30 January 2010

"Small press" is no excuse for this dog's breakfast, vomited

"Don't bother if you plan to half-ass it."
Matthew Kressel, publisher and editor, interviewed by Charles Tan

"My one criticism of Festive Fear is that the editing is occasionally sub-par, as is so often the case with small-press offerings. That said, the contents of this anthology more than make up for the occasional typo. Buy this anthology. It's brilliant. Unfortunately, I believe it's also a limited edition, so you'll need to move quickly; hopefully, though, customer demand will lead to a reprint, as this is an anthology that all horror aficionados should - must - read. "
HorrorScope review

If Festive Fear were a dish and Tasmaniac Publications, a restaurant, this reviewer could as easily have excused sub-par cooking and food poisoning. After all, many restaurants do make dog's breakfasts of good ingredients, and accidentally kill their customers by a half-ass attitude to the basics.

This anthology and its publisher deserve a review, as they are both outstanding. The good ingredients in FF include the concept, the quality of the concepts in some of the stories and some of the writing, some fine stories that luckily have authors who are more scrupulous in their own attention to the finish of submissions, and the artwork on the cover and inside pages. The mess the publisher made of all this should be noted and a Public Health Notice slapped on the web wall so that prospective customers and sellers looking to hawk their writing and their art (even for the love of it or the "publishing credit") are forewarned—for Festive Fear is planned as an annual, with submission details for the next repast already posted on the web wall.

Starting from the publisher's website, "quality" is spelled correctly, but spelling and language are hit or miss. This is one paragraph:
This unique e-package will contain the near 10 000 word short story, The Calling, seperate from the novella Stone Cold Calling, though it will involve a recognized character. A non-fiction piece, Make Me Frightful, where Simon offers advise to the horror writer, AND, a short video entitled The Haunted Page - shot by Simon.
Caveat venditor
The ability to convert a file from rtf to pdf does not an editor make, just as the ability to pay for a publication's printing does not make someone a publisher. There is no good reason to think that illiteracy in a publisher's site will lead to good work practice, let alone a publication you can be proud of as a contributor or should fork anything out for. There are many fine small publishers, so sellers of work (at any price) should examine the publisher closely before submitting—unless the seller thinks that a half-ass establishment is a good starting place to be in before trying to get work into another as a "pro". This makes as much sense as saying that a restaurant that poisons customers when it is new or small is just making its way toward becoming a four-star restaurant. If you submit dog's breakfasts as manuscripts, or submit to slob publishers without demur, you're not a writer—and if you're a graphic artist submitting good work to a slob of a publisher, expect to be treated like a potwasher.

The publisher/editor of FF wrote the introduction, which reads well in concept, but in the fourth paragraph, "immanent" stares out like a sheep's eye in the custard pudding. Few spell perfectly without help, and no one can proof themselves and trust to catch everything including messy writing (this column included!), so it is pretty outrageous that the editor didn't even get his own introduction proofed, or use a spell checker at any stage. Contrary to the reviews, one of which would get no pass in literacy, this is not a praiseworthy introduction to what could have been an excellent anthology.

Spelling is all over the place in FF, showing that many authors don't bother to check their own work or have anyone else proof it for gross mistakes before submitting, let alone those mistakes a program can't pick up and that are often missed. There are both typos and the kind of mistakes that occur when revisions are made and sentences garbled. These are common and understandable, and should have been easy to fix, as simple proofreading would have picked many of these up.

Punctuation must have been converted directly from submissions, with all their inconsistencies within a manuscript and amongst them. This is understandable because, as the website shows, the pub/ed hasn't the faintest idea what the function of punctuation is, nor what those little doodads are. Thus, there are hyphens used as em dashes sometimes, em dashes at other times, haphazard spacing everywhere. Asterisks are used in line breaks sometimes and at other times, even in the same story, are left out—even when the proper use of dingbats is called for (the top or bottom of a page where there is a line break). Semicolon abuse is rife, and if the pub/ed knows what an ellipsis is, I'll eat a dead wombat. I could go on, but the gist of what I'm saying is that the pub/ed might enjoy reading, but that doesn't mean he knows what a sentence is, or a paragraph, and as for grammar, what's that? I'm talking basic literacy here, and this pub/ed fails, so to function as an editor would be impossible.

Editing, therefore, has been reduced to saying "Yes" to a submission. That is no more editing than buying a meal makes someone a restaurateur. Editing, real editing that goes beyond proofreading, is both a skill and a talent. Any degree of editing starts ahead of this book, as the basics of spelling and punctuation and grammar should be mastered before a writer even contemplates sending in a submission. This might be a good place to recommend Ellen Datlow's "Rant on Proper Submission Formatting".

Although there are different levels of editing, some of which is just proofing for bloopers of spelling, etc., editing of the sort that a person can state with veracity, "I am an editor" can lift a story out of the writer's stumbles of meaning and obscurity. It can untangle a story's guts. A great editor is a joy to work with, and a lack of editing is nothing for writers to sigh about with relief. Only amateurs consider their submissions perfect as submitted.

The basics of book design have also been ignored in FF. The publisher has been so arrogant that there has been no attention paid to some conventions that aid reading pleasure. I suspect that this is because he is impervious to learning from example, though he claims to be a great reader. There are no headers in this anthology, though a reasonable convention for anthologies has running headers with the author's name on, say, the left page and the name of the story on the right. Page numbers are more helpful if they are placed on the outside of these headers, not the bottom centre.

There is no understanding of the roles of display fonts and body fonts, but that pales compared to the gap-toothed appearance that occurs in this book and does with all others every time a publisher doesn't understand that justifying paragraphs leaves spaces that need manual correcting.

Paragraph indents follow the manuscript indent, making the printed page take on a corroded appearance. Most amateurs who get books printed and call themselves publishers, fail to notice that the printed page should be set with less of an indent than what a typesetter needs to notice that there is a new paragraph. It just looks better and makes reading smoother.

A picture is worth how many words?
All that writer stuff is just an egg dropped on the floor and put on your plate—nothing to make a fuss about—compared to treatment of the art in this volume. The artists are as credited as the sculptors of Notre Dame's gargoyles. Although there is a "Contributor Bio's" list in back, there is no crediting of individual artworks. The Table of Contents does not list the illustrations by artist, nor does anywhere else. Even the cover is uncredited, though a casual glance at other books would have shown this publisher that the artist of a book cover is often not only credited on the cover itself, but in the book, near where the publisher itself claims rights. It is a nice touch when the ToC lists the illustrations, but wherever they are credited (and sometimes it is on the page that they are displayed), they should be listed somewhere.

I don't know what the contributors think about this book, but I will say that I suspect they didn't get a galley as part of the pre-publication and editing process. Galleys should have been sent out, and sent out again. I don't know if the word is familiar to this pub/ed, but anyone thinking to submit to a small press should make sure before submitting, that there will be an editing process that involves the writer seeing a copy of the work in the galley stage, and being able to make comments and ask for adjustments if there are mistakes.

Slash and burn, splash and flambé
I don't like to cut down people who attempt something, but there is nothing noble in this small publishing venture. This is not the product of some kid just out of school, many of whom have standards that would shame this. This is not some production by people who are not living in an Anglo country. Back in the prehistoric days of the 1980s when spell checking relied entirely on people, the humble "Soviet Literature: Modern Soviet Short Stories" series was a fascinating read, and not because it was a shambles of language and grammar. The translations were flavoursome and served up such good grammar that it was a shame the restaurants had to serve their fare with forks that couldn't take the strain of food. Today's small presses in many non-Anglo places, such as Blaft in India that I raved about recently, can often be pointed to as models of excellence. Two other examples are the consistently fine Philippine Speculative Fiction series published and edited by Dean Frances Alfar and Nikki Alfar, and A Time For Dragons, An Anthology of Philippine Draconic Fiction edited by Vincent Michael Simbulan with illustrations by Andrew Drilon (who is credited on the front cover and twice in the book as the illustrator). This dragon anthology is quite a treasure, by the way, and I hope that one day it is reprinted and made available internationally, for it has a wide breadth of vision that is unique, and really memorable stories. Included in the volume is a wonderfully informative (without pain) essay by Charles Tan, about the great variety of dragons and their relationships with us.

In contrast, by its sloppiness, FF has not only hurt the standards of the contributors if they are happy with the standard and consider this a stepping stone to the pro market, but small press publishing, if the quality is considered acceptable and the publisher not taken to task. He was interviewed on the ABC, self-righteously talking of altruism. "I accepted a long time ago that if I were to pursue my dream of publishing fresh horror fiction then my drive would be based solely on love and admiration and not towards the financial gain. . . . My hope is that eventually the average Australian's (sic) preconceptions of horror fiction will change for the better. If, through Tasmaniac, I can change some people's views then that's a positive sign."

This could be said to be an amateur publication and a small press, but if you buy one of his books or are a contributor, you spend money and time, and to paraphrase my grandfather, money and time don't know from amateur.

What causes me the most outrage is the slap in the face that this give to good small presses. There are many superb small publishers today who pay great attention to all aspects of what publishing should be, from the concept of the book to the way submissions are treated, to the process of actually reading and understanding and editing and communicating with authors, including paying them. These publishers know what galleys are, and all the aspects of editing. They have as role models, great editors like Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois.

Their commitment follows through to the look of the book in all its aspects—and that includes the look of the publisher. Only then can the publisher can be said to be a publisher, and the editors earn the title of editor, for it is a great skill and there are few fine editors.

As the publisher of FF is Australian, this is the final straw. There is a timidity in Australia to say when the she'll be right attitude is just dog vomit. By accepting Tasmaniac's claim of quality, we do wrong by the fine contributors this publisher has effed up by not presenting them as the best that they can be.

By praising FF, this leaves anyone justifiably mistrusting any claims, so when a bookstore is approached to carry a small press publication, we can't blame it for not even considering the work.

High notes
MirrorDanse Books and its publishing/editing team of Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt have proved for years that there is no excuse needed for a small press. Their Year's Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy series is always well designed and a pleasure to read (even if I still think they indent too far). Some of its publications are the equal of any from the most respected houses, and some should have received far more international recognition than they have. I particularly like Confessions of a Pod Person by Chuck McKenzie and A Tour Guide in Utopia by Lucy Sussex. The MirroDanse website is lousy, but they put the work into the making of fine books, the relationship they have with their authors, and the promotion of quality fiction in Australia beyond their own press.

(1 Feb correction: I was sloppy with my use of "lousy", which needs qualification. MirrorDanse has no intuitive url and no glitzy Enter page such as Tasmaniac's with its nice graphics and no information [these infuriate me]. MirrorDanse's website is very plain and makes no attempt to be anything other than informative. It is, however, in English, and organised well. Also, all its links work, unlike those on many other small p's sites, including Ticonderoga's.)


Two other small presses and names in Australia that deserve praise for their dedication, products, and integrity in how they have treated their contributors, are: Cat Sparks and Robert Hood's Agog! Press and Russell B. Farr's Ticonderoga Publications (both of these publishers in hiatus). New promising small presses include Peggy Bright Books whose first publication, The Whale's Tale, reads well and presents well from the cover all the way through. Simon Petrie in particular, has married legibility with attractiveness in his topnotch book design, which makes lovely use of artwork by cover artist and illustrator Eleanor Clarke. This is one book that credits even the editor. PB's second book is now out, this one by Petrie, but I don't have it yet, so I can't report. I mentioned Twelfth Planet yesterday. There's quite a risk-taking attitude in this press that I like, and so I do hope it does good and does well.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is produced by a cooperative, which should be enough said. It should be a disaster, but it isn't. Sometimes the magazine is bloody brilliant, and sometimes less so. Sometimes the editing is a work of love and dedication in addition to talent and skill, sometimes less so. Some issues are better proofread than others. But there are no dud issues. ASIM does things right far more than it does things wrong, which is why I like it to read and to submit to. If that's not enough, ASIM likes to make its readers smile, a good enough reason on its own.

Some other small presses that deserve high praise that I can tell you about because I've seen their kitchens (been a contributor):

Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan's Omnidawn Publishing. I was able to improve my story in ParaSpheres because of the sensitivity of the editing, down to some incredibly fine attention to comma placement. The process was also smooth, and best of all, I love the design of the book. Someone with old-fashioned typesetting and layout knowledge was involved, and it shows. John Klima is a superb editor and it shows in his Electric Velocipe, now a joint venture with Nightshade Books. His editing also improved my story in his anthology Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories (which was his concept, too). Matthew Kressel I've quoted at the beginning of this rant. The way that he and editor Ekaterina Sedia treated us contributors in the making of Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fiction is a major reason why the anthology won its award. Mike Allen and his little poetry zine, Mythic Delirium. You might think he'd just wing it for a poetry magazine, as any crime can be covered by poetic license, but not so. I was delighted to be pulled over politely by him when he told me that his "copy editor" questioned my use of "mayhaps". Jay Tomio is another insanely dedicated perfectionist, and a joy to work with. Like all wonderful publishers and editors, he is both considerate and not afraid to point out something that tastes off. That's what makes his Heliotrope Magazine consistently good. Vera Nazarian and her Norilana Books win A's for her dedication, drive, and integrity—but in my opinion, Nazarian still needs to learn more about book design so that the products consistently match her vision. That's not to say that Sky Whales and Other Wonders isn't a better book than many that big presses put out. It is. But she could do even better if she got some lessons from a book design fanatic. An editor any writer would be lucky to work with is Jed Hartman. There are many more editors and publishers I haven't mentioned, some that I only know are good from second-hand knowledge. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer can be excellent editors—when they put out a book, it's not only a great read, but right with great attention to look, and promoted beautifully. But their profile is such that I'm telling you something you expect to hear. On the other hand, you might not know of Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi's ChiZine, based in Canada. Their production of Claude Lalumière's Objects of Worship, should, in my opinion, get the Hugo for 2010 Best Collection.

But of all the small presses, the one I would hold up as the model that deserves all stars, is Neil Clarke's (he describes himself as"Publisher/Editor" and lists a crew of other editors) Clarkesworld Magazine. It was laughable that this was a nominee for the 2009 Hugo as "semipro". Sure, there's no claim to "quality" on the site, but when it's there, it shows. Mmm-mmm! And I love how Clarkesworld treats its artists.

Eat it!
Well, this was a rant with many self-corrections, so it's probably a dog's breakfast, vomited. You don't expect me to follow my own advice, do you? I don't want to be toooo perfect. So thanks for dining at my restaurant. I hope you remembered to rub the spoon on your clothes before you ate, to clean it.

4 comments:

punktortoise said...

Anna,

While not wishing to wade into the debate (beyond noting that the points you make, on the need for publishers to exercise vigilance and meticulous care with the work of contributing authors and artists, are well-founded and are indeed things that need to be said), I do have a couple of minor corrections to report. First, although it indeed appears Agog is in abeyance, Ticonderoga Publications continues to be quite active (several anthologies and collections put out last year, more this year). Though their website's been hit with a number of problems, so you could be excused for thinking they've gone the way of so many small presses. Reports of their demise, etc, etc.
Second (and thanks very much for your kind words on "The Whale's Tale" book design), I'll point out that the second Peggy Bright Books release, my own collection, isn't actually out yet - it's a month or so away.

(Simon Petrie)

anna tambour said...

Thanks for your information about Ticonderoga. That's good news which wouldn't have to be spread like a rumour if the website were brought back to life, which includes getting those dead links off its front page. If the problem is the common one that a webmaster must do it so it somehow doesn't happen, it's always better to have a simpler site and no webmaster.

And I do like the cover and title of your "Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables".

Vin said...

Hello Anna! I just want to thank you on behalf of the authors of "A Time for Dragons" for the kind words.
I am in full agreement with the points you have raised in your entry. I firmly believe that if you are going to attempt something, then you are obliged to do your best to make sure it comes out right. (Admittedly I heaved a sigh of relief upon realizing that our anthology was being held up as a POSITIVE example) I have been blessed with wonderful authors who submitted excellent stories and the success of the anthology is a testament to their collective efforts.
It is a distinct honor to know that our stories have reached you, particularly since I am a big fan of your work, Klokwerk's Heart being a personal favorite of mine.
I wish we could do as you said and reprint the book for an international audience, but sadly we currently do not have the resources to do that. Perhaps in the future. I remain hopeful.
Again, thank you and more power to you.
- Vin Simbulan

anna tambour said...

Thank you, Vin. I remain hopeful, too. I look forward to your next publishing venture.