Friday, August 1, 2008

Moving house

I've moved! My posts on speculative fiction publishing and reviewing will now be hosted at Genreville. You can subscribe to the RSS feed here. It's syndicated on LiveJournal as well. See you there!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Monday... er, Tuesday roundup: SF&F focus issue!

Monday Tuesday roundup, as today is kind of a do-over Monday for me (and apparently lots of other people as well).

This week's issue of PW is our annual fantasy & science fiction focus issue, so we've got a boatload of interesting stuff. My fellow editor Peter Cannon has an article on the history of alternate history, Scott Connors discusses the politics of military SF, and Cherie Priest finds that Baen Books is recovering well from Jim Baen's death. Over in reviews section, we have reviews of Marie Brennan's Midnight Never Come (starred), Judith Tarr's Bring Down the Sun, Fiona McIntosh's Goddess, Paul L. Bates's Dreamer, and Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Mercy, as well as Patti O'Shea's In Twilight's Shadow in the mass market section. Finally, over in blog-land, I have a post following up last week's discussion of series with a taxonomy of series readers. Whew! Good times.

Do let me know what you think of the articles in particular; it's not too soon to start planning next year's focus issue. I've already got a mental note to see about adding horror to the genre list.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Seen in today's Ansible:

"A Games Workshop mole reports sweeping cuts in their publishing arm after a poor Christmas for games sales. Marc Gascoigne, founder of the imprints Solaris (sf/fantasy) and Black Library (game ties), is now on 'gardening leave' with redundancy expected to follow. BL seems safe but the future of Solaris is less certain."

Anyone know anything about this? It's news to me.

Monday... er, Tuesday roundup

Monday Tuesday roundup! Apparently I struck a nerve with my latest blog entry for Notes from the Bookroom, in which I scold lazy series authors for making new readers work too hard. Lots of animated discussion going on over there; come join in!

Reviewed in the SF/F/H section of this week's PW: Thomas E. Sniegoski's A Kiss Before the Apocalypse, Maurice G. Dantec's Cosmos Incorporated, Katharine Kerr's The Shadow Isle, and the genre-bending anthologies Sideways in Crime (ed. Lou Anders) and Best Fantastic Erotica (ed. Cecilia Tan). Haven't had a chance to look for stealth specfic in the other sections, so if you spot any, let me know.

Work's been keeping me very busy. I've got a huge stack of July books, a smaller stack of August titles, and even a few Septembers. Our new layout offers new opportunities for bringing attention to SF/F/H titles, so I've been keeping an eye out for titles that warrant boxes and other special treatment, as well as lining up Q&As and author profiles. Needless to say, I'm enjoying this all tremendously. April 16th will be my anniversary at PW and I can barely believe it's been a whole year. I don't think I've ever been this happy at a job a year in. It's fabulous.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Words not to use

this list of the "seven deadly words of book reviewing" is entertaining (though I do use "eschew" in conversation, thank you very much) but the real gold is in the comments. "The 'much-anticipated debut.' By whom? The author’s landlord?" Wha-pow! And indeed, many of the offending terms mentioned there are frequent victims of my red pen. Fortunately all my reviewers know better than to use "limn".

Monday, March 24, 2008

Monday roundup

Monday roundup, a bit late because I am moving very slowly today due to not much sleep.

On Notes from the Bookroom, I grouse about the cover for Charles Stross's Saturn's Children. I try to maintain a professional demeanor over there, so I deleted the paragraph in which I suggested the art had been done in a couple of hours with ray-tracing software and then turned in without the all-important final pass to add detail. Also, the legs of the woman "femmebot" on the cover are about three times the length of her torso and each thigh is about the same diameter as her waist. I have absurdly long legs for my height--Josh and I both wear a 30" inseam, but he's 5'8" and I'm 5'4"--so I know what long-legs-and-short-torso proportions look like. They do not look like that. Not even on futuristic indestructible sex robots.

This week's reviews include Lawrence Watt-Evans's The Summer Palace, Laura Anne Gilman's Free Fall (starred, and you can see her response here), Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Two (I wish publishers would put the actual year in the titles of their YBs, rather than the volume number), and Jeff Somers's The Digital Plague.

I really will write up some books here soon; I even have them set aside to write about. I just haven't had the spare time or energy. Speaking of which, I'm off to bed early tonight. (For me, 11:30 p.m. is a good three and a half hours earlier than usual.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A book with an orchid on the cover

Sometimes reviewing can seem a little stuffy and boring. Sometimes poetry can seem a little stuffy and boring. Sometimes poetry reviewing can seem, well, really stuffy and boring.

Other times you get to label John Updike's homage to fellatio "perhaps the worst poem ever written on any subject" and "bad by cosmic design", or describe W.H. Auden's pseudo-anonymous rhyming ode to picking strangers up for a quick blowjob as "Like a Penthouse Forum letter, except in lively verse, and with no women. It's sort of great, and also sort of cheesy and awful, and also occasionally hilarious."

The entire Auden poem is at that second link. It is not safe for work, and it is really really not safe for brain. It is some of the worst poetry--and the worst porn--I have ever read. I couldn't stop laughing. Enjoy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday roundup

Today on Notes from the Bookroom, I write about the blurry line between YA and adult fiction. This week's reviews include Charlaine Harris's From Dead to Worse (starred), Craig DiLouie's The Great Planet Robbery, Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon's Mind the Gap, Jennifer Fallon's The Immortal Prince, and Walter Mosley's The Tempest Tales, as well as Karen Chance's Embrace the Night in the mass market section and Susan Hubbard's The Year of Disappearances and Megan Chance's The Spiritualist in fiction.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I do not think it means what you think it means

A reviewer used the word "interstitiality" in a review the other day, and our lovely copyeditor flagged it: "Readers will know what this means? (Awfully academic word.) Or are following descriptions sufficient explanation?" The review goes on to describe one story as "equal parts fantasy, coming-of-age tale and unconventional ghost story" and says another "wraps social commentary in sardonic science fiction".

Am I too steeped in criticism? Is "interstitiality" an obscure term that will confound our readers, who do after all work in publishing and bookbuying and presumably stay hip to current subgenres and trends? Or is it a perfectly useful and appropriate word, especially with the added context?

While I'm on the topic, today's blog post over at Notes from the Bookroom inaugurates International Reviewer Appreciation Day, March 21st. In the reviews section, we have reviews of The Inhabitant's The Great Romance, John C. Wright's Null-A Continuum, Brian Lumley's Haggopian and Other Stories, Ken Rand's Pax Dakota, and Melissa Melinda Snodgrass's The Edge of Reason, as well as a review of Jacquelyn Frank's Damien: The Nightwalkers in the mass market section and the suspiciously genre-esque Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst in the fiction section.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Reviewers wanted

The PW YA/children's reviews editor mentioned to me that she could use a few new reviewers, and I said I knew lots of people who would probably be delighted to apply. If you think that sounds like fun, please email the following to with "Children's/YA reviewer application" in the subject line:

1) A sample review in PW style, preferably of a recent children's or YA book we haven't reviewed.
2) A list of your favorite contemporary children's and/or YA authors: that is to say, show your knowledge of who's writing and getting published right now. That section covers everything from board books to novels for teens, so anything in there is fine.
3) A very brief bio, if you want to include one. Prior reviewing or professional writing experience isn't necessary.

I'm sure more people will apply than she can use, but she said she'd be thrilled to have names on file. I have no idea what the payscale is. We usually expect a book to be read and reviewed within two weeks of receipt. U.S. residents only, please, as international shipping is prohibitively expensive. Feel free to pass this along to anyone you know who might be interested. No deadline.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Monday roundup

I've got a new post up at Notes from the Bookroom, wherein I assert that not all publicists are a bunch of idiots.

Reviewed in this week's PW: Robert Silverberg's Something Wild is Loose, Eric Brown's Kethani, Alan Campbell's Iron Angel, John Farris's Avenging Fury, and Lois McMaster Bujold's Passage, as well as Graham Masterton's The 5th Witch in the mass market section.

Monday, February 25, 2008

First post!

Now that I have delivered a strict smackdown to PW's blogging software (which, among other things, appears to timestamp in some other time zone), my first post on Notes from the Bookroom is up.

While I'm on the topic, this week's PW includes reviews of Tim Lebbon's Fallen, C.E. Murphy's The Queen's Bastard, Catherynne M. Valente's A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, Allen Steele's Galaxy Blues, Pamela Freeman's Blood Ties, and Jack Ketchum's Only Child, as well as notes on the Subterranean special edition of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Douglas A. Anderson's Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Back from the dead

Now that everything is official, I can reveal the reason I needed to briefly cocoon this blog: I'm now blogging for Publishers Weekly, contributing a weekly post to Notes from the Bookroom. Keep an eye out for my pontifications, which I will post every Monday afternoon starting February 25th. Those of you on LiveJournal can befriend the RSS feed here; the rest of you can get it through Feedburner here.

Since most of my PW-related content will be appearing over there, this blog will focus more on my literary adventures: judging awards, attending conventions and readings, pondering about reading and writing, and discussing the few books I actually manage to read.

I will also keep pimping my PW work, of course. This week, check out Paul Allen's great interview with Paolo Bacigalupi. It got trimmed from the magazine at the last minute, so I'm delighted to see it up on the site (and currently the "top story" on the front page!). Still in the magazine: reviews of Orson Scott Card's Keeper of Dreams, Jim Butcher's Small Favor, Ellen Datlow's The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Robert Asprin's Dragons Wild, and David Zindell's Lord of Lies in the SF/F/H section. I didn't spot anything SFnal in the Fiction or Mass Market sections this week, but if I missed something, let me know.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Changes afoot

The time has come for this blog to spin its cocoon. In a few weeks it will be reborn in a different form. Have no fear; the URL and RSS feed info will remain the same. There is no need to adjust your browser.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Tim Pratt mentioned that this week's PW gave his forthcoming novel, Poison Sleep, a very positive review.

That's weird, I thought, I don't remember that book at all, and I certainly think I'd have noticed it.

Some investigation revealed that as the book is a mass market release, it was reviewed in our mass market section. While flipping through the magazine, I noticed that Barth Anderson and Karen Joy Fowler--both of whom I think of as speculative fiction authors--had books reviewed in the main fiction section this week. So why are they there, and not keeping company with Tim Powers, John Kessel, Peter F. Hamilton, Christopher Golden, and Kate Elliot in the SF/fantasy/horror section?

The answer is a bit complicated, because genre lines are blurry things and we also have to give a nod to publishers' preferences. If Anderson's book had been published under Bantam's Spectra imprint, it would have come to me. It was published under their main imprint, so it went to the fiction editors instead. Anderson's novel seems to have speculative elements, but the review describes it first and foremost as an "offbeat thriller"; thrillers are grouped with mainstream fiction. It's not clear from the review of Fowler's book whether there are any speculative aspects to it at all, though "the line between fiction and reality blurs" hints at the sort of metatextuality that characterizes, say, Jasper Fforde's work... which isn't considered speculative fiction either.

As for mass market vs. trade, there's been some very casual talk of reorganizing our sections so that mass market originals are covered side by side with trade paperback and cloth originals. I'm personally in favor of this. I'd like to see SF/F/H cover all SF/F/H, including the big names like Stephen King and Terry Pratchett who tend to wind up under fiction (by virtue of being bestsellers and therefore mainstream), as I'm firmly opposed to the ghettoization of genre fiction. I think romance should get its own section, since that's most of what gets covered under mass market, and I wouldn't argue with combining mysteries and thrillers into a single section, since there's tremendous audience overlap and the line between the two is very blurry.

Do I have any say in this? Not really! I don't think this sort of massive reorganization is likely to happen anytime soon, either. But it's nice to dream.

Incidentally, those interested in discussions of genres and subgenres may be interested in this discussion over at Jay Lake's place. There's some very interesting conversation going on there.

The New Yorker gets nerdy

I am thrilled to see how many of the Eustace Tilley contest finalists have some sort of science fiction, fantasy, or horror theme:

There are also plenty of math and science ones to make the nerds even happier:

My personal favorite is the homage to Basil Wolverton, a sporadic but brilliant contributor to the original Mad comic book (back before its reinvention as a magazine). Wolverton's work is magnificently horrendous and I'm thrilled to see his name getting some press, albeit thirty years after his death when it won't really do him much good.

Friday, February 1, 2008

A veritable flood

It's been a dry winter in New York, with our first snowless January in more than 70 years, but at least we got a temporary respite from the book drought today (along with some nasty freezing rain). Apparently the good folks at Tor wanted to send us all their May, June, and July titles at once, and we also got a handful of galleys from Eos, Five Star, and Subterranean. I'm now a bit less worried about the need for review rationing.

Planet Stories also sent us a package. It contains two finished copies of December titles (far too late to review or mention in notes, sadly) and a packet of Robert E. Howard tie-in tea promoting the forthcoming Almuric. I wish I had my camera here, because it sort of has to be seen to be believed. The label, which includes the appropriately gory and sensationalist cover image of the book, reads "Almuric Oolong Tea: An Interplanetary sensation that's out of this world!" On the back it says "Planet Stories: Brewed to Perfection!" (Capitalization as in the original.) My hat is doffed to the publicist who came up with that idea. What they did not include was a galley of Almuric itself, rendering the tea somewhat less useful for promotional purposes*, but it is certainly very useful for drinking purposes, and I plan to enjoy it.

Me: "They included very formal instructions. Warm up the pot with hot water, wake up the tea..."
Josh: "Crush the tea like the bones of your enemies! Steep three minutes with the lamentations of their women and children!"

Monday, January 28, 2008


Just submitted for review: John C. Wright's Null-A Continuum (Tor, May '08), a sequel to A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A.

I haven't looked inside the book itself, so I can't comment there. I'm just a bit croggled that it exists at all, though I suppose it's no surprise that if someone was going to have the chutzpah to "continue" one of the most influential books in the American SF canon, it would be Wright. The jacket copy claims that he "trained himself to write in the exciting pulp style and manner of van Vogt". What a terrifying statement. I'm not sure I can bring myself to read the book just yet; I'm very glad I have a reviewer I can assign it to instead, so I'll have a bit of warning.

I told Josh at Skifferati* about this and he asked, "Can you think of anyone who's written a sequel for a dead famous author that was worthwhile? Outside of fanfic**?" I had to think hard, and the only name I could come up with was Ruth Plumly Thompson. Pulp sequels in particular are really the written SF world's equivalent of Hollywood remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still.

* Who also happens to be my husband.
** I think that in this case, the only distinction between "fanfic" and "not fanfic" is whether it's a) authorized or based on notes by the original author and b) being published on paper.

I haven't read Kevin J. Anderson's Slan Hunter, though our reviewer thought it was decent; that would be a natural point of comparison, but Anderson was working from van Vogt's notes, whereas Wright appears to have created this from whole cloth. At least I'm fairly sure that it can't be worse than the recent multi-author sequel to The Witches of Karres (or at least the first few pages of it, which is all I managed to get through before putting it back on the bookstore shelf and backing away).

Of course, the point isn't so much to outdo other sequels as to equal the original. It's also unfair to demand that it be as mind-blowing and groundbreaking as The World of Null-A was in 1949; it seems more honest to see whether Null-A Continuum can match the effect of the original on a present-day reader. I find Wright's novels contorted and stilted at best, but they are admittedly contorted and stilted in a way that's not all that far from the style of the pulp era's unpolished gems, and while van Vogt's writing has aged pretty well, there are a lot of places where someone familiar with the evolution of SF in the last sixty years would find it tired, predictable, or inane. I suppose at some point I'll just have to reread The World of Null-A and then see whether Wright's sequel does at least a good a job of standing up under modern critical examination. Hopefully framing it in those terms will sufficiently reduce my expectations. Hopefully.

A little something extra

Spec fic fans, this week's PW is for you. On top of eight SF/F/H reviews (scroll two thirds of the way down) and the usual notes, I managed to wedge in a signature review (scroll all the way down) by Jeff VanderMeer of Ekaterina Sedia's anthology Paper Cities--the first SF/F/H signature review in PW ever, as far as I can tell--and a Q&A with Iain M. Banks. I got so enthusiastic that the Powers That Be had to tell me to calm down a little and leave room for contributions from other sections, so this is probably the last time you'll see two such SF/F/H-related items in a single issue of the magazine (other than our annual SF/F/H issue, of course). Don't miss it! Run, don't walk, to your bookstore or newsstand and grab a copy, or follow those links and read it all on our website for free.

Friday, January 25, 2008

In the spotlight

The special science fiction/fantasy/horror issue of Publishers Weekly comes out April 7th. It's not too early to think about what should be in it. I don't have much say over the news articles, but I can certainly suggest some features.

O loyal readers, what would you like to see in that issue? Feel free to promote yourself or your friends, or talk about areas that you think don't get enough attention, or mention big news or notable trends from genre publishing in the past year (because I have a terrible memory for that sort of thing), or tell me what you think is boring and overdone and not worth covering. All ideas welcome. If you see an idea you like in someone else's comments, tell me that too, so I can get a sense of what The People want. And please do pass the link around and blog about it. The more input I get on this, the better!

Publishers interested in advertising in that issue should note that the deadline for reservations is March 27th. All the info on advertising is here.

(For those reading via the RSS feed on LJ, remember to click through and comment on the original post; I won't see comments on the LJ feed.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

How I do PW stuff, part 6: choosing reviewers

We're back! Thanks for your patience during the week of radio silence. Next time I'll try to bring in a guest blogger to keep you entertained.

A commenter asked how I choose my reviewers, a question I rarely get (except in the form of "Can I review for you?"). Most of my reviewers were inherited from the previous SF/F/H editor, who had several years to find really good writers and mostly weed out the really poor ones. I didn't really like the style of a few of his reviewers, so I showed them the door and went about replacing them with my friends.

Okay, that's not the entire truth, but it's certainly not false, either. I've been involved with the genre writing community since I was a wee young thing, and I've gotten to be friends with some excellent writers. LiveJournal, conventions, and KGB readings have also turned out to be great ways to connect with potential reviewers. When I needed reviewers, I turned to people who I knew were fast readers, articulate and thoughtful writers, used to the pressure of freelance work, and extremely familiar with certain areas of the genre where I felt we had some gaps in our reviewing lineup. I was specifically looking for people who knew a lot about horror, as we had been relying on one or two people to review all the horror books that came through here and I felt we needed some fresh perspectives.

While an all-around generalist is a wonderful thing when you're on a tight deadline, for most reviews I want someone with in-depth knowledge of a particular subgenre. I have two reviewers who mostly cover paranormal romance, for example. Others know doorstopper fantasy, or cyberpunk. We have one military SF specialist and at some point I'd like to find another; I spread some of it around to other reviewers but it would be great to have someone else who really knows it. When I was reviewing I specialized in anthologies and collections. Our needs change depending on what's popular, so the Lovecraftian horror reviewer isn't getting much right now while the ones who handle vampire porn sexy dark fantasy are nearly overloaded.

The reviewer doesn't actually have to be a fan of the subgenre. One of my reviewers is a horror author who hardly ever reads horror. He'd rather read classic SF. I send him horror to review anyway; because of his work, he knows a great deal about who's doing what in the horror field right now, and I actually rather like that he's not a Rabid Fan, because it means I get more thoughtful, nuanced reviews. I try to remember to send him some of the stuff he actually likes from time to time to keep him happy.

Right now we're in a pretty serious book drought; I have no idea where all the big summer books are, but so far I've gotten only five titles for May, June, and July. That means I'm hard-pressed just to keep feeding my twenty or so regular reviewers. Once I start looking for new reviewers--assuming the drought lifts, which doesn't look likely for some months--I'll probably go through my archives of emails from people who want to be reviewers, looking to see what particular areas they're interested in and how that matches up with what we need. It's both wonderful and sad that there are far more terrific reviewers out there than we could possibly employ, but at least that means I get to be very picky about it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Still standing

Just in case any of you heard about the recent layoffs at RBI and were concerned, as far as I know all the PW reviews editors remain PW reviews editors, including myself.

Monday, January 14, 2008

No sir, I don't like it

Janni Lee Simmer, kindly linking to my "how I do PW stuff" series, noted: "I often hear writers wondering why anyone would take the time to give negative reviews, save out of meanness--but I think there are other reasons not all reviews should be positive, too, and it's good to hear someone being articulate about the fact."

As I commented to her, I don't think I've ever heard anyone question the need for negative reviews. I have certainly heard specific instances of them questioned--and not always by the person whose work is being reviewed--but I'm surprised by her suggestion that some have issues with the entire class. (If you're one of those people, whence comes your broad dislike of negative reviews? Please do explain in comments; I'm curious.)

There are plenty of ways to justify the writing of negative reviews (other than "It's fun!", which is often true but also insufficient). From the perspective of the reviewer and the reviewing publication, it lends credibility: much as I can trust that my husband really loves the second scarf I knitted him because he was honest about not liking the first one, readers who know that a publication is willing to give negative reviews will trust that when that publication does give a positive review, it's for good reason. From the perspective of the reader, it's helpful: the market is glutted with beautifully packaged, well-blurbed books, and readers need to know what to avoid as well as what to seek out. From the perspective of the writer and the publisher, it's educational: they may be too deeply involved with a book to really be able to predict how readers will react to it, and an honest review gives them valuable information about how to improve the writing and marketing of future books.

Any one of those reasons would be sufficient to justify the practice, I think, and the sum of the three makes it imperative. No one gains when a publication or reviewer only gives positive reviews.

It should (but probably does not) go without saying that none of this is a justification for a cruel review. As with any communication--and it's important to remember that reviews are fundamentally a form of communication--criticism should be delivered with at least as much tact as honesty. It's kinder to the author and publisher, without whom the reviewing profession would not exist; they have taken the leap of submitting a book for review, and that bold move deserves to be met with kindness as well as frankness. (If we bring self-interest into it, in the inbred world of genre publishing it's entirely plausible that a given reviewer might end up working for that author or publisher someday, so that alone is probably a good idea to refrain from getting too snarktastic.)

It's also not a justification for nonspecific complaining. I recall something about Graham Sleight and John Clute agreeing to avoid certain terms in their reviews--"disappointing", maybe, or "unsuccessful"? Graham, please jog my memory here--because they just don't convey enough useful information. "This was disappointing" is just a nicer way of saying "This sucks", and "This sucks" is not a review. A measured, detailed negative review, on the other hand, is a service to the readers and lets them make up their own minds. If you say "The focus is on the complex characters at the expense of the worldbuilding" some readers will immediately run as far from the book as possible, while others, who couldn't care less about worldbuilding but love well-developed characters, will run to pick it up.

I've seen some reviewers approach reviewing as an exercise in getting readers to agree with them. That seems to me more like an exercise in egotism. I believe the reviewer's job is to inform without manipulating, insofar as that can be managed; all the more reason to avoid harsh words that manipulate readers' emotions rather than helping them to make informed decisions.

Having hopefully conveyed my opinion in an informative but non-manipulative fashion, I'm off for the next week. I have a great deal of work to do tomorr--er, today (how did it get to be past midnight?) and Wednesday, and then we're off to Arisia. I hope those of you who also plan to be there will introduce yourselves! Josh and I are running the green room, so I have no doubt we'll see many of you at least in passing. We come back the night of Monday the 21st; blogging resumes Tuesday. I hope the week treats you all well.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Take your coat off, make yourself at home

Wow, lots of new visitors! Welcome, everyone, and thanks to Adam P. Knave, John Joseph Adams, Patrick Swenson, Jim Van Pelt, Elizabeth Bear, Sherwood Smith, and Arthur D. Hlavaty for linking over. Please do make yourselves at home, leave comments, point out typos, tell me I'm wrong (I've been hanging out online for fifteen years now, so I have quite a high tolerance for being corrected by random strangers using funny pseudonyms), ask questions, laugh at my jokes, etc. More == merrier.

I originally intended this blog to be about what I'm reading at the moment, but it's turned into a much broader discussion of my work at Publishers Weekly and all things related to books and publishing. I generally write at least one post every day that I'm in the office, though I usually do the actual writing at home in the evenings and save drafts to post during the following day. I'm certainly not using paid time for blogging, just like you're not reading this from work. Right?

This is very much not an official PW blog. (I hope to start officially blogging for PW sometime soon, but I'll probably have to tone myself down a lot.) I'm extremely opinionated--not surprising, given the work I do--and I post about anything that catches my eye, including politics, the serial comma, and other sensitive topics on which I may personally disagree with the official stance of PW. Please do keep this in mind while you're reading, and remember that I am not by any means an official spokesperson.

I should also note that I reviewed over 100 books for PW from 2002 to 2007, but now that I edit PW reviews, I no longer write them (though I still review for Strange Horizons, Lambda Book Report, and other publications). PW reviewers are anonymous, and we take that anonymity really seriously. I often write about my personal opinions of books here, and I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not review those books for PW.

Those who prefer to read blog posts via LJ can find my feed here. I also keep a personal LiveJournal, which may or may not be of interest. And if you're curious about my book reviews and other journalism, links to the bylined pieces available online can be found here.

Short and to the point

Dear Ms. Rosenfeld:

I'm the editor of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror book reviews at Publishers Weekly, a past Lambda Awards judge, and a longtime bisexual activist within publishing and elsewhere. A friend pointed me to the Publishing Triangle website and suggested I should join your organization. I notice, however, that while the words "lesbian" and "gay" are prominently displayed throughout the website (most notably in your tagline, which states that the Triangle is "the association of lesbians and gay men in publishing"), no mention is made of bisexual members or efforts to support bisexuals who work in publishing. Would it be correct of me to infer that I am therefore excluded from membership and that your organization has no interest in assisting me or others like me? Please let me know.

Rose Fox
I'm guessing this is most likely to go nowhere, but anything's possible. Should be interesting.

(And yes, I'm actually quite happy to join if they'll have me, as long as they understand that once a member I will immediately start agitating for more inclusive language and practices and will not shut up or go away unless they kick me out.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

How I do PW stuff, part 5: editing reviews

This is a post I made a while back in my personal journal. I figure it's worth reposting here (with a few edits, natch).

We get about 160–180 words per review (it used to be more, but the magazine was redesigned with more white space, which meant reductions in our actual content) and every one of them needs to serve a purpose. These are three extremely general concepts designed to make reviews both shorter and more information-dense.

Death to "to be"

"The passive voice is boring. It should be avoided." -> "Avoid the boring passive voice."

I won't go so far as to say that I don't permit any forms of "to be" in the reviews I edit, but I come down pretty hard on it when I see it. Not only does it weaken the review, but it takes up a ridiculous amount of space. I would say that perhaps 40% of my editing is moving adjectives around, and this is the most common situation that requires it.

"Campbell is tall and strong and likes to sing." -> "Tall, strong Campbell likes to sing."

This is a particular construction that I see all the time. In a publication that omits the serial comma because all those commas add up to a lot of column inches and ink, two consecutive "and"s are inexcusable. They're also unnecessary. (Replacing the first "and" with a comma is also incorrect, of course, as "likes to sing" is not an adjective.)

"This is an elegant fable that has lots of well-drawn characters in it. The setting descriptions are sketchy but still intriguing." -> "This elegant fable, full of well-drawn characters, lacks strong descriptions of its intriguing setting." -> "This elegant, character-driven fable lacks atmospheric detail."

"This is a noun that verbs. It also verbs" is a big flag that two sentences can probably be combined into one that begins "This noun, which verbs, also verbs". Even better is "This adjective noun verbs". Don't get attached to your words; ruthlessly replace them as necessary. "Atmospheric detail" doesn't mean exactly the same thing as "setting descriptions", but it gets the idea across.

The critic's job is to criticize

"This book from an award-winning author follows the adventures of two plucky teenagers..." -> "This uneven third Plucky Teen escapade (after 2006's The Plucky Teen Adventure) from Nebula-winner Jones follows series heroes Mike and Micaela..."

Sometimes our reviewers get caught up in plot summaries and forget that their job is to say something that can't be found in the jacket copy. Unless the review opens with some sort of pithy play on words, there must be a critical description somewhere in the first sentence and another one in the last sentence (which theoretically summarizes the rest of the review, though in practice that doesn't happen much). One of my favorite parts of my job is coming up with precisely the right adjectives. Every connotation is considered; for example, we don't call a book "stellar" unless we're making it literal by giving it a starred review.

Note that it's the uneven third escapade, not the third uneven escapade. It's fine to compare to the author's past work, but only directly review the book you're reviewing.

Who are you and why should I care?

"Ivana and Hoos fall in love, but then Hoos, Egbert, Marv, Cindy, Luis and Hans go to Boringland, battle sentient mushrooms, get sunburnt, argue, trim their nails, and eventually stumble upon the Plot Coupon." -> "Just as hard-bitten soldiers Ivana Bealone and Hustani 'Hoos' Yermamma confess their love, snotty Prince Egbert commands Hoos to join his quest through the swamps of Boringland for the long-lost Plot Coupon needed to cure the Prince's ailing German shepherd, Hans."

Names and places are useless without context. It's very tempting to cut that context in the interests of space, or on the assumption that the reader has read earlier books in the series. Do not give in to temptation! Instead, cut long lists of minor characters, locations, and plot points. Give full names and professions the first time you mention characters, and be generous with the adjectives. Don't worry about hitting every single plot point, and definitely don't spoil the ending; it's good to leave some surprises.

EDIT: Greetings to all my new readers over from LiveJournal! You can read my blog posts via your friends page if you like what you see here. Feel free to look up my personal LiveJournal too, if you like; I'm there (and everywhere) as 'rosefox'.

Coming out of the kitchen

My fellow Strange Horizons reviewer Martin Lewis points out this astoundingly blinkered not-really-a-review of A.L. Kennedy's Day:
When, as happens occasionally nowadays, one hears over the PA system the traditional "This is your captain speaking", and it's a woman's voice, you feel testicles shrivel. OK for the gals to enquire nicely about chicken or lasagne ("sir") - but "we're cruising at 39,000, and anticipating a smooth flight"?

...Statistics record that only 4% of USAF and RAF pilots now are women - and these are the highest figures ever. Can a class of writer so institutionally and historically disengaged from a subject write a classic (or even a good) novel on it?

...nor, for the record, do I think a woman writing about what is historically a man's world is any more objectionable than, say, DH Lawrence rhapsodising on the female orgasm in Lady Chatterley. But it raises interesting issues.
The only issues I see on display here are Mr. Sutherland's. In 522 words, he manages to say essentially nothing about the novel other than that it's written by a woman, set in wartime, and not very similar to Len Deighton's books. Instead, he focuses on the shriveling of his "whatdoyoucallems"--which, if he were really concerned about the delicacy of the fairer sex, I suspect he would not be discussing in a major newspaper read by thousands of women--and asks with some bewilderment, "Why, with all those 'women's subjects' at her disposal, did Kennedy venture into this most exclusive of manly enclaves?"

I imagine she did it because she wanted to. For any writer, male or female, that is really the only necessary and sufficient reason to choose a topic for a novel. Fantasy and science fiction writers aren't the only ones who venture in fiction to places they have never seen in real life; it's just more obvious that they probably don't have personal experience with unicorns or alien abduction*. I have no doubt that many authors of murder mysteries have never killed anyone, many authors of romance novels have never had sex, and at least a couple of authors who sell short stories to The New Yorker have happy relationships with people who frequently say more than one sentence at a time. I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but fiction is made up stories.

* Whitley Strieber may disagree.

I'm reminded very much of this Russell Banks quote I posted a couple of weeks ago, which got a lot of scornful comments when I posted it to my personal journal. Most cogent was Marissa Lingen's response:
"I can only write within my own self-concept," seems like a far, far more limiting belief than, "I am a white American male," to me.
It seems that Ms. Kennedy is willing to write outside her self-concept, which I wholeheartedly applaud. It's too bad that this adventuresome spirit causes such distress for people like Mr. Sutherland, who believe that women should not only stay within their own self-concepts but within the even more restrictive concepts that have been thrown at them by men. I sincerely hope that authors of all stripes will continue to take these chances, and the testicular reactions of antediluvian readers be damned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

How I do PW stuff, part 4: starred reviews

A brief preamble: please to note that these posts are about how I do PW stuff. Other editors may work very differently.

A starred review from PW is a big deal. Like diamonds, their value is in their scarcity. Also like diamonds, that scarcity is to some extent artificial. The question of how many books to star is necessarily going to have a rather vague and arbitrary answer: few enough that a star really means something, while making sure that really outstanding books get the recognition they deserve.

As far as I'm concerned, a star means "This is better than others of its kind". It's useless without context. I might give a star to a decent book that's head and shoulders above others of its subgenre. I might withhold one from a consistently superb author who's kind of coasting on their superbness. These evaluations change all the time as the genre changes. Last year we got in a whole bunch of "year's best" anthologies at once, and I think four out of five were starred. That tells me that the bar should be raised. When the next round comes through, I'll be starring those that don't just stand out from the crowd of anthologies--because just about all of them will do that simply by virtue of being the year's best--but that stand out from the crowd of YBs. Otherwise the value of the star is diluted.

I can't read every book that we review, so I rely on reviewers to recommend stars. It's important to remember that reviewers are in this business because they love books, and they especially love good books. I'm with them on that, personally. When I saw Ratatouille (a gloriously entertaining movie, which anyone interested in reviewing should watch), I frowned slightly at the statement that negative reviews are more fun to write and read than positive reviews. I've always enjoyed writing positive reviews much more. When I was reviewing for PW, I took particular delight in rewarding good books with highly quotable reviews, and later in seeing those reviews excerpted on author websites and book jackets. The highest reward a PW reviewer can give is a recommendation for a starred review. My job now, as reviews editor, is to decide whether to go with those recommendations.

I keep an eye out for reviewers who love to gush. For some people, a book is either wretched or exalted, with nothing in between, and since I take care to match books with reviewers who are likely to appreciate their nuances, that may lead to a lot of exaltedness. When I get star recs from those reviewers, I hold my judgment until I've edited the review and looked through the book.

Some reviewers will suggest a star as an "A for effort" sort of thing, which I really prefer not to do. The truth of that suggestion will usually reveal itself in the review or the accompanying notes from the reviewer, which will reluctantly admit that perhaps the book is flawed in some significant way. Even if the author was trying very hard, even if it's a substantial improvement over their past work, significantly flawed books don't get stars in my section.

There are also reviewers who are bitter old cynics. I take their star recs very seriously, because they're stingy. If they start seeming too stingy, I'll ask whether I've been sending them the right books; if someone hates epic fantasy and I've been sending nothing but, those books probably aren't getting a fair shake. The flip side of that is keeping an eye out for reviewers who are super huge fans of a particular author and request all their books. I usually agree to requests, because it's great to have a review from someone who knows all the author's work and can give a detailed critique of the new book in context, but it's one thing to appreciate someone's work and another thing to recommend a star for everything they write. If necessary, I'll start sending that author's books to a different reviewer to ensure that they get an honest look without any rose-colored glasses in the way.

Finally, I look at each section and the ones planned for the next month, and I space the stars out so that we don't have three one week and none the next week. In general, each section has between five and eight books (usually closer to eight than five), and one or two of those will be starred. I'd say I star around 15% or 20% of reviews. That seems a little high to me, though maybe it's not if you consider that a book generally has to be at least halfway decent for us to review it in the first place. Still, I should probably keep it closer to 15%. Maybe I am a soft touch after all.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Feast or famine

As I just posted over on James Nicoll's LJ:
Right now on the "slated for magazine reviews" list I have thirteen April titles, three May, and no June. At the very least we should have more April books than that, and I have no idea where all the late spring/early summer titles are.
By December 7th, we had sent out 23 March titles for review, so it's kind of nuts to only have 13 April titles out on January 7th. Those three May books were sent to reviewers on 11/30, 11/30, and 12/17, so we certainly should have gotten several more May titles and at least one or two June titles by now. I guess everyone's taking extra care with their big summer releases this year.

In the meantime, I get to decide whether to put shorter drops (five or six books) in our first two February issues in case this is a real drought, or to bulk them up (eight books) on the expectation of a late-month flood. Fortunately I don't have to decide that for certain until next week, as right now I'm working on wedging every possible March book into our last January issue. Too bad I can't hold some of those over another week or two.

How I do PW stuff, part 3: which books get reviewed

A brief preamble: please to note that these posts are about how I do PW stuff. Other editors may work very differently.

I was going to do starred reviews next, but it makes more sense to first talk about how I decide which books to review, since that's the first level of quality control.

The simplest criterion is this one: I have to get two copies of the galley, three months or more before the title is due to be published. If books aren't sent to me, I don't review them. If books are sent late, I don't review them (with a very few exceptions, about which more below). If I only get one copy of the galley, I might email the publisher and request a duplicate, but that's somewhat time-consuming and I only do it if there's plenty of lead time, the book looks really interesting, and the publisher clearly doesn't know about the two-galley requirement. Repeat offenders in this area eventually get ignored, on the principle that if you're that sloppy or cheap about promoting your books, you're probably that sloppy about choosing which books to publish. (Publishers take note: poor behavior on the part of your publicity staff reflects badly on your entire company. Yes, we pay attention to this sort of thing.)

Assuming that first hurdle is successfully crossed, the next question is whether my shelf is the right one for them to be on. I may get biographies of SF authors, for example, which I generally wouldn't cover with a full review. Some of those books go in our monthly "notes" column, where they get quick blurbs rather than full reviews. Others are passed along to the editors of relevant sections (e.g. speculative poetry would go to our poetry section editor, mass market first editions go to the mass market editor). For the most part, though, the books I get are trade paperback and hardcover originals of speculative fiction novels, collections, and anthologies: just the sort of thing I want to cover.

At this point I need to determine whether a book is good enough, interesting enough, or important enough to review. I review good books because our readers count on us to tell them about the good books. I review interesting books because I like drawing attention to them and they make for good reviews. (I never forget that PW lives and dies by the quality of its reviews.) I review important books--books by major authors, lead titles, books that are going to get a lot of press--because our book-buying readers care about our opinion and will want to have it to compare with other review venues, and also because it's a service to the publishers. Maintaining good relationships with publishers is vital to our business and I wouldn't dream of pretending otherwise. Of course it's also vital to maintain our independence, which is why I will almost always review an important book but I will never guarantee a favorable review.

So, the next step is to ask a series of questions about the books to determine whether they meet one of those criteria. Again, I want to emphasize that this is how I do things. Other PW editors undoubtedly have their own criteria.

1) Who's the publisher and what do I know about them?

The answer to this question can vary a lot, but in general there are four groups of publishers in my head: those who can be relied on to provide quality books, those who have some hits and misses, those who mostly publish poor quality books, and those I don't know well enough to judge. Books from publishers in group 1 get reviewed. Books from publishers in groups 2 and 4 get further consideration. Books from publishers in group 3 get a quick going-over (because every once in a while you scrape up gold from the bottom of the barrel) and if I don't see something that really grabs me, I reject them.

This has nothing to do with my personal tastes, incidentally. By "quality books" or "good books" I don't just mean books I like, but books that are well written (even if I don't like what they say) and appealing to readers (even if I'm not in their target audience).

2) Who's the author/editor and what do I know about them?

Authors and editors fall into the same groups as publishers, and I treat them the same way.

At this point, if I'm still undecided about whether to review a book, it's some combination of hit-or-miss and simply unfamiliar. This means it's probably not important (though I will keep an eye out for a promo letter that hints otherwise) and it has about a fifty-fifty chance of being good or interesting.

3) What does the promotional copy say?

I take this with a great big grain of salt, but it is useful for some things. It will give me a sense of subgenre, which can be useful if, say, I know that the the author writes very good epic fantasy and very bad hard SF. Often there's a letter from the publisher, editor, or publicist, telling me why they think the book is awesome, and something in there may catch my attention or make me roll my eyes. Blurbs are useful for categorization; a blurb from Laurell K. Hamilton indicates one sort of book, a blurb from Greg Egan indicates another sort, and blurbs from people and publications I've never heard of will still tell me something about the author's publishing history. It's all data.

4) What does the galley look like?

This is a bit of a tricky one, but in very broad terms it will help me figure out how to classify an unknown publisher. If there's no publisher or imprint logo on a bound galley, for example, I will suspect either a very new publisher or thinly disguised self-publishing; ditto certain styles of cover design. I'll also check whether the page count and ISBN are displayed on the cover of the galley. Sometimes we receive manuscripts (publishers, if you send us mss, please run down to Kinko's and have them spiral-bound rather than sending a heap of paper with a rubber band around it!), in which case I'll look at whether there's evidence of layout or it's all in Courier 12 with one-inch margins, which will hint at the publisher's editorial process.

5) How's the prose?

I'll look at the first page or two and then flip to somewhere in the middle and read another page or two, to get a sense of the writer's style, the plot, and the characters.

Now I have a much better sense of whether the book is likely to be good or interesting. If it is, I'll send it off for review, carefully selecting a reviewer who's open to books from unfamiliar sources (on the assumption that if I haven't heard of an author or publisher, my reviewer probably hasn't either) and willing to give a nuanced review of a book that will probably have both significant merits and significant flaws. If not, I'll take a pass.

If a book arrives late but looks spectacularly good, interesting, or important, I'll either rush the review--which means choosing a reviewer who isn't necessarily ideal but can reliably turn a review around in a short time--or put it on our website. In the long run, it doesn't really matter whether a review appears on the web or in the magazine; either way, it's a PW review. I tend to be reluctant to commission reviews that I know are going to go on the web, but I should probably get over that.

That's quite long enough for one post. Starred reviews next, I promise!

Friday, January 4, 2008

At last!

A quick addendum to the timeline I posted here.

Day 57: The galleys being reviewed in this issue go in a cabinet, where we can access them if there are any questions about the review. They stay there for five weeks.

Day 92: Those galleys have hung around long enough. I put the ones I don't want on the Free to a Good Home cart near the office front door, and stack the ones I want on a shelf over my desk. That shelf fills up about every four to six weeks (since I also snag interesting galleys from other sections off the cart), at which point Josh and I bring in a bunch of sturdy cloth bags and haul it all home at once. This is why we keep buying new bookshelves.

This week I put the galleys for issue 1 of 2008 in the cabinet and took out the galleys from issue 47 of 2007. One of the books reviewed in 47 was Wastelands, which I've been dying to get my hands on ever since our reviewer emphatically starred it (you can read the review if you scroll down the Amazon page to the lowermost blog entry). Finally, three months after it first arrived in our office, I can sit down and read it in the comfort of my own home. Yay! Now I just have to find time for reading.

Those of you who envied me for getting to see nifty books way before everyone else may note that Wastelands is already in stores. The reviewers are the ones to envy. Thanks to the sitting-around-in-a-cabinet phase of the process, I end up reading things on pretty much the same schedule as everyone else.

How I do PW stuff, part 2: all imprints great and small

A brief preamble: please to note that these posts are about how I do PW stuff. Other editors may work very differently.

One of the things I love about my job is that I get to send out letters like this.
Dear [independent publisher]:

I've been seeing a lot of buzz about [title] lately, and I was a bit surprised to realize that as far as I could tell, Publishers Weekly has never received galleys for it or any other [publisher] publication. I'd like to encourage you to send us galleys for review. I have a firm policy of reviewing books from new writers and independent presses, and you seem to be putting out a lot of interesting titles that we'd want to pay attention to.

Our submission guidelines are here:

If there's a specific reason you haven't been sending us review copies, please let me know; and if you know of any other publishers who have hesitated to send us galleys for whatever reason, please pass this link and my contact information on to them. We welcome all submissions from all sources, as long as they follow those guidelines, and I would be happy to answer any questions or concerns you have.

Rose Fox
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Reviews Editor
Publishers Weekly
I mean every word. If you're a publisher, fill in your own name there and then send us galleys. (If you're a writer, make sure your publisher does this!) I don't care if you only put out one book a year, or one book every five years. If you can get us two galleys three months before publication, do. I can't promise we'll review them, but I'll certainly give them my full consideration. As an editor, I want my section to really reflect what's being published. As a critic, I want to support the independent presses that keep the publishing industry vibrant. As a reader, I want to encourage publishers and writers who take chances. I also consider it a matter of honor and fairness to give books from independent publishers the same treatment--which is to say, honest reviews by appropriate, unbiased reviewers--that I give books from Tor and Ace and Baen.

On the flip side, I don't hesitate to pass over titles from major houses that arrive too late for review (though if they look really spectacular, I'll give them a review on the web). A certain big name publisher who should know better just sent us copies of one of their February titles. December's over and done, so they went straight onto the reject shelf. Right now I'm scrambling to get quick reviews for interesting March titles that just showed up. Don't make me scramble! No one wants a rushed review.

It's PW policy to ignore self-published books, and I think that's probably a very reasonable policy. I'm also not shy about passing on books that look really dreadful or are clearly unedited; we don't pay our reviewers enough to waste their time. What I don't do is reject the unfamiliar out of hand. Think you've got something really great? Send it on over. I promise to give it the same consideration I give everything else.

I've been out of the office for most of the last few weeks due to holidays and illness, but everything's back on track now; look for more "How I do PW stuff" entries soon.