Dirty Hands and Invisible Words: Speculative Fiction Book Editors Speak Out, Part 1 of 2
Editors are advocates—book advocates. They are champions of the books they edit and the authors they work with. They are, as Chris Schluep of Ballantine/Villard/Del Rey said, “both steward and cheerleader for the book and author.”
Below, fourteen book editors talk about what it is that they do. They represent a variety of publishers—from independent specialty presses in San Francisco, CA, and Lexington, KY to bigger houses in London and New York City.
The editors themselves wear or have worn many different hats.
“On creative issues, a good editor is a hybrid of critical gadfly and surrogate reader,” said James Lowder, who is both an award-winning editor and novelist. “The editor should challenge the writer, asking questions and highlighting problems so that the work’s artistic statement can be made clearer.”
Some of the editors below are or have been copyeditors, substantive editors, structural, or acquisitions editors. Each of them finds him- or herself a crucial part of a book’s production process. “We get a manuscript,” said Victoria Blake of Underland Press, “and we turn it into a book.”
Some are more hands-on than others. Some have moved more toward marketing, and others spend their days getting their hands dirty in the guts of a promising book from a beginning novelist.
Whatever their titles may be, they all seem to agree with Paula Guran of Juno Books, who said, “My job is to make the book as good as the author and I can make it.”
The Editors in Brief
Philip Athans has been a full-time staff editor at TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast since 1995.
Victoria Blake is the publisher and founder of Underland Press, an independent specialty press.
Paula Guran is the editor of Juno Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books.
James Lowder has worked as an editor for both large publishers and tiny independents, on projects that include New York Times bestselling shared world novels and small, critically acclaimed creator-owned titles.
John Jarrold has run three science fiction and fantasy imprints in the United Kingdom, worked as a freelance editor, and now runs the John Jarrold Literary Agency.
Susan J. Morris the Forgotten Realms® line editor at Wizards of the Coast.
Chris Schluep is a Senior Editor at Ballantine/Villard/Del Rey.
Simon Spanton is the editorial director at Orion/Gollancz Books in the United Kingdom.
Jacob Weisman is the founding editor and publisher of Tachyon Publications, an independent specialty press.
Are you a hands-on, hands-off, or somewhere in between editor?
Blake: I come from a journalism background, where editorial meddling is par for the course. As a journalist, I came to believe that the words I chose and the order I put them in might not be the best words in the best order. The editor’s job was to point that out to me, to help make my story better. I’ve taken a little of that attitude into book editing. I guess that would make me more hands-on than hands-off, but this depends entirely on the project and the author. In general, I’ve found authors to be appreciative of the editorial involvement.
There is as much art to editing as there is to writing, I think. In general, an editor’s role is to make the work better, not according to the editor’s rules and beliefs, but according to the intention of the work itself. This statement denies the very real market forces at work, and the occasional impulse to make the work more “marketable,” as opposed to “better.” But that’s a dangerous trap, one that I, personally, can only avoid by being aware of it and of the fact that “more marketable” does not equal “better.”
Harbowy: I like to be a hands-on sort of editor. I’m fortunate to do some of my work in the small-press environment where I often have the experience of being submissions editor and substantive editor and proofreader all for the same manuscript, really working with it all the way from slush pile to print. I like to be able to ask authors the sorts of questions about the characters and the world that will enhance the book for the reader. I’ve always been a compulsive typo-catcher, so I even like doing the copyediting, as much as my workload permits. Developing a rapport with the authors and watching the manuscript gain its refinement and polish are among my favorite parts of the job.
Guran: Hands-on. A few authors turn in books that need very few fingers, but most need more involvement.
Athans: Though it would be fair to say I’m hands-off in some respects and hands-on in others, in the greater scheme of things the specific sort of books we publish demand that I be more than a little hands-on. Our authors are bringing their creative vision into our shared worlds, so it’s up to me, and the rest of the editors here, not only to nurture those authors and their writing, but to maintain and develop the worlds they’re writing in, worlds that have grown, in the case of Dragonlance, over the course of twenty-five years now, and more than twenty for the Forgotten realms line. Ultimately my primary responsibility is to those properties and their fans.
Nash: I get as involved in the editorial process as I can, given the circumstances at the time I’m editing. There are a lot of factors that determine how deep one can delve into a manuscript—how tight the production schedule is, how polished the manuscript is, how the author prefers to work—so the process is different for every book. Am I a hands-on, hands-off, or somewhere in between editor? I think I’m somewhere in between but you’d have to ask my authors for the definitive answer.
Anders: This depends entirely on the project and the writer. There are manuscripts where I have delved very deep into the structure of the work, and there are manuscripts that I have left virtually untouched. I’ve just acquired a fantasy novel by a debut author, where I probably gave him about 20 separate notes of things that needed clarification (despite it being a brilliant book). In one instance, we’ve agreed to move a major scene from about the third-quarter of the book to the first quarter, for the way such new placement would help define/refine the arc of that character.
And there’s one book in the Pyr list where I was convinced that a major plot point could not have unfolded in the way it did from the clues the author dropped earlier in the text. When I pointed that out to him, he saw it to, and we changed the scene dramatically.
But there are other manuscripts that come in like perfectly-crafted diamonds, where I’m afraid to take a chisel to them least they fracture.
I think that I am very hands-on overall in the sense that I often seek out what—and who—I want, rather than waiting for it to come to me, and will suggest directions to writers for the kinds of books I’d like to see from them. I’m currently hounding two authors for books I very specifically want to see from them.
And in November we’re coming out with Mark Chadbourn’s The Silver Skull, a brilliant historical fantasy/secret history about an Elizabethean James Bond-type character on the front lines of a cold war with the Fae Realm. It grew out of Mark’s story “Who Wounds the Gyant, Slays the Beast,” which I’d read in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. I was traveling in Asia, but couldn’t get the story out of my head. So I wrote Mark to ask him if he’d consider doing a novel based on the character, he responded immediately that his agent was going out with a pitch for it the next day, I asked to see it immediately, read it, called my boss long distance, and we’d acquired it within a few days. I negotiated the whole deal and even put together the contract from a hotel room in Hong Kong. So I’m hands-on in that way. I also have a big mouth.
Schluep: I consider myself to be a hands-on editor. It’s something I take pride in. But over the past five or so years, as editors’ lists have grown and the number of editors has constricted, I find there’s less and less time to just sit and work with a manuscript. It’s a constant struggle to balance all the necessary in-house work—covers, marketing, publicity, sales, agent relations, acquisition, and the basic nuts and bolts of making a book happen—with the work that originally drew me to the business, which is the part involving the words. Basically, I edit at home now.
Spanton: When it comes to editing the actual book I hope I’m as exactly as hands-on as I need to be. Even when a book might require you to be more hands-on than normal, though, it’s as well to remember that it’s not your name on the front of the book. With regards to all the other things an editor does, I hope I’m very hands-on.
Weisman: Mostly hands-off. I can get my hands dirty when I need to, but most of the writers we publish don’t need much editing.
Morris: I see editing as a dialogue. On a story level, I point out problem areas and suggest ways to fix them, but ultimately, I want to arrive at a solution the author and I are both happy with. When it comes to the line-by-line, I try to preserve the integrity of the author’s style and story while still serving the needs of the audience and Intellectual Property (IP), which often results in a heavy first draft edit, with conversation afterward, followed by a light final edit. I’d say this makes me an in-between editor.
Lowder: I consider myself an interactive editor. How “hands-on” or “hands-off” I am on a project depends upon the author’s wishes.
Taber: I’m a fairly hands-on editor (some of our writers might say more than “fairly”) but the vast majority of changes I make to a manuscript are simply for punctuation, so damages aren’t necessarily as overwhelming as they might seem at first glance. I’m also open to back-and-forth discussion of changes with an author.
Quite often, my request for a change leads to the author coming up with a third alternative that makes the story stronger than either the original or my suggested change. I think I enjoy that the most, because it makes the story stronger in the author’s own words.
I believe very strongly in maintaining the author’s voice in any work, but also in upholding a standard of grammar and mechanics. As a writer, I know how hard it is to have your words changed after all of the effort you put into creating them, but I believe that part of an editor’s job is to act as a representative for the reader. With very few exceptions, a reader shouldn’t have to work to understand any individual sentence in a story, or reread paragraphs over and over again just to find their surface meaning. Deeper meanings, of course, can take multiple reads, but with the exception of poetry and certain experimental pieces, the words should become invisible to allow the flow of action, character, and plot to absorb the reader’s attention. This can be achieved in a piece with a highly textured rhythm and style (I’m thinking of Paul Jessup’s work here), or it can be achieved through straightforward language (I’m thinking Connie Willis).
My job is to ensure that, whatever the author’s voice may be, the story works as a consistent whole that communicates its intent to the reader and doesn’t get in his or her way.
Jarrold: Hands-on. I love talking through editorial work with the author, having a dialogue. In some ways, I have to see the wood for the trees and to represent the reader, as well as looking through the eyes of a professional editor.
Nielsen Hayden: I like to think that a big part of the judgment that goes into being a successful editor is knowing when to get deeply involved in a book’s structure and text, and also knowing when to leave an author’s work alone. Whichever path I take, though, I try to keep in mind that it’s not my name that’s going on the cover of the book, it’s the author’s.
I can be very detail-oriented when it seems to me appropriate. I’ve been a freelance copyeditor and line editor. But by and large the kinds of books I tend to acquire at Tor aren’t “product” written to fit some preconceived template; they’re original work, written by people with distinctive styles and voices. I won’t hesitate to tell even a very literary, very craft-conscious writer that a particular sentence doesn’t work, that a passage of description is overlong or misplaced, or that the plot has taken a wrong turn. But I do try to be careful not to sand off the distinctive quirks of style that make an author read like herself. Jo Walton writes sentences and paragraphs in which, if I’d written them, I’d have deployed more commas. But that’s part (a very small part) of what makes Jo Walton read like Jo Walton. Just as authors sometimes find they need to forcibly quiet their internal editor, I make a conscious effort to squelch my inner copyeditor. (This is not a knock against actual copyeditors, who have saved my ass more times than I can count.)
What is entailed in editing a book? Or, put differently, what exactly do you do as the editor?
Guran: It depends on the book. I work with a lot of new authors and sometimes they need substantial notes in order to really get the manuscript to a point where we can then polish it.
Others don’t need that. Overall, I’m looking for everything to make sense plot- and character-wise; logic; clarity; proper conveyance of the author’s meaning; making sure there’s enough detail/description, but not too much; pacing; believable timeline; good dialogue—everything that makes a book a “good read.” I’m also looking for the mechanical stuff: grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, etc. In the case of sequels, I am also making sure the books are consistent.
Harbowy: I do a lot of copyediting and substantive editing. I read carefully through a manuscript and leave notations to correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and to standardize spellings and technical issues that might be inconsistent. Meanwhile, I look for inconsistencies, continuity errors, and anything vague, awkward or misleading that might confuse the reader (on the plot level as well as on the sentence level), or weak moments and threads that could be stronger. I query or leave comments on those issues. Often the author understands the concerns I’ve raised and they’re easily fixed or clarified in the manuscript, and sometimes more discussion is warranted.
Athans: It seems to me that the role of the editor in what we call “mainstream” publishing has been on the wane for the last decade at least, with agents taking on more responsibility for working with authors. That’s not something we’ve allowed to happen here at Wizards of the Coast. And again, the nature of shared-world or “tie-in” publishing means we have a very different process from most other publishers.
Our editors are more often than not the progenitor of the original idea for a book or series, and they sketch out the parameters that the authors will be working in. Sometimes this process is quite intense, requiring the creation of a detailed “series bible” that authors have to work from. This was the case with series like Sembia: Gateway to the Realms and R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen. Sometimes the parameters are a little more loose, as with series like The Wilds, which are united by a basic theme but left more open to what an individual author can bring in.
From there our editors work with their authors to create an outline, we provide supporting materials like previously published books in that line, game products, and material that’s in the works but not yet published. Once we’re all satisfied that we’re headed in the right direction we let the author write, answering questions and acting as a sounding board for ideas as necessary as they go along. Once a first draft is completed it’s read carefully with a wide range of elements in mind, from the basic stuff like grammar and usage, to the “softer” elements like storytelling and characterization, and the ever-present requirements of continuity for the bigger line and the related game.
The editor then provides detailed notes and the author goes away and revises. When we’re satisfied that we have a final draft that hits all the points we need to make it the strongest possible addition to the line, we’ll use the services of freelance copy editors and proofreaders to help us get a fresh set of eyes on the text. Ultimately it’s the line editor’s responsibility to make a final pass through the text and make sure it’s as perfect as we can get it.
Blake: Book publishing is production work. We get a manuscript and we turn it into a book. Editorial work is only part of the job. The rest is project management: keeping schedules, designing workflow, sending this part of the project to design and that part to marketing. It involves daily communication with a team of people—designers, artists, writers, production, etc. I sometimes liken myself and my job to an octopus sitting at a desk, typing an email, talking on the phone, pouring some coffee, editing a text, checking some marketing copy, and making sure the barcodes match with the ISBNs.
Lowder: On creative issues, a good editor is a hybrid of critical gadfly and surrogate reader. The editor should challenge the writer, asking questions and highlighting problems so that the work’s artistic statement can be made clearer. He or she can suggest solutions, but it’s more important to point out the potential weaknesses in a work and allow the writer to address them in his or her own voice. On a practical level, this means reading the book at various stages, from plot outline through multiple drafts, and marking them up with comments for the writer’s consideration.
Editors also keep books on schedule—well, they try to keep books on schedule; they cannot force an author to turn over a draft that doesn’t exist—and perform other commercial support tasks. Depending on the publisher, those tasks can be anything from penning jacket copy to lining up PR blurbs to creating cover art suggestions. In this, editors are the mediators between the publisher and the writer. I still look at these jobs with an aesthetic squint. Presentation and other commercial concerns impact how a book, as a work of art, is perceived by the potential audience.
Anders: This is a big question, particularly in my case as I am the “editorial director” of the Pyr line, a role that encompasses more than just acquisitions. In this regard, I read all manuscripts that come in, select the very small percentage of these that I am interested in acquiring, present them to my parent company for approval, negotiate with the agents or authors for the sale, work with the author on any structural changes or clarifications/improvements that need to be made to the manuscript, select and hire the cover artist, art direct the cover, oversee/approve the internal layout of the book that is laid out by typesetting, write the back cover copy (in conjunction with the author and an in-house editor), art direct our in-house design staff for the typography and layout of the book’s jacket, advised marketing on how best to advertize it, work with publicity on same, assist in all the various outward focused efforts that require book descriptions, help compile comparative buys for online retailers, and serve as an advocate both inside and outside of the house for the book. Inside the house, because my parent company publishes 100 titles a year on average (out of which Pyr is about 30), I am the book’s advocate to remind all the various departments what the book is about, why it is important, and how to market and package it. Outside, I maintain our newsletter, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages/accounts, and travel about once every other month to speak at conventions and libraries on our book line. I also get asked for interviews about once a week now (which I happily/gratefully agree to, thank you), and I scheme constantly about how to get books into readers hands. So, basically, I eat breath and sleep science fiction and fantasy, and it’s not uncommon for me to wake up at 3 am with something in my head like “OMG, we need to put a map in the front of Joel Shepherd’s latest fantasy novel. I better get on that ASAP” or “Have I checked in with Stephan Martiniere to make sure the cover for The Dervish House is on track?” or “Did we switch that author photo of Mike Resnick on the jacket flap out with the new one he prefers?” With all of that going on, actually sitting down with a red pen and a manuscript seems like a very tiny portion of the job description.
Nash: An editor provides the crucial outside eye. We are (usually) able to be objective where an author can’t be, because he or she has invested so much of themselves in their work. I see my job as helping the writer to get his or her vision across as clearly as possible to as many people as possible. I help the author make sure that the structure of the book is both logical and entertaining, the characters are consistent, the pacing works, that the novel pays off in the end (and does so in a manner that flows logically from the rest of the book)—and, because I’m a commercial editor, I try to help the author make the book as accessible as possible. This doesn’t mean dumbing the book down for the lowest common denominator, by the way, it means removing unnecessary impediments to attracting the largest potential audience. It may not sit well with those who prefer their art to be unsullied by commercial concerns but part of my job is to sell as many books as I can for my authors—it is the source of their income, after all.
Morris: A novel either starts with a concept or with an author—and once I have one, I set about finding the other. From there, the author and I develop the concept into an outline, which I comment on and the author revises until we’re both happy with it. Then I answer any questions the author has while writing their first draft, providing support, ideas, and research.
Once I receive the first draft, I edit it for character, plot, theme, tone, grammar and spelling, and line continuity, as well as looking for additional unexplored opportunities within the IP—usually leaving detailed notes in-line and sending an editorial letter with larger-scale notes. The author and I discuss my notes, and then the author writes the final draft. After I receive the final draft, I do a line-by-line edit of the manuscript, requesting additional rewrites if necessary. I send it to a copy editor, followed by a proofreader, and lastly the author to try to get the manuscript as clean as possible. After checking and integrating everyone’s corrections, I proofread the typeset galleys one final time before the manuscript leaves my hands to be prepared for the printer.
Schluep: The first step in the author-editor relationship is acquisition, which almost exclusively involves dealing with an agent (we just don’t have time to read unsolicited manuscripts anymore). So we start out as acquisitions editors. We read the manuscripts, decide what we want to buy, attend the acquisitions meeting where we explain why we like the book and what we want to pay for it. Then we make the offer, negotiate with the agent, and hopefully get the book.
Once the contract has been put through, we have three basic concerns: sales, marketing, and the book itself. Before we can sell a book to the consumer, we first have to sell the book in-house—it’s essential that we get the sales force and our other colleagues excited about the book. Then we have to get the company’s resources behind it, and an important part of those resources is marketing dollars and attention. Those resources are limited, so it’s on us to make sure we funnel as much as we can toward our projects.
Lastly—but not leastly—there’s the book. Putting together a book involves book design, the cover, copy, copy editing, and the editing itself, among other things. All but the editing are primarily performed by other people, but the editor is certainly involved in each step along the way. When it comes to my editing approach, there are two important and separate stages: first, there’s the “big idea” edit, where we sharpen the beginning, fix the end, add or delete scenes, work on character development, that sort of thing; then comes the more fine tuned line edit and cutting, which I think is what’s traditionally seen as editing.
Weisman: For anthologies, we use external editors (such as Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Ellen Datlow, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel). I work with editors on the concept of the anthology and we come up with a list of potential contributors; they take over from there. With collections, I generally work closely with the authors to pick out the stories that will best form a cohesive (and enjoyable) book. Reprints don’t need editing. Original novels, of which we try to do at least a couple a year, may have some additional editing needed, but as we only work with established authors, the manuscripts will only need one to two rounds of additional corrections, if that.
Spanton: Actually working with the author on the text of the book is only part of the job. In short I’m the author’s main point of contact for the company and the company’s main point of contact for the author. I liaise with production, art, rights, marketing, publicity and sales on each and every book. I brief the cover, I write the copy, I review catalogue copy, I pitch the book to the sales team, I make sure the rights department know all they need to know about the book, I keep the author up to date with what’s going on, I negotiate with the author’s agent over the initial deal and liaise with the contracts department. I speak to bloggers and keep various forums up to date with what we’re doing. I attend publishing meetings, marketing meetings, art meetings, rights fairs and sales presentations. Oh, and I read submissions and acquire books.
Taber: Part of my job is to read submissions that have made it through the first round of slush and decide if they are something we want to acquire or not, but the vast majority of my work is performing line edits. That’s exactly what it sounds like—editing line by line. I convert the whole book or story into my preferred format first, then turn on the Track Changes (we’re fully electronic at Apex) and do an editing pass on the complete manuscript, often leaving myself comments in the margins about sections I want to take another look at later. Once the first pass is finished, I go back through to the notes I’ve left myself and take another look at those areas; then I do a quick once-over of the changes I’ve made. I clean up my notes and leave any notes for the author, then send the manuscript back with instructions on how to accept/reject/comment on the changes.
Once the author has gone through the manuscript, I’ll go through the new version and find the sections that still need a little bit of work. By this point, it’s usually fairly minimal—maybe six to ten notes for a novella/novel, or about three for a short story. I’ll usually just note those in an email to the author and we’ll work it out that way, rather than having to dig through the full manuscript for just a few notes.
After that, the manuscript goes to Jason Sizemore—the brains, brawn, and driving force of Apex Publishing—who does the layout himself. At that point I try to work on back cover copy, press release copy, and any other promotional materials while the story is still fresh in my mind. Sometimes that doesn’t happen if a new project is needing line edits, but that’s my ideal process.
Once the book is laid out, a PDF is sent to the author and one of our proofreaders (the talented Sarah Brandel and Emily Dettmar) for a final check.
Jarrold: When I worked in publishing, I would give full editorial notes—structural, general, and specific, which could range from two to ten pages long. Sometimes, I’d suggest swinging changes to characters, plotlines, even starting the book in a different place; sometime I only had to mention specifics, dependent on the author. But one is also the book and author’s main supporter in a company that might be publishing several hundred other authors. One has to make sure that both the author and the genre are taken seriously, in commercial terms, by the sales, marketing, publicity and other departments. And I also visited the main retail head offices to discuss the authors I was publishing.
Nielsen Hayden: At Tor, at any rate, the role of a particular book’s editor is to be a combination of project manager, cheerleader, and liaison with all the other departments. The project manager role encompasses what people imagine when they think about editors working on books—the actual hands-on-the-manuscript stuff. But the other roles are every bit as important. I spend a lot of time making sure that a critical mass of other people at Tor and Macmillan are sufficiently “signed on” to my particular books that they do better-than-average work. The plain fact is that every house publishes slightly more books than they actually should,* and the scarcest resource in any publishing organization isn’t money, it’s human attention. So while I don’t necessarily need everyone who works on my books to read every word of them, I try very hard to spot ways in which each of my books provides some kind of opportunity for other parts of the house to do work that’s fun and fulfilling. Sometimes that means talking to the art department about ways we could do something distinctive and different with the jacket. Sometimes that means nudging a publicist to see angles that weren’t obvious. Sometimes it does mean urging particular department heads or staff members to read a particular book, because (if I’m doing my job right) I’ve paid attention to my co-workers enough to have an idea which books are likely to get them fired up and interested.
In a sense, it’s very political work. And I’ve seen the occasional editors who regards this part of the job as a zero-sum-game, a struggle against their colleagues for the house’s limited resources. I don’t think it has to be that way, because when the right people are paired with the right work, energy begets more energy. Happily, most long-term book editors tend, temperamentally, to be the kind of people who recognize the advantages of cooperation over beggar-thy-neighbor competition.
* Footnote: All publishers publish more books than they should, and all publishers believe that the other publishers should cut back.
Has your job as editor changed in recent years? Do you see a trend for the future?
Nash: The main change in the editor’s role has been away from actually editing. The shelves are more crowded than they’ve ever been, and it’s becoming harder and harder to stand out from the crowd - especially in SF&F where the trade doesn’t have the same sorts of promotional vehicles that can make an instant success of a thriller or a big literary novel if the publisher is prepared to throw enough money at it. A modern editor needs to be involved in briefing a stand-out cover, writing enticing cover copy (the reality of the modern trade is that six months before a book is published it’s more important to have a finished cover than it is to have a finished manuscript), analyzing sales figures, liaising with the sales, marketing and publicity teams, keeping bibliographic databases up to date, watching for opportunities in the trade, keeping abreast of market trends, writing reports and a myriad other tasks that seem to be completely divorced from the editor’s role but actually have a good deal of bearing on how successful a book or author is. Oh, and somewhere in there it would help if we could edit the odd manuscript and read a few submissions.
It’s tremendously difficult (not to mention dangerous) to try to predict trends in publishing—particularly with the digital landscape so fluid. I do think we’ll see more convergence in between print and digital publishing, particularly from the independent publishers and small presses. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more small presses pop up to fill the niches the larger publishers leave unexplored. Obviously, the online space is becoming more and more important. How long before online retail is worth more of the book market than bricks and mortar?
The main trend I see for editors, though, is that in an era of specialization, the editor is poised to go the other way and develop into the renaissance man of publishing—editing the manuscript, closely involved in the execution of the cover, an integral part of the marketing and publicity, and selling the book to the key trade buyers by virtue of head office presentations and close liaison with sales teams. Perhaps the place those small presses I mentioned will pop up is under the auspices of the big corporate publishing groups?
Lowder: Computers and the Internet have changed editing substantially. Word processing programs make it much easier for an editor to interact with a text, though the danger there is an easily satisfied temptation to tinker with someone’s prose more than is necessary or helpful. In this era when a careless keystroke can screw up an entire manuscript, writers need to be especially careful to review their prose at every step of production. Fortunately, the Internet makes that sort of communication and transparency simple. Drafts and page proofs can be exchanged for review in seconds rather than days, with negligible cost and in a format that can be transitioned to production with ease.
In the next few years, technological advances and staff cuts are going to mean editors will find themselves doing more production tasks. I find it saves a lot of time and streamlines production, without adding a lot of work to my schedule, if I typeset a book I’m editing. Once you have the software, it’s relatively easy to gain that skill set. And as the cost of that software continues to drop and more writers acquire those basic production skills, no doubt a lot of projects will be pushed into the marketplace with no editorial input at all.
Anders: My job is going backwards. I started in 2000 at a now-defunct company called Bookface.com that was in the online publishing space. We partnered with publishers to put browser-based etexts on line, with click-thrus to Amazon, etc . . . I was an early advocate of the notion that the book is the best advertisement for itself, with complete texts online for free reading, presented under the assumption that most readers would at some point stop working their way through the browser and order the actual book. Whether that’s true or not, I know my own book buying surged the year I worked there!
But anyway, when the dot com bubble burst, I was left with hundreds of contacts in the print publishing world, so I began freelance editing a series of anthologies and magazines, and in 2004, was approached by nonfiction publisher Prometheus Books to give them a science fiction line. We created Pyr, now over four years old, and suddenly I find myself looking at ebooks again, in what feels like a career that has come full circle. We (as an industry) hit a real tipping point sometime after Christmas, and in fact, I’d date it to the debut of the Kindle App for iPhone, but somewhere in the first quarter of this year, the promised arrival of ebooks as a force to be reckoned with finally materialized, and I think we are in a whirlwind of change right now.
Small trends that I see are the rise of the importance of trade paperbacks, the dwindling of hardcovers, the increased dominance of urban fantasy, the migration of classic science fiction out of the bookstore category and into both literary mainstream and teen category fiction, and the return of swords & sorcery and its infusion with epic fantasy.
I’d also add that “marketing” itself has changed utterly, with most publishers redirecting their efforts away from traditional print ads towards online promotions, and that “transparency” has become central to a brand’s integrity. Or, to put it in more human terms, the top-down relationship between publishers and readers has given way to a new relationship that is far more peer-to-peer. We are all fans and readers, and the back and forth discussion that the net affords is an invaluable part of the process now. Also, a lot of fun.
Athans: Personally my job has changed some, moving away from hands-on editing to include more administrative and “strategic” sort of stuff, managing the staff of editors and working with a cross-functional team within Wizards to make sure everything stays on track. Though I miss some of the creative parts of the job, I still get to work with at least two great authors, R.A. Salvatore and Paul S. Kemp, and I get a little say in everything, which is pretty cool.
The trend that seems to be getting the most press currently is the growing e-book category, but even then that’s really about what happens after my job is done. We’re content providers, and whatever form that finally takes, whether you buy a printed book or download an e-book file, the content still has the same demands, and still has to be just as good.
Blake: This is a geeky answer, but the biggest change recently was that I signed up for an online database tool for helping to centralize the files among all of my freelancers. I’m working with four designers, two artists, three proofreaders, a firecracker publicity man, and a dozen writers. The online tool makes it much easier to keep everything organized.
Weisman: As Tachyon gets bigger I’ve had to transition from being the press’ primary editor to more of a hands-on publisher, who also does some editing. This frees me up to do more acquisitions—we publish about five times as many books a year as we did thirteen years ago.
Guran: I started editing full time with a small press, so I did everything other than cover art and design (which I at least had a hand in helping with) and the business/printing end of things. In addition to acquiring and line editing, I also typeset the books, did publicity, wrote copy, went to marketing meetings with the distributors and chain buyers . . . you name it.
Now, since the beginning of the year with Pocket, I still acquire and edit. I also still do anything I can to bring public awareness to the line. Pocket’s deadlines run much further out than small press, so it has been a lot of work simply getting on something close to a normal-for-them-production schedule. I’m still running myself a little ragged in order to catch up despite supposedly doing fewer “jobs”.
Obviously there are great advantages to working with the “big guys”, so no complaints. But sometimes I wish I still had more direct influence on some aspects and more contact with the marketing end of things.
The future? I’m looking at how major publishing works as a total outsider right now, even though I’m a publishing wonk. Still, I see a lot that my gut reaction to is: “Why?” Or “Why not . . . ?” I think New York publishers will need some fresh ideas and some real hard looks at how things are done to remain profitable in business in the future.
Harbowy: Thanks to digital innovations, editors are able to work remotely and paperlessly. All the work I do is computer-based. I mark up and annotate files and e-mail them back and forth, I receive electronic proofs, I communicate with authors and publishers via e-mail and videoconference. It saves paper, it saves time and office space, and it allows me to work effectively with clients all over the world. I’m not even in the same country as the publisher I do the most work for, and we’re able to exchange files as conveniently as if we were in the same office. There are still editors who would rather have paper in front of them than edit on a screen, but I’m seeing a trend toward more electronic submissions and file handling. I think that eventually paper submissions—and traditional proofreading marks—are going to go away.
Taber: I’ve taken on a little bit more of the acquisitions, along with Sarah Brandel, our Submissions Editor for the book side of Apex. Jason used to handle most of that himself, but now we share the workload. One of my first acquisitions was a reprint of Elizabeth Engstrom’s When Darkness Loves Us, which I’ve loved since I was a teenager. That’s coming out in November, and I’m quite excited for the release.
Morris: My job is going electronic. At this point, I usually only ever see a manuscript on paper three times—once when I send it to the proofreader, once when I send it to the author for proofreading, and once when it arrives on my desk, bound and ready to be put on my bookshelf. All four of the other editing passes are done electronically. Someday, I expect my proofreaders and authors will both be proofreading electronically as well. While it took some time to get used to, it is definitely faster, cleaner, and more cost-effective.
Schluep: There just seems to be less time—and I don’t see more time opening up in the future. Also, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that marketing has become more important. There are just so many books out there, each one vying for people’s attention, and we as publishers need to find newer (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get our books in front of readers. I see editors becoming more involved in marketing, which is not to say that we’ll become part of the marketing department, but that we need to think in those terms. A good book can be almost as easily ignored as a bad one, so there is great pressure on editors to find marketable books. That said, what’s more satisfying than discovering a book or author that no one else believed in and proving everyone wrong? (The cynical answer: keeping your job. But we try not to become too cynical.)
The biggest trend I see is an increased utilization of the internet. (Surprise, it’s already here! . . . Yes, I know, but it’s only just becoming fully noticed by publishers). Blogs and other internet-related media are a great way to reach the audience you’re trying to reach, and you don’t have to spend oodles of dollars to do so. It’s cheap, it’s viral, and the people who write about your books are doing so because they care about them. That’s a good thing.
Spanton: The industry is changing all the time, its having to adapt to new delivery methods, new marketing opportunities, new sales challenges.
E-books will grow but books will survive. Either way people will still read and still read science fiction and fantasy. And hopefully people will still need editors to point them at the good stuff; whether it’s a leather bound special edition or a download to their mobile phone.
Jarrold: I saw the editor’s job being taken away from them by too many sales and marketing people (and Managing Directors in some cases), some of whom don’t read books, and want every book the company takes on to be perfect and ready to publish before one is allowed to make an offer. They seem to forget that is why they employ editors: to see a wonderful book that needs work, and to do that work. I left corporate publishing in 2002, and I’m now an agent. I edit most of my clients’ books before they are submitted, for that reason.
Nielsen Hayden: The biggest change to my job in recent years is that I’m now spending a certain amount of my time on Tor.com, the website run by Macmillan in parallel to Tor-Books-the-print-publishing-company. This has provided me with an interesting perch from which to observe (and occasionally contribute to) the intra-corporate discussion of how we imagine we’re all going to be making a living ten and twenty years from now. But that, as they say at the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, is A Different Panel.
What sort of book do you most enjoy editing?
Anders: A good one!
In all seriousness, if I’m not jumping up and down out of my chair with excitement over a manuscript, it will never get to the editing stage. There’s way way way too much competition out there for “good enough.” To stand out, you need “brilliant” and “un-put-downable.”
Guran: If I weren’t so driven by deadlines right now, I might say the “beginner books” where I feel I’m an integral part of actually shaping the book with the author. But I find myself having to rush too much these days with that process. Practically? Near-perfect manuscripts almost ready to pass to press are a joy.
Morris: Books with a lot of potential. The most awesome part of editing is seeing something beautiful in an author’s work, and having the honor of figuring out just how to cut, polish, and set that diamond-in-the-rough. When you can see that everything is there to make a great book, and you just have to massage the arcs and bring out the threads here and there, you really feel at your most useful. And seeing an author who is passionate about his work come into his own is an incredible experience.
Schluep: That’s a difficult question to answer. In the past, I used to say that my favorite books to edit were the ones from debut novelists. That’s still among my greatest pleasures. There is nothing quite as exciting as discovering a new talent and launching a career. But now that I’ve been in the business for more than a decade, I’ve developed strong relationships with a good number of established writers, many of whom I’ve had a hand in establishing, and I love working with them, too.
On a more general note, I look for books that excite me. That’s really general, I know; but it’s the truth and I think that’s the case for most editors, no matter what else they say. We read a lot of books—some published, most not—so we’re going to look to get excited by them. To go further, I like books that will start a conversation, whether it’s the ideas, the setting, the characters, or something plotwise that will stick with readers and cause them to want to talk about it. There’s nothing cooler than seeing people talking about your books. It’s incredibly satisfying.
A good story is fun to work on, too, but that’s about the most boring and general answer you could possibly give (although it’s the same reason that most people read fiction).
Spanton: The sort that readers most enjoy reading. If you don’t enjoy book that your company is publishing there’s something gone seriously wrong in the process. That said you also adopt different reading (and editorial) hats for different sorts of books.
Athans: I’m delighted to edit any book that the author was passionate about writing. If he or she had a burning desire to tell the story, that desire will come through, and it’ll be a joy to read even in its first draft form. If the author really cares, really wants it to be good, my job isn’t just easier, it’s a great deal more rewarding.
Taber: I love working with writers who really know how to use language. I mentioned Paul Jessup above—his novella, “Open Your Eyes,” is one of my favorite projects to date because it has a strong science fiction element, is wonderfully dark, and the language is incredibly rhythmic.
A few of the Apex editors came into dark SF from the horror side of the genre. I come more from the science fiction side, so I prefer books with some science to them, be it technology, physics, biology, chemistry, or the soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and even linguistics. I’m especially fond of biology/genetics, so editing books with a root in those sciences is almost like reading just for fun.
Weisman: Each book is unique challenge. Story collections and anthologies are easiest. I’ve done a lot of them. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no straight edges that can be put together four or five different ways. The trick is to find the best possible solution. Novels are trickier, but ultimately it’s the same challenge. The book has to work, the authorial voice has to be consistent and compelling.
Lowder: The sort of book I most enjoy editing is one written by an author who is passionate, but open enough to editorial interaction that I’m expected to do more than rubber stamp the drafts as they’re submitted.
Harbowy: There’s no specific genre or type of book that appeals to me over other books. For me, a good story, well-written prose, engaging characters and interesting, fleshed-out worlds beat out genre every time. It’s a challenge: I have to stay aware when I work with a well-written book. An editor can’t forget to edit just because the content is interesting!
Blake: I love love love to edit books in which the author has expert control over language and structure. It doesn’t so much matter to me what the book is about, thematically, but how the book is written. As a general statement of my stance within the world of letters, that’s as close as I can get.
Jarrold: A wide range. I enjoy SF and Fantasy equally. I love natural story-tellers and authors whose sentences make me smile. And particularly those whose first page has my thumbs pricking with delight!
Nielsen Hayden: This is one of those questions like “what kind of story are you looking for”, to which the real answer is “the one I didn’t know I was looking for.” I can generalize and say I like working with authors who take obvious pleasure in brainstorming through problems, but when I look at my current list, it turns out that this describes all of them. Whether this is a sign that my generalization is too broad, or the the residue of years of editorial choice, I couldn’t say.
I do get a charge out of publishing first novels, and I’m published a fair number of them. Some were by people who already had reputations in short fiction, like Susan Palwick, Cory Doctorow, or Geoffrey A. Landis, or people like Jim Macdonald and Debra Doyle who had already done work for packagers under other names. But there’s a special kick to acquiring and publishing the first novels of unknowns and near-unknowns like Maureen F. McHugh, Raphael Carter, Jo Walton, John Scalzi, and David Keck. Coming soon: Ian Tregillis. Watch that name.
The concluding half of this interview
will appear in our August issue.