Ask Bwana #61

Okay, here we are with a second set of recent questions (and answers, of course) to follow the 59 Ask Bwana columns I’ve run and updated here.

QUESTION: What do you make of the explosion of self-published material for Kindle and Nook, and does it entirely upset the balance of publisher-writer power?

ANSWER: First, you have to divide the explosion of e-books into reprint and self-published. Most — not all, but most — professional writers need, or at least are unwilling to forego, their advance, so most of the new self-published stuff on the market is primarily (not totally, but primarily) dreck by would-be writers who simply aren’t skilled enough to sell. I think if the reader gets burned a few times, he becomes much more cautious, and starts looking expressly for names he knows or has heard of.

Also, the math is depressing. I hear pros brag about how they self-published a short story and sold 200, or even 300, copies. Good for them, but 300 times 35% (most stories sell for 99 cents US, and the 70% royalty doesn’t kick in until $2.99) is $105 US. The average short story goes about 5,000 words and the rock-bottom pro rate, below what most of the magazines and anthologies pay, is a nickel a word. Do the math.

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QUESTION: Word is out that you’re editing a new on-line magazine for Arc Manor, how does a new writer submit to the new market?

ANSWER: Until they hire some slush readers, I’m afraid it’s by invitation only . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s closed to new writers. Literally half the new stories I’ve purchased for the first three issues are by writers who have yet to make their three qualifying sales for SFWA membership. They have come to my attention on the web, or through Writers of the Future, or through various workshops, or from suggestions by other writers and editors I trust. I hope within a few months you can flood me with unsolicited stories, but I’m editing the magazine, plus the Stellar Guild line of books, and I have all my writing obligations (10 books, 16 stories and a screenplay in 2012), and I’m no longer a spring chicken. In fact, late autumn chicken is more like it. So bear with us a little longer.

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QUESTION: Comparing today versus 1980, what do you miss most about “The Old Days” when you first began publishing in the field?

ANSWER: Actually, I’ve been selling science fiction since the mid-1960s, though I fondly hope everyone will forget what I wrote prior to 1981. 🙂

Anyway, I think my answer may surprise you, but what I liked best about writing novels in the early 1980s was that you could hand in a 55,000 or 60,000-worder and no one complained about the length. These days, with the $7.99 US average cover price for mass market paperbacks and hardcovers nearing $30 US, publishers still aren’t convinced that the average reader knows good from bad, but he sure knows thick from thin, and since they don’t trust his notion of quality, they count on his notion of quantity. The good writers don’t pad their books, but what it means there are a lot of 60,000-worders that simply aren’t getting written, and some of them would probably be good enough to compete for the field’s top awards, as they used to.

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QUESTION: Dr. Stanley Schmidt recently retired from Analog magazine. Do you think this signals major changes at that market, for new and established authors?

ANSWER: No. I think the changes will be minimal, as they were when Stan took over from Ben Bova. Analog over the years has been the home for a certain type of story, and that’s not going to change.

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QUESTION: Analog and Asimov’s both raised their pay rates for 2013. Do you think this means their circulation is on the rise again?

ANSWER: A few years back they were in trouble, especially Asimov’s, which I consider the most prestigious of all the magazines. What happened didn’t affect the bookstores and newsstands, but was, rather, an acknowledgement of the 21st Century, which is to say that in addition to their print runs they went digital and began selling e-subscriptions. Asimov’s circulation went up 50%, so I guess you could say it worked even beyond their expectations. Anyway, I don’t know if their circulation is increasing the past couple of years, but it’s certainly not falling after a 15-year downhill trajectory, and both of them look solid for the next few years, which is as far ahead as you can project in this business.

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QUESTION: Are you still hesitant to recommend that new writers “climb the ladder” of semi-pro markets, before “graduating” to pro markets?

ANSWER: I was never “hesitant”. I was — and am — adamantly and unalterably opposed to recommending semi-pro markets to anyone who aspires to become a professional writer. If all you want is to see your name in print, sure, go ahead. Otherwise, absolutely not. No ifs, ands, or buts.

To be perfectly blunt, there are, as I write these words, 19 print and electronic magazines paying professional rates, to say nothing of a score of anthologies every year. That is a lot of markets, far more than we had in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s. You can kid yourself all you want, but with that many professional venues, if you can’t sell to any of them, you are not going to be able to kid the professional editors you want to sell to. It’s the same old story: if one or two markets reject you, you might have submitted to the wrong editors — but if 6 or 8 reject you, they’re trying to tell you something, and you’re only cheating yourself if you don’t listen

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QUESTION: What is the state of humor in the field, in 2013? I know you’re a fan, do you think anyone is still doing it well?

ANSWER: This is a field that has always welcomed humor. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs used it — his Carson of Venus is a parody of Nazi Germany. In the 1940s we had Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown, Fritz Leiber, a number of others. By 1952 we had the funniest of them all, Robert Sheckley, plus William Tenn and more. Move the clock ahead and we had George Alec Effinger, Esther Friesner, Bob Asprin, and their cohorts. Then, suddenly, we had a pair of British humorists — Doug Adams and Sir Terry Prachett — who lived on the bestseller list.

It’s never been a field where it was difficult to sell humor, and it isn’t now. My bibliographer tells me I’ve sold over 130 funny stories, more even than Sheckley. I’ve sold them to every kind of market, and no one ever said “No, humor isn’t welcome here.” I’ve even got 3 continuing humorous characters: Lucifer Jones, from the first half of the pulpish 20th Century (4 books, 52 stories thus far); Harry the Book, from the fantasy Runyonesque present (12 stories thus far); and Catastrophe Baker, from space opera’s far future (9 stories thus far). Personally, I view humor — which I’d rather write than anything else — as my reward to myself for writing the stuff that pays the bills and wins the awards.

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QUESTION: Is there anything you wish you’d done, health-wise, in your younger days, which might have helped you now that you’re older?

ANSWER: Well, I wish I’d watched my blood sugar levels a little better. I’m an adult-onset diabetic, and a side effect of that is that I went blind in my right eye in 2003. (Well, legally blind. I won’t walk into walls, but I can’t read with it.) I’ve had 8 or 9 laser surgeries — they take maybe 3 minutes and are like looking into an endlessly-flashing camera from 6 inches away — to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to my left eye. Result: I make a lot more typos . . . but as you can see from the bibliography and the bookstores, it hasn’t slowed me down. I can write as well and as much with one eye as with two . . . but now that I’m aware that you can literally lose your vision painlessly and overnight as I did, I do wish I had a spare. 🙂

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QUESTION: Is your wife still your “first editor” and how much of your success do you think she has been a part of?

ANSWER: Carol is my first editor, my line editor, my uncredited collaborator, and without exception everything I am and everything I’ve achieved I owe to her. This is the lady who gave me the idea for Santiago, who had me rewrite “Kirinyaga” so that Koriba became the narrator, etc. — and she’s still going over every page of fiction I write. I’ve never had a book or a story get past her critical eye (and pen) that failed to sell.

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QUESTION: It seems like there are more people trying to be published (and publishing, with e-books) than ever before. In your opinion, what is the test of a truly “professional” author?

ANSWER: Simple enough: A professional author is an author who can live on the income from his writing, preferably above the poverty line.

That’s it for this column. We’ve got enough questions for two more. Look for them in another week or two.

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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