Ask Bwana #58

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

Okay, you’ve sold your first (or second, or third) novel, and you’re not merely proud of it, you know deep in your heart that it deserves a major award . . . and so you decide to campaign for one.

You survey the field and realize that the Hugo is all but impossible to campaign for. Too many voters, and every facet of the voting is secret, whereas the Nebula can be won with far fewer votes, and you only need ten recommendations from fellow SFWAns to make the preliminary ballot. Hell, if the right ten recommend you, ten of the most popular and influential writers, you’re a cinch to make the ballot, right?

So how do you do about it?

Well, I suppose if you send every member of SFWA a copy of your new hardcover with a note suggesting they might recommend it for a Nebula if they like it, you’re probably going to get on the preliminary ballot. After all, it costs nothing to recommend a book; a member can recommend 300 a year if he’s so inclined . . . and if he recommends a guy who sends him a $26.95 US hardcover that he can trade in to his local bookstore, why, the guy might send another next year. (There was a time when the best thing about SFWA, other than the Grievance Committee, was that the membership got free monthly mailings from various mass market publishers . . . enough to more than cover your dues if you re-sold them or traded them in.)

The operative question is this: is it worth $32,340 US (1,200 members times a $26.95 US hardcover) to be a Nebula nominee? Of course not. Even if you get the book at a 50% author’s discount, is it worth $16,170 US (plus postage; never forget postage) to make the ballot?

I don’t care how great your ego is, and I don’t care how gullible your editor and publisher are, the answer is still a resounding No.

2009 Update: I gather the Nebula process will be changing next year, but I’m not sure how.

2013 Update: It has indeed changed, eliminating the Preliminary Ballot step. Now the 5 stories with the most nominations make the ballot, period.

Short fiction? Well, that’s a different ball game. For years the digests sent copies of all nominated stories to the voters; then came the internet, and now they post them online. But that’s all after the fact; no one’s posting every story that was published during the year so the voters can read it for free. So you’re looking at sending out 1,200 copies of a $3.95 US magazine to hopefully make the ballot. Is it worth just under $5,000 US (don’t forget postage) to lose to Connie Willis or Michael Swanwick? (Remember: if you’ve got an outstanding, award-quality story, you don’t need to campaign just to make the ballot.)

So much for campaigning.

Now let’s be perfectly honest. We live in a microcosm of writers and editors and fans, and the man or woman with a few Nebulas or Hugos to his or her credit verges upon superstardom.

But walk out the door of the hotel right after you’ve won one of those wonderful awards, and ask the first hundred people you see if they know what a Hugo or a Nebula is.

I guarantee that their answers will make you humble.

Okay, let’s take a look at this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Print is becoming harder and harder to produce, while electronic publication seems to be coming on strong. I know novels will be around for quite a bit longer, but how long do you give hardcopy SF magazines to live?

ANSWER: Print is easier and easier to produce. You typeset from the writer’s disk, you can come up with the exact number of Print on Demand copies you need, color printing is less expensive, and cetera. None of which has to do with the longevity of the magazines. I truly fear for the digests; their numbers have been dropping precipitously for years now. Hopefully new approaches and formats, such as Argosy and the resurrected Amazing are trying, will work, but I wouldn’t be surprised — depressed, yes; but surprised, no — to see all the current magazines except perhaps Analog out of business within a decade. In fact, I hope they last that long. But the problem has a lot more to do with cost and distribution than with printing.

2009 Update: Well, Argosy and Amazing didn’t even last a year, and the digests sales have continued their downward trajectory. The hopeful sign is that as I write these words, there are 18 magazines paying what SFWA considers to be a professional rate — and 14 of them are electronic. Some will die — but we had only one pro e-market a decade ago — and new e-zines will come along to replace the fallen.

2013 update: But — aha! — Asimov’s and Analog are solvent now, thanks, of all things, to e-supscriptions.

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QUESTION: Have you ever had an idea that you chose not to write because you thought it wouldn’t sell? How much thought to market conditions do you give before you start working on something?

ANSWER: Hell, yes — hundreds of them. Some are uncommercial. Some are commercial in someone else’s hands, but play to my weaknesses rather than my strengths. Some are the right ideas at the wrong time. (Example, from the musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim wrote a brilliant musical called Assassins, a mosaic of all the men and women who have assassinated, or tried to assassinate, the various presidents. It was workshopped off-Broadway to rave reviews, and was scheduled to open on Broadway in 1991. Then came the Gulf War, and they shelved it on the assumption that no one wanted to watch a play with that subject matter during a war. They revived it in 2001, and were set to open in October — and along came September 11. It’s finally playing, 14 years after it was initially scheduled.)

How much thought do I personally give to market conditions? Almost none. I don’t write a novel without a contract, so I know I’m not going to waste months writing a book that no editor will buy. The worst that can happen is that I’ll write a brief novel proposal that no one will buy — and on the few occasions that has happened, I’ve just put it aside until editors or conditions changed. (I did it with The Branch, a rather blasphemous novel about the true Messiah, and with a couple of others that I eventually sent and sold to receptive editors.)

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QUESTION: How’s that Lara Croft book doing? Are you going to do any more? Would you have done anything differently?

ANSWER: I have no idea how it’s doing. I see it everywhere, but I haven’t received any royalty reports yet. (It’s only been out 5 months as I write this.)

I don’t know if I’m going to do any more. First, someone has to ask me. Second, the money has to be right. Third, I have to have room in my schedule. Fourth, I have to want to do it. It’s the total opposite of writing one of your own novels, where you propose and the editor decides; on a work for hire, the editor proposes and the writer decides.

2009 Update: Right after my Lara Croft novel (based on the games, not the movies — cane out, and two more had been assigned to other writers, the new Lara Croft game came ou . . . and bombed. And that was the end of the books.

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QUESTION: I keep reading how books and stories get optioned, but I never see the movies. How many books can Hollywood buy without making any before they go broke?

ANSWER: Well, there’s the rub. Hollywood isn’t buying any of them; they’re optioning them. When you read that a property was optioned for “5 figures against a pick-up fee of $600,000 US” nobody’s paid anyone $600,000 US. What it means is that the author probably got a $10,000 US option, renewable once. Now the owner of that option has two years to scare up some development money — a few hundred thousand, enough to pay his expenses and his trip to Tahiti and hire a journeyman screenwriter for $150,000 US or so — and still the $600,000 US doesn’t change hands. That happens on the first day of principal photography . . . and for every movie that gets that far, 300 to 500 properties are optioned.

A little less impressive now, isn’t it?

2013 update: let me expand upon that a little. The average science fiction film costs about $50 million US to make, even with CGI getting cheaper by the day. (A Princess of Mars cost over $200 million US.) Let’s say a studio or major production company options a book a day for an entire year. That’s 365 times $10,000 US (and a lot of books by beginners option for less), or $3,650,000 US. That’s lunch money in Hollywood. Better to eat the $3,650,000 US and make nothing at all, than to make A Princess of Mars and lose a couple of hundred million US. (“But it grossed over $100,000,000 US!” I hear you yell. Yep, sure did. But the theaters didn’t show it for free, the labs didn’t make 3,000 copies for free, and hundreds of newspapers and magazines didn’t advertise it for free.) Anyway, think about it: if a publisher had to spend 8 figures — all to the left of the decimal point — everytime he went to press with a book, how many books did you think you’d see in the course of a year?

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QUESTION: I need a few words to say to several members of my writers’ group, who are trying to egg each other into self-publishing their novels via print on demand. I think this is a really bad idea; at least one of these novels is easily good enough to sell for real. What can I say to dissuade them?

ANSWER: Just quote Bwana, who addresses this subject at least once a year. A self-published book is a public declaration that it wasn’t good enough to compete and sell in the commercial marketplace, and the very best thing that can happen to the writer’s career is for it to tank so quickly and completely that no legitimate editor ever knows it existed.

2013 update: let’s change that to “A self-published hardcover or paperback book”. Publishing a new novel as an e-book is usually a poor career decision, but there’s so much bad advice on the internet these days that it is not quite the same declaration of umprofessionalism as publishing a physical book at your own expense.

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QUESTION: I’ve sold a horror novel and a science fiction novel to two different publishers under two different names. Both are eighteen months or more away from publication, but I want to manage my eventual career with as much foresight as possible. My agent says there are advantages and disadvantages to working under two names, but I don’t understand her explanations. Can you please shed a little light?

ANSWER: I should let your agent explain the advantages, since I fall strongly on the disadvantage side of the ledger.

The major advantage, in the arguments of the practice’s supporters, is that since books in different categories don’t print the same amount, a poorer sale in one category will show up on the distributor’s computer and automatically cause him to lower the order on your other book. Another reason would be that neither of those publishers wants to pour money into building your name if it’s going to accrue to the benefit of a rival publisher. These days the reason I hear most often is that it will confuse and disappoint your readers if they pick up a book with your name on it and it’s not what they expect.

I think the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages.

Let’s take an example. Author X had sold some science fiction, has even built a bit of a following. He sells a fantasy novel as Y, so as not to give his loyal readers something they’re not anticipating. Then he sells a mystery short story as Z. And a Western novel as Q. And now he’s considering selling a mystery novel as M. (Why M? It’s a “cozy” mystery, and his short story, written as Z, was colder and bleaker than James Ellroy.)

Brilliant planning? I think not.

Let’s remember: he has a bit of a following as X. Enough so they might buy a few thousand copies of the fantasy he wrote as Y — but they don’t know he wrote it, and they’re disinclined to spend $6.99 on a paperback by a new and unknown author.

Let’s say his SF and his fantasy both get great reviews. There’s absolutely no carryover to his mysteries or his Western. Even within the mystery field, the people who liked his Z story have no reason to look at his M novel, and vice versa.

In other words, what begins as a (usually) futile attempt to fool the distributor frequently ends in a (usually) successful attempt, however inadvertent, to trick the reader — almost always to the writer’s detriment.

The other half of the argument for changing your name is that even within the same category print runs differ considerably, and a low print run on an anthology or collection or small-press book will hurt your print run and distribution on a mass market novel. I don’t buy it. A nine-year-old kid can tell the difference between a collection and a novel, or between Meisha Merlin or Wildside Press on one hand, and TOR or Baen on the other, so why should you assume a distributor can’t?

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QUESTION: Is there a sure-fire method to removing all traces of the passive voice from one’s manuscript? If so, what is it?

ANSWER: The best way is to read it aloud, even in an empty room. You’ll find things reading aloud that got past you when you edited and polished it.

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QUESTION: Do you have any control over who translates your books when you sell to a foreign publisher?

ANSWER: You can’t write it into the contract (after all, what if the translator you specify is busy or uninterested? Why blow a sale over that?) but you can certainly request a translator, and most times the publisher will do what he can to accommodate you.

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QUESTION: Some years back at the Nebula Awards, I recall hearing with some alarm that “participatory fiction” ranging from Choose Your Own Adventure books to full-fledged adventure games were going to take over genre fiction, and we as writers had best dedicate ourselves to learning how to build them. Whatever happened to this bold prediction?

ANSWER: Beats me. When you find it, say hello to the guy who made the prediction. He’ll be easy to spot, wearing a leisure suit and driving an Edsel.

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QUESTION: I notice that most established writers have their own corporations. Why? Is it because of potential lawsuits?

ANSWER: No. Very few people sue science fiction writers for what they say. You get a lot of deductions as a corporation that you don’t get as an individual: you can write off your health insurance, your car lease, no end of things. Also, you can save a lot on your self-employment tax (a synonym for FICA and Medicare taxes for the self-employed.) Let’s say you make $50,000 US this year. If you’re unincorporated, you’ll pay income tax, but you’ll also pay about 15% — $7,500 US — in self-employment tax. Now let’s take the same situation, except that you’re working for your own SubChapter S corporation, and your salary is $10,000 US a year, to make the math easy. You still pay federal and state income tax on $50,000 — but your FICA and Medicare payments are 15% of $10,000 rather than of $50,000, a tidy savings of $6,000.

There are many other advantages as well, including (especially) pension plans. Talk to a CPA or an attorney and they’ll lay it out for you.

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QUESTION: What’s the best day job for a science fiction writer?

ANSWER: Seriously? Housewife or househusband, absolutely. Failing that, I would say any job where you don’t have to sit at a keyboard all day, as that makes you disinclined to sit at one for four or five more hours after you get home.

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QUESTION: It seems like it would be easy to produce recorded fiction; why isn’t there an original audiobooks market?

ANSWER: Because no one will buy it. The internet is filled with unpublishable trash by hopeful writers, but at least you can wade through it for free. Cassettes and CDs cost money to produce, package and distribute, so they have to charge — usually as much or more than a paperback by a bestselling author. Now be honest: would you spend $20 or $30 US on a book by an unknown SF writer when you could buy a pile of paperbacks by Willis, Kress, Haldeman and Card for the same price?

2009 Update: there is now, finally, a viable audiobooks market — and it’s going to stay around. Amazon bought Audible.com for something like $300 million US, so you know it’s not going away. And there’s Blackstone and a number of others, plus all the various podcasts of various lengths (and various quality). This market had been around for years, but it became non-trivial about three years ago, and it looks like it’s only going to get bigger.

2013 update: Yup, got bigger — much bigger. And Audible.com just paid top dollar for Rip-Off, an original audio anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and featuring John Scalzi, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, James Patrick Kelly, myself, a number of others. If it makes money, you can bet the farm there’ll be a lot more.

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QUESTION: How firm a line do you draw between being a pro and being a fan? If you had the time and friends in fandom asked you to do it, would you ever be on a convention committee? How about doing a fanzine, electronic or otherwise? Would visible fannish activities help or hinder my quest to be a full-time pro?

ANSWER: I don’t draw any line. Science fiction has been my life (well, most of it, anyway), and I am both a full-time pro and a full-time fan. I have worked on committees as a pro. I have published fanzines while working as a pro. In the past five years I have contributed articles to Challenger (every issue), Lan’s Lantern (every issue), Fosfax, Sleight of Hand, Mimosa (most issues), and more than a dozen others. I go to almost every bi-weekly meeting of the venerable Cincinnati Fantasy Group. I used to spend a lot of time in Orlando in the 1990s; I never missed a club meeting when I was there.

Has all this fannish activity hampered my career? Well, close to 100 books and 200 stories into it, I’d have to say No. More to the point, it’s brought me enormous pleasure and most of my friends. If I knew I could never sell another word of science fiction, I’d still be a fan.

Now, that’s my personal take on it. I’m in fandom because I always have been and always will be a fan. Some pros cut off all ties with fandom once they start selling, some even seemed ashamed of having been fans. It makes no difference to their careers.

So in answer to your question, I don’t think visible fannish activities help or hinder your quest to be a full-time pro. But if you’re going to engage in fannish activities, it had better be because you enjoy them. Fans can spot a phony as quickly as anyone else, and fandom has a long collective memory.

See you next issue.

Only one more Ask Bwana column left to post, folks. Get those questions in.

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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