Ask Bwana #24

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #24 — November, 1998

This issue’s questions are giving me a serious sense of déjà vu (or, since this is about science fiction writing, perhaps that should be Dejah vu).

Either we’ve got a whole new bunch of wannabees out there, or somebody — a lot of somebodies — haven’t been paying much attention to this column.

I can’t believe that someone could have read all the things that have been written here, and still want advice about selling to semi-pro markets.

Or that anyone thinks I’m going to advocate paying money to enter a writing contest.

Or that they think it’s anything but bush-league for a magazine to pay two rates: one to writers who subscribe and one to writers who don’t.

So I’m going to say it one more time. Read my lips:

This column is aimed at the professional writer. By definition, professional writers get paid professional rates for writing. By definition, those who write for semi-professional or amateur wages are not professionals, and are not the real or imagined audience of this column.

Bwana is not going to change his opinion. If you disagree with it, that’s your God-given right . . . but if you do disagree, you should know up front that if you write a letter to Ask Bwana you are almost certainly not going to like the response.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: Please rank the following criteria in order of importance when deciding where to send a story: response time, rate of pay, circulation, frequency of publication, regularity of publication, and “hang time,” the time it takes for an accepted piece to see print. Is there anything I missed?

ANSWER: Yeah, you missed something. First and foremost, SEND IT TO THE LIKELIEST MARKET! I don’t care how many of the other criteria you consider, it’s just out-and-out stupid to send a delicate fantasy story to Analog or a hard-science high-tech story to Realms of Fantasy.

As for the other stuff:

Rate of pay is most important — if you expect to sell it first time out of the box (and most established pros expect just that).

Circulation can be most important — if you think you’ve got a Hugo-quality story and you want the greatest number of potential voters to read it.

“Hang time” as you define it is meaningful only if this is an award-quality story, you’ve sold another award-quality story of the same length, and you don’t want the two competing in the same year for the same awards.

Response time is meaningful primarily to amateurs and to beginning pros — those who expect the story to be rejected. The very established pros usually get read the week their stories arrive (which is why these response time charts are not very meaningful), and the reasonably-established pros know they’re out of the slush pile and that they’ll get a response in a reasonable amount of time.

Frequency and regularity of publication don’t mean zip, as long as the market figures to remain viable long enough for their check to clear and your story to see print.


QUESTION: How do you resist the temptation to write your enemies into your fiction, complete with the fate that they deserve? Or . . . do you?

ANSWER: I’d love to say that I don’t have any enemies. But the simple truth is that I got over writing them into stories decades ago, and I suggest that any grown-up writers do the same.


QUESTION: I’ve been following your advice and doing multiple submissions. Unfortunately, I’ve been caught at it and publicly castigated by three semipro editors who hang out on the same on-line forum. Should I be worried that my career is over?

ANSWER: I don’t know how to break this to you gently, but if you are submitting to semi-prozines, you don’t have a career.

There is every likelihood that semi-pro markets don’t get 1,500 interchangeable manuscripts in their slush pile every month the way the prozines do. That is why you can get away with it with prozines.

If you have been reading this column for any length of time, you know that its advice is aimed at those who are, or wish to be, professional writers. You also know that Bwana adamantly insists that professional writers — real or hopeful — do not submit to semi-pro markets.

Let me spell it out as simply as I can. If you sell a story at semi-pro rates every two weeks — that’s a whopping 26 sales a year — you can’t even afford a bankruptcy lawyer, but you’re going to need one.

You will impress no professional editor with a list of your semi-pro sales. You will impress no agent. You will certainly not impress any pro writers. And, as you must know by now, you sure as hell won’t impress Bwana.

You are not a professional writer if you do not sell to professional markets. And you cannot lose a career until you establish one.


QUESTION: Some markets pay writers different rates depending on whether they are subscribers or not, or they waive contest fees for subscribing writers but not for non-subscribers. Do you think this is professional publishing or editorial behavior?

ANSWER: In the world of professional publications, there are certain writers whose name on the cover is worth a little something above and beyond the listed pay rate. Stephen King comes to mind. Perhaps Robert Jordan or Ray Feist, if they ever write short fiction. Conceivably a Pern novelette by Anne McCaffrey or a Xanth short story by Piers Anthony.

But what you are describing is absolutely not a professional situation. If the pay rate depends on whether or not you are a subscriber, I would imagine that both rates falls below what any reasonable person would consider a professional rate.

As for contest fees, I believe I’ve said this more than once in the past, but I have no objection to saying it again: writers get paid for writing. Amateurs pay for the privilege of being read. It’s as simple as that.


QUESTION: Can you think of any other writing contests besides Writers of the Future and that Spanish novella contest that you keep winning which might be worth entering?

ANSWER: Actually, I’ve only entered the Spanish novella contest once. (And, despite the prize money, which was something like $8,000 US as I recall, I would never have entered it cold — that is, with a novella I hadn’t already sold here in the states. The rules didn’t preclude a prior sale, only a prior appearance in print.)

I think the Spanish contest is worthwhile only in terms of money. Since everyone enters under a pseudonym, so as not to influence the judges, you have no idea who you beat, and it hardly brings you worldwide fame. I’d never even heard of it until one month before I entered it, and I have no idea who’s won it the past two years.

2012 update. Through 2011, only 4 North Americans have won it: myself, Jack McDevitt, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, — and Canadian Robert J. Sawyer has won it 3 times.

I don’t know what Writers of the Future pays its contest winners. If the pay is good, fine — enter it. If not, I wouldn’t bother, and for the same reason: most fans can tell you who won the most recent Hugos and Nebulas, but I doubt that fans or pros can name the current Writers of the Future winners.

2012 update: I have now judged Writers of the Future twice, and will do so again this year, and can state that in every aspect — from the workshops to the contest — it is a class act.

(Postscript to above: why wouldn’t I enter a novella I hadn’t sold? Because the novella market is so small that I wouldn’t write a novella that wasn’t pre-sold.)


QUESTION: Every once in a while something will go by in “Ask Bwana” that really opens my eyes. Last issue’s was the last question and answer; understanding that 1,500 to 2,000 words a day is not an unreachable goal has really helped me focus on my writing. My question: if I wanted to print this question and answer (or any other) in my writers’ group newsletter, who should I talk to?

ANSWER: You should talk to the copyright holder, which happens to be me.

And the answer is Yes, you can paraphrase the question and print the answer word-for-word. Please credit the author and the publication.


QUESTION: I recently watched a fascinating on-line poetry discussion group go down in flames because some of the folks were worried about losing the right to sell their work if it had been posted on-line in the group, even if it was a work in progress and was significantly changed before being submitted to its eventual market. Were these people straining at gnats? Or should all writers everywhere immediately stop participating in on-line forums because they’re giving away the rights to that particular piece of “work?”

ANSWER: I’ve written and sold two poems in my life. One brought me $75 US and the other $25 US — which is a roundabout way of saying that I think they’re straining at gnats by the mere act of trying to sell poetry and make a living, or even a partial living, from it.

I think you’ll find that each network has its own rules concerning copyright. When they insist that they hold the copyright to anything that appears on their network, yes, I’d avoid posting anything unsold there. (If it’s been sold, it’s already copyrighted, and all you need to do when posting it is post the copyright notice too.) As for those that don’t insist on owning the copyrights, check with the sysop, but I think you’re probably safe if you post a copyright notice with it.

2008 note: This was written during the halcyon days of the networks — Genie, Compuserve, Delphi, etc. A few still exist, but almost all the posting now gets done in blogs. The venues and rules have all changed to some extent.


QUESTION: I’m sure you’re writing lots of short stories as you work on the larger pieces, but do you typically work on one book at a time, or many? If the latter, did you ever find your characters “bleeding over” between the two novels in progress?

ANSWER: I never write on two books at once. (I frequently work on two or three books at once, but that just means I’m plotting and researching all but the one I’m currently writing.)

I almost always write short stories, and occasionally screenplays, while I’m writing a book, and no, my characters never “bleed over.” I think a third of a century as a pro teaches you enough discipline to avoid that particular problem.


QUESTION: I’ve recently attended my first convention as a “professional” and came away feeling very nervous about the amount of attention that the “new writers” — me, six months ago — in the crowd paid to what I had to say. And: if you were on a panel at a convention and you heard a respected pro say something that’s hideously, horribly wrong — touting book doctors, for instance — what would you do? Did you ever feel like an impostor at a convention? If so, how did you deal with it?

ANSWER: I have frequently heard respected pros say incredibly stupid things on panels. Usually I let it pass, simply as a matter of good manners. If it annoys me enough, I’ll argue it — but I’ll try never to denigrate the arguer, only the argument.

I’ve been going to conventions since I was 21. I’m currently 56. So, to answer your question, I never feel like an imposter at a con. (I occasionally feel like one in the real world.)

2008 note: nothing’s changed except that I’m another decade older.

2012 update: 4 more years, and nothing else has changed.


QUESTION: You recommended simultaneous submissions and I need to know: 1. Do you tell the Editor in the cover letter? 2. What if they don’t accept simultaneous subs, you send them anyway, and (improbable — but you never know) two different publications accept your story. What do you tell the Editor . . . nothing? Let him think the contract was lost in the mail? Tell him, oops, I forgot, I already sold that story? And do you think they’ll ever purchase any other work of yours again?

ANSWER: 1. Of course you don’t tell the Editor that you’re breaking his rules.

2. I answered this in the introductory essay to Ask Bwana #19 . . . but in case you missed it, here it is again: “And if one buys it, then simply write to the other, explain apologetically that your wife or your husband or your agent or the head of your local writers’ group sent it off without your knowledge and you just got a contract today, and you’re terribly sorry, and now that you’re a published author, would they like to see something else of yours?”


QUESTION: Why are so many original anthologies put together by invitation only (as opposed to having market listings), and how is a beginner ever to learn about them or get invited to them?

ANSWER: It’s just simple economics. Let’s say that the average anthology pays, to take a not-unreasonable figure, a $7,500 US advance. You want 100,000 words. You have to offer a mildly competitive rate to your writers, even though these are virtually guaranteed sales; let’s say 6 cents US a word, which is the absolute minimum. A couple of your writers come in too long. So you’re up to 110,000 words. That’s $6,600 US to the writers. Now, I’m not letting out any secrets when I tell you that Martin H. Greenberg is behind more than 90% of the anthologies on the market, even many that don’t bear his name, and has been for the past couple of decades. So of the $900 US that’s left after paying your writers, you’ll split it 50-50 with Marty, who actually made the sale and handles all the paperwork and money. That give you a profit of $450 US — and in exchange for that $450 US, you’ll have to contact all the writers, supply a third to a half of them with plots, and line-edit each story as it comes in. You’ll have to send some back for rewrites, and then line-edit them again. If you get away working only a total of two weeks, you’ve been lucky.

Which is why most of us consider anthology editing to be our charity work. If I can’t make $450 US in two weeks — or even two nights — of writing, I’m in the wrong profession.

Now, add the 500 (or more) slush stories that would accrue to an “open” anthology, and you’re adding another two to three weeks work, perhaps more. And if $450 US for two weeks editing is ridiculous, $450 US for five weeks editing is out-and-out insane . . . which is why almost none of us do it.

As for how word gets out — it gets out based on the editor’s desires. If I’m crazy enough not to want Arthur C. Clarke or Ursula K. Le Guin in my anthology, they won’t know any more about it than the rankest amateur does because I won’t contact them and they won’t see it in any market listings.

So do rank amateurs ever get asked?

Sure they do. I personally bought more than 40 first stories between 1990 and 1994. My anthologies were responsible for eight writers making the Campbell ballot for Best New Writer. It’s not that difficult to find good new writers: you meet them at conventions, you meet them on the computer networks, you hear about them from other pros who have workshopped their stories. What I used to do (I’m not actively editing these last three years) was ask each of them to send me what they thought was their best story. If it was good enough, I’d put them on The List to be invited. Each book needed ten or twelve Names for the cover and the sales force, and there were certain writers I invited to almost every book because I knew I could count on them to deliver quality stories on deadline — but there was always room for two or three or four first stories, and a few seconds and thirds. And I’m sure other anthology editors find their fair share of newcomers in much the same way.

2012 update: I never did address why so many of us were happy to do all the editing and split half the profits with the late Marty Greenberg, a wonderful man who we lost last year. The answer is personal economics. Marty made the sale and handled the money. Now, let’s say that you were offered $10,000 US for an anthology, and you budgeted it at $8,500 US, and it came in on schedule, no one writing more words than you asked for. As the editor who sold the anthology, you’d get $5,000 US on signing, and $5,000 US on delivery/acceptance. But what if someone you absolutely could not do without — George R. R. Gaiman, or Andre McCaffrey — took nine months to deliver when everyone else delivered in three months? You’d have shelled out a little more than $7,500 US until they delivered so you could deliver — but you’d only received $5,000 US. Most of us were happier to split the profits with Marty, let him go a few grand in the hole on a few anthologies at once until the books were delivered, and not nag our slow-producing writers with an increasing tone of hysteria in our voices.

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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