Pyr Editing with Lou Anders | Interview

This one’s for those of you who like to know what goes on before the book falls off the bookstore shelf into your hands.  Lou Anders is the editorial director of Pyr books, as well as being the man behind many anthologies on a wide variety of topics.  Over the past week or so I’ve had the pleasure of picking his brain about how he chooses manuscripts, how he builds anthologies, what he sees as the current state of science fiction and fantasy, and more.  If you’re a young editor, or someone trying to break into the field as a writer, or just someone who’s curious about the publishing industry from an insider’s perspective, be sure to read this interview!

First, for those readers out there who may not know, can you tell me what the Pyr imprint is all about?

Pyr was launched in March 2005 as the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books, a midsize independent publisher of intelligent nonfiction. From the beginning we tried to make a line that would appeal to discerning readers of genre fiction. We decided not to specialize in a subgenre (Military SF, Epic Fantasy), but to celebrate SF&F in all its forms. Still, we set out to try to make the through-line of the brand Quality. We heard early on from readers, distributors, independent bookstores, and big chain stores that we succeeded. This March marked our five year anniversary, and we will hit our hundredth title in September. In that time, we’ve been on the Hugo ballot eight times, and have placed on the Philip K Dick, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, Campbell (both of them), Chesley, BSFA, and Locus Magazine Awards, among many others. We are honored to have worked with such great authors as Joe Abercrombie, James Barclay, Mark Chadbourn, David Louis Edelman, James Enge, Kay Kenyon, Tom Lloyd, John Meaney, Ian McDonald, Michael Moorcock, Mike Resnick, Justina Robson, Chris Roberson, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Joel Shepherd, Robert Silverberg, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Sean Williams, and many more. It’s a further honor to have worked with artists like Todd Lockwood, Stephan Martiniere, John Picacio, Dave Seeley, Jon Sullivan, Raymond Swanland, and others.

You were with Pyr from the very beginning—you were the guy Prometheus Books tapped to get it off the ground.  What was your personal background coming into that project?

I came into print publishing backwards, and have done a little bit of everything in the entertainment industry over the last two decades. I started out writing and directing horribly amateurish black box theatre in Chicago, and then spent five years in Los Angeles as a journalist, first as a freelancer and then as the LA Liaison for Titan Publishing (a position that was created for me and still exists today). I spent those years on the sets of shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager and Babylon 5. I wrote over 500 magazine articles in these years, mostly interviews with the cast, crew, and production staff of SF TV. During that time, I co-wrote screenplays with a partner (we had a few things optioned, but nothing made it to film, though we were represented at top agency CAA). Then in 2000, I was tapped by an old friend to be the content editor (and then Executive Editor) of a startup called Bookface.com. It was a “browser based online reading experience” that worked with publishers to put books online and tracked ad revenue. We billed it as promotion that paid you, instead of the other way around. In one year, we had 42,000 registered users and titles from all of the major publishers and many good independent houses. We operated under the assumption that SF authors would be the most new media-savvy. They weren’t—romance authors were—but when the dot com bubble burst I was left with a great many relationships in the SF&F field. I parlayed this into a series of anthologies, the first professional one of which was Live without a Net, and some magazine work as well. Based on the reputation as an anthologist, Prometheus gave me the job. (I still do anthologies, and my eight and ninth will come out this month and next).

I want to jump tracks for a bit and then come back to your work with Pyr.  Can you tell me about the process of creating an anthology?  How does the idea go from bullshitting about it over a pitcher of beer to being something you’re actually going to go forward with?  And how do you go about deciding all the various elements…how general or narrow to make the theme, does it need to stick within the confines of one genre (or even subgenre), whether to invite specific people or do a general submissions call, etc.?

There are two ways to do an anthology—open reads or invite only. In open reads, you announce the anthology and a reading period for same, you receive hundreds or thousands of submissions, and you read them all and select the best. I’ve never done an open reads anthology, for the very simple reason that I run the Pyr books line, and so my life is one big flood of submissions with hundreds of novel-length stories pouring in. There’s simply no way I could do an open reads anthology and run Pyr books, too. Also, one of the pleasures of anthologies for me is the chance to work with authors that I couldn’t work with at Pyr, simply because they are already at other houses. So I can work with Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, KJ Parker, CJ Cherryh, Scott Lynch, etc., in the short form without poaching on another publisher’s territory. So I do all my anthologies invite only.

Now, as to how narrow or general a theme—my personal preference is for themes that ask serious questions of the field. I don’t generally care for reprint anthologies—that’s speaking as an anthologist, looking to be challenged and offer something of value to the “ongoing dialogue” that is SF&F. As a reader, reprint anthologies are fine, and my first anthology was a reprint anthology of sorts.  But Theodore Sturgeon said that SF was supposed to always “ask the next question,” and I like to use anthologies as a way to examine where we are and where we’re going as a genre, and hopefully actually contribute to the genre moving forwards. So Live without a Net was born when I thought that the American SF scene of 2000 was overly rooted in “post cyberpunk” and needed some of the exuberance that was later called the “new Space Opera” and was coming from out of the UK. FutureShocks was an examination of the intersection of SF and horror, something that is done so often in cinema and so rarely in prose. (The book resulted in more comedy than horror, which was at least instructive.) Fast Forward 1 and 2 were deliberate attempts to address the then-commonplace lament that the short fiction markets were either drying up or turning away from SF towards fantasy and slipstream. My forthcoming anthology Masked is a look at the current/growing influence of the superhero in the genre, just as Swords & Dark Magic (co-edited with Jonathan Strahan) is an examination of (and celebration of) the current state of sword & sorcery.

As to how it actually gets created, well, you come up with a theme, you solicit potentially interested authors, and then you take a pitch to a publishing house and present it. To date I’ve done one for Wildside, two for Roc, one for Monkeybrain, two for Pyr, one for Solaris, one for Eos, and one for Gallery Books. And that’s been the process all along.

What happens if you solicit stories and what you get back is…sub-par?  How do you handle that? 

Easy. Don’t write authors who write sub-par stories. I’m being flippant, I know, but also somewhat truthful. Jacob Weisman of Tachyon books once said to me, in regards to picking cover artists, that you should always judge an artist’s portfolio on his worst piece, not his best, because that’s what you are going to have to live with if he comes through with something similar. In a similar way, I tend to only invite authors that I think are top notch. Again, I’m using this as a chance to work with people I want to work with. That being said, I have rejected stories. I think you need to be careful in invite only anthologies, because you have commissioned the story for a specific theme and the author has then taken the time to write it. Also, I’m very aware of my own blind spots. I try and call the “stand outs” in an anthology, and there have been occasions when a story that I thought wasn’t one of the stand outs was the one that all the reviewers loved. Sometimes that teaches me more than I expect. But for me, as anthologist, and us as readers, we always need to be stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone, which is one of the great benefits of reading anthologies—the ability to experiment at short form length with new ideas and authors you might not be ready to commit to at novel length.

So, to go back to our original topic, what was the initial plan for the Pyr imprint?

When you say “initial” we should be clear that it changed very, very fast so we are talking about a matter of weeks. When I was hired, we were thinking of it as a boutique press that would publish about ten to twelve archival quality hardcovers a year, along the lines of Golden Gryphon or (at the time) Night Shade Books. But we had a tremendous reaction early on from both Borders and Barnes & Noble, who encouraged us to ramp up and felt our positioning was something closer to Bantam Books. They encouraged us to do more trade paperback titles, and to up our initial offering to sixteen books in our first year. We had a rocky first two years where we found our feet and won readers’ attention, but we are now up to over thirty titles a year.

How much control do you have over the imprint?  Have you had to give some of it up as the imprint has expanded?

Well, I named the imprint (incorrectly, it seems, since I pronounce it like “pyre” and the actual Greek would be more like “peer”—but it’s not a word in English so it can be anything), and the logo on the spine is based on a sketch I sent the art department.  I select all the manuscripts, and I also serve as art director. This means I choose all the cover artists. We have three fabulous in house designers—Jaqueline Cooke, Nicole Sommer-Lecht, and Grace M. Conti-Zilsberger—and I choose which designer to place on which title and then breath over their shoulder horribly until we arrive at our final design. I’m also very involved in the marketing and promotion of the line. That being said, there are a great many people who input into Pyr books who all deserve credit—from the aforementioned designers, to Bruce Carle who does our interior layouts, to Chris Kramer and Peggy Deemer in production, to Jill Maxick and Jennifer Kovach in publicity, to Amy Greenan in marketing. I also have a great boss in Publisher Jon Kurtz. This is just the tip of the iceberg—I figure there are about 35 people who input in some form or fashion into every Pyr book produced, though I lose count every time I try to figure out exactly how many.

As to having to give up some control, I just hired a first reader back in February, a woman named Rene Sears. I held off hiring anyone for a long, long time, convinced that what I read for couldn’t be taught, but Rene was on my radar as someone who had read a great many Pyr books and seemed to get from them what I wanted, so I started sort of grooming her in secret for a while before approaching her at the start of this year. If we continue to grow at the same rate at which we have been expanding, we will, of course, eventually have to hire additional editors under me, though I still dread the idea of a Pyr book ever appearing that didn’t come through me, so I’m not ready to do that anytime soon.

What do you think is behind the success both you and Pyr have had in terms of awards?  There have been, what, 8 Hugo nominations in 5 years?  Ridiculous odds.  (And congratulations!  Obviously you’re doing something right.)

Thank you, yes. I maintain a list of awards and nominations at my personal site, and with the just announced 2010 Chesley Award nominations, I count around forty Hugo, Chesley, Locus, Sturgeon, PKD, Nebula and other awards/nominations. Which isn’t bad for five years!

It’s hard for me to speak about why this is, at least, apart from saying that we obviously believe we produce excellent books. We’ve been told, as I alluded to above, that we have achieved a “brand identity” for quality. Given the range of subgenres that we publish, every Pyr book isn’t going to be for every reader, but the majority of our readers come away thinking the reading experience has been top notch, regardless of whether they are reading hard science fiction or sword & sorcery, soft SF or urban fantasy. I guess what I am saying, if you’ll pardon me, is that Pyr books “goes to eleven.”

What, to you, makes a good cover for a book?  Including what makes a good base piece of art?

I’ve thought a lot about this recently, as a guest spot I did at IlluXcon doing portfolio reviews forced me to quantify a lot of what was previously intuitive, and I’d say that a good cover contains a sense of narrative; it draws you into the scene and suggests what might have happened seconds before the image and what might be happening seconds after. (For a wonderful example, see David Palumbo’s cover for Joel Shepherd’s Petrodor.) This is true even of the more abstract covers. Books are judged on covers, despite the saying against it, and it is all-important that the cover communicate the excitement within in an enticing, professional, dignified, and compelling way.  I say dignified because I think the best SF&F covers find a way to represent the tropes of SF&F in a mature, 21st century manner. They are inclusive not exclusive.  Stephan Martiniere and John Picacio are masters of this.

You mention abstract covers.  Do you see an expansion of those for SFF as an attempt to appeal to readers who don’t identify themselves as readers of the genre in general, or as a means to show that at least some corners of the genre have “grown up,” or just a reflection of changing cultural aesthetics?  If either of the former, do you really see a continuing stigma about reading obviously SFF works?

I think that all SF&F covers, whether abstract or representational, should strive to be inclusive not exclusive with their use of genre tropes. That being said, I also believe that one of the core strengths of the SF&F field is its century-plus relationship between artists and authors. I see movements away from illustration as sacrificing this strength. If we are in a Long Tail world of niche markets, then it is more important than ever for a thing to look like itself. What you have to do is find ways to represent the genre tropes in mature, appealing ways. But there are nothing wrong with tropes, in writing or in painting. It’s all in the skill with which you execute.

As to a stigma attached to SF&F, I really don’t think that’s a concern. SF&F authors have now won Pulitzer Prizes. SF&F dominates the box office, the television, the videogame industry, the bestseller lists. The recession we just went through forced booksellers to recognize just how important genre fiction is to the actual public. There will always be some folks who denigrate SF&F, just as there will always be some folks who denigrate jazz. And that’s okay, we don’t have to convert every single person on the planet to our cause. But we already won. Griping about the stigma now seems ungrateful. I’m very proud to work in the most imaginative field of literature on the planet. Honestly, if there is any shame to be had, it should be in not being able to appreciate your imagination. But as I say, we don’t need to convert the whole world. I have a friend who refused to see Avatar on the grounds that “I draw the line at blue people.” And that’s his right.

How do you feel about series?  Fantasy tends toward the Epic Length to go with its epic themes, and I was just wondering whether you prefer standalones or series, both to read and to publish, and why? 

A series is great when it works. It’s terrible when it doesn’t. If I were a writer today, I wouldn’t begin my career with a five volume epic series. I’d write “a stand-alone novel with sequel potential.” Those are great.

What kind of books and stories do you look for when deciding on submissions?  Like, do you have a set of criteria (such as, must have swords, wizards, minimum of 10 decapitated bodies) or do you tend to examine each piece on its own—if so, any themes or styles you tend to find yourself drawn to?

As I said above, we are not a specialty press dedicated to a single subgenre or philosophy, so we don’t have criteria like you state above. Rather, I have the criteria that I don’t select any manuscript I can put down. If I’m not leaping out of my chair to run and tell my wife about it, or calling a friend to rant about the amazing manuscript in front of me, then it isn’t a Pyr book. There’s a great line in the film Ronin in which De Niro says “Remember, if there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt.” That’s my editing philosophy.

Now, within that, lately I’ve been very interested in the return of sword & sorcery to prominence. This dovetails with an opinion of mine that what the majority of genre readers want are “good stories well told.” I tend to avoid slipstream or literary fantasy in favor of recognizable science fiction and fantasy stories told at a higher level of craft. I think the reason so many adults are migrating to the Young Adult category is that they have a craving for action and adventure that isn’t being served, and I think the return of S&S is part of that trend, as is the fascination with steampunk. (Aside: the reason so often cited for the steampunk craze is that it returns us to a simpler time when we could build our own tech. You can’t even open, let alone understand, your iPhone, etc….But I think that’s bunk—I don’t know how to build a locomotive or a Babbage Engine from scratch any more than an iPhone or a LCD television—and that steampunk’s appeal is the excuse it gives adults to have fun reading the sort of adventure previously found only in Young Adult books.)

What no one likes to admit is that the words “quality” and “commercial” are by no means synonymous. There are plenty of quality books that have an inbuilt readership of about two hundred people, and there are plenty of crap books that are bestsellers. What we’re looking for is that very narrow intersection of quality reads and commercial reads. So even something as literate as Ian McDonald’s Hugo nominated masterwork Brasyl, for instance, which, with its liberal use of Portuguese, isn’t an easy read, does understand the importance of a good sword fight between opponents armed with futuristic super-thin blades.

Given Pyr’s wide net in terms of subgenre, I’m curious to know how widely read are you/do you feel like you need to be in order to both appreciate all the subgenres and to recognize what’s really original vs. a rehash of an idea that’s gone before?

I’m a lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, but I feel very, very strongly that it is important to avoid myopia and to read beyond the genre, or even beyond your interests. My favorite book, for instance, is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I think if I weren’t in genre I’d be drawn to works like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or Chuck Palahniuk’s books. But as it is, with my reading time at such a premium, I have to settle for their films. It’s hard now, just to read all the submissions we get, and then in back of that you want to read the “talked about” books from other lines, and then there’s all your friends who are novelists and don’t understand why you haven’t read them yet. My pleasure reading is way, way down that list. That being said, despite reading all day, reading is what I do to relax from a hard day’s reading. (I currently wake up thirty-five minutes before my wife so I can read young adult fiction in bed on the iPad before the alarm gets us up.)

As to originality versus history, science fiction and fantasy, more than any other genre, is a dialogue with itself. It’s very rare that a work that’s written in a vacuum does other than struggle to reinvent the wheel. The important thing is not to throw out the past, but to take what has come before and carry it another five yards down the field.

What do you think is behind the rising demand for more truly Adult fantasy in the past few years?  (By this I mean, fantasy that would not be considered “appropriate” for middle school students in terms of its content, the way an awful lot of epic fantasy at least used to be.)

I think that our tense political and social times, the problems we face that we have all been so clearly made aware of in this last decade or so, from the current war to global warming and the environment, both drive the need for escapism yet at the same time serve to prevent us from finding credible the more pat and morally black and white fantasy of an earlier generation. Adult fantasy lets us escape into another world’s problems, but by bringing some of the realities of politics and violence along for the ride, it lets us examine our power structures in a new light. I’d say that fantasy is at its root inherently political—who has the right to wear the crown?—and that the new breed of fantasy acknowledges this, which makes for some very exciting, as well as relevant, entertainment.

Where do you see Pyr going next?  Do you have any specific hopes or goals for it?

Absolutely, and last November my boss and I mapped out an actual “five year strategy,” but I’m not sure I want to spill the beans completely yet.  In the last year, we moved into both ebooks and mass market, and we have begun to license our books to UK and European publishers. We’ve just made our first two young adult acquisitions, and we’ve even been courted several times now by media tie-in properties (though so far we’ve said no. We might do it at some point, but only if we can do so and maintain quality). Although we are by no means announcing a Young Adult Spin Off line, I see our acquisitions in that area continuing as we begin to test the waters, and I see the overall line itself continuing to grow. We’re in an exciting time for publishing right now (do you have an iPad? It’s all I read on now), with a lot of things up in the air, and it will be very interesting to see where the field in general is in 2015, let alone the Pyr imprint. But I think that whatever changes to the physical nature of “the book” occur, there will always be a market for good stories well told, so we intend to keep providing the same, and we remain grateful to our readers and our authors, who really are the foundation of the Pyr line.

Very big thanks to Lou for taking the time to write such illuminating answers!  Be sure to check out his website, and if you want to learn more about Pyr books and what’s coming up next in their line, visit the Pyr website. 

– originally published 6/10/2018

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.