Ask Bwana #2

Personal note: it’s been roughly two decades since I started doing these Ask Bwana articles. It was recently suggested to me that Ask Bwana, which had previously been re-published over at the Baen’s Bar — during my tenure as editor for Jim Baen’s Universe magazine — would be an excellent feature here on my own web page. I am therefore proud to re-release these for general public consumption. I’ll be doing one a week, all the way from 1 to 59. Enjoy. If you’re an aspiring writer, I hope they teach you something about this crazy business which has been my livelihood for so many years. If you’re a fan, I hope they teach you something about this crazy business which has been my livelihood for so many years. (g) If you feel the urge to say thank you, please stop by my e-book shop and do some browsing and buying!


NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #2 — Mar, 1995

Okay, here we go with the second batch of Ask Bwana questions — and I want to commend you for their quality. Last issue’s questions were very tentative, and felt more like an interview. This time you got down to the nitty-gritty of what’s important to you.

QUESTION: Is SFWA worth joining?

ANSWER: Yes, it is, for one reason — the Grievance Committee. All the other stuff — the publications, the banquet, the parties — you can find a way to attend or get your hands on. You can even win a Nebula without being a member. But the Grievance Committee, bless ’em, is the SFWA member’s ombudsman to the publishing industry, and quietly, behind the scenes, irons out an average of a grievance a week, from poor contracts to late pay.


QUESTION: I just made my first sale! It’s a short story; it’s to a magazine and they want First North American Serial Rights. What does that mean? (They’re not serializing the story; it’s all in one part.)

ANSWER: It means that as soon as you sign, you’ll be a Member of the Club. And more to the point, you should sign. First North American Serial Rights is, for all practical purposes, identical to First North American Rights. In other words, you’re promising not to sell it to anyone else on this continent for publication ahead of them . . . and somewhere in the contract, it’ll tell you how long it must be — usually 6 months to a year — before you can sell it again.


QUESTION: Do those response times in Randy Dannelfelzer’s column really mean anything?

ANSWER: I hate to disillusion you, but despite the inordinate amount of hard work Randy puts into getting those response times, no, they don’t mean a damned thing. Or rather, they mean so many damned things that it’s impossible to interpret them. For example, Asimov’s usually takes (let us pretend) a month to reply. They hold your story for 3 months. Meaningful? Sure. But what does it mean? Well, it could mean they’re looking for a new slushpile reader. It could mean Gardner Dozois has spent the last 6 weeks concentrating on his Best of the Year anthology. It could mean some irate husband put Gardner in the hospital. It could mean 20 different things. There is no possible way to interpret a longer or shorter response time as a favorable or unfavorable comment on your story.

2011 Update: Randy doesn’t run response times any more, but the answer is still valid. No, response time has nothing to do with how well or poorly your story is being received. And of course, Gardner hasn’t edited Asimov’s in half a dozen years.


QUESTION: A friend of mine wants to start an SF magazine. Everybody tells him he’s nuts; what do you think? How would you go about doing it?

ANSWER: I think he’s nuts. (How would I go about doing it? I’d walk right up and say, “You’re nuts!”)

Oh, you mean how would I go about starting an sf magazine? Well, assuming I didn’t want it to be a semi-prozine that was run strictly as a hobby, I’d go through the following steps:

1. Stockpile $500,000.
2. Hire the best editor around.
3. Hire the best ad salesman around.
4. Hire the most honest distributor (an oxymoron) around.
5. Get religion and pray an awful lot.

2011 Update: these days, of course, you’re much more likely to start an e-zine, which you can do for the price of the budget. But the answer was for printzines, and it’s still valid for them. In fact, half the printzines have gone belly-up since I wrote this in the early 1990s.


QUESTION: I’ve been lurking in several fairly nasty online debates over wannabes who made a couple of sales to small press markets and then started acting like big names. Not that I’m going to jump in and flap my jaw — I’d get it hammered shut! — but how many sales should I make (and how “big” should they be) before I can call myself a pro?

ANSWER: The moment somebody pays you a professional rate for something you’ve written, you’re a professional writer. However, to avoid rubbing your peers the wrong way, you should probably wait until you’re in SFWA to refer to yourself that way. (And of course, to some of us, a Pro is someone who makes a living from it. Which means that by my definition, the 1,600-member SFWA probably has about 75 pros in it.)


QUESTION: Has any of your work been translated to foreign languages? Can you give any general advice besides let your agent handle it? Are there differences between dealing with, say, Europe and Japan?

ANSWER: Let me check the downstate returns . . . ah, here they are. Yeah, I’ve been translated into French, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Castilian, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Polish, Czech, Latvian, Lithuanian, Rumanian, Hungarian, Finnish, Chinese, Danish, South Korean, Bulgarian, and (some would say) English. In almost every case, the book sales went through my American agent, who is associated with one or more agents in each of those countries.

The differences in dealing with Europe and Japan? Well, let me see: the British pay in pounds, the Italians pay in lira, some of the Germans pay in marks; just about everyone else, including the Japanese, pays in dollars (and some countries — Spain and Japan and Italy among them — hit you for 10% income tax). But it means that if you want to mess around with the exchange rates, sometimes you can make a minor killing. Example: back in the late 1980s I sold Ivory to Hutchison/Arrow books in England for 10,000 pounds. At the time I signed the contract, the pound was worth $1.53 US, so the contract was worth $15,300 US. . . but by the time I got the check, the pound was $1.78 US and losing strength against the dollar, and by the time I cashed it, the pound was $1.92 US . . . which means my $15,300 US contract had suddenly become $19,200 US, a tidy profit of $3,900 US with no heavy lifting. (It doesn’t always work that way. Most recently, I lost about $1,200 US waiting for an Italian check to arrive.)

Let me offer you another little story, and this one is aimed at well-known pros more than beginners. About the time the Iron Curtain proved to be made of tissue after all, circa 1988-1989, a lot of Polish and Latvian and Czech and Hungarian and Lithuanian magazine publishers started writing to the more prominent American sf authors, begging us for stories. Most couldn’t pay at all; a few paid $25 US; one in Poland paid $50 US per story. A number of my colleagues wouldn’t give them the time of day. “I’m a pro,” the line went; “I don’t give my stuff away for free.”

Well, under normal circumstances, neither do I . . . but these were countries that were just opening up and didn’t have any hard currency. I thought that within a couple of years they might have it, and hopefully a book industry as well. So I flooded those editors with stories — not just run-of-the-mill stuff, either, but Hugo winners and nominees, all for free or at most a pittance — and sat back to see what happened.

Well, what happened in, say, Poland, was 14 book sales for very nice hard currency in the past 20 months, because my stories had built up a demand for my books. I’ve sold books for pretty decent prices in every single country I gave my stories to, whereas a number of my colleagues haven’t broken into those markets yet because no one there has ever heard of them.

Think about it, fellow pros.

A bunch of 2011 uopdates:
1 — You now get paid in pounds from Britain, euros from the rest of Europe, and US dollars just about everywhere else. But it’s a cute story, and I’m proud of it, so I left it in.
2 — I’ve added six more languages; the total is now 26.
3 — Poland’s up over 30 books, Russia over 20, etc., all because I looked at the situation realistically 20 years ago.


QUESTION: When should I think about getting an agent?

ANSWER: Groucho Marx once remarked that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member. I would say that, with very few exceptions, no unsold writer should hire an agent who is willing to have him in his stable.

Yes, if a pro friend twists his agent’s arm to read your stuff, of course that’s a different kettle of fish. But by and large, it’s better to get a bit of a track record. Sell some shorts, which almost no agent will handle anyway. There’s plenty of time to hunt up an agent — in fact, historically the best time is when you get your first book contract. Choose the agent you want and ask if he’ll negotiate it for you.

And remember: an agent can get your book read faster, and he can frequently get you a better contract . . . but no agent can sell an unsaleable book.

2011 update: For 40 years I’ve been reading and hearing the same advice from pro after pro: sell some stories, get a reputation, then sell a novel. It was valid for the first 30 of those years…but today there are four printzines — and one of them recently came back from the dead — and only a couple of truly major webzines. But according to Locus there were 1,600 new books (i.e., not reprints) published last year, so I don’t think that advice is necessarily valid any longer, unless you happen to like writing short fiction.


QUESTION: I’ve heard several new and not-so-new SF writers say that their first (and some subsequent) novels only got about a $5,000 US advance and never earned it out! Can this possibly be true? If so, what’s the matter with the publishing industry? $5,000 US for a year’s work is terrible!

ANSWER: Well, there’s a lot the matter with the publishing industry, but very little of it applies to this particular situation. Let’s remember that the successful writers make a hell of a lot more than $5,000 US a book or a year, and concentrate just on the beginners in your question.

Science fiction is a category, just as mysteries and Westerns and romances are categories. Now, from a publisher’s point of view, the beautiful thing about a category is that there is a clearly-defined floor and ceiling below and above which category books tend not to sell. Label it SF, and even with blank pages it’ll sell 12,105 (I’m making the number up, but it’s close to being right) copies at an absolute minimum.

Now, a publisher’s purpose, down at the bottom of the list, is to keep his costs below the income he gets from selling 12,105 copies of a book. So he’ll give the beginning writer a small advance, a cheap cover artist, and virtually no publicity. Why? Because he’s guaranteed to make a profit. In fact, the only way he can lose money on that beginner’s book is to assign the cover painting to Whelan or Boris and spend $30,000 US publicizing it, and then have it sell 12,105 copies.

Remember also: at a $4.99 US cover price and 6% royalties (yeah, you should get 8%, but you’re a beginner), you’re making about 30¢ US a book. On a $5,000 US advance, it means you have to sell 16,666 copies to “break even” (i.e., to see royalties) . . . but your publisher breaks even at 12,105 copies. So let’s suppose you sell 14,000 copies, a little over the floor. The publisher has made money — about $1,800 US — but you haven’t “earned out.”

A lot of beginners who have sold a trilogy quit their jobs and get ready to sign for the fourth book and make a living in sf, only to find out that nobody wants them. It’s not that the publisher lost money — remember, it’s mathematically impossible for him to lose money on a bottomlist book — but rather that he’s only made the minimum, maybe $4,000, from your three books. If he keeps you, you’re going to want a raise, and suddenly, even with a minimal raise, he’s looking at break-even or worse. More to the point, even if he was guaranteed an $1,800 US profit per book for the rest of your prolific literary life, why should he stick with you? The next guy down the pike might be the next Piers Anthony or Mercedes Lackey, and at the very worst, he’s still going to make $1,800 US a book off them.

So you’ve got maybe 3 books to prove that you can sell better than average with no help or push from your publisher . . . and once you prove it, he’ll be more than happy to start pushing and promoting you. Otherwise, you’ll just be one more zombie walking around wondering what happened to your wonderful, promising career.

Not fair, I hear you say? So what? Fair is another union. We’re talking True or False, not Fair or Unfair . . . and this happens to be True.

2011 update: Advances are still down there. Why? Because that 12,105 figure is now about half that, thanks to the depressed economy and the advent of e-books.


QUESTION: How do I go about getting invited into a Resnick anthology?

ANSWER: There was a time when you simply asked me. Then, after too many people did just that, I requested that you send me a copy of what you thought was your best work (if I wasn’t acquainted with your writing), and you got in line for the next opening.

Nowadays, truth to tell, I try not to encourage anyone, because although the anthologies are still hitting the stands at a rapid pace and making me appear busy as hell, I actually haven’t sold an anthology since August of 1993, and I’ve got about 32 newcomers, plus all my regulars, lined up for the next few books, whenever they may come about.

2011 update: I’ve sold close to 20 anthologies since then, but as I write these words I haven’t sold one in three years, and I haven’t sold an original anthology — as opposed to reprint — in twice that long, so the answer still holds.


QUESTION: Everybody keeps telling me I need to get on GEnie or CompuServe or some other online service. Level with me — isn’t surfing the net just another excuse for not writing?

ANSWER: It depends how you use the nets. If you just want to visit with friends, yes, it’s an excuse for not writing. If you want to do business, it’s quicker and less expensive than conventions and New York trips. Here are my own network figures:

38 story sales to the USA
22 story sales to Europe and Japan
4 article sales to the USA
8 book sales to the USA
6 book sales to Japan
332 stories assigned and bought as an anthology editor

Further: Gardner Dozois and I have done all our joint anthology editing online. The Red Tape War, which was written by Effinger, Chalker and myself, was composed entirely on the Delphi network, and never saw print until the entire book was done.

I just won a big-money Spanish contest with “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge.” (No applause, just Hugos, please.) I never even knew the contest existed until I read about it on GEnie.

And of course, there’s more current market news on the networks, especially GEnie, than in all the newsletters and semi-prozines combined. So yes, I’d say that if you use them right, the networks are worth their weight in gold.

2011 update: Genie is long gone, of course, but I’d say 90% of all sales are by electronic communication, and these are dozens of new ways of networking, primary of which are Facebook, Twitter, and Google-Plus. And “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” did win the Hugo…and the Nebula, too.

Really good batch of questions. 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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4 Responses to Ask Bwana #2

  1. Enjoyed this second installment, too. I’ll be watching for #3. Brad Torgerson has been giving a convenient head’s up over at the WotF forum when you’ve posted them.

    Thanks for getting me your ebook file. I won’t try that again at work. No telling where it went and no one there had a clue, either.

    • Mike says:

      There were 59 Ask Bwana columns…and Barry Malzberg and I are up to our 56th Resnick/Malzberg Dialogue for the SFWA Bulletin, which means I’ve been pontificating for a -long- time. 🙂 Brad has convinced me to add a 60th Ask Bwana when we run out of them, just because he lilkes nice round numbers. I imagine he’ll push me to resurrect it and answer new questions thereafter. What amazes me is how many answers need 2011 updates; this is a field in an enormous state of flux.

      — Mike

  2. Pingback: Genre-Study, Scifi/Fantasy « Madison Woods

  3. Right – it’s your addendum that I’m enjoying because I knew they were from a while back. But when you add your comments it brings it up to date and together it’s an awesome set of information to writers like me just trying to familiarize with the system. I’ll be pulling for #60 too 🙂

    I’ll have to mosey over to the SFWA dialogues if it’s open to non-members…

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