Ask Bwana #4

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!

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NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #4 — July, 1995

Well, gang, since the last issue, I’ve won a Nebula for, “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” and been nominated for 4 Hugos and a Sturgeon.

How does one avoid getting a swelled head under such circumstances? Easy. One simply remembers that even though more people vote for the Hugo than for the Oscar — I’ll bet you didn’t know that, did you? — the fact remains that ten feet outside the door of the hotel where you receive your award, nobody has heard of it or of you.

That little piece of knowledge is guaranteed to sober anyone up and keep them pounding away at the keyboard. (And no fair bitching about it: you wanted to be science fiction writers, remember?)

And now, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: The seven-point plot outlined by Algis Budrys and covered by Bridget McKenna in her article in Speculations #2 made a lot of sense to me, but my stories seem to go flat whenever I try to write to the formula. Do you agree with it? Do you use it, or any other sort of basic outline?

ANSWER: No, I don’t necessarily agree with it, for the simple fact that I think any formula inhibits you from writing truly memorable stories as opposed to merely proficient ones. I have always held that writing is 95% mechanics and, at best, 5% inspiration . . . but when it becomes 100% mechanics, when you don’t allow for that magical spark that is unique to yourself, I don’t think you can ever achieve anything approaching Art — and when all is said and done, that is what each of us is trying to achieve.

As for myself, with most novels I use an incredibly informal outline, so informal and idiosyncratic that I almost hesitate to call it an outline at all. It’s only for myself; I wouldn’t dream of showing it to anyone else. I began doing it more than a decade ago while writing a mystery novel, where I found that I had to start keeping notes to remind me who knew what during each chapter. I don’t believe I’ve ever outlined a short story.

I think the closest most fine writers come to writing to formula these days is writing for theme or shared-world anthologies, and even there, the good ones find ways around it: my Alternate anthologies from Tor produced six Hugo nominees in the first three volumes, so I know it can be done. It’s just more difficult.

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QUESTION: Have you ever belonged to a writers’ group or workshop? How valuable do you think they are?

ANSWER: I have belonged to a pair of them, and I didn’t find them useful at all. I think the reason was that they covered too broad a spectrum, from award-winning pros to unsold amateurs. The problem became apparent to me early on: the pros, who knew good from bad, and who knew their markets, ignored almost all the advice except some minimal nit-picking, because their stories were essentially pre-sold; whereas the amateurs took every word of advice the pros gave them, even when it was wrong or when two pieces were mutually contradictory.

They used to say, back in the pre-AIDS days of sex clubs, that swans swim with swans and ducks swim with ducks. It meant, bluntly, that if Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer showed up, they weren’t going to swap partners with some unwashed, pock-marked, 700-pound couple. Same thing applies here: I think selling pros should workshop with selling pros, and beginners should workshop with beginners (and perhaps one pro to point out the more ridiculous bits of advice offered.)

Over the years I have become so disillusioned with workshops that I don’t participate in them any more. I have worked with a lot of writers — Barbara Delaplace, Michelle Sagara West, Jack Nimersheim, Nick DiChario, Lyn Nichols, a number of others — but always on a one-to-one basis.

2011 update: I have, since writing this perhaps 16 or 17 years ago, had two wonderful workshop experiences which have changed my attitude. The first was teaching Clarion in 1999; Tobias S. Buckell, David Barr Kirtley, and Tom Gerencer were three of my students, and of course they followed in the steps of Dan Simmons, George Alec Effinger, and a plethora of selling writers.

More recently, I’ve judged and lectured at Writers of the Future the past two years, which produced Brad R. Torgersen, Laurie Tom and others, who follow in the steps of Eric Flint, Patrick Rothfuss, and that whole crowd. So now I’m a believer in what are clearly the two best, and best-run, workshops. And I still work one-on-one with beginners whose talent catches my eye, most recently Lezli Robyn of Australia.

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QUESTION: If my book doesn’t earn out its advance, do I have to pay the publisher back? What if it’s the last book in a trilogy — will they hold up the royalties on the first two? And what’s considered a decent royalty percentage for a first novel?

ANSWER: No, the writer never has to return an unearned advance. (But remember those words — Unearned Advance — and in a minute or two I’ll point out why they are among the ugliest and most ominous words in the language.)

A decent royalty rate is 8% in paperback . . . and 10% in hardcover, going to 12.5% at 5,000 sales and 15% at 15,000 sales. Anything under 6% in paperback or 10% in hardcover is unacceptable, even for a first novel.

The publisher will only hold up royalties from prior books if your contract called for Joint Accounting, a practice all publishers love and all writers should fight against. Basically, it says that, for a trilogy (for example), your advance is 3 times X dollars. But instead of three independent contracts for X dollars each, you get one contract for 3X dollars . . . and until you earn 3X plus a dollar for the three books, you see no royalties.

Let’s put that in cash terms. You sell a trilogy for $30,000 US a book. Your publisher gives you a $90,000 US advance and a contract calling for joint accounting. Your first book earns (on paper) $17,000 US in royalties — in other words, your royalty income from the book is $47,000 US (and you’ve already been paid $30,000 US up front, so you have $17,000 US coming to you.)

On standard (individual) accounting, your check is in the mail. (Well, in practice, it’ll be in the mail about 4 months later than it should be — late enough to seriously inconvenience you and let your publisher get a 120-day float on the interest, but not late enough to sue.) But on joint accounting, you’ve only earned $47,000 US of a $90,000 US advance, so you get nothing.

Now your second book comes out, and only sells half what your first did, so it has earned $23,500 US — but that’s $6,500 US short of the advance . . . and more to the point, your two books have now earned $70,500 US, which means they still haven’t reached your $90,000 US advance and you still don’t get any money. And yeah, since the second book died, they don’t give you Michael Whelan or Bob Eggleton or Don Maitz as a cover artist for the third, you don’t get the raised metallic type, you can’t find it advertised in Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle, and of course it sells just the way it’s been handled (or mishandled), and it makes $14,500 US in royalties.

So what happens? You’ve earned back $85,000 US of a $90,000 US advance, and you get zip. Had they been separate contracts, you’d have come away with $17,000 over and above your first advance. Got it?

Now, I promised to tell you about those words: Unearned Advance.

There was a time a little more than a decade ago when an awful lot of the major names in the field were quite content to produce paperback originals. It was only after Del Rey and Tor and the other paperback houses started their own hardcover lines that things changed. Let’s examine why.

It has always been a standard practice in publishing that the hardcover publisher gets half the paperback advance. Since the average moderately successful science fiction writer was making about $5,000 US for a hardcover and $20,000 US for a paperback, circa the early 1980s, its easy to see why he preferred not to go with a hardcover edition: it cost him half that paperback advance, so that instead of $20,000 US for a paperback, he was actually getting $15,000 US for a hardcover and a paperback. The publishers, of course, couldn’t understand why we weren’t happy with that arrangement.

But any writer can dope that out — even an unworldly or other-worldly science fiction writer. The Unearned Advance thing is a little more complicated — and nefarious. Part of it depends on your knowing that when the sale price on a hardcover drops below a certain point — usually 40% or 50% of the cover price — the writer no longer gets any royalties. In other words, you don’t make a cent when your book is remaindered.

Okay, let’s plunge ahead. You sell your book to hardcover for $40,000 US, and that’s certainly cause for celebration. You get decent reviews, and you have a hard-working agent, and the month it hits the bookstores, you sell paperback rights to a different house for $60,000 US.

All right, mathematicians: how much of that $60,000 US do you get?

Well, once in a blue moon, you might get $25,500 US or $27,000 US of it. (Remember, the hardcover house gets half — $30,000 US — and your agent gets 10% to 15% of what’s left.)

But more often than not, you get zip — and it’s all perfectly legal.

Here’s what happens. You sign the paperback contract for $60,000 US. The money goes to the hardcover house, which is supposed to cut your agent a check for $30,000 US. Nice and simple.

But — aha! — what really happens is that your agent opens up that envelope, looking for a check, and what flutters down to his desk is a friendly little note from the accounting department telling him that the hardcover edition of The Mote in God’s Thigh has thus far earned only $7,200 US against an advance of $40,000 US. That means (gasp) that its unearned advance (ah, those words!) is $32,800 US. And it just so happens that they are holding a $30,000 US check for you . . . so they’ll just continue to hold it against the unearned advance until the day that your sales make up the shortfall.

Do they ever make up the shortfall?

Is the Pope Jewish?

What happens is that, with the extra $30,000 US from the paperback house in their account, the hardcover house can now show a tidy profit from your book. (No, you can’t, but they can.) So why should they bother pushing a book that’s already earned out? Their road men have better things to do. So the next morning all the remaining copies of The Mote in God’s Thigh get remaindered, they make a couple of bucks apiece on each copy, you of course get no royalties, and you can now call the real estate agent who found you that nifty home with the great little alcove for writing and tell her that no, something went wrong and you don’t have the $30,000 that was due you after all, and maybe you’ve better stay in your basement apartment a little longer.

Well, you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you?

2011 update: all the above is still valid, but of course in this age of phosphors it’s incomplete. What should your royalties be on an e-book? Well, Amazon and Apple pay 70% and Barnes & Noble pays 65%, but of course that only goes to you if you publish it yourself. At this moment — late 2011 — publishers are “generously” offering 25% of net, which means 25% of their 70%, or 17.5%… and a lot of writers are looking them in the eye and saying, in essence, “What are you doing for 75% of my money?” and publishing themselves electronically.

Can it be done successfully? Despite the phenomenal success of Amanda Hocking, the unknown who e-published her own novels and sold millions, I’d bet against it for writers who aren’t branded — which is to say, writers who aren’t known and haven’t got a following. But more and more branded writers can count, and I would guess within a couple of years the major publishers will be up to 50% of net on e-royalties, or they’re going to lose their stars to entrepreneurial new publishers who do offer 50%.

That’s it. 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 36 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 41 anthologies. My work has been translated into 26 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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One Response to Ask Bwana #4

  1. Thanks for another informative Bwana post!

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