Editing Changes

I read a lot of  magazines and anthologies, both fiction and nonfiction. One best-of-the-year series (multiple volumes in multiple genres) drives me crazy because the publisher mandates that the stories be put into alphabetical order by author name so that no one gets offended by placement.

This stricture, which has existed for more than twenty years, makes these volumes hard to read. Sometimes the most difficult story, written in an experimental style, starts the volume. No one wants to read farther after that. But if that story  had come at the middle or in the end, readers would have gotten to it and loved it.

Editing magazines and anthologies is a skill. A new employee I hired at a publishing company once offered to slap together some stories into collections and I about had a fit. The employee, who had never worked with fiction before, didn’t understand that good collections, like good anthologies, have a rhythm and a pace, not to mention a unifying theme.

Editors have voices. Those voices are subtle, but they exist. The reader recognizes the voice in story choice, story order, and in the feeling that occurs as he closes the book or magazine.

That’s why, when the editors change even at a nonfiction magazine, some subscribers leave and others join. If you ask the average reader why she left, she’ll say “the magazine got boring” or “I don’t read it any more,” but she won’t really know why.

The reason is pretty simple: Even though the magazine’s mandate is, say, a running magazine that appeals to everyone from beginner to experienced (like Runner’s World), a new person in the editor’s chair will have a different opinion than the previous editor about what will appeal. Those two editors might like the same writers and they might like the same kind of articles. But they’ll put the articles in a different order, and sometimes that’s enough to chase readers away.

As I said, it’s really subtle.

In the sf field, Analog Science Fiction and Fact is going through this transition right now. Stanley Schmidt edited the magazine for 35 years, his tenure matching the magazine’s other longest tenured editor, the famous John W. Campbell. So, since 1978, Stan Schmidt has had the helm of one of the oldest and most respected magazines in the field.

Every sf writer seemed to think they knew what Stan wanted. I remember listening to Stan complain about that back when I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He’d often tell me that he would have bought one of the sf stories I had bought, but the author hadn’t sent it to him, thinking the story wasn’t “hard sf.”

“I get to decide that,” he would say.

Trevor Quachri, the new editor, now has the opportunity to make his mark, and it’s clear that some writers are sending Trevor stories that they would never have sent Stan. Trevor is buying them, and sprinkling them with the back inventory and old favorites.

Trevor has worked at the magazine for years now; he has similar tastes to Stan or he wouldn’t have been hired. But right now, Analog is in that transitional phase between two editorial voices. Trevor is finding his footing and dealing with the old expectations. In a year or so, a purely Trevor issue will appear, and in two years, he’ll relax enough to use his own voice clearly.

For a long-time student of short-form editing like me, it’s a clear example of the switchover. Because the issues are uneven—not because of the new editor, but because of the transition. The voice is muddled, one-third Stan, one-third reader expectation as interpreted by Trevor, one-third Trevor.

I’ve been there. I had almost two years of inventory to deal with when I arrived at the helm of F&SF. Some of those stories were brilliant, others were good but needed editing (in my never-humble opinion), and some were awful. Truly awful. They weren’t to my taste at all. Unlike my successor, Gordon Van Gelder, I didn’t insult the former editor and the writers whose stories had already been bought by sending the so-called awful stories and the needed-editing stories back to the authors for revision months after purchase. (Still rankles, can you tell?)

I respected Ed Ferman’s editorial point of view and his years of experience. If he thought those stories in that form were worthy of the pages of F&SF, then they were worthy. I wouldn’t buy stories similar to them in the future, but I would honor the commitment that the previous editor had already made.

(Some editors, back in the day, would make a stink about the inventory they had and return it, telling the author they could keep the money but the story wasn’t going to get published. Doing so also guaranteed that editor would never see another story by that writer again. I can name names in the sf field, but most of those things happened so long ago that both the editor and writers are dead, so there’s no point.)

I would mix the older stories with the newer ones, and if I had to publish one of the ones I considered awful, I’d do it with one of the stories I considered fantastic. I knew that the readers at that moment agreed with Ed, and so I’d get those older stories out of the way first.

I don’t know if Trevor’s doing that. I think he’s doing a tremendous job. The magazine is lively and readable and exciting again, and much as I’ve enjoyed reading it in the past, I’m really enjoying it right now.

I also know that at the moment, he’s dealing with hate mail and canceled subscriptions. Every new editor gets hazed like this from the readers. Some readers leave immediately, others write nasty nasty letters saying why they can’t stomach what the new editor is doing to the magazine.

I almost wrote one of those to the new editor of one of my favorite women’s magazines a few years ago, until I caught myself. She had turned a magazine about growing older as a woman into a health and fashion magazine, and I was furious. But I remembered that she might have had a mandate to do that when she got hired and that her taste would never be the same as the previous editor’s. I took my fingers off the keyboard.

Most readers don’t. There’s a personal relationship between us and what we read. We readers love our favorites with a white-hot passion. You need to have that white-hot passion whenever you subscribe to something.

Then someone new comes in and messes with your love.

My favorite hate-mail letter from my days at F&SF came from a long-time subscriber—male, obviously—who told me in utter seriousness that I could not edit because I did not have a penis. I spent days trying to figure out how male editors used their penis to improve their editing, and only came up with things that I’m sure the kind folks at The Grantville Gazette do not want me to write.

I’m sure Trevor is getting those letters (although not that letter), and things just like it. He’s been around the field long enough to know that’s part of the transition.

But I urge  you to take a look at Analog these days. I know you love sf. I know you love sf in the short form. Trevor’s stirring the pot in a good way. If you haven’t read an issue of Analog in, say, 34 years, then now’s the time to try it again.

And, the next time you feel like sending some poor new editor hate mail, promise me that you’ll do one of two things: Either you’ll give that editor time to settle in and then quietly cancel if you don’t like what she’s doing or write a memorable but ridiculous letter like the one above. That F&SF subscriber was serious—he meant every word, goofy as they were—but I’ve never forgotten what he said.

Although I’m still a bit puzzled about this facet of editing that I’m missing due to my biological heritage. I hope someday some male editor will explain it to me. Because I’ve been wondering since 1992.

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