Pay No Attention to the Pro Behind the Curtain: Editors: An ApolloCon 2007 panel

Panelists: David G. Hartwell, Selina Rosen, Mel. White, Steve Wilson

Description in the program book: Learn about the secret world of the editor, the unsung hero of the literary world. Who are they, what do they do, and what is their impact on the fiction we read?

What was it really about: Unlike Editing 101: Self-editing panel, this one did not have specific advice to writers. (Nor was it supposed to.) Rather, it was one of those panels where the pros gossip about little-known aspects of their jobs. Which can be fun! The most memorable things in all such panels are funny stories “from the trenches”, and industry tidbits you don’t normally get to hear.

Listening to David Hartwell, I got an impression that it’s not clear to what extent it is necessary, or even desirable, for an editor to try to improve a writer’s writing style, especially in the genres. He said: “In some genres most readers are style-deaf. All they want to penetrate the surface of the book into fantasy participation.” They don’t read books closely enough to pay attention to the language or style. He was talking in particular about romance, giving Danielle Steele as an example of a writer that doesn’t write very well, but sells extremely well.

Speaking of romance, Mel. White told this story. When science fictional elements started to percolate into paranormal romance, those novels were edited by editors who knew everything about romance, but very little about science. So you would get absurdities like a new star appearing between Earth and Jupiter. And nobody noticed it before, because it appears only once in 200 years.

Mel. White (this picture is from the panel on fanfiction and LGBT issues, a.k.a. “How Friendly Were Frodo and Sam?”)

Mel. White at the Frodo and Sam panel at ApolloCon 2007
CIMG6465 Mel. White at the Frodo and Sam panel

The Procrustean bed of book publishing economics

David Hartwell went back to the some of the same elements he covered at his kaffeeklatsch, where he talked (among other topics) about the economics of book publishing and selling. Back then he gave some interesting examples of how a book word count translates into its price and how that impacts the book’s distribution and sales. It turns out the word count economics is far more nuanced than he let us in on at first. Optimal word counts preferred by publishers are dictated not just by the cost of paper, but also by such factors as different printing processes required for books of different thickness — some are costlier than others; the thickness of the book also determines how many books would fit into a box, thereby influencing shipping costs.

David Hartwell, ApolloCon 2007 editor guest (this picture is from the opening ceremony)

ApolloCon 2007 Opening Ceremony: editor Guest of Honor
CIMG6405 David Hartwell at the ApolloCon 2007 Opening Ceremony

The most bizarre factor (though it was completely logical — it was only weird because I haven’t thought about it that way) was pointed out by a guy in the audience. He said books need to be a certain number of inches thick to make it possible to print the author’s name in large enough letters on the spines. After all, books in bookstores are stacked so that only their spines are visible (except those lucky volumes that are stored facing front). A customer of less than perfect vision (which is to say, most reading folks) should be able to see the author’s name and book’s title from 7-9 feet away. This requirement dictates the size of the font on book’s back, hence a need for certain thickness.

So on one hand, less is more (a 120,000 word count sells better than a 140,000 word count), but on the other hand, more is more (a book should not be too thin). Overall, it doesn’t surprise me, because I took several courses in mathematical optimization in grad school, which examined this type of problems — optimizing against several conflicting criteria. It’s only weird because we are talking here not about gadgets and widgets, but about a product that flows from an author’s deep, innermost self. I always imagined that only the author can decide how many words a story needs in order to be told. And yet, having heavily edited my own stuff, I know that number is much more flexible than I thought at first.

Apropos of which, David Hartwell said: “My favorite writer / editor relationship is the kind where both writer and editor agree that the text is just words on paper that could be rearranged any way they want. If the text is the writer’s heart’s blood, then I can’t edit it.”