Five Years a Geek
5 years ago
I was one of the lucky ones.
A bachelor’s degree in English is not notoriously a career qualification (there’s a whole song devoted to the fact). There’s academia, of course, or teaching (my initial plan, which didn’t survive uni); and English degrees serve as jumping-off points for unrelated careers, like law or politics. But actual jobs in word-wrangling are like hen’s teeth. It’s basically just journalism or publishing, and those are traditionally fields where a huge number of candidates battle fiercely for a small number of jobs on miserable salaries.
So, naturally, nine years after leaving university, with a modestly successful career in events and technology in the banking sector (because of course), I decided to pack it all in and become an editor. That should be easy, right?
But I got lucky. I got into Rebellion Publishing just as it took over the Solaris imprint from Black Library, beating down more than a hundred and forty other candidates for the junior editorial role, based almost entirely on my winning personality and on a powerful hypnosis gun developed by the CIA for interrogating super-criminals.
And I've never looked back. Five years – and, at a very rough guess, nine million words – later, I'm the commissioning editor for a punky, edgy midlist imprint I’m hugely proud to be steering and representing, I've learned skills I never imagined I’d need, and I’ve become part of a huge community of wonderful, neurotic, spirited, diverse and brilliant people.
That said, here are five things I've learned in five years being a professional word-nerd:
We really are the bad guys.
I wasn’t really prepared for this – possibly because, while I've always written, in a hobbyish sort of way, I’d never really tried to make a living from it – but some people out there really hate us. I went to a writers’ con a few years back (the excellent alt.fiction, in Derby), and in some of the panels, the vitriol from the audience – and questions like “So how long do you think it’ll take ebooks to kill publishing?” – got slightly alarming. The sheer volume and intensity of the Hachette/Amazon thing may have seemed startling, but really it just tapped into something that’s been there for years.
It’s understandable, if you've been knocked back enough times, and I totally appreciate that I’m in the hugely privileged position of pulling down a monthly salary instead of scraping by on advances and royalties, but it was... eye-opening.
Writers can be some of the best – and worst – people to work with.
Long before I became a professional editor, I was a sort of de facto one. I was everyone’s one guy you send things to to make sure they’re spelled right. Bosses would ask me to read emails, friends would send me their CVs. And I got to learn that most people don’t want editing, aside from a very light spelling and grammar check. They want to be told that their writing’s fine by someone who should know.
At their worst, that habit carries over into a writer’s professional writing career. I've had writers fight me over every change, demand extra passes, cling desperately to their darlings, profess to having been driven to tears (or drink), and demand to be assigned a different editor (or to be assigned to me from another editor). You listen patiently, you try and show your reasoning, you negotiate, and – ultimately – you let them have their way, because it’s their name on the cover. Editing is a collaboration.
But the vast – vast – majority of authors are a delight. They want to be edited; they want their work to be the best it can, and the closer and more brutal an edit I give them, the happier they are. I’ve had veterans of upwards of forty books singing my praises for excoriating their work, and new writers thanking me for helping them learn their craft. It’s absolutely bloody wonderful, and as long as it’s the majority I’m happy I’m doing it right.
This can be a pretty cynical industry.
(Some my personal experience; some related to me by friends and peers.)
“Can we have an exploding spaceship on it? People buy books with exploding spaceships on them.”
“The readers won’t get this from the title. Can you put a vampire on the cover?”
“Is this more like Terry Pratchett or Joe Abercrombie? For the tagline.”
“Make the covers look like George Martin books. Make it easier for them.”
“Add another male character. We need to appeal to the core male market.”
Nobody knows what’s coming up.
“Zombies are over.”
“No, steampunk's over.”
“Vampires are over, mummies are next.”
“Post-apoc’s over, it’s child spies now.”
“Space opera’s over, it’s transhumanism next year.”
“Epic fantasy’s still in, but it needs to be by a person of colour.”
“No, epic fantasy’s over, it’s grimdark now.”
“No, grimdark’s dead, it’s political fantasy.”
You guys are the best.
Alright, gushy moment. But having spent a decade having to have a nerdy, flamboyant private persona and a (somewhat) more serious work persona, it’s been such a relief coming here. Publishers, writers, agents and community folk are bright, creative, intensely neurotic, interested in science and technology, hugely politically and socially aware, progressive, diverse, welcoming, relaxed, and engaged in an extraordinary mix of hobbies: my Facebook feed, at present, includes articles on historical martial arts, crochet patterns, cupcake recipes, Fermi’s Paradox, punctuation and grammar, bunnies, medieval manuscripts, politics, copyright law and mathematics. Every day’s an education.
A really odd education.
p.s.: The Munsters pics was Lydia’s idea. No, I don’t know either.