Barbara Friend-Ish is the Managing Editor, Publisher, Coffee-Maker, Red-Pen-User, Art Director, Layout Editor, and also an author for Mercury Retrograde Press. Here she answers a bajillion questions for me.
One lucky commenter will get a choice of books from the stacks at Mercury Retrograde Press (or ebook sent to them if they should happen to be in a foreign country right now…). There are other prizes for participating in Darkcargo’s @homeCon all weekend, such as this one, this one, this one and this one. And this one.
Anyways, on to the interview and Slow Publishing.–>
You are both an author and an editor/publisher. How do you separate the two, or are they really as distinct functions as I am assuming they are?
Absolutely, they’re very distinct functions. Anyone who writes has to learn to edit his or her own work, but when we talk about editing our own work, what we’re talking about doing is making it the best we can on our own. It’s the task of an editor to help the author bring the work to a level beyond what she might achieve independently. Even those of us who are editors need the help of other editors to bring our own written work to its full potential.
When I write fiction, it’s my job to come up with a story and characters, to develop the way the tale is presented. I write the sentences that get printed in the book. Once the story is *done* I give it to my editor, who reads it and begins working with me to make it better. My editor is Brett Shanley, another member of Mercury Retrograde’s editorial staff. He’s an amazingly talented editor and also my friend. On my last novel, The Shadow of the Sun, Brett brought my attention to places where I hadn’t dug deeply enough into scenes and challenged me to develop them further; pointed out places where I’d left loose ends hanging; acted as an advocate for the reader by showing me where I hadn’t made things clear to somebody who didn’t already know what I meant; helped me refine the details of sentences and word choices; and argued with me about punctuation. Part of what makes him amazing is that he doesn’t come to novels he edits with the agenda of making them into what *he* would have written (even though he’s a writer as well). Rather he makes it his mission to fully understand the story I’m telling and the concepts I’m working with and find ways to make those things more intensely themselves, to refine them.
When I’m the editor, I try to do the same sorts of things for the writers I work with. Writing and editing are separate but related crafts, and I enjoy them both. Writing is a “heart and soul” endeavor; when done properly, it’s at least as much art as craft. Editing is a more measured, logical activity, but—especially when the writer and editor are well matched–there is definitely an art to it as well. In addition to doing what we call developmental editing, which is what I described when I discussed what Brett does for me, I’m also Mercury Retrograde’s editor-in-chief: I’m the person who makes decisions about which books we will publish and allocates the development resources necessary to get the job done. If you enjoy the books Mercury Retrograde publishes, you and I probably have very similar tastes in reading material, because I don’t acquire books I don’t love.
Publishing is actually a distinct function from editing as well: publishing is the label for all the things we do to put books in the hands of readers. It’s a rather arcane business, and it’s changing very rapidly. Publishing encompasses handling legal and business issues, working with printers to get books printed, working with wholesalers to get them into stores, working with booksellers to get them in front of readers. It’s very challenging, and it’s never dull.
Is this your dream job or what? What’s the most difficult obstacle you’ve had to tackle in getting Mercury Retrograde Press up and running?
This *is* my dream job! I spend my days writing, reading, talking about, developing, and bringing to readers some of the best SF/F being written today, and I get to work with a group of amazing, talented people. How cool is that? The biggest issue I’ve had to tackle is definitely resources: time and money, which of course are two sides of the same coin. Publishing is a very high-risk business, and I have had to work very hard to build the business in a way that would allow it to get through the early years without bleeding to death. Fortunately both my husband and I cut our teeth on computing start-up businesses, so I’m comfortable with the process of starting a business almost out of thin air.
What can we look forward to in the next couple of years from Mercury Retrograde Press?
We’ve got some great stuff in the pipeline! Our next book will be Flutter by Zachary Steele, the hilarious sequel to his Anointed. It’s about a war in heaven conducted by a bunch of angels using the angelic equivalent of Twitter. After that we’re republishing Danielle L. Parker’s award-winning The Infinite Instant, which is near-future SF, and then continuing the rest of that series, which is all new. We’re planning a second edition of Edward Morris’s novella There Was a Crooked Man followed by seven more novellas that serve to complete a sprawling epic in the Weird vein: first as eBooks, then in a Trade Omnibus edition when the series is complete. A little farther out on the horizon is Leona Wisoker’s follow-up to her Guardians of the Desert, tentatively titled Bells of the Kingdom; War-Lord of the Gods, the sequel to my The Shadow of the Sun; the long-awaited sequel to Larissa Niec’s Shorn, titled Cael’s Shadow; and another from Danielle Parker, the first of an entirely new series, titled Galen the Deathless.
We’re doing a lot of experimenting with the forms and function of publishing, which probably isn’t very surprising to people who can see how fast the business is shifting. We continue to love Trade Paper editions, and we’ll never stop producing those, but we’re looking at ways of moving beyond a sensibility that says all quality works come out in paper first and as eBooks second or at best simultaneously, and we’re trying to find ways to bring eBooks up to the visual standard of our Trade editions. We’re expanding the ways we approach developing cover art and other images, most excitingly in a planned collaboration between Ed Morris and his partner, artist Serena Blossom Appel, for the Crooked Man series. And we’re getting very serious about implementing the sensibilities of Slow Publishing, in order to achieve the sort of quality we demand of ourselves as artists in a way that doesn’t burn out any member of the team.
Not to give away any trade secrets, but how do you choose your submissions? Does the document glow with an inspirational light?
Laughing. Something like that. I choose works because I fall in love with them. Even if they’re rough around the edges before they go through editorial, the stories I choose have something about them that hook my imagination; they have something to say that speaks to me. The books I choose are conceptually rich; while I want books to enthrall me, I don’t publish books that are the literary equivalent of popcorn. And almost without fail, there will be something I love about the way the writer uses language, because I am a prose geek.
There is a school of thought that says books are products, and publishers should choose books that can be predicted to make money. That’s good business, after all: to only bring to market a thing you know you can sell profitably. But publishing is only *partially* a business; done right, it’s also an art. A good publishing house has a sustaining vision of the books it wants to bring to market, of what it wants its particular flavor of literature to be. I sign authors whose works and careers and visions I want to champion; I buy books that enrich the mind and soul. I don’t mean that in the way that purveyors of Serious Literature, of the sort that you’re not supposed to actually enjoy reading, do; I think it’s vitally important that SF/F in particular transports us to places we would never otherwise see. But I love SF/F that isn’t afraid to reach for a great vision.
In short, I buy books I love. I have to. On a project on which I handle both editorial and book design (those are more common than you might think) I will read a book an average of nine times by the day it is released to the public. NINE TIMES. I am always heartily glad to take a break from that particular story by the time we complete a project. If I didn’t love the books I worked on, somewhere around the fifth or sixth time I worked my way through a book, I’d be put on suicide watch.
Can you give us a definition of what is considered to be a small press?
That sounds like a dumb question, but it absolutely isn’t. People are redefining the terms out from under us every day, because the industry is shifting so fast. A good working definition of small press might be: a publishing operation that puts out a limited number of publications each year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of copies sold will be low, rather that the number of unique titles published in a given year is. It’s not unusual for a small press to publish as few as two new titles per year. Small presses tend to be staffed by just a few people, frequently only one or two; sometimes that staff will be using outside contractors to get much of the work done, while in other small houses that tiny staff is doing it all.
Traditionally there has been substantial overlap between the terms “small press” and “independent press”; but lately people have been using “independent publishing” to mean “self publishing”, which is an entirely different sort of operation. Self-publishing (or, this week, independent publishing) implies an author publishing her own work, and generally only her own work. Small presses usually work with different authors.
Terminology is very fluid right now. I don’t think there’s any real consensus.
If you were offered a Big Whig Job with Giant MultiMedia Conglomorate press, would you take it?
It would have to be a job very high on the food chain: I’m a very good developmental editor, but the greatest contributions I have to make are in the areas of overarching vision and collection development, and those aren’t lower-tier jobs. Besides, as they say, unless you’re the lead dog the scenery never changes. And I’m passionately committed to a style of publishing that doesn’t put the financial aspects of the decision process first, but instead asks, “How can we afford to do this project we love?” Right now the media conglomerates are very bottom-line oriented. If I were to partner with one of them, it would have to be with the understanding that that isn’t how a press or an imprint I run would operate. And I don’t expect that to happen, just because it would be a fundamental clash of corporate cultures.
I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to put food on the table or finance my children’s educations with what I’m doing. It allows me to be a seriously stubborn pain in the butt about things that matter to me. I have great respect for the people who are actually trying to make a living in this business.
I’ve heard that while an author writes a story, it’s the editor that makes it. Can you tell me about that relationship, as you have experienced it from both sides of the desk?
I would say that is sometimes but by no means always true. As an editor I have taken on projects that came to me like Athena stepping out of the head of Zeus: fully formed, adult works that needed only a bit of sprucing up before they were ready to go out to the world. But in the vast majority of cases, there are nuances that even very experienced writers need the help of an editor to bring to fruition: stuff that, as the person who essentially gave birth to the work, the writer is too enmeshed to see. And more than half of the time, the books I take on have significant flaws that truly diminish their potential, and then it’s my task to work with the writer to re-imagine the aspects of the book that aren’t yet working as they should. In cases like that, it’s fair to say that it’s the editor that “makes” the work: absent the work of the editor, that story would have left readers dissatisfied, quite probably for reasons they couldn’t have laid hands on.
My relationship with my editor tends to fall into the “light touch” category: in part because that’s Brett’s natural style, in part because I bring the skills and knowledge that make me a good developmental editor to my work as a writer; if there’s a flaw in my plot I can nearly always recognize and correct it myself. Our greatest challenge as writer and editor came about at the initiation of our writer/editor relationship, when we had to learn to communicate about the work. I had to learn to understand what he meant when he talked about my work, because he saw things from a perspective that was alien to me at first; he had to learn enough about my thinking process to approach the things he wanted to work on in ways I could understand. We had some really intense conversations while we were working on the earliest chapters, which actually turned out to be the ones in which the majority of the changes we made during editorial were implemented, because we had to develop a shared vision of the work and in order to do that we essentially had to develop a common vocabulary. But once we did that work together, everything became very simple, and he hardly had to do more than say, “About this passage here…” and I would immediately see what was troubling him, because we understood one another.
As an editor, I find that every writer/editor relationship is unique. There are writers with whom I work very closely and collaboratively, because their work benefits from that kind of treatment and we both enjoy digging right down into the sentences and raising them to their maximum potential. There are others who prefer a lighter touch and a less intimate developmental relationship, and unless the story they are working on requires significant redevelopment, I won’t dig in as deeply with them. In some ways I find the really deep engagement more satisfying, both on a personal and on a professional level. But if I engaged that deeply with every work I edited, I’d get a lot less done: that style of editing is hugely time-consuming. So it’s probably fortunate that Mercury Retrograde’s writers require a variety of styles.
As a writer, I am very aware of the ways in which Brett improves my work, and I treasure his willingness to engage deeply with me while not trying to control everything. That’s a rare talent. Once we came to understand one another, all our arguments were about punctuation, because I really like to swing from the chandeliers where punctuation is concerned and Brett is more of a traditionalist; but even those weren’t arguments. It was more like dynamic tension. And who but a couple of editors would sit around arguing about punctuation? It’s the pinnacle of geekery.
Do Cons ever get boring?
Boring? No. Being a professional at a con is astonishingly different from being a fan at a con, and it presents a different set of challenges to having fun there. I rarely attend a con without sitting on panels these days; even when I am not an official participant, I’m still *working*: meeting people and networking, studying what other companies and artists are doing, observing the trends in the crowd itself, troubleshooting Mercury Retrograde’s and my own con-participation practices, learning from presenters. So there’s practically never a moment when there isn’t something going on that matters to me. But frequently I will go into a con at which, because I’m not local, I don’t have a substantial base of friends or even acquaintances, and that can make it harder to find my groove in the social aspects of the con. Fortunately, over the past couple years we’ve begun making a practice of always having a table in the Dealers Room at cons, which not only is a great way to meet new people (it’s not easy to really connect with people from opposite sides of a panel table) but means that at least one other member of Mercury Retrograde staff travels with me, so I always have someone to hang out and go to the parties with.
What are you reading now?
More often than not, I’m reading more than one book simultaneously; right now is no exception. I read a lot of nonfiction, much of it research for the fiction I write. Right now I’m dipping in and out of a book on the pilgrimage tradition in medieval England (an English-language translation of English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages by J. J. Jusserand, published sometime in the 19th century) and a book on pre-Norman Irish law (The Brehon Laws by Laurence Ginnell, published around the end of that same century); I’m reading Michio Kaku’s The Physics of the Impossible, which is adding a nice new layer of understanding to my armchair acquaintance with physics. I’m also reading Leona Wisoker’s next novel, tentatively titled Bells of the Kingdom, which we’ll publish next year. And I’ve been enjoying Steven Pressfield’s new book, Do The Work, which I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone who enjoyed his The War of Art.
Slow Media, Slow Publishing: this is interesting. It looks like Slow Media is a demand for better quality media product, versus quickly and easily available media. For example, I understand that a lot of the audiophiles are upset with the poor audio quality of digital downloadable music, and prefer to buy the “old fashioned” CDs or even turntable records because the sound quality is so much more appreciable. Here’s another example– some feedback on the poor copy-editing of e-books as of late. Can you tell me a little of your manifesto concerning Mercury Retrograde Press and Slow Media? Your catalog features books not published until Fall 2012! I mean srsly, that’s like FOREVER.
Hah! Fall 2012 is the middle of next week to me. Seriously, I have a great deal of difficulty keeping track of the date, right down to the year, because part of my job encompasses the here-and-now of getting product into the hands of retail partners and the readers themselves, but part of my job has to do with deciding where we’re going and what we’re going to publish when we get there. There are ways in which 2012 is already here for me, and a significant part of my mind is on 2013-2015. But none of that is where the truth of Slow Publishing lies; ultimately, Slow Publishing is about embracing and respecting the nature and process of what we must do to create great books in a sustainable fashion.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have run businesses on schedules. It’s all very logical, this obsession with the schedule: we need to be able to anticipate our needs for resources and the income we’re going to produce in order to have useful interactions with our suppliers and customers. When a company produces widgets, things *are* easy to predict and schedule: we can know exactly what we need to make a widget, or a box or a case or a truckload of them, and we can know how long it takes.
But art is not easy to schedule. As artists we can and do set goals: for example, as a writer I try to write two thousand words a day. But I don’t always succeed, for a variety of reasons. And many of those reasons have to do with the fact that while we can approach craft logically, the part of the human mind that makes art is inherently far less logical than intuitive, ruled by the right side of the brain; and the right side of the brain just doesn’t understand the concept of time and never will. There is a school of thought, most frequently espoused by self-hating artists, that says the artist should just be required to sit in her chair until her pages for the day are done, as if she were a student at a Montessori school (and don’t get me started on Montessori, by the way) or a child who refused to eat her peas. But the truth of artistic process is that sometimes the work is happening in ways and places we can’t see from the left side of our brains, and sometimes the work being done does not immediately result in words on the page. And to try to force the artistic process into the left-brain world is to rob it of the tools it needs to do its best work. If we respect our art, we have to accept that sometimes we aren’t able to write two thousand words on this particular work. That’s okay until we try to hold the artist to a schedule; until we try to plug words into the widgets model. We can produce words on a schedule, but not art. At least not sustainably.
Slow Publishing accepts that the nature of art is fluid, particularly in the area of schedule. It sets goals but not deadlines, which gives writers and other contributors sufficient structure to be productive but doesn’t bind them to practices that will make it impossible to do their best work. One way of looking at it is in terms of quality vs. quantity. Another way of looking at it is in terms of sustainability. It’s entirely possible for an artist to move heaven and earth to produce a great work of art on time for a deadline. But in so doing, the artist is putting forth a huge, really almost superhuman effort: laying aside normality, sleep, sometimes even health to get it done. If there are many of us who can do that once in a while, there is no one who can do that again and again without suffering long-term negative consequences. Slow Publishing is in it for the long haul: it accepts that some writers are blessed with circumstances that allow them to produce a book a year or more, while others need more space, and that everyone’s life is subject to change without notice—and that the things necessary for every artist’s process, whatever those things may be, must be jealously guarded. From a practical standpoint, that means that if a writer needs to slip a delivery date, his editor will not threaten or pick a fight about it; and if an artist needs to do her work in this one particular way that looks crazy to the rest of us, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to respect it. Because that process by which the artist of any stripe is able to invoke his or her particular muse is a mysterious thing that can’t be messed with without consequences. Or, if you prefer, because the right brain is intuitive rather than logical.
And as you touched on with your mention of complaints about copyediting in eBooks, the writers and artists contributing to the books a publisher produces are not the only ones who need a bit of breathing space. I know I said this earlier, but it bears repeating here: publishing is only *partially* a business; done right, it’s also an art. There is an art as well as a craft to what a truly gifted editor does. The same goes for book designers. In order for editors and designers to do excellent work sustainably, their processes need to be respected as well. And that may mean that on a particular day, they aren’t able to do the thirty pages they planned, because the artist part of their process is at work on something that doesn’t produce quantifiable results but is having a very important impact on quality. And when we as publishers set up situations in which those contributors must make Herculean efforts to meet their deadlines, again and again, we are eroding their abilities to function as artistic professionals, not to mention the quality of the work they do and their quality of life and health. It’s ultimately a very irresponsible practice for publishers to expect artists and artistic professionals to operate as if they were trying to prepare a shipment of Model Ts.
Unless they’re making a very particular sort of book, maybe a *printer* can operate that way. Most printers are operating in the realm of mass production; the Industrial Revolution metrics and philosophies frequently apply. But publishers aren’t printers; they bridge the gap between the artist and the sort of business most people expect.
There are huge advantages to mass production. Mass production means affordable goods and predictable results. But it doesn’t necessarily mean quality. In my house, I have a mixture of recent and antique furniture. The antique stuff is all hand-made, of course. The piece I love the best has only one like it in the entire world. And I continually watch my new furniture erode and wear out while my antiques look and function exactly the way they did when I brought them into my house. Mass-produced works, things put together under the Industrial Revolution sensibility, aren’t put together to stand the test of time. Novels produced under non-negotiable deadlines, as a whole, aren’t going to stand the test of time, either. Slow Publishing sets aside those rules and gets out of those artists’ ways, and works to sustain artists rather than use them up.
Interested readers can learn more about Slow Publishing here: http://www.mercuryretrogradepress.com/writers/slow_publishing.asp