Ask Bwana #14

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #14 — March, 1997

‘Tis the season to go crazy.

The Nebula ballot is out. The Hugo nomination ballot is out. The various news magazines are sending out their polls. And science fiction writers are spending their spare hours doing a lot of math in their heads — and not because their stories require it.

Trust me: it’s not worth the effort. You can try to handicap the awards races, and all it will do is give you a migraine.

Example: I just won the Science Fiction Chronicle Poll for the sixth time in seven years. Sure it makes me feel good — but it drives me nuts, because during that same period of time, I have won the Locus Poll only once with the very same stories. What does one set of readers know about my work that the other doesn’t?

Or take my good friend James Patrick Kelly. We were sitting at the same table in 1996 when we both lost the novelette Nebula. A few days later my novelette beat his for the HOMer Award. A month later it beat his for the Locus Award. On opening day of Worldcon, it beat his in the Science Fiction Weekly Straw Hugo Poll Award. Jim spent all weekend congratulating me on my pending Hugo win. So what happened? His novelette, which had won nothing all year, not only won the biggest award of all — the Hugo — but won by a huge margin.

George Effinger, writing about his “Schoedinger’s Kitten” in the SFWA Bulletin back in 1989, pointed out that he was winless after seven Nebula nominations, and that whatever anyone thought of his story, he could produce math to prove that the odds against his losing eight Nebulas in a row were even greater than the odds against his winning in 1989. And sure enough, he won.

Go figure.

Or, since figuring won’t help, go write the very best fiction you can and leave the awards to the voters. You probably can’t predict them, you probably can’t influence them, and you can take comfort in the fact that Time eventually sorts out the wheat from the chaff.

Okay, let’s begin with a question left over from the last issue, since I received a follow-up too late to answer at that time; I’ll run them back-to-back with my answers here.

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 of his book.

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 printer, 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.

Follow-Up:

QUESTION: No, I’m sorry, I wasn’t very clear, although the answer to the question I didn’t ask was pretty useful by itself. What the pros on this panel were talking about was an author’s second and subsequent books, not printings of the same one. This seems insane to me: if it’s true and the first volume of my trilogy isn’t a blockbuster, the second one’s going to sink like a rock and the third isn’t ever going to see the light of day.

ANSWER: If your third book is contracted, it’ll see the light of day. But while your first book doesn’t have to be a blockbuster, it will have to sell better than anticipated for your publisher to put any extra money into promoting the next two. If it doesn’t sell well — and lots of first novels don’t — then your publisher will cut his losses by tossing the second and third books out to live or die on their own, with no advertising and no promotion. He’ll do it on the assumption that it’s not a wise business practice to throw bad money after good, and from his point of view — remember, publishers are after Profits, not Art — he’ll be right.

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QUESTION: I’ve just come out of a meeting with the producers of a television show, and — surprise! — am somewhat disoriented. They seem to have liked my idea for the show, but not the script I wrote. So they’re offering me what seems like a very small amount of money for what they call a “premise.” What’s the difference between a premise and a “treatment?” It feels like they’re just paying me $500 US for an idea and sending me away; should I fight it or hope that it’s all a part of the Hollywood breaking-in process?

ANSWER: They’re just paying you for an idea and sending you away. More to the point, they’re paying you a pittance for an idea, and you’re no closer to breaking in today than you were a year ago.

A treatment is the Tinseltown equivalent of an outline or a synopsis. It usually goes 2,000 to 5,000 words, occasionally with bits of dialog and descriptive passages that will appear in the screenplay or teleplay. In my somewhat limited experience out West, I find that treatments tend to go for between 10 and 50 times what you are being paid for your premise. More to the point, they almost all carry serious bonus payments if the scenario actually makes it to celluloid. I suspect this is not the case with anything that gets bought for $500, which is literally less than Carol and I have had them blow on lunch for us.

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QUESTION: A story I wrote has been picked for a Year’s Best anthology. I’m flattered, of course, but the pay is miserable, a penny (US) a word. Is this standard, or are they trying to pull the wool over my eyes?

ANSWER: Sadly, it’s standard. And it’s not hard to figure out why. Gardner Dozois, for example, buys about 350,000 words for his best-of-the-year anthology, and it does not get published in mass market.

By contrast, the typical anthology that I edit pays 6 or 7 cents US a word. But 1) I’m buying 90,000 to 120,000 words; 2) they’re original words, not reprints; and 3) my anthologies may print 20,000 to 35,000 copies in mass market paperback, whereas Gardner’s book may print 2,500 hardcovers and 7,500 trade paperbacks — and if you’ll check your local store, you’ll see they’re still out there on the racks three and four and five years later. (And they’re still in their first printing.)

The economics are terrible. Just be glad Gardner and Dave Hartwell (the other best-of-the-year anthologist) are willing to do the work, so you can bask in the glory of being selected, and try to view it as a semi-fair trade: a little lost money for a little literary recognition.

2011 update: There are now 5 best-of-the-year anthologies, which in my opinion tends to dilute the value of being selected by one or two of them. Gardner’s is probably still the most prestigious.

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QUESTION: We were in a Barnes & Noble the other day and saw your book Santiago listed as a re-release as a movie tie-in. Is the movie really that close to done or are there Other Purposes afoot?

ANSWER: As I write this (March 9, 1997) the movie is still more than a year — possibly a good deal more than a year — from appearing on your neighborhood screen. So why is the current reprint listed as a movie tie-in?

Well, like all book contracts, Santiago’s has a reversion clause. That means that after a given period of time — in this case, 5 years, which is pretty typical — if the book goes out of print, I can notify the publisher in writing that I want it brought back into print. He has six months in which to comply, and if it is still out of print at the end of that period, the rights revert to me.

Now Tor, who is Santiago’s publisher, has allowed a couple of my books to revert to me. These were books that, unlike Santiago, were not national bestsellers, and will almost certainly never be made into movies. They found their audience, sold to it, and that was that. I may resell them a few years up the road, when there are enough new readers to justify it, but no one is going to get rich from them unless some unforeseen lightning strikes.

But Tor knows that Santiago is going to be a movie, which makes it an even more valuable property in the future than it has been in the past, so they have no intention of letting it revert to me — which is a wise business decision on their part. If I got the rights back, I would either sell them to a rival publisher, or I would sell them right back to Tor for a huge advance — so by keeping the book in print, Tor keeps the rights to it without having to pay another advance.

Okay, that’s why it’s back in print. Why does it say “Soon to be a major motion picture” or some such thing? Simple. Look at the book racks and the bestseller lists, and you’ll see that they are dominated by Trekbooks and Wookiebooks and other media tie-ins. Santiago has been around for a decade; it’s reached all the SF fans who might want to read it, except for the most recent newcomers. So as long as Tor had to reprint it to keep the rights, they figured they might as well try to sell as many copies as possible, and that means trying to interest the movie freaks who don’t know me or Santiago from Adam, but know that if it’s going to be a movie, they want it. (And you can be sure that as soon as the keyline art — that’s the “movie poster” art that shows Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson or PeeWee Herman or whoever the hero is — becomes available, that wonderful Michael Whelan cover painting will go into mothballs. As with my answer to a previous question, it comes down to simple economics.

2007 Update: You haven’t seen the movie yet. It is still under option; I have collected 17 annual option payments, which is close to what they will have to pay if when they finally make the damned thing; I have also been paid — 4 times in fact — for the screenplay; and the book itself has been continuously in print for 22 years, all but unheard-of, and is still earning royalties. And Hollywood still says they’re making it next year. A grain of salt won’t do; I have to take their promises with a whole container of Morton’s these days.

2011 update: And you still haven’t seen it — and they still are trying to get it made. Since 1989 it has been optioned, in sequels, by Universal, Largo, Capella, Grand Illusions, and now by Wayfarer. My screenplay has been repurchased by the current producer and is still attached to the movie. Tor reverted Santiago in 2010, after 24 consecutive years in print. If the film ever gets made, they’ll wish they hadn’t…and if it doesn’t, they’ll be glad they let it go. It’s frustrating — but if it cost $50 million US to get a book published, you wouldn’t see a lot in the stores.

Another thing for writers to consider: I mentioned that Tor had reverted some titles. The trick is never to let reverted titles sit around gathering dust. I re-sold Stalking the Unicorn and Ivory to Pyr, Paradise, Purgatory, and Inferno to Farthest Star, Second Contact to Fantastic Books, etc. — and today all of them are available in e-form right here in my web store, or at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the other usual markets. Properly handled, a book is never through earning money for the author.

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QUESTION: An agent has asked me for a rewrite on my novel but hasn’t offered me a contract. Can I continue to show the novel to other agents, or would this fall under the category of simultaneous submissions? In general, are simultaneous submissions to agents considered to be a Bad Thing? (I know, I should try to get a publisher to offer a contract first and then go agent shopping. The trouble with that is that it takes a couple of years for every publisher to get around to reading the book; at that rate I’ll be old and gray before I even need an agent.)

ANSWER: You could also be old and gray before an agent gets around to reading and accepting your manuscript. You’ve been told, here and elsewhere, that with very few exceptions you shouldn’t accept an agent who is willing to have an unpublished writer in his stable. That advice is still valid. You are choosing to ignore it. You’re making a big mistake, but it’s yours to make, so I’ll address the thrust of the question.

An agent doesn’t purchase a manuscript when he offers you a contract. He is not a publisher, and the ethics of simultaneous submissions do not apply to this situation. Furthermore, how much rewriting you do, if any, is not dependant upon a contract with an agent. He’s making suggestions, and if you’re new to the field (and he’s not) there’s a basic assumption here that he knows better than you what sells; but if he’s not buying the manuscript — and he’s not — then he can only suggest changes, not demand them.

Can you make simultaneous submissions to agents? Hell, yes. If an agent doesn’t reply quick enough to suit you, he’s never going to be your agent, is he? And if he’s out of the running, the fact that he hasn’t returned your manuscript yet has no bearing on who you are going to hire as an agent.

(Try an analogous situation. You test drive a Sedan de Ville at your local Cadillac dealership. The salesman promises to call you with a price . . . but you decide you hate the car and make up your mind to buy a Lincoln Town Car instead. Is it unethical to do so before the Cadillac dealer phones you with his best price on a car you know you’re not going to purchase? Of course not.)

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 36 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 41 anthologies. My work has been translated into 26 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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