The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction
August, 2000, from Macmillan. Co-written with Karl Schroeder
My agent, Don Maass, just received the contracts for this book, so I can finally
announce it here.
In October, 1999, Renee Wilmeth, Acquiring Editor for Macmillan's Complete Idiots series approached me to see if I was interested in writing The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Science Fiction. It was a daunting opportunity, and I was a little reluctant. After all, I've never even written a novel!
So here we are, two writers who've just broken out in sf, writing a guide for new sf writers. The reasoning is fundamentally sound, I think: as new writers, we have a better handle on the current trials that new writers will face; ask someone who's been publishing since the sixties, and you'll get advice about hitting it off with Lester Del Ray.
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In This Chapter
Scratch a science fiction reader and you'll find a science fiction writer.
Science fiction is the original home of the talented amateur. Since the mid-1920s, scientists and science enthusiasts have aspired to publication. Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury and the rest of the Founding Parents started out as fans, eagerly trading mimeographed 'zines with other bespectacled proto-nerds.
Today more than ever, future-thinking individuals are taking up pen to write science fiction. That's a lot of competition, but you've got an edge: you're going to look like a pro from day one.
This book can help you to do that. We can't make you into a writer, but we can help you avoid some of the pitfalls along the way to success. And we can help you ensure that you know where you are at every stage of your journey to success -- and know what to do next.
But before we dive into the details, let's start by taking a peek at the end of the road: let's dream a little bit about the big time...
Accepting your Hugo Award
The tuxedo might not have been such a good idea after all, you think to yourself as you rise from the audience amid deafening applause and run a gauntlet of congratulatory pats and handshakes. The tuxedo looks good, does a better-than-average job of disguising the extra roll of fat that's pooled up when you weren't looking. The only problem: you think you may've missed one or two of the hooks, and your every movement inspires a chorus of ominous groans from your cummerbund region.
You take the stage stiffly, the spotlight blinds you, and the applause dies off. Your tongue thickens in your mouth, which has suddenly filled with dust. You clear your throat, and your patented post-nasal symphony bounces off the amphitheatre walls. The sound galvanises you.
"Wow," you say, and smile the most charming smile of your life. A cameraman crouched at your feet captures that grin for redisplay on the jumbotrons over each of your shoulders. "Wow," you say again, and this time, there's a chuckling ripple through the crowd.
"When I wrote my first story, oh, back when the dinosaurs walked the earth, I dreamed about this moment." You pick up the rocket-shaped trophy from the podium and heft it. "All I can say is, 'it's about time!'" You hold the Hugo Award over your head like a prizefighter.
"Goddamn right!" you holler. "There's about ten thousand people I need to thank: my wife, all my ex-wives, my agent, my parents, my workshop, my readers -- hell, you're the ones who voted for this, thanks! -- my editor, the Science Fiction Writers of America, all the writers who took me under their wings, all the bosses who unwittingly financed my early career... I don't know who all else.
"OK, I'm going to keep this short. I want to talk to the new writers in this audience, published and un, and tell you a thing or two. The formula for a successful career is very simple: first of all, write. Secondly, finish what you write. Lastly, send your writing to editors. The rest of it -- critics, websites, conventions, all of that -- it's window dressing. In your careers, you will be spat on, ground underfoot, ignored, ripped off, hated, and plotted against. Ignore it. Write, finish and send, and you'll be bringing home a rocketship of your own some day."
Science fiction is full of gasbags who will seize on any opportunity to pontificate at length on whatever hobbyhorse they're riding at the moment. Whether you're at a party, a panel, or a podium, keep your remarks brief and on-point. You'll stand out.
You ponder the rocketship for a moment, and get ready to return to your seat. You can't: there's something else you need to do. You grab the mic, throw back your head and let out an ear-splitting "Yee-haw!" The applause swells, and you skip lively down the steps and back to your seat. Just as the cameraman turns away, your cummerbund and vest explode out from under your jacket, nearly blinding the exquisitely antique Grand Dame of Science Fiction in the next row. She just winks at you and passes them back.
As You Know, Rod
Winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel is just about the finest thing that can happen to a science fiction writer. These awards, named for Hugo Gernsback, who coined the term science fiction, and voted by the attendees at the annual World Science Fiction Convention held over the Labor Day weekend, are the most important non-financial recognition that a genre writer can receive.
While some writers win the Hugo for their first novel (William Gibson won the "triple crown" of science fiction awards in 1984 for his novel Neuromancer: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Phillip K. Dick), it's more common for Hugo winners to be drawn from a pool of writers who've paid their dues.
You're at your second party of the evening before you get your tux reintegrated. It takes you that long to let go of your Hugo. The first party was the Hugo Winners party, which had champagne, smoked salmon, and very few attendees. It was all of twenty minutes before you organised a rally of winners to gate-crash the far more raucous Hugo Losers party, one floor down in the main convention hotel.
Your agent corners you before you can struggle to the bathtub-of-beer in the corner. "I knew you could do it," he says, slapping you on the back. He rubs his hands together in undisguised glee. "The timing couldn't be better: I'm taking The Big Book to Frankfurt next month. I think we can get a few bidding wars going: the French love you, and the Germans really came around for the last title. This could be it!"
The Frankfurt Book Fair, held each October in Germany, is the event for foreign-rights sales. European and Asian translation markets are a lucrative addition to any writer's income. With so many editors present, it's not unusual for bidding wars to take place, driving the sum paid for translations through the roof.
You gulp and smile a frozen smile. The Big Book has been sitting on your word-processor for the last eighteen months, and you've written 15 different last chapters for it, and discarded each one. You spent the last of the advance money on the tux rental, and your editor and agent have been tag-team nudzhing you for the last six weeks. In a memorable moment of exorcised rhetoric, your editor (normally a sweet-tempered soul) had barked "I don't need it good, I need it Thursday!" Your word-processor and attempt 16 are sitting in your hotel room, a block and a half away.
Your agent throws a chummy arm across your shoulder. "Just get me the last chapter, dammit," he growls in your ear.
Paying your debts forward
You're well into your third beer (or is it your fourth?) when you catch sight of a small commotion at the door. A pudgy kid in an ill-fitting suit is arguing intensely with the gofer. Nominally, this is a private party, open only to people on the Hugo ballot and their guests, but in practice, anyone with any pull tries to weasel their way in.
The pudgy kid -- kid, hell, he must be at least 22, that's how old you were when you sold your first story, and when did you get so old, anyway? -- tickles your memory. Right, you were introduced to him earlier that day, at the Asimov's signing. He edits a small-press 'zine called Metadata, and got an Honorable Mention in the Asimov's Undergraduate Science Fiction Award this year. Nice kid. He's got potential.
Most book-deals work on a royalty basis: you get paid a small sum for every copy sold. Traditionally, a publisher will pay you an advance against your royalties when you sign the contract, based on the expected sales of the book.
"Tom, right?" you say, smoothly interrupting the argument.
"Right!" he says.
"He's with me," you say to the gofer, and welcome him to the party.
"In science fiction you pay your debts forward," is a truism in the field. Every success in science fiction owes a debt to the kindness of the science fiction community: the writers, the fans and the editors. More than any other genre, science fiction is rife with mentorships, bursaries, and just plain niceness.
You experience a moment of panic as you realize that you've lost your cummerbund, but you quickly locate it, worn around the head of your editor, who is launching into his trademark rendition of "Teen Angel," accompanied by a motley chorus of besotted, extra-large bestselling authors. Tom is hovering at your elbow with eyes like saucers.
"Having fun?" you ask.
"Tons!" he says, quivering with excitement. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Shoot," you say, and settle back in one of the few chairs in the suite.
"How can I get those guys to send me a story?" he asks. "Metadata really needs some big names, but I'm only paying a penny a word. I can't afford any real pros."
Ah, the short fiction market. When Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926, he paid a penny a word for amateur fiction in a new genre he called "Scientifiction." Three-quarters of a century later, science fiction magazines hadn't substantially improved on the rate. It's been years since you've finished a short story, though you're continually tickled by ideas.
"How about a story by a Hugo Award winner?" you ask, thinking of the manuscripts languishing on your hard-drive, long out of print.
Tom's pupils dilate further. "Really?"
"Sure," you say, magnanimously. "Will you take a reprint?"
"Yeah!" Tom says. "Sure!"
Back in your hotel room, you make ready to dump your tux on the floor and climb into bed -- you've got a 10 am panel on Mars Exploration, after all -- but your laptop catches your eye.
Ending 16 isn't going to work out at all, you know that now. But it might make a great little stand-alone short story, a kind-of alternate universe for your characters. It wouldn't take any work at all, really.
And before you know it, the maid is knocking at the door, the sun is streaming through the window, and you've just put the finishing touches on the last chapter and the short story. It's been years since you pulled an all-nighter, and the room has a surreal, sleep-deprived tinge. You fire up your fax software and fax the work down to the hotel desk, one story for Tom, one chapter for your agent.
You've got just enough time to get showered before your panel, and boy, do you need it. The all-nighter will have you drag-assing for the next couple of days, but you'll be in OK shape for the office on Tuesday.
Some day, you'll quit that day-job.
Typewriters, Transoms and Garrets
I grew up on used books, mouldering sci-fi paperbacks with lurid 1960s covers and horrible titles that had been plastered on over howls of protest from their poor authors.
As You Know, Rod
Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Damon Knight's novel "The Rithian Terror" was originally titled "Double Meaning." To this day, Damon makes a point of crossing out the publisher's title and replacing it with his own when someone asks him to sign a copy of the book.
The Golden Age of science fiction
Best of all were the introductions to the short-story collections. They captured the heyday of the Golden Age of Science Fiction perfectly.
A typical anecdote went something like this:
A gang of writers would meet for an enormous potluck spaghetti dinner. Over cheap wine and swing records, they'd bat around crazy story ideas, until one was so inspired that she rushed back to her typewriter.
After thumping away at the second-hand manual for a few hours, the writer would be in possession of a brand-new story, with a carbon copy for backup. She'd hike over to the offices of one of the dozens of science fiction magazines of the day and hurl the story over the transom, so the editor would see it as soon as he got to work.
\'tran(t)-sem\ n 1. The horizontal bar separating a door from a window or fanlight above it. Often seen in old office buildings, where the transom window could be opened to provide ventilation.
There are two kinds of manuscripts that editors see: solicited stories and unsolicited stories -- that is, stories that are being offered, unasked-for, by their proud authors. To this day, unsolicited stories are said to have come in over the transom.
Our hopeful writer then adjourned to a nice old diner, where Pop, the line-cook, would serve her a nickel cup of joe and a twenty-cent blue-plate special. After dining, it was back to the editor's office.
As You Know, Rod
Roald Dahl, best known as a children's author for works such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," supported his family after WWII by selling two short stories per year to the Saturday Evening Post.
The editor, of course, had eagerly devoured the manuscript as soon as he got in. If said editor was one of the legendary greats, say John W. Campbell, he'd have a nice long chat with the writer, suggesting revisions that would improve the story.
So the writer would take the marked-up manuscript back to her miniscule apartment and hammer away at the typewriter for a couple more hours, then slip it into an envelope and drop it into the mail in time for same-day crosstown delivery.
The next morning, she'd be back in the editor's office, signing a contract and collecting a check for enough money to cover a month's rent.
The pay rate for short fiction in magazines has been stuck at half a cent to ten cents per word since the 1920s. Of course, a penny went a lot further when Coolidge was in office.
As for the novelists of the day, well, life was sweet. Any decent novel could be sold twice: once in paperback to a trade publisher, and once in serial format to a magazine like Galaxy or Analog. The pool of science fiction readers was small but eager, and the idea of an obscure novel was ridiculous: few enough titles were published every year that everyone who had an interest in the genre would be familiar with every title.
And even though there were fewer booksellers willing to stock science fiction, the stores kept the books on the shelves for a good, long while. The publishers helped this along by keeping a healthy supply of their books in the warehouse for speedy delivery. An author with a large bibliography could eke out a living on the small but regular royalty checks her backlist generated.
As if that weren't enough, there were the wackos in Hollywood, who were like fairy godmothers. Every so often, a writer would get a call from a fast-talking Californian with a sizable bankroll, looking to option their work for film. No one was really clear on this mysterious option business, except that once you'd sold an option on a work, you couldn't sell it again until it expired.
As the name implies, an option is an agreement giving a film producer the exclusive option to produce a movie based on a story, be it a novel, a screenplay, a short story or even a nonfiction books. Option deals vary wildly, but are usually more than the advance paid on a novel.
Best of all were the fans, who held conventions around the country. A decent writer could garner all-expense-paid trips to exotic locales in exchange for appearing as Guest of Honour at a convention. The fans and writers vociferously debated the merits of every writer with near-religious fervor, and while they could be harsh, being criticised beat being ignored by a country mile.
Truly, it was a golden age.
The Modern Publishing World
Times are tough
Today the typical magazine editor receives upwards of 1,000 manuscripts a month, from established pros and rank amateurs. The typical science fiction magazine publishes about 12 stories per month. The typical word-rate for a beginning writer is four to six cents/word. The typical response time is on the order of nine weeks.
As You Know, Rod
In the 1970s, Omni magazine made science fiction history by being the first regular periodical publisher of science fiction with a circulation over 1,000,000. Their pay rates were commensurate, anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000 for short stories. Omni unsuccessfully migrated from print-format to an all electronic edition on the Web, which folded shortly thereafter.
Magazines jostle for shelf-space in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and newsvendors are reluctant to order in any title that fails to sell several copies.
The typical book editor is only slightly less swamped: 600 manuscripts/month for about 50 slots/year. Response times of two years are not unheard-of. And first novelists often see an advance of $4,000-$6,000.
Many gifted, talented editors work in the field, but as their duties have expanded to fill every available moment, they find themselves unable to spare time to really develop all but the most promising writers. Instead, they look for ready-to-publish works in their slushpiles. Writers who are almost there still find themselves facing uninformative and anonymous rejection slips.
The slushpile is the technical term for the pile of unsolicited manuscripts that every publisher faces. This pile can be huge, so it often gets put on the back burner. An editor would rather read something by a writer she knows than a complete unknown.
The returns system -- whereby a bookseller can tear off the cover of a book that hasn't sold after a certain period and return it for a refund -- is out of control. Megachains pay their bills by stripping books and returning them, and reorder the same titles simultaneously. Speciality imprints like Women's Press Science Fiction are incapable of surviving in this marketplace, and have folded in droves. On airport newsstands and in other high-traffic locations, unsold books are stripped within days of appearing on the shelves.
The Hollywood option -- formerly a common enough occurrence that writers realistically hoped to sell sufficient options to support themselves through lean times -- has all but vanished. Studio accountants grew anxious at the number of unexercised options in inventory, and mandated that producers option screenplays instead, which require far less money to develop. Now, it's a rarity for anyone but a bestselling writer to be offered an option deal.
It's hard out there. A mania for mergers and acquisitions has gripped New York publishing over the last decade. New multinational parent companies demand a level of profitability never seen in publishing. Publishers have responded by slashing backlists and editorial staff. Many modestly selling established writers, formerly able to survive on their backlist sales are finding themselves out of print.
A backlist is the collection of older titles in a publisher's catalogue. Science fiction writers, with their propensity for multi-volume series and quirky novels, have traditionally relied on long backlists as a steady source of income.
National chain bookstores have squeezed out small independent stores. These chains often rely on a single distribution center, the economics of which dictate that only books that sell in volume are worth keeping on the shelves. More and more, chain-store buyers are dictating what publishers publish, so that established writers whose latest books sell poorly find it difficult or impossible to sell another novel, since their publisher knows that the buyers won't take any more titles by that writer.
But wait, there's hope yet!
But there are glimmers of hope. Despite everything, more science fiction titles are being published now than ever before. Hardcover publications -- which are far more lucrative for writers -- are on the rise. On-demand publishing, a technology that makes it possible for publishers to print and bind books to order, promises to revive the backlist.
Science fiction, once perceived as a genre for adolescents and nerds, has gained widespread acceptance in the mainstream. There's more science fiction on TV and in the movie-houses than ever before, and the demographics of media SF include both the monied, older set; and the young, who will grow up to be the next generation of science fiction consumers.
The world of electronic publishing, while still in its infancy, looms on the horizon. Already, Internet booksellers such as Amazon.com are challenging the iron fist of the chain-stores. Further down the road, "publication" to handheld electronic books opens a multitude of possibilities for speciality presses, author-driven publications and instant, accurate royalty reporting.
Tor Books, one of the world's leading science fiction publishers, has led the pack in innovative publishing techniques. They publish more than fifty hardcover titles per year, many by first-time novelists. Also, they license electronic versions of their titles for distribution to the 3Com Palm handheld computer. Their aggressive campaign to resurrect the backlist includes an on-demand scheme for a line of oversized, "trade" paperbacks, which are profitable in much smaller runs. Tor also throws the best parties at conventions.
How this book works
We've been writing science fiction for over a decade, but it is only recently that we've encountered real success: book deals, major magazine sales, critical acclaim and awards.
Looking back down the road we've travelled, we can see many things in hindsight that we wish we'd known when we were starting out.
We've written this book to help you avoid the pitfalls we navigated on the road to success. And since we're fiction writers, we've structured the book like a story told in flashback, with success at the beginning and the story of that success afterwards.
This book is divided into five parts. Part 1, Becoming an SF Writer, deals with the mechanics of writing science fiction. We tell you how to find time and motivation to write and give you an overview of publishing as it is today. We also try to help you understand the curious beast that is science fiction "fandom," and let you know how to find or start a healthy writers' workshop.
Fandom is a catch-all terms for everything in science fiction fan subculture. Fans are notoriously playful with language, and Fannish lingo is rife with puns and wordplay.
In Part 2, Secrets of the Sci-Fi Masters, we give you more depth on the writing process. Science fiction is idea-driven, but how do you turn an idea into a full-fledged story? What are the differences between the science fiction short story and "literary" short stories? How do you write a novel? How do you build believable science fiction worlds? How do you breathe life into the characters that populate the worlds you create?
Part 3, Publishing Your Work, is where we talk about business. We'll tell you how to format a submission to make an professional appearance in an editor's slushpile. We'll help you find the right market for your story or novel, and give you some pointers on writing a successful Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons or other tie-in novel.
In Part 4, Marketing and Self-Promotion, we'll tell you how to get your name on people's lips. How do you get noticed in fandom, and why would you want to? What can you expect your publisher's publicity department to do for you? What about Web sites and Internet newsgroups? We also give you a roadmap to science fiction's many awards.
The Professional Writer, Part 5, works with you on making a living in science fiction. We'll tell you what to look for in an agent, and give you a rundown of what to watch out for in contracts. We'll talk about day-jobs, and when not to quit them, and how to benefit from the tax breaks afforded to writers. Finally, we'll tell you about writing associations and what they can do for you.
We've also provided appendices with a model book and short story contract, a listing of publishers and agents and a directory of Internet resources.
The Least You Need To Know