Ask Bwana #18

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #18 — November, 1997

It’s a jungle out there. Especially these days.

A number of science fiction authors, including Hugo winners and national bestsellers, have gone on the various networks and the Internet lately to tell their unhappy stories. One finds his advances cut almost in half. Another finds a publisher unwilling to honor a signed contract. Still another finds that, far from having the security a lifetime’s work would seem to have granted him, he’s unable to sell to anyone.

During private conversations at recent conventions I have confirmed that those writers are just the tip of the iceberg, that all across the field well-known long-established authors are finding out that the careers they’ve built over a decade or more are not the sturdy structures they had thought they were.

It used to be that once you broke in and sold half a dozen books and maybe won an award or two, you were set for life as long as you didn’t produce too many obvious turkeys. That’s no longer the case, so what do you do nowadays to try to preserve your career? How do you anticipate the damage so you can apply damage control before it’s too late?

First, you realistically assess your position in the field. A lot of writers are going to scream at this statement, but there has probably never been a field in American category fiction where advances were more out of line with sales than science fiction from 1965 to about 1985. If you’ve been around and have been wildly overpaid, the only viable reaction is to figure you got away with murder for a certain period of time, rather than that your publisher is getting away with murder now.

Second, you realistically assess the treatment you are getting from your publisher. It’s nice to get a big advance, but if your publisher gives you mediocre cover art and minimal promotion, you’re not going to earn out — and if you do that too many times, you’ll find you’ve become a pariah to all the publishers, who in this computer age can gain instant access to your sales figures from the distributors.

Third, if your publisher allows bookstores to order to the net, it’s time for you or your agent to gently suggest that he tell his sales force to start earning their salaries. (Ordering “to the net” means that, on Book #1, a store orders 20 copies and sells 14. On Book #2, they order 14 and sell 8. On Book #3, they order 8 and sell 5. On Book #4 . . . but you get the idea. It guarantees lower sales for you on each succeeding book, no matter how well you start.)

Fourth, it’s a good idea to keep on friendly terms with at least one editor from each publishing house, and to keep a close watch on what’s happening in the publishing world. Is Publisher A moving his emphasis from science fiction to fantasy? Is Publisher B cutting back his sales and editorial staffs? Is Publisher C moving more and more to media books? Is Publisher D slow-paying this year? Is that hot-shot new editor at Publisher E throwing around big money while in the momentary grip of editorial testosterone? As the song goes, you got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

And in this field, you’ve got to know when to stay and when to look for a new home before they can throw you out of the old one.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: What do I do? I submitted my story to a magazine; it was returned with a note saying, “Loved the prose, but the ending was weak.” While I was fiddling with the ending I decided to enter a copy of the original in the SFWoE contest. I wanted a second opinion. One of the gentlemen called me and was very impressed with the story but . . . the ending was weak. I resubmitted the new version in February to the magazine editor hoping he would like the new ending, but I haven’t heard from him. Should I be patient and wait for a response or drop a card in the mail inquiring if the manuscript was received? Also, would it be acceptable to resubmit to the contest, which is what was suggested to me by the gentleman who called, while the story is still at the magazine? Would I just be getting myself in a big mess by having the story in both places?

ANSWER: I received this question in early November. If that’s approximately when you wrote it, yes, by all means drop the magazine editor a note and ask him if he received it. A 10-month delay on a short story is inexcusable.

As for re-entering the contest, that depends on the rules and the deadlines. The magazine editor is only interested in First North American Serial Rights; in other words, if it appears somewhere else first, you’ve blown the sale (always assuming that he wants it, which is not, after 10 months, a given). Now, do the contest rules allow you to submit a story that has been (or may have been, by decision time) sold elsewhere? If so, submit; if not, don’t . . . and if you do submit, make absolutely certain that if the magazine buys it it will go to press before the book of contest winners does.

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QUESTION: Once upon a time when I was young and foolish I sold a couple of stories to a magazine that turned out to be an extreme professional embarrassment. I would love to forget that it ever existed, but I’ve recently had my nose rubbed in it again, on the World Wide Web. If you search on my name, up pop a pair of links to the first 500 words of each of those two stories, on an extremely shoddy Web page belonging to the magazine in question. Before I contact them, I’d like to know your opinion as to what constitutes fair use of an author’s work for promotional purposes, on-line and on paper, before and after the work in question has been published. There was no mention of any of this in their contract.

ANSWER: Do you own the copyright — and did you sell them First North American Serial Rights only? If the answer to both is yes, then write and tell them to cease and desist and get the damned thing off their web page or face the legal consequences. If you sold them more than one-time rights, tell them to pull it off the web page or pay you. (Yeah, I know you don’t want money, just oblivion, but if you sold reprint rights, even non-exclusive reprint rights, this is the best you can do — and it might convince them to pull your two stories and stick up a couple that the writers are glad to see online.)

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QUESTION: I wrote a story for an anthology that died stillborn. The story is rather long and I was told that the professional magazines required shorter short stories and I’d have to trunk it. So I altered it slightly and gave it to a fan magazine (circulation: 150) put out by some friends. Then I found out that several magazines do take stories that long, and longer. Okay, I shouldn’t have stopped looking so soon. My question is this: is it legitimate to return the story to its original form and try for a professional sale?

ANSWER: In a word, Yes. If it’s substantially different from the story you gave away, you have every right to market it as a new professional story.

Now, a question for you: what the hell kind of research did you do to make you think that the professional magazines required short(er) stories? Have you ever seen a copy of Asimov’s, Analog or F&SF that didn’t have a novelette, a novella, or a portion of a serialized novel? Have you ever seen a market listing for any of the above, or Science Fiction Age, or Realms of Fantasy, or any other prozine, that stipulated that they would only consider short stories (which, by legal definition, are less than 7,500 words)?

If you want to be a professional writer in this or any other field, you study the markets. You don’t accept a friend’s erroneous word about what it’s like out there.

2012 update: Okay, today there are some professional e-zines that want less than 7,500 words. But the above letter was written in 1997, and my response was absolutely valid for that particular era.

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QUESTION: I’ve received a form reject for my first novel. Would it be okay to send it back after I’ve made revisions, or if the market changes or the editor goes somewhere else? I guess what I’m really asking is whether the major publishers keep close enough track of submissions to catch me if I send the same book back, and if so, how much trouble it would land me in.

ANSWER: If you’ve made revisions, it’s okay to send it back, with a note explaining that you have made revisions.

Now to the unhappy truth: the odds are well over 50-to-1 that if you got a form rejection, the editor never saw it in the first place. Every book publisher has slush-pile readers, and that’s almost certainly where your manuscript landed, especially if you’re not a pro and you don’t have an agent. That means that the editor will not have read it the first time, will not know what changes you made, and, to be painfully honest, will probably not see the second submission either . . . unless you so dazzle the slush reader that he passes the manuscript on to the editor.

Tough odds, to be sure . . . but every writer whose name you know had to beat precisely those odds, and they all did it, some sooner, some later.

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QUESTION: In issue #17, you mentioned “dump displays.” They sound pretty disgusting. What are they?

ANSWER: A dump display is that cardboard display case you see near the cash register in bookstores, which can hold maybe 50 copies of the book it’s pushing, occasionally with a cardboard “poster” of the cover art, occasionally with some of the author’s backlist in some of the slots.

This is a marketing tool, a way of bringing a book to the buyer’s instant attention. It’s the best on-the-spot publicity that you can aim at the impulse buyer. And the only disgusting thing about a dump display is when they give it to someone else and not to you.

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QUESTION: I recently picked up a copy of your book Paradise, to compare it with the advice you give in Ask Bwana. I couldn’t see an early “hook” in the first chapters of this story. If you were not Mike Resnick, how would you sell this book to a publisher or get an agent to represent it? More generally, how does an unknown writer with a “storyline” novel get it into print? How would you write an attention-getting query letter for Paradise?

ANSWER: Certain stories and books don’t require a typical narrative hook; indeed, in some cases, a conventional hook would be detrimental to them. Paradise (which I consider my best novel to date) was one such book.

If I weren’t Mike Resnick, how would I sell it? With extreme difficulty . . . and that goes for being Mike Resnick before the mid-1980s.

Paradise was the first novel of its type: a science fictional allegory of a real country’s history, in which the country (Kenya) rather than any of the people living in it was the main character. You can’t sell a book like that with an outline. As I recall, I described it to Beth Meacham, my editor at Tor, while we were having lunch at some convention in New Orleans. The fact that my first Tor book had gotten up to #3 on the bestseller list the year before, and my current Tor book was up for a Nebula, certainly didn’t hurt matters. She asked a number of questions about how I planned to handle certain aspects of the book — brilliant is nice, but commercial is vital — and when she was satisfied with my answers, she went home to her office the next week and drew up a contract.

Could an unknown have sold something that different? Probably not.

Is it fair? Absolutely not.

Did anyone ever tell you life or writing were fair? If they did, they lied.

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QUESTION: I just received an offer from a major books-on-tape publisher for the audio rights to one of my previously-published short stories. It’s only about 5,000 words, but that’s going to translate to a forty-minute tape for which they’re planning on charging at least five bucks. Please, what are some of the pitfalls in dealing in audio rights? Do I need to get an agent?

ANSWER: I’ve only recently started selling audio rights myself during the past three years, and I’m not sure I know all the pitfalls yet. But let’s talk about what you can do to protect yourself:

1. If you have an agent, by all means let your agent handle the deal . . . but if you don’t, there’s hardly enough money involved in one audio sale to warrant getting an agent solely for that negotiation.

2. Talk to other writers who have signed with this audio publisher. Ask them how much they got up front and what kind of royalty rates they got, and make sure that your contract is comparable. (And yes, take the stories’ reputations into account. You wouldn’t really expect as much for a story that has appeared just once as Daniel Keyes would want for “Flowers For Algernon” or Ray Bradbury would demand for “The Veldt.”)

3. If the story is, or will someday be, connected to other stories, make sure you haven’t signed away the rights to those stories, or (just as important) signed away your right to sell them to a competitor.

4. Does the publisher plan to hire an actor to read the story, or does he want you to read it? And if he wants you to, will he pay commensurately more for this?

5. I’d be very leery of signing if there was no reversion clause. If you haven’t yet gotten an agent, I have to assume, with no insult intended, that you don’t qualify as a major writer. Hopefully I won’t be able to make that statement in 5 or 10 years — and if your name is worth 20 times as much then, you don’t want this publisher selling copies of your inexpensively-purchased story in perpetuity.

2012 update: Audio has gotten much bigger in the intervening 15 years. Audible.com — which sold to Amazon for $300 million a few years ago — “publishes” a couple of hundred audio “reprints” of science fiction novels a year, Brilliance and Blackstone are also players, and the short story field boasts Escape Pod, Dunesteef, Drabblecast, Podcastle, and others. In fact, the writer of 2012 can make a sizeable portion of his income from e-books and audio, two increasing markets that were all but non-existent in 1997.

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QUESTION: I’ve heard you refer to your wife Carol as your best editor, and I know of several other “partnerships,” like Joe and Gay Haldeman, Spider and Jeannie Robinson, and Robert and Ginny Heinlein. How important do you think the support of family is to a writer’s success?

ANSWER: The support of one’s family is emotionally satisfying, but I know a lot of unsupported writers, or writers with no family at all, who do just fine.

As for the partnerships you refer to, that can only be answered by each individual. In my own case, I know I could sell without Carol’s input and line-editing and all-around uncredited collaboratorship, but I think my quality would drop noticeably, probably precipitously.

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QUESTION: I’m taking a trip to Europe this summer. How do I make it look more like research and less like a vacation, for tax purposes?

ANSWER: The best way is to sell a novel based on some unique thing you can prove you saw. (I say novel, because even while trying to shed its “Bad Guy” image, the IRS is never going to let you deduct a $6,000 vacation to France if all you sell is a $400 story about the Eiffel Tower.) The next best way is to convince an editor — not necessarily a science fiction editor; in fact, the travel editor of your local newspaper would be even better — that there’s a great series of articles to be written about the gargoyles of Notre Dame or the architects of Stonehenge or whatever . . . and make sure he writes you a letter, on his paper’s stationery, excitedly urging you to go overseas to research these articles. Then, whether he buys them or not, you can show the IRS that you went there in good faith.

Finally, stop at bookstores and autograph the foreign editions your books. You won’t be able to deduct the entire vacation for that — you’d have to sell tens of thousands of paperbacks just to break even — but you can deduct travel to and from the stores, and meals eaten in the vicinity.

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QUESTION: I’m incredibly shy. How important is it to go to conventions and pump fins? Will I miss out on a lot of important opportunities if I hide in my office, shunning all the panels, SFWA suites, and parties?

ANSWER: You won’t miss a thing if you never enter a SFWA Suite, and certainly some fine careers have been built by people who didn’t attend conventions; James Tiptree, Jr. comes to mind — and as I recall, Clark Ashton Smith of Weird Tales fame, spent a goodly portion of his time living in a cave.

But the fact remains that this is, and has always been, a field of personal contacts and cachet, and you stand a better chance of selling to people you know (and who know you) than to strangers. Sure, Alice Sheldon (Tiptree) didn’t have to . . . but how many people can write like Alice Sheldon?

If you find it emotionally painful to go to conventions and to editorial offices, then don’t go. But if you can bring yourself to do it, it can only help your career.

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QUESTION: I once heard that editors of SF magazines put the best stories, or at least the ones they like the best, either first or last in their tables of contents. Is this true?

ANSWER: It happens a lot, but it’s untrue often enough for me to answer No.

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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