Ask Bwana #59

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

The crystal has been cloudy for a couple of years, but it’s finally beginning to clear. The field has been in the doldrums. Advances (in many cases) are down. The average print run is down. Science fiction, which for years was what this field was all about, has become a poor cousin to generic fantasy series. A mass market field that had 17 distinct and separate science fiction programs a quarter-century ago just lost another one (Roc, which was assimilated by Ace), and is down to only Tor, Del Rey, Bantam, Eos, Ace, Baen and DAW — and since Del Rey and Bantam are owned by the same German company, you don’t have to be a genius to see what’s coming down the road.

But you know what? There are more readers and book buyers today than ever before, and America has always been an entrepreneurial society — so a number of small presses have stepped up to fill the gap.

Small presses have always existed in science fiction. They have a long and honorable history, dating back to Arkham House, Fantasy Press, Hadley Publishing, and Gnome Press — but while they were honorable, they were never lucrative, at least not to the writers. There were still small presses when I broke in, and if you were lucky you might — just might — get $1,000 or $1,500 US for your hardcover, approximately the same advance a beginning writer got right after the end of World War II.

Move the clock ahead, and we got NESFA Press, which has continued to grow and is turning out the most important line of books in the field, with hardcover print runs that rival the New York publishers — but they’re strictly a reprint house, preserving classic science fiction. Other top houses like Phantasia Press and Pulphouse fell by the wayside, and suddenly there were still more small presses, but they were paying zip, nothing but royalties, and before long most of them were doing print on demand, all but guaranteeing that you’d never see much in the way of royalties.

But then the doldrums hit the mass market, and suddenly the small presses began changing. In fact, a lot of them are medium presses now, if I can coin a term. They’re names that for the most part didn’t exist a decade ago, names like Meisha Merlin and Pyr and Phobos Impact and Golden Gryphon and Monkeybrain. A number of them pay five digits to established writers, which was unheard of for any small press five years ago. A BenBella trade paperback distributed 24,000 copies last year, and as I write these words a Meisha Merlin book is on the Locus bestseller list.

2009 Update: Okay, we lost Meisha Merlin and Phobos Impact…but we added Tachyon and Night Shades and Subterranean and others…and for the most part they still treat their writers better than New York mass market houses, which is one of the ways they get those writers to begin with, and one of the ways they keep them.

Some of them will founder and go under. It’s not tragic, except for the owner. This is a Darwinian field. A lot of mass market houses founder and go under too; when’s the last time you saw a science fiction title from Dell, or Playboy Press, or Fawcett, or Gold Medal, or Tower, or Belmont, or Lancer, or Paperback Library, or Jove, or Pyramid?

But some mass market houses survived and thrived, and it seems inevitable that some medium presses will do the same (and some small presses will become medium presses). As long as the mass market reflects the taste of only a small handful of editors, as long as three-quarters of the mass market paperbacks seem indistinguishable from one another on the stands, then there’s no question that the medium press is answering a need and will find its audience.

I think it’s the first positive step in quite a while, and I applaud it.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

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QUESTION: Please look into your crystal ball and tell us the net effect of Gardner Dozois’s departure from Asimov’s? World-shaking? Or just a big round of applause when Stan Schmidt finally wins a Hugo for Best Professional Editor?

ANSWER: Sheila Williams is not as bombastic or charismatic as Gardner — hell, Madonna isn’t as bombastic and charismatic as Gardner — but she’ll be just about as good an editor. She’s been working for Asimov’s since 1982, has been the managing editor since long before I started selling there, and her tastes are very similar to Gardner’s.

2013 update: Sheila has won the last two Best Editor Hugos, and has bought more Hugo-nominated stories than any other editor over the past decade.

I persist in thinking the magazines — all the magazines — are in trouble. I don’t know how you can read the yearly figures in Locus, see the 12-year downward trajectory for every title, and not think so. But I really don’t think Gardner’s departure will either hasten the death of the magazines or breathe new life into them. In the meantime, I sold Gardner the last story he bought before leaving, and sold Sheila one of the first that she bought, and I know a number of Asimov’s regulars are also finding very little difference in their reception there.

2013 update: the good news is that Asimov’s and Analog are profitable again, thanks to selling digital subscriptions via the internet.

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QUESTION: I’ve read several online accounts from people who’ve “dared to write poorly” and have completed a novel in under a month. (No, none have sold . . . but their authors have gone on to sell novels afterwards.) What’s your take on the Novel Dare?

ANSWER: I think it’s foolish if it forces a writer — especially a new writer who hasn’t turned technique into instinct yet — to write faster than he should.

That said, I have to point out that there are some writers who are simply that fast, and their work doesn’t suffer for it. Barry Malzberg wrote a number of stellar novels in a week or less back in the 1970s. Back when I was learning my craft and collaborating with Paul Neimark in the late 1960s, we wrote (and yes, sold) a 50,000-word “adult” novel in a single (very long) day. Mickey Spillane used to regularly grind out bestsellers in a week or two. Walter Gibson wrote a Shadow novel every two weeks for years. So it can be done — but to do it on a dare is idiotic. Don’t forget that for every example I just gave you, there’s also a genius like J. D. Salinger who was satisfied with a paragraph a day (but it was a hell of a paragraph).

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QUESTION: Assuming it gets zero advance buzz, how long can I expect my first paperback novel to remain on the shelves?

ANSWER: Depends which store you’re talking about. It didn’t used to; you could count on 4 hours at an airport and maybe 5 to 8 weeks in a bookstore .. . . but that was before the era of the Barnes and Borders superstore. These days even unheralded first novels can stick around a few months, simply because the superstores are desperate for product to fill their seemingly endless shelves. In a science fiction specialty store (and we’re fast running out of them) you might stick around for a year or more. In an independent bookstore, you’re probably back to 5 to 8 weeks. (But you’ll be available on the Amazon and Barnes web sites until your publisher pulps the book in a few years.)

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QUESTION: I’ve been asked to appear on a breaking-in panel at a con. How would a writer know when she was “established” enough to be comfortable answering questions from new writers?

ANSWER: I’ve yet to meet a writer of any accomplishment, great or small, who wasn’t egomaniacal enough to think he could handle every question any hopeful writer could put to him. I’d say if the convention thinks you’re capable of answering the questions, you probably are — and since even beginners can tell when you’re faking it and treading water, if you don’t know the answer to a question, just admit it. I suppose one way to know if you’re ready is to read the last few Ask Bwana columns and see if you could answer most of the questions. (No, your answers don’t necessarily have to agree with mine, but they do have to make sense and you do have to be able to defend them if challenged.)

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QUESTION: Recently some neo-pro friends of mine fell under the spell of a has-been who’s selling her services as a book doctor. The pro in question is very good at fostering just the right amount of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in her victims. Besides quoting Yog’s Law — money flows towards the writer — and waving several previous Ask Bwana columns at them, is there anything I can do in person?

ANSWER: Sonuvagun — I thought that was Bwana’s Law.

If your friends haven’t listened to you yet, I don’t suppose anything else you can say will dissuade them. Some people know not to stick their nose in a beehive once they’re told what will happen to them, and others have to learn the hard way.

But if you were going to make one last attempt, you might ask them why they think a competent pro who could reasonably be expected to earn five or ten times as much from her own books is willing to work just as hard on their books for a percentage of their much smaller advances.

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QUESTION: Due to a two-year bout with Writer’s Luck — fragile pregnancy, complicated childbirth, loss of job, divorce, the hits just keep on coming — I took a two-year break from writing. Upon my return I find that nothing I had in progress appeals to me any longer. My problem? Two of the things I was working on are novels and they’re three-quarters done. I’d love to know how to jump-start those books and get them out; can you please help?

ANSWER: Probably not. A reader can always tell when a writer is just going through the motions; after all, if the story doesn’t interest you, why should it interest them? If the books don’t appeal to you and you don’t want to work on them, I don’t know what I can say to change your mind or attitude. Probably the best thing to do is go through them, find some scenes, characters and ideas you want to keep, and use them in a totally new book.

People change and grow. So do writers. I haven’t got a piece of work five years old or older, even Hugo winners, that I wouldn’t write differently (and, I think and hope, better) if I had to do them today. You’ve have some life-changing experiences in the past two years. It’s not really that strange that they turned out to be interest-changing as well.

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QUESTION: If you could give out an award for writing, what would the criteria be? What would you give as a prize?

ANSWER: If there’s one thing science fiction doesn’t need, it’s more awards. We’ve got the Hugo, the Nebula, the WFC, the Sturgeon, the Campbell, the Campbell Memorial, the Dick, the Sideways, the Stoker, the HOMer, the Locus, the Lambda, the Prometheus — fine awards all, and I’d never suggest getting rid of any of them . . . but aren’t they enough?

However, Bwana doesn’t duck questions, so if there had to be another, I’d make it for any book that managed to stay continuously in print for 20 years. I don’t know that the author requires any prize other than his semi-annual royalty checks.

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QUESTION: At what point can I negotiate with the magazines or anthologies for a higher word rate?

ANSWER: When your name is King or Clancy. I hate to break it to you, but when a magazine or anthology posts a word rate, it’s non-negotiable. This is, and has been since the collapse of the pulps in the 1950s, a buyer’s market in short fiction. If you won’t sell for 6 or 8 or 10 cents a word, trust me, there are a couple of dozen Hugo winners who will. No one gets rich on short stories; you write them because you love to write them, and/or you write them to keep your name in front of the public between novels. In either case, there are a lot of very accomplished writers lined up behind you who will be happy to sell outstanding stories for the published word rates, and a lot of editors who figure they probably won’t lose their jobs if you go elsewhere.

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QUESTION: What’s the difference between influence and imitation? (And how can I tell when I’m guilty of the latter?)

ANSWER: Influence is when you use an author’s idea, character, or style as a jumping-off point for your own unique story told in your own unique voice. Imitation is when you try, consciously or otherwise, to tell the same story in the same voice.

Let me give you some examples. Robert Silverberg’s The Second Trip and my own “Me and My Shadow” were both influenced by Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. We each took the notion of Bester’s demolition and did something different with it. Whereas the late Lin Carter consciously imitated Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in dozens of books, and August Derleth’s Solar Pons books were conscious imitations (well, let’s call the conscious ones “pastiches”) of the Sherlock Holmes stories. These days the stands are filled to overflowing with conscious and unconscious (and frequently slavish) imitations of Tolkien.

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QUESTION: In a recent writers’ workshop I heard Ashley Grayson say that he always skips the prologue when reading a synopsis or three-chapter sample. Is there a faster way to bring readers up to speed when starting (and trying to sell) a big fat novel that really wants a prologue?

ANSWER: I can’t disagree with Ashley Grayson — which is to say, if he says he skips the prologues, I believe he skips the prologues.

But I strongly disagree with him on the value of prologues. It’s the quickest way to put you in the particular future or world in which the story is set, to prepare you for things to come. I use prologues and epilogues in about half my novels, and I’ve never had an editor or critic suggest that I shouldn’t.

This is not to say you can’t abuse a prologue. You can — by making it as dumb as the crawls that precede so many science fiction movies. If you’re going to use the prologue to introduce a particular future, you can’t get away just defining it. For example, no editor, and no perceptive reader, will allow you to write a prologue stating that in 2037 a Missouri housewife became Pope and now here’s the story of her papacy. Movies get away with crap like that; writers are obligated to explain just how Maisy Jones of Joplin, Missouri became Pope of a church that doesn’t even allow female priests in the year 2004. A prologue sets up a future or a situation, but it can’t demand that you accept it on faith.

If you’d like an example of a well-done one that was essential to the book, try the prologue to Alfred Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination.

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QUESTION: I often see you and other writers signing at dealer’s tables, the SFWA table, and elsewhere at Worldcon, as well as at your official autograph session. What’s the justification for it? Does it really sell that many more books?

ANSWER: We do it because we’re requested to do it. If Asimov’s and SFWA and a couple of dealers who sell my books and a small press that publishes some of them each ask me for a half-hour or an hour of my time, why in the world would I turn them down? First, most of them are my friends. Second, the dealers sell my books; the publishers publish my books; Asimov’s buys and prints my stories; SFWA is my professional organization. I not only like them all, I am indebted to them all, and it would be considerably less than gracious not to do my best to accommodate them.

2013 update: Selling lots of books doesn’t hurt either. I signed 130 copies of my Guest of Honor book, Win Some, Lose Some, at the 2012 Worldcon. That book sold for $35.00. I think it’s not unreasonable to assume they’d have sold maybe a fifth of that number in the same time period if I hadn’t been there autographing.

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QUESTION: Here’s another how-will-I-know-when-I’ve-really-arrived question: when will my career merit some Serious Perks — a book tour, perhaps, or even a one-on-one dinner with an editor at Worldcon?

ANSWER: A dinner with an editor at Worldcon is easy. Just write or call ahead to an editor you’re working with, or one who has expressed interest in acquiring your work, and suggest that the two of you could discuss business over dinner at the coming Worldcon. Simple as that. (And no, if the editor hasn’t bought from you and hasn’t evinced any interest in your work, don’t expect a positive response. He’s only got four or five dinners at Worldcon, and he’s buying from a lot of writers, many of whom will show up there.)

As for a book tour, the answer’s even easier: you’ll get a book tour when you are a bestseller, and your publisher feels there’s some chance of recouping his expenses of flying you around the country, paying for your hotels and meals, and having his publicity staff arrange radio and TV interviews and bookstore signings. It’ll cost him a minimum of a few thousand dollars, so until he can predict with some certainty that you’ll sell that many more books, you’re not going on tour at his expense.

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QUESTION: What do you do with all your old letters, contracts, manuscripts, and the like? In fact, let me make that more general: what do most writers do with their papers? Is there a central repository for them?

ANSWER: Most writers held on to their papers for perhaps a decade after Watergate, in the hope that Congress would eventually repeal the law that nailed Richard Nixon for a million dollars in back taxes. Prior to the passage of that law in (I think) 1971, you could deduct the value of your papers on your taxes if you donated them to a college or charitable institution — and the colleges, which were competing with each other for these collections, were only too happy to put incredibly high appraised values on them. After all, it didn’t cost them a penny — the papers were donated — and the author could happily expect not to pay any taxes for years. (This was in the days of the practice known as the tax-loss-carry-forward, another closed — and deeply mourned — loophole).

Anyway, by the mid-1980s it became clear that the damned law was never going to be repealed, and most of us started turning our papers over to that handful of institutions that specialized in the papers of science fiction writers. I know that Jack Williamson’s college in Portales, New Mexico, has a nice collection; so does UCLA; so does James Gunn’s college in Kansas. I turned my papers over to the University of South Florida in Tampa (they also have Piers Anthony’s), because at the time we thought we were moving to Florida and they were the most convenient of the colleges that collected and preserved such things. As it happens, we stayed in Cincinnati, and now I have to fly 1,000 miles any time I want to go through my papers, which at last count numbered 156 boxes.

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QUESTION: I’ve been a pro — not a prolific or well-known one — for almost 7 years, and I still get nervous whenever I have to speak at a convention. You always seem totally relaxed and have what I would call a happy glow when you speak to crowds. Can you give me any hints that will help me relax?

ANSWER: I was nervous the first few times I spoke at conventions, lo these 40 years ago. I suspect a lot of people are. All you have to do is remember that you’re in competition with the dealers room, the art show, other panels, parties, movies, the whole nine yards, and yet people have still come to listen to you. Once you realize they care about what you have to say, that they’re interested in you and in your opinions, you’ll be more at ease. And as you get more at ease, you won’t obsess over what you’re going to say next, you’ll be better able to think on your feet, come up with quips, change directions when you see the audience isn’t responding. A lot of it comes with experience, but the first step is realizing that the audience wants to hear you or they wouldn’t be there.

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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