Ask Bwana #22

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #22 — July, 1998

Lately, because I’ve optioned so many properties to Hollywood and Carol and I have sold some screenplays, I’ve been asked the following time and again by frustrated writers:

“I optioned my book to Producer A (or B, or C) or Studio X (or Y, or Z) a year or two ago. All they could talk about was how they were going to budget it at $120 million US, and they’d start shooting as soon as they could decide whether to cast Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise. So I waited, and I waited, and finally I started calling and writing to see what was holding things up, and no one writes or calls back. You’re the expert; what the hell is going on, and why aren’t they making my movie?”

Well, I’m certainly an expert on why they don’t call back. The unhappy truth is they don’t call back because they’re not going to make your movie, now or ever.

Why?

Let’s take a look at the economics. The average film today costs about $45 million US to make; the average science film may actually cost a little more. The blockbusters can go up to $200 million US (where you’ll find megahits like Titanic and megamisses like Godzilla.)

Now, to break even, a film needs to make about three times its negative cost.

Still why?

Because first of all, the theaters don’t show it for free. When you hear that Batman #19 took in $30 million US last week, you don’t think that all goes to Warner Brothers, do you? The theaters want a little something, too.

And then there’s the ad budgets. We’re not talking a quarter page in Locus here, folks. The ad budget for Godzilla was $120 million US . . . about $5 million US more than the actual cost of making the movie.

Okay, so your $50 million US film needs to make $150 million US to break even. How many films do that in a year? Six? Eight? Ten? (Well, not in America, but most will earn as much overseas as they do here, so a $75 million US domestic box office should just about get you out of the red a year from now, when the foreign money comes in.)

2008 Note: The Oscars were last night as I write this — and only one of the five films nominated for Best Picture grossed over $100 million US…and I have to assume prices are higher now than when I write this column ten years ago.

2012 update: and the spending continues to reach for the stratosphere. Word on the street is that Disney’s spending about $250 million US on John Carter, their adaptation of A Princess of Mars.)

Now . . . how much does it cost to option a book? We’re not talking a Tom Clancy or a Stephen King book, but just your average, run-of-the-mill category science fiction or mystery or Western or romance novel. The answer is that such books usually option for $5,000 or $10,000 US annually, renewable either once or twice.

So you’re a movie exec. You option a thousand (yes, 1,000) novels at $5,000 US apiece. Some you option because you love. Some you option because they fit a certain star or director. Some you option because you don’t want your competitors to option them. When the dust clears, what have you spent on those 1,000 books?

$5 million dollars.

In Hollywood terms, that’s lunch money.

And because you work in Hollywood, and you want to keep working in Hollywood, you know that the quickest way to lose your job is to go through those 1,000 books and make the wrong one. Spending $5 million US on properties is one thing . . . but spending $70 million US on a turkey that will only gross $30 million US is another. (And yes, it can happen. In fact, if you produced The Postman, those figures are positively optimistic.)

So if they can’t put a deal together almost instantly, if Cameron is busy and Spielberg declines and someone remembers that David Lean is dead, if Gibson wants too much and Costner has been burned by too many science fiction flops and Cruise wants 30% of the gross, they learn all that within a couple of months. And of course they cool to your project; after all, they’ve optioned more than 150 books in the two months since you were the newest fair-haired boy (or girl) on the block. Now you’re ancient history.

And only This Week’s Flavor gets his calls returned.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION:A graphic artist and I are about to launch into a collaboration in which I write and he draws (i.e., we’re doing a collaborative graphic novel). Can you give us some perspective on ownership of artistic property? Do we each own half of the finished property and split the royalties commensurately if it sells? Are there other issues we want to address before we even get started? We are strangers who met through one of the trade newsletters. Also, any advice on marketing the graphic novel these days?

ANSWER: If you can’t sell it without him and he can’t sell it without you, then it seems logical to me that you should split ownership and all proceeds right down the middle. If you both agree that one of you is bringing far more skill, clout, and effort to the project than the other is, then it’s up to the pair of you to dope out a percentage.

If you have different agents, you’ll have to decide which one will handle the project. And you probably need an agreement concerning what happens if you split up (i.e., can just one of you agree to a resale or a foreign sale, even if you split the money, or must both of you agree?)

Try to foresee every eventuality and prepare for it. Perhaps the best way would be to question some writers and graphics artists who are or once were in your position. Find out how they worked it, and what changes they would make in their initial agreements. Then, whatever agreement you reach with your partner, put it in writing or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

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QUESTION: Given how difficult it is to get an agent and how some publishers won’t accept unagented novels, why not just set up my husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/father/dog/cat as my agent? I’ve seen this one debated a bit and if Bwana has answered it, I’ve somehow missed it.

ANSWER: Because it’s a totally transparent gimmick. The editors know who the agents are. If they don’t, there are listings of accredited agents. It’ll take about two minutes to figure out that this is a scam, another 30 seconds to decide that you’re doing this because you’re not good enough to get a legitimate agent, another 20 seconds to realize that you think the editor is dumb enough to fall for it, and a final 10 seconds to put you on his shitlist. Total elapsed time for the exercise: 3 minutes.

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QUESTION: Please define “High Fantasy” and how it differs from “Fantasy.”

ANSWER: I hate this question, because there is no clear, codified answer, and whatever I say is going to be jumped on — but what the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Fantasy is the literature of the impossible. It includes gorgons, dragons, magic, vampires (yes, almost all horror is a subset of fantasy), even time travel. (The late John Campbell, when he was editing Astounding, then the best science fiction magazine extant, and Unknown, probably the best fantasy magazine ever, was asked by a potential contributor to define the difference between the two. His classic answer: “Stories for Astounding should be well-written, logical, and possible; stories for Unknown should be well-written and logical.”

High Fantasy is a subset of fantasy. It invariably involves a quest. It usually pits Good against Evil in one form or another, and Good always wins. It almost always involves magic. It most often takes place in kingdoms (as opposed to democracies) where people tend to speak a stilted English (as opposed to everyday English or any other language), and frequently features no weapon more modern than a sword. It features a Hero or a Heroine, who may or may not be of royal blood (but if they are, they are often unaware of it, or at least not in any position to assert their claims to the throne). There was a time when they published perhaps three new High Fantasy novels a year; these days, they tend to publish at least three a month.

2008 note: Make that 8 a month these days. Sigh.

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QUESTION: Dear Bwana: You missed an important point in responding to Laura Majerus in your June 1998 column.

Federal copyright law was not adopted in order to determine eligibility dates for the Hugo awards. The law was developed to protect authors’ significant creative, emotional, and temporal investment in their works by preventing the unauthorized exploitation of those words. If the copyright did not attach to a work at the moment it was produced in tangible form, as Ms. Majerus stated, unauthorized persons would have as much right as the author to sell, print, or rewrite the work during the two, three, or ten years it took the author to find a legitimate market for it.

Yes, it is amateurish to put a copyright date on a work you are trying to market. But your story is protected by federal copyright law, even though no one has bought or published it and even though the “copyright” date on the back of the title page will be the year of publication, not the year the text first rolled out of your printer.

Yours,

Susan Watkins

ANSWER: Once and for all (I mean it: this is the last time I will address the subject) I was not asked about copyright law per se, but rather about how to avoid looking like a clueless beginner. One of the ways, then, now, and always, is to avoid putting a copyright notice on the title page of your manuscript, since because of lag times it is almost certain to be wrong, and hence to scream “Amateur!”

Yes, your story is copyrighted the instant you print it out. That copyright is superceded by the one your publisher registers, in his or your name, when the story sees print.

However (read my lips) the initial question wasn’t about copyright, but about how to avoid looking like an amateur. I’ve told you how. Now I intend to show you how to avoid looking like an annoyed man who repeats himself once an issue by refusing to answer this again.

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QUESTION: Do you subscribe to any fiction magazines? If so, which ones? If I wanted to support a particular magazine, would it be better to subscribe or buy it off the newsstand?

ANSWER: I subscribe to the major science fiction magazines, since writing science fiction is my business and I feel I have to keep up with what’s going on in the field. And if you wish to support a magazine, it’s always better to subscribe than to buy it off the newsstand; you won’t miss any issues, and the publisher will make more money from your subscription than from a similar number of newsstand sales.

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QUESTION: I’ve heard writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz say that they made a fair amount of money in the seventies by selling short stories to men’s magazines like Cavalier and Adam. Do markets like these still exist? If so, where? Should I use a pseudonym when I send material to this sort of market?

ANSWER: You’d have to check the newsstands — and I mean the general newsstands, not those you find in the adults-only bookstore. (Why? Because if their distribution is that limited, they can’t be paying all that much.)

Playboy remains a top-paying prestige market. I think Penthouse is pretty much out of the fiction biz. Beyond that, just check the stands. And yes, except for Playboy, I’d use a pseudonym . . . not because selling to a men’s magazine is anything to be ashamed of, but selling to a lower-paying market is something you’d like to hide from the markets you plan to submit to next month and next year.

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QUESTION: Oh, and while we’re somewhere near the topic, will writing (and hopefully selling) erotica screw up my chances of selling to mainstream and other genre markets? I should definitely use a pseudonym here, right?

ANSWER: It didn’t screw up Robert Silverberg’s chances. Or Barry Malzberg’s. Or mine. Or a host of other SF writers whose names you know — including a very major female writer. Harlan Ellison edited a men’s magazine. So did Frank Robinson. So did I. Algis Budrys used to write the Playboy Advisor. Terry Bisson and I both wrote for and edited weekly tabloids. It put food on the table and paid the rent, and never kept any of us from writing and selling what we wanted to write and sell. (I think only Barry used his own name on his erotic books — but most of us were doing grind-it-out work for hire, while Barry was writing works of serious literary intent that just happened to have enough erotic content to appeal to the sex publishers.)

2012 update: paying your dues in the adult field wasn’t limited only to science fiction writers. Lawrence Block (4 Edgars, mystery Grandmaster and Donald E. Westlake (3 Edgars, mystery Grabdmaster) also labored in those trenches. And so did a lot of other writers whose names you’d know, not all of them men.)

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QUESTION: Every time I try to write from the point of view of the opposite sex it comes out sounding hopelessly stilted. How does a man write convincing female characters, and vice versa?

ANSWER: > This will sound condescending and/or simplistic, and I don’t mean it to . . . but try talking to some members of the opposite sex and really listen to them. After you’ve written a scene, show it to your Significant Other (unless you’re gay, in which case show it to your sibling of the opposite sex) and ask for input. And try to remember that, the unisex crowd and Political Correctness notwithstanding, there are differences between the sexes. Always have been, always will be. The good writers pinpoint them and use them.

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QUESTION: What are your last few favorite genre novels? Any “new” authors among them?

ANSWER: I don’t quite know what you mean by “last few.” If it’s novels published since, say, 1980, they’d include Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale, Effinger’s When Gravity Fails and A Fire in the Sun, Goldstein’s The Red Magician, Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, Simmons’ Hyperion, maybe a couple of others. (Notice how I modestly exclude my own work.)

If I’m allowed to go back further, the list would have to include Stapledon’s Star Maker and Last and First Men, Malzberg’s Galaxies and Herovit’s World, Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles, Bester’s The Demolished Man (magazine version much preferred) and The Stars My Destination, Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles, Simak’s City and Way Station, van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle, and any collection of Catherine L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories.

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QUESTION: Let’s say that the on-line service you use the most suddenly turns around and says that anything you post becomes their property and may be distributed, manipulated, or changed at will. Do you worry about this? If so, do you stay or do you go?

ANSWER: Always assuming you’re not posting unsold fiction, it’s a matter of personal choice: if it bothers you, go; if not, stay.

I’m on a service that makes that claim. I don’t worry about it. First, I seriously doubt it’ll hold up in a court of law. Second, if they want to own the copyrights to my posts about horse racing, Michael Jordan, and why I hate this year’s crop of SF movies, they’re welcome to ‘em.

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QUESTION: Did you ever sit down in front of a half-done novel and realize that it was truly awful and did not deserve to see the light of day? If so, how’d you bring yourself to finish it?

ANSWER: A few times, in my starving-writer days. (I was starving for a reason, you see.) I didn’t bring myself to finish them; I threw them out and began work on the next ones.

Although, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have to finish half of a turkey to know it was a turkey. Usually you can tell in 25 or 30 pages.

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QUESTION: I realize that no subject can be considered taboo for each and every market, but are there any that you’d recommend a new writer not tackle, just because it’ll be a harder story to sell?

ANSWER: Seriously? I think it’s very difficult for a beginner to sell derivative short fiction (if only because the established pros write it so much better, and the better short-story editors tend to demand work of literary ambition) and non-derivative novels (book editors know what their mostly non-demanding readers expect, so if you’re not a name and you’re writing wildly original stuff, most book editors — all their protests to the contrary — will fear that you’ll scare off the readership, which for the most part only wants to be challenged by writers they already know are challenging.)

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QUESTION: If an editor asks me point-blank for a rewrite — “fix X, Y, and Z and I’ll buy this” — shouldn’t his response to the rewrite be faster than his miserable 90-day response to the original submission?

ANSWER: First things first — 90-day responses are not miserable. In fact, they’re reasonably swift.

If the editor has said in print that he’ll buy your story if you make the requested changes, make a photocopy of his letter and include it with your rewritten manuscript. That should get you past the first reader (you probably wound up right back in the slush pile with your revision) and onto the editor’s desk in a hurry.

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 36 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 41 anthologies. My work has been translated into 26 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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