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A Conversation with Betsy Mitchell
Interview by Steven H Silver
February 2003
© Ellen Datlow
Betsy Mitchell
Betsy Mitchell
Betsy Mitchell, previously Editor-in-Chief of Aspect, the Warner Books science fiction and fantasy imprint, was appointed Vice President, Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey Books on January 2, 2002. Prior to Warner, she was Associate Publisher of the Bantam Spectra line, where she edited the Star Wars titles, as well as such authors as William Gibson and Dan Simmons. Before that, she was a Senior Editor at Baen Books and a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald.

ISFDB Bibliography

Dark Matter
The Baker's Boy
A Man Betrayed
Master and Fool
The Difference Engine
To start off, could you provide some titles of books you've worked on?
Whoo. In no particular order -- after 20 years of publishing, it's very difficult to come up with a "top ten" list -- Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, ed. by Sheree Thomas. The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling. The Baker's Boy and its sequels, J.V. Jones. Everything by Nalo Hopkinson. The Reality Dysfunction and its sequels by Peter F. Hamilton. Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler. The Fall of Hyperion and The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons. And so many other terrific books.

There are several different types of editors, from magazine editors to anthology editors to acquiring editors. What exactly does your job entail?
For many years I was primarily an acquiring editor. We read manuscript submissions and decide which books we can best publish. That's an extremely simplified description of the job, though. These days, it's not enough to sit around waiting for the morning mail. We're on the phone with agents, asking about upcoming projects; we dream up book ideas and find writers to carry them out; we hobnob with authors we'd like to lure away from other houses (oops, did I say that???). My new job as Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey, though, means that I'm doing less acquiring and more administrative tasks. There are five acquiring editors reporting to me; my job now is to shape the list from among all the possibilities we have offered to us and to come up with long-range plans for Del Rey. I also get to play with the backlist. Del Rey was 25 years old in 2002, and many of our titles are ripe -- nay, overripe -- for repackaging with new formats and cover artwork.

Do your ties to science fiction and fantasy predate your job as an editor?
Very much so. I'm a second-generation reader; my dad collected Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and dozens of anthologies published in the 50s and 60s, for which I'll be forever grateful, as they gave me such a wide introduction to the variety of SF writing. Judith Merril was my favorite anthologist; Groff Conklin was another terrific one, and the annual Best of F&SF collections were wonderful. I still have my dad's collection, safely up on my top shelves at home. I never attended any conventions until I entered the field, though -- as a teenager in Omaha, Nebraska, I had no knowledge of them. I was bold enough to call Harlan Ellison on my 17th birthday as a present to myself. Dangerous Visions made a huge impact on me, mostly because of Harlan's story intros, and I wanted to say thank-you. His assistant said he was busy writing, but I was satisfied that I had tried. That was before he got an unlisted number, obviously....

How did you get involved in editing?
My degree was in journalism, and immediately after college I was hired as assistant to the city editor, then cub reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. (Hey, no scoffing! The biggest paper in Nebraska!) So I learned all the copy-editing and proofreading skills that way, and the discipline of writing day in and day out to deadline. My family serendipitously moved to New York while I was working at the paper, and after 2 1/2 years of long hours and making multiple deadlines every week, I decided it had to be easier to be an editor than to be a reporter, so I made the leap to New York. My first job was as advertising copywriter for Dell Books, where I met Jim Frenkel, who at that time was running their late-lamented SF/fantasy line. Jim hired me to write freelance cover copy for some of their hardcovers and introduced me around to the New York professional crowd, and as soon as a genre job opened at Asimov's and Analog, as editorial assistant, I took it. Thanks, Jim!

When you want to buy a book, do you have the authority to purchase the manuscript or must you get publisher approval?
The Del Rey editors bring possibilities to me for first approval, then we take a P&L (profit and loss statement) and our suggestion for what to pay the author to Gina Centrello (President & Publisher of Random House Ballantine Books) for final OK. She almost always approves what we want to buy; she trusts our instincts.

Many people have an image of editors sitting around their offices reading manuscripts. How close is this to reality?
The most useful talent an editor can develop is the ability to "sit around the office reading a manuscript" while simultaneously answering phone calls, shepherding contract requests, writing fact sheets/meeting presentations/audio presentations for each and every book they choose to publish, surfing the Internet for mention of each and every book they choose to publish, coming up with marketing ideas, mollifying peevish authors/agents/artists/art directors/bosses/you name it, making lunch dates, and leaning on authors to deliver their books on time.

When do you get a chance to read the majority of your manuscripts?
Many submissions can be handled on my subway ride to and from work, which gives me a solid hour of reading time. If a manuscript really captures my fancy, I take a reading day and stay home to work in peace and quiet.

Do you feel editors should receive credit for their work anywhere on the book, or should they remain relatively anonymous?
Hmmm, I have mixed thoughts about this. On the one hand, cover designers (the ones who choose the typeface and do the cover layout) get their names on books, as do the artists. Editors have far more impact on the overall book than cover designers, yet our names don't show up unless the author chooses to include us in the dedication or acknowledgments. I can't think of any arguments as to why we shouldn't have our names on the books, frankly, but there must be some time-honored reason.

You've recently moved from one publishing house to another. How tied-in do you feel to the books you purchased for your previous house, some of which are just now being published?
My babies, my babies! I look for the reviews and award nominations, and congratulate my authors whenever something good happens. I still feel very much attached!

You were involved with publishing the anthology Full Spectrum 3 and Full Spectrum 4. Would you be interesting in doing another anthology series?
I've always loved short fiction. Let me think about that.....

Can you describe how editing an anthology differs from editing a novel?
I'm in the midst of editing Legends II, novellas by bestselling authors set in their beloved universes (Neil Gaiman/American Gods, Terry Brooks/Shannara, Diana Gabaldon/Outlander, Orson Scott Card/Tales of Alvin Maker, etc.) This project is a bit special because the authors are on such a high level, but every story still gets read, every question I might have -- or Robert Silverberg, who is the editor of record, might have -- will still get answered, and it won't be by us. The only difference is the herding-cats challenge of getting so many incredibly busy, high-powered writers to all deliver at the same time so that we can actually PUBLISH THE BOOK WHEN WE NEED TO. At least with an individual author you only have to beat up on one body.

Do you have any desire to write fiction of your own?
No, although I enjoy writing non-fiction -- reporting came easily to me and I can whip up a talk or an article with ease. My mother tells me that at age 14 I announced to her that someday I was going to be a science fiction editor. I don't remember this myself, but mothers don't lie, do they? Even as an early reader I recall thinking how cool it must be to get to work on books before they reached the printed page. Harlan and Judy Merril and other editors were my heroes more than the authors were.

I'd like to address some of the more general publishing questions and misconceptions readers might have. How are book covers created? Who selects the artist and assigns the project? How much of a book is the artist given to work from?
Once a season (three times a year) we meet with the art department to discuss cover concepts. This is, reasonably enough, called the Cover Concept Meeting. The author will be asked for his/her thoughts; editors will bring in show-and-tell items such as art samples from an artist they'd like to use, or type treatments that caught their eye on other books. Then the art department assigns an appropriate artist. We always give the artist as much of the manuscript as exists at the time; many of our artists do enjoy reading and coming up with their own ideas for cover concepts. In some cases, such as the Star Wars titles, a manuscript almost never exists in time for the artist to read it, so he/she has to work from an approved outline and ask for details from the editor and author.

Who provides copy-editing on a book?
We have a pod of long-time freelancers who copy-edit for us beyond the line-editing stage. Some have worked with our authors for years, on manuscript after manuscript.

When working with an established author, do they provide you with a list of possible books that you then discuss or do they simply provide you with a single outline that they then proceed to write?
It can work either way. Most often an author will have a good idea of what he/she wants to do next. We'll talk it through, and as long as the idea seems to have no fatal flaws, it becomes the next book. Sometimes he or she will have multiple ideas. In that case, we do some thinking about which of the author's previous books have been most popular, and which new readers we might want to reach with a new book. We try to help authors grow while at the same time please their existing audiences with something that's not too far different from what they're used to reading.

How often are there editorial alterations to a text? Do you work from the assumption that the author knows what she wants to say and what her audience wants to read, or do you see yourself as being able to guide the author's work for a better market?
Have you seen my tattoo, "Born to Edit"? In my opinion there is not a manuscript ever written that couldn't use a little editorial feedback. This can range from unscrambling odd sentence structures to clarifying entire plotlines. It wouldn't be correct to call this "guiding the author's work for a better market," though. The time to steer a book to one market or another is in the conceptual stage, not in finished form. British editors appear to have a much higher regard for the author's first draft. They seem to do far less editing over there; I've several times re-edited authors who have finished dealing with their British editors. It is to these authors' credit that they're willing to listen to input from this side of the big water.

Can you describe the process a manuscript goes through from coming in and showing up on the shelves of a bookstore?
Let's assume it gets delivered on deadline -- a big assumption sometimes! We schedule books so that we'll have time to do all the prep work that gives them the best chance to succeed. This includes circulating copies of the manuscript in-house in order to get support from other departments, coming up with a great cover (sometimes going back to the drawing board in sketch stage two or three times), getting the edited manuscript into production early enough that we'll have time to create bound galleys and send them to reviewers and Industry Big Mouths.... Meanwhile the manuscripts is being copy-edited and proofread -- the author sees both of these stages whether they want to or not -- and we are presenting the book to our sales force at various informational meetings.

How do you treat manuscripts which come over the transom differently than other manuscripts?
Del Rey had to stop reading unsolicited manuscripts a couple of years back, due to such a large backlog. Manuscripts sent in by agents always receive priority, both as a professional courtesy to the agents and as a nod to the fact that those authors took the time, and had the talent, to interest an agent in representing their work. In way-back years when I worked for other houses that did accept unagented material, the over-the-transom manuscripts usually suffered the same fate of having to wait perhaps twice as long to get read.

How long does it generally take from a manuscript's delivery to publication?
A manuscript can be published instantly, as Robert Jordan's last several have proven; those came in at the last possible instant and were rushed into print. Optimal time between delivery to publication is more like nine months to a year. This allows the editor and author enough time to perfect the story, for the book to appear in advance galley form so that reviewers have plenty of time to look it over before pub date, and for others in-house (publicity, sales reps, etc.) to read the manuscript and get enthusiastic about it as well.

You mentioned science fiction conventions. What role, if any, do science fiction conventions play in the professional life of an editor?
Cons allow us to hear the unvarnished truth about what we've been working on, from booksellers, serious readers, and even other editors. I'll say one thing about con-goers: they speak their minds. Even if it hurts.

Copyright © 2003 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.

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