Ask Bwana #6

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #6 — Oct, 1995

I just returned from Glasgow with another Hugo clutched in my hot little hand. I am thrilled to have won it, and I shall cherish it forever. But, as I pointed out to you before, it is not exactly the same thing as winning the heavyweight championship or the Best Actor Oscar. Walk down your street and ask the first 100 people you see if they even know what a Hugo is. I guarantee the answer will make you humble and keep you writing — and not just for the glory.

Okay, so much for ego-deflation. Let’s get on with this month’s mail.

QUESTION: I’ve heard it said that today new writers are breaking in by writing work-for-hire media tie-in books, rather than the old route of selling their own first novel. Do you think this trend is likely to be the only way for newer writers to break into the midlist now and in the future? And is it as detrimental to their development and future career as some folks would like us to believe?

ANSWER: Yes, I think it’s a trend that’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future . . .and we’ll define “foreseeable future” as that length of time it takes people to get thoroughly sick of Star Trek books. I’ve been waiting an awfully long time, and it hasn’t happened yet. No politician ever lost an election by underestimating the intelligence of the American electorate, and I suspect no publisher ever got rich by overestimating the taste of the American bookbuyer.

Yes, of course I think it’s detrimental to a new writer’s development, or the first half of the answer wouldn’t have read quite the way it did. One of the basic tenets of quality fiction is that your protagonist must learn and grow and change because of what he experiences in the course of your novel — but, by definition, Captains Kirk and Picard, Messrs. Spock and Riker, and all the rest of them, cannot change from one book to the next. If there is a better way to hinder a novelist’s development than by forcing him to write about characters that never change, it may well be by letting him set those stories in a universe that is so well-known that it doesn’t require the standard amount of verisimilitude and justification, and where errors and anachronisms are defended rather than excised.

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QUESTION: I recently received a very slick mailing from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. They want me to send in my unfinished novel and $400, and they’ll help me finish it and sell it if it’s any good. Is this a scam or what? Are there really any agents left at SMLA, or is it just a read-for-fee shop?

ANSWER: Yes, it’s a scam; no, there are no agents left at SMLA; and yes, it’s primarily a read-for-fee shop. But let’s not stop with Meredith simply because that’s the agency that invented the practice. Never pay any agency to read your manuscript. Under any circumstances. Period.

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QUESTION: I met a neo-pro writer at DragonCon this summer who has a four-book deal with a major publisher that he credited to a dollar-per-page fee reader. (The same guy also advised the audience to walk up to editors at conventions and hand them manuscripts, so I took his advice with a grain of salt.) But still — there are four books out there with his name on them and none with mine. Level with me: do book doctors really do anything? Or was his manuscript ready to go anyway?

ANSWER: I assume by “fee reader” you mean “book doctor.” At any rate, the question seems to be: are book doctors worth considering or not?

Well, there is no question that book doctors exist, and that some of them are pretty good. But they tend to work for publishers, not for writers. They’re called in when some expert, such as, say, a world-famous paleontologist, hands in a manuscript on the warm-blooded dinosaur theory, and while his facts are beyond reproach, his prose is beyond recognition. Or when a celebrity who has spent his entire life mouthing scriptwriters’ words signs a million-dollar contract to produce words of his own and the results are about what you’d expect.

The thing that makes me doubt the abilities of your friend’s book doctor is that nobody that good charges a dollar a page. (Think about it. The book is maybe 350 pages long. It’s unsalable. This guy takes that piece of garbage and when he’s through it’s worth perhaps $10,000 US or more, and he’s going to take a fee of $350 US, when for very little more effort he could write his own $10,000 US book? Get real.)

And if your pal really tries to foist manuscripts off on Gardner Dozois and Kris Rusch and Yours Truly while we’re enjoying ourselves at conventions, he’s not going to be among the living long enough to learn whether he can sell the next book without a doctor or not.

2011 update: For better or worse, there are going to be a lot more book doctors these days, thanks to the advent of e-publishing. Now anyone who wants — and anyone who can’t sell through traditional means — can e-publish his own e-book, without the traditional typesetting, printing, binding, shipping, distribution and bookstore costs. Some of them, like Amanda Hocking, who sold about a million e-books in her first year, turn out to have been pretty good at what they do. Some established writers are testing the waters as well, having compared a 70% royalty rate from Amazon to 8% or 10% from their traditional publishers. But there are also a lot of “writers” who simply cannot push a noun up against a verb with any grace whatsoever, and some percentage of them will realize it and hire book doctors, and book editors, and copy editors, and whatever else it takes not to be totally humiliated when someone actually picks it up online and reads it.

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QUESTION: I was in a workshop once where I advised someone who was using italics in her manuscript not to do so, because editors always want to see underlines for italics. Every other member of the workshop refuted me, telling me that what with new font capabilities, editors are allowing people to use italics and proportional fonts in their manuscripts. Is this true? I never heard of this, and I just let it slide because I didn’t feel like getting into an argument with my entire workshop.

ANSWER: Just goes to show that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear — especially from a bunch of unpublished writers in a workshop. Typesetters want underlines, not italics; they are much easier for the typesetter to see, and he doesn’t want a beautiful manuscript, he wants a manuscript that’s easy to work with.

2011 update: the above was written before Microsoft Word was the industry standard, and is no longer valid. Back when this answer first appeared there were dozens of word processing programs — Volkswriter, Easywriter, WordPerfect, etc. — and very few typesetters worked from disks or e-files. Today almost none work from manuscripts.

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QUESTION: With the regrettable passing (or at least dormancy) of the Golden Age of the Resnick Anthology, it’s looking more and more difficult for unknown writers to break into the big professional markets. I know, I should just shut up and keep writing, but I’ve still got this nagging suspicion that I should also be going to cons and lurking on the online services, kissing up to the editors whenever possible. My oldest and most trusted mentor swears that they’ve all got their own Rolodexes full of favorite names; do you think this is true? If not, how important are social contacts, anyway? I’m starting to run across an increasing number of electronic magazines on the World Wide Web, some good, some horrible. Would you ever sell your “electronic rights” to a story? If so, would you charge more than usual? How much more? Don’t songwriters have some kind of royalty system already in place to deal with lyrics? Why can’t prose work the same way?

ANSWER: That’s a hell of a lot more than one question. Let me go through it and answer each in turn.

1. You don’t “kiss up” to editors. Even such unsubtle and socially maladroit ones as myself can spot it and tend to find it insultingly insincere.

2. No editor needs a Rolodex of their favorite names. We’re not that senile — and besides, we all have computers..

3. This is still a field where social contacts help. It would be silly to pretend that if two stories of equal quality come in, the editor won’t be swayed by the fact that he is on friendly terms with one of the authors.

4. I wouldn’t sell electronic rights before selling print rights, especially if I thought the story was award quality. Consider: the electronic publishing industry is still in its infancy, and very few people will read it there. The Nebula (and probably the Hugo — I’d have to check the WSFS Constitution) clock starts running the second you post your story, and by the time it comes out in print form, where people will read and nominate it, its window of eligibility may well have closed.

2011 update: the above answer was valid in 1995. Clearly it is not valid today. Hugos and Nebulas have been won by e-stories, more are making the ballots each year, there are as I write these words 4 print magazines and 17 e-zines paying what SFWA considers professional rates. So the proper answer is the same for both print and electronic magazines: sell to the best market available, and make sure that you’re only selling First North American Serial Rights, or at most First N.A. Serial rights plus non-exclusive rights (which means that the magazine or anthology that buys your story can re-sell it as a part of the magazine or anthology, but not separately, and you retain the rights — usually after 6 or 12 months – to sell the story yourself, to reprint markets, foreign magazines, anthologies, and your own collections.

4A. If I misinterpreted and you actually mean should you sell electronic rights to the magazine that wants to purchase the print rights to your story . . . well, you’d much prefer not to, and if you had to you’d want more money, but while everything in a contract is negotiable, a newcomer has a lot less clout when negotiating, and sometimes you have to take what is offered. Right at the moment, electronic rights aren’t worth much at all. There’s no question that they will be someday; we just don’t know quite when that happy day will arrive. So if giving them up is a deal-breaker, you might consider agreeing to terms on the assumption that the electronic rights will revert to you before they’ve acquired any value.

Another 2011 update: again, valid in 1995, invalid in 2011. But the principle is valid, which is to say, you sell as few rights as you can.

5. No, songwriters don’t have a royalty system in place to deal with electronic rights for lyrics. What they have is the same thing a published writer has: a copyright, which prevents use of their published work without express permission, said permission usually to be granted only in exchange for financial remuneration.

6. Prose does work the same way, once you are in print and copyrighted.

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QUESTION: Okay, say you’re brand new and you’ve just made your first sale, to an exciting new market that lots of writers you look up to are also hitting. They pay you on acceptance and you cash the check. But several issues come out before the one with your story in it, and you realize with sinking heart that the magazine sucks rocks and you don’t want your story in there. Do you send back the check and pull your story? Can you even do that, if it isn’t specifically forbidden by your contract? Help!

ANSWER: You’ve signed the contract, you’ve cashed the check, and you now have to live with it. First, don’t forget that you initiated the contact by submitting the story. Second, no one put a gun to your head to make you sign the contract. Third, if you are brand new, the quality of your story can only be enhanced by appearing amid all that dreck written by the writers you look up to. And fourth, you really don’t need a reputation as a troublemaker this early in your career.

That’s it for this issue. See you next time.

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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