From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Bantam editor Juliet Ulman

Juliet Ulman is a senior editor with Bantam Dell, where she has worked on such books as Living Next Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt, In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente, and The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson. Additionally, she has been responsible for bringing to the U.S. such books as M. John Harrison’s Light and Justina Robson’s Natural History, and she edited the Bantam editions of K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City and Jeff VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground and City of Saints and Madmen, all originally published by Prime Books.

Juliet Ulman

How did you first get involved in the world of publishing? What attracted you to it?

I actually began my career at the same company I work at now. My first real exposure to publishing was when I was hired as an editorial assistant at Bantam nine years ago — I did not do an internship or enter a publishing program like the Radcliffe program, I simply sent out resumes and crossed my fingers. Originally I’d planned to perhaps enter academia, and had originally been applying for fellowship programs at private schools before what seemed like the inevitable step to graduate school. At some point I realized that this plan was insane, and shifted my focus entirely. I considered what I was good at and what interested me, and like almost all editors I know, simply did the math that I both loved literature and that my natural skills were a good match for the field. Then I was basically lucky enough to be hired!

Have you always been a reader of science fiction and fantasy?

I read some scattered SF and Fantasy as a kid, and a bit during adolescence, but in fact I don’t have a particular early bond with the genre. I read very, very broadly from the moment that I could, and SFF was simply one of the many things I happened to read. I never self-identified as an SF fan, though I read a fair bit in the course of cramming myself with words of all sorts. Of course, once I committed to working in the field, I had to do (and am still doing) a tremendous amount of catch-up on the classics of the genre both well and lesser known.

Is there a classic work you’ve recently read that you loved?

I suppose it depends upon how you choose to define classic, but I really enjoyed Nova by Samuel Delany a couple of months back. I know the clever thing to say here would be Dhalgren, but to be perhaps too honest, I’m intimidated just enough that my copy seems to linger on the shelf when I’m grabbing paperbacks for the subway ride.

How is your work different when you are acquiring an unpublished manuscript versus acquiring, for instance, a book previously published in the U.K.?

It is substantially different. With an unpublished manuscript, I am involved from the ground up — working closely with the author on issues both large and small, addressing structural concerns, character issues, matters of plot, theme, and refining the language. When the book has been previously published, my role is far less intensive. If I purchase rights from the U.K. publishing company, my options are very limited, and I am essentially committed to taking the text as is. However, if I purchase U.S. rights from the author directly, I sometimes have a bit more leeway, even if the book has been previously published in the U.K. In several cases I’ve discussed the possibility of some additional refinements to the text for American publication with the author, and we’ve worked out minor concerns on the line and paragraph level — making changes here or there to adjust point-of-view matters (a big difference between U.K. and U.S. texts is often the treatment of POV) or logical inconsistencies, cleaning up some phrasings, trimming a bit or fleshing out a scene — minor adjustments that I think overall improve the flow and feel of the book without forcing the author to dramatically rework the text. Like moving a rock or two in a stream so that the water moves almost imperceptibly more smoothly. If the book was sold first in the U.K. but hasn’t yet been published, occasionally I’ve been privileged enough — as in the case of Alan Cambell’s Scar Night — to work in tandem with the British editor in refining the text so that the final manuscript is the same in both territories and reflects our combined efforts.

How is point of view handled differently in the U.K. than in the U.S.?

I find that point of view is significantly more flexible in the U.K. U.K. authors tend not to keep the third-person POV as tight as is typical in American writing, and often deliberately jump from character to character within chapters, scenes, and occasionally paragraphs as a stylistic device. It’s often handled very well, but can occasionally be confusing or just subtly offputting to an American reader (who may not even immediately identify what is bothering them about the narrative). I’ll frequently ask a U.K. author if it’s all right for me to subtly tidy up some of the POV shifts just so that we’re consistent within the scene or within the moment.

Regarding point of view in general, I don’t mind a bit of shifting to serve the narrative, but in my opinion, it should be at a clear breaking point within the scene and there must be a reason to change perspectives (beyond just “let’s see what this character thinks about it”). The worst example I ever saw was changing POV characters at times sentence-to-sentence and occasionally within a sentence, which was not only tremendously confusing, but was a real example of what we mean by “head-hopping” for convenience. The author intended to provide a broad view of all of the action and emotional entanglements, and instead came across as too lazy to do the work to flesh out and delineate the characters without providing windows directly into their thought processes, and too insecure to let the characters be interpreted (and possibly incorrectly or uncharitably) by the reader without having every emotion and response spelled out in detail.

That is not a book we published, by the way.

What skills does an editor need?

Oh my lord. All sorts? Okay, I’m going to try to talk about some skills that may be less obvious.

A lot of people might assume that the first thing would be obsessive attention to detail and crazy grammar skills, but in fact, this is not entirely true. To address the latter, obviously a good relationship with language is necessary. However, most editors will tell you truthfully that often we don’t necessarily even know the names of the grammatical rules that cause us to mark various things on your manuscript. A lot of that is really just an natural editorial inclination combined with intense familiarity with structure and rhythm built upon years and years of reading, rather than being able to recite the rules backwards and forwards. We’ll often know something is wrong just from looking at it, but not necessarily be able to explain exactly why. Sometimes I actually have to look things up so that I can properly justify my gut reaction! Also, honestly, we have (wonderful, underappreciated) copyeditors. I am a clever girl, but it’s not my job to rake over every piece of punctuation with a fine-toothed comb. You must be good, yes, but it’s not necessary to be infallible. I find that outside of the industry, many people seem to think that editors function as copyeditors — correcting grammar & spelling & factual errors. I do do this, of course, but what I really get paid for is structural work. Far more important, and often overlooked in discussions of “what makes a good editor” is the ability to see the big picture. An editor needs to be able to address the manuscript as a whole, and not get lost in minutiae, failing to see the forest for the trees. You’ve got to be able to look at the thing as a tapestry and spot not only what the picture should really be, but which threads must be tugged or cut to get there. It’s my job to help the author create the best book he or she can, and sometimes that means looking in to find the book they actually meant to write.

On a related note, I find that an essential skill as an editor is the ability to accurately judge the author’s capabilities and flexibility. You have to know both what an author is capable of really doing in revisions — are you asking too much? Will he or she be capable of small adjustments but lost if it comes down to rethinking the book? — and also what an author is willing to do. Sometimes I’ve had a pleasant surprise when pushing an author past what he or she thought was possible, and other times, I’ve just had to learn when to let go.

In the larger sense, I think that an editor must be secure in his or her vision to be effective. It’s easy to get batted about by the market and by other people’s successes (or your failures) and begin to doubt your own judgment, or get caught up in mimicry. It can be a very odd job, in that a lot of what you do relies heavily on one person’s opinion — there are, of course, other people involved, but the editor is the point person. You become the arbiter for what gets bought and how it’s packaged and how the copy is written, etc., plus the overall tone and approach of the list. You need to have a firm sense of self and conviction in what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Being wishy-washy and constantly deferring to other people doesn’t help the books, and it doesn’t help an editor establish the necessary authority in-house. No editor should be an island, but you are going to have to go out on a limb and take chances to accomplish anything truly meaningful — so you’ve got to have the fortitude to make those choices.

Finally, I think that the value of cooperation and inter-personal relationships is often given short shrift. Many people enter into Editorial (as I did!) thinking that they’ll be holed in their little garrets all day with a manuscript, dealing only with the written word. It’s a marvelous fantasy for bookish introverts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is there a lot of paperwork and daily operations stuff to deal with, but of course there’s socializing and networking as well — agent lunches and conventions and cocktail parties, etc. You must also operate smoothly within the house. You must be able to maintain good relationships with the other departments and be able to cooperate and communicate effectively. You can have the best editor in the land as far as the text is concerned, but it will do you no good if he or she is locked in a pitched battle with Production, gets in screaming matches with Publicity, can’t communicate with Art, and never turns Marketing’s ad mockups around on time. Having a vision does not mean being a jackass.

What differentiates a book that you want to work on from one that is perhaps good but not something you want to spend time with?

Ah, now that’s a very good question. As best I can explain it, it’s like the difference between someone you want very badly to date, and someone you want to be friends with — there’s an intangible chemistry. With a book that is clearly well-constructed and interesting but leaves me with no inclination to acquire it, I can see on paper why it works — and often even anticipate that it will be very successful — but I just don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about it. On the other hand, a book that is right up my alley may be obviously difficult to sell, hard to categorize, an obvious challenge to make a profit on — but it leaves me feeling excited and energized, and can literally makes my heart race. And a really “me” book feels like an intense crush, illuminating and electric — like it was written just for me. I become infatuated. I have butterflies in my stomach, and I want to tell all of my friends about it. I can hardly think straight until I have acquired it. (Or at least tried to!)

I’ve occasionally acquired projects that were good, but just didn’t flip that switch for me, and I feel it always ends in disappointment. Without that fire, I can’t be a truly passionate advocate for the project — and I’m not good at doing things half way. Also, you have to remember that in most cases I’m going to be working very closely with the text. If you don’t love the book, not only does it become a chore to go through the process of extensive revisions (as my colleague Anne always says: I’m going to have to read it atminimum 4-5 times, I’d better damn well like it), but it’s hard to find that clarity of vision that helps you see your way through to exactly how best to serve the text.

I always hope that explanations like this may help authors understand — when an editor says that he or she just didn’t “click” with a manuscript that is perfectly well-written, there’s really something to that. We’re not just making it up.

How much do you have to consider marketing when you decide to acquire a manuscript? If you love a book, but know it will be difficult to find an audience for, what do you do?

Pray.

In seriousness, there is a difference between a somewhat difficult and a Sisyphean task. My problem is that I have to get out a certain number of copies, or it’s simply not worth our starting up the presses, due to cost-per-unit and (more importantly) the tremendous amount of operating expenses we have to cover. If it’s difficult, but I think there’s a chance that I can make it work, I’ll take it on and aggressively campaign in-house to get support behind it. I give copies of the manuscript to Sales, Marketing, Publicity, everyone who gets within a 3-foot radius. I harass certain sales representatives to make the time to take a look at it well in advance. I send it out for blurbs — the effectiveness of pre-publication blurbs in the marketplace can be debated, but they are definitely effective in getting my publisher to take notice. I discuss different promotional tacks we could take with Marketing and how to tweak our usual publicity efforts with Publicity. It involves a lot more work for everyone than a more straightforward project and is not always successful, but in my opinion the key stepping stone to giving an unusual book a chance is always the work an editor does in-house with his/her colleagues to get them to understand and appreciate the book.

If I think that it’s a great book, but realistically I couldn’t hope to sell more than a couple thousand copies, that’s not a book I can do — that’s a book that is best suited to a small press and will be a solid success there, rather than with me, where those sales would be viewed as an abysmal failure.

In terms of considering marketing issues before acquisition, once we’re past the question of if it’s doable for us, then I have to look at why I am acquiring it beyond just my own special love for the project. I need to have a clear idea of who the audience will be before I walk into my publisher’s office and ask her for money to make an offer — I need to be thinking ahead to how I am going to position it and who (and how many of them) we’re going to sell it to. Sometimes I hear aspiring authors freaking out that publishers insist upon a “platform” from which to launch a book before they’ll consider buying — in fiction, this is not really true. Of course we love it if you have a built-in audience or otherwise bring something special to the table that will make it easier for us to sell your books, but good writing is good writing. If I love it and I think I can sell it, then I’ll make a move to acquire it. It’s very simple. The key is thinking I can sell it — and thinking I can sell it means having an idea of how I would sell it — that’s where the idea that editors are always thinking about marketing comes in. If I don’t have any idea how I would market it, I have no business putting my company’s money down for it.

What upcoming books have you been working on?

Right now I am working on Fall 2007 books, so I am (very belatedly!) working on edits on Christopher Barzak’s debut novel, One for Sorrow, an absolutely haunting coming of age story that is a bit like Catcher in the Rye meets the afterlife. I’m also in the midst of the first in Tim Pratt’s new urban fantasy series, a really fun magic-based adventure called Blood Engines — definitely not your same old vampires+werewolves+sex number. I’ve got two U.K. books coming up that I can’t wait for — End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Nova Swing by M. John Harrison — but to be fair, I’m really not doing any major editorial work on either. I’m just too much of a fangirl not to mention them.

We obviously work far ahead, so in terms of things that are actually immediately forthcoming: I recently finished work on the aforementioned Scar Night, a dark steampunk epic fantasy with airships and angels and assassins and undead armies and arrrgh! (it’s serious fun), and on Eliot Fintushel’s insane and fabulous Breakfast with the Ones You Love, a crazy girl-meets-boy-gets-chased-by- the-Russian-mob-builds-a-spaceship-opens-the-gates-of-Eden that fills me with ridiculous joy. We also finished work on the concluding volume of Tony Ballantyne’s excellent trilogy (Recursion, Capacity, Divergence) — which is, coincidentally, one of those U.K. books that I’ve done additional work on post-U.K. publication. I really enjoyed working on that trilogy and watching the process of how he’s developed the whole arc — Tony just gets stronger and weirder, and goes further and further into the big ideas and scary places of science fiction with each book. The first book was relatively normal, and by the third, it’s nearly off the chart. It was a real joy to see a writer really stretch like that, to watch the story expand before my eyes.

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