Ask Bwana #10

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #10 — July, 1996

An aspiring young writer announced on one of the computer networks that he had just sold his first novel. When someone asked him which house had bought it, he answered with the name of a publishing company no one had heard of. I asked if it was a vanity press (i.e., a house that catered to self-publishing authors). He replied that it was. I suggested that this was not the brightest career move he could have made. Since he had just spent several thousand dollars on the project, he was understandably irate and demanded that I explain myself.

I explained it privately to him, but it occurs to me that if I say it here, maybe I won’t have to explain it to 200 more eager but wrong-headed beginners.

Let’s begin with the disclaimers. Yes, some good books have been self-published — maybe one percent of all vanity press books. Some have made money. I don’t know the percentage, but I’d be surprised if it was much more than one in thirty.

So, if all the major houses turn you down, or you haven’t the patience to sit in their slush piles, why shouldn’t you go the vanity press route?

Simple: it will destroy your credibility as a professional writer. Rightly or wrongly, it practically screams, “This is a book that no editor would buy, and the only way it could ever be published was by the author himself footing the printing and distribution bill.”

Will it get reviewed? Not in any major market.

Will it sell to mass market paperback? Almost certainly not.

Will editors hold it against the writer in the future? Yes, if they remember.

Will it convince anyone anywhere that the author can compete in the marketplace? Hell, no.

2011 update: A lot has changed in the 15 years since I wrote that. The most important single change is that you can now self-publish for absolutely no cash outlay. It’s still not a good idea for a writer who isn’t “branded”, who hasn’t got a fan following looking for his e-books, but it’s no longer the public admission of amateurism and assumed literary incompetence it once was.

And now on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I have recently sold several pieces to a variety of markets. This has given me a modest yet expanding publishing history. I am afraid these credits are cluttering my cover letters, but I want to effectively represent my record. Is it acceptable to consolidate this list on a separate “Credits” page, or should it be condensed to a specific number while highlighting only the most impressive credits?

ANSWER: You don’t have to list every credit individually. In fact, it’s a good idea not to: if you have 5 or 6, it looks kind of sparse, and if you have 30 or 40, it looks kind of egomaniacal.

I’d suggest an alternative approach. Let’s say you’ve sold 17 stories to a variety of SF markets, including 11 anthologies, and some of the major magazines. You might say, briefly, in a cover letter, that you’ve sold more than a dozen pieces to such markets as Asimov’s, F&SF, and Alternate Resnicks.

Personally, I have always thought that a story will speak better for you than a cover letter, especially with short fiction. If you’re querying a book editor and you’re trying to get him to ask to see your opening chapters and outline, sure, list your credits… but with short fiction, you’re submitting the entire piece, and a list of credits isn’t likely to influence anyone. After all, they’ve got the story itself, so why read some hype about it?


QUESTION: I recently attended a large science fiction convention at which was given a panel called, “It Came From The Slushpile,” which gave several editors a chance to read excerpts from unsolicited manuscripts in front of a wildly appreciative audience. Am I overly sensitive, or does this practice strike you as just a bit mean-spirited, if not downright illegal? Is this fair use? And… well, you’ve read slush, I assume; is it really all that bad?

ANSWER: I do consider it mean-spirited, though the audience usually loves it, and I never have and never will participate in such a panel. Still, as long as the editors don’t name names, I suppose it’s perfectly legal. (And if 500 people are laughing their heads off at your syntax, are you really going to claim credit for it?)

Yes, I’ve read slush, and most of it — almost all, in fact — is that bad without being that amusing.


QUESTION: I’m hearing horribly depressing things from a couple of friends who sold their novels and watched them sit on the shelf as paperback originals for three weeks, disappear, and never earn out their pitiful $5,000 advances. Is this the norm for new novelists? Are things getting better or worse? It’s getting harder and harder to remember my motivation for spending nine months writing this book when I keep hearing it’ll disappear without a trace.

ANSWER: As I explained some issues back, the beauty of category publishing, from the publisher’s viewpoint, is that there is a floor below which a book will not sell, and all he has to do is keep his costs below that floor. So the only way a publisher can lose money on a first or second novel is not to spend $5,000 US and toss it out to live or die with no help, but to spend $40,000 US on the book, $7,500 US on the cover art, and $50,000 US on advertising. Now he stands to lose a bundle, and he’s not in the publishing business to lose money, so he won’t spend that kind of money until the author has a track record and he knows he can’t get stung too badly.

The problem is, the floor has gotten a little lower each year. When I broke in, back in the stone age, I think the minimum even a science fiction flop novel would sell was something like 18,000 copies. Then the world began to change, and not all that favorably. I remember a Nebula winner telling me, back in the early 1980s, that his Timescape paperback original sold less than 7,500 copies, which prior to that was unheard-of.

I just phoned Brian Thomsen, long-time editor of Warner and Questar books, and currently the editor of TSR, and asked him what the average midlist paperback was selling these days. His answer: between 14,000 and 16,000 copies. Sure, you’re getting 8% of $5.99 US, whereas I got 4% of 50 cents US when I broke in… but the drop in total sales is still appalling. The market is overcrowded, and the only reasonable answer is to publish less titles… but the problem is getting writers who have mortgages and orthodontist bills and car payments to write less books. I will not be the first to volunteer.

2011 update: Okay, so these days the cover price for a paperback original is $7.99 US — but average sales are still in a downward trajectory. First novels still pay about $4,000 US to $5,000 US a book — yes, there are always a few exceptions. But you know what they paid in 1975, more than a third of a century ago? About $4,000 US to $5,000 US a book. And with sales diminishing each year and publishers still paying 8% royalties on most paperbacks, it is any wonder that a number of journeyman writers are starting to self-publish as e-books? Maybe they only sell a third or a quarter as many copies, but they get 65% to 100% of the royalties, depending who sells it. The math is just that simple.


QUESTION: A few issues back you sketched out a few standards for electronic manuscript submission via e-mail. I’m starting to see quite a few markets — not necessarily electronic themselves; most are print semi-prozines — that accept electronic submissions. Is this a sign that they’re to be avoided? And — if not — can you please go over the formatting basics?

ANSWER: You’re speaking to someone who is a computer semi-literate. (I tell people that it’s not enough that my computer and programs be user-friendly; they have to be user-servile.) My assumption is that anyone more gifted than myself can format your submission any way that that you or the publisher chooses.

Now let me ask you a question: why the hell are you shooting for semi-pro markets? You don’t hit the moon if you don’t shoot for it.

2011 update: I think 90% of the print — as opposed to electronic — markets now want electronic submissions, and Microsoft Word seems to be the standard.


QUESTION: How important is a good review? Do editors, publishers, and agents actually pay attention to what a reviewer said when it’s contract time for the next book, or is all this wrangling just over ego? The audience for short science fiction reviews has to consist mostly of authors and a few die-hard fans; is there really a non-pro audience out there for novel reviews?

ANSWER: Book reviews sure as hell won’t affect your next advance, because your publisher has something more meaningful to use as a guideline: the sales of your last book. They may occasionally get an editor from another house to read your book, and, if he likes what he sees, make an offer for your next one, but word of mouth or an aggressive agent or personal contact will usually work better.

So what real good are favorable book reviews? Simple. If you can make a package of 15 or 20 good reviews, you can occasionally — in fact, frequently — influence foreign editors. A guy sitting at an editorial desk in Poland or Spain gets two submissions. He doesn’t read English very well; just enough for his business correspondence. Whatever he buys is farmed out to translators. All he knows is that here are two submissions, and one of them got 22 favorable reviews, and one got 3. He doesn’t know that 10 of those favorable reviews came from fanzines with circulations of under 500 copies, or that 8 more of them are identical reviews that were picked up by various newspapers that subscribe to a syndicate. All he knows is this one got 22 and that one got 3. If he doesn’t know the authors’ names, and neither book was a Hugo or Nebula nominee, which do you think he’ll choose?


QUESTION: I’m having a heck of a time getting my publisher to hand over a simple statement containing print run, sales, returns, and royalties for my first novel. Is this really my job, or should my agent — who isn’t — be handling it? I’m falling into the job of Shameless Self-Promoter by default, because it seems to work, but being my own accountant seems to be stretching the point a bit.

ANSWER: Your agent should be handling it. Simple as that.

Well, maybe not quite so simple. Yes, your agent should be handling it, but you can’t just sit back complacently and say, “It’s his job, not mine,” because it’s not his career, it’s yours. And no one cares as much about it as you do. Remember, if your agent has 50 clients, and they all make about the same money (which of course they never do), you’re 2% of his income. But no matter how much you turn over to your agent, and your foreign agents as well, and your accountant, you’re 100% of your own income.

There’s an old saying: “The horse grows fat under the king’s eye.” I don’t care if you have the best, most conscientious agent in the world, it’s still your career. If you sign a bad contract, the fault ultimately rests with you, not the agent; no one held a gun to your head to make you sign it. And if you know your agent isn’t doing something that needs doing, then you’d better do it yourself — or get a new agent who will do it (and even then you’ll have to watch him like a hawk, not because he’s slovenly or dishonest, but because by definition your career is more important to you than to him.)


QUESTION: In a recent online conversation I overheard a pro saying that British book contracts were very favorable to writers, detailing press runs, schedules, and the like, and that publishers over there paid on time and didn’t fiddle with the (accounting) books. Is this true? If it is, how can American publishing houses get away with what they appear to?

ANSWER: I haven’t noticed British contracts being that much more favorable. In fact, when you sign a British contract, you’ll finally understand the true scope of the former British Empire, because you’ll have sold the rights to every former British colony from Uganda to Pakistan to the Seychelles.

How do American publishers get away with their slow payment practices, and their unconscionable reserve against return percentages? Simple. They’ve got damned good lawyers, lawyers who know that if they average being four months late on their royalty payments and you decide to sue, you can’t get your case into court before they pay you, and then you have no case, and you’re out legal fees for nothing, so of course you won’t do anything but bitch about it. Ditto with most of their other practices; they don’t rob authors so much as abuse them.

Why? Because writing, acting, and prostitution have one thing in common: there are always talented amateurs ready to replace reluctant professionals.


QUESTION: A science fiction author recently told me (and others) that he had made six digits in each of the last three years, and yet other authors have told me that he gets about $20,000 US a novel and he seems to sell only two novels a year. None of them seemed surprised at his statement, or wanted to contradict it, yet it seems like a bald-faced lie to me. He gets $40,000 US up front, and he’s not a bestseller, so he can’t make much in royalties — so how can he expect anyone to believe that he makes over $100,000 US?

ANSWER: The authors who didn’t dispute his statement know something you don’t know, which is that sales don’t end at the nation’s borders.

If the author in question makes $20,000 US a book, which is a midlist advance, he’s mildly popular, and has been around long enough to establish himself in foreign markets. Now, individually they don’t begin to pay what he’ll make here, but let’s give him sales to the likeliest countries at midlist prices: England ($7,000 US), France ($4,000 US), Japan ($5,000 US), Italy ($3,500 US), Spain ($2,000 US), Poland ($1,500 US), Germany ($4,000 US). That’s a total of $27,000 US a book. So now he’s up to $94,000 US a year. Without short stories. Without royalties. Without reprints. Without movie options. Without sales to Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium, Latvia, and Israel, and without separating Australia out from his British contract.

Now do you begin to see how it’s done?

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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One Response to Ask Bwana #10

  1. I’d recently posted a poll to my blog about where readers find new authors and books. The reason I’d asked is because of that question about whether to self-publish or go traditional. Of the pool of voters (admittedly not a statistically good pool yet, but it’s still running) overwhelmingly they said they browse brick and mortar stores before deciding what to purchase. This didn’t surprise me, because that’s how I do it, too. But the problem for self-pubbers (those without a name already established) is that you can’t get your book on those shelves. And even if you could, without a lot of money you can’t compete with the covers and it was the art that made the first draw to potential readers.

    I’d love it if you (and any of your blog readers) would cast your vote:

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