Ask Bwana #7

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #7 — Feb, 1996

You don’t learn from people’s successes; you learn from their mistakes. You don’t become a good writer by emulating Nikos Kazantzakis or Edward Whittemore, because if their art could be emulated we’d all be doing it. You learn by spotting the mistakes in Roger Lee Vernon and George Allen England and avoiding them.

So I’m going to help you learn by sharing a major blunder I made six years ago.

One day, in early 1990, I got a phone call out of the blue from a producer who wanted to option my fantasy novel, Stalking the Unicorn. He flew into Cincinnati with his director, and they met me at La Maisonette, our pricey 5-star restaurant. They spent the next couple of hours feeding me, praising my writing, and telling me how much they wanted to make the movie.

I was really flying high when I got home, and I called my friend, Barry Malzberg, to tell him about it. And I mentioned, in passing, that I had commended them on their taste, for I always thought the book could make a pretty nice movie and yet no production companies had expressed any interest in it since its publication three years earlier.

“Idiot!” muttered Barry.

“Why?” I asked.

“When you told them the book hadn’t had any Hollywood interest in three years, you as much as gave them a free option. Sure, they picked up a $100 lunch check and a pair of $300 airfares, but they saved a renewable $10,000 option payment. Now they’ll take it around and try to make a deal, with the comforting knowledge that no one else is going to ace them out of it. If they make the deal, which is a one-in-a-thousand proposition, you’ll get a lot of money. But if they can’t raise the money, you won’t see a penny of option money.”

And, sure enough, I never heard from them again.

I have been approached by a number of producers since that day. I invariably tell them that I don’t know the status of the book they’re asking about, that other producers are currently talking to my agent about that very same book, and I have no idea if an option contract is in the works or not. Sometimes it’s the truth; usually it’s a lie. But I’ve optioned seven books since then.

You learn — if you live long enough.

2011 update: make that eleven books and a story.

Okay, let’s get on to this issue’s questions.

QUESTION: I tried to order more copies of my book thru my local bookstore, and they were told that it’s “indefinitely out of stock.” What does that mean?

ANSWER: It means the publisher is jerking you around with an industry-wide ploy.

To understand why, let’s take a look at your contract. Unless it’s a term-of-lease deal — and if you’re new enough not to know the term “indefinitely out of stock,” you’re too new to have enough clout to swing a term-of-lease contract — there is a reversion clause. The clause says, in essence, that if your book goes out of print in X number of years, you can get it back at (or after) that time by writing the publisher a registered letter demanding that he bring it back into print, and he’s got six months to do it or the book reverts to you.

If the book is, say, a year old, and out of print, you have every right to ask for an early reversion, and if it’s five years old (pretty much the industry standard except for Zebra/Kensington, which has a more onerous clause), you have every right to demand one.

Now, from your point of view, this makes sense. The publisher’s not doing a damned thing with it, so why not get it reverted? It may take you years to resell it, but at least it’s your property again, and if you hit it big, that $4,000 US novel might be worth even more the second time around. (For example, Isaac Asimov sold the Foundation Trilogy for $500 US apiece in the early 1950s — and didn’t get paid, either. Came the 1970s he sold ’em for, I think, $100,000 US apiece — and the final time he sold them he got something like a million dollars US for these three books that had originally gone for $1,500 US total.)

Of course, your publisher knows what those early cheapo books by current bestsellers went for originally, and what they resold for. He has no reason to think you’re the next Asimov or Clarke, but from his point of view, he’d be a fool to revert the title if he doesn’t have to.

Now, to set the reversion process in motion, the book has to be, “out of print.” Instead, he declares the books to be, “indefinitely out of stock.”

What’s the difference? Actually, none — but legally (and, from his twisted viewpoint, morally) he doesn’t have to revert the title to you.

Welcome to the wonderful world of published writers.

2011 update: Of course, with the advent of P.O.D. — print-on-demand — reversion clauses have become meaningless. When a traditional publisher had to order your book in quantities of 3,000 or so to be cost-effective, it made sense…but today all he has to do is phone or e-mail Lightning Press or some other P.O.D. house and order three copies, and suddenly he owns the book for another year for an outlay of maybe $15.00 US. So nowadays you or your agent has to define “out of print” and “indefinitely out of stock” to mean having less than, say, 500 copies in his warehouse.


QUESTION: I received a letter inviting me to contribute to a short-fiction anthology, but they want an outline first. The letter doesn’t make clear what they mean by outline, and anyway I’ve never written one. Is there some page count I shouldn’t exceed? Is there a special manuscript format, or anything else I need to worry about?

ANSWER: I refuse to do outlines for short story anthologies. If they want me, they’ll just have to live with what I produce.

But I realize some people need the sales and credits more than I do, so I’ll go this far: if you really want to be included in the book, give them a 200-word synopsis of what you plan to write. Certainly nothing longer than that. You’re a pro, remember? You don’t write for free.

And while we’re on the subject of anthologies, I’ve got another bone to pick, and this seems as good a place as any to bring it up.

Most anthologies are by invitation only, and I have no problem with that. It’s the way I edit my own. No anthologist makes enough to pay him to go through a slush pile hundreds of stories deep.

A few anthologists, however, have chosen to have “open” anthologies, to which anyone may submit. Fine and dandy. Some people jog miles every day, some people read slush; when you’ve got a thing for pain, it manifests itself in many odd ways.

But in recent years, more than one editor of an “open” anthology has written to a contributor, saying, in essence, that he was holding the piece until he saw everything that came in. It’s kind of like saying, “You’re in unless something better comes along.”

What’s wrong with that?

Simply this: he is asking you to give him a free option on your story. If you send it to him in, say, June, and he tells you in late July that it’s a finalist and he’ll let you know his decision in November when the book closes, he’s essentially demanding a free 4-month option.

Uh-uh, baby.

If he’s paying, say, $250 US a story, demand at least 20% of that as an option payment for keeping it off the market for four months and passing up possible sales.

You know what’ll happen? He’ll probably return it tomorrow.

But if you don’t demand an option payment, you’ll be screwed over again and again by this and other editors, and in the long run it’ll cost you more than it’ll make you.


QUESTION: Is there a maximum length for a novel synopsis? A writer friend gave me a couple of hers so I could see the format and they were each roughly 25 pages long. Isn’t that way too long? The synopses I’ve seen — including the one in ¬Speculations #1 — were much shorter, and I’ve got to think that there is some point at which it’s just too long. I just want to make sure mine isn’t.

ANSWER: I don’t think there’s any correct length for novel synopses. I know that when Bob Silverberg got what was at the time the biggest hardcover advance in science fiction history for Lord Valentine’s Castle, he made the sale based on an 18-page outline.

My own figures show that I sold Ivory, a 600-pager, based on a 2-page synopsis; the Oracle trilogy, a trio of 400-pagers, based on a 15-page outline; Exploits and Encounters with outlines of 3 pages each; A Miracle Of Rare Design with a synopsis of 2 pages. On the other hand, I sold Santiago based on a sample of 300 pages plus a 17-page outline for the rest of the book, so go figure.

I think you’ll find that very few established writers need outlines of more than 10 pages (though some may feel like writing more), whereas beginners probably need from 10 to 25 to convince the editor they have material for a novel.

2011 update: I got this question so many times that I finally put together a book, I Have This Nifty Idea…, which presented 33 outlines that resulted in contracts, usually major ones, from 19 different authors, including Bob Silverberg, Kevin J. Anderson, Joe Haldeman, etc. It was a Hugo nominee, and is still available from Wildside Press. And no, I’m not using this as a platform to get rich. We all believe in “paying forward”, so none of the authors — or the editor — received a penny for it.

You’ll find that there are two opposing philosophies. Kevin, for example, likes 60-page outlines with everything spelled out, so that when he writes it all he has to do is, essentially, turn sentences into paragraphs. I’m at the other end: I make them as short as I can on the assumption that even if you give me a contract tomorrow it goes in the queue, I probably won’t get around to writing it for 12 to 18 months, and I don’t want to be totally tied into the outline if I come up with a better idea in the interim. Just a matter of what makes you comfortable. I’ve never heard an editor express a preference for one or the other.


QUESTION: I have several times sold pieces that have not been published. In one case, over 15 years ago, the projected anthology never materialized. In the other, two years ago, the magazine went belly-up before my work was published. Do any rights revert to me under any of these circumstances?

ANSWER: Read your contracts. Almost all magazines and anthologies promise publication within 18 to 24 months or the story reverts to you. Even The Last Dangerous Visions, which bought stories for, I believe, 10 years, an incredibly long time, still had to make additional payments in 1982 to keep control of them for another five years.


QUESTION: I’ve just sold First British Rights to a magazine overseas. What are my legal and ethical obligations in informing potential American publishers of this when I submit the same story offering FNASR? If they know it’s been published elsewhere, do they find the story less attractive?

ANSWER: You have no legal obligation to tell the editor you’ve sold a right he isn’t buying. But you do have an ethical, and indeed a self-preservational, imperative to do so, because if he sees it in, say, Interzone, a month before it appears in his own magazine as a new story, you have probably lost a market for life.

If a story has been published elsewhere, it is less attractive to any magazine and any editor. However, there is a subtle difference between, “less attractive,” and, “totally unattractive.” I know, for example, that Gardner Dozois has bought some Playboy stories for Asimov’s, and a number of editors are now buying novellas that originally ran in the electric edition of Omni.


QUESTION: A couple of established pros have advised me that if you don’t hear about a story within three months, send an inquiry that says, “If I don’t hear from you within two weeks, please consider the story withdrawn.” One of these guys insists you should do this even as a newbie, if for no other reason than to maintain a serious, professional attitude about your work.

ANSWER: Even established pros aren’t usually that self-destructive.

Sure, if you have a major reputation and you’ve sold to the editor on a consistent basis, you can pick up the phone or drop an e-mail saying, “Gardner (or Kris, or Stan, or Ellen, or Scott) old pal, you’ve been sitting on my story for three months. I need a decision so I know whether I can afford that personality transplant this summer.” If you don’t know them, then a polite postcard or letter asking if they received your manuscript is your only viable option. And remember, some of the magazines average more than three months before reporting back. (And there are book companies that literally average well over a year.)


QUESTION: How does one pitch an anthology, especially if one is not a big name? A friend and I have casually discussed doing one, but neither one of us are really names yet. We have a couple of friends who are big names and several more who sell respectably well who’ve promised us stories should we actually get a contract. But how do I pitch it to editors who don’t know me? How should a query be phrased?

ANSWER: Try to round up commitments from half a dozen or more major writers and then pitch the anthology, with the commitments, just the way you’d pitch a novel. Or, if you have an agent, have him pitch it for you. And don’t be too surprised if no one bites; anthologies are murder to sell.


QUESTION: What is the best “pacing” for a novel? Or to be more exact: how many chapters and how many pages per chapter in general for an adult novel?”

ANSWER: Meaningless question. The answer is, “As many pages and chapters as it takes.” Let’s look at some supporting examples:

Bob Sheckley’s Options: 158 pages, 77 chapters.

Barry Malzberg’s Galaxies: 128 pages, 49 chapters.

Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer: 188 pages, 12 chapters.

Fred Brown’s The Lights in the Sky Are Stars: 218 pages, 5 chapters.

Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine: 269 pages, 0 chapters.

Okay, that’s it for this 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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3 Responses to Ask Bwana #7

  1. I always seem to learn best from my mistakes, but I’d really rather learn from other people’s mistakes instead!

    Your posts are very informative and I hope when I’m actually in a position to put some of it to use, I remember what I’ve learned here.

  2. John Peacock says:

    I love the advice here. Jim Butcher and other authors do similar but I like your direct and specific notes and examples. Thank you.

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