Ask Bwana #20

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #20 — March, 1998

So why (I hear you ask) do so many writers change publishers? Are they egomaniacs, trying to sell to as many publishers as they can in order to prove how much the editors like them? Are publishers so rotten that so many authors feel compelled to leave? Are they just following their editors, who seem to love playing musical chairs in the New York publishing world?

Well, yeah, writers are egomaniacs, and yeah, publishers can be rotten from time to time, and yeah, if you get an editor who loves your work you tend to move when he moves.

But there’s a better reason, and a more common one, and that reason is economics.

If you want a major boost in the size of your advances, you will almost have to change publishers, like it or not.

Publisher A buys your first 5 books, for $4,000, $5,000, $6,000, $7,500 and $10,000 US.

Fine. But you’re a slow writer, you haven’t been around long enough or made enough of a reputation to sell each book to 15 foreign countries, and you simply can’t live on those advances. They cover the car payments and the summer vacation, but you’ve got a spouse and two kids and a mortgage, and you can’t quit your day job to live on less than two advances a year.

So you have your agent ask for $25,000 for your next book. Hell, you know how good you are. You’re worth it. All you need is a little push by your publisher.

But your publisher will show you, indeed prove to you, that you can’t earn $25,000. And he’ll do it by showing you how many copies he printed and sold of your $7,500 US book and your $10,000 US book, neither of which have earned you any royalties yet.

Can he be right?

Well, he’s right from his point of view. But of course, it’s skewered in favor of a $10,000 advance.

First, as far as the royalties go, you have to understand that your publisher’s break-even point is substantially lower than yours. In other words, the book is profitable to him long before you’ve earned out your advance.

Second — and never forget this; it is true in every single circumstance — the size of the advance determines the print run, so of course he can prove that your $10,000 book couldn’t possibly break even at $25,000. And, as I said, from his point of view, he’s right.

So what you (and your agent) have to do is go to Publisher B and point out that you’ve had great reviews, and a good sell-through (which means the percentage of your print run that gets sold; 65%, for example, is excellent, whether it’s 65% of a million copies or 65% of 20,000.) What you need, you explain, is a publisher to get behind you and really push, to advertise and promote and excite his sales staff. You’ve written some fine books, but you’ve been handled like a low-level writer. It’s time to step up, and you think Publisher B is just the house to do it.

And if they say no, you make the same proposal to Publishers C through Z, until someone agrees.

Yes, it hurts to leave the house that first had enough confidence in your writing to publish your books, but a quick look at the major careers in the field will show you that the bulk of our successful authors changed houses at least once during their careers, and often more than once. Some had other reasons, but for most it was simply economics.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: I’ve noticed that many people in the field grew up reading the Heinlein juveniles. Those books are looked on with great fondness and considered the gold standard for YA fiction. I’ve also noticed that Charles Sheffield’s attempt to write a series of YA books has been repeatedly savaged by the reviewers in Locus.

What is the state of the SF YA market today? Has it been wiped out by media tie-in and Goosebumps books? Is anyone doing it well or successfully? Do any publishers want to see YA manuscripts? Is it a subgenre whose time has gone, or can it be renovated for our media-drenched age?

ANSWER: There is a very small market for Young Adult SF these days. Unless you count all the media books (which I do; it’s hard to imagine intelligent adults reading very many of them, but they sell like hotcakes, I assume mostly to teens who grew up on weekly TV shows and want to read about the same unchanging characters going through the same less-than-wildly-imaginative paces book after book after book.) I don’t know that the day of the Heinlein and Norton juvenile has completely passed, but it’s certainly going fast.

The mass market houses associated with SF don’t really have YA programs. If you’re planning on writing SF for young adults, I think you’d be better-advised to check the YA publishers.

2012: Okay, the world’s changed, all because of one woman: J. K. Rowling. When you can sell 25 million hardcovers of a YA fantasy, and repeat the process with every new sequel, you’re proving that there is a vast untapped audience out there, just as the Tolkien books proved, half a century ago, that there was a huge unsuspected fantasy audience that far outnumbered science fiction buyers. So now most science fiction houses have YA lines, and a lot of publishers who had non-fantasy YA lines have expanded to include fantasy and even science fiction.

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QUESTION: Back to basics, please: how can a writer act professionally when submitting so as not to look like a newbie?

ANSWER: The standard stuff — black type on white paper, double-space, name and title on every page, number the pages, one-inch (approximately) margins all around, SASE. No cover letter if it’s a short story (or, at most, a very brief one that states some fact about yourself that you feel the editor should know.)

2012 update: forget the black type on white paper stuff. 98% of all submissions these days are electronic. The main thing is to use a format — .doc and .rtf seem to be the default — that your editor can read.

Probably the easiest way to spot a novice is that he’ll put “Copyright 1998” on the title page. Nope. It’s not copyrighted until it’s printed — and since lag times are usually about a year, it probably won’t be printed until 1999. A pro knows this; a novice doesn’t. (And if it says “Copyright 1997,” it means he’s got a year’s worth of rejections since the last time he printed it up.)

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QUESTION: Yes, I’m going against everything you’ve told me in three years and starting an on-line magazine. Can you recommend the three or four most important things I should do to make my contract fair to writers, without losing my shirt?

ANSWER: Pay on acceptance. Pay a fair rate. Allow the authors to make the changes your editor wants; never let your staff change the copy. Read and return submissions promptly. Copyright the stories in the authors’ names.

And don’t come to me for a loan when you go broke.

2012 update: I won’t say it’s easy or lucrative today, but it’s demonstrably easier — witness all the professional e-zines — than it was when I answered this back in 1998.

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QUESTION: At the end of December, I made my first (small) sale. The story will be out in March or April. My question is, what’s the etiquette about submitting to the same editor? Should I wait until after the first one has been published, or could I have started shooting new things his way the day after the acceptance?

ANSWER: When you find an editor who’s willing to buy from you, of course you give him more stories to look at. You can start submitting the day you sell the first one. (One caveat: you claim it’s a small sale. If that means to a small market, why not try to sell to a major market? You’ll never hit the moon if you don’t shoot for it.)

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QUESTION: I hold in my hand the first issue of Altair, a new Australian SF magazine. It’s gorgeous, a painful reminder of what Century was supposed to be. I’m thinking about sending them a story, but wanted to hear your take on it beforehand: would having it published in a foreign magazine harm its chances of selling in the USA or be a waste in some other way?

ANSWER: Yes, if it’s like Century (or, more to the point, like England’s still-extant Interzone, a magazine with top writers that pays pro rates and is read throughout the SF community, regardless of total circulation figures), you’ve totally wiped out your chance of selling the story to a major American magazine. Suggestion: why not submit something to Altair that the American majors have turned down?

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QUESTION: How do I tell when a reject is really a request for a rewrite? I’ve recently had a couple close-but-no-cigar responses that have said things like “cannot accept this story in its current form.” Is it worth my while sending it back, or am I grasping at straws?

ANSWER: If the editor wants a rewrite, he’ll say so in no uncertain terms, and he’ll tell you what he wants changed.

I’ve said this a few hundred times, so once more can’t hurt: the operative word in the phrase “personal rejection” is not “personal.”

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QUESTION: Is anyone in the small press capable of publishing my novel and making me some money in doing so? My agent just landed a publisher who does not appear on Randy’s list, but nevertheless is offering me a real advance (mid-thousands), real royalties, and a contract that doesn’t actually have flies buzzing around it. What now, kemosabe?

ANSWER: If a small-press publisher has offered you a few thousand dollars — typical beginner’s pay for a first novel — and your agent has okayed the contract, and you have not been able to sell to mass market, go ahead.

But understand that small presses have limitations, which is why they are small presses. Don’t look for any serious advertising or promotion for your book. Don’t look for big print runs, because they lack both the upfront money and the distributional outlets. Don’t look for reviews from all the major publications (especially if your name isn’t known; this is not, after all, like Larry Niven selling The Ringworld Engineers to Phantasia Press in a limited, boxed, leatherbound edition before the mass market hardcover could come out). And if their contract is like any other hardcover-only contract, know up front that they’re going to want half your paperback advance. If you’re aware of all this and you still want to sell to the small-press publisher and your agent approves, go ahead.

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QUESTION: In last issue’s “Ask Bwana”, you mentioned that there were maybe half a dozen good agents in the field. Would you mind naming them?

ANSWER: I wouldn’t mind, but I think all the agents who aren’t among that half dozen would mind, and so would their lawyers.

Tell you what. Go borrow a SFWA Directory from a member of SFWA. In the back, they list every agent and all the SFWA members who belong to each agent’s stable. See where you think you’d be most comfortable. Then contact some of the writers in the stable and ask them for pros and cons about the agent in question. Does he return phone calls promptly? Does he have a good foreign desk? Who handles his movie options? Can he receive e-mail? Does he charge 10% or 15%? What incidental expenses will he bill you for? Does he attend Worldcon, World Fantasy Con, or the Nebula banquet, or do you have to go to New York to have a face-to-face with him? Does he pay you the instant the check arrives, or does he wait until his bank clears it? Does he handle short fiction, or does he want you to do that yourself? Will he handle you personally, or is his stable so large that you’ll be given to some skilled or unskilled assistant? Does his expertise extend beyond science fiction and fantasy, and if so, does it cover areas in which you might wish to write? Get those questions answered, decide which are most important to you (and which are totally unimportant), and you’ll soon narrow the list down to two or three agents, tops. Then you contact them and see which you’re most comfortable with.

2012 update: All the agents now charge 15%

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QUESTION: Do you listen to music while you’re working? If so, what?

ANSWER: Always. Usually swing (especially the Andrews Sisters), big band (especially Xaviar Cugat and Jimmy Dorsey), or cast albums/CDs (especially Sondheim or Jones & Schmidt). I tend to play one tape or CD over and over and over again, which drives Carol crazy. But I find if I keep changing music, I listen to it — and that takes away from my concentration on the work at hand. By playing the same thing endlessly, it becomes pleasant background noise.
2012 update: Add composer/lyricist William Finn and composer Michel Legrand to the list.

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QUESTION: I’ve heard a rumor claiming that at least one superstore is in contact with the marketing departments of several major novel publishers, reviewing proposed acquisitions for “marketability,” influencing and in some cases even vetoing editorial decisions. It sounds just gruesome enough to be true . . . is it?

ANSWER: It’s kinda sorta true, but it works the other way around. In other words, publishers ask the buyers for the major chains how many copies they can take of a new book by Author X. And if it happens that Author X’s last two books tanked, the chain buyer might reply that he won’t take any, that they just sit on the rack taking up space and gathering dust. Now, with the ID agencies dying like flies, publishers depend more and more on the chains, and especially the superstores, so of course this will influence their decision on whether or not to publish Author X.

But there’s nothing basically wrong with that. This is a capitalist society, and every author completes in the open marketplace. Nowhere is it written in stone that every author must make a living even if no one wants to buy his books. For years we’ve been waiting for the computerization of the distribution business, so that sales, rather than hype, determined who got the major advances and who didn’t. Now it’s happened, and some of us are yelling like stuck pigs, but in the long run it’s good for the field. It’s no longer Who Do You Know, but rather What Have You Done, and I think that’s a more equitable system.

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QUESTION: I’ve been told that you can’t get your foot in the door in Hollywood without an agent (and no agent will handle a writer who has no prior Hollywood sales, making it a closed field) . . . and yet you and your wife have sold some screenplays and I know you don’t have a Hollywood agent. So how does it work?

ANSWER: Nothing’s ever as simple as it seems. If Carol and I wanted to work full-time in Hollywood, which would include taking scores of meetings every year, and applying for rewrite jobs, and everything else being a full-time screenwriter implies, we’d get an agent.

But in Hollywood, a screenwriter’s agent’s primary job is to set up meetings, to put his clients together with people who might be able to make assignments. The actual contract negotiations are handled by your Hollywood lawyer (and that means a lawyer who specializes in Hollywood contracts, not just one who works in the Los Angeles area), not your agent.

Since we only give Hollywood a few weeks a year, and since they keep contacting us, we don’t need an agent at present. We do need the best law firm we can get, and after a little serious looking, we got it.

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QUESTION: Bwana, I sold a story more than a year ago to a magazine. At the time, I’d considered adding a rider to the contract stating that the publisher had 18 months to publish, or the story would revert to me. I didn’t add the rider — guess I got worried that the editor might back off. Anyway, my question is this: since I didn’t add the rider (and haven’t gotten paid either — the magazine pays on publication), could I yank the story if it doesn’t see print in the near future? What would be the ramifications if I did?

ANSWER: I don’t think you have any legal right to yank the story. There’s no reversion clause or time limit in the contract, and if you signed the contract, you have a moral and legal obligation to let him publish the story.

That said, let’s get on to the second half of your question: what would be the ramifications if you did pull it? Well, if it’s a story and not a book, there’s hardly enough money involved to warrant taking you to court. Also, if they pay on publication, they’re not a major player, and probably can’t afford to go to court over this any more than you can. So I assume you could pull the story without being sued — but if the publisher and/or editor have any clout within the field, you will probably be blackballed.

Probably your best bet is to write a friendly letter to the editor, asking when your story will be published. If he has no answer, you might point out that the industry standard for holding a story is two years, and since no money has changed hands, you’d like to pull your story if he won’t publish it within that time frame. If he agrees, you’ve got your story back; if he doesn’t, you’re no worse off than you are 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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