Last week I became a company director, of the Handheld Press, because I’m going to publish books. I’ve been working flat out for several months, doing two jobs at once. Setting up a publishing company takes a lot of administration, as well as starting work, right away! on the first books. I’ve done pretty much every other job in publishing apart from actually BE a publisher, so the editing and the planning now feels entirely natural and normal. ‘Twas not always so.
On a Friday in March, a friend with whom I am editing an academic book, with me in the scary tough editor role, told me (possibly as an affectionate gibe) that I should set up my own publishing company. I spent the weekend muttering ‘nah …..’, ‘well ……’, ‘maybe ……’, ‘but what if ……..’, ‘and I could do …….’, ‘that’d’be a way to do …….’ and ‘what do you think about …..’. The consensus was clear: move ahead cautiously and see what was involved. I knew immediately what I wanted to publish (reprints with proper introductions, scholarly research passions, and science fiction), so I started talking to friends in the business, and friends in business. But the first thing to do was to work out, and then buy, the domain name.
The name Handheld Press took a few days to decide, while I was furiously busy doing other tasks. I’d write down names as they occurred to me, cross them out, take out bits and make new names, cross them all out and start again. Everyone I’ve told the name to has liked it instantly, so I hope it will work for everyone. I wanted the name to suggest tactility, because my books will be books you can hold in your hand, as well as in a handheld e-reader. It also suggests being led by the hand to new and wondrous things, and the pleasing sensation of an object big enough and the right shape for the hand, but not too big, unwieldy or ill-formed. Handheld Press was also a second choice: I really wanted Handheld Books dot co uk, but that domain name had gone, and the only trace of it online was something a little dubious. Handheld Press dot com is a small engineering business in the USA selling metal stamping gadgets. I doubt we’ll interfere with each other’s business. Handheld Press has the advantage of being a press, that can make more things than books. I began to talk to printers.
By the end of March I had added translations from Dutch to my now pleasingly eclectic set of Handheld lists, because I know a translator from Dutch who immediately sent me pages of reprint suggestions to consider, and I have a lot of Dutch and Flemish friends with their own ideas. A month later I was briefing a relation by marriage who just happens to be a typographer and brand identity specialist, because I needed a visual identity and some kind of typographical design to set up a website. Without a website I wouldn’t be able to register at Companies House, and no-one would take me seriously without one. One month and several conversations later Andrew delivered a beautiful brand identity, and I was in business. Website, Twitter, Facebook.
By May I had signed up with the Real Jobs scheme at my university’s design department, and I now have an earnest and impressively focused student designing me a book series. It’ll take time, because this commission is part of his degree portfolio, but I need the time: I have four books and their introductions to edit and proof before I can drop them into layout. (It was around this time that I began recalling everything I ever learned from the designers in English Heritage’s publications department, where I spent some very formative years.) I also have a Handheld Research title ready to publish, but for that I need a proper contract, and a letter of agreement for the reprint introductions. Time to talk to lawyers.
I’m looking for freelance designers (I have a lovely collection of beautifully designed business cards). I also need authors, and they are remarkably easy to encounter. Every conversation I have seems to yield suggestions for books, many of them definitely pursuable. I’ve set up proposal forms for Handheld Classics, Handheld Research and Handheld Translations on the website already, such has been the demand. I’m reading a novel right now by an author I met at a conference, that might be the first title in Handheld Modern.
I’m pleased with the suggestions I’ve had so far for adding to the Handheld Classics. I haven’t pushed the Translations very much yet, or the Handheld Research, because these will take more time and careful planning, though some ideas have been coming through spontaneously. But now I want to read proposals for Handheld Modern, on the modern world and the future. I want to be told about stories by and about the peoples and identities who get told ‘we’ve already got one of those’. I want to hear about feminist science fiction, memoirs of suburban love that dared not speak its name, and stories from countries I’ve never been to, that might not even exist.
The science fiction novel that moved my reading tastes from adolescent dragon wonder to feminist space opera was Sassinak (1990), by the then immensely prolific Anne McCaffrey and the fairly unknown Elizabeth Moon. I had been a teenage McCaffrey completist, but once I’d read Sassinak – an engrossing space opera about planet pirates, orphan enslavement, naval training, in-ship subversion and space heroics with the totally magnificent Commander Sassinak (her only name) – I put the Dragons of Pern into a box and moved off into space with Elizabeth Moon. It wasn’t just the fresh (to me) new subject, setting and attitude. Moon is simply a far better author than Anne McCaffrey, and I was ready for the change.
Sassinak is one of the three Planet Pirates novels, planetary romances in what the ISFDB and ESF call McCaffrey’s Ireta series (ie the name of the planet), the others being Death of Sleep (1990) by McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, and Generation Warriors (1991) by McCaffrey and Moon. They were planned to overlap with McCaffrey’s earlier novels Dinosaur Planet (1978) and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984). The latter are among the weakest of McCaffrey’s novels, and the time gap between their publication, at a crucial plot point cliff-hanger, shows how distracted McCaffrey was at this time, juggling the development of her Dragons of Pern novels into back-story spin-offs, and writing the first of the Crystal Singer series.
These five novels take place on Ireta, a purportedly uninhabited planet that has been chosen for Federated Sentient Planet exploration by a group of mixed ‘lightweight’ (ie regular) humans and Heavyworlders. These are humans who have adapted genetically to their strong-gravitied home planet, and who labour under a resentful and politicised sense of inferiority to the ‘lightweights’. When the Heavyworlders discover the carnivorous habits of the native animals, who appear to have been seeded there aeons earlier from Earth dinosaurs, their dissident members urge the others to embrace this chance to eat fresh meat, a taboo practice now on the ‘lightweight’ human worlds. This puts the ‘lightweights’ in serious danger, not just from the theoretical possibility of the explorers being eaten, but from the rippling implications for fragile interplanetary politics. Sassinak brings her Fleet cruiser through this system in covert pursuit of pirates, and the plot thickens.
The injection of 1980s value systems – vegetarianism, feminism, environmentalism, minority rights – is not particularly subtle, but the complex action works, and the novels’ function in McCaffrey and Moon’s proliferating FSP universe contributes necessary groundwork for what Moon would later do with her two Vatta’s War and Serrano Legacy series. In short, I rate the Planet Pirates series because of what Moon would go on to do with its rich background, not for what it offers the reader on its own merits.
After Dinosaur Planet Survivors came out, McCaffrey developed different series by writing with collaborators, effectively setting up her own franchises. After the Planet Pirates, she co-wrote the Doona books with Nye (which I have not read, being put off by Death of Sleep), and the much more successful ‘Brains and Brawn’ series. This developed the feminist cyborg space-ship concept from her The Ship Who Sang of the 1960s, writing with several collaborators, almost all women (though she did co-write one of these novels with S M Sterling, a bloke). Collaboration became an important mark of McCaffrey’s brand, demonstrating her creative generosity, and her eagerness to launch new worlds and new ideas with new writers.
I asked Elizabeth Moon how her collaboration with McCaffrey came about.
Moon: My introduction to the project was my then-publisher, Jim Baen, calling me up and asking if I would consider doing a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey. I knew McCaffrey’s work and liked it, so my immediate reaction was “YES!” I did not know anything about the details during that phone call, nor which of Anne’s worlds it was, or anything else.
Later I found out that I had been asked for Sassinak because of my military background and my known appreciation of Anne’s work. I never did know who mentioned my name first; Anne herself, Jim Baen, or the series’ packager, Bill Fawcett, but clearly Anne made the final choices. Right then, several senior authors in the field were starting to do collaborations with newer writers; Anne eventually worked with quite a few.
When Anne decided to try accepting collaborators into her worlds, she worked with Bill Fawcett, whom she already knew as a fan, editor, and packager well known in the field. Collaborations were becoming popular, and different kinds of collaborations existed and continued to exist for some time. Some were between ‘equals’ (writers of equal or near-equal publishing history and status) and some, like Anne’s, were between a senior writer and a very junior one, someone with only a few books out and who would benefit from the publicity of working with a bestselling writer.
So when I was offered the chance to collaborate with Anne, the three-book package was handed out to three junior writers: Bill Fawcett’s wife Jody Lynn Nye, another writer who dropped out of the project and whose name I unfortunately don’t recall, and me. Jody’s book was the ‘prequel’: Lunzie’s life before the Dinosaur Planet books, in Death of Sleep. Mine was another semi-prequel, covering Sassinak’s early life and intersecting the second Dinosaur Planet book when Fleet arrived. The other writer was supposed to write Generation Warriors, which carried on both Sassinak’s and Lunzie’s stories into the future. These contracts were then handed to each of us, and the books were to be written simultaneously, due at the same time. I had not met any of the other people involved.
Communication was a problem. Remember, this was in the late 1980s; the books came out in 1990 and 1991. I believe (would have to call Jody or Bill to ask) that they were on GEnie, and Anne was also on GEnie [a pre-internet text service]. They could communicate by email. I had no internet (accessing GEnie meant an expensive long distance call on our landline and then a very slow dial-up connection – couldn’t afford it.) We did not get a local internet provider until 1995 (still slow dial-up, but at least not with long-distance charges. Reliable cellphone service in this area didn’t arrive until 1998-99 when they built a tower close enough. I lived over 1000 miles from Bill and Jody in the Chicago area, in a small town in Texas. I’m not sure where the third writer lived but have a vague idea it was somewhere in the northeast. Anne of course was in Ireland, accessible only by snail-mail or phone (but the phone to Ireland was even more out of my reach than the phone to Chicago.) So almost all the communication was on paper, with a few phone calls between us. The questions and rough manuscripts went from us to Anne; she was certainly one layer in the editing process as well as the writing process.
The third writer dropped out late enough in the process that neither Jody nor I could have finished the book for its original due date, and Jody had another contract she was in the middle of. So I was offered it, and started from scratch with the original notes Anne had provided. By then Anne was deep in other projects, and I had met her, so it was easier to communicate and – since she’d liked my work with Sassinak – she gave me a lot of freedom to develop some things on my own. The book required multiple point-of-view characters, and thus was a wonderful ‘stretch’ to what I understood so far.
So I wasn’t writing in daily contact with any of the others. Jody’s book and mine were separated by all of the first, and most of the second, Dinosaur Planet book – we had no real reason to compare what we were doing. Where my assignment overlapped the end of Dinosaur Planet Survivors, I just used the Lunzie as Anne had written her in that book.
It was different for Generation Warriors – and the delay in that one worked to my advantage, because I had Jody’s book, all complete, and could use all the things she had contributed to Lunzie’s history and character, to inform the Lunzie of Generation Warriors. It would’ve been very difficult to write the third without the first two already in hand. Perhaps that’s why the other writer dropped out.
Despite the difficulties inherent in communicating long-distance without internet, I found working with Anne to be a great experience. I could ask her about anything that was giving me trouble – characterization, how to make a certain kind of transition, for more background on one of her characters, and so on. She was incredibly generous with her time and attention; she never made me feel like a nuisance. And it was a master class – her answers were brief, pointed, crystal clear. (Years later, I could still ask her about problems I was having with my newer stuff, and she was just as willing to help.) She was also generous in sharing her ‘sandbox’ – letting her co-authors introduce things, including characters. I met her at the launch event for Sassinak, and after that we became friends.
The most striking example of how Moon, Nye and McCaffrey developed the same character in different ways was in the use of the Theks, floating pyramidal sentient beings of silicate origin, with enormous telepathic power, the most impressive in the Federated Sentient Planets universe. On their first appearance, in Dinosaur Planet, McCaffrey treats them with reverence and irreverence at the same time: ‘it was difficult to know a Thek elder from a rock until it spoke, but a human could perish of old age waiting for the word’. Thus there were tonal choices for developing these lifeforms, and Moon and Nye made different choices. The importance of the Theks in this universe means that their characterisation underpins the tone of the novels. By allowing divergence in their treatment, collaborative writing made the Planet Pirates novels even less likely to work together as a sequence.
Moon developed the Theks by giving them meaningful cooperative relationships with humans, showing how mutual respect breeds collaboration (much like her own relationship with McCaffrey). Her, or their, most effective elaboration of the Thek in Sassinak was to give it a sessile life stage, inert and anchored in a tank, but fully integrated with all ship systems, and a potentially crucial part of enhanced lightspeed flight modes due to Thek mathematical abilities. This sessile larval form – more like a giant coral fan than a slug – is an inspired solution to the problem of how to get Theks integrated enough into human society and into Fleet as serving officers, without floating pyramids engulfing the ships. When humans learn enough about Theks to be able to identify individuals, that signals the beginning of a healthy working relationship. In Sassinak, the sense of wonder is multiplied by Moon’s marvellous enhancement of McCaffrey’s original idea.
My thanks to Elizabeth Moon for her cooperation with this interview, and for checking the facts. The opinions expressed are my own.
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Sassinak (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, Death of Sleep (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Generation Warriors (1991)
Over on Vulpes Libris I interviewed a Palgrave Pivot commissioning editor, as part of the Vulpes Alternative Book Publishing Thrortnight. Pivot sells itself as a way to publish your polemic or very-much-extended essay that is too long for journal publication but way too short for a book. During the interview (done by email Q&A over a few weeks in February), I decided to road-test the Pivot book proposal experience, to see if it really was as fast and as rigorous as they claim. I’m already a Palgrave author, and thus not an unknown quantity in publishing terms, which helps. I had a book proposal waiting in embryo, on literary disability, so I spent two days working it up to the Pivot requirements, filled in their submission form, and sent it in.
10 March: instant and personal acknowledgement from Palgrave (not difficult, they knew the proposal was on its way), and a promise to ‘look it over in the next couple of weeks’. That wasn’t quite as fast as I’d expected, since in the series I used to edit for a different publisher we generally sent the author a decision on whether the book proposal would go out to reviewers within a week.
13 March: OK, the Palgrave editor clearly found the time. Three days later, I had this response: ‘I’ve now looked over your proposal for the book and think that it looks very interesting, and possibly a nice fit for the list here. I’ll now share it with my Literary Disability Studies series editors and get back to you asap.’ Notice that he is being cautious, not pre-empting his external readers’ opinions, while sending reassurance and positivity. However, I was puzzled that he was now talking about what I thought was a different Palgrave series, not Pivot. I hadn’t appreciated (until he got in touch after this post was posted, and explained things more clearly) that Pivot is a format, not an imprint, and can publish books from other series as well as those only accepted for Pivot. Nonetheless, I was happy that the proposal had now left the dock.
23 March: Ten days later Palgrave email me to ask for sample chapters, as the series editors need to see this, because ‘they liked the look of the proposal a great deal’. All is now becoming clear. The editor has either decided or assumed that my book proposal was for the Literary Disability Studies series, and has forgotten or undecided that I sent the proposal in as a Pivot book. I check my book proposal again, and am relieved that I used the Pivot submissions form, which specifically doesn’t ask for sample chapters.
This is an important point for authors, and what makes Pivot different from other lists. Reading the sample chapters with a book proposal is essential for assessing how an author writes, whether they understand their subject, what standard of prose style, critical thinking, scholarly apparatus, etc, they’re using, and I would never accept a book from an author without them. They’re also essential for the author to write, as part of understanding what the book is about, how it will be structured, and how long the whole thing will take to write. However, not needing to write sample chapters (3-6 months work) before sending in the book proposal makes Pivot very attractive for the author in a hurry, because it means that for book projects that are already well-worked out in plan, and that you want to get published quickly, Pivot submissions have a time-critical edge. Two years ago, this was very important for UK academics who needed to have a monograph on their list for the round of research assessment that closed its submissions window in 2013. Now, the pressure isn’t so extreme, as we’re looking at 2019 or thereabouts, but job applications run all year round, and a book contract on a CV is as good as the finished book on the desk. Notwithstanding my own rule to always see sample chapters, I happily followed Pivot’s lure to not go through this process with my book proposal: not very wise, in hindsight. Dear reader, read on.
I sent a book chapter that had already been accepted by a different publisher, that drew on the same material I’d be using in my book. I explained that I did not have the time (true) to write sample chapters now, but had planned to do this in the summer.
23 March (half an hour later): This wasn’t acceptable, and the tone in the Palgrave emails turned slightly formal. ‘Ideally, we’d like a sample chapter and not a writing sample – can I ask when you’d expect to be able to send one on please?’ They really had not realised that the proposal was for Pivot and thus did not need a sample. I explained this formally, adding that if they were convinced that the proposal would be better considered outside Pivot, I would withdraw it, spend the summer writing sample chapters, and then resubmit the proposal.
25 March: Well that did the trick, sort of. ‘I’ve had a chat with our series editors on this and we’re happy to go ahead with the proposal and sample material provided – thanks for your patience!’ This still wasn’t telling me which series my book was going to be considered for: Literary Disability, or Pivot? Not that it mattered much.
22 April: A reply from Palgrave on what their reviewer said (who by then had been properly briefed and knew that the proposal was for Pivot): ‘As you can see, the report is mixed – while broadly positive about the idea behind the project, the reader flags up a number of issues with the proposal as currently constituted … Unfortunately, I’m unable to commission your book on the basis of this report but would be keen to look over a fleshed out proposal that takes into account the reader’s feedback and addresses the specific points raised within his/her report. Once this is in, I shall send it out to the reader again for a second look. I remain keen on this for the series and for the list more broadly, but feel that it just needs some more work before it’s ready.’
And I totally agree. Aside from some snarkiness from the reviewer about my writing style (hmmph), I agreed with their criticisms, and am completely fine about doing more work on the proposal. I’ll do as I originally planned: spend the summer writing the book as sample chapters, possibly even just write the book, period, and then resubmit it. Palgrave have since reconfirmed that they are very keen to see the revised proposal, so I will probably send it back to them, since I’d be happy for the book to go out with Pivot, or with their mainstream-length series. In the end, the length of the final book may determine the imprint, not any other factor.
I think this shows how the central selling points of the Pivot imprint – that you can get your book published really fast, and you don’t need to mess about with sample chapters to get a contract – could be a serious weakness in the quality of the books they accept, unless Palgrave are as rigorous in their gate-keeping as they showed themselves to be in my case. Palgrave are taking a risk, I think, by dropping the sample chapter requirement, and they have to be vigilant in keeping their standards as high as they would normally expect.
[addendum: the Palgrave editor got in touch after this was posted to make things clearer, so I’m posting what he said here: ‘usually I would ask for a sample chapter (at least one) but as a previously published author I know your work and your track record. Also, I should emphasise that the full MS would have gone through another round of peer review once submitted, before publication, as per our monograph programme. So it would not have been cleared without the reader seeing the full MS. I can assure you that we wouldn’t publish a project that hadn’t been peer reviewed to the rigorous standards we are accustomed to.’]
On the time taken to assess the book proposal, one month is exemplary, and I see no reason why this should not be the norm for all book proposals. Current practice in taking three to five months for two reviewers to read a proposal is completely unacceptable, and is caused by asking the wrong people to do the work (too overworked to make the time). Palgrave ‘pay’ their reviewers with cash or two books from their catalogue (twice the value of the cash offer), as do other academic publishers. Senior academics (overworked) might not be very interested in this, whereas impecunious postdocs (very recent experts in their PhD topics) most definitely are. Publishers: choose your reviewers wisely, and consider how incentives and prior obligations will affect your reviewers’ commitment to your business.