Editor-Consultant Juliet Ulman on Publishing, Editing, and SF/Fantasy Literature
Unless you've been on vacation without access to the Internet for the last year, you know that traditional New York-based commercial publishers have faced some daunting challenges due to a changing landscape and outdated business models. Unfortunately, the casualties of this situation have included several uniquely gifted editors. One such editor was Bantam Spectra's Juliet Ulman, who now runs Paper Tyger, a consulting firm.
Over a period of a decade at Bantam, Ulman carved out a reputation as an editor who took chances and published high-quality science fiction and fantasy, usually in trade paperback. In addition to providing a safe home for my own books in the North American market, Ulman published M.J. Harrison's award-winning Light, Crawford Award-winner K.J. Bishop's The Etched City, two well-received novels by Christopher Barzak, phenom Catherynne M. Valente's Orphan's Tales duology, the first work by the talented Felix Gilman, Tim Pratt's urban fantasy, and much more. Attention to detail, precision, a fierce passion for the fiction she edited, and thinking outside of the box were just some of Ulman's attributes while working for Bantam Spectra. Gilman remembers in particular her "ingenuity, acuity, tact and good humour."
"She never let me get away with being lazy or taking the easy way out," says Pratt, whose Blood Engines recently went into a fifth printing. "I'd always heard that editors these days don't really edit, that they just acquire, but Juliet put the lie to that cliche. She showed me how to be a better writer, and I did my best to write books that wouldn't just satisfy her, but actually impress her."
According to Bishop, "Ulman strengthened my own internal editor and made me better able to see a work from a reader's point of view. I also appreciated her involvement with the cover and marketing. I think she has a lot of knowledge about how to target a book towards the right readers."
Given the situation in publishing today, Ulman's role in championing innovative fiction, and her new role as a consultant and freelance editor, it seemed appropriate to ask her about her stint at Bantam and her thoughts about the future of the industry...
Amazon.com: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the highlights of your career at Bantam?
Juliet Ulman: It's difficult for me to single out any particular highlights without feeling that I'm giving short shrift to the broad swath of rewarding experiences I had during my eleven years with the company--but I'll try to pinpoint a few. Most of my favorite memories involve particularly thorny or involved edits, but one experience stands out to me that involved no editing at all, and that was bringing M. John Harrison's novel Light into print in the U.S. My mentor Anne Groell once told me that one of the most rewarding experiences she ever had as an editor was bringing a book she had loved when she was younger back into print, so that other readers could experience the same wonder that she had...For me, that story is M. John Harrison. He had never really worked in the U.S., and everyone "knew" that he couldn't be sold here--and as a result, this fantastic, astonishing, award-winning book was sequestered in the U.K., known here only to a few core fans who had bought the U.K. edition as an import. Light is very much a love-it or hate-it book...and I loved it. It is brilliant and challenging and wondrously alien, and it deserved to be published. And when no one else would publish that book, we made it work--and as a result thousands of readers who did not know Harrison's name before were introduced to a work that I consider one of the best science fiction novels ever written. That was a fine moment as an editor , the gift of being able to bring something to light that ought to be seen.
On the other end of that spectrum is something like my experience editing someone like Christopher Barzak or Barth Anderson, which to me stand out as examples of extremely intense and rewarding editorial experiences, and one of the reasons that editors get out of bed in the morning to do what we do. I love really getting down deep into the meat of a novel with an author, gnawing on the bones of the text together, and Christopher and Barth's books were deeply enjoyable in this regard. We went back and forth constantly, brainstorming and talking through the plot, separating the wheat from the chaff, cutting off false paths, uncovering what we agreed was the real heart and rhythm of each book. It was exhilarating. In the end, I believe both authors ultimately found the books that they had been searching for, that they had meant and hoped to write--and words cannot adequately describe how tremendously fulfilling that moment of cohesion is for an editor. It is one of the best feelings I have known.
Amazon.com: What kind of public role do you think an editor should have?
Juliet Ulman: I think that the image of an editor as a silent figure holed up in a garret somewhere, unseen and unheard, like some sort of magical stage hand, is outdated. For good or for ill, editors are the best known representatives of the publishing house to the authors of the world, and without authors, publishers are nothing. I believe that for too long terrifying visions of overflowing inboxes have kept editors behind a curtain, afraid to interact more openly with the audience. Further, publishing houses have discouraged editors from claiming a public role, concerned about losing control of the corporate voice. But who in the house can speak most honestly and effectively as to why a particular title is being published? Who has a better sense of the philosophy behind the list, and who can best articulate the core values of an imprint and give these vast corporate entities a human voice? The editors help shape the identity of a publishign house, and can be a valuable asset in forming the public face of that house. I would love to see more editors engaged in conversation with their readership--and more houses involving their editors in the creation and maintenance of the company's official dialogue with that audience.
Publishing in general has for a long time been focused on static marketing: build a web page, they will come; put up a profile, they will view it; publish a book, they will find it, etc. But the dynamic of the market is changing, and consumers expect more of an interactive relationship. Don't just put up an online catalogue and be done with it--get your editors involved in giving life to the voice that represents your company, that represents your books. Profile the people behind the books, give them shape and subsstance. Give them a platform to communicate. People are looking for something to grab onto in the vast sea of publications--not only will readers follow a publisher or an imprint that they have learned to trust, but the editor, too, represents a certain taste and approach. Readers who learn to trust a certain editor will follow those books, relying on the editor's name as a barometer for a certain affinity in reading material.
Amazon.com: What do you think is the hardest part of an editor's job?
Juliet Ulman: The hardest part for me was always to watch a book fail to succeed as I believed it should, due to a confluence of various factors, many of which were entirely beyond my control or the author's. It never hurts any less.
Amazon.com: What gives you the most pleasure as an editor--what keeps you going?
Juliet Ulman: The answer to this is everywhere within my responses in the rest of this interview--I am madly, passionately in love with the editorial process. I love that flutter in the chest when I discover a manuscript that feels as if it was written just for me, I love the shimmering moment when it feels as if we've gotten the package of a book exactly right, I love the excited clamor of conversation when someone has read a book on my list and loved it just as much as I do, I love the wearied cheerful cameraderie of editors everywhere, but more than all of these things I love the joyful, arduous, illuminating process of working on a manuscript with the author. I don't like to simply read, I like to work.
Amazon.com: How are you a stronger editor now than you were five years ago?
Juliet Ulman: I believe that one of the most obvious developments that an editor goes through is in the depth of his or her relationship with the text. When we wee fledgling editors first begin, we are often making the trepidatious shift from analyzing canonical texts (oh those bright college years...) to taking a more active role. It can take a while before an editor is entirely comfortable viewing the manuscript before him or her as malleable, as something to be shaped and transformed rather than merely polished and decorated. Earlier in my career I think my big-picture vision had yet to catch up entirely to my abilities as a line-editor, and I spent much more time making minute adjustments to the course already set by the author. Now, I am much more keen to move beneath the skin to the bones beneath, to feel the book's pulse with my hands rather than my eyes. You learn things in there, you can feel the true heart of the narrative, and from there you and the author can work to build the book on that center--rather than trying to shape the heart to suit the manuscript.
Amazon.com: What advice would you give for someone who wants to become an editor?
Juliet Ulman: Look into becoming a CPA. I hear it's a very stable profession. Alas, for many of us editing is just as much a calling as writing is for the people we work with. Personally I cannot imagine doing anything else. It is a very, very grim time in publishing at the moment--but there have always been grim times. I would advise them to broaden their base of experience as much as possible, and to let go of any illusion that they will be secluded in a quiet world of letters, alone with the text in some bookish fantasy. Marketing, posittioning, packaging, outreach--these are all vastly important in the production of any book these days, and I would encourage people not to look at these aspects as "enemies" of their perceived role, but part and parcel of the entire experience. Embrace the opportunity to expand your horizons, to become involved in every element of the publication process--to "make" a book from the ground up.
Amazon.com: Where do you think the publishing industry will be in two or three years? Any predictions?
Juliet Ulman: I think it's premature to be sounding the dealth knell for traditional publishing just yet; however, the landscape is changing. It is certainly true that in these times of economic upheaval, the larger publishers are not just tightening their belts, but also becoming even more concerned with escaping the unpredictability of success. I believe we are going to see (and have already seen the first suggestions of) a hopefully temporary shift back towards the "basics" upon which many houses were built, and acquisitions will become more conservative both in scope and in cost. This retraction leaves the field open for the independent publishers, many of whom are flourishing where other larger beasts are floundering because they are more nimble and more focused, serving a smaller, carefully targeted market rather than trying to reach all consumers, and serving that market with dedication and alacrity. I think of the large houses as ocean liners--their weight and bulk makes it easier to disperse pressures evenly across the ship, and they are less immediately affected by the sharp lifts and falls of the market, but that same solidity renders them slower and and difficult to turn. It's a trade-off. I think that people are frightened that the market will contract and harden, becoming an impossible playing field for the unusual or unproven, but I don't think that this is entirely the case. I think that you will certainly see this kind of contraction from the umbrella houses of publishing, and a fair bit of trimming the fat to stay afloat, but those imprints that have branded themselves successfully and are quick to move with the winds and embrace the changes in both our economy and our society will find their feet. I expect that rather than dying out, the independent press will be the fertile ground from which a new vision of How Publishing Works will emerge.