Some of the best literary news to come my way near the end of last year was that my Richard Matheson tribute anthology, He Is Legend, will be reprinted by Tor in trade hardcover and paperback in the fall of 2010.
For those who don’t know, this is a big deal. Tor—a division of Macmillan—is one of the biggest publishers of genre fiction in the country. Go to any bookstore and take a look at how many titles in the science fiction and horror sections are published by them. Add in their sister imprint, Forge, and check out the mystery section. Tor/Forge is huge. No better reprint deal could possibly be made for He Is Legend—having Tor do it guarantees a major bookstore presence for the book everywhere. As such, it will be my first book published by anything other than a small press—my first book that will be able to be reliably found in a large percentage of brick-and-mortar stores. Naturally this is very happy-making for me.
It’s happy-making for my friends, too, of course. But I’ve noticed a similarity of response with a few people on He Is Legend. Basically it goes like this: “That’s great, but you didn’t write it, right? You only edited it.”
To which I respond:
I only edited it?
As far back as my first original anthology, Poe’s Lighthouse, I discovered that many people—even some writers—don’t really understand what an editor does. The general feeling seems to be that he’s simply “the guy who chooses the stories,” as if an editor takes a couple of hours one morning and says, “Okay, I like this one, this one, and this one,” and proceeds to send a list to his publishers, who then undertake the labor of turning those selections into an actual book.
That’s not how it works.
Let me stipulate here that I’m talking about editing original anthologies—that is, collections of new works which are, generally speaking, written specifically for a given book. Reprint anthologies—collections of previously-published pieces—are different. (Naturally a writer might sell a new story to an original anthology that wasn’t written specifically for that book, but in the case of my anthologies that would be difficult because they have highly specific themes and requirements. All the stories in both Poe’s Lighthouse and He Is Legend were written specifically for those volumes.)
How does an original anthology happen? How does a collection of all-new stories by different writers come to be sitting on the shelf of your local bookstore?
Lean close and I’ll tell you.
The editor does it.
The editor does everything.
At least it was that way with my two anthologies, and it’s that way with my current anthology-in-progress too (poems focused on Alfred Hitchcock).
It all comes from the editor—from initial concept to the final form of every story in the book.
The idea for Poe’s Lighthouse was an offshoot of my teaching. For several years I had an in-class game with one of the stories we read—“The Lighthouse,” a completion of an Edgar Allan Poe fragment by Robert Bloch. The game was to read the story and then try to guess exactly where Poe’s words stopped and Bloch’s began. The winner would get some sort of Poe-oriented prize—Poe stamps, a Poe action figure, something like that.
One day after class I found myself musing on the subject of Bloch’s interesting but not completely convincing completion of Poe’s story (his version reads far more like Lovecraft than Poe). I began to wonder if anybody else had ever tried to finish the Poe fragment.
An idea was born. Why not invite a bunch of contemporary writers to complete the fragment, each in his or her own way? And publish the results as an original anthology?
Well, that’s exactly what ended up happening.
It was similar with He Is Legend. I knew that William F. Nolan had edited a tribute anthology to Ray Bradbury in which writers chose a favorite Bradbury story and wrote something inspired by it—a sequel, a prequel, a variation of some sort. It seemed to me that Richard Matheson deserved a similar sort of tribute—in fact, it was surprising to me that one hadn’t already been published.
Both were valid ideas, and I knew both could make publishable books. So what was the next step?
It’s obvious that an anthology has got to have writers. But how do you get writers if you don’t yet have a publisher?
On the other hand, it’s obvious that an anthology has got to have a publisher. But how do you get a publisher if you don’t yet have any writers?
It’s possible that there are some editors in this field sufficiently well-known to sell an anthology project to a publisher with no pre-set writers, but that’s not the position I was in.
So I began to contact writers. At this point the contact was “unofficial”—that is, the communication basically took the form of, “I have an idea for an anthology, and here it is. If I can get a contract from a publisher for this idea, would you be willing to write a story for the book?” In the case of Poe’s Lighthouse I had a collection of about a dozen names who indicated a willingness to be a part of the project before I even started contacting publishers. (What’s more—and I really must take a moment to point this out—my friend Earl Hamner took it upon himself to go ahead and write a story for me, even without a contract, so that I might use the story as a kind of sales document. He did this despite the fact that there was no guarantee I would ever obtain any contract at all from anybody, and so no guarantee he would ever be paid for the story or see it published. Such generosity is, to put it mildly, rare.)
Armed with a list of interested writers, I began to contact publishers. Eventually Cemetery Dance said yes—and Poe’s Lighthouse was on its way to becoming a reality.
The process was simpler for He Is Legend, because the prospective publisher was obvious. I never approached anyone about the project except Gauntlet Press—they had published at that point something like twenty Matheson limited editions. They worked with him constantly, and happily, so Gauntlet was a clear first choice. And they quickly agreed, provided I could get Matheson’s own permission for the volume (which was quickly granted). So here too, we were off and running.
Okay—so you have an idea for an anthology. You contact some well-known writers who say they’ll send you a story if you get a publishing contract. And you get a publishing contract. What’s next?
Well, if things are going as they should, what happens next is that the publisher sends you money. A little bit of it is for you, but most of it is to pay the writers as they send you stories and you accept them. If you’re smart you deposit this money in a separate bank account so you don’t accidentally spend it on drugs and prostitutes, or whatever it is you spend your money on.
Eventually stories begin arriving at your doorstep, or in your in-box. It’s your job to read them. Some of the stories will be easy, obvious acceptances—the kind of story you’re going to love to publish in your book. You send the good news, along with a contract for the writer. (You and the publisher will have already agreed on what goes into this contract.)
Other stories will be just as easy and obvious rejections. You send off the bad news and go back to your drugs and prostitutes.
But what about submissions that aren’t so easy? What about stories that are pretty good, but not as good as they should be? What about stories that have a really solid basic idea but which aren’t written very well? What about a ten-page story which contains nine great pages only to have everything fall apart at the end?
Ah, now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. The editing.
Depending on the writer you’re working with, this can be a very pleasant and interesting process. You send your suggestions, they thank you for them, and a few days later you receive a revised draft. With any luck it’s acceptable, and you accept it. Maybe it still needs some more work, so you ask for it. With luck the story comes back in great shape on this second revision.
On the other hand, revisions can be—again, depending on who you’re working with—unpleasant. Writers are not a group of people generally known for their undersized egos (neither are editors), and to suggest that their latest masterpiece is anything less than the most timeless of timeless literature is enough to send some writers into what might politely be called a tizzy. Some scream at you (usually via e-mail), then settle down and revise the story. Others scream at you, call you an idiot, take their story-marbles and go home.
Anyway, at some point you have enough stories to finish the book. You decide on the order they will appear in (this is more difficult than it seems), format the manuscript for the publisher (also more difficult than it seems), create the front matter (including copyright notices, acknowledgements, introduction), and send the whole thing off.
Eventually the publisher sends back, usually via e-mail, “galley proofs”—a mock-up of what the book will look like in print, for final proofreading.
The editor has to be careful here. Generally writers are given their proofs to go over themselves, but any editor who has worked with very many writers knows that a surprisingly high percentage of them are terrible proofreaders. Thus, even if the author is officially his/her own proofreader, the wise editor completes a version himself as well, melding his version and the author’s together for the best, most thoroughly “proofed” version, which is then returned to the publisher.
Finally, months or years later, the book appears in the world at last.
You’ve built this book from the ground up. It’s your concept. You chose the writers. You negotiated with the publisher. You worked with (sometimes fought with) the writers on necessary rewrites, which can sometimes be quite extensive. You’re the one who dealt with contracts and paid everybody. You’re the one who dealt with each writer’s issues—proofreading issues, contract complaints, personal neuroses, whatever. You’re the one who tried his best to keep those couple of dozen egos properly stroked—a task that’s quite easy in many cases, but damnably hard in others. (Some writers are dreams to work with. Some are not.)
If your publisher is considerate—and both Cemetery Dance and Gauntlet were, on this point—you probably had input on the book’s final design, too. The cover art, the layout.
The resulting book therefore bears the editor’s stamp on every page, in every line. In all ways the book reflects the editor’s judgment, his literary values, his sensibilities. The book may very well have taken longer to put together, and required more man-hours, than a book of similar length the editor might have written himself.
All for what?
All for people to say, “That’s great, but you didn’t write it, right? You only edited it!”