Ask Bwana #51

BWANA #51

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — May, 2002

I’d like to address a perceived rudeness that permeates the science fiction profession, and explain why it really isn’t rude at all.

About 40 times a year I receive a letter — not an e-mail — inviting me to attend the letter-writer’s convention. Most of them are form letters, but in this computer age you’re never quite sure, since they address you by name rather than “Dear Sir,” or in this case, “Dear Science Fiction Author.”

At any rate, the gist of the letter is: please attend our convention as our guest. The letter goes on to state that they want you on panels (always flattering), and that you and (usually) a Significant Other will receive free memberships, which may be a savings for the pair of you of as much as $80.00.

Unless they come with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, I just throw them out without replying.

Why? After all, from the fan’s point of view, that’s a pretty generous offer.

Ah, but from a pro’s point of view, what the letter says is: pay for your own planefare (or gas) to get to our convention, pay for your own room for as many nights as you plan to be here, pay for all of your meals (unless some worshipful fan wants to treat you to one), forego your standard professional speaking fee and perform on a bunch of one-hour panels, and in exchange, we’ll give you a *free membership*.

When you’re a Guest of Honor or a Toastmaster, everything is paid for — transportation, hotel, a per diem for meals, everything — and that’s why you’re most likely to meet a pro from out of the area when he’s a Guest of Honor or Toastmaster at your local con.

Pros understand that most conventions are money-losing propositions, and cannot afford to comp anyone but their Pro and Fan Guests of Honor and their Toastmaster. We don’t expect the little con in Podunk that just wrote us to offer to pay our way . . . but at the same time, we don’t see any need to buy a stamp — especially now that a dollar doesn’t even buy three of them — to tell them that we are not planning on attending a convention we’d never heard of until we opened the mail, a convention that made the same hopeful but unrealistic offer that 39 others have already made in the past year. Give us an e-mail address or a S.A.S.E. and we’ll politely decline your offer; give us neither and we’re under no moral obligation to reply.

(And yes, of course pros sometimes pay their way to distant conventions. They may have family or friends there, they may be going there to meet a particular editor or a collaborator, they may have other reasons — but getting a free membership is really and truly not one of the reasons.)

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

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QUESTION: You seem to have quite a bit of stuff for sale on eBay. If I’m right and that is you, how’s it going? Is the time you spend away from your writing worth it in dollars earned?

ANSWER: I do have quite a bit of stuff for sale on eBay, but 95% of it is not mine. We have a friend who is the widow of not one but two collectors, both of whom died more than a quarter century ago. She’s in her 80s now, and has decided to finally disperse the collections. (In fact, she has three collections, because the widow of another collector, a friend of hers, turned over her collection as well.) She’s very uncomfortable around computers, and had no idea what her books, magazines and fanzines were worth, so Carol and I offered to sell them for a commission.

Personally, I love doing it. I write the ads, which means every couple of days I get to re-live my childhood while describing the books and magazines we’re selling, and Carol actually does most of the work. It probably takes me a couple of hours a day, adds to our income, provides enormous enjoyment, and doesn’t cut into my writing time. I do the auctions by day, and I never sit down to write before 10:00 PM unless I’m on an incredibly tight deadline.

2012 update: I have now sold 5 more large collections, and am working on selling a 6th — my own. Since going blind in one eye back in early 2004, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to read the printed page. I’d gotten to the point where I was reading maybe a book every two weeks, using a large, awkward magnifying glass. Then came the Barnes & Noble color Nook (I don’t need the color, but I need the backlit contrast) and I began selling off my own paper-print collection as quickly as I could replace each book with its e-version. I spent a lifetime accumulating them, and it hurts to part with them, but what the hell, I can’t read them. And Carol, whose eyes are just fine, decided that she prefers the Nook as well has her own, and is selling off her collection as she replaces them with e-books.

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QUESTION: Are there any considerations to keep in mind when selling one-of-a-kind items like corrected galley proofs?

ANSWER: Know what your stuff is worth, and always be totally honest about condition.

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QUESTION: Are there any 10% agents left?

ANSWER: I don’t think so. The last of the major SF agents went to 15% two or three years ago. Some writers were grandfathered at 10%, but I don’t think you can pick up a reputable new agent for 10% no matter who you are.

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QUESTION: Please list the top X number — you, as usual, pick the X — of signs that a magazine is too flaky to submit to.

ANSWER: If I may assume that “flaky” means unprofessional, these would be the signs:

1. They hold your stories an unconscionable length of time (and for short stories, that would be somewhere around 8 or 10 months for newcomers, 2 or 3 months for Name writers.)

2. They request changes, you make them, they don’t buy anyway.

3. The changes they request would clearly dilute the power of the story.

4. You get Campbellesque rejection letters, pages and pages long, and they are demonstrably wrong-headed.

5. They give all kinds of reasons for not paying on time.

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QUESTION: I’m a member in good standing of SFWA. A convention wants to auction an hour of my time. In theory, the purchaser will “help” me plot a story that I will then write and hopefully sell. It sounds like fun, but what are my legal obligations? If I write it, does she get any money? If I later expand it into a bestselling novel, can she sue me for 50% based on a few words we exchanged during the hour?

ANSWER: I’d insist on a release, not from the convention — you can’t counter-sue them if they no longer exist — but from the purchaser, in which he agrees that he has no claim on any money you make from any idea the two of you discuss, and that this agreement extends to novelizations, motion picture sales, the whole nine yards. If you feel less than competent about writing such an agreement, have your agent do it. And if you still feel uneasy, then politely but firmly opt out of the auction.

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QUESTION: What’s a reasonable set of goals for a new writer’s first year? Write X number of words? Sell Y number of stories? Something else I’m missing?

ANSWER: That’s impossible to answer without more information. Is the new writer 15 years old? Then completing a couple of stories and mailing them off is a fine goal. Is he walking around with 3 college degrees and a hole in his wallet? Then anything less than a book sale will doom his embryonic career. Sell Y number of stories? (Great, if Y is 3 and the markets are Playboy, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly; terrible, if Y is 20 and the markets are all semi-pro markets that average a couple of cents US a word.)

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QUESTION: I’m in contact with a guy who wants to serialize some of my short stories by e-mail, a thousand words or so per day. These would be reprints, and the end product would wind up in an online archive — also free — and a print-on-demand anthology, which would be sold for actual money. What’s a good word rate to insist on?

ANSWER: If these are stories you’ve sold to major markets — the digest magazines, scifi.com, the better-paying of Warren Lapine’s magazines — then anything you make selling the reprints is found money. If they went to semi-pro markets, you’ll be lucky to get a penny a word; after all, you didn’t get that much more when you sold them the first time . . . and as for a print-on-demand anthology, your publisher’s not likely to sell 100 copies of it unless he’s got some Name authors with stories that haven’t appeared too many other places.

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QUESTION: When writing a novel, do you pitch it to an editor or an agent first and see if they like it, or do you just plunge in and write the thing? I’ve got three chapters and a pretty good outline; should I have a nibble from an agent or an editor before completing my novel?

ANSWER: I always pitch it first. No sense writing it if no one wants it. In this particular down market, I’d strongly suggest that even a beginner stick to 3 chapters and an outline.

There’s an exception, of course. (There’s always an exception.) If you are not trying to make a living (or at least break into print), if writing the book is currently more important to you than selling it (and yes, once it’s written, selling it will become more important), then write it.

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QUESTION: Please talk more about rights reversions. For a short story, should I look for a limit in their time to publish it before rights revert back to me? For a novel, what’s an acceptable definition of “out of print?”

ANSWER: There are two kinds of reversions.

The first, which usually happens only when a magazine or book publisher goes belly-up, is defined in your contract as the length of time the publisher can sit on your story without publishing it, after which it reverts to you and you get to keep the money. Usually it’s 24 months, but some special cases will demand longer.

The second is the Reversion Clause in your book contract. Standard used to be five years, and the clause stated that if, after five years (or any time thereafter) your book was out of print, you could write a registered letter to the publisher demanding that the book be reprinted within six months, and if it wasn’t, then the rights reverted to you.

Well, that was meaningful for all but the last few years of the 20th Century. If your publisher went back to press, it was usually in multiples of 1,000 for hardcover and multiples of 3,000 to 5,000 for paperbacks.

But now, with print-on-demand, the standard reversion clause is meaningless, because the publisher can print 5 copies of your book and hang onto it for another year — and do it ad infinitum. Term-of-lease contracts (in which the publisher gets the book for a stipulated time and then it reverts to you, even if it’s in print, even if it’s currently atop the bestseller list) are gradually replacing reversion clause contracts, and I think all but the most clueless beginners will be refusing to sign the old reversion clause from now on.

2012 update: If your publisher won’t sign a term-of-lease contract, then you’ll need a definition of “out of print” which defines it as “less than X hundred books available.” If he’s going to go to a P.O.D. joint to keep it, make him spend a little money so he has some reason to push it. And of course the next big problem is going to be separating e-books from “in print” books, since a publisher can leave a single e-book on sale at Amazon, at no cost to himself, for decades, and you want to make sure that it doesn’t prevent you from re-selling the book [or, better still, you want a term-of-lease on the e-book as well.

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QUESTION: Do you retain conscious memories of the writing process? I’ve never been able to say what I was thinking (or trying to do) when writing . . . should I worry about this?

ANSWER: When I’m writing, I’m concentrating on the very best way to say what I’m trying to say. Sometimes I remember the process; sometimes I don’t. I hardly think it’s worth worrying about. If you must worry about something, worry about how to write better.

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QUESTION: Should writers who are married to each other collaborate? Can you think of any spectacular successes or cautionary tales?

ANSWER: Yes, I can think of spectacular successes, right here in this field.

The first that comes to mind is the team of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, who wrote under Kuttner’s name, and something like 25 pseudonyms as well, including Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell.

L. Sprague de Camp collaborated on some non-fiction books with his wife Catherine.

David Eddings and his wife have recently made the bestseller lists.

I understand that Larry Dixon often collaborates with his wife, Mercedes Lackey.

Carol and I have sold collaborative screenplays to Capella and Miramax.

Cautionary tales? None spring to mind. Usually if it’s not going to work, you know pretty soon and don’t waste any more time on it.

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QUESTION: A small but dedicated crew of loonies is writing fan fiction in my universe. I want them to stop, but I don’t want to piss them off. What should I do?

ANSWER: What should you do? You should make up your mind which is more important to you — protecting your copyrighted material or pissing off some of your fans. One of the reasons that Disney is involved in so many hundreds of lawsuits, that Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. sued the manufacturer of some leopardskin-print Tarzan underwear, is that if you don’t show that you are making every effort to protect your copyright, you may lose it. Consider that carefully before you decide not to piss off some fans who, if the facts were explained to them, would probably serve as internet watchdogs to stop anyone else from threatening your copyrights.

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QUESTION: A Hollywood producer — you wouldn’t know his name — fell in love with one of my books and wants to shop it around to the various studios. He’s not offering any money now, but he’s willing to put in print that he’ll give me XXX,XXX dollars when it’s sold. He sounds sincere, and he’s willing to put that figure — more than I’ve ever seen in my life — in a contract. My agent says no, but he’s a literary agent. I figure the decision is mine to make. Any advice?

ANSWER: You know what it takes to be a Hollywood producer?

A phone.

The days of David O. Selznick and Otto Preminger are gone. The typical independent producer today is a fly-by-night guy who options 6 or 8 properties — whatever he can afford, and whatever he can talk people into giving him for free — and then goes around to the studios or the major indies like Miramax and tries to get, not a production deal, but simply a development deal. (That’s where the studio picks up the option [so the producer gets his seed money back] and then gives him a sum, usually from $300,000 US to $600,000 US, to come up with an acceptable script. The producer will typically spend about half — say, $200,000 US — on the script, hold $50,000 US in reserve for a rewrite/polish, live on $100,000 US for that year, and use the other $50,000 US to buy 6 or 8 more options.

Now, if one of these projects ever actually gets made into a movie, you’ll get rich — and the producer, not unfairly, will get richer. But if they don’t get out of development (and it’s not called “Development Hell” for no reason), you’ll never see anything but a little option money — and if you give it to him for no option fee, then you don’t get a penny until they produce the movie.

How likely is that? If you’re real lucky, the odds may only be about 200-to-1 against you. But even those odds presuppose that you’ve made it into Development Hell. The odds of getting there, of having some studio or money man shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars on your project, are more like 1,500-to-1 against.

My advice? Get some option money up front, be grateful is you make anything further, and don’t expect or count on it.

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QUESTION: Every year you cover the Hugos or masquerade or some aspect of Worldcon for Science Fiction Chronicle. Why do you write for them and not for Locus?

Answer: The simplest of all reasons: Chronicle asked me (and paid me). Locus didn’t.

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QUESTION: I have a chance to spend two weeks in Barbados. If I sell a story set there, can I deduct all my expenses?

ANSWER: You’ll spend, what, about $750 US round-trip for airfare? I can’t imagine you staying at any acceptable hostelry there for under $100 US a day — Barbados isn’t cheap — and of course you’ll have to pay for 42 meals. Plus miscellaneous. You’re looking at a few thousand dollars US. And you think the IRS will let you deduct it all because you sell a story for maybe 8 or 10 cents US a word?

They’ll still be laughing three months after they adjust your return and disallow your deductions.

Sell a book and you can get away with it. I’ve deducted all my trips to Africa — but I’ve sold 11 books and 25 stories about Africa, and I edit a line of classic African reprints. I’ve also been to a number of Caribbean islands, but I’ve never set a story on any of them and hence never tried to deduct them on my taxes. The IRS will look upon a writer’s travel deductions with some compassion, but he’s got to meet them halfway and show that he made, or had reasonable expectations of making, a profit.

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QUESTION: I just bought your recent collection, With a Little Help From My Friends, which contains 26 collaborations with different writers. What did you learn from the experience? Also, I see that while a number of your collaborators are proven stars, some of them are rank beginners. How did you choose them?

ANSWER: What they all are is friends, and after I found out that I enjoyed my first few collaborative efforts, I just kept trying new partners. One thing I found is that no two writers think alike or approach their work in exactly the same manner. A second is that someone has to have the final word (and in every case in that book it was me) just to avoid endless polishing. And the third is that many of them came up with ideas that would never have occurred to me, despite that fact that most of the stories — 80%, I would guess — were written to explicit themes for anthologies.

2012 update: What I didn’t mention then, but has since become common knowledge, is that a number of them were beginners — early members of what have become known as “Mike’s Writer Children” — and I collaborated with them primarily to get them into print and give them a credential they could use on their next submission.

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QUESTION: I’m a pro. Not as big a pro as you, but I write science fiction and fantasy to pay my bills. A local convention, where I’ve participated on panels for years, recently decided that they would not comp my wife. Another con says they won’t even comp me unless I’m on three panels. Has this ever happened to you, and what do you do about it?

ANSWER: This is becoming more frequent, and I find it totally unacceptable. Yes, it’s happened to me — but it’s never happened twice.

I explain to the committee that it is traditional for Significant Others to be comped. If they point out that my Significant Other will not appear on any panels and therefore must pay the $20 or $30 or $50 US for her membership fee, I say fine. I will pay a membership fee too.

They say No, you don’t have to, you’re performing on panels.

And I say, I insist on the same treatment that my wife receives. If she pays, then I pay. And since you are charging us to attend, I will charge you my standard professional speaking fee, which is currently $700 US an hour, for every panel — and I will also recommend this solution to every other pro who is attending. (And any pro, no matter how new, can demand at least $100 US an hour for a professional speaking fee.)

One convention uninvited me, which was fine — they didn’t have to accept my offer any more than I had to accept theirs. The other three quickly changed their policy for pro panel participants and their spouses.

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QUESTION: My first novel has been out for seven months, and although I know my agent has sent it to all the countries where SF usually sells — England, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and so on — I haven’t made a single foreign sale. I don’t want to sound pompous, but I know it’s a good book, and I’ve got the reviews to prove it. What am I doing wrong?

ANSWER: Not a thing. Barring a mega-hit, no foreign publisher is going to buy your books and spend money promoting your name until they know you are not a flash-in-the-pan — and they won’t know that until your second and third and possibly even your fourth novel comes out. At that point, you’ll find that they are much more willing to add you to their lines — and they’ll do it with more than one title.

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QUESTION: Philip K. Dick was one of my very favorite writers. Recently I heard that there’s such a thing as the Philip K. Dick Award. How does one qualify for it? And, failing that, how does one vote for it?

ANSWER: The Phil Dick Award has been around for a couple of decades now. It’s given to the best paperback original, since so much of Phil’s stuff came out in paperback rather than hardcover. I don’t know the ins and out of it, but I know it’s a juried award, which means that the public can’t vote for it.

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QUESTION: Believe it or not, I’m getting from five to ten requests a week, all via e-mail, for my autographed photo. I don’t want to disappoint my fans (in truth I don’t have that many of them yet), but sending photos is getting expensive. What do I do — risk offending them or go broke trying to please them?

ANSWER: Yeah, we all get those requests via the net. I’m convinced they come from photo collectors who get our names from various web sites but that 90% or more haven’t read a word we’ve written.

I’ve found the easiest way to accommodate them without going broke is to find a nice photo of yourself, autograph it, scan it, and keep it on your hard drive as a .jpg file. Then, whenever you get an e-mail request for an autographed photo, send them the .jpg.

I suspect most of them are disappointed, but I could be wrong. At any rate, I’ve sent it over a thousand times now, and I’ve yet to receive a single complaint.

Interesting batch 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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