Saturday, 22 March 2014

Portrait of the Editor as a Young Man

... well, youngish.

Anyway, Jared Shurin (he of Pornokitsch and Jurassic fame) tweeted this article the other day over on the Staffers Book Review about how hands-on, or otherwise, editors are able to be. It's an interesting article, and I've certainly heard that some of the largest publishers do farm out a lot of the copy-editing and what have you. In genre, I do get the impression that the editors involved in the life of manuscript are much more hands-on and nurturing.

However, what the article really got me thinking about was my own journey in genre editing, and how unusual it has often been. So, what follows, is a mini autobiography of my life thus far in editing.

When I began at Rebellion, I'd been working in academic publishing for almost 6 years. I'd been a fan of genre fiction since my early teens, and had been going to conventions and getting involved in 'fan stuff' since the age of 17. The academic publishing had given me a good grounding in project management and a sense of the life of a manuscript from submission to publication. Granted, I'd never professionally editing fiction before, but I had a wide knowledge of the genre, buckets of enthusiasm and an MA in Science Fiction Studies (See? I knew it would come in useful some day!). But when Jason and Chris Kingsley employed me to curate and launch Abaddon Books, it's pretty fair to say I was thrown in at the deep end and, to a large degree, made it up as I went along. I had some good folk already in the industry to guide me. One of the first people I talked to was Marcus Gascoigne (then of Games Workshop, now head honcho at Angry Robot) who proved invaluable in giving advice on commissioning and the processes of editing fiction. I also spoke to distributors and printers, and managed to gain and idea of what processes we'd have to go through to get our fiction on the shelves.

What was (and is) extraordinary about Abaddon, however, was that it was such a strange approach to publishing. Essentially, we were to put together a list based on the model of franchise fiction, on a work-for-hire basis, the 'franchises' for which we came up with ourselves. So, we guessed what kind of pulpy, fun fiction folk would like, we created world bibles and then we asked writers to pitch to these worlds. At the start, I decided we'd entirely open up Abaddon and have an open subs policy. Which essentially meant I had a humongous subs pile to tackle. (This open subs policy was fairly short lived, I hasten to add) This meant spending a lot of time reading a fairly large amount of not very good fiction. But there was gold in them thar hills! Scott Andrews (whose YA novel Timebomb is coming soon from Hodder) came through the subs pile, with his extraordinarily dark and funny novel School's Out for The Afterblight Chronicles. Jonathan Green bowled me over with his ideas for what turned out to be our long-running steampunk series, Pax Britannia. And there were some terrific authors coming through by association, also. Al Ewing, who had written a fair amount for 2000 AD, also published by Rebellion, wrote five novels for Abaddon, and later what, for my money, was one of the most extraordinary novels of 2013 with The Fictional Man, for Solaris. Rebecca Levene, who I had previously worked in on a non-fiction game tie-in book for Rebellion, wrote four terrific novels for Abaddon.

What was even more extraordinary about Abaddon, though, was that we set up something from pretty much nothing and took a run at it. We were a tiny team at the time: Abaddon Books was myself as commissioning editor, copy-editor and proof reader. We had a great design team, which we shared with 2000 AD and did use some freelance editing for a short time, but I pretty much did everything bar write the books and draw the covers. I chose the titles, I scheduled the titles, I went to the sales meetings with the distributors, I organised promotions and reviews, handled quite a fair amount of booking advertising, dealt with going to conventions and trade shows and handled all the print management.

At the same time as I was doing this, I was also the graphic novels editor at 2000 AD. This was a role I held for five years, until we took over Solaris and I'm incredibly proud of my legacy as a GN editor. I took over the list shortly after the deal with DC had ended, so the distribution and printing of the graphic novels were now entirely in Rebellion's hands. When I started we were publishing three graphic novels a month, which, really, was far too many. I decided that we needed to streamline the list, and we went down to two books a month. The year I started was also the year we launched the Judge Dredd Case Files. Now, I can't take credit for those books, though I was the editor in charge of the first volume. But what I do think I can take credit for is expanding that format of GN to other 2000 AD series. So, those thick, predominantly black and white, volumes worked perfectly for such stories as Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog. And because the 'Case Files' format was such a massive success, it worked for these stories too. Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 1 and the subsequent volumes have sold like hot cakes for a long time now, as have those other phonebook sized GNs.

In 2009 we acquired Solaris from Games Workshop. I'd read that the imprint was being put up for sale in an article in The Bookseller and mentioned it in passing to my boss, mainly thinking he'd just be interested to hear the news because one of his old friends was founder of Solaris, Marcus Gascoigne. A month or so later my boss announced that Rebellion were to acquire Solaris and I was going to be put in charge of the imprint.

This was absolutely massive to me. Abaddon was my baby. The list I helped to nurture from the ground up. Solaris was a whole other world of publishing - and I don't mean that as indicative of quality of fiction or strength of sales, Abaddon and Solaris continue to publish brilliant commerical fiction, but Solaris was literally a different way of working. I suddenly had a whole new set of skills to learn. Fortunately the imprint had already been in the capable hands of Marcus Gascoigne, Mark Charan Newton, Christian Dunn and George Mann. The list came with names that I was already familiar with, a whole slew of writers I'd been a huge fan of for a long time - names like James Lovegrove and Brian Lumley. Solaris was a much more traditional publisher, producing author-owned genre fiction, set at the midlist but with aspirations for higher.

One of the first things I had to deal with were agents. I'd never had to negotiate a contract before because Abaddon contracts were all the same. None of us at Rebellion had ever dealt with literary agents and so it was up to me to find out how all that worked. I'm not going to lie, some I've found easier than others, but generally genre agents are fans just like us and just want to get the best possible for their author. But Solaris was another enormous learning curve, and much of it I had to do on the job. There weren't really many other editors I could ask for advice because back then (2009-2010) because there weren't as many midlist genre publishers as there are now; there was pretty much the Big Publishers and ourselves and Angry Robot, and Robot at the time were owned by Harper Collins.

For months after I took over Solaris I was convinced I was doing it wrong. When I found out that many of the larger publishers had these things called acquisition meetings, I was a bit alarmed. I rang up my friend Joel Lane and said, "Joel. I'm not sure I'm doing this right. When I want to commission a book I just say to Jason [Kingsley, owner of Rebellion], 'this book is great, I think we should publish it' and he usually says yes. But I've heard from other editors that they have these big departmental meetings where they have to convince a whole raft of people the company should buy this book.' 'Jon, don't worry,' Joel said. 'You're just doing it how publishing used to work.'"

Now, I realise that may sound a touch smug, but my point is that we're an unusual publishing company. The acquisitions meetings model does have its advantages. For one it means that you've got a whole team of people who are now behind an acquired title. But it also means that everybody has to agree to a title for it to be acquired. Big publishers, using this model, can be reluctant to take risks. Mainly because their spend per book is that much higher, so if they're going to be spending a lot of money, they're going to want to see a lot of return. For an indie publisher like Solaris, however, this smaller acquisitions process means that they're more open to taking risks, to acquiring debut novelists and are more able to move quickly on extraordinary titles that may come to light fairly late in the commissioning period.

Anyway, back to the history lesson. When we took over Solaris I was still pretty much doing everything (all the editing, all the production and printing processing) but it became increasingly clear that now that we had expanded we need someone to handle management of the business side of operations on a day-to-day basis. So, Ben Smith joined the company as a Production Manager before quickly becoming the Publishing Manager and overseeing all publishing for Rebellion. This was a godsend. While I found the business elements of publishing interesting, I was always aware that I was far better at editing and commissioning. The first major thing that Ben did was get the schedules working more efficiently. Back in the day, there would usually be about 6 -8 months between commissioning an Abaddon title and getting it on the shelves. As it turns out, a massively unrealistic turn-around. Now, we commission titles a year in advance at the very least.

Another godsend was Jenni Hill. Jenni had been temping for 2000 AD and had taken on some proof-reading work for Abaddon. Jenni clearly knew her way around a novel and had an excellent grasp of the editorial processes and the way good narrative should work. When her time with 2000 AD came to an end, I suggested we take Jenni on in a more permanent position, and everyone agreed. Jenni was a joy to work with and I knew that we weren't going to be able to hang onto her for long. When the position at Orbit came up, I knew in my gut that was where Jenni would end up and it's a real delight to see her taking the reigns of such a great list.

Shortly before Jenni departed for Orbit towers, we decided that we needed another editor to help handle the increasingly large workload so we interviewed and we found our very own extraordinary Antipodean: David Moore. David is another extraordinary editor. And he brings with him an acute attention to detail and a real love of story, that makes him a true asset. David was clearly too good to remain just an editor (I know! The horror!) for long, so I decided to hand my baby to a big, hairy Australian man. I handed Abaddon over to David, assigning him the commissioning editor role for that imprint.

I'm enormously proud of my time on Abaddon and it's a huge thrill to see some of our authors go onto bigger things (Rebecca Levene and Scott Andrews, yo), but it's also now a great pleasure to see David evolve the list. It's good to get that new take on the range. I'm hugely impressed with David's energy and the great relationships he develops with authors.

So, that's where I stand now, red pen in hand, braving a future of publishing that is radically different to when I first started in 2001. But what, Jon, I hear you say, are the challenges. Jesus, wept man! You've babbled on for ages now, what are the damned challenges!

Okay, so when I started in genre fiction and when we took Solaris over in 2009 there were simply more bookshops, more outlets for genre fiction than there are now, and less genre publishers. In the last five or so years, however, we have seen a blossoming of the genre midlist, with imprints such as Angry Robot, Hodderscacpe, Del Rey Uk, Jo Fletcher Books, Titan (established imprint, but recently moved into fiction on a larger scale) Salt and others entering the field. Don't get me wrong, though, this isn't about me feeling threatened, or jealous. The people working for those imprints are doing great work and many are good friends. I was hugely touched, for example, to be asked by Anne Perry to write her reference for the role she landed at Hodderscape.

But the fact is that there are a lot more titles clamouring for readers' attention and if you factor in the boom in digital self-publishing that is a hell of a lot of genre titles each year, each screaming out to be read.

It's about having the courage of your convictions, though, about having confidence that your own taste in fiction is a good rule-of-thumb for what others will enjoy. And because each editor of each imprint is different, this leads to different flavours of imprint, broadening the genre and enriching it at the same time. So, in this instance, to some degree, the challenges are also what makes this an exciting time for genre fiction.

On a personal level, the challenge in being a genre editor, is very much in the personal. Yes, this is a business, yes we do this because we need to feed and clothe our families and keep a roof over our heads, but we also do this because we bloody love doing it. I've used the word proud several times now, but I'm going to use it again, I'm proud of what we've achieved and I'm proud of the books we've produced and the authors we work with. We put so much of ourselves into working on each book that it can be really really tough if a book you love and believe in only gets a few reviews and only achieves middling sales. The cold hard fact of publishing is that not every book sells a gazillion copies, not every book sets the world afire. Not every book will reach as wide an audience as you want it to. And that's just the way it is. But sometimes you publish a book and feel like shouting: what the fuck is wrong with you all, why aren't you making this author a millionaire and shouting about how brilliant it is! But no regrets, because even if something only does middlingly well, you have to take solace that had you not commissioned that title, it may not have seen the light of day at all and a good book will always be a good book, at whatever level of sales it achieves.

And, at the end of the day, I'm incredibly blessed. If I ever get stressed at work and moan about it to my friend Sam, he's says, 'Yeah, but dude, you work in the ice cream factory.' And though that may sound a little flippant, in many ways Sam is right. I love books. I love writing. I edit books for a living. When I started in publishing (relatively recently in the wider scheme of things) I always wanted to work in genre fiction, and now I actually do. And I'm the Editor-in-Chief of three imprints, and I get to work with extraordinary people every single day.

So, yes, I have my down days. I'm a depressive so occasionally the black dog gets the better of me, but to lift myself out of that, all I have to do is remember that I work in the ice cream factory.

And I genuinely believe that the majority of editors working in genre have that same passion, and from what I've seen it's the most 'hands-on' of the editorial territories. Because that are a lot more fans working in this industry, a lot of people who fell in love with genre as a kid and never stopped being in love with it, and that love and that passion is very much evident in an industry that I'm hugely hugely proud (that damn word again!) and privileged to be a part of.


  1. Mr Oliver - I don't know if you take direct inquiries but as a demonstration I did a rewrite of something JL Prober did in your WW Cthulu compilation, and it's good. Care for an e-copy? gmlperry @ gmail . com.