Britain’s Abaddon Books is a seething brew of villainous steampunk, sleek spaceships, cruel sorcery, and blood-soaked horror. I tracked their commissioning editor David Moore down to his lair, where I forced him to unravel a cracked and crumbling papyrus to reveal an ancient secret: what does a commissioning editor do all day?
Thanks for speaking to Amazing Stories!
DM: Sure thing.
AS: People imagine that a commissioning editor sits at a desk all day dropping manuscripts in the wastepaper basket. What’s the reality of your job? Tell us about a day in your life.
DM: That’s it, basically! Don’t forget smoking fat Havana cigars lit from burning £20 notes, while drinking fine whiskey and reclining in a huge leather wingbacked chair in a fine silk jacket.
Or, actually, heck, this goes out to the public, doesn’t it? Best print the “hardworking and artistic” version, that goes down well. Nix the above and put this in:
So I have a pretty varied job. Around two thirds of the time, I’m on edits – structural or copy-editing – rather than commissioning; we believe in editing everything in-house and only farming out the proof-reading, to keep the quality consistent (which means, if you find a big error in one of our books, it’s actually our fault… sorry).
On an editing day, I check my emails, sort out any approvals or checks I need to do (me and Jon Oliver, the Editor-in-Chief, also liaise directly with the printers), then settle in with a manuscript open on my computer (a lot of editors still work on paper and then transfer changes later, but I prefer to work directly on screen) and work all day. After my lunch break, I may be asked to chip in with a couple of bits of admin – purchase orders, brainstorming straplines for covers, things like that – then I disappear back into my book for the rest of the day.
The other days, though, are much more mixed. I read the submissions pile, I liaise directly with authors to work up pitch ideas, I create all the ebooks for Abaddon Books and Solaris, I typeset some of our books, I develop blurbs and collate reviews for cover quotes, I create cover designs for some of our ebooks, and of course I post to social networking sites, especially as Abaddon Books. It’s never boring, and there’s never a typical day.
AS: Wannabe writers live in fear of the ‘slush pile’ where unsolicited manuscripts wait, plaintively hoping to catch an editorial assistant’s eye. Have you ever picked a great book out of the slush pile?
DM: For my part, I rarely deal with slush. I’ve had submissions piles from open calls, but the slush tends to go to Jon. So ‘no’ is the answer, although that’s organisational more than anything; Jon has found some great stuff in the slush.
Most of it, I have to say, is pretty dire, so the good ones are pretty quick to pick. They say it’s a lottery – out of a thousand unsolicited manuscripts, maybe one will be published, so how do you get to be the one? – but that’s less true than you might think. Of those thousand, nine hundred and ninety haven’t followed submissions guidelines, and are misspelled, poorly written, and badly laid out. Put in a minimum of effort to learn and follow guidelines, take the effort to present your work nicely and give it a second read or so, and you immediately take a huge leap over the heads of the masses…
AS: Last year, Harper Voyager held an open call for new manuscripts from aspiring authors. They received 4,563 submissions. Does that sound surprising to you?
DM: Not even a tiny, tiny bit. There are a lot of passionate, dedicated people out there wanting to be published. I feel their pain, although it does mean we can cherry-pick the very best.
AS: The open submissions period is becoming an ever more popular method of finding new talent. How does it feel to be on the other end of this process?
DM: It’s a big, scary job; you have this huge pile of subs sitting on your email client staring at you, and you can’t just “put some time aside to crack through it,” because it’s going to take several times to get through it all. But it’s amazing seeing the inventiveness and passion coming through.
The worst bit is the rejections. Far more of the submissions were good enough to publish than I had space on my schedule to publish. So that means writing “No, thank you” to a lot of people, dozens of whom (at least) I really wanted to take on. Broke my heart a little bit. I tried to be as nice as I could, and to give feedback where I could.
AS: What do you think are the big new trends in fantasy and SF publishing? Is it time to bury a stake in the heart of the vampire / zombie genre or is there life in the undead yet?
DM: Do you know, I don’t really care to make a prediction about the undead genres; they keep outlasting anyone’s guesses. I think mummies are due to have their time in the sun (ho ho ho), but I can imagine zombies and vampires shuffling and stalking along the shelves a little while longer yet.
I think fantasy is going to be interested in stretching the definition, in terms of era and style. Gunpowder fantasy has proven successful, so I can see people trying out everything from stone age to Napoleonic era fantasy. “Grimdark” (a false distinction, in my mind) fantasy’s going to continue strongly. And people are going to be interested in getting away from the pseudo-European cultural default: Indian-, Chinese-, and African-flavoured fantasy (by Indian, Chinese and African authors, even better) will gain traction.
SF is going to enjoy a bit of a trip back to near-future, transhumanist stuff. It’s been long enough since Cyberpunk that we can cover the twenty-first century in our SF again, and a lot of that material manages to be very gritty and quite optimistic at the same time, and I think we want and need both. Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow are showing us profoundly complex works that dip into quantum mechanics, metamaterials and economics, which real thinkers will enjoy tearing their teeth into. And ditto non-European SF. There are some great Brazilian and Mesoamerican writers working in SF in English, and of course everyone’s looking keenly at South Africa after Lauren Beukes’ success.
Steampunk, like zombies, is still going strong with no obvious reason for it, so more of that. Maybe authors are going to start actually writing critically about the Victorian era rather than gushingly…
AS: This year, the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke award failed to feature a work from a single female author. Who do you think are the up and coming female authors in SF and fantasy?
DM: Ooh. Quite a few, actually, but I’d rather hit you with a small handful – let’s say four – and point you at their work. Lou Morgan’s Blood and Feathers books (okay, we publish them, but even so) blew me away; she has great characters and loads of conviction. Vandana Singh’s short fiction is lovely, full of joy and beautiful language; keep a close eye out for an inevitable novel. Ysabeau S. Wilce’s extraordinarily titled Flora Segunda books are extremely fun. And Kim Lakin-Smith’s mental dark cyberpunk stuff is well worth tracking down.
(It’s a slight shame, in a way, that you limited me to “up and coming,” because I’d also love to talk about more established talents like Elizabeth Bear, Pat Cadigan, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kay Kenyon…)
AS: More and more books are appearing on blogs and being self-published on Amazon and other sites. How does this affect your work? Do you actively set out to read the works on the blogosphere?
DM: I wish I had that sort of time!
Truth be told, it has less effect than you might think. There are two worlds existing side by side: in one, books are free or very cheap, and there are no gatekeepers. It has its own market, made up of the type of reader who isn’t particularly sensitive to the quality of the cover art and who doesn’t mind taking the time poring through a hundred poor or mediocre works to find the one gem (and those gems are there, I’m not denying that for a moment). In the other, books are more costly, and are filtered, selected and edited by an industry that has to answer to commercial factors so as to pay for the artists and editors that drive it. These two worlds are blurred and merging, and there are a lot of debates about alternate business models, but they’re still separate, and books only make the jump between them with some difficulty.
And really, we don’t have time to go out and read them to find the ones we want to promote; it’s essentially just a huge, huge slush pile…
AS: Another common complaint from aspiring authors is that no one publishes short stories. Is that impression true? Why do short stories fail to set the public’s enthusiasm alight?
DM: Not us! We publish three or four anthologies every year, and mean to keep doing so. Hell, I’ve started drawing up plans for the first Abaddon anthology shortly.
I think the main bar here is neither the public nor the publishers, but the distributors. They like reliability; they like to ask, “Who wrote this?” and then make a call based on the author’s track record. Tell them sixteen people wrote a book, and they ask, “So how great an effect on sales does one-sixteenth of a Neil Gaiman have?” And, I suppose, that’s a fair question. Anthologies can perform very differently based on different mixes of talent. So the distributor won’t take a risk on them, so publishers won’t either.
AS: Lastly, what is the future of humour in SF or Fantasy? Can you see a modern heir to the tradition of Robert Asprin or Terry Pratchett?
DM: Genre humour is alive and well. Just looking at our own catalogue, I can see James Maxey’s Dragon Apocalypse series, Gaie Sebold’s Babylon Steel books and everything by Al Ewing are witty, light-hearted and loads of fun, and loads of our other authors write at least some humour into their works. And our esteemed competitors are much the same.
I think, mostly, publishers rarely promote comic authors as such. It’s a tall order. Genre fiction needs to have engaging characters and good stories; if it has merely clean, workmanlike prose, that’s usually enough. A lot of genre authors also produce really sparkling, entertaining prose, but that’s often a bonus. Comic writing has to have engaging characters, good story and really great prose, and that’s a heavy old burden. So actually pushing something as comic writing is a bit of a risk, as expectations will be all the higher.
It doesn’t help that comic writing is – bizarrely, given the above – often considered less “worthy” than straight prose, which affects its positioning in the market and sales. Strange, and more than a little unfair, but there it is.
Thanks for talking to Amazing Stories!
DM: Welcome! It’s been great.