Ask Bwana #17

BWANA 17

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #17 — September, 1997

Just got back from Worldcon, where a lot of writers seem to be undergoing a lot of grief. It’s tough to break in, tough to sell, tougher than ever to get your price up, and some of the publishers are playing some nasty games with contracts.

In the midst of all this, an old friend walked up, smiling like he’d won the lottery, and told me he’d just changed publishers, and gotten a bigger advance, a better cover artist, raised metallic type on the cover, some dump displays, the whole bit.

I congratulated him and suggested that he had every reason to be smiling. Oh, no, he corrected me — the deal was set a month ago; the smile was because he had just told his former editor what an asshole he was and how glad he was that he was never going to have to deal with him again.

Well, he probably won’t have to deal with that editor again — and if he’s exceptionally lucky, it’ll be his choice and not the editor’s. But it does bring up a point that bears mentioning.

When I broke into this field lo these many years and decades ago, almost all of the editors were writers who’d taken an editorial job so they could have a steady paycheck for a year or two. As soon as their bills were paid, they were gone, back to freelance writing.

That’s not the case these days. Not a single editor of a major paperback or hardcover line has ever earned a living as a science fiction writer, and none of them ever will. For better or worse, we’re stuck with them from now until the day they retire. When they leave a job, it’s not to write the Great American SF Novel; it’s to take a similar or slightly higher-paying editorial position with another SF publisher.

Which means that if you stick it out as a writer until you retire, and they stick it out as editors until they retire, the chances are that you’re going to want to (or have to) do business with them a few more times before you’re both safely drawing social security.

And that in turn means that it’s never a good idea to tell an editor what an asshole you think he is, even if you’re right. You think hell hath no fury like a woman scored, and nothing has a memory like an elephant? Try an editor that you abused the last time you dealt with him.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Can you control your book when you sell it to Hollywood?

ANSWER: Absolutely not. (Well, let me qualify that: you can if you’re also the director. It seems unlikely to apply to anyone reading this in Speculations.)

Fans are always asking if I can control Santiago or The Widowmaker or whatever else I’ve sold to Hollywood. I explain that I can’t. They seem appalled, especially when they find out that Carol and I are doing the screenplay. Well, we’re equally appalled, but them’s the rules. The screenwriter doesn’t even own the copyright to his own script. Your job, as a book author, is to sell your property to Hollywood for a ton of money and then vanish. Your job as a screenwriter, even if it’s your own novel you’re adapting, is to help the director realize his vision of the novel. The moment you forget that or argue it, you’re off the project. It’s as simple — and final — as that.

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QUESTION: I came down with a bad case of writer’s block and never finished a book that was due 10 years ago. Now I’m starting to write again, and wonder what I should do about this open contract. The advance was small and the on-delivery portion is minuscule. The editor I dealt with is long gone, as are nearly a half-dozen successors. The publisher seems to have forgotten about me. Should I hope their amnesia continues and write another book for another publisher and, hopefully, a bigger advance? Should I buy back the contract to clear the decks? Or should I spend the better part of a year writing a book that will pay me a couple of grand . . . if they accept it?

ANSWER: If the advance was tiny, just buy out of the contract (i.e., return the advance). If you find yourself unable or unwilling to do that, then get on with your career, write what you want for whom you want — but always remember that someone has a legal claim to a very inexpensive book by you, and can demand it at any time.

(In all likelihood, it’s long since been written off and nobody cares — but you do have a legal obligation, and if your next book sells like Stephen King’s next book, I think you can expect a phone call demanding that you fulfill your outstanding contract.)

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QUESTION: A whole series of horrible things happened to me last weekend at Worldcon. First, I attended a party at which the senior editor of a major book publishing line told anyone who’d listen that novelists were going to have to start accepting flat fees — no royalties — for everything they write, and there was nothing we could do about it. I just rolled my eyes at this, along with almost everyone else in the room, but then:

I went to the SFWA business meeting and heard how Bantam was only going to offer a flat fee — $40,000 US paperback, $60,000 US hardback — for their new series of Star Wars novels, and if this approach worked, we could expect all work-for-hire to immediately jump over to flat fees and the midlist to follow shortly thereafter.

Finally, upon my return from the con, I received a message from my agent that someone from Bantam had called and wanted to talk to me about — you guessed it — writing a Star Wars book or three.

Gods, Mike, what the hell do I do now? I know I’d be selling out the rest of my brothers and sisters, but I need the money, badly.

And . . . . well, if I don’t do it, somebody else will, right?

ANSWER: First things first: It’s highly unlikely that real novels (as opposed to media novelizations) will ever become flat-fee-no-royalty deals. However, the simple truth is that, in point of fact, most of them are that right now. Not a lot of authors, at any level, see royalty checks two books in a row . . . because when you see one, you demand a bigger advance on the next novel.

(So why do publishers keep paying big and bigger prices when books don’t often “earn out?” Simple. The publisher’s break-even point is a hell of a lot lower than the writer’s. They won’t admit it, of course, but everyone knows it, and that’s how some writers can get higher advances 6 or 8 times in a row without ever seeing a royalty check.)

Okay, about the Star Wars thing. Bantam’s got the writers over a barrel on this one. It’s an immoral and unethical contract, no doubt about it. But it’s also a bigger advance than 39 out of 40 SFWA members will ever see in their lives. And based on what I heard at Worldcon from Michael Kube-McDowell and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a pair of Star Wars authors, the market is getting so glutted that $60,000 US for a hard-soft deal isn’t all that far from what they would expect with a lower advance plus a 2% royalty (which is the standard royalty rate on a novelization; Lucas, Roddenberry, or whoever owns the copyrights keeps the other 6% or 8%)

So what do you do? Risk offending your fellow writers, or risk losing your house, your car, and your kid’s college education? Put in those stark terms, no one can blame you for taking the money. I think it’s wrong. I hope you don’t have to. But to me, the most telling comment came from Steve Barnes: “It’s okay to suffer for your art, but it’s chickenshit to make your wife and kids suffer for your art.”

It’s got to be your decision, based on how badly you need the money. (I turned down a Star Wars trilogy 3 years ago, when one could reasonably expect to make 6 digits a book. We all have things we’ll do and things we won’t do, and I can’t make you share my repugnance for writing mediabooks any more than you can make me share your need to pay the pile of bills sitting on your desk.)

The one unhappy truth facing SFWA — and the thing that makes this so difficult to fight — is that these books are all interchangeable, and yes, if you don’t write it, indeed if no one in SFWA writes one, Bantam won’t have any trouble finding a couple of dozen hungry writers to do them, and their sales won’t suffer appreciably (if at all).

(Before all you Trek authors scream at me that Pocket found out it did make a difference who wrote the books, let me point out that it made a difference of 20,000 to 30,000 paperback sales per title. Bantam is printing well over half a million paperbacks of each Star Wars title, and I suggest that they can put up with 20,000 less sales in exchange for not being hassled.)

2012 update: Thanks to the advent of e-books, no one is offering no-royalty contracts anymore…not when a writer can make 65% royalties publishing his e-book at Barnes, 70% at Amazon, and 100% at his own web page. In fact, publishers are being more civil than they’ve ever been before…but that’s because we need them less than we ever have before.

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QUESTION: If you’re doing research for a book and secure an interview with a professional or an expert (e.g. police detective or scientist), is it customary to provide some sort of gratuity for their time and information, and if so how much?

ANSWER: If you only need an hour or two of their time, no, usually treating them to lunch, or giving them a copy of the book with their names in it will suffice. If you’re going to live in some guy’s pocket for two weeks, then yes, a fee is customary. How much is something you negotiate with him. Or ask your editor what’s standard.

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QUESTION: In Ask Bwana #15, you answered the question, “How do you tell a new writer the difference between showing and telling?” with, “I tell him to rent 2001: A Space Odyssey and watch the first hour of it.”

I understood immediately what you meant by this, but can you cite a couple of equivalent examples from SF literature, preferably from several recent short stories and novels?

ANSWER: To name any single story or book would be inadequate. Rather, let me suggest that you find an author whose prose puts you in an alien (or future) environment, who makes you suspend your disbelief faster than most of the others. The acknowledged master at this has always been Arthur C. Clarke, but there are many, many others; one who always works for me is James White.

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QUESTION: This is going to sound stupid, but I’m blocked for the first time ever. Not because of a story, but because I sold one and they want me to write a short autobiography. What’s the best way to write your own bio without sounding like a pompous twit?

ANSWER: If you can’t inject a goodly amount of self-deprecating humor — and that’s not everyone’s literary bag — then try doing it as objectively as you can, in the third person.

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QUESTION: I really enjoy your column, especially the way you deal with professional success, rather than dispensing writing advice. (I don’t think I believe writing can be “taught.”) Can you recommend any other good sources of material on this topic?

ANSWER: Yeah, there are some fine, even classic, articles on Professionalism in science fiction. (One of these days I may collect the best of them into a book.)

For starters, there’s Fred Pohl’s “The Science Fiction Professional” (from Reginald Bretnor’s The Craft of Science Fiction), which is the final word in self-promotion.

From the same book, there’s Norman Spinrad’s “Rubber Sciences,” absolutely essential to someone like me who wouldn’t know a hard science if it spit in his eye.

Norman Spinrad also wrote a wonderful essay, “A Prince From Another Land” (from Martin H. Greenberg’s Fantastic Lives), in which you learn how to impress, and maybe even intimidate, an editor who has invited you to his office to talk a little business.

Barry Malzberg’s The Engines of the Night, perhaps the most brilliant collection of SF criticism ever to make its way to book form, has an essay — “The All-Time, Prime-Time, Take-Me-to-Your-Leader Science Fiction Plot” — which contains a handful of SF plots that have been selling regularly for half a century and are all but guaranteed to sell for another half-century. There’s also the flip side, an essay entitled “Tell Me Doctor If You Can That It’s Not All Happening Again,” which lists some brilliant notions that are, and always have been, unsaleable in the science fiction field. Finally, there’s “A Few Hard Truths For the Troops,” about how the field really works.

The Proceedings: Discon, Advent Press’s transcript of the 1963 Worldcon, has a panel I’ve touted before: “What Should A BEM Look Like?”, with Isaac Asimov, Willy Ley, L. Sprague de Camp, Leigh Brackett, Ed Emshwiller, and Fritz Leiber as participants. Most useful panel in the history of Worldcons.

Robert A. Heinlein’s “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” which contains his now-famous 5 Rules For Writers, can be found in Damon Knight’s Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, and also in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by the staff of Analog and Asimov’s.

Gardner Dozois, who just won his 9th Best Editor Hugo, gives further evidence (not that any’s necessary) that he understands every facet of the field with the brilliant article, “Living the Future: You Are What You Eat,” which also appeared in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.

There are a lot more — but these are certainly enough to get you started.

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QUESTION: I know you’ve gone over the difference between a premise and a screenplay before, but what I’m looking for is a quick overview as to how a writer actually sells a script to Hollywood. How does a story get from the writer’s brain to the movie screen?

ANSWER: The two most obvious (and truthful) answers are: Slowly and Indirectly.

I assume you want more details. Okay. Just understand that there are exceptions to every rule, so if someone comes up and tells you they did it differently, they’re probably telling the truth — and they probably don’t realize just how unique they are.

What you don’t do is try to market it the way you market a book — on its quality. You don’t submit to the studios’ story departments, because they’re nothing but glorified slush piles.

The very best way is to package your script with a hungry producer and a hot director, and let them make the sale. And understand going in that the odds are that somewhere along the way, you’ll be replaced by a more experienced (not necessarily better) screenwriter.

You’d also better make a lot of contacts in the industry. No, not every writer who’s sold a script knows a lot of people in the industry . . . but it sure helps — and for this kind of money, against this many hungry competitors, why handicap yourself by not doing everything in your power to help your script find a home?

One final thing: screenwriting is a completely different discipline from prose writing. No matter how awful the current crop of movies are, it’s not because no one knew how to write for the cinema; rather, it’s because you cannot (or can only very rarely) produce a work of art by committee. No matter how brilliant a prose writer you are, no matter how many books you’ve read about screenwriting, until you start working day-in-day-out with Hollywood, you have only the vaguest, inaccurate idea of what it’s all about. Honest.

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QUESTION: If a computer game company came to you and said they wanted to base a game on one of your universes, how would you feel? More important, how much would you charge? And what rights would you want to hang onto at all costs?

ANSWER: How would I feel? Flattered. What would I charge? I wouldn’t know until I knew what kind of distribution they had. Are we talking a company that might sell 400 games a year, or 50 games in every Babbage’s and Egghead store in the country?

As for rights, I would try to limit them just as I try to limit every option contract. If they wanted the rights to make, say, a Widowmaker game, I would limit their source material to the Widowmaker books and to Birthright, the novel that created the future in which some 25 of my books have been set. But I would expressly forbid them to use worlds or characters or plots that were unique to, say, Santiago or Ivory or Soothsayer, all books set in the same universe. If I didn’t do that, they could borrow enough from those books that I could never sell them to a game company. And I’d insist that though they could use the Birthright universe, my rights to it were proprietary for books, games, comics, movies, and whatever.

I’d also want a reversion clause, similar to that found in a book contract: after X years, the rights revert to me if the game isn’t still in print (or, since “in print” is such a nebulous term for a computer game, I’d try to get them to agree to revert it if it hadn’t sold Y copies in the past 6 months.)

2012 update: This is precisely the procedure I followed when EN, a British gaming company, made an offer for Santiago. Everything went smoothly, and the game is due out in early 2012.

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QUESTION: Okay, enough already about those pesky semiprozines. Would you please list the magazines you would submit material to, with a brief explanation of the reasoning behind each decision?

ANSWER: Sure. I’d submit to Asimov’s, F&SF, Analog, Science Fiction Age, Realms of Fantasy, Omni, Artemis, Crank!, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and Playboy, because they’re prozines and they pay professional rates. I’d also submit to any semi-prozine that would pay me a pro rate, and a number have.

2012 update: 5 of the 10 magazines I listed are dead, and another isn’t buying science fiction any more. But for today I would add a number of e-zines, including, but not limited to, Subterranean, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Fantasy, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Chizine, Abyss & Apex, Raygun Revival, Futurismic, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and maybe four or five others. I’d also consider a few of the podcasters that specialize in science fiction.

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QUESTION: I’m a moderately popular novelist, with several series and a medium-sized fan following to my credit. Unfortunately I also have a nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome that makes it painful to hold a pen. How do I tell people that signing autographs hurts like fire and impairs my ability to write more prose, without coming off like a snob?

ANSWER: There will always be a few fans who won’t believe you, just as there are some idiots who still don’t understand Larry Niven has a bad back and can’t sign autographs on some days. All you can do is explain it, have the con committee explain it — and, if you feel uneasy about it, show up in those plastic braces my wife wears for her carpel tunnel syndrome. (No, they won’t make you feel better, but it’ll convince the more dubious and less sensitive fans that you really do have carpel tunnel.)

Nice questions. See you next month.

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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