Ask Bwana #8

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #8 — April, 1996

QUESTION: Is it significantly easier to sell one’s first science fiction novel — or will the publisher at least get round to reading it sooner — if one has already sold a short story adapted from the novel to a professional magazine? Are there any reasons — such as copyright or other financial reasons — to avoid trying to do this?

ANSWER: The operative word here is “significantly,” and the answer is no, not really. A story is perhaps 5,000 words; a novel is perhaps 100,000 words. The story doesn’t prove that you can sustain your skills for another 95,000 words. Then, too, there is the possibility that your story gives away the climax of the book, and hence some potential book buyers will not feel a compulsion to purchase the book to see what happens.

And on the flip side, yes, if you win a Hugo or a Nebula for your excerpt — and it’s happened in the past, though not often — of course you have made the book a little more desirable in the eyes of the editors.


QUESTION: Three years ago, I finished a novel and had it copyrighted. Since then, I have put it through extensive revisions, and although much of the book is intact, the slant on the plot is somewhat different, the name has changed, and it’s now 200 pages lighter. Do I need to resubmit it to the Library of Congress as a new book?

ANSWER: The mere act of being printed copyrights a work. You did not have to register it with the Library of Congress, and you don’t have to register the new version. The publisher will do that for you.


QUESTION: Is the term “dark fiction” a copout for people who don’t want to admit they write (or publish) horror, or is there really a difference?

ANSWER: “Dark fiction” is not a term with which I’m acquainted. I think the term you mean is “dark fantasy,” and that’s a publisher’s marketing term, not a writer’s. I don’t think there’s much difference between dark fantasy and horror — but I’m not the guy whose job it is to convince a sales force that has trouble pushing horror that dark fantasy is a whole different ball game.


QUESTION: Does Internet posting automatically throw something into the public domain, or would my insistence on having a copyright attached to my story protect me to some extent? Is plagiarism of net-posted fiction that big of a problem, anyway?

ANSWER: Nothing that’s printed today will be in the public domain until 75 years after the author’s death. The real question is who owns that copyright? Unless you’ve given it away (by virtue of the agreement you make when you sign onto some network, like, say, CompuServe), it’s yours.

One of the problems with posting professional fiction on the networks or the Internet prior to its appearance in a magazine or anthology is that the Nebula (and possibly the Hugo; I’d have to check) clock starts counting down the instant it appears, and hence a 1996 story that appeared on the nets in 1994 or 1995 may already have used up its eligibility.

And, of course, knowing that it’s your property is small comfort when people start swiping it. Most of the pros only post stories they’ve sold and that they think have a chance at the awards, and then only months after magazine publication.

2011 update: The Nebula is back to the calendar year, after over a decade of 2-year-old stories dominating the awards. And this question and answer were written before the advent of professional e-zines, of which there are well over a dozen today.


QUESTION: At a writers’ workshop I attended awhile back, a pro on the panel informed me very adamantly that I should never use a first person point of view. And lately I’ve seen more mention of editors disliking first-person POV, and a few months ago had a story rejected because — although the editor said it was a good story — she just didn’t like first-person. Is this an aberration or something I really need to worry about?

ANSWER: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with first person if you use it properly. Robert A. Heinlein wrote a number of his novels in first person; so did Barry Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, and such diverse authors as Edgar Rice Burroughs and your humble undersigned. The pro who told you otherwise was spouting swamp gas. As for the editor who turned your story down, that particular story may not have worked in first person, but to say that no story works in first person is to deny the validity of such classics as “Born of Man and Woman,” “All You Zombies,” “Flowers For Algernon,” and, come to think of it, all three of my Hugo winners.

2011 update: make that all five of my Hugo winners, and more than twenty of my Hugo nominees. I seem to like first person, at least when I write short stories. Thankfully, so do the voters. Through 2011 I still know of no prejudice against it.


QUESTION: The new contract at my day job includes a clause about all patents belonging to the company for up to five years after I depart. Does this include literary publications? Is this standard procedure?

ANSWER: The word “patent” implies that you’re not working for a company dealing in literature. I would think if you can prove that what you wrote was written at home on your own time, you’d be free and clear, especially for fiction. If you sell an article based on some special knowledge you’ve acquired or developed at the office, then you might have a legal problem, and should probably consult an attorney.


QUESTION: I’m feeling a little nervous about the following phrase in my latest contract: “The option for first refusal of publication of the Work as a whole or in part, in book form, within sixty days from date of receipt of offer.” This is a short fiction contract; does the quoted phrase mean that if another publisher offers me a book deal, I have to give the first publisher 60 days to make me an offer?

ANSWER: I have a feeling you didn’t quote the entire option clause. Based on what you did quote, it appears that if you plan to sell the work as a stand-alone piece (the kind of shorter work that a Wildside or an Axolotl might publish in book form,) or as part of a complete novel, you must give the writer of the option clause 60 days. (60 days to do what? Match the offer? Top it? You didn’t say, which is why I feel the clause as quoted is incomplete.)

2011 update: These days substitute Subterranean and Tachyon and Night Shade here [and PS in Britain] for Wildside and Axolotl.


QUESTION: What’s the going standard percentage for reserves against returns? What, roughly, should I be expecting on a paperback contract as a “reasonable percentage” for reserves?

ANSWER: For those of you who don’t understand the terminology, “reserve against returns” is the amount of royalties a publisher holds back on the assumption that some of the books out there on the stands are still going to be returned. 90% of your sales occur in the first 3 or 4 months, but these days your publisher will hold a reserve against returns for up to two years. It’s another way for them to get an interest float on your money, just as they do when paying you your February royalties in late May, or giving you your signature advance 8 weeks after receiving your signed contract. Okay, on to specifics.

There was a time — and not that long ago, either — when the standard reserve against returns in the paperback industry was 23%. These days it’s at least 50% everywhere, and as high as 79% at some houses. Not a damned thing you can do except try to negotiate it down, or sell elsewhere. Except that “elsewhere” will probably offer you the same terms.

2011 update: These days not only has the percentage gone up to almost 80% at some major houses, but some of them are now holding that reserve for 5 years, rather than the 6 months that was the industry standard when I broke back in the 1960s, or the 2 years that was standard maybe 10 to 15 years ago. Is it any wonder that more and more journeyman writers are starting to self-publish their novels as e-books?

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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