books. Originally it was just for Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Nora Roberts and the like, but these days the audio books are expanding deep into the categories.

If you’ve got a backlist, it’s something you might start looking into. Bwana always believes in reselling what’s already been written and sold, whether to print, electronic, or audio markets. It’s found money, with no heavy lifting involved. Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: Don Maass said something at Worldcon that interested me: a writer who’s working hard and sending stuff out on a regular basis who starts to feel more and more enraged by the stuff that’s getting published is probably getting very close to being published himself. Given that I haven’t sold anything yet, and that according to Bwana the operative word in “personalized rejection” isn’t “personalized,” how do I know when I’m getting close?

ANSWER: That’s much too subjective a question for me to give you a definitive answer . . . but using Don’s criterion, I’d say that when you stop feeling hurt or inadequate because of a rejection, when you get mad because you know it was good enough to sell, then you’re probably getting close.

I have to add that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Whether you almost sold or didn’t make the first cut, the result is the same: Vince Lombardi would probably say something like “There’s selling and there’s everything else.” I tend to agree with him.

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QUESTION: I was at your kaffeeklatsch and your reading at the recently-concluded Worldcon, and I was amazed by just how many valuable collector’s items you gave away. Why do you do it? Doesn’t it cost you a ton of money — more than you could possibly make if each of us went right to the dealers’ room and bought one of your hardcovers?

ANSWER: They’re not valuable to me. (That’s why I don’t collect autographs. I give so many thousands away every year that it’s difficult to convince myself that they’re worth anything.)

My job, when I’m writing or even just interacting with my readers at a convention, is to please my audience. A lot of publishers send me piles of cover flats to give away: the only alternative to signing them and giving them out for free is to dump them in the trash, and since fans seem to like them, I’m happy to give them away. Same thing with my stories at one of my readings: I can autograph them and give them away, or I can dump them in the waste basket…but there’s no way I’m going to take them all the way home just to dump them there, and the fans seem to like getting autographed stories when I’m through reading them.

So, to answer your question and clear up your misconceptions, far from costing me a ton of money, giving these things away is about the most inexpensive form of public relations available to me.

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QUESTION: Please identify the [X number, you pick the X] worst habits a new writer can fall into.

ANSWER: That’s the most interesting and challenging question I’ve received this year. Let me take a shot at it.

1. Laziness. There is no one standing behind a freelance writer, forcing him to sit down and work. Moreover, he knows that he has months in which to produce a novel, so taking a day or two (or five, or eleven) off won’t appreciably affect his delivery date. But sloth is a very easy habit to fall into, and a very difficult one to break.

2. Imitation. It’s fine for you to be influenced by a Heinlein or an Asimov or a Tolkien — but when you start imitating them and give up all claim to originality, you’ve committed one of the deadliest sins a writer can commit.

3. Hubris. A writer should be confident in his gifts — but not so confident that he disdains all editorial input and advice.

4. Superiority. A writer who feels he is superior, intellectually, culturally, or in any other way, to his readership, is usually a) unable to hide it, and b) demonstrably wrong.

5. Unprofessional. A writer’s job extends beyond pushing a noun up against a verb. He must present professional-looking manuscripts, and in this day and age he must know how to produce and deliver acceptable electronic manuscripts; he must meticulously go over his copy-edited manuscript and proofread his galleys; he must supply whatever the publisher asks of him, from photos to biographical notes; and he must do whatever is required of him post-publication, from convention panels to autographs to (if he’s fortunate enough to be asked) 20-city tours. An author who fails in these details may be a good writer, but he’s not a good professional.

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QUESTION: We have 3 Barnes & Nobles, 2 Borders, a Waldenbooks and a B. Dalton’s in my city. None of them has more than half a dozen of your titles, yet Amazon.com lists 113 that are available. Why this enormous difference? Did you offend my region’s distributor?

ANSWER: Publishers fight like tigers for shelf space, and if you’re not an international bestseller, your book won’t stay on those shelves more than a few months — or, in superstores, more than a couple of years. Now, I don’t know how many mass-market books you think I produce in a couple of years, but it’s less than six. Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com have access to all my available books in every conceivable edition . . . but your local Barnes or Borders, while they can probably order any of them for you, isn’t going to display more than half a dozen or so . . . and as they sell out, they probably won’t re-order them.

So no, I’m not guilty of offending a distributor. I’m just guilty of not being Tom Clancy or Danielle Steel.

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QUESTION: I know you have a favorite copy editor, one you ask for no matter which publisher you’re writing for. My question is why? Other than catching spelling errors and typos and the like, what does a copy editor really do, and what makes one better than another?

ANSWER: A copy editor is all that stands between you looking like a genius and looking like a fool when your book comes out. Yes, everyone knows that copy editors correct typos, and point out that the heroine was a blonde on page 3 and is suddenly a redhead on page 14 . . . but the good ones do much more than that.

My copy editor of choice is Terry McGarry. On a recent book, I had someone shoot at point-blank range (in the ear, I think) with a laser pistol, and collapse in an expanding pool of his own blood; she suggested that a laser burn at that proximity would cauterize the wound and prevent bleeding. I spelled a (totally made-up) planet one way; she pointed out that five years ago, in a book for another publisher, I’d spelled it differently. And so on.

And that’s what a top-notch copy-editor does.

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QUESTION: At Worldcon, I asked you about the status of a script to one of your books that is being turned into a movie. You were very polite, but you said you weren’t permitted to discuss it. That sounds like a bullshit answer to me — so instead of asking the polite Mike Resnick, I’ll ask the straight-from-the-shoulder Bwana: the First Amendment was still in place last time I looked, so who can stop you from discussing anything you want to discuss?

ANSWER: Well, I’m glad I was polite.

Hollywood contracts are not like book publishing contracts. I have never signed a movie contract where I could not be severely penalized simply for stating that I didn’t like the finished product. In this case, I didn’t write the script, and the penalty clause kicks in even if I criticize the script before they make the movie.

Would they actually penalize me? I don’t know.

If they did, could I cite the First Amendment and beat it in court? Probably, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

But no one held a gun to my head to sign the contract. I signed it freely and willingly, and I feel a moral obligation to fulfill my end of it.

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QUESTION: I note that there are seven books written or edited by you on Bookshare.org. How do you feel about that?

ANSWER: Bookshare.org provides free books for the blind. I love money as much as the next guy, but I’m not quite so mendacious that I want to make money off the blind. So in answer to your question, I have no problems with seven of my books being on Bookshare.org, and I’ll have no problem if they add another 20 or 30 to the list.

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QUESTION: If you could create the ideal organization for professional fiction writers, what would it look like?

ANSWER: It would look a bit like SFWA, but with these changes:

1. There would be a minimum earnings amount to get in — probably an average of $30,000 US a year over a 5-year period.

2. 75% of the money would be ear-marked for the grievance committee.

3. The official publication wouldn’t carry any flame wars.

4. It would supply the best health insurance plan available, and would constantly be looking to better it.

5. Whatever the membership criteria, credentials would have to be renewed on a regular basis.

6. A top New York literary attorney would be kept on retainer.

7. There would be no awards, no anthology, no back-slapping of any kind.

8. There would be a database, available to members, that ranked all publishing contracts.

9. There would be a database, available to members, that ranked all literary and film agents.

10. There would be a database, available to members, showing the average lag time — for each mass market publisher — between when payments (signature advances, acceptance payments, royalty payments) were due and when they were actually made.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a pretty fair start.

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QUESTION: So did the belly dancers work again?

ANSWER: This question requires some explanation. At the 2001 worldcon, three belly dancers entertained at my Listserv party. While they were there, I asked them if they’d dance in the dealers’ room next to Larry Smith’s table while I was autographing books there. They agreed, and Larry, who might reasonably be expected to sell one Resnick book per hour at a Worldcon, sold about $600 US during the hour that I signed and they danced. I mentioned somewhere, perhaps here, perhaps on my Listserv, that before we left the con I’d “contracted” their services for the 2002 Worldcon.

Well, only two of them showed up this year, but Larry still sold about $400 US worth of Resnick books during the hour they danced — so in answer to your question, Yes, they worked again . . . and they’ll be back at the Toronto Worldcon in 2003.

2012 update: They danced at every signing I did at Larry’s table at every domestic Worldcon from 2001 until this year, when they were unable to make it to Chicon 7.

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QUESTION: I was looking for one of your books over on www.abebooks.com. the huge compendium of computerized used-book dealers on the internet — and I found that they have 2,200 of them for sale. Does that make you feel good, because any fan can find just about any title, no matter how old or rare . . . or bad, because 2,200 people didn’t think enough of those books to keep them?

ANSWER: Not good, not bad. It’s just a fact of life: people sell second-hand books. I think there are something like 3,000 dealers in www.abebooks.com, so that means there’s less than one Resnick book per store, which at least comforts me with the knowledge that used-book stores aren’t stockpiling them by the ton. And it would be hard to resent www.abebooks.com when I myself buy from them all the time.

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QUESTION: I was at the Worldcon breaking-in panel and was somewhat alarmed by Kent Brewster’s stance on writers who want to enter the publishing side of the industry. He says it’s a career killer, but you seem to have survived and thrived on both ends of the equation. Any comments?

ANSWER: Let me clear up a misconception here: I haven’t been a publisher in more than 30 years, and I have never published science fiction or fantasy, so I haven’t “survived and thrived on both ends of the equation.”

But Jack Chalker (Mirage Press) has. So has John Betancourt (Wildside Press). And Roger MacBride Allen. And quite a few others. And it’s not a new phenomenon — August Derleth turned out a couple of books every year, sometimes more, while running Arkham House.

(2012 update: The above is not to be confused with electronic publishing or self-publishing, which is becoming more popular with every passing day. The question referred solely to print publication.)

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QUESTION: I’ve got a daughter in college who’s starting to sell short fiction, and I wonder if her financial future might be better served by studying accounting, or computer programming. How useful will an English degree be to a fiction writer?

ANSWER: I think anyone’s financial future would be better served by studying accounting or computer programming than getting an English degree — but if your daughter loves writing and is already selling short fiction while still in college, you’re going to have more than a little difficulty convincing her to study in fields that don’t interest her. All you can do is gently suggest it, and then let her live her own life.

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QUESTION: Besides advice for writers, do you do much work out of genre? If so, is the fact that you’re an SF writer something you point out to potential employers, or something that you cover up?

ANSWER: I edit The Resnick Library of African Adventure (8 titles so far, with a 9th coming shortly), and, with my wife, I edit The Resnick Library of Worldwide Adventure (6 titles so far, with more on the way). I’ve sold a mystery novel, and some mystery short stories. I’ve sold a number of articles on horse racing, collie breeding and exhibiting, even on the musical theatre. I’ve never “covered up” what I do for a living — writing and editing science fiction — and I’ve never found that it counted against me. (Other may have different experiences; I can only answer for myself.)

2012 update: I seem to be back to mystery writing again. My 1995 novel, Dog in the Manger, is being reprinted by Seventh Street in November, and they’ll be publishing a brand-new sequel, The Trojan Colt, in 2013. And of course there’ll be the usual amount of science fiction.

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QUESTION: As you yourself have pointed out on numerous occasions, you can’t make a living writing short fiction — so why bother to do it at all?

ANSWER: From a personal standpoint, I write short fiction because I love to write it — and if I could afford to, I’d write more of it . . . but novels pay the bills.

From a professional standpoint, you can gain recognition and awards/nominations in four categories if you write both novels and short fiction, as opposed to just one category if you’re strictly a novelist . . . and those nominations keep your name in front of the public (and the editors, and the publishers) between novels. If you write nothing but novels, and you go a few years between them, you can lose a huge percentage of your audience . . . but if, for example, you’re Joe Haldeman or Connie Willis, who don’t produce novels every year but keep those high-quality short stories coming, you don’t give them a chance to forget you or lose interest in you, which is very important when your next novel hits the stands.

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QUESTION: I bought your book With a Little Help From My Friends, your collection of 26 collaborations with different writers. You seem to like and work smoothly with all of them. Are there any writers you haven’t been able to work with?

ANSWER: Just one. It was an anthology assignment. I don’t plan to share that writer’s name with you, but we tried collaborating, the writer (who had sold a few stories but still qualified as a beginner) did a first draft, and I worked for a few nights, trying to salvage something and failing to. In the end, I just threw it out and wrote a different story myself. That’s my one failure. On the flip side, I’ve collaborated successfully with 29 partners, and I would anticipate With a Little More Help From My Friends hitting the stands in five or six years.

2012 update: With A Little More Help From My Friends came out, with 21 new collaborators, at Chicon 7 just a few weeks ago.

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QUESTION: Is it better for a short story to appear in a magazine or an anthology?

ANSWER: You’ll get a bigger audience in the magazine, and you’ll be in print a lot longer in the anthology, so it depends on which is more important to you. I’ll add that if the story is award quality, you’re more likely to get a nomination if it appears in one of the three digest magazines — Asimov’s, Analog, or F&SF.

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QUESTION: I see that you’ve turned in New Voices in Science Fiction, an anthology of new writers. Well, I’m a new writer and you sure as hell didn’t ask me for a contribution. What were your criteria for putting the book together?

ANSWER: The only criteria were that I liked the story, and that the author had broken in within 5 years of when SFWA asked me to edit the book (2001).

But liking a story is every editor’s criterion. I assume what you really want to know is: where did I find the writers? 8 were Campbell winners or nominees, all since 1997.

2 were Hugo nominees.

3 had excellent novels on the stands.

4 were writers I’d bought from previously.

5 were Clarion graduates.

1 was recommended to me by another writer.

1 wrote the winning story in a contest I judged.

1 heard about the anthology on my Listserv, asked if he could submit, and sent me a hell of a story.

Yeah, I know that comes to more than the number of stories. There was some overlap, especially between Campbell winners and nominees and other categories. Also, since these weren’t written to themes like every other original anthology I’ve edited, but were simply representative of the author’s best work, I rejected more than I bought, even though the anthology was by invitation only.

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QUESTION: I’m deathly afraid of world-building–drawing a map kills the story for me, every time — and I note that your universes all seem to work just fine, without going into huge gobs of history or technology. How do you manage to craft your fiction to avoid the necessity of explaining how things work?

ANSWER: I don’t think I’ve ever drawn a map. I’ve always taken to heart John Campbell’s dictum that science fiction is the mainstream fiction of the future. I find that if I can create properly evocative terms for the few pieces of futuristic hardware I need (“burner” and “screecher” for laser and sonic weapons, “Dryshower” for a chemical shower aboard a spaceship, and so on) I don’t have to explain them, and if I don’t have to, then why bother? The trick is creating a future that the author can visualize, and creating descriptive terms — they needn’t be high-tech — that help the reader visualize that same future.

As for geography and topography, except for the occasional novel like Paradise or Walpurgis III, where the entire story takes place on a single world, I only use small sections — tiny sections, actually — of worlds, and hence I only have to visualize tiny sections. If you’re writing about two city blocks of Birmingham, Alabama, you don’t need to know what Sri Lanka or Kenya or even Portland, Oregon look like.

Nice set of 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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