Ask Bwana #21


NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #21 — May, 1998

This seems to be Challenge Bwana Month. While I’d prefer it if everyone agreed with me, it does save me the trouble of coming up with an introductory essay this issue, so with your kind indulgence, I’ll reprint the two letters in question and offer up my answers.

Just wanted to point out that Mike Resnick gave out some misinformation about when copyright attaches to a work in his “Ask Bwana” column. Specifically, an author has a copyright in his work when the work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” (i.e., as soon as the work is written down on paper). Mike incorrectly stated that copyright attached only when the work was “published.”

Thought you might want to correct this, since he made a big deal of saying that professionals would know this, then got it wrong.

Laura Majerus, Graham & James LLP,Palo Alto, CA,

Now, for those of you who didn’t read last issue’s Ask Bwana column (shame on you!), the question wasn’t about legality, but about how to avoid having your manuscript look like it was submitted by a totally clueless newcomer. I explained that you wanted to follow the standard rules — black type on white paper, double-space, number your pages, etc. — and added that the most obvious mark of a newcomer was to put a copyright notice on the manuscript, since it implied that you knew nothing about lag times.

Well, nothing has changed from last issue to this. As an editor I have bought upwards of 450 short stories, and I have never encountered a copyright notice on any manuscript that was submitted by a journeyman professional.

Let me give you a little example. In 1993, I got a contract to provide Alternate Tyrants, an original anthology, to Tor books. I handed it in to Tor in the spring of 1994, but for various reasons the book did not come out until 1997. Check the copyright page. Even though no story in the book was written after May of 1994, they are all copyright 1996 (when Tor thought it was publishing the book), except for Maureen McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train,” which was given permission to double-dip to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1995.

What would have happened if all the stories had been copyrighted the day they were printed out by the writers? Well, Maureen couldn’t have won the 1996 Hugo — her story wouldn’t have met the publication date deadlines — and no newcomer could have qualified for the Campbell Award, since a 1994 copyright would have made them ineligible. And Tor would have had one hell of a difficult time convincing anyone that a 1997 anthology with every story copyrighted 1993 or 1994 was truly an original anthology.

So much for examples. Now let’s try common sense. It’s April, 1999, and you buy a novel that was published a week ago. The copyright date is, of course, 1999. Do you really think that the book was written in January, submitted in February, copy-edited and typeset in March, and printed in April? Of course not. The book was written no later than 1998, possibly as early as 1996 (and that’s assuming it hasn’t been rejected a few times).

This is Standard Operating Procedure in the fiction trade. So, in answer to the question about how to avoid looking like a clueless beginner, I repeat: one very important way is not to print a (certainly misdated) copyright notice on the manuscript.

Okay, the next letter came from Gordon Van Gelder, long-time editor of science fiction at St. Martin’s Press, and more recently also the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Dear Kent and Denise:

On page 3 of the April SPECULATIONS, Mike Resnick says “the size of the advance determines the print run.” This is not true. In most cases, the people determining a book’s print run don’t even know the advance paid for the book. (Arthur C. Clarke has famously received $1.00 advances for books. Do you think the publishers printed one half-copy of the book based on this advance?)

What is true is that the publisher calculated the advance based on projected sales for the book. In doing so, they positioned the book in-house, which means they effectively decided what sort of ad budget and promotional plans they plan to use. And once these plans are determined, it’s hard to get the publisher to change.

I’ve seen many books with small advances get large print runs. Conversely, I’ve seen books with big advances get small print runs, and those sad cases (Vicki Hendricks’s wonderful MIAMI PURITY comes to mind) can demolish a writer’s career.

Keep up the good work.


Gordon Van Gelder, Editor

First, let’s get rid of the example of Arthur C. Clarke, who sold a book for $1.00. So did Stephen King. Both were publicity stunts. Or does someone out there honestly believe that if Sir Arthur had asked for $10, or $10,000, or even $100,000 US, he’d have been turned down?

I think Gordon and I are really playing a game of: which came first, the chicken or the egg? In other words, is the advance predicated on the projected sales of the book, or is the print run predicated by the advance?

It actually comes to the same thing. If you are a publisher and you pay Author X a $100,000 US advance, you’d have to be crazy to print 3,000 hardcovers and 30,000 paperbacks. You stand to take a substantial red ink bath when you lay out that kind of money, and the only way to protect it is to print enough copies to recoup your costs, and then advertise, promote and push the hell out of it to make sure you don’t gobble too many returns.

By the same token, if you pay Author Y a $5,000 US advance, the only way you can get hurt is to print 75,000 hardcovers and take 71,000 returns, or print 300,000 paperbacks with a 12% sell-through. When you keep your initial expenses to a minimum, you keep all further expenses down as well; it’s just simple economics. Ray Feist and William Gibson don’t get 3,500-hardcover print runs, and Joe Unknown doesn’t get a $35,000 US Frazetta cover painting and a 12-city author tour.

So how does a newcomer ever make the bestseller list? It does happen, you know; the latest example is Terry Goodkind.

Well, the answer is simple enough. I’ve been saying for years that, with the exception of such rarities as Catch-22 and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, bestsellers are made, not in the writing or the reviews, but in the contracts. Terry got a quarter of a million dollars for his first novel, an almost unheard-of amount for a first novel in this field. Now, if you’re the publisher and you shelled out that kind of bread on an unknown, you’d better make him known in a hurry. You print tons of copies, you promote it, you advertise it, you give out incentives to your sales staff and to bookstores, you do everything you can not to take a $225,000 US bath.

Now, did you pay that advance because you checked with the chains and the ID agencies, or having shelled it out based on your experience did you then twist every chain and ID agency arm you could find?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

And does it really make a difference? Whichever came first, no one’s going to print 5,000 copies of your $300,000 US novel; and by the same token, they’re simply not going to print half a million copies of your $5,000 US novel. Simple as that.

Now on to this issue’s questions.


QUESTION: Okay, I’m trying the Bwana Method of selling my first novel: I’ve finished the thing and am now sending it to publishers. As soon as I have a nibble, I’ll get myself an agent. The trouble seems to be that very few publishers actually want to see the whole manuscript these days: they want three chapters, a synopsis, and a query letter. How do I write that query letter so as to grab the editor’s attention without seeming like an amateur?

ANSWER: Actually, no matter what they say, most editors are interested in seeing an entire manuscript from a first novelist; it’s the only way they know the writer can sustain that brilliant opening for the whole 500 pages or whatever. Now, it may be that you’ll have to show the editor 3 chapters and an outline to get him to ask to see the rest, but if you’re a beginner, you probably aren’t going to see a contract based on a start and synopsis.

You don’t send the query letter with the start; you send it first, in the hope that the editor will be so interested in what you have to say that he’ll ask to see those opening chapters. If you haven’t had any experience writing query letters — and I assume from your letter that you haven’t — probably the best thing to do is write one and read it to some friends who aren’t predisposed to love what you write. If you can interest them, you can probably interest an editor.

And hold that letter down to a single page.

P.S.: This isn’t the “Bwana Method” of selling a first novel. In the trade, we call it Standard Operating Procedure.


QUESTION: How long does a magazine have to be around before you’ll send them a story? Or is there some other rule of thumb to go by when trying to guess whether they’ll be in existence long enough to publish it after they buy it?

ANSWER: About six seconds should do it. Maybe seven if you’re conservative.

Look, some wonderful, prestigious, high-paying magazines have come and gone with the speed of light: Cosmos, Argos, the revival of Worlds of If. Appearing in any of them would have enhanced most writers’ careers. If you wait to be sure a magazine isn’t going to fold, the odds are you’ll be too late . . . and if the editor likes your work, the only reasonable approach is to hit him early and often.


QUESTION: What’s the deal with Fine Print? Every small-to-medium-sized magazine that’s going under or having difficulties cites the Fine Print bankruptcy as the reason why. Has the distribution field really shrunk to the point where one company can go out of business and take all of the publishers who used it with them?

ANSWER: Back in 1954, one (major) distribution company folded and virtually killed off every pulp magazine in America, so yes, depending on the company’s clients and clout, dreadful things can happen if it does go belly-up. However, I’m not aware of any professional markets that were hurt by Fine Print. Analog is still in business; so are Asimov’s, and F&SF, and Science Fiction Age, and Worlds of Fantasy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and Weird Tales, and the newly-revived Amazing. Omni has folded, but not because of distribution. And by now you know what Bwana thinks of penny-a-word markets for any writer aspiring to professional status: he doesn’t recommend them when they’re alive, and he doesn’t mourn them when they’re dead.


QUESTION: I’ve been watching on-demand printing get closer and closer to reality, and the other day I ran across a company (work-related, not from a sucker-list solicitation) that will print a hundred copies of my novel — in paperback, of course — for under a dollar apiece. I’m awfully tempted to stick up a Web page and see how many I can sell. One thing still bothers me, though: is self-publishing that book going to be the kiss of death for my career?

ANSWER: I’ve said this before, and I’ll repeat it now as bluntly as I can: vanity-pressing (i.e., self-publishing) is a public declaration that your work cannot compete in the marketplace, that it can only see print because you yourself paid to have it printed.

Read my lips: professional writers get paid for their work. They do not pay for the privilege of producing it. That is why we call them professional writers.

2012 update: Okay, the universe has changed since 1998. Self-publishing isn’t necessarily a public declaration that your book couldn’t compete in the marketplace. It costs you nothing — or at most a pittance — to self-publish, unlike the Old Days of 15 years ago when you had to pay for typesetting, paper, color separations, printing, and shipping, and then find a couple of undiscriminating bookstores that would stock it. A number of established writers are self-publishing in e-form these days. It is now socially and professionally acceptable

There are two main disadvantages. First, you don’t get an advance, which is what most writers — and especially beginners — live on; and second, if you’re not branded, if you don’t have an audience looking for your phosphors among twelve million others, you’re asking for some very depressing sales figures if your name is not Amanda Hocking, everyone’s favorite example of the Little Red Train That Could.


QUESTION: What’s your take on writing competitions? Sucker bait? Or a real shot at something big? What if they don’t charge a fee to enter?

ANSWER: I don’t suppose writing competitions do much harm. I don’t really see that they do much good, even if you were to win one. And no writer should ever pay a fee to enter.

*sigh* This is a recorded message: Writers do not pay to write; writers get paid to write. Why is this concept so difficult to grasp?

2012 update: one, at least, is clearly and demonstrably a Class Act — L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future.


QUESTION: How much mucking around with my prose should I tolerate from an editor? I’m not talking about copy-editing or grammatical nits, but big things like plot points and dialogue. When does editing stop and rewriting begin?

ANSWER: That’s a very self-serving way to word the question. The answer is: how much mucking around with your prose does your contract permit your editor to do?

Many contracts stipulate that the editor can propose changes, but only the writer can make them. Some allow the editor to make them. Just about all of them have a clause stating that the author’s approval of changes, or willingness to make them at the editor’s request, cannot be “unduly withheld” — which is the publisher’s out: any time you say No, the editor or publisher can claim that you are unduly withholding your approval and reject the story, even if you’ve signed a contract.

So . . . what’s in your contract? Did you give the editor the right to make any changes he wants? Is he doing this without your permission but with a contract clause requiring your approval, which you have thus far not unduly withheld?

Fred Pohl once suggested (I believe he may have been quoting someone else) that the only way to negotiate a contract is to assume that both you and that wonderful guy who loves your work and wants to buy it will die next week and your heirs will hate each other’s guts. So check that contract and see whose heirs will come out ahead — and remember that the best you can probably hope for is a cancellation of the sale, and an embittered editor who will probably not buy from you again. (Well, you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you?)


QUESTION: Who are your favorite mainstream (non-genre) writers, and which of their works did you enjoy the most?

ANSWER: By “mainstream,” I assume you mean mainstream fiction. A partial answer — I’m writing this in a hotel room 1,000 miles from my library, so I’m sure I’m going to overlook some obvious ones — would include Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ, in my opinion the best single novel ever written); Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness); Joseph Heller (Catch-22, probably the best American novel this century); Herman Melville (Moby Dick, the Great American Novel); W. P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe); Robert Ruark (Something of Value); Carson McCullers (Ballad of the Sad Café); Allen Drury (Advise and Consent); Vladimir Nabakov (Pale Fire).

2012: I knew I’d forget someone, in this case the man I think was probably the best American writer of the past 40 years, Edward Whittemore, author of the magnificent Jerusalem Quartet, which consists of Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic.)


QUESTION: Do I need to specify what rights I’m offering with my submission, or is it another Dreaded Mark of the Amateur? If I don’t specify what rights I’m offering, can’t they just assume I’m giving it to them and publish it for free?

ANSWER: No, you don’t need to specify what rights you’re offering with your submission, and yes, it’s another Dreaded Mark of the Amateur. No one who is in the publishing business will assume that you’re giving them your manuscript to publish for free. If they want to buy it, they will offer you a contract. The contract will state what rights they wish to buy. You can then sign it, reject it, or negotiate and amend it. Simple as that.


QUESTION: I’ve had a nibble on one of my novels from Hollywood. I know the odds are they won’t option it, and that if they option it they won’t make it — but if they do make it, how can I maintain artistic control so they don’t turn it into another (yuuch!) Starship Troopers?

ANSWER: If you’re on speaking terms with God, you’d better ask Him to intervene, because no earthly power can help you.

Try to understand: Hollywood doesn’t work the way New York publishing does. The screenwriter, no matter how much money he gets paid, does not hold the copyright on the script; the producer does.

Let’s put it in practical terms that no one can misunderstand. Tom Clancy is currently the highest-paid novelist in history. He makes even more than Stephen King does. He gets about $20 million a book. He can afford the best agents and lawyers and business managers in the world. He was even able to make a 9-digit offer for the Minnesota Vikings football team.

But he can’t get any artistic control over his movies. And if Clancy can’t exercise control, what chance do you think you have?

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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