Ask Bwana #55

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — January, 2003

I just came back from the Worldcon in Toronto, and while I’ve heard moans and groans and prophecies of doom before, I have to say that it’s never been worse — or indeed anywhere near as bad — as this year.

There are always a few new writers who sold a book or two, thought they had a career, and found out that their sales weren’t good enough to warrant further contracts. There are always a couple of old pros who are bitching because they can’t get any more for a book now than they got seven or twelve years ago. There’s the even the occasional honest pro who admits that his advances have decreased because his sales have nose-dived.

That’s par for the course. But this year was different.

I ran into a lot of authors, established authors whose names you’d know, who can no longer make a living in science fiction. I ran into more than a handful who, after a decade or more in the field, simply cannot sell a book.

More frightening still, I ran into some editors who are suddenly living in daily fear that their publishing houses will be downsized and they’ll soon be looking for work.

In sum, I’ve never seen the field in this bad a shape.

2009 Update: Actually, things are much worse now. We’ve lost Amazing, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, Science Fiction Age, Warren Lapine’s first publishing empire, Realms of Fantasy (briefly), and F&SF is now bi-monthly. And Borders is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

2012 Update: Borders? Bankrupt!

That doesn’t mean that our superstars aren’t still selling; of course they are. But it does mean that a lot less people are making a living wage from science fiction than were doing so five years ago, or even last year.

How to cure the problem?

Well, I don’t know how to bring science fiction sales out of the doldrums—and neither does anyone else (like, for example, the publishers), or someone would be doing it.

But I do know that there are ways for established writers to keep making a living while beating time waiting for the field to come back — and for a change, that’s who this introductory essay is aimed at, rather than hopeful newcomers.

To coin a phrase, let me count the ways:

1. Find new sources of science fiction book income. They’re out there, not in quantity, but there — relatively new publishers, small presses that are getting larger, old houses that are willing to experiment with science fiction.

2. While we’re on the subject of small presses, a lot — as you know from this column — don’t pay front money. But more and more of them do. Hunt them down and see what you can sell them.

3. Remember that novels aren’t the only thing you can sell. If you’re having problems with mass market publishers, you’re certainly not going to sell them collections, but the small presses have been the best home for collections for more than half a century, and they’re still buying from established authors.

4. There’s a lot of work-for-hire going on these days: franchises, shared worlds, sharecrops, novelizations, adaptations. You won’t get rich on the royalties, since you’ll be getting much less than for a book to which you own the copyright, but the advances are usually better than beginners or even lower midlist writers get.

5. It won’t pay all your bills, Lord knows, but there’s money to be made selling short fiction to professional markets — and by Bwana’s definition, a professional market pays a minimum of a nickel ($0.05 US) a word, usually more. There are new publications — and newly-professional publications — out there that are paying as much as the traditional ones, and there are non-science-fiction magazines that have no problem buying the occasional science fiction story.

6. There are related fields to explore: horror, dark fantasy, and the burgeoning new realm of romantic fantasy.

7. There’s still a market, thanks to Tom Clancy, for well-written high-tech thrillers.

8. The Internet is still iffy, but there are always a few courageous e-publishers, usually start-up houses, that will spend coin of the realm.

9. Don’t overlook the audio market, which is getting larger all the time, and paying decent money for what are essentially reprint projects.

10. Be creative. And while I generally hate using personal examples, I’ll use some here. In the past three years, in addition to novels and short story collections, I’ve sold a book composed of 55 of my fanzine articles; a book composed of 61 of my professional articles dating back to the late 1960s; a book of first and final drafts of stories (a “how-to” book on revising and polishing); a book of all my travel diaries and a few travel articles I’d sold previously; and a book collecting the first seven years of my “Ask Bwana” columns. When you consider the subject matter of each, I’d almost have been willing to bet that none of them (except maybe the last one) could possibly sell, yet they all did. Like I say, be creative.

11. Diversify. Every science fiction writer has some subject of expertise other than science fiction. Josepha Sherman sells books on folklore. Jack Nimersheim sells computer books. Barbara Hambly sells mystery novels. Ralph Roberts sells collectors guides. Rudy Rucker sells books on math. Karen Taylor sells erotica. Catherine Asaro sells romances. Kristine Kathryn Rusch sells mystery and romance novels. I edit books on Africa and sell articles on horse racing.

You simply have to make the effort to find new sources of income — sometimes in wildly unlikely places — that can replace the temporarily closed spigots of your mass market publishers. The work — and the money — is there for the aggressive writer who goes looking for it. As an established writer, it’s probably a little less than you want or are used to . . . but if you’re one of the hundred or more disenfranchised souls I spoke to at Worldcon, it’s more than you’re getting, and it can help pay your bills until the science fiction market comes back to life.

2012 update: audio has become a large, if not huge market; there’s good money to be made e-oublishing your backlist; and any given day there are 15 to 20 e-zines paying pro rates.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Once upon a time, country music became a huge retail category because of a thing called SoundScan, which proved that a lot more people were buying country music than retailers thought. A sister product called Bookscan went live in 2001, and it was supposed to prove that genre fiction was a huge untapped market. Any word yet on whether it’s working?

ANSWER: Well, we’ve learned that genre fiction is a huge untapped market — but that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional genre fiction, like science fiction, mysteries and Westerns. A few years ago it was accepted wisdom that science fiction was about 15% of the fiction market and romance was perhaps 30%; it turns out that science fiction is 7% and romance is a bit over 50%.

The most interesting thing we’ve learned is that on any given day, three or four of the Top Ten fiction sellers are Christian fiction, none of which have ever appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. (Okay, so the New York Times has a lot of credibility problems — but these books don’t make the Publisher’s Weekly list either.)

2009 Update: And yes, Bookscan is working, and is relied upon throughout the undustry.


QUESTION: You’ve already told us your favorite method to get people to come to your readings — give away the autographed manuscript when you’re through reading and let people know in advance that you’re going to do it. But how do you choose what to read so your audience doesn’t get restless?

ANSWER: Okay, here are Resnick’s Rules For Readings (which I just codified about 20 seconds ago):

1. Never read from a novel. You waste too much time telling the audience what came before the part you’re reading.

1A. There’s an exception. Begin reading on Page 1.

2. Read first-person narratives. You get rid of a ton of useless and redundant “he saids” and “she saids,” which are acceptable in printed form but not when reading aloud.

3. Try to read humorous pieces. The audience relaxes more with humor, and pays closer attention because they don’t want to miss the next funny line.

4. Unless you’re reading an award-quality story, try to limit it to 3,500 or 4,000 words, tops. The same audience that will get restless with an acceptable but not outstanding 6,000-worder will sit comfortably through a trio of 2,000-worders.

5. If you don’t have a microphone, make sure they can all hear you.

6. This seems so basic it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I’ve seen established pros screw it up, so . . . Always check before you read to make sure your manuscript isn’t missing any pages, that your printer didn’t run out of ink halfway through the process, that you have your reading glasses (if you need them), that you have a glass of water nearby. In other words, do everything you can in advance to make sure things will go smoothly.


QUESTION: So okay, you hate science fiction films (or so I gather from the last issue). Are there any science fiction movies you like? Any fantasy movies? Horror?

ANSWER: I don’t hate all science fiction films. I just hate most of them — especially when they get away with blunders that no editor in the field would let you or me get away with.

The ones I like?

Forbidden Planet. The Road Warrior — aka: Mad Max 2. Them. Charly. Dr. Strangelove. 2001. A Clockwork Orange. Maybe one or two more. That’s not much for over half a century (especially if you subtract Stanley Kubrick,) but on the other hand, it’s not my fault.

Fantasy movies? The best of them are far superior, and I tend to like at least eight or ten of them more than any of the science fiction ones. Field of Dreams. Harvey. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. Portrait of Jennie. Fantasia. Something Wicked This Way Comes. All That Money Can Buy. All That Jazz. I’m no Tolkien fan, but I’d have to say the two recently-released ones were done about as well as I think they can be done, and I’m sure the third will be no exception. (If They Might Be Giants and Black Orpheus are fantasies, and after decades I’m still not sure if they are, then add them to the list. Hell, move them to the top of the list.)

Horror? None. I don’t believe in the premises. Also, of late “horror” has become synonymous with “gross-out,” a variety of cinema (and literature) I enjoy even less than traditional horror.


QUESTION: How hard does someone have to work to convince you that a story you’ve given them is going in the wrong direction? How do you know when a critique is valid?

ANSWER: If it makes sense to you, it’s probably valid. If you disagree but it makes sense to the first few people you show the story to (or the first few editors), it’s almost certainly valid. If you absolutely cannot sell the story to a pro market, then something is wrong with it, and you might as well start by considering that the critique has some meaningful points to make.


QUESTION: Is it possible to break in with a stand-alone novel, or must everything be trilogies and series nowadays?

ANSWER: It’s still possible, just harder. In fact, breaking in is hard enough these days no matter what you write — but editors and publishers are always on the lookout for series, simply because they have a ready-made audience (assuming the first one sells well), and because series books tend to stay on the racks longer.


QUESTION: How much difference does an editor make to an established writer? Are they really just purchasing agents, or are they the literary descendants of Maxwell Perkins?

ANSWER: I think they fall somewhere between purchasing agents and Max Perkins. I suppose it depends on the manuscript, the writer, and the editor. After a third of a century and a bunch of awards, I pretty much know what I’m doing and most editors pretty much leave me alone . . . but I recently wrote a novel in a field that I hadn’t messed with in 23 years — that of work-for-hire with someone else’s copyrighted character, which I mentioned in issue #53 — and my editor at Del Rey, Steve Saffel, made half a dozen suggestions . . . not in the writing, at which I’m pretty competent, but on the outline, where I really wasn’t that cognizant of who my audience was, and I am convinced it became a much better and more commercial book because of Steve’s input.


QUESTION: I recently bought The Science Fiction Professional, which consists of the first seven years of your “Ask Bwana” columns. In fact, it seems to have missed this year’s Hugo ballot by just a vote or two. Do you plan to sell a second “Ask Bwana” collection after another seven years?

ANSWER: If Speculations lasts another couple of years, and I last another couple of years, yes, there will probably be another “Ask Bwana” collection, but it won’t be as thick. Interesting though it’s been, I really doubt that I’ll be writing this column for 14 years.


QUESTION: I’ve recently returned to college, and I’ve noticed that my fiction output has dropped to zilch. Any advice for someone trying to balance school with writing?

ANSWER: I suppose I should send you to talk to my daughter, who just went back to college at age 41 with a few novels under contract. (No, I don’t know how she’s balancing it either.)

The only encouragement I can give you, and I think most full-time writers will agree with this, is that when you go from part-time to full-time you think you’ll become three times as productive, but in truth you’re lucky if your production increases as much as 30%. You walk the dog, go out shopping, mow the lawn, vacuum the floors, get gas for the car, take out the garbage, catch up on your reading, do more thorough research, and so on. When you cherish and protect your writing time, when you know you’ve only got two or three hours a day to write, you sit down and you write.

If it means enough to you, you’ll find the time.


QUESTION: How much work do you get done while traveling? Any tips for maximizing word count while on the road?

ANSWER: Unless I’m facing an imminent deadline from an unforgiving editor, I don’t write on the road. I go on the road to get away from writing. I have no tips at all, except that it’s essential you be comfortable with your laptop. (I’m not; I still use a Northgate keyboard, with the function keys on the left where God meant them to be, on my desktop, and a very old word-processing program — Easywriter II, which was off the market by 1987 — that uses all those function keys . . . so I’m not truly at ease when writing for any serious length of time on my laptop. E-mail is easy on the laptop; books and stories are not. In fact, if I know I have to produce more than a few pages on the road, I’ll pack a spare Northgate in my luggage.)

2012 Update: I finally gave in and started using Microsoft Word about 6 years ago. I still use my Northgate keyboard, though . . . and I have five more in my closet, enough to last me the rest of my life. I also find that I have so many writing commitments these days that I do write on the road, and have been doing so for about a decade.


QUESTION: What would you say to a talented writer who swore that he did his best work while high on marijuana? Do drugs and alcohol hurt prose quality as much as I think they do, or should I just quit worrying about it and let him dig his own grave?

ANSWER: If he’s deluded enough to think that he functions better under the influence of drugs and booze, almost every study to the contrary, you might as well quit worrying about it because you’ll never convince him otherwise. On the plus side, that’s one less serious competitor for you to worry about.


QUESTION: Given two absolutely inflexible deadlines and not enough time to make them both, what should I do? How should I choose the one I’m not going to make?

ANSWER: I can’t believe this isn’t a fake question. Or if it’s real, then I can’t believe you signed with two close inflexible deadlines, which means you’ve been loafing until both deadlines approached, and now you have to pay the price.

The only logical answer — other than to tell you to stop running your career like an idiot while you still have a career to run — is to tell you to make the more economically important deadline. (Not necessarily the highest-paying one, but the one where a pissed-off editor can do you the most damage in the future.)


QUESTION: Who are the best X number — you, as usual, pick the X — of speculative fiction writers that I’ve never heard of, and why?

ANSWER: Some — hardly all — of the best to come along lately, and hence most likely to be those you haven’t heard of, would be Kay Kenyon, Susan Matthews, Michael Burstein, Janis Ian, Toby Buckell, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tom Gerencer.

2009 Update: You know something? They’re all still good . . . but most of them aren’t exactly unknown anymore.

2012 Update: Add John Scalzi, Naomi Novak, Elizabeth Bear, Lezli Robyn, Brad R. Torgersen, Laurie Tom, and half a dozen more to the list.

Among the older ones — and again, I don’t know how well read you are — there are some fine writers who fall short of the superstar category and include James M. Schmitz, Chad Oliver, Katherine MacLean, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore (about every other day she’s my favorite of them all), Murray Leinster, Leigh Brackett, Frank M. Robinson, William Tenn (who’s just been rediscovered by Worldcon), Eric Frank Russell, Fredric Brown, and Cyril M. Kornbluth. (Russell, Brown, Schmitz, Oliver, Tenn, Leinster and Kornbluth are currently available in omnibus volumes from NESFA Press.)

Why have you never heard of them? Beats me.

Why are they on the list? Because they’re good.


QUESTION: I’ve sold my first novel and two sequels. Given that the first needs a rewrite, the second has an opening chapter and an outline, and the third is just a query letter, what would be a reasonable amount of time to ask for to complete all three?

ANSWER: Insufficient data. If you were Mickey Spillane of 1946, Bob Silverberg of 1967, or Barry Malzberg of 1973, I’d say you could knock off all three in two weeks. If you were Algis Budrys of 1965, Peter S. Beagle of 1975, or John Varley of 1985, then you’re probably looking at more than a decade. It all depends on you. And your work habits. And the wordage the contract calls for.


QUESTION: May we please have Bwana’s take on the state of the horror novel industry? Expanding, collapsing, or holding steady, and why?

ANSWER: If you include Dark Fantasy, which is just a marketing term anyway, I think it’s probably holding steady. There was quite a boom 25 years ago, but these days Stephen King doesn’t write horror books, he writes Stephen King books. Ditto for Peter Straub, the two names that, along with Clive Barker, pulled the horror field into its own marketing category. (Yes, of course, Lovecraft wrote category horror — but prior to King and Straub and Barker, the only publisher that marketed horror as a separate and regular category was Arkham House, a small press.)


QUESTION: In your experience, is it true that writers are crazier than the norm? If so, should I view my daughter’s ambition to be a writer with alarm? What did you do when you found out you were raising a writer?

ANSWER: I think writers are perhaps a little less worldly and a little more socially maladroit than the norm — that could have something to do with choosing to work alone for long hours every day — but I don’t think they’re necessarily any crazier. I’ve never met a horseplayer who wasn’t convinced he was going to win every time he made a bet; I don’t know a lot of writers who think that the possibility of rejection doesn’t exist.

I had no idea I was raising a writer. Neither did My Daughter The Writer. She studied acting in England after graduating college, and only began writing after taking a job in Sicily as a teacher. I am thrilled that she’s won awards in science fiction, romance, and travel, and that she outsells me more often than not — but when she was in her early twenties, I don’t think writing for a living ever crossed her mind.

2012 Update: Nepotism is the best potism, so let me plug Laura Resnick’s current spate of novels from DAW: Disappearing Nightly, Dopplegangsters, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, and Polterheist.


QUESTION: You’ve edited something like 35 anthologies. How come you’ve never edited a magazine?

ANSWER: No one’s ever asked me to.

2009 Update: Until I met the nice people at Jim Baen’s Universe, anyway.

Well, no one in the science fiction field. I’ve edited tabloids and men’s magazines and paperbacks in my starving-writer (or is it starving-editor?) days, and these days I edit lines of African and worldwide adventure reprints, but the only science fiction editing I’ve done so far is for the anthology market. I think I’d enjoy editing a magazine for a few years — but like I say, no one’s asked me. So far, anyway.

2012 Update: Starting earlier this year, I’ve been editing the Stellar Guild line of original trade paperbacks for Arc Manor.

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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