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Editors: The Writer’s Natural Enemy

Guest of Honor Speech
Delivered at Coastcon II
Biloxi, Mississippi
March 10, 1979

Today I’d like to say a few words about a writer’s natural enemy: editors.

Editors are one of the three most important things in the world, judging from the conversations one overhears in the SFWA suite at any large convention. For some reason, fans always seem to have very weird ideas about what writers talk about when they get together. The more naive neofans often entertain the belief that writers talk about writing — about their own work, or the state of the art in science fiction, or literature in general, or what their colleagues are doing, or fine points about style and plot and characterization. Actually, I’ve never heard any writers talk about any of these things — except in the formal confines of a workshop, or when cornered by a rabid neofan at a convention. I’ve known many writers who would walk a mile to avoid a conversation about writing.

Naturally the more sophisticated fans the ones who have been around fandom long enough, who have known and loved a writer or two, and maybe even been lucky enough to be permitted to buy a writer a drink — you know how selective writers are about who they’ll allow to buy drinks for them — those fans know that writers never talk about writing. But they have their own misconception. Fans are a very eclectic group, a little bit interested in anything. Wander around the next con you go to and eavesdrop on some of the conversations — the variety will amaze you. Fans talk about about music, all kinds of music, from classical to country. They talk about politics, and world affairs, and contemporary crises and controversies. They talk about sports, not just the football-baseball-basketball trinity so beloved of mundanes, but also more esoteric pastimes like hot-air ballooning and scuba diving and spelunking. They talk about books. Every once in a while they even talk about science fiction books. They talk about science, about black holes and nuclear fusion and the future of warfare and the cybernetic revolution. They talk about fandom, of course, and they plot and politick and gossip, and it’s all great fun. These same fans talk to their writer friends about all these things, too, and the writer frequently gives a good imitation of a person holding up his end of the conversation, and even feigns a certain amount of interest. And that’s how the fannish misconception arises that writers are as intelligent and aware and eclectic as fans.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only when one penetrates into the sanctum sanctorum of SFWA suites, and sees writers as they really are when there are no fans or readers around to impress, that you comprehend our true natures.

Left to their own devices, writers talk about only three things; the three most important things in the world.

They talk about money, they talk about sex, and they talk about editors.

Money and sex are things that most writers want and never get enough of. Editors are things that most writers don’t want and get all too much of. I’ve often heard writers ask other writers why there have to be editors in the world.

As it happens, I know the answer. If there were no editors in the world, writers would be very happy. They would frolic and play, and publish every word they wrote and they would have lots of money and lots of sex, since they would-be very famous and very charming having never experienced rejection. Their egos would fill up the world, their books would be everywhere, and they would mate furiously and produce lots of little writers, who would no doubt write lots of little books. This would never do. It would unbalance the ecology. So editors were put into the world to keep down the writer population, you see. Editors crush fledgling writers in their nest with heavy rejection slips, and they clip the wings of more experienced writers and tell them in which direction to fly — usually the wrong direction — and generally bruise their egos often enough so writers grow bitter and disillusioned and turn to drink. You all know what alcoholics writers are, and it’s all because of editors. If it weren’t for editors, writers would never drink. Watch the next time you’re at a convention. The minute an editor meets a writer, he will offer to buy him a drink on his expense account. Sometimes he will even buy him a meal. It’s a sinister ploy. Writers soon become dependent on those editorial expense accounts, and then the editor will back off and threaten to deny the writer those drinks and those meals, and the writer will do, anything to get back in the editor’s good graces. Anything. It’s a disgusting spectacle.

Also, this is one way editors keep down the population of writers. A fat, drunken writer is a supremely revolting creature, and seldom gets any sex, so there is no possibility of the world filling up with little writers.

Editors not only interfere with a writer’s sex life, but they also like to deny him money. Oh, they give a writer a little bit of money every now and then, but that’s only for the sake of appearances. They know better than to give the writers too much. A writer who gets a lot of money soon begins to feel secure and happy, and may even begin to raise a family, and editors don’t want that. You can test this yourself, if you’ve written a story or two. It’s always easy to find a editor who will buy you lunch when you travel to New York. But try calling one up and asking for a six-figure advance. Even a small six-figure advance . . .

Editors are difficult.

I actually can’t be too hard on editors. Sometimes I’m an editor myself. Only in a very minor way, though — I edit my NEW VOICES series of original anthologies for Jove. Two volumes are out, a third was just delivered and will be forthcoming some time in late 1979 or early 1980. The NEW VOICES volumes feature stories by the finalists for the John W. Campbell Award, voted annually by the fans for the best new writer in the field. I arranged it that way deliberately. Not being very experienced as an editor, I figured I could only prey on the youngest and most naive writers. I’m learning, though. Already I’ve rejected several stories, and I’ve forced some of my contributors to do rewrites, and I’ve sat on their manuscripts for months at a time and ignored their query letters. I’ve even learned how to owe them money and make endless excuses about it. You ought to hear me apologize and justify. I’ll make a good editor yet.

Or at least a tolerable one. I must admit that there is simply too much of the writer in me to descend to the real depths of which editors are capable. I’ve edited three volumes of NEW VOICES, and I hope to edit more, but I’m proud to say that I’ve never bought any of my contributors a drink.

Believe it or not, I do have some serious things to say about editors.

Not that all that went before was frivolous. Some of it was quite true. Writers do indeed talk about only three things, the three I’ve named. And editors can indeed be a source of frustration and anguish in a writer’s life. In most cases, that is not due to any active malice on the part of the editor. Often as not, the real villain of the piece is the publisher, but editors are the hatchet men, out there on the front line, and they are the ones who are forced to deliver the bad news and bear the accompanying karmic weight. Editors also are the source of most rejections, and writers hate rejections. Often, when rejecting manuscripts, editors say foolish things. This is not, I think, because all editors are fools. Only some editors are fools, though all of them say foolish things, much more often and much more foolishly than do writers, or plumbers, or insurance salesman. It’s a part of the job.

From time to time, I write reviews. Now, I read a lot of books. I review only a few of them. The ones I review are the ones about which I think I have something intelligent to say. The rest — well, some of them I like, and some of them I don’t, and often as not I’m not sure why. If you pressed me about one, I might give you an answer, but as like as not it would be foolish.

That’s the situation a good editor is in. A bad editor never looks like a moron, since he or she can just send back everything with form rejection slips, and thus pose as a font of wisdom. But a good editor often feels a compulsion to say something when rejecting a manuscript by a professional writer. Say enough somethings and sooner or later they’ll come back to haunt you.

I remember back when I was first starting to sell stories regularly, there was an editor in the field named Robert Hoskins. He was the editor of Lancer Books, who have since gone bankrupt, and of the INFINITY series of original anthologies, now defunct, and for a period I kept sending him stories in an effort to break into INFINITY. I did so for reasons that now escape me. I think it was because a young writer I knew had sold something to INFINITY, and I liked to think of myself as a better writer than this other fellow, so I thought it would be easy to sell to Hoskins. There were lots of markets around that had much more prestige than INFINITY, and paid better too, but I wanted quick sales. That’s the way writers think. Is it any wonder editors can keep our ranks thin?

Anyway, I sent Hoskins this story called “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” which I thought was the best thing I had written up to then. He sent it back, and said, “Sorry — I’ve been there before. Many times.” That story went on to sell to ANALOG, and it became a cover story, and has been anthologized several times. But Hoskins didn’t like it.

So I sent him another story, quickly, and that one came back too. He liked it even less, called it a “travelog.” So I had to sell that one to ANALOG too, for something like twice what Hoskins would have paid me. It went on to become a Hugo and Nebula finalist, and almost won both, and it’s been reprinted so many times since that I have trouble keeping up with it. The title was “With Morning Comes Mistfall.”

Of course, at the time I didn’t know any of this was going to happen. All I knew was that this Hoskins fellow had rejected the two best stories I had ever written. I decided to change tactics; I sent him what I felt was one of my weaker stories, a piece called “Dark, Dark Was the Tunnels.” It almost worked. He wrote back and told me that if were editing a monthly magazine, he would buy my story. As a “space filler.” It so happened that I knew that he was not editing a monthly magazine. He knew it too, and he reminded me that INFINITY was an anthology, and my story was not good enough for that, since he had no space that wanted filling.

(As a footnote, I might mention that posterity confirmed my assessment of “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels.” While “Mistfall” and “Loneliness” sold to ANALOG, it sold only to VERTEX, and has never been reprinted, except in German. Does that count?)

By this time, editor Hoskins was well on his way to ruining my health and disposition. He hadn’t sent me any money, and I was getting precious little sex. I became determined to sell to him. I sent him another story. It came back with a form rejection slip. I sent him yet another. It returned with a short, polite note that said it was “eloquent,” but not a story.

Finally I sent him a novelette I had written called “Night of the Vampyres.” That was my John Brunner story; set in 1987, in a United States on the verge of revolution, rife with racial and political hatreds, plots and counterplots, polarizing as the Weimar Republic had in the Thirties and about to enter a new Dark Age. I thought that was a very heavy story.

Hoskins returned it almost sadly, with a long letter. He said it was a “simplistic switch” on a “perfect formula Western,” and likened my hero to a drifter and my manipulative Nixonian president to a cattle rustler. “You have a facile way with words,” he said in summation. “As yet, you haven’t convinced me that your words will strike sparks with readers.” He mulled over the missing ingredient in my work, and finally suggested that I try writing Gothics.

I never sold to INFINITY.

I never wrote Gothics either, disregarding what may have perfectly ,good advice. Who knows, had I done otherwise today I might be Georgette Martin, beloved of Harlequin readers from coast to coast.

I do have a serious message about editors, really I do. But before I get into that, I can’t resist one last editorial joke.

Roger Elwood.

Seriously now, editors are important people.

They do say a lot of foolish things. So do we all. They make some wonderful grand mistakes. So do we all. There are many bad editors, who seem to understand little or nothing about the genre in which they purport to be working. There are far more bad writers, but I’m not going to pursue that point. I’ll talk about bad editors and leave it to the editors to discuss bad writers.

Editors can be bad for a variety of reasons.

The worst are those who don’t care; time-servers in huge publishing conglomorates, more often than not, they have little knowledge and less affection for SF. They would just as soon edit mysteries, or gardening books, or porn; it’s all a job to them. They buy books and publish them, or they reject books, but they do not get involved. It can be said that this type of editor has a virtue — he changes nothing, does not seek to interfere, never distorts a writer’s vision or gets between author and audience. This admirable restraint, however, has its roots not in any kind of respect for the writer and his work, but rather in a kind of indifference towards creator and reader both. Fortunately, such editors are rare.

Much more common is the species of editor equipped with all too much enthusiasm, and all too little knowledge. This type has a lot of heart, and no sense. The best of them are full of nonsensical suggestions that distort everything the writer was trying to do, but they have the good grace of allowing the author to talk them out of it. The worst of them insist. Or — horror of horrors — make the changes without bothering to inform the writer.

Then there are the editors who suffer from Maxwell Perkins’ syndrome. Perkins was a genius. Alas, the editorial legions who march in his footsteps lack his mental firepower. They carry only a firm determination to “work on” every book they publish, whether it needs it or not, and to transform it into great literature. This is particularly difficult when they must edit the latest Gonad the Barbarian epic.

In SF, we also have their opposite numbers; the genre editors who have been working in the field for forty years, doing things their way, and who are bound and determined that these new writers will do things that way too. There are nine-and-twenty ways of constructing tribal lays, but only Doc Smith’s is right. These editors also expect writers to be perfectly happy with minuscule little advances. After all, they got the same size advance back in 1949, and they were delighted with it. As for all the money being paid by other publishers, they don’t know what they’re doing and it’s going to bust soon and there was a boom in the early 50s too, or didn’t you know?

Yes, there are a lot of ways for editors to go wrong.

Fortunately, a surprising number of them go right. It never ceases to amaze me. What is a good editor like? A good editor offers you decent advances, and goes to bat with his publisher to make sure your book gets promoted, and returns your phone calls, and answers your letters. A good editor does work with his writers on their books. But only if the books need work. A good editor tries to figure out what the writer was trying to do, and helps him or her do it better, rather than trying to change the book into something else entirely. A good editor doesn’t insist, or make changes without permission. Ultimately a writer lives or dies by his words, and he must always have the last word if his work is to retain its integrity.

There are a lot of good editors in science fiction. I wish they could get more recognition, and that’s the point of this whole thing.

There are three kinds of editors in science fiction.

The magazine editors have a tough job, but an important one.

The magazines aren’t as central as they used to be, but they are still the place the new talent comes from. The magazine editors have to find and develop that talent, fill out a magazine month after month, give it a distinctive lively personality — they do a lot. But at least they get some recognition for it. We know who the magazine editors are: they get nominated year after year for the “Best Editor” Hugo. Fair enough, except that sometimes it seems they all get nominated, good and bad and indifferent.

Then there are the anthology editors. Frankly, they aren’t as important as the magazine editors. They find some new talent of their own, to be sure. But very little, compared to the magazine editors. After all, they buy only a relative handful of stories, and they work almost at leisure, piecing together one or two “issues” a year instead of six or twelve. For a while it looked as though anthologies were going to displace magazines, but that was an illusion. It was the anthologies that vanished. Look around you. Anthology editors get some recognition. Terry Carr, one of the very best of them, is a perennial Hugo contender. Robert Silverberg has also been nominated, and I’m sure Harlan Ellison will make the ballot as soon as the world gets it hands on TYE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS. The bad anthology editors never did get nominated, though, and that pleases, me.

Lastly, we have the book editors.

They are the invisible people, and that’s a dreadfully ironic situation, because they are the most important editors of all. Once it was the age of the magazine, but that age is past now. The dawn of the age of the anthology was just a false glow on the horizon. This is the age of the paperback book. New writers today serve an apprenticeship in short fiction, and move on to novels. They go from the magazines and anthologies to books, and they seldom go back. It is time we recognized the fact.

The editors at today’s big paperback publishing houses Avon, Bantam, Dell, Berkley, DAW, Del Rey, Pocket Books, and so on are the most influential people in SF today. It is they who can choose to pay five- or six-figure advances, or to pay nothing at all. They decide which titles get promotion, and how much. They build their lines as carefully as magazine editors tend their periodicals. They can give a writer a huge advance, and thereby hope for a masterpiece. They can give security instead of freedom, with multiple book contracts, and encourage regular production. They can also insure hackwork and slipshod craftsmanship by keeping writers in indentured servitude, paying them peanuts, and making them write and write and write.

A single major paperback editor buys more words of fiction in a year than all the magazine editors combined. When one of them quits, or moves, or is fired, the shock waves spread throughout the genre, touch every active author — and ultimately every reader as well. They help to determine what I will write, and what you will read.

They choose which backlist classics to reissue, and which are to go out of print, and thereby determine what science fiction WAS. They choose what titles will be published and pushed and promoted, and thereby determine what science fiction IS. And they will determine what science fiction will be.

And the fans and readers don’t even know their names.

We should.

Today, the minute a writer who has published three or four stories shows up at a con, there are six people shoving microphones in his direction, asking for an interview. That’s fine, but no one ever interviews our invisible paperback editors, whose views are oh-so-crucial. I recognize the exceptions. The Del Reys have been interviewed, as has Don Wollheim. But what about the others? Our hypothetical young writer will be invited to be a Guest of Honor at a con after his first book or two. That’s fine too, that’s wonderful. But those paperback editors publish several books a month, and no one ever asks them to stand up and pontificate about where they think SF is going. Maybe we’re afraid they might really know. With us writers, there’s small danger of that.

Then there’s the awards. Several years back, the old “Best Magazine” Hugo was abolished in favor of a Hugo for “Best Editor.” The idea was to make those who edit anthologies and books eligible as well as the magazine editors. A good idea in theory, but it hasn’t worked. The magazine editors have dominated the competition, a few anthology editors have competed but none have won, and — in the life of the award — only one paperback editor has ever even appeared on the ballot. That was Donald A. Wollheim of DAW, whose initials are on every DAW book (no wonder he has more visibility than the others). And even he has been nominated only once.

Clearly, there’s something wrong. Either we need two categories, one for magazines and one for books, or the voters have to start utilizing the “Best Editor” Hugo in the way it was intended, instead of simply nominating the same people year after year, as if they were the only editors in the field.

The problem is one of visibility and identity. We know the magazine editors; the anthology editors get their names printed on the covers and the title page. But the paperback editors — except for Don Wollheim and the Del Reys, whose names have become their trademarks — are ciphers. Still, the problem is not insurmountable. A little thought and a little investigation, and one discovers interesting things.

Have you noticed that Ace is doing massive reissues from its backlist, that they’ve started a paperback magazine, that they’re initiating a new fantasy line? Do you approve? The reason is an editor named Jim Baen.

Have you wondered why a relatively small publisher like Berkely publishes so much good science fiction? David G. Hartwell was the editor there for years and years, and he changed a minor house into one of the most important publishers in SF. This fall he moved to Pocket Books, and it was a major coup, as if Galaxy had hired away John Campbell in the 50s. The Berkely books you know — and love, or hate; it doesn’t matter — were his books.

Do you like the stuff Pocket Books published this year, or the year before? My novel, DYING OF TIM LIGHT? Ben Bova’s COLONY? Kate Wilhelm’s novels, TIM CLEWISTON TEST and WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG? Marta Randall’s JOURNEY? Those were all bought by a woman named Adele Leone, who has since become a literary agent. This will be her last year of eligibility for the “Best Editor” Hugo.

Do you like Dell’s wraparound covers, the new kinds of packaging they’ve been doing, the major books they’ve been buying and issuing, the “Binary Stars” revival of the old Ace Double Novel concept? That’s all the doing of a fellow named Jim Frenkel, who has restored Dell to respectability. His immediate predecessor called the stuff “sci-fi.”

And there’s Bantam which is what it is because of Fred Pohl and now Sydny Weinberg. And Nancy Neiman at Avon. And Lester and Judy-Lynn Del Rey, of course, and Donald A. Wollheim, and more.

The point is not which one you choose to nominate or vote for. You and I might differ there. I have my own choices for Best Editor. The point is that you remember that they exist, as a class, when it comes time to fill out that all important Hugo nomination form.

Writers, don’t get enough money. Neither, oddly enough, do editors. I was shocked when I found out how little some of these terribly important people are paid.

Writers don’t get enough sex. If any of you want to rectify that, see me after the speech. I speak with less certainty about editors, but I’ve heard one or two of them complain on that score as well.

But writers do get one thing. Recognition, lots of it. Bylines and honors and awards. Our editors get none of that. Maybe that’s why they are such a cranky bunch, always making our lives wretched.

C’mon people, let us give them the recognition they deserve.

That way, maybe, they’ll leave the money and sex for us.

Shoe Inside
© 2014 George R.R. Martin. All rights reserved.