As part of our continuing profile series at Five Rivers, we feature an interview today with Editor, and man of many hats and talents, Dr. Robert Runte.
Q. When not working as an editor at Five Rivers you’re a university professor. Tell us a little about your day job, your personal life, and how you dovetail that with your role at Five Rivers.
Robert: I’m an associate professor at the University of Lethbridge. A lot of people assume I’m an English professor, since so much of what I do revolves around being an SF critic, but I’m actually a sociologist, and — just to make things even more confusing — I teach in the Faculty of Education. (It’s a long story.)
At some level, all professors are editors, because we spend a lot of our time providing feedback on written work, both students’ essays and colleagues’ papers, but I’m particularly interested in this aspect of my work, and have taught grad courses on writing, and so on. I’ve had master students who wrote a novel or did narrative research, so guiding them through that process is pretty similar to what editors do in bringing a book to print.
Q. Would you say you’re a driven person?
Robert: No, not really. I have a strong work ethic, but since getting married and having a young family, I’ve tried to place family over career. I always want to do a good job and I put in the work to make sure I’m succeeding, but I’m not particularly ambitious. No desire to become Dean, for example. Same with my own writing. I have a “Shoe” cartoon strip on my office door at work that pretty much covers it: Roz asks Shoe, “How’s goes it with the Great American Novel?” and he replies, “Oh, I’ve given up on that. Now I’m trying to write a Modest Canadian Novel.”
Q. What is it about your professional life that captivates your interest?
Robert: I have very wide ranging interests. What I like about teaching on a smaller campus (at least it was small when I started here 20 years ago) is that I get to teach in two or three different areas and research whatever strikes my fancy. On a larger campus I’d have to specialize way more and would probably get bored pretty quickly. So I do research on everything from worker exploitation to cyberculture, to youth culture, to student assessment practices, to undergraduate social construction of academic writing, to curriculum projects like “Learning about The Acadians of Nova Scotia” or “the Human Rights of Children.” And of course, I’ve written a fair bit on Canadian science fiction and fantasy.
Q. There are so many other interests that could take your time. Why choose to involve yourself in the ephemeral and evolving world of publishing?
I’ve been involved with SF for 45 years, first as a reader, then as a fan (putting out 145 issues of various fanzines, winning a couple of Aurora Awards, and working my way up through the ranks to Fan Guest of Honor at the WorldCon), then as a critic and editor. I was one of the editors with Tesseract Books when it was still an imprint of the Books Collective, and on the editorial board of On Spec magazine for a while, and so on. And as an academic, I like to think that my writing on Canadian SF has had some influence in making people aware that there is some. So joining Five Rivers as an editor seemed like the next logic step in a long progression. I guess the bottom line is, I’m interested in the world of publishing right now precisely because it is ephemeral and evolving, and Five Rivers looks well positioned to be on the cutting edge of the next stage of that evolution.
Q. Is there a mandate you’ve adopted for your role at Five Rivers?
Robert: We’re still feeling our way, so at the moment I’m mostly just editing manuscripts that the publisher passes on to me and working with the authors to bring their book to press. Again, that’s pretty much what I do in my day job, so it comes pretty naturally. I imagine that in the future I’ll take a more active role in acquisitions, and I have a couple of projects in mind that might be interesting to pursue, but we’ll see how things evolved.
Q. Of late everyone’s peering in the publishing crystal ball. Where do you see the publishing world going in five, ten, fifteen years?
Robert: I see a clear bifurcation emerging in the market between the large legacy publishers and small editor-based publishing houses. The giant corporate publishers are bogged down in debt, the result of the acquisition wars of the 1990s, so they’re really only interested in big sellers. They have to amortize their debt load etc across a million copies, so even excellent regional or niche writers whose potential audience is by definition only 60 or 70 thousand copies, can’t get in the door. The big corporate publishers are necessarily working from a production model, more like Nike than like the publishers of yore, and the books they churn out essentially processed cheese. The editors aren’t making the decisions any more, they’re being overruled by the marketing department and its focus groups.
On the other hand you have this explosion of independent publishers and self-published books. Of the 1,465,000 separate titles that sold in the US last year, 1,200,000 sold less than 100 copies each. What that says to me is that there are an awful lot of independent titles out there that are going nowhere. I can only see that trend becoming even more pronounced as more would-be writers realize how easy it is to self-publish. That’s a nightmare for readers, of course, because that means their only choices are the pap from the risk-adverse corporate publishers, or taking their chances with an unrefereed, self-published title.
The solution that is emerging, it seems to me, is a movement back to editor-driven small presses where the imprint is the guarantee of quality. If you pick up a book from Dragon Moon Press, or Bundoran Press or Chizine, you know exactly what to expect. Either your tastes are the same as that editorial team, or they aren’t, and you purchase accordingly. Once you’re seen a couple of titles from that imprint, you can buy with confidence. It’s the same principle as signing up for a channel on YouTube.
I see Five Rivers being well placed to be one of those channels/guaranteers for new Canadian voices, in both fiction and non-fiction. What we bring to the table is not only a particular set of tastes, but also editing skills. So many of the self-published novels out there have not gone through editing, or sometimes even worse, have been edited by someone outside the genre. A business editor cannot do a decent job editing an SF novel, and vise versa because they are working from the wrong paradigm. Publishing isn’t about production anymore, because with technologies like the Espresso Book Machine and e-books, that part of the process has become ridiculously simple. Today it’s all about the editing, in both senses of the word.
Q. What sort of literature intrigues you? What do you read and for what purpose?
Robert: I pretty much alternate between SF and nonfiction. I read a lot scholarly research for my day job of course, but I also read a lot of regular nonfiction just ‘cuz. I like to learn something new all the time or I feel like my brain is slowing down. And I read SF because I have always loved it.
For the last three decades I have specialized in Canadian SF. I set out to read every Canadian SF novel, and back in the late 70s that was a possible goal. Now, of course, there is so much out there it’s no longer really feasible. The best of Canadian SF is better than anything else out there because the themes and characters and settings etc resonate with me as a fellow Canadian. Guy Kay’s Tigana, for example, could only have been written by a Canadian, because the issues of national identity it raises just wouldn’t present the same way to an American or Brit.
Q. How do you see the role of editor evolving in this new environment.
Robert: Well, just like any other literature, there is also a lot of drek in Canadian SF. As a reviewer, I’ve been constantly frustrated by SF published by small Canadian literary presses where the editors clearly didn’t know the genre, and so let the authors get away with cliches that a more knowledgable editor never would have allowed to slip by; or worse, the editors’ disdain for SF meant that they didn’t hold their SF authors to the same standards as their ‘literary’ authors. Or authors who are trying so hard to be depressingly Canadian or literary, that they lose basic story telling. That’s particularly a problem with a lot of graduates of university creative writing and English lit programs — they are told by some prof that this book over here is literature, so they all try to write like that, rather than writing in their own voice. A lot of what I do in writing workshops is undo the damage done by English profs. I keep seeing so many books coming across my desk for review, that have fatal flaws that force me to pan the book, when if they had come to me before being published, I could easily have shown the author how to fix it. It’s incredibly hard to see the problem in your own work, so if you’re not getting proper editorial support, you by definition are not doing your best work. I wouldn’t think of putting out my own stories or books without getting feedback from an editor I trust. So I think the role of freelance and small press editors is really going to evolve in the next couple of decades, and I want to be part of that.
Q. I understand you’re working on a novel of your own. Tell us a little bit about that, about the journey you’ve taken to take your work this far, and where you’d like that to go.
I’ve got about 12 novels in my head, more or less complete, some of which I have been ‘working on’ for 30 years or more, but with the demands of my day job, I’ve just never had the energy to get them down on paper. So a couple of years ago I took the plunge and started writing one of them out for real. I deliberately chose the simplest, most straight-forward novel to start with, so that I could concentrate on the basics of plotting, pacing, dialog, and so on. I’ve seen a lot of talented writers over the years who never finished their novels because they tried to write like Dostoevsky out of the gate, and when their first drafts weren’t perfect, they gave up. On the contrary, the writers who have gone on to be successful are those that started out with the more modest goal of producing something publishable, and learned their craft as they wrote, and are today the big names in the field. So mine is just a straight-forward , 1950s SF adventure novel in the tradition of the Stainless Steel Rat or maybe something by Kenneth Blumer, though maybe with a bit of a Canadian slant. I’ve tried to take what I’ve learned as reviewer, the things that have always bugged me about other peoples’ books, and made sure I haven’t made those same mistakes. For example, one of my pet peeves is when the hero walks onto the alien spaceship, or whatever, and just says, “oh this must be the warp drive engine controls” or “this must be a hierarchical culture, and that one with the big horns must be their leader”. I mean, come on! So in my book, my hero is always getting stuff wrong. He keeps jumping to the wrong conclusions or saying the exact wrong thing at the wrong time; not because he’s an idiot, but because life is complicated and he’s out of his environment. But he usually manages to muddle through in the end. I expect American reviewers will hate him precisely because he is such a Canadian.
Q. What are the biggest challenges facing you?
Robert: Just finding the time to do all the things I want to, especially my own writing. There always seems to be some urgent deadline standing between me and writing the next scene.
Q. Any advice to writers submitting work to Five Rivers?
If they’re writing SF, or any fiction for that matter, they should check out the Turkey City Lexicon; it provides a pretty good checklist of things not to do. If non-fiction, getting the facts right and communicating clearly are the bottomline requirements. Either way, they have to be prepared to go through their own manuscript with a fine tooth comb and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, until it is as good as they can possibly make it. Then — and this is the hardest step — once they’ve submitted it, be prepared to revise it again based on feedback from the editor. Editors aren’t always right, but once you’ve found a compatible one, you really have to listen when they ask for something to be rewritten.
I remember as a reviewer being wowed by a particular scene in an otherwise unremarkable fantasy series, and when I met the author I asked her, “How did you do that? That was the best thing anyone has ever written on [topic].” And she looked really chagrined and confessed it hadn’t been in the draft she’d originally submitted to the publisher, but that her editor had demanded that she write that ‘missing’ scene. It had taken 12 rewrites to finally satisfy the editor and had been like pulling teeth, but it still stands as the best thing she has ever written. That was an example of what editors are supposed to do, and how a good author allows an editor some input.