Thursday, July 16, 2009

12 Stories Do Not a Collection Make

The big announcement last month concerned my friend Alastair Reynolds, author of the superb space opera novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap, among others -- all part of his Inhibitors-Conjoiners (aka Revelation Space) universe. According to the announcement and mini-interview in the Guardian, Reynolds has signed an unprecedented contract with publisher Gollancz in the United Kingdom: the contract calls for ten books over a span of ten years for 1-million pounds sterling [that's $1,620,660.00 as of this writing]. Congratulations, Al!

Al and I have worked on a couple of projects together over the past few years: a limited edition chapbook novella (Turquoise Days, Golden Gryphon Press, 2002) and a short story collection (Zima Blue and Other Stories, Night Shade Books, 2006). [I'd love to link to additional information on Zima Blue but all NSB editions are out of print.] And hopefully there will be another project in the foreseeable future. If all the authors with whom I've worked, or will work, had the professionalism, moral integrity, care and respect for others that Al Reynolds displayed during these two projects, I would be in editorial hog heaven.

With this new multi-book deal, Al no longer has to worry about sample chapters and outlines and pitches for his next book contracts (at least for the next nine years), he can now devote that time to the craft of writing. And we, his readers, will continue to delight in the fruits of his labors. If you're not familiar with Alastair Reynolds's short fiction, check out his story "Spirey and the Queen" available online (included in Zima Blue); and if you're into audio, Al reads his new story "Scales," his first military SF story, as part of the original Guardian Books Podcast series.

So, you wonder, why am I spending so much time chatting about Alastair Reynolds? Because I'm going to use his collection, Zima Blue and Other Stories -- and specifically how this collection came together -- as my example in this essay on short story collections.

In recent years I have noticed a trend among "young" authors -- particularly those published by small presses, and to be even more specific, the print-on-demand (POD) small presses -- to publish a new short story collection as soon as they've accumulated (and that's the correct word I wish to use) a dozen or so stories. If the writer is sufficiently prodigious, that could easily work out to a collection (or two) a year. As a point of clarification, I use the term "young" loosely here. Author William Gibson was thirty-six years old when his first novel Neuromancer was published in 1984; Lucius Shepard was thirty-eight and Jay Lake was forty when each won the Campbell Award for best new writer. In response to an age question on his blog, John Scalzi has written an excellent
essay on why new, young writers are typically in their 30s when they finally get published; he even lays out his own writing career as an example.

I realize authors need income, and if they are primarily a short story writer, then a collection of said stories is one of the few (if only) income-generating options open to them once the stories themselves have been initially published. I understand the need, and the rationale, but...

In my tenure as an editor, I have worked on twenty short story collections; not a large number in the overall scheme of things, but not too shabby either for the small press business. I am referring to the full package here: working with the author to develop the collection, selecting the stories, determining story order, editing and copyediting the stories, and whatever else was needed to create the book. Authors included Kage Baker, Michael Bishop, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Lucius Shepard, Jeff VanderMeer, and, of course, George Alec Effinger, plus a handful of others. And though I'm far from being an expert on story collections (every author and every book always has something new to teach me), I have had a wee bit of experience.

Often, an author and/or the author's agent would send me a manuscript consisting of a predetermined set of stories and word count. In every instance I worked with the author to change the contents list and increase the word count. This was necessary because the author and/or the agent included weak stories and insufficient word count. However, had those manuscripts been sent directly to a POD press, they undoubtedly would have been published as is; possibly with little, if any, copyediting (and certainly no editing), which, depending on the press of course, is typically the responsibility of the submitting author.

What happens is, the author floods his own market with his short fiction collections. Each collection, without doubt, contains excellent, maybe even great, stories; but each collection also contains one or more stories that should not have been included in that particular collection, or should simply not have been collected -- ever. Consequently the author (and publisher) ends up with a good collection -- but not a great collection. The collection garners a couple or so reviews if the author is lucky, but nothing memorable comes of the book, and it is all too quickly forgotten. All the author's hardcore fans will most likely purchase the book, but beyond that? Sound familiar? I'm sure if you are a reader of short fiction, and short fiction collections in particular, an author or two comes immediately to mind.

As an acquiring editor for Golden Gryphon Press, I first contacted Alastair Reynolds via email on April 16, 2001, regarding a short story collection. Al had already published about sixteen stories as well as his first novel, Revelation Space. (Second novel, Chasm City, would appear about three weeks later.) At this point in time, I had read quite a few of Al's short stories: "Digital to Analogue" (In Dreams, edited by Paul J. McAuley and Kim Newman, 1992), "Spirey and the Queen" (Interzone, June 1996), "Great Wall of Mars" (Spectrum SF #1, February 2000), "Merlin's Gun" (Interzone, May 2000), and "Hideaway" (Interzone, July 2000). There was no doubt in my mind that Alastair Reynolds was going to be one of the preeminent SF writers in the years to come, and I wanted to be the first to snag a collection of his stories. Unfortunately, I was too late...

Al responded the following day. In the email, he raved about Golden Gryphon Press books (he said that he had just obtained a copy of the Robert Reed collection, The Dragons of Spring Place). Unfortunately, Al also informed me that about a month earlier he had made a commitment to publisher Night Shade Books for a short story collection. But here's the caveat: Al told me that he suggested to Night Shade that they wait another year or two for the collection to ensure he had a "sufficiently good core of strong stories to justify a collection." So Al chose to delay his own collection by at least two years (waiting a minimum of one year and publishing the book the following year) -- even though two small presses were clamoring for a collection now -- because he wanted to ensure a quality collection. Shocking!

I've had authors turn down my solicitation for a short story collection for a variety of reasons: they had promised a collection to another publisher (others authors, in addition to Al); they planned to include a collection as part of their next contract negotiation with their NY publisher; they could make more money with another publisher; or they were just too busy now to even bother. I've had an author respond that they passed my inquiry on to their agent, who then completely ignored me -- even after follow-up emails; some professional courtesy would have been nice, even if their response was simply to tell me to just go away. But I've never had an author turn down a short story collection because they felt they didn't have enough quality fiction to be included in the book. You have to understand my surprise because the five Reynolds stories that I mentioned above totaled nearly 65,000 words. And he had another ten or so stories in addition to these. Certainly enough word count overall, and the quality of these five particular stories was not to be questioned.

My follow-up email to Al that same day was a hardcore sales pitch. I did all I could to place Golden Gryphon in the spotlight and even suggested two different collections to Al so that both publishers would be satisfied: one collection now -- for Golden Gryphon, of course -- and a second collection in a couple years for Night Shade. Al's response? He still insisted that he didn't have enough strong stories and that he wanted to wait for another year or two, but he did like the idea of two collections, broken out by his "future history" stories (a la Revelation Space) and his other stories. I expressed my enthusiasm for either collection -- though I had a definite preference at the time for the "future history" stories. [Remember this two-collection idea for later reference.]

Fortunately, Al and I continued our email dialogue. But I'm no fool, and I anticipated Al's increasing popularity in the field, so in a May 10, 2001 email, I posed the following scenario: In a year or two from now, when Al (and Al's agent) is negotiating a new contract, his UK publisher, Gollancz, asks for a short story collection. What does he do now that he has already committed (albeit only verbally, but one trusts Al on his word) to a Night Shade Books collection? And though I didn't bring this point up, I was also concerned that Al's contract with Gollancz included first refusal rights, which would mean they would have first dibs on any collection proposal. That collection might not interest them now, with Al having published only two novels as of 2001; but what about one or two years from now? Thus my concern for delaying said collection.

In Al's response the following day, he wrote: "The points you make are good, and I can appreciate your argument about moving sooner rather than later. From what I can gather, though, there's not much enthusiasm among the mainstream UK publishers for short fiction collections, so I suspect this won't be that big an issue. Gollancz have never once mooted the possibility, or showed any interest in my non-novel activities. I suspect they'll be happy just to deal with novels from me (and if the current book stiffs, they may not want to talk novels either...!)."

I, in turn, responded to Al that I think he underestimates himself, given his newness in the field (only two novels to date), and referred to UK authors Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan (actually Australian but published in the UK), both of whom have had highly touted short story collections published by "mainstream UK publishers." Regardless, Al and I agreed to postpone any further discussion on a collection until after he completed work on his third novel.

In going through these old emails, I somehow managed to lose or misplace a year and a half's worth between me and Al. I'm sure a hard drive crash contributed to some of the loss. [I now use strictly web-based email; I also backup/clone my PC weekly to an external drive.] After the above email dated May 11, 2001, the next email I have on file is from January 31, 2003. In that intervening time, I acquired Al's novella Turquoise Days, which was published by Golden Gryphon Press (September 2002) as a signed and numbered limited edition chapbook, with an awesome Bob Eggleton wraparound cover. TD was selected the following year for Gardner Dozois's anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twentieth Annual Collection; and that same year it was published by Gollancz, Al's "mainstream UK publisher," along with another of his novellas, "Diamond Dogs." (And Al thought Gollancz would only be interested in his novel-length work!) Dozois later included TD in his Best of the Best, Volume 2: 20 Years of the Year's Best Short Science Fiction Novels.

That January 31, 2003, email was to confirm with Al that he had heard from Jason Williams, of Night Shade Books, that I would be editing his collection for NSB. At that point in time, Night Shade was primarily a publisher of fantasy and horror; Jason was concerned about their lack of science fiction expertise and so we had discussed on the telephone that I would edit the collection. Essentially I would put together the same type of collection that I would have for Golden Gryphon Press -- same in terms of quality, length, format, etc., working directly with the author -- except this collection would be published by Night Shade Books. And now that it had been nearly two years since Al had originally committed to a short story collection, Jason was nudging me to nudge Al so that we could move forward with this book. Jason was hoping for publication of the collection to coincide with the 2004 WorldCon. Unfortunately, the collection didn't see publication until 2006, with most of that delay due to Al's one-novel-per-year commitment to Gollancz, which always, by necessity, took precedence over the collection. [And we see the results of that commitment in his recent 10 books, 10 years, £1 million contract!] Oh, and in the latter half of 2005, Al also married his long-time partner Josette Sanchez. So, between the novel-writing and marriage, we cut him some slack!

Ah, but there was a change in the wind blowing in from the East: In an email I received on November 25, 2005, Al wrote: "Orion will be doing a collection (provisionally entitled Galactic North) containing only the Revelation Space universe stories, to appear in October 2006, in the UK. This will include all the existing stories, apart from 'Diamond Dogs/Turquoise Days,' along with some new material. This in no way prevents [you] from including the existing RS stories in the Night Shade collection... I think we have enough material that we can easily afford not to use some stuff in the Night Shade book if we choose, and there certainly won't be any shortage of space-operatic, hard SF stuff.... Night Shade is keen to get the book out at around the same time as the UK collection, which means agreeing on a content list (and title, of course) in the fairly near future, so as soon as you're ready to start discussing what goes in and what doesn't, I'm up for it. In the meantime I quite fancy Beyond the Aquila Rift and Other Stories, or Zima Blue and Other Stories, but see what you think." So, my supposition, if you will, that Al's UK publisher would eventually want a short story collection within a year or two (in this case, four years), turned out to be spot on, as the Brits would say.

When Al sent me a list of stories to consider, he wrote: "I've omitted my first two stories since I really don't think they're all that hot, as well as a later one from Asimov's which I'm not wild about.." Again, with the quality! Whatever happened to "Here's my first twelve stories, make them into a book"?

So I had some choices to make: I could use some of the "future history" (aka Revelation Space) stories in the Night Shade Books collection if I wanted. But I knew that Al had a sufficient quantity -- and quality -- of non "future history" stories to comprise its own collection, which I felt would successfully stand on its own; plus, Al promised to write a new story that would be exclusive to the collection. There were a number of advantages to not duplicating any of the stories to be included in the Gollancz collection: 1) Al's hardcore fans and collectors could buy both collections without feeling ripped off by the duplication of stories; 2) because there is no duplication, Gollancz -- and in turn, Ace, his US publisher -- may later choose to publish a reprint edition of the book; and 3) purchasing both collections would provide readers with nearly all of the best of Al's short fiction. [Note: Zima Blue was, in fact, published by Gollancz just a couple months ago, though with a slightly different content; after the Night Shade edition was published, Al wrote a third "Merlin" story, "Minla's Flowers," which was included in the Gollancz edition.]

Three of the stories Al sent me for possible inclusion in the collection I rejected; and we also decided not to include any of his short-short stories either. But one story that we did include that wasn't originally on his list was "Understanding Space and Time." It had only been published as a 400-copy limited edition chapbook by the Birmingham [UK] Science Fiction Group for Novacon 35, November 11-13, 2005, to commemorate the author's Guest of Honor appearance. I obviously hadn't seen a copy so Al graciously sent one of the chapbooks to me. "Understanding..." is a cosmological hard SF story (read Mark Watson's
review on the Best SF Reviews website) that was so mind-boggling that I read the nearly 19,000-word story straight through, twice! And, as promised, Al wrote a new story for the collection, entitled "Signal to Noise," which totaled just under 16,550 words. Add in the very personal notes that Al wrote on the genesis of each story, an introduction by SF author Paul J. McAuley, and we had a book -- one helluva book, if I do say so myself. For many of their hardcover titles, Night Shade also produces a signed, limited edition, and Zima Blue was no exception. For the bonus story included in the limited edition, I chose "Digital to Analogue," an older story that is one of Al's personal favorites. "D to A" is quite different from anything else that Al has written, and we figured it was obscure enough that few of his fans had actually read it. The story was originally included in the In Dreams anthology, edited by Kim Newman and Paul J. McAuley, who had also agreed to write the book's introduction. The story concerns dance music and what's embedded in the music (viral music).

Zima Blue and Other Stories was published in a trade and limited edition hardcover in September 2006 -- nearly five and a half years after I originally contacted Al! The book garnered a starred Booklist review: "Reynolds' collection constitutes excellent reading and confirmation of his reputation as one of the best writers of contemporary space opera.... Reynolds does short stories with particular flair, and this collection contains some spectacular sf storytelling." And from Publishers Weekly: "This solid collection of 10 stories spanning the galaxies and the career of British SF author Reynolds (Pushing Ice) demonstrates that his pursuit of truth is not limited to wide-angle star smashing." T
he reprint trade paperback edition followed in May 2007.

I obviously did an end around, as they say, regarding the topic of this blog post. And, in fact, I may not have succeeded in my efforts to convince authors that publishing a short story collection as soon as they've accumulated a dozen or so stories is not really the way to go, that contrary to popular belief, such collections are not necessarily going to enhance their professional stature. But maybe with some extrapolation on your part, you’ll understand the conclusion I was aiming for.
* * * * *
This past week I completed one major project and began another. I completed copyediting the omnibus edition of Glen Cook's Darkwar trilogy -- Doomstalker, Warlock, and Ceremony -- 565 pages and 244,000 words, to be published by Night Shade Books. Also for Night Shade, I have begun work on Mark Teppo's sequel to Lightbreaker, entitled Heartland: The Codex of Souls, Book 2. This will be what is called a "developmental edit," and I'm working directly with the author on his original manuscript. In the wings, I have Liz Williams's fifth Detective Inspector Chen novel, The Iron Khan, for developmental editing (also for Night Shade); and for Tachyon Publications, I'll be copyediting Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow. I've already scanned in and cleaned up seventeen of those stories (nearly 127K words); this time around I'll be copyediting those plus seven additional stories that didn't need to be scanned. And from Warren Lapine's Fantastic Books imprint, I'm awaiting the page proofs for Paul Di Filippo's novel Fuzzy Dice. And last, but certainly not least, co-editor Nick Gevers and I have received our first two submissions for our original DAW Books anthology entitled Is Anybody Out There? which concerns the Fermi paradox. The two authors shall remain nameless at this point in time since neither story has been accepted as yet. Please see my previous blog post for more info on this DAW theme anthology.

I've been hearing more and more lately from other freelancers who don't have time to post to their blogs because their freelance work requires most of their time. And that time investment is critical: completed freelance projects bring in income, and that income pays the bills. And given the present state of the economy, a freelancer can't risk losing work -- or even the potential for work. I find myself in this same situation, which is why there hasn't been a personal blog update here for about a month. But that's really what freelancing is all about, and we should all be happy that we still have work to do. My wife is self-employed as well; in the month of June she lost more than 70% of her income; and that loss will increase by another 12% at the end of this month. And with the unemployment rate in our area (currently 11.2%), it doesn't appear that her service will be in demand anytime soon. Thus the increased pressure on me to acquire additional freelance opportunities. This is not a whine, just an explanation for the lack of blog posts here -- though it's certainly not because of the lack of ideas. I have a list of blog posts I would like to address, but time is always the limiting factor. And since I don't blog about my morning cup of coffee (with half-and-half, no sugar) or that I went shopping today at Costco (OJ, Alaskan salmon, virgin olive oil, bananas, frozen spinach ravioli, and a few other items -- just under $123.00!), I just hope you'll bear with me until I have time for more in-depth blog posts. I won't feel bad if you check in, see nothing new, and move on to another site; as long as I know you're still checking in. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed so that you are notified of new updates; or follow me on Twitter.


My heartfelt thanks to Alastair Reynolds for his permission, allowing me to quote extensively from our email communications. And a special thanks, too, to Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen of Night Shade Books for the opportunity to edit Zima Blue and Other Stories.

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  1. Great post Marty.

    And good luck to you and your wife on the freelancing side.

  2. Hi, Charles,

    Appreciate your most kind comments. I heard on the news this morning that the economy downturn is finally easing, though unemployment is still expected to rise; and we won't be seeing new jobs, in any volume, until some time in 2010. So keeping fingers crossed for all those freelancers out there!

    - marty