An anthology editor once complained to me about the lack of diversity in his own anthology. “I was open to submissions,” he said, “but they never sent me stories!”
We all understand passive editing. In this model, the editor sits in their office, somewhat like a melancholy monarch on the throne, and awaits the entreaties of their loyal subjects. The onus in this model is on the writer: it is not the editor’s fault if they’re not publishing writers from outside the usual pool. The fault lies squarely with those writers who did not know or think to reach out to the editor.
It is a nice, useful model, one that the vast majority of the publishing industry, whether in novels or magazines, still employs. After all, it absolves one of any responsibility.
It is also deeply flawed.
I first came across this as a young writer trying to break into the English-language market of science fiction magazines. I had grown up on a kibbutz in Israel. I chose writing in English, as a second language, desiring to be a part of a wider global conversation. But I came across archaic mechanisms that seemed actively designed to stop submissions. Posted printed manuscripts were then the norms. You required hunting for something called an International Reply Coupon. And after going through the effort and expense you’d receive a little typed rejection slip in the mail, because the editor had never read a story by someone like you before and it did not fit into their idea of what SF even was.
The editors not only didn’t actively look for new voices, but turned them down. In two instances of venerable magazines, I literally had to wait for the editors to retire before I could start selling there. I was actively submitting. The editors were passively rejecting.
I should perhaps note that I am now the author of nearly 200 professionally published short stories in addition to my many novels. But it was rolling a boulder up a hill the whole way—and didn’t need to be that way!
When it came to my own editing, with the Apex Book of World SF anthologies that began in 2009, which ran for five volumes and has now culminated in The Best of World SF, I did not have the luxury of being passive. The idea of collecting international SF/F stories at the time seemed outlandish. I had reached out to writer friends in China, publishing the first SF stories of many prominent Chinese SF authors. I translated stories from Hebrew myself. I picked up anthologies and collections in Malaysia, Romania, South Africa. I reached out to writers, entreating them to let me publish their work. And I kept an eye the whole time on what stories were being published. I watched as the field changed as more and more international writers appeared, as the Internet allowed more writers access to the American publications that dominated the field. I started my own online magazine and published more stories, and more publications followed that did the same around the world.
Now it is easy to say that the field of the SF short story is truly international—and a lot more exciting for it.
But the model of passive editing remains. In book publishing, the number of international titles is minute. The lack of diversity—in all its myriad forms—remains a huge problem across publishing. One might, like my editor friend, be moved to cry “But they never send me anything!” when the truth is that even when they are sent these manuscripts editors reject them for not fitting their preconceived notions. Some might say “failed to engage” or other polite excuses. Others, more bluntly, have told me in the past, “We just don’t publish books set in Nigeria.” Or Mexico. Or Israel. Every international writer I know has heard this at one point or another, often repeatedly. This is, I should point out, not right.
For publishing to change, it must be active. Editors must seek out new talent while nurturing, and committing to, their authors’ longevity. They must learn the field. They must look beyond their comfort zone. Editors themselves must become more diverse, and publishers must commit to hiring accordingly. I sound like a hopeless dreamer, I know. But the result will be a stronger, healthier, and more exciting world of literature.
And if we don’t want that, then we have no reason being in the book business to begin with.
Five Tips for Active Editing
1) Read widely. Keep up with current anthologies and magazines. Read outside your usual pool or comfort zone. Your job is to find the best stories, not the easiest ones to reach. My early anthologies are full of people who now sit on the bestseller lists and won major awards. Spotting talent early is easy—if you look!
2) Keep a spreadsheet. Note down stories that catch your eye, approximate word count, and year and place of publication. Find out contact details for the author. When you come to select stories later on, you will have a solid basis to start from.
3) Pay attention to how your selections come out. For instance, women all but dominate the SF short story landscape today. If your anthology has more men than women in it, ask yourself why. If all the authors are Americans, have you been reading widely enough? Pay attention to your selections and try to be aware of your biases, so you can address them. This results in a wider-ranging, stronger anthology.
4) Solicit stories directly from authors. Don’t sit back! Ask them to write for you, accept that not all will come through, but know that by doing so you are actively encouraging new fiction instead of passively hoping for it.
5) Love your work! Editing anthologies can be long, frustrating, and tedious. Do you believe in what you are doing? Is the book worth the effort you are putting in? If it is, try to enjoy it, and accept the cost—from paperwork to the inevitable publicity efforts, your work will never be done!