Ask Bwana #13

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #13 — January, 1997

There are certain inequities in life.

One of them concerns talent. As hard as I try, I will never be able to play basketball at Michael Jordan’s level. I will not have a vertical leap of 44 inches, or hang time approaching 2 seconds, and I will never make 50% of my shots from beyond the 3-point line, not even if I shave my head and cavort with Bugs Bunny. It’s not fair that he should have all that talent on the court and I should have so little, but no one ever said life was fair.

Now let’s talk about writing. I have worked with a lot of beginners. I have thus far bought 42 first stories for my anthologies. Everyone started from the same point: Unsold Writer Trying To Get His Foot In The Door.

But some of you became Nick DiChario and Barbara Delaplace and Ann Marston, and some of you will never sell a second or a fourth or a sixth story, and it has nothing to do with your capacity for hard work. It has to do with talent — I don’t know if it’s God-given or acquired — and the unhappy fact is that not everyone is possessed of it. Or enough of it.

There is no crime in deciding to take up another profession. After all, look at the odds: the typical digest-sized magazine gets over 1,000 submissions a month and buys maybe six — and if you sold a novelette every month of the year, you’d qualify for food stamps and probably welfare payments.

On the other hand, if you’re good enough to break in and you piss away that advantage and that talent through slovenly or frivolous work habits and attitudes, you’ve committed something that in my mind ranks somewhere between a sin and a felony.

I see a lot of wannabees — many with a story or two in print — on the computer lines every night, complaining that they have no time to write. They spend 3,000 and 5,000 and 8,000 words a night crying on each other’s shoulders about their lack of time, and how the world of publishing is against them (as if every writer whose work you know had it easy). They are the impetus for this little lecture, because in my mind they are well on the road to achieving exactly what they deserve to achieve.

Okay, I feel better. Now on to this month’s questions.
QUESTION: I recently read something in Paul Riddell’s Tangent column that really confused me. Does putting “Member, SFWA” or “Member, HWA” on a manuscript hurt your chances of selling?

ANSWER: No. But I don’t think putting “Member, SFWA” helps anymore.

Let me expand on that. This is not going to make me wildly popular with the powers-that-be in SFWA, but you might as well know why being a SFWA member isn’t quite the unique and wonderful thing it used to be.

There was a time when listing yourself as a SFWA member usually got you out of the slush pile and onto the editor’s desk. It didn’t guarantee a sale — nothing does — but it pretty much guaranteed a much quicker read.

Now let’s go back to the origins of SFWA. The credentials for membership haven’t changed: the sale of 3 short stories or a novel — but once upon a time those credentials were supposed to be renewed every three years.

Problem is, SFWA didn’t have any money in the early 1970s, so the rules were informally suspended. You could become a member with less than the required credentials, just by sending in your dues, and no one ever asked anyone to prove they had renewed their credentials (i.e., sold 3 more stories or another novel in the 3 years after they were accepted as members, ad infinitum.)

Okay, bring the calendar up to the early 1990s, and now SFWA has plenty of money — but it’s also got over a thousand Active Members, which is patently ridiculous, since less than 150 of us make our livings writing science fiction. So the membership was asked to vote on whether credentials should be renewed as originally called for.

Well, figure it out: the ratio of writers who couldn’t renew their credentials to those who could was about 6 to 1. So of course SFWA voted to throw out credentials renewal and to grandfather in all dues-paying members.

And on that day, SFWA ceased to be an organization of professional writers. A lot of its clout vanished, and printing “Member SFWA” on a manuscript no longer gives you any cachet with most editors, myself included.

2011 update: SFWA hasn’t done it’s standing any good by getting rid of its Anti-Piracy Committee.


QUESTION: Eighteen months ago I received an acceptance — no contract or check, unfortunately, since they pay on publication — from a magazine that has announced that it will be going electronic in the spring. What do I do now?

ANSWER: What do you do now? Whatever you want. If it’s not in writing, and you haven’t signed and cashed a check, it’s not a legal sale. If you want to leave the story there, leave it. If you want to pull it and sell it elsewhere, write the editor a note telling him you are doing so and then go about it.

For what it’s worth — zip in this case, obviously — almost all written contracts have a clause stating that the story must be published in X number of months or years or it reverts to the author, and no monies are due back to the publisher. Should you receive a contract that doesn’t have that clause, write it in and insist that the publisher or editor initial it. The standard term is 24 months, but I’ve seen them as short as a year and as long (in one case only) as ten years.

Now let me ask you one: why do you think a magazine that doesn’t pay until publication shouldn’t give you a written contract?


QUESTION: I have before me a contract for my first novel. There’s some language in here that really worries me: they want me to agree to pay any damages awarded to anyone who sues the publisher over material in my book, whether the case actually goes to trial or not. (In other words, the publisher could settle out of court — without my knowledge or approval — and I’d have to pay.) My agent says this clause is non-negotiable; what would you do in my shoes?

ANSWER: In your shoes? I’d refuse to sign it, and I’d fire any agent who urged me to sign it.

Look — anyone can sue anyone for anything. If you sign a contract allowing your publisher to settle without your approval and force you to pay, why should he ever fight any claim, no matter how frivolous?

Usually I recommend that beginners accept almost any clause, no matter how onerous, in order to get in print — but this one’s beyond the pale. Walk away from it as fast as you can.

2011 update: Not really an update, just an expansion. The publisher is almost trying to stick this onto the catch-all “indeminification clause”, a standard clause in which you indemnify him in case you are successfully sued for plagiarism. Some publishers try to add more problematical suits, such as obscenity or defamation. Rubbish. Their legal departments have okayed the manuscript, and there’s no reason why you should incur all the court costs because you describe a woman with a heart-shaped mole on her left buttock and you get sued by a woman with a similar mole who claims you’re writing about her.


QUESTION: Maybe it’s the season, but I’m feeling unusually depressed by the current crop of short fiction in the last few months’ worth of prozines. You mentioned once that the SF audience is dwindling and getting older; couldn’t this be one reason why? Isn’t anybody besides Analog offering professional publication for stories that don’t make the reader reach for the Prozac?

ANSWER: I think you’re guilty of assuming that the vast majority of science fiction readers share your taste, and I think it’s demonstrable that they don’t.

There’s nothing wrong with Analog. With the passing of Amazing, it’s our oldest and most revered magazine, and certainly Stanley Schmidt has done a remarkable job of selecting stories that appeal to its large and loyal readership. But the fact remains that the bulk of the awards go to stories from Asimov’s and F&SF. Now, you can say what you will about the Nebulas — that they are voted upon by writers who are either trading votes or are impressed by literary pyrotechnics that are lost on the average reader (neither of which I happen to agree with, but I’ve heard both arguments many times) — but the Hugos are voted upon by the fans, the same fans who cast far more votes for Best Dramatic Presentation than for any literary category, who can be said (unlike the writers) to vote for the most popular and readable stories. And if you look at the novels on the bestseller lists, you’ll find an awful lot of 5-book trilogies, media spinoffs, and far-less-than-literary novels.

As for the audience getting older, not all of us find that so terrible. I was on a Worldcon panel once, in which each writer was asked what he was trying to do with his work. Larry Niven said that he was trying to write the kind of science fiction he wanted to read when he was 14. It’s a valid and honorable answer, and I have no problem with it. But when it was my turn — I was 40 at the time — I said that I was trying to write the kind of fiction I wanted to read as a 40-year-old, and that next year I’d write the kind I wanted to read as a 41-year-old.

My answer was just as valid for me and my readers as Larry’s was for him and his readers. I think it’s nice that we work in a field that can accommodate both answers.


QUESTION: If I sell my book before getting an agent, would it really be smart for me to sign one up before accepting the contract? It seems to me he’d be doing very little for his 15%.

ANSWER: If it was just a matter of getting your book sold, you’d have a point.

But of course, it’s much more than that.

First, an agent can probably get you a bigger advance, especially if you’re a beginner. (True, the difference goes right into his pocket — and you’re assuming he’ll demand 15%; a number still take 10% — but you’ve now established a higher price. At the same time, you’re getting his services virtually for free, since he’s getting paid out of the extra money he brings in.)

Second, the money is only the most important part of a good contract. It’s the least important part of a badly-negotiated one.

You’re a beginner. You’ve never seen a contract before. Mess up some of that small print and you could find that:

-You’ve given away all your foreign rights.
-You’ve given away all your subsidiary rights.
– You’ve agreed to joint accounting with your next sale to the same publisher.
-You’ve signed an option clause that forbids you from selling anywhere else until a year or two after the publication of this book.
-You’ve signed a reversion clause that’s twice the length of the normal one.
– etc., etc., etc. The sum total of the above blunders could run into many multiples of the advance.

One more thing to remember. Even if you know what constitutes an ideal contract, you’re not going to see one if your name isn’t Stephen King. There will be dozens of clauses you want to change. Your publisher will accept some; others will be deal-killers. An on-the-spot agent will know what you can and can’t get away with; you won’t.

Are those enough reasons? There are more — we haven’t touched on an agent’s ability to sell overseas, compared to yours — but that really ought to hold you.


QUESTION: I just heard something horrid at a convention panel: once a new author has a book on the stands, his publisher — who’s controlling the number of books printed and therefore ultimately sold — will never do a print run longer than the first, on the theory that that’s the most that author will ever sell. Is this true? If so, what if anything could be done to change it?

ANSWER: I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying. I think it’s that a second printing will never be as large as the first, and if so, that makes sense.

A publisher — if he knows what he’s doing, and most of them do, or they wouldn’t be so adept at shafting writers — doesn’t choose a print run in a vacuum. He doesn’t say, well, I like this lady writer’s bustline, so we’ll print 100,000 paperbacks and maybe she’ll find some unique way to thank me . . . but this guy here, he may have written the best book I’ve read in ten years, but he drools and he has acne and bad breath, and his agent is too aggressive, so we’ll print 12,500 copies.

The publisher bases his print run on orders from wholesalers and chain stores and distributors, and then, because publishers really are optimists, he might add 10% or so to that total.

The typical sell-through these days is a little under 50%. And for some houses, a lot under 50%. (It used to be much higher in the halcyon days of my youth. Of course, the grass was greener and the snow was whiter, too.)

Not every store will want more copies, so of course if they go back to press, they’re going to be a lot more conservative. They’ve already pulped a lot of returns — it’s cheaper than shipping them back to the warehouse, even if it seems wasteful as well as immoral to an author — and they know that a 4-month-old title won’t sell as well as a brand-new one, so if they printed, say, 30,000 of your first novel and sold 18,000, that might justify going back to press for 5,000 more if there are enough re-orders to warrant it. It does not justify a second printing of 35,000.

Got it straight now?

See you next 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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11 Responses to Ask Bwana #13

  1. Ah, wish I had thought of specifying how long a publisher could hold a story before I signed the contract. There might be a clause in it, but it’ll have to wait until I get home to look at it now. So if it’s NOT there, does that mean they have an indefinite hold on it? It’s a new magazine and the first issue isn’t even out yet, and now I’m wondering what happens if it folds before my story even makes it to print… I was just excited to sell a story, hadn’t thought of these important things.

  2. Mike says:

    If the magazine goes belly-up, there shouldn’t be any problem getting your story back. And no, unless the contract states that they have an indefinite hold — and even THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS contract, the longest hold I’ve ever seen, was for a finite period of time (10 years) — then industry standard should apply. And industry standard on short fiction is commonly 2 years.


  3. Mike says:

    That’s reasonable. In fact, if it’s a printzine as opposed to an e-zine, that’s generous to a fault, since it’ll take ’em about a year to get it onto the stands if they schedule it today.


    • At first I thought it was going to be a print zine, but apparently it is only going to be online. Pay’s decent at 0.05/wd, but it has no track record yet. Have you heard of Buzzy Multimedia? That’s who will be producing it. They do a lot of audio-book productions, the Dresden Files is a mainstay for them. I hope the magazine does well, since there only seems to be a handful good paying markets out there to choose from.

  4. Mike says:

    No, I haven’ t heard of them, but if they’re doing the Dresden Files they don’t figure to be going broke anytime soon. 🙂


  5. Krystal says:

    Your advice on getting an agent seems like you have a pro-agent stance, which appears to be in contrast with Laura Resnick’s take that sometimes it’s better not to have an agent.

    Has your experience with agents been more positive than Laura’s? Do you still use an agent? Do you think agents are more necessary for beginning writers than for established pros?

    Thanks for these articles!

    • Mike says:

      Well, I am certainly pro -my- agent. 🙂 Once a year I send her a friendship card saying that she is not allowed to retire or die before I do.

      There are all kinds of agents, good, bad, and in-between. I had a bad one from 1979 through 1983. She found an editor that liked me, and as far as I can tell never submitted me anywhere else, since selling me there took no work. And she made one foreign sale in 4 years. My current agent, who I’ve had for 29 years, decided I wasn’t being paid enough, held an auction, and tripled my advance with the first book I gave her. She also made 31 foreign sales in the first 18 months I had her.

      Once you’re established — and by that, I don’t mean the author of one or two books, but rather in a position where editors come to -you- asking for books — you really don’t need an agent to sell here, though of course they’ll be more up-to-date on what clauses you can delete and which ones are contract-breakers if you don’t agree to them, and how much comparable writers are being paid…but the journeyman writer will make more money from the rest of the world than he makes in the USA (not from any one country, but from all of them combined), and for that I think an agent with a top foreign desk (industry-speak for excellent cooperative agents in other countries) remains essential.

      I know that Laura feels agents don’t work for -her- (but doesn’t extend that to all agents or all writers), and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and some others have had bad experiences with the agents they’ve chosen and blog constantly about it. I had a bad agent too, as I said, from 1979 to 1983. A number of outraged or disappointed writers blame the agenting biz; I blame the choices they made. You’ll have to make up your mind which of us speaks to your situation.

      • Krystal says:

        Thanks for taking the time to answer my question! It sounds like finding a good agent is an excellent way to maximize exposure and profits . . . and involves a lot of trial and error or maybe just some astounding luck.

        • Mike says:

          A lot depends on what you want in an agent. Different ones have different strengths and weaknesses — and different writers have different needs. The SFWA Directory lists all the agents and their stables of writers, so a good starting point is to query some writers who work with an agent you’re interested in and get their opinions. (And remember: if they’re still with the agent, it’s likely that they’re satisfied with him…so also talk to someone who’s left the agent and find out why.)

          • Krystal says:

            That is the most useful advice I’ve gotten on this subject in a year and half of asking various professionals. Thank you again.

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