Ask Bwana #11

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #11 — September, 1996

Well, here I am, back from another Worldcon. It was a pleasant one, and I did a bit of business, and as I sat down to write this issue’s column, it occurred to me that almost all the business I did was either in very upscale restaurants on the premises (where most fans and pros don’t go), or else well away from the convention itself.

So I thought perhaps I’d share this little tidbit with you: if you want to talk business with an editor at a major convention, it’s not a bad idea to make an appointment weeks, or even months, in advance to do it over lunch or dinner, and try to do it far from the centers of activity. There’s nothing more difficult than trying to sell a book or a story when you are interrupted every 30 seconds by other writers stopping by to say hello to your editor, and trying to sell him their stories when you’re trying to sell him yours.

I know that most beginners seem to feel that once they’ve sold their novel, or their three stories, and thus gained their SFWA credentials, they’ll enter the SFWA Suite at the Worldcon, and the world of friendly editors and easy sales will suddenly stretch out to the horizon before them. It would be nice if it was so — but on the rare occasions during each Worldcon that I visit the SFWA Suite, what I mostly find are a bunch of beginners whose names I don’t yet know, looking just a little puzzled as they wonder where all the editors are.

Answer: they’re all dining or drinking with the writers whose names I do know, writers who arranged those very meals and drinks months ago.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: At the beginning of the year I sent my first novel to an agent who wanted to read the whole thing after seeing a three-chapter sample. Well, nine months and several queries later, I haven’t heard anything back from him. Can I safely assume he doesn’t want to sell the book and move along in my marketing efforts? Have I gotten myself into some kind of implied contract here? Meaning: if I sell the book myself, will this guy pop up and want his commission? What’s the best way to politely and professionally remove my book from his agency when he isn’t answering my mail?

ANSWER: You can safely assume that he’s not a man you want to do business with. If he can’t muster the time and energy to give you a reply after nine months and a bunch of queries, do you really want to enter into a business relationship with this turkey, even if he ultimately decides he likes your writing?

As for removing your book from his agency, you do it the same way you get the rights reverted on your book after the requisite number of years have elapsed. You send a registered letter, one requiring a signature at the receiving end, stating politely that since he has not seen fit to answer your many letters, you are enlisting with another agency and that you would like him to return your manuscript, or at least dispose of it, as you will not be entering into a business relationship with him.


QUESTION: I’ve been submitting stories regularly to Interzone and I recently sent one story to Hayakawa SF. Can you recommend any other foreign markets for original short fiction? Or should I be saving my original work for bigger markets and sending reprints overseas?

ANSWER: Interzone is a legitimate market for original fiction. Almost all foreign language markets — including Hayakawa SF, one of my regulars — specialize in American reprints. Yes, they might occasionally buy an original by a Name (though a Name writer can usually make much more money selling his work at home), but selling your story to a major American market and then re-selling it overseas is one of the better ways of becoming a Name.


QUESTION: I seem to recall that you once wrote in your column that magazine contracts are non-negotiable. Is that really true? If it’s not, should a beginner concentrate on making more money or limiting the scope of the rights he’s selling?

ANSWER: In terms of payment, yes, they’re non-negotiable. Try to get more than the listed rate from any of the prozines and they’ll laugh in your face. Also, almost all of them stipulate what rights they are buying, and it’s a buyer’s market; a beginner is in no position to try limiting the scope of the rights he’s selling. At least you have the knowledge that 98% of the Hugo winners are selling the same rights to the same markets. (Asimov’s and Analog will let you “repurchase” your exclusive foreign rights for, I believe, 15% of the amount offered. If you have a sure sale to Japan, jump at it; if not, it’s probably not worth it unless you can hit two or three Eastern European countries with some degree of certainty.)

By the way, “exclusive foreign rights,” means just that. The magazines normally purchase, “non-exclusive foreign rights,” the same thing most anthologists purchase. This means if you can sell to Country X before they do, fine and dandy; but they have the right to try to hit it first — and since they have the implicit threat of withholding the superstars if the foreign magazines buy too many stories direct from the authors, it’s better to bite the bullet and buy back exclusive foreign rights. Japan will pay $200 US to $550 US for a story, depending on length and how it did in the various awards — but as I said, if you don’t have a sure sale there, you might consider taking the full price and letting the magazine try to sell it.


QUESTION: Is there a market for Utopian fiction, and if there is, how big is it, who is buying and publishing it, and where might it be found? By Utopian I mean as opposed to dystopian or dysfunctional; a situation in which society and the people in it are not under threat from each other or some outside element; not a society in which all problems have been solved, but one that functions at a higher consciousness in a harmonious setting with themselves and their environment.

ANSWER: There is no market that is explicitly and exclusively geared to Utopian fiction. And, to be honest, nine times out of ten you’re going to need some dystopian element to create enough conflict to have a story worth telling. Remember, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was subtitled, An Ambiguous Utopia . . . and even my award-winning Kirinyaga stories are about a Utopia that is going wrong, not one in which everyone is thrilled to be a part of it under any circumstances.

In fact, now that I reconsider it, make that ninety-nine times out of a hundred.


QUESTION: Okay, I know I don’t need an agent until I get a nibble from a publisher. But how much information about the contents of an unagented novel should I discuss in the query letter itself? Should I include a synopsis with the query or send it in with the manuscript if the editor wants to see it?

ANSWER: First, send a query letter — or speak to an editor at a convention — and make sure he’s willing to look at your book at all. (On any given day, a third to a half of the publishers are overbought.) Then, if the editor expresses a willingness to read it, send whatever he’s asked for: synopsis and sample chapters, or the whole manuscript — and find out which he wants before you send him the wrong thing.

While we’re on the subject, let me state in absolutely pellucid terms that no one can possibly misunderstand: Sample chapters should begin with Chapter 1 and continue in consecutive order. No editor wants to see Chapters 1, 15, and 27. Honest. Trust me on this.


QUESTION: I see some cover art, and I wonder if the artist even read the manuscript. How much input does an established writer get into his cover art?

ANSWER: The best an established writer can do is recommend his artist, or perhaps have veto power over his editor’s choice. But as for what goes onto the cover . . . that’s up to the editor, and, more importantly, the Art Director. I know of some authors whose suggestions were accepted, but I know of none who can dictate what the cover painting will be. (Well, maybe Stephen King . . . but he’s probably smart enough to trust his Art Director.)


QUESTION: I’m a science fiction writer — admittedly not a very famous one — and I did a reading at the recent Worldcon. I drew a humiliatingly small audience. You always read to packed houses. Is there a secret to it, other than being well-known?

ANSWER: Cheer up. My first Worldcon reading drew an enormous audience of three people… and one of them was my wife.

Over the years, I’ve made a lot of discoveries, which I’ll be happy to share with you.

One: Read first-person stories. Too many “he saids” and “she saids” can put the Sominex people out of business.

Two: Never read novel excerpts. You have to do too much explaining before you start.

Three: Try to read mostly humorous pieces. Audiences like to laugh.

Four: Read short pieces. An audience would rather hear five eight-pagers or four ten-pagers than one forty-pager, unless the latter is award quality.

So I did all that, and started selling better, and my audiences got bigger. But they still weren’t exactly Standing Room Only.

Then one day came The Revelation. I had read four or five stories at a regional convention. Then, when my hour was up, I threw them in the waste basket, as usual, and left the room. I realized a moment later I’d left something behind — a sweater, a book, something — and I went back for it . . . and found three fans rummaging through the waste basket, fighting over the discarded stories.

Five: So at the next con I announced that as I finished each story I would autograph it and give it to a member of the audience. I’ve been following that practice for well over a decade, and ever since I started, I haven’t seen an awful lot of empty seats.

You learn . . . if you live long enough.

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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