Ask Bwana #53

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

Readers of this column know that once upon a time I didn’t have much regard for writers’ workshops. Then I taught Clarion a few years back, and it completely changed my outlook. It was totally different from the workshops I’d previously experienced, and a hundred times more effective.

Conclusion: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. In all of its forms.

Readers of this column also know what I think about media books. I wrote a Battlestar: Galactica novelization back in 1980, and it was a horrible experience: it was the dumbest script I ever saw; I wrote the book in 4 days, and couldn’t have told you a week later what was in it . . . and of course it remains, to this day, the best-selling book I ever authored.

Okay, that was 23 years ago, and as you’ll find out sometime in late autumn or early winter, I’m trying it again.


Partially because I’m willing to see if my attitude has changed; after all, it changed about workshops. And partly because there comes a time in most writers’ careers when they face unusual circumstances that require unusual solutions. This was one of them.

In my case, it was a novel that Del Rey contracted some five years ago. I duly wrote it and handed it in — and very soon thereafter my editor was gone. The novel was structurally a very unusual book, and no one at Del Rey seemed to know quite what to do with it. They didn’t reject it, they didn’t accept it; it just sat there, without an editor and without a decision, day in and week out.

I write for my livelihood, and there came a point when I told my agent we needed to sell the damned thing and pay some bills, so she sent a copy to another mass market publisher, and in the fullness of time it was sold not only to that publisher, but to Easton Press, and to France, and to Russia, and to other countries, and then I signed some more contracts and wrote some more books and never thought about Del Rey again until last summer, when I came up with a proposal I thought was uniquely suited to them.

A few weeks later comes the word: there is an outstanding debt to be discussed before we buy anything.

You see, I had been paid half the advance (known as the signature advance, the part you get on signing the contract) for the novel I’d finally pulled back. I hadn’t been paid the acceptance half of the advance, because the book had never been accepted or rejected.

Through my agent I explain that I am not returning the signature advance, that the subsequent sale of the book here and abroad is sufficient proof that I delivered a saleable novel, and that if push comes to shove my lawyer can prove it.

No one’s going to sue anybody, it is gently explained to me; we’re just not going to buy anything from you until we clear up this matter.

I’m not writing a 175,000-word novel, filled with memorable characters, unique plot twists, and a brilliant felicity of expression for half my standard advance, says Resnick the Artiste.

Would you consider writing a Lara Croft book, they ask. It’ll be about half your usual length, and we can probably pay you more than half your usual advance — and that will settle the financial score between us. We’ll wipe out what you owe us.

Not interested, I say. I went to the movie, and despite Angelina Jolie’s tight t-shirts and 40-inch bosom I fell asleep after half an hour.

A different publisher owns the movie franchise, they reply. We have the game franchise.

Still no, I say; I’ve never played a computer game in my life. I wouldn’t begin to know how to novelize one.

Will you please shut up and listen, they say politely. We don’t want you to novelize any of the games.

Games, repeats Resnick the Non-Gamer; you mean there’s more than one?

Yes, they say. The current game ends with Lara, who is kind of a female Indiana Jones, buried in a tomb beneath the Temple of Horus. The next game, which comes out just before Christmas, begins ten months later, when she shows up, bitter and disillusioned, in Paris. We want you to write a novel that gets her from the tomb to Paris.

It could take her ten months to hitch a ride, I suggest; that would make anyone bitter and disillusioned.

We are not asking for a comic novel, they answer, looking something less than amused.

Hmmm, muses Resnick the World Traveler. I’ve been to the Temple of Horus; it’s in Edfu, a couple of hundred miles south of Cairo. And I’ve been to Paris half a dozen times. Can I use real hotels I’ve stayed at, restaurants I’ve eaten at, tented camps I’ve been to?

Yes, they say. That’s why we thought of you.

And I don’t have to study the movie or its sequel, or learn to play the game?

Right, they promise.

Do I have to use any other characters from the game besides Lara, I ask.

No, you don’t, they say.

The next day I come up with a plot. Can I have the story turn on the doings of some historical characters, like Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi, I ask.

If you want, they say.

So basically, I say carefully, you’re asking me to write an adventure novel that incorporates dozens of places I’ve been to, that lets the plot hinge on actual historical events, that doesn’t require me to see a movie or play a game or use anything that’s gone before, and that essentially lets me fictionalize some of my travel diaries?

Well, we wouldn’t have phrased it exactly that way, but yes, they answer.

Send me the contract, I say.

So, 23 years after my most distasteful literary experience (and that includes even my anonymous soft-core books from my starving-writer days), I’m once again writing a novel starring someone else’s character, a novel to which I will not own the copyright.

I’m enjoying myself so far — I’m about halfway through it — and it may well change some of my attitudes about media books, though it is not, by any reasonable definition, a screenplay or game novelization. What it really is is a way to make peace with a major publisher . . . and until writers find a different source of income, I believe in being on good terms with all publishers.

If I still like it when I’m done, you’ll know when I sign to write another. If I decide one was enough, at least I can walk up to Del Rey at some point in the future and pitch an authentic Resnick book.

It’s a tough field, and as this column has been pointing out for close to nine years now, you do what you have to do. If you can also enjoy it, so much the better.

2012 update: it was fun, but I decided that one was enough.

On to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Please take a few minutes to talk about how much money an author can expect to make on her first, second, and third novels. (I’m assuming the most usual situation is mass-market publication in paperback only; if this isn’t the case, please tell me what is.) I know the best case, where your runaway best-seller wins awards and gets made into a blockbuster movie, and I know the worst case, where your book vanishes in a month and the other two never see the light of day. I am more interested in the middle ground; what does the mythical average author make for those first three books?

ANSWER: That’s exactly the kind of question a beginner asks, and of course there’s no simple answer.

As recently as five years ago I’d have agreed that you were likely to sell only to mass market paperback, but things have changed. These days you’re almost as likely to sell to trade paperback, and even that depends on the publisher. If it’s TOR, for example, you’ve probably got am 80% chance of all three coming out first as hardcovers; if it’s Baen or DAW, your hardcover chances drop to perhaps 5% on a first novel, and DAW at least is equally reluctant to publish trade paperbacks.

Okay, you don’t really care about that, so let’s hypothesize money. These days an average pay for a first novel is $4,000 to $5,000 US — and since you’ll probably sign for two or three books at once, figure that’ll be the advance for each of them.

But you didn’t ask what the advance would be. You asked what you could expect to make from them . . . and that’s where we get into the real hypotheticals.

Hypothesis #1: the books bomb. You’ll get the advance and nothing else. And you find a new publisher after the third one comes out.

Hypothesis #2: the first book sells badly, the second even worse. You get a kill fee for the third and are sent packing with two novels to your credit, and maybe $9,000 to $12,000 US total for your trouble.

Hypothesis #3: the books are well-received and sell a shade above average. You probably won’t see more than $1,000 US apiece in royalties, if that . . . but eventually you’ll sell them (for beginner’s prices) to France ($2,500 US), Spain ($1,000 US), Germany ($2,500 US), Japan ($4,500 US), and maybe a couple of other countries. (England’s chancy these days, since American publishers get their books to British stores so fast — but if you can sell to a British publisher, add maybe another $4,000 US.) Take all the foreign monies and multiply by 3, since you’re selling 3 books — but spread the income out over 5 or 6 years, since most of them won’t touch you until they know you’re not a flash in the pan. (Got your calculator? Good. Now subtract 20% or 25% from the foreign total. You won’t sell those countries on your own, and both your foreign and domestic agents will take their cuts from it. And of course, if you have a domestic agent, slice 15% off the money you make in this country.)

Hypothesis #4: You have a foolish editor who pays you $200,000 US for your first novel (The Book of the Dun Cow), or you have a lucky and/or perceptive editor who pays you $250,000 US for your first book (your name is Terry Goodkind, and can you loan me $79,203.61 US until payday?).

But it’s not likely.

2012 update: the money hasn’t changed much, but these days trade paperback publication is on the increase, and mass market paperback on the decrease. Not by much, but the trend is visible.


QUESTION: I’m having a collection of short fiction published by a reputable small-press house. They use print-on-demand technology; what’s a good number of years to give them before I get my rights back?

ANSWER: These days almost all the publishers have access to print-on-demand technology. The difference is the small presses use print-on-demand from the outset, and the mass market houses print their tens of thousands up front and then use print-on-demand for re-orders.

It used to be that the standard reversion clause gave you back your book in five years unless it was still in print (or if the publisher wouldn’t reprint it within 6 months of your written demand that he do so). Print-on-demand technology has made that obsolete, since your publisher can print half a dozen copies overnight and thereby keep you in print forever at minimal cost. So I would say that what you want is not a reversion clause — they’re meaningless these days — but a term-of-lease clause that states that the book reverts to you on such-and-such a date come hell or high water, even if it’s riding atop the New York Times bestseller list at the time. 5 years seems reasonable; make it shorter if you can, because you can be sure your publisher will be trying to make it as long as he can.

2012 update: that drop-dead date for reversion is even more important today, since it costs a publisher absolutely nothing to keep an e-book in print for all eternity. I would think one of these years the Supreme Court will be considering exactly what “out of print” means.


QUESTION: What’s the best way to correct a fellow panelist at a convention when he gives a piece of advice that’s a) demonstrably not true and b) harmful if taken?

ANSWER: Politely. Especially if he has more experience than you and the audience knows it. And (this is very important) make sure you’re right. I’ve heard more bad advice from newcomers than you can believe, and your question makes me think you’re a newcomer, at least to conventions.


QUESTION: Please list the top X number — you, as usual, pick the X — ways to tell when it’s time to find a new agent.

ANSWER: Each of the following is a valid reason. They needn’t all occur.

1. Your agent bounces checks to you.

2. Your agent doesn’t pass money on to you in a timely manner.

3. Your agent isn’t well-connected overseas, which is where you will eventually make more than half your money.

4. Your agent refuses to answer your calls or e-mails.

5. Your agent will not answer direct questions concerning your career — such as: “Which publishers have seen my manuscript and where is it now?”

6. You agent shunts you off on a less-competent assistant. There’s no reason why they should learn at your expense.

7. Your agent does not submit to a particular editor or publisher after you expressly request it, and cannot give you an acceptable reason why.

8. Your agent rejects or accepts an offer — any offer, no matter how insulting or lucrative — without presenting it to you first.

9. You want to write in a new field, a field in which your agent has minimal knowledge and contacts.

10. Your agent demands a fee for reading your manuscript.

11. Your agent lies to you. About anything.

12. Personality conflict. If you and your agent can’t stand the sight of each other — and it happens, just as it happens in marriages — it’s time to leave.


QUESTION: I recently attended a panel in which Greg Bear was asked whether he thought media tie-in fiction was a good or bad way to get kids interested in reading SF. He seemed to think anything that got them reading was a Good Thing, and cited several encounters with Star Wars fans who could also talk about Melville and Twain as evidence. I know you’ve talked about this in the past but I’d like to hear it again, especially if your take has changed: is media fiction a threat or a blessing?

ANSWER: I used to think that every time a kid saw Mr. Spock or C3PO and picked up a book about them, we had a potential science fiction reader. But I think the record shows that what we mostly got were Trekbook and Wookiebook readers.

I won’t deny that there are so many of them that probably one in ten actually moves over and tries some legitimate science fiction, and that is unquestionably a Good Thing — especially given their numbers. But I think the staggering quantity of Trekbooks and Wookiebooks has knocked the midlist for a loop and kept some promising writers out of the marketplace, and that is a Bad Thing.

I do think, if you’re quoting Greg accurately, that his comment about Melville and Twain is a bit specious. For every one of them who’s read Twain and Melville, I’ll show you five who need a calculator to make change and ten who can’t find their state on a map.

This is an ongoing debate . . . but it’s a philosophical debate, not a practical one. The figures are in, and the war’s been won (or lost, depending on your point of view). Good, bad or indifferent, media books form a sizeable portion of our diminishing market (romance novels now account for more than half the published fiction), and they’re not going away. So we’d better hope that Greg is right.


QUESTION: I am a native of India, and have begun to sell my short fiction to markets in the United States. Are there any special precautions that “aliens” like myself should take before submitting to markets in the USA?

ANSWER: I can’t think of a single one.


QUESTION: How important are those brief encounters with editors and agents at large conventions? Will they really remember me if I send my manuscript in and refer to that time we met at MilPhil?

ANSWER: If you make a favorable impression, they’re very important. If you make no impression at all, they’re unimportant. And on the flip side, if you make an unfavorable impression, they’re also very important but not at all beneficial.

As for whether they remember you, it depends, again, on the impression you make. But it’s essential to meet them, if only to get an idea of what they want. (And remember: there’s no sense wasting their time telling them what you want to write. They’ll see it soon enough. You’re there to find out what they want to buy.)


QUESTION: I have a really hard time visualizing what my point-of-view characters look like, and an even harder one showing them to the reader. How do you do it without resorting to gimmicks like looking in a mirror or having one spear-carrier explain what the main guy looks like to the other?

ANSWER: There are half a dozen tricks. Now, understand, they’re just that — tricks. But they’ll work in a pinch, until you get a little better at it.

1. Have your viewpoint character look like someone you know.

2. Have him look like a supporting actor (not a lead that everyone will immediately recognize) from TV or the movies.

3. Make him a composite. In other words, make him look like Joe Namath but use Humphrey Bogart’s speech patterns. It’ll be harder for the reader to spot where you borrowed him from, and it’ll give you a surer hand for dialogue and reactions.

I repeat: these are tricks. It’s better to create characters who look, act, and think in ways that are unique to the author.


QUESTION: How important is it to hand in perfect, typo-free, error-free copy to an editor?

ANSWER: It makes a good impression, and of course if it’s filled with errors the editor will be less likely to buy it. But I’ve never known a good story to bounce because it had an occasional typo or misspelling.


QUESTION: I’ve heard you say more than once that the late Robert Bloch was your role model. How can that be? I don’t think you’ve ever written a horror story in your life, and that was his specialty.

ANSWER: Along with being my friend, Bob Bloch was my role model not as a writer, but as a professional, especially in his relationship with fandom. He never forgot that it was fans who paid his bills, and he rarely if ever said No to any fannish request, from speaking at conventions and fan gatherings to writing for fanzines. I’m sure I don’t live up to his example, but at least I’ve got an ideal to shoot for.

And I have written one horror story. It appeared in the final issue of Twilight Zone, from which you may draw whatever conclusion you choose.


QUESTION: Here’s an interesting quote from William Gibson’s web log: “When people are downloading your pirated texts for free, it means you’re already pretty widely distributed. I view downloading as a sort of natural, organic tax on reputation.” Comments, please?

ANSWER: It’s a very witty quote, which figures — Bill is a very witty guy. But when you get past the wit, we’re not talking about tax; we’re talking about stealing an author’s intellectual property, and I’ve yet to see a justifiable excuse or reason for it.

Nice bunch 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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