Ask Bwana #63

The original 59 Ask Bwana columns ran in Speculations and were reprinted here over the past year and a half, with updates where required. This is the four all-new Ask Bwana column answering questions that arrived while the originals were running.

QUESTION: Mike, do you think there are more new writers or fewer new writers trying to break into science fiction, now, versus when you were breaking in, and is it easier or harder now, versus then?

ANSWER: I have no meaningful statistics, but it seems to me that since there are more people, there are more new writers trying to break in. Will more manage to do it? That’s problematical. Back in the early 1950s there were 56 magazines; today there are 3 digests and about 16 e-zines paying pro rates — and if you sell a story every ten days, you probably qualify for food stamps. But back in the early 1950s, there were less than 100 science fiction books being published per year, and these days there are over 1,600. Certainly more writers can make a full-time living from science fiction; at an early meeting of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the 1966 Worldcon, it was shown that only two writers — Heinlein and Silverberg — were making as much as $10,000 US a year off their science fiction. (Asimov and Clarke were making more than that too, but primarily from non-fiction.) In 1992, a similar survey by a major fanzine showed that over 50 writers (and estates) were making over $75,000 US a year.

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QUESTION: Mike, what do you think the best kind of homework for a new writer is? Writing a lot, or reading a lot of books about how to write?

ANSWER: Nothing compares to writing, and then writing some more . . . and then, after taking a brief break, sitting down and writing again.

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QUESTION: Mike, can you please talk to us about Galaxy’s Edge and what the e-magazine will be about, what kind of fiction will be featured, and so forth?

ANSWER: The fiction will be divided 50-50, half reprints by Names that will help sell the magazine, half new stories by less-well-known names that we hope and think will sell the next generation’s magazines. Which is to say, half the new stories I’ve bought thus far have been by writers who do not yet qualify for SFWA membership. There will also be a column by Barry Malzberg, book reviews, and I’ll be disguising articles as editorials. Late news: starting with the 2nd issue, there’ll a science column by Greg Benford.

I wish I could open it to general submissions, but my writing schedule’s every bit as heavy this year as last year, and this year I’m also editing the magazine and the Stellar Guild book line, so until they can hire me some slush readers, it’s by invitation only — but I have invited a number of unknowns.

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QUESTION: Mike, was getting to be guest-of-honor at Chicon 7 one of the highlights of your career, and did you think when you were a fan that you’d ever be as well-known and well-regarded as a writer?

ANSWER: As a lifetime fan as well as a writer, I consider the Worldcon Guest of Honorship the highest career honor a science fiction author can achieve. It was certainly the greatest thrill of my career. I’ve had a lot of honors and awards, but nothing compared to that.

As for the other part, I know all writers have to be a bit egomaniacal when they’re going to spend months of their lives on a novel that no one will see until it’s done. They have to believe in themselves, and that the work was worth the effort. But honestly, I don’t think any beginner truly believes that he’ll someday be selected as the Worldcon Guest of Honor. In fact, if you’re dreaming really big, you think you might someday sell your second book.

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QUESTION: Mike, what advice could you offer to a writer who has written two or three books for a New York publisher, and now the numbers haven’t panned out and it’s back to square one?

ANSWER: By that I assume you mean that he’s dropped you. The usual advice is to write under a different name, but I don’t think two flops from one publisher requires you to hide your identity for the rest of your career. You were good enough to sell two books, so I assume you’re good enough to sell a third to a new house. You might change the thrust of your stories — a ridiculously far-fetched example would be if you wrote vampire romances, give space opera a shot — but two books that were good enough to sell, and may well have been mishandled or badly marketed, don’t spell fini to your career. You might also sell some short stories to remind people you’re still around while you’re repositioning yourself in the book field.

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QUESTION: Mike, do you think there is a future for mega-stores like Barnes & Noble? Will anything bring back the grocery store paperback racks?

ANSWER: I suppose Barnes & Noble will outlast me, though not by much. But kiss paperback racks good-bye. I can’t imagine that the mass market paperback isn’t moribund as I write these words.

Consider: you’re a publisher, you’ve brought out the hardback, paid for the typesetting, paid for the cover art, and now it’s time for a cheap $7.99 US edition. You can go the mass market paperback route, but if you do, you’ll have to pay for paper, binding, color separations, printing, and shipping; you’ll have to pay the national distributor and the local distributor; you’ll have to give the bookstore at least a third of the cover price, probably more, for every copy they sell; and you will, on average, gobble 50% returns which will require storage space. Or, since the typesetting and cover art are already done and paid for, you can pay a maximum of $15.00 US to format it for both Nook and Kindle, post it on Amazon, Barnes, Apple, Kobo, Sony and your web page (all for no expense), and you’re in profit on the third copy you sell. Why would anyone publish a mass market paperback under those conditions?

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QUESTION: Mike, what do you think has been the smartest career move you ever made, but you didn’t realize you’d made it until years afterward?

ANSWER: The smartest career move I made was dumping my former agent and hiring my current agent — which I did back in 1983; check my career before and since — but I knew that the day I got her.

I love what I do, and I’m pretty fast, so I turn out a lot of books and stories, and I’ve also edited a couple of book lines and a couple of magazines, and I’ve written some screenplays . . . and suddenly one day I looked around and realized that if half the companies I was dealing with dumped me the next day, I still had more regular markets and outlets than most writers. It’s a comforting position to be in, and I’m there not because I was smart or foresightful, but because I’m fast and I love all aspects of the field. (My idea of relaxing is to take three or four hours away from working on a novel to write a short story.)

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QUESTION: Mike, is it possible for an American writer to subsist on strictly overseas sales, either short fiction or novels?

ANSWER: No. Oh, I suppose you can make a theoretical case for it, but in the real world, you sell translation and reprint rights to your American books and stories. If you have no American publications, I don’t think you can make enough original foreign sales to pay the bills.

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QUESTION: Mike, will you be selling personalized hardcopies of your books on your web site, like Eric Flint sells on his?

ANSWER: No. As Humphrey Bogart might say, selling ’em is the publisher’s racket. Mine is writing them.

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QUESTION: Mike, do you see any value in an academic creative writing degree? If my goal is to be a published science fiction author?

ANSWER: Truly? None whatsoever. It might imply you have the talent it takes, but you can’t submit your degree to an editor, you have to submit books and stories.

I’m probably biased. In 1961 I needed six hours to get my degree. 52 years and half a thousand books and stories later, I still need six hours, so you can tell the value I put on it. 🙂

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QUESTION: Mike, is fantasy going to implode soon? Seems like the amount of copy-cat work is reaching a bursting point. What’s the future of the genre?

ANSWER: I don’t know the future of fantasy compared to romance, thriller, espionage, mystery, Western, etc. But I can tell you its future compared to science fiction, and I say this as someone who’s written in both categories and loves and respects both: It’s probably always going to outsell science fiction, for the simple reason that it places less intellectual (not artistic) demands on the reader. (No, I’m not saying that Tolkien and 500 other accomplished fantasy writers are for dummies. I’m saying that since few or none of their plots and background require a working knowledge of how the universe actually functions and the rules governing it, they are more instantly comprehensible — and less intimidating — to the average reader than science fiction.)

And please, before sending me nasty rebuttals, go take a look at sales figures of the past half century. Since the advent of Tolkien and the emergence of fantasy as its own category rather than a subset of science fiction, it has far outsold science fiction.

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QUESTION: I have a two-book deal with a New York house, but I feel they’ve treated me rather poorly, and the books have done poorly too. At what point can I stop groveling and walk away?

ANSWER: The moment you fulfill your option clause. In all likelihood, it gives them first refusal of your next book (or outline, if you worded it more advantageously.) If they’re treating you poorly and you’re not selling, then they should decline to bid on your next one, and you’re free. If they treat you poorly personally but they don’t want to let you go because you are turning a profit for them, then you need an explicit option clause. Let’s say you sell them The Linebackers of Neptune. You want that clause to give them first refusal of your next Neptune book, but to leave you free to sell The Defensive Tackles of Jupiter wherever you want.

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QUESTION: Mike, I’ve written and published some short stories which have gotten some attention, but writing books scares me. How did you get over being intimidated by book-length work?

ANSWER: I kept a stack of bills on my desk, and got even more intimidated by the notions of bankruptcy and debtor’s prison. 🙂

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QUESTION: Mike, what new material from Arc Manor’s Stellar Guild is coming? I see Kevin J. Anderson’s and Robert Silverberg’s contributions, what else is on the way?

ANSWER: The Stellar Guild line, which I’m proud to edit, features team-ups between major writers and protégés of their own (not my) choosing. They are not collaborations, exactly. The star writes a novella, and the protégé writes a prequel, sequel, or companion piece of approximately the same length — and the protégé shares cover credit with the star, which has to be a huge boost to an embryonic career.

Our first two titles were Tau Ceti by Kevin J. Anderson and Steve Savile, and Reboots, by Mercedes Lackey and Cody Martin. Next came Beyond the Blue Shift by Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, and On the Train by Harry Turtledove and his daughter Rachel.

We also have Stellar Guild books currently in press by Larry Niven, Nancy Kress, and Eric Flint — and I’ll be writing a pair of them before the year is over. And of course we’re just beginning. Ask me again in six or eight months.

. . . . . .

And that brings Ask Bwana up to date with all the questions that have been received for 2013.

Over the past decade and a half, award-winning writer Barry Malzberg and myself have contributed 62 of our Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues to the SFWA Bulletin. Some of them were collected by MacFarland Press a couple of years ago, and that book was nominated for the Hugo Award.

Starting in the next week or two, we’ll be re-running all the Dialogues here, interrupting the flow of them only when we’ve received enough new questions for another Ask Bwana column, Keep an eye out for them.

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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