Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Anders's Three Laws of Editing

Here's something that's been gestating with me for a while, an attempt to reconcile the commercial and artistic impulses that the editor of a fiction line faces. Like everyone above the level of the self-employed small independent press, I have Dark Masters with Commercial Expectations. Yet, it should be noted, my particular Dark Masters founded their own publishing company not only to make money, but for the propagation of a noble agenda as well. Furthermore, in an age where sometimes it seems as if Sturgeon's Law might need to be rephrased "90% of everything successful is crap," it is my sincere hope that readers of this blog would by now know that I am a true believer and that I think science fiction - apart from any other genre of literature - has a a lofty goal and purpose to fulfill apart from and in addition to being mere entertainment.

So, what follows is my attempt to articulate this struggle of often diametrically-opposed objectives, and to codify my thoughts into a set of principles or guidelines - laws if you will - that could form the basis of my own decision making when it comes to the execution of my duties at Pyr.

I tried these ideas out on at least two panels at this past WorldCon, and they seemed to have met with favorable responses from the audience, as well as nods of approval from two men I respect highly - Gordon Van Gelder and David G. Hartwell. I'm still working them out, so the exact language may be refined over time. But with that caveat, here they are, offered for the ages, though with tongue at least halfway in cheek - the first official print appearance of -- drum roll please --

Anders's Three Laws of Editing:

1. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will make the most money for his/her publisher.

2. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will provide the most entertainment value for his/her readership, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First Law.

3. An editor shall select those books which best serve the evolution and growth of his/her genre, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

So, I think you can spot my influences. But what do you think?


Ancient Clown said...

You'd never be able to edit anything I've done (LOL).
Come by for a visit, if you'd like.
your humble servant,
Ancient Clown

Lou Anders said...

It might be education to point out that an earlier version went more like:

1. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems best serve the needs of his/her publisher.

2. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems best serve the needs of his/her readership, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First Law.

3. An editor shall select those books which best serve the needs of his/her genre, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Johan A said...

I think it might be a mistake to have the Prime Directive, er... Rule 1 as the first one. As I would interpret it, it would mean that I first weeded out all difficult, challenging, innovative books in favor of the familiar and predictable ones. After that, 2 and 3 become rather uninteresting. I have always posited that if maximizing profit is what you're after, you should become a stockbroker or something. If you are publishing books, there must be another reason than maximizing profits.

Of course the editor must try to make sure that his/her choices give a positive contribution to the bottom line, but it can't be expressed in terms of "make the most money," because that will make the other two rules superfluous.

Paul Cornell said...

I'm planning to write a collection of short stories concerning a specialist who shows up when editors run into conflicts between the Three Laws. 'I, Editor', will begin with 'Little Lost Editor', in which an Editor is found mouthing 'Money... Art... Money... Art' over and over.

Seriously, though, the First Law is a given. A *really good* experimental/freaky novel will Make Money For The Publisher, if it's sold right. I think that's a hurdle Lou has already jumped, on a number of occasions.

Jonathan said...

Hey Lou - Your three laws are interesting. While I agree with all of them, I don't think I'd have called them laws of editing. They much more strike me as laws of publishing. That is to say, they don't seem to have much to say about working on the text in a book, editing it line by line or overall etc. Rather, they approach matters from a (completely valid) publisher's perspective.


Lou Anders said...

Hi & good comments all.

You know, I'm still trying to nail down the perfect title - Gordon suggested something like "Ediatrics" - but I would say they aren't publishing laws. For one thing, these are definitely "high laws" or "prime directives" (thanks Johan), and I think a comprehensive laws of publishing would include other factors/concerns in addition to these. For another, acquisitions really is the editor's job, and it's at the acquisitions level that these laws are meant to be applied. They are my laws, for my benefit, not my Dark Masters.

Johan, I did wonder, when I went public with this, if someone would have your reaction - and thanks to Paul for pointing out that I am mindful of the exceptions (I think Infoquake qualifies - when a seemingly unique work is "unique enough" to be a selling point, not a detrement. But, I should point out that while this First Law may look cynical from the outside, I am sure there are those on the inside who would think I was being niave to list any laws at all beyond the First. If I may quote from a fellow editor & friend of mine who posted under my "State of Science Fiction Part III" - a post directly responsible for my Three Laws, in response to my earlier comments about juggling art and commerce:

"I'd even go one step further -- my ONLY responsibility is to my publisher, who pays my salary. My only responsibility is to acquire books that I think will make the most profit for my company. Anything else is the luxury of people who work for themselves. Which is not to say that you can't try to publish the very best material within those parameters, but, like ANY for-profit endeavor, the bottom line wins out. Is that occasionally depressing as hell? Well, yes. It's also reality, and I'm nothing if not a realist."

That's the cold, hard truth. Now, a good deal of my goal with Pyr has been to, within that truth, see if "quality" won't sell as well as "crap" if presented right. If you build it, will they come? To date, there's not a single book in the line I'm not proud of. Is every book selling? Of course not. But we've had some good successes from some very challenging works of literate, intelligent SF&F - and I think that 9 times out of 10 I've managed to publish works in accord with all three provisions of my Three Laws. You can read the line and let me know if you think I've been tossing out challenging, innovative works for a bottom line. I'm not being flippant - I'm being serious and I appreciate your comments. My suggestion would be to read books like River of Gods, The Crooked Letter, Paradox, Macrolife, the aforementioned Infoquake. Yes, if money were the only goal, I'd have gone to law school like everyone else around here. But I do believe deeply that quality can be commercial. To look at Hollywood - we've seen a rash of films succeed because they stayed true to their source material and were made with excellent intent - The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Batman, Spiderman I & II, while those properties that have strayed - Earthsea have faired less well. A lesson to be learned?

j h woodyatt said...

Seems like these are specifically Laws Of Acquisition, not Laws Of Editing.

Liviu said...

I think that the earlier formulation of law 1 was the best for 2 reasons. Generally to make the most money you need sustainability and if the genre goes all formulaic, stale and down you will soon lose money, so publishing riskier (from a financial point of view) but innovative or interesting books should be seen as an investmnent in the future of your publisher, which may lose some money initially as opposed to publishing mediocre "true and tried" stuff, but has a chance of higher payout. Also if the publisher has an agenda, furthering that is of definite value so publishing sf that promotes science and reason and is reasonably profitable is much better than publishing cookie cutter hierarchical fantasies/sf that may make more money. Laws 2 and 3 are better in the current formulation since its harder to evaluate the needs of a large number of readers (as opposed to one or even a small number of publishers) while its easier to evaluate the entertainment value.


RobB said...

Very interesting post and as has been said, ultimately publishing is a business and that, unfortunately, cannot be ignored.

But as has been pointed out, commercial success and critical success aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

I think you've hit the nail on the head with the Hollywood adaptations. Not only did the good ones stay true to their source, they were made by people who were FANS of the source. Goyer spent years in comics, Jackson loved LOTR.

Johan A said...

Lou, I agree with what you say, of course, having been an editor myself and selected books to be published. My point was based on the scenario where you look at a hundred books and try to figure how much money they would make for the publisher, and then rank them 1 - 100. This is not a realistic scenario, because it doesn't work that way - and that's the main objection to what I'm saying - but, if you do that, it will make all other rules superfluous, because if making the most money is the prime directive, then nothing else matters. See what I mean? If you have to rank the books 1-100 based on calculated profit, and then must publish number 1-3, what do rules 2 and 3 matter? Rule 1 presupposes that you divide books into largish groups where all the books grouped together can be assumed to do roughly equally well on the market. Perhaps that assumption would need to be worked explicitly into the phrasing of Rule 1?

Tero said...


I think your first law is formulated too strictly – laws 2 and 3 never come into action, unless you have two books that would make exactly the same amount of money; otherwise you’ll always have to choose one over the other based on the first law. Maybe “those books which he or she deems will make a sufficient amount of money”? That would still fit those publishers, whose value of “sufficient” always equals “the most,” but would also allow other publisher to have additional goals, such as a noble agenda.

I also find #2 a bit problematic in that I think that would be better served as implicitly involved in #3. I personally think serving the evolution and growth of the genre would be a better rule, and that sufficient entertainment value (the more “difficult” and challenging the text, the more required) must exist in order to satisfy #1.

That would leave room for one more rule…

Lou Anders said...

This is all very valuable feedback.

RobB, I think you have also hit a nail on a head as to why Hollywood has turned over this new leaf - the fact that fans are the ones pulling the strings. I think the 21st century will be the century when fans are in the driving seat, when those who grew up on it and got it found themselves in positions of power and authority. This, coupled with the falling cost of filmmaking and digital effects means that the real age of SF filmmaking is only just beginning. But before we get off topic...

Tero, there is a subtle difference between 2 and 3 that needs help being better articulated. George Zebrowski is found of saying that novels are offerings not caterings, by which he means you don't necessarily give the public what they want but what they need. Rule # 2 might call for a line of ass-kicking vampire fighting 20-something females, but Rule # 3 comes in and says, "hey, just because this kid thinks he wants to eat peanut butter and jelly every singe day for the rest of his life doesn't mean that he wouldn't enjoy this dish over here if it were presented to him right." How can I get that across in rules 2 and 3?

Ted said...

I think the difficulty arises from trying to emulate the Three Laws of Robotics, which had a pretty strict order of precedence. What you're describing are three criteria with differing weights, and that's not a situation that is well-modeled by the Three Laws (as traditionally depicted).

To put it another way, the relative weights of these criteria should be satisfied by an editor's overall line of titles, but they needn't be satisfied by each and every individual title. Maybe you could call them "The Three Priorities of Acquisition."

Christian Sauve said...

What's interesting is that those three laws can be (roughly) mapped to a compressed version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. First ensure your survival (safety); then ensure your comfort (status); then reach for actualization.

Lou Anders said...

Ted, point well taken, but there is an aspect of humor here your rewording is not satisfying. Does "Anders's Three Articles of Acquisition" have the same ring to it? I'll never get Paul to write I, EDITOR that way.

Christian - I am fascinated. Yes, absolutely!

Tero said...

“How can I get that across in rules 2 and 3?”

I think the problem there is again with the word “most,” which doesn’t leave manoeuvering room for the next rule to kick in. Changing the wording to “enough” might help there also.

Thinking further, could the order of rules 2 and 3 be reversed? As long as #1 of making enough money is satisfied, is it really necessary to maximize entertainment value over growing of the genre? Especially because I think the latter will contribute more to the making money part in the long run by keeping the genre alive.

Stephen Chambers said...

Speaking of the pressures of Hollywood vis-a-vis art, I only hope Will Smith isn't cast in the theatrical version of I, Editor. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would be cast as the lead in one of Asimov's most famous works? What's next, Ray Romano as Hari Seldon?

"Now that's what I call a close encounter!"

Incidentally, I think your rules are clever, and brilliantly, depressingly accurate.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks Stephan.
And, hey, I could see Will Smith play me. We sort of look alike if I was taller, had hair, muscles, 10 years younger and black.

But no - I think I, Robot would have been a fine movie with another title. You know that they actually wrote the script first, then discovered they also had an option on the Asimov, so changed the title and the character's name in the existing script?

Paul Cornell said...

I want a Rule where Lou can't Allow a writer to Come to Harm.

Lou Anders said...

Stephen, apologies - I realized I wrote "Stephan" out of habit. Paul, I am cracking up.

Stephen Chambers said...

I didn't even notice the 'a' until you mentioned it. And I agree that early incarnations of the Rules of Editing should incorporate Protecting Authors From Harm. But then, of course, Model 101 will re-interpret 'harm' and 'protect,' and before you know it we're stuck with another Hollywoodization.

(re: Will Smith & Asimov) I think a solid title might have been 'The Fresh Prince of Robotworld.' Plus, it would have given Will Smith an excuse to rap.


"What are you saying? That an editor could ... harm a writer? Are you insane? Editors and humans have been living in harmony for--"

"I know. I just don't trust those things."

"Things? Stryker, listen to yourself."

(The protagonist doesn't have to be named Stryker, but I think it does add something.)

"I can't talk about .... An editor killed my parents .... He let them drown to save the manuscript. There. Now you understand."

And so on.