Ask Bwana #25

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #25 — January, 1999

Why (I hear you ask) do you always recommend that hopeful science fiction writers read the insular, in-field publications like Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle, Speculations (once you cross out all the semi-pro markets) and The SFWA Bulletin for market information, rather than those thick annual volumes that specialize in hundreds of pages of market listings?

For the same reason that I recommend mystery writers, Western writers, and romance writers read their insular, in-field publications for market info.

And the reason is simply this: the publications I mentioned, and their sisters in related fields, are not primarily sellers of market info. They all run news of the field, articles about the field, convention listings, and scads of other things.

Which means that they can afford to be accurate. If they omit a dead or dying or dormant market, it doesn’t affect them one way or the other.

Now let’s examine the big annual books of market listings.

Why do they sell?

Because they purport to list every market extant.

To whom do they sell?

To beginners who don’t know any better.

Look — these books don’t sell because they have a few hot listings that no one else has. (How could they, since they’re published only once a year?) What sells them is the multitude of listings, the sheer volume of places newcomers can go to get rejected.

Nothing wrong with that. Someone’s got to do it.

But a lot of those listings are, to put it as delicately as possible, deceased.

Back when I was editing a men’s magazine in my starving writer (well, starving editor) days some 30+ years ago, my magazine was entirely staff-written. We decided to take some freelance contributions — at $25.00 a shot — one year, so I gave the annual listing books a note saying that we were paying from $25.00 to $1,000.00, which was true but totally misleading. No one ever checked it out, and it was published in the next volume.

The practice didn’t work out very well. We got zillions of unreadable manuscripts, and decided it was cheaper and less hassle to go back to writing everything in-house. So I canceled the listing.

But it appeared the next year anyway.


Because no one would buy those books if they only listed the “live” markets, if they were 100 pages thick instead of 400 pages.

The next year I quit to go freelance full-time. The listing appeared again.

I wrote and told them that I’d at least like my name removed as editor since I no longer worked for the magazine.

The listing appeared again the next year, still with my name.

In fact, it appeared for two years after the magazine ceased publication.

That’s why I’m opposed to these books.

Remember back in the 1980s, when Ace reported to Locus and Chronicle that they were heavily backlogged, that if your name wasn’t Herbert or Varley they didn’t want to see your manuscript for at least 18 months? Their listing nonetheless appeared as a viable science fiction market in every annual market listing volume aimed at neophyte writers.

Which is a roundabout way of saying: once you decide on a field, subscribe to its relevant business publications and leave the catch-all annual listing volumes to those who don’t know any better.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: What is the best thing you could say in a cover letter, and what is the worst?

ANSWER: I suppose the best thing you can say is, “I won last year’s Hugo, and my current novel is currently atop of the New York Times bestseller list.” The worst? Easy. It’s “I’ve recently sold to the following markets (list five penny-a-word semiprozines). I’m sending this letter along to explain the following scenes, which may seem a bit obscure and/or confusing upon first reading . . .”

Now, those may strike you as facetious answers, and to an extent they are . . . but good stories need no cover letters, and bad stories cannot be helped by them. Unless you have something meaningful to say, such as “I’m a paleontologist and I’ve spent 37 years digging in Botswana” to explain why your story of dinosaurs in the Kalahari figures to be more accurate than most, there’s simply no need to take up an editor’s time with a friendly letter that tells him nothing he needs to know.


QUESTION: I know you’ve covered several aspects of pen names. This is related: is it still advantageous for a woman to use her initials or some other device that makes it impossible to guess her gender?

ANSWER: Take a look at who’s been winning tons of Hugos and Nebulas, and you’ll find Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Scan those bestseller lists and you’ll find Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Margaret Weis, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Check the editors to see who might be prejudiced against women and you’ll find Beth Meacham, Anne Groell, Jennifer Hershey, Amy Stout, Shelly Shapiro, Toni Weisskopf, Ginjer Buchanan, Sheila Gilbert, Betsy Wollheim, Jennifer Brehl, and that whole crowd. Which is a roundabout way of saying that your question was meaningful circa 1937, and possibly even circa 1950, but it has become less so with each passing year since then.


QUESTION: I have a twelve-year-old son who is writing science fiction. Not publishable work, at least not yet, but in my humble (and possibly opinionated) opinion, he has quite a bit of promise. You’ve covered several aspects of living with a Writing (or non-Writing) Spouse in detail; what can you tell me about encouraging a Writing Child?

ANSWER: Not much. (Yes, I know, I’m the father of a prolific writer who won the Campbell Award . . . but writing was just about the last thing she wanted to do when she was growing up.) My only suggestion is that, while you encourage him, you also let him understand that precious few teenagers sell to professional markets — especially those at the beginning of their teens. In other words, make him understand that a 14-year-old who gets a rejection slip from Asimov’s has no reason to be discouraged, and that even a bushel of rejects is not sufficient cause for a talented teenaged writer to consider digging ditches for a living.


QUESTION: What’s your take on the Barnes & Noble/Bertelsmann deal? Is it something I should really be worried about?

ANSWER: It’s something I should worry about. The only thing you have to worry about is selling a few books so you can get to the point where all these mergers (and the Barnes/Ingram one is potentially much worse) can actually affect your livelihood.


QUESTION: If my story is translated to a foreign language, do I still own the copyright?

ANSWER: If you owned the copyright to the original publication, you should own it for all subsequent editions anywhere in the world — but make sure your contract so stipulates. While reprint and foreign publishers will find dozens of creative ways to screw you, grabbing your copyright usually isn’t one of them.


QUESTION: How long is too long, acceptance to publication? If they pay on acceptance, how long will you wait to see it in print? Should I be inserting some sort of eighteen-month reversion clause in my contracts?

ANSWER: Most standard contracts call for publication within 24 months or the rights revert to the author, who also keeps the payment/advance. And if your editor explains that, due to scheduling problems, Halley’s Comet, or various capricious acts of God Herself it’s going to take 27 months, I’d grin and bear it, rather than lose a market and get a nasty reputation all at once.


QUESTION: I’m getting ready to sign with an agent. What’s the longest term I should sign up for?

ANSWER: Probably two years. I can’t imagine an agent being willing to take you on for a shorter period, and I can’t imagine you wanting to sign for a longer period until you find out whether you’re happy with the agent or not.


QUESTION: I sold — really sold; they paid me and the check cleared! — a short story to a small-press magazine, which has since disappeared. I do not know if the editor put my story in the final issue, or if the final issue really came out. My queries come back “address unknown.” I hesitate to submit the story elsewhere because I have no idea what rights I have left to sell. Should I offer reprint rights, or would it be okay to assume the story never came out and go for FNASR?

ANSWER: Damned good question. Damned tricky question, too. I would move heaven and earth to find out if the issue ever appeared; there must be numerous academic and internet sources you can enlist in the hunt. If all else fails and you still don’t know, then I think the only thing you can do is submit the story to the next market with a cover letter explaining the situation (and this is one of the very few occasions where sending a cover letter is a Good Idea.)


QUESTION: I just found out that a magazine reprinted one of my stories in a collection and didn’t ask for permission, pay me, or even send me a copy. Is it worth my while to go after them in court, bearing in mind that they only paid me a penny a word in the first place?

ANSWER: First, read your contract. Some magazines buy “non-exclusive worldwide rights” with the stipulation that these rights can only be exercised for foreign editions of the magazine or anthologies of stories that are clearly labeled as being from the magazine. What that means is that you can resell the story anywhere you wish (usually six to twelve months after publication), but the magazine can also sell it under these rigidly-defined conditions.

There’s also a chance, since this is obviously not a professional publication, that they grabbed all rights — something a prozine would never do, since no established writer would sign such a contract — and then you’re simply out of luck.

If it’s a matter of their reprinting a story they had no legal right to reprint, talk to a lawyer and find out how likely you are to get punitive damages and legal costs if you win. If it’s not likely, then it’s certainly not worth suing. In that case, you might have your lawyer write them a threatening letter, pointing out that they’re in breach of contract and demanding payment — but at a penny a word, you’ll come out behind even on that, unless your lawyer is as much of a low-level fly-by-night as your publisher.

Now . . . go back and read Bwana’s first 24 columns and see what he thinks of people who aspire to be professional writers selling to penny-a-word semi-prozines.


QUESTION: I read in the latest SFWA Forum that they’re going to accept electronic publication for membership qualification. A big part of their criteria involve circulation, which is impossible to measure on-line, and number of issues published, which is very slippery. If you were running their show, how would you pick a professional electronic magazine?

ANSWER: I will never run SFWA’s show. If nominated, I won’t run; if elected, I won’t serve; if forced to serve, someone besides me is going to rue that particular day.

On to specifics. I’m one of the minority that voted against electronic publication as a membership qualification, for the very reason you mentioned: it’s impossible to ascertain the publication’s circulation (and many are being set up as pay-by-the-story situations, whereby you might appear in the same issue of an electronic magazine as, say, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, but his section of the magazine might sell half a million copies and your section might sell 18 copies.) I think it’s too soon to consider electronic publication for that and other reasons, though there is no question that the day will come when it deserves to be a membership qualifier.

2008 update: Clearly professional electronic publication is now an acceptable credential, once you define “professional”. Since circulation figures are still skewed and unreliable, I’d limit it to those publications, like JBU and Subterranean and a handful of others, that pay the SFWA mininum — which was a nickel a word last time I looked.

2012 update: The world has changed. Professional e-zines now outnumber professional printzines 17-to-3. We lose one every few weeks, but gain another just as quickly. More to the point, the Nebula and Hugo ballots now reflect the change.


QUESTION: If you were marooned on a desert island and could only take along three novels, three books of nonfiction, three books of poetry, and three research books — okay, let’s assume you got to bring your laptop — what would they be?

ANSWER: Well, the first non-fiction book would be How to Build a Functioning Air-Conditioner When You Are Stranded on a Desert Island.

OK, seriously. Three novels? Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, and (it’s not a novel, but it’s fiction) the complete works of Walt Kelly. If you disallow the Kelly, and I hope you don’t, then probably Moby Dick.

Non-fiction? Hunter’s Choice by Alexander Lake, African Game Trails by Theodore Roosevelt, and The Company of Adventurers by John Boyes. (There are far better books; but I prefer non-fiction that appeals to my idiosyncratic interests.)

Poetry? John Brown’s Body by Benet, Spoon River Anthology by Masters, and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Kazantzakis.

Research? The Bible, the most recent edition of The American Racing Manual, and either the Nichols/Clute Science Fiction Encyclopedia or the 4th edition of the St. James Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers.


QUESTION: I’ve been querying agents; five out of eight have not replied in six months. Should I write them off?

ANSWER: Absolutely. If it takes an agent six months to reply to you when he’s trying to get your business and is on his best behavior, think of what it’ll be like to deal with him after he’s got your name on the dotted line.


QUESTION: I’m looking at the guidelines for the as-yet untitled Avon anthology, which say “in the tradition of Full Spectrum.” I’ve looked and looked, but I can’t find a copy of Full Spectrum anywhere. What was it like?

ANSWER: Full Spectrum was a “quality” anthology with no theme. Major writers handed in their best work, just the way they would to a top-of-the-line magazine. If the guideline says the book is in the Full Spectrum tradition, just write the very finest story of which you are capable and send it in.


QUESTION: I was just asked a very disturbing question that I’ll pass on to you. If you had to give up your writing or your wife, which would it be?

ANSWER: Take my computer. Please.

Quite seriously, there is nothing else in the world for which I would give up my writing, but I would give up writing, money, health, and everything else I own for my wife. I realize that this is a totally archaic attitude in this era of Slick Willie, but there it is.

Nice batch of questions. See you next month.

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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