Andrew Wheeler is the busy Senior Editor of The Science Fiction Book Club. He runs two blogs: the SFBC Blog and his personal bog, The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent. Over the course of seven months (Did we mention he is busy?) SF Signal had the opportunity to talk to Andrew via email about the inner workings of the Science Fiction Book Club, the publishing industry and underrated science fiction.
SF Signal: Hi, Andrew. How did you come to be an editor? Did you pick science fiction or did it pick you?
Andrew Wheeler: Like most editors, I graduated from a decent liberal-arts school with an essentially useless degree, and then had to find something to do. In my case, it was a BA in English from Vassar College. I mostly interviewed for editorial jobs, half because that’s what I thought I really wanted to do and half because that’s what I seemed to be qualified for. My first editorial job, at the reference publisher Gale Research, was over very quickly when they closed down their entire New York office four months after hiring me (though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have anything directly to do with it).
At that point, I wanted, first of all, a stable job, second, a job that paid slightly better than the starvation wages Gale did, and, third, I hoped to get into trade publishing (or at least something closer to it). I sent out lots of resumes, and went on lots of interviews — about five months worth. Finally, I had an interview with Ellen Asher at the SFBC, which I was really excited about, and it all clicked. Best of all, it was all three things I was looking for.
I’d been a SF/Fantasy reader as long as I could remember, and broke up my required reading at college with a succession of cheap old paperbacks that I bought by mail. Nowadays, it’s reversed: I break up my required SFF reading with classics and literary fiction…
SFS: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an editor?
AW: At the SFBC, we have a somewhat artificial set of rules for ourselves, which occasionally makes things difficult. We publish eighteen magazines a year, and — until just about a month ago — we were buying eight new books ourselves for each one. I’m simplifying here — since there are also occasional books for other places, three books every other cycle for the media-heavy Altiverse mini-catalog, and a pile of books we use but that our various sister clubs buy — but the books we buy ourselves are the core SF/Fantasy books, and what we spend most of our time on.
Since “science fiction” is in the club name, we have always thought that SF books should not be outnumbered by fantasy books — so we bought four SF books and four fantasy books every month. (Our system is slightly different now, and even more complicated, but still adds up to parity.) At least one of the two Selections every “month” needs to be SF — though there’s no similar rule for fantasy; we had three months in a row with two SF Selections earlier this year — which can cause problems when there are a pile of major fantasies being published one month and no good SF to speak of. One challenge we have is just finding enough SF books; we’re usually beating the bushes for them, whereas there’s always more decent fantasy than we can use.
This, added with our eighteen-month year and associated hard-and-fast mail dates, also means that we need to find and buy a lot of books all of the time. In particular, finding SF that is both good and that we think the club members will actually buy is an endemic problem. (We do occasionally buy books that are just one or the other of those things, but we try not to — and I will of course refuse to name names.)
We also want to balance the catalog as much as possible so that the four fantasy books aren’t all Book Fours of giant epic series with dragons on the cover. Actually, these days, it’s more likely that we’re trying to avoid having four contemporary fantasies about a spunky-but-sexy vampire hunter and the werewolf she adores, but that’s the same problem in different clothes.
So the biggest challenge is just filling up the list, getting enough good books, evenly divided between SF and fantasy, not too much of any one thing, over and over again, every three weeks from now until we die.
Getting publishers, particularly smaller publisher, to actually send submissions to the club is also a perennial issue. One of the things I’m not doing right now, so I can reply to your question, is sending out my periodic “please send me these upcoming books” e-mails, which I blanket rights directors with on a roughly bi-monthly basis.
And, occasionally, we try to buy books and are turned down. Once in a while it’s the publisher who doesn’t like our offer, but, most often, it’s an author who doesn’t like the idea of book clubs to begin with. That’s a bit annoying, especially since the members don’t know — or care; it’s not their problem — that we tried and failed to get their favorite author’s book but that he wouldn’t let us do it.
Such are the travails of book club editorship.
SFS: What criteria do you use to select authors and stories when creating SFBC omnibuses?
AW: It used to be an iron-clad rule that we only did series as omnibuses — books had to already be a known continuity, and we just stuck them between two covers. But then I did Counterfeit Unrealities, a 4-in-1 of unrelated Philip K. Dick books, so that rule isn’t as hard-and-fast as it used to be.
Our omnibuses are of pre-existing series 99% of the time, and are all by a single author (or writing team) at least 99% of the time, so those are the big criteria. We also greatly prefer if all of the possible pieces are from the same publisher. (Doing otherwise, in all three cases, makes things more complicated and difficult.) After that, the same things that apply to any book come into play: is it any good? Does it have an audience? Do we personally enjoy it? Do we think club members will actually buy it?
As books have gotten longer, it become a bit harder to do omnibuses — we’re doing a lot of 2-in-1s these days, where we usually would have done 3-in-1s of similar series in the past. (And the 2-in-1s are, in many cases, fatter than those old 3-in-1s were.) We can economically produce fatter books than most publishers seem to be able to, but even we have an upper limit. I think we can shove about 350,000 words into a book without too much trouble, but, above that, we either need to have a noticeably high price or expect noticeably higher sales to work out.
Often what we do with omnibuses is catch series that we missed to begin with — either we weren’t paying attention at all (like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which I took a look at after I was on a Worldcon panel with Jim) or we didn’t find room for Book One when it was originally published. We tend to hold series publishing in paperback (particularly mass-market) for omnibuses, and do hardcovers immediately as single books, but we also do plenty of omnibuses of hardcovers.
And, in case anyone is wondering, I do have three shelves-full of omnibus possibilities in my office. At the moment, I’ve got thirty-nine possible Fantasy projects and sixteen SF — nearly all of those are “waiting for the next book in the series.” Things rotate on and off the shelves as books get published — some series fall off because there’s no real ending in a number of books we could bind together, and others because we just don’t have room or didn’t love the way it ended up. And books end up on those shelves after we read them and decide we like them, but that we’d be better off waiting for a larger package.
Tracking down classics for omnibuses is much more random, since publishers rarely submit forty-year-old books to the SFBC. For those, we just try to keep our ears open, and think about authors and types of books that we haven’t done in a while.
SFS: Has SFBC considered creating collections of SF audio books?
AW: It’s interesting that you ask this now…
Back in the dawn of time (around 1995-1998), the SFBC had a sister club called Audio Books Direct. They didn’t do a lot of SF/Fantasy, but they did a little, and we used what they had. (Which sold hardly anything, to be honest.) Then our parent company sold that operation to the dominant player in that market, the Audio Book Club, and we took over warehousing and fulfillment for them as well. Because of that, the SFBC and its sister clubs were subject to a non-compete agreement for a number of years, which meant that we couldn’t sell audiobooks. (And that didn’t bother us, really, since, as I said, they sold miserably at best.)
Fast forward most of a decade and several major upheavals later…Now the Audio Book Club is no more, and just this fall we’re dipping our toes back into audiobooks. We’re trying to sell one audiobook (for J.D. Robb’s Born In Death) along with the book itself in our catalog when it’s new, and also trying a flyer with four new audiobooks of some of the biggest books in the field. And we’ll see if anyone is interested this time.
We also have a partnership agreement with Audible — for most of the books on our website, there’s a link from the book’s description page that goes to Audible’s downloadable audio version of that book, which the members can buy at a discount.
SFS: Where do you see book publishing headed in both the near and long term? Do you see the internet and digital distribution as changing the way SFBC does business?
AW: That’s about six different things in one question! Let’s see if I can separate them:
I’m a cynic about electronic texts; I don’t think the general book-reading audience wants them, or will migrate to them. I can see ebooks being given away regularly as loss leaders (in the way some authors do now), and I can see reference works having a harder and harder time of it in printed form, but I expect reading for pleasure will continue to primarily be a matter of ink on paper.
As far as digital distribution goes, the most hyped idea in that are is the book-printing kiosk. But that’s a solution in search of a problem; the great majority of book sales in any given year are of a few hundred (maybe a thousand) titles, and any bookstore larger than a closet can stock all of them. Deliberately targeting tiny audiences has never seemed like a winning business strategy to me. I expect a few will exist, but they’re more tourist traps and technology demonstrations than anything else.
The Internet presents more interesting possibilities, because it doesn’t (like all of the other snake-oil prescriptions) claim to substitute some new paradigm for everything — what the Internet does is, simply, to connect. It connects people, it connects bits of information, it connects ideas. And, since the world of books are made up of those three things, the ‘Net facilitates easier connections. What that will lead to, I can’t say, though I hope it will be more people reading more books.
To be SFBC-specific, I don’t see any major changes in the near future. If I’m wrong about e-books, that might cause a shift, eventually, but I hope not: it would be a major headache. We’ve had a website for nearly a decade now, and something like half of our orders flow through that today. That percentage might increase somewhat, but we’ve already seen the big shift — mail and telephone will never completely go away.
What digital and internet technologies have meant for book publishing (and will continue to mean) is that some things can be done faster — and, once things can be done faster, there’s huge pressure for them to be done faster, even if that’s not the optimal way. (Fiction publishing, in particular, works best at a very poky speed, and fiction is so rarely news that it should be left at that speed.) So I’m afraid it will mean that books will be turned around much faster, and that readers will increasingly complain that their favorite authors’ books both take too long to be published (because any delay is too long) and are full of typos and logical flaws (because there’s no time for editing in these hurry-up schedules).
SFS: What’s your take on the used book market and its impact on publishing?
AW: It doesn’t seem to have affected the SFBC much at all so far; we sell a lot of classics in the SFBC (one “new” old book every cycle, pretty much), and we can still sell the same kinds of books we always could, at about the same level. So it doesn’t appear that people are buying old paperbacks instead of buying SFBC hardcovers.
I’m a pessimist, so I won’t go so far as to say that I think they’re buying old paperbacks, and then maybe buying the new hardcover editions of things they really liked…but that might be happening. (On the other hand, I used to get lots of member mail about the old books they wanted to see in the club, and those have dried up over the past year. I can’t say what kind of trend that implies.)
Personally, the used book market makes it much easier for me to do my job. Since I do so many classics (and omnibuses), I’m constantly buying up three copies of Galaxy Cops or two of Death-Dreams of The Crimson Dragon on places like ABEbooks.com. Being able to find those books quickly and easily makes it easier for me to reprint those old books — of course, I still have to track down the rights-holder (and that’s usually the trickiest part), but every little bit helps.
SFS: What will it take to get science fiction the respect it deserves?
AW: SF intermittently does get the respect it deserves (and sometimes far more than it deserves). I’m not one of the SF Über Alles, Humanity Marching Into the Future types to begin with; I like SF as a type of literature, but I don’t think it has any special predictive powers or inherent place of honor in the world of fiction.
I would like to see a world in which mainstream writers who dabble in SF actually admit that they’re doing so, and maybe even show some slight indication that they know something about the history of their chosen trope. (Yes, Margaret Atwood, I’m looking at you right now, and waggling my finger as I do.) This does seem to happen more and more often than it used to, and some “literary” writers (such as Jonathan Lethem) actually came out of the SF world.
On the other hand, I think SF does work best as a semi-autonomous literary region; the slipstream goal of merging with the larger literary world has never seemed a good idea to me. (When a minority group is subsumed into a majority culture, what always happens to the minority’s group’s culture? It’s reduced to a few fragments, at best — and we don’t want to see that happen.) To put it in political terms, I’d really like to see increased trade and diplomatic ties to the larger literary culture, but I wouldn’t want to petition them for statehood.
Another thing that would help written SF would be if visual-media types didn’t keep making bad action stories and calling them “SF.” But that’s exceptionally unlikely. As long as “things blow up real good” is the default movie/TV/game model for SF, we’ll never get all that much respect.
SFS: Can you name some books that you think are underrated?
AW: The SF/Fantasy reading public is divided into so many tiny little camps these days, that it’s hard to say — anything I could mention probably already has a fervent little coterie of fans who love it to death, and would be appalled to think that their favorite is “underrated.” But, still, I think there are writers that should be more widely loved.
John Sladek is my poster child for a forgotten writer; he did the best satires of the Asimovian robots (and, by extension, the overly-technological, highly-regulated default future of mid-century SF), and was one of the very funniest writers in the field, but his work is mostly out of print and forgotten. You can get finally his best work, The Complete Roderick, in the US these days — it’s actually complete as well, which wasn’t true for a long time. And his ferociously funny killer-robot novel, Tik-Tok, in print in the UK as part of the Gollancz “Masterworks” series. But his short stories are available only in moldy old paperbacks or expensive small-press books, and I don’t think he’s read much these days, which is a huge shame.
Walter Jon Williams is one of the most inventive and thoughtful writers out there today, but the fact that he never writes the same novel twice has seemingly hurt his career. He’s written at least half a dozen really good novels, from the near-future police procedural Days of Atonement to the far-future geomantic science fantasies Metropolitan and City on Fire. What I think is his best novel, Aristoi, had the bad luck of being published in 1992 (one of the best years for SF novels in the last two decades), and not even making it onto the Hugo or Nebula ballots, though it’s as good as any of the books on those lists. He’s still writing, and still doing great work, but he really needs a lucky break — he certainly deserves it.
It’s not “underrated,” exactly, but Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read — one of my recent regrets is that I couldn’t convince its publisher to officially submit it to the judges last year when I was a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. I have no idea how the other judges would have reacted if they’d had a chance to see it, but they didn’t get that chance, because the publisher just ignored us. In general I’d like to see more cross-over between good written SFF and graphic novels. Defining “good” might be a tricky thing, but I don’t mean more superhero junk, but books like Black Hole, and Fables, and Castle Waiting, and Hellboy, and Ex Machina, and Kim Deitch’s books, and so on. There’s a lot of interesting fantasy, and even a bit of decent SF, in the comics world, which we mostly don’t notice over here in just-words-land.
SFS: Reading-wise, what’s your guilty pleasure?
AW: I’m not sure I have a guilty pleasure at the moment; I’m not feeling guilty about the books I read very much.
It used to be Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, which were a kind of girly fantasy (with telepathic horses, no less!) that I supposedly don’t like, but I devoured them anyway. She’s stopped writing that series for now, so I can’t count them as current guilty pleasures. But I definitely felt guilty about liking them at the time!
I don’t think I’m getting everything out of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series that I could; I see people writing learned explications of all of his hidden clues and ideas, but I read them because I really like the huge-scale military fantasy adventure, and because they really are epic fantasy “turned up to eleven.” So that makes me feel a bit guilty.
And I wish James Alan Gardner would write more books; he did a half-dozen or so really good SF adventure novels that were exciting and fast-moving without being frivolous. But I don’t feel guilty about his stuff at all; I just wish there was more SF like that available. (I’ve been crusading against doom & gloom lately, and Gardner’s one of the writers I’d hold up as an exemplar of how to do neat SF adventure stories without killing off 95% of the human race first. John Scalzi and Jack McDevitt are also great examples of that.)
I used to read some mystery series as guilty pleasures (the guiltiest were the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich), but I’ve mostly given up on those for time constraints — and, in Evanovich’s case, because I finally realized the heroine would never learn anything and I needed to stop beating my head against that particular wall.
SFS: Thanks for your time, Andrew. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AW: Thank you for putting up with the World’s Slowest Interview. At this point, I’ve completely forgotten what the earliest questions were — and that’s entirely my fault — so I don’t think I have anything else to add here. (Except to urge your readers to check out my blog, at http://antickmusings.blogspot.com/, where I ramble on like this on a semi-regular basis.)