Ask Bwana #15

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #15 — May, 1997

This introductory essay will be a little longer than usual. Bear with me; it might give you some food for thought.

An interesting thing happened a few weeks ago on the GEnie network. It was announced in the Speculations topic that a certain penny-a-word market had just closed up shop. Everyone thought this was a terrible thing — except me. I couldn’t see any reason to mourn what was, in truth, a glorified fanzine.

Suddenly the topic was filled with questions.

“What’s wrong with selling for two cents a word when you can’t crack the major markets?”

“Isn’t it better to get in print than not get in print, no matter what the venue?”

“Why not sell a story for even a penny a word? At least it’ll buy you coffee and a donut.”

“Is it not productive to sell stories to low-paying (1 to 2 cents US a word) magazines which have been rejected by all pro markets? [Bwana’s comment: If this is the way you structure your sentences, I think I know why the majors bounced your story.] I have a friend who has made 12 small press sales but who still gets form rejections from the professional markets. I have other friends who’ve published even more in the small press and won’t even try the pro markets.”

There were a lot more such questions, but I’m sure you get the gist of it — so I figure it’s time to lay out Bwana’s Theory of Bottom-of-the-Barrel Markets.

Which is: Don’t Touch Them.

There are three exceptions, and we’ll come to them in just a moment.

But first, let’s consider the negative aspects of selling to these penny dreadfuls.

To begin with, they’re paying less than most markets paid half a century ago.

Second, these are not, by the farthest stretch of the imagination and the definition, professional markets. Putting them on your resume would be counter-productive; they would practically scream “Bush league!”

Third, if you establish yourself in one of these el cheapo markets, you will very likely achieve a certain degree of emotional security and will consequently have less reason to go out and compete where the real writers are. (Note the last sentence in the last question I quoted: “I have other friends who’ve published even more in the small press and won’t even try the pro markets.” And no, it’s not a made-up quote; it’s still sitting there on GEnie for anyone who wants to read it in its entirety.)

Fourth, and now we’re coming to the Important Reasons, to sell to a penny-a-word or 2-cents-a-word market is a public declaration that you couldn’t crack a professional market — and yes, editors (and readers) notice and remember.

Fifth, assuming you have what it takes to become a selling professional, the day will come when you can sell anything you write and just about anything you have written, including the stories that you’re considering giving away to ephemeral markets for peanuts. (You must also remember that most of these stories are being rejected by the major prozines for valid literary reasons, and when you’re good enough and famous enough to start unloading your trunk, the odds are that you will look at these stories and either dump them or totally rewrite them.)

Okay (I hear you say), those are perfectly valid arguments, but I want to get in print so badly I’d sell my firstborn into a lifetime of bondage if that would accomplish it.

The answer — always unpleasant and always true — is that not everyone has the talent or the discipline (and never underestimate the latter) to become a writer. There are tens of thousands of other honorable professions, and a lot of them pay better. In a field that has, at best, half a dozen magazines and eight or nine book publishers — and over 1,000 card-carrying members of SFWA — it’s no disgrace not to be able to compete on an equal footing with Joe Haldeman and Connie Willis and Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Silverberg and their peers.

Okay (I hear you quickly changing the subject), we know that you yourself have appeared in penny-a-word markets and even in non-paying fanzines, and if you won’t take your own advice, why should we?

The answer is that fanzines are amateur publications that don’t pretend to pay for what you give them, and they are published and read by the people who keep me in business. I consider giving them occasional articles to be a cross between goodwill and paying my fannish dues (I came up through fandom), and I freely admit to having supplied articles to Mimosa, Lan’s Lantern, File 770, Fosfax and a ton of others. Almost all these editor/publishers are friends, and I’m happy to do them favors when I have the time.

2011 update: Add Challenger, subtract the now-defunct Lan’s Lantern and Mimosa.

But when we start talking penny-a-word markets, that’s a different kettle of fish.

Do I sell to them?


Do I sell them original stories?


To my way of thinking, when you’re marketing an original story, you’re a professional writer seeking a professional rate of pay. But once it’s sold, then anything further it earns is gravy, and if I won’t turn down a penny a word to get into Gardner Dozois’ annual best of the year anthology, I won’t turn down a penny or two cents a word for one-time reprint rights from some semi-pro magazine.

That’s one of the three justifications for selling to penny-a-word markets that I mentioned above.

The other two?

One, you never have any desire to become a professional writer and these markets constitute the absolute peak of your literary ambition.

Two, you are a multi-millionaire who is not doing this for money, and you couldn’t care less what eventual effect these stories, given away for coolie wages, have on your reputation as a quality writer.

One last objection (I hear you scream). We know that you’ve sold original stories to semi-pro markets, so why are you lying to us?

*Sigh.* One final unhappy truth for the troops: If I appear in a semi-prozine, they did not pay me semi-pro rates. Sometimes a semi-pro editor will buy one story, at prozine rates, in order to get a “Name” for the cover. That’s the way the world works; learn to live with it.

2011 update: This was written before e-books, of course. There is no stigma involved in self-publishing your own e-books, but Amanda Hocking to the contrary, there’s probably not much profit in it unless you are “branded”, which is to say, unless you have already established an audience that is conditioned to look for your work.

Okay, so much for the lecture. Now let’s get on to the rest of this month’s questions.


QUESTION: As someone who has not yet published a novel, the standard advice I’ve always heard is to write a whole novel before trying to sell it to a publisher, rather than go the three chapters and an outline route that more experienced writers get away with. But on the other hand, I’ve begun a track record of short story publications and also received some acclaim for my work, which has made my name semi-visible recently. Could I possibly get away with the three chapters and an outline, or is it still easier for me to sell a novel if I’ve finished the whole book first?

ANSWER: It’s always easier for a beginner — and that’s what you are as a novelist — to sell a novel if you’ve submit the entire manuscript.

Can you sell it based on a start and synopses? It depends on the house and the editor. I’d certainly speak directly to the editor and make sure she’ll consider three-chapters-and-an-outline before languishing in her slushpile for 6 or 8 months, only to be told that you are required to submit the entire novel. (And if you have an agent, just ask him what each house will consider.)

2011 update: I’ve probably said this in other Ask Bwana columns, but it bears repeating for beginners: When a publisher or editors asks for 3 chapters and a synopsis, they want chapters 1, 2 and 3, not chapters 1, 8 and 22.


QUESTION: How do you tell a new writer the difference between showing and telling?

ANSWER:I tell him to rent 2001: A Space Odyssey and pay special attention to the first hour. Mankind is born, evolves, creates weapons, masters space flight, and the audience is introduced to the protagonist and taken on a very realistic flight to the Moon, complete with Zero-G toilets.

And the first word of dialog isn’t spoken for more than an hour!

If there’s a better example of “show, don’t tell” in all of science fiction, I don’t know what it is.


QUESTION: I have before me an anthology contract that says, “The Author grants permission to include the story in the above mentioned volume to be published in the United States by [Publisher] and in other editions throughout the world.” It also offers payment as “an advance . . . against the Author’s pro rata share of the anthology’s earnings, if any, beyond the initial advance, earnings to include income from trade, book club, reprint, audio, translations and foreign sales or any other subsidiary earnings received by the Anthologists from sales of the Anthology.” As far as I can tell, it sounds as though I’m signing away world rights and the kitchen sink, albeit with the possibility of additional royalties. Is this standard? Or should I attempt to amend the contract to North American rights only? Do anthologists (as opposed to magazines) automatically retain the right to sell the book anywhere in the world? Should I strike any of the above list of potential income sources, such as foreign sales or audio?

ANSWER: Actually, you left out the operative phrase, which states exactly what rights you are selling. If this is a standard contract from a reputable anthologist, what you’re selling are “non-exclusive world rights.”

What this means is that the anthologist can sell the book, as a whole, anywhere in the world without getting your permission each time (though of course he must pay you your pro rata share each time he is paid). But you yourself can sell the story anywhere in the world, too — to magazines, as part of any collection you might put together, to other reprint anthologies . . . which is where the “non-exclusive” comes in.

The contract may forbid you from selling it for 6 months or a year, which is fair, but if you ask explicit permission for a particular sale in less than the stated time, you can usually get it.

2011 update: I should have been more explicit on that final paragraph. Why would you ask, and the editor give, permission to reprint the story in less than the time the contract calls for? Simple: if you are asked for the story by one of the best-of-the-year anthologists, because this reflects glory, or at least credit, on the original editor and his publishing house.


QUESTION: I’ve done some game-related fiction — in fact, it’s been the best-paying writing that I’ve ever done. The role-playing-game industry is in a slump, and several of the companies are retrenching. One of the smaller companies has asked me to provide them with a short story for free as a way of cementing a relationship which might turn into paying work later on. What should I do?

ANSWER: You should tell them, as politely as possible, to take their free job and shove it. You’re a pro; by definition, you don’t work for free.

Let’s try it another way: If the situation was reversed, would they give you $5,000 US today against the hope that you might agree to work for them five or ten years up the road?


QUESTION: Does one write what he doesn’t particularly care to in order to make pro sales? Or continue to write what he wants to write — what he’s driven to write?

ANSWER: That’s the most difficult question to come across my desk in almost three years of writing this column.

Theoretically, you write what you are driven to write, what you love to write.

But in the real world, you have to pay for groceries and mortgages and your children’s orthodontist, and this field, especially, offers tons of lucrative work-for-hire projects — all those endless and interchangeable Trekbooks and Wookiebooks and (soon to come, I’m sure) Xbooks.

While I resent these media tie-ins killing off the field’s midlist and making it harder for newcomers to break in than it’s been in decades, I have never blamed a writer for writing what he needed to pay his bills.

There are some pros who actually enjoy writing media tie-ins, and more power to them. There are some who feel embarrassed and humiliated by doing so, but they have kids to put through college, and no one holds it against them.

The lucky ones can write exactly what they want and make a living from it — and they should be the objects of everyone’s envy.

As for what you yourself should do . . . ask your accountant and that guy in the mirror.


QUESTION: If I’m writing in different genres, or if I’m writing very different sorts of work in one genre (say, serious thoughtful SF and silly space opera), is it a good idea to use different names for the different kinds of work? Does using one byline for different genres confuse readers and booksellers, as I’ve been told it does?

ANSWER: I’d use the same byline in the same general category (such as serious SF and space opera), because if you’ve established any readership loyalty, they’ll follow you that far.

As for using a new name in a different category, I’d ask my editor whether he thought it would help or hurt, and be guided by that. I’ve done mystery novels and non-fiction books under my own name and never noticed that it hurt my sales . . . but it may differ from writer to writer. I know, for example, that Jack Vance is John Holbrook Vance when he writes mysteries. And that mystery writer Ed McBain is Evan Hunter when he writes mainstream. On the other hand, no editor alive would have let Isaac Asimov use a pseudonym for his mysteries, because his own name was so well-known and bankable.


QUESTION: If someday I find myself needing to write hackwork to pay the rent, would I be better off publishing under the same name as the rest of my work or a different one?

ANSWER: I think you answered it yourself. Do you want your name to be associated with hackwork?

Most of the science fiction writers who have been around for any length of time did their share of hackwork in the porn or romance or Gothic or doctor/nurse fields during their starving-writer days. The reason you don’t know it — or if you do, you don’t know who wrote what — is because we all used pseudonyms rather than have our own names associated with dreck commissioned by editors who didn’t want it good but wanted it Thursday.


QUESTION: Should anyone working as (or striving to be) a pro writer pay entry fees for story contests?

ANSWER: No. Pro writers don’t pay, they get paid. (They also never pick up the lunch or bar tab when they’re with editors. Consider that written in stone.) That introductory lecture took up so much space that for the first time in history, Bwana couldn’t answer all the questions he received. I promise to get to them next issue. See you then.

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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