Last week I came across a blog post being peddled on social media, a Hugo best editor short form finalist ranking by a faceless group. I opened the list to find myself at the bottom of the ranking, for the reasons of having “merely” and “only” edited a reprint anthology, which they considered inferior and less work than editing publications with original works as the other editors they ranked higher did. The post further stated that I merely “showcased” the work of other editors.
It’s rather unusual for a creator to criticize the critic. In fact, it’s often frowned upon. But I maintain that there are exceptions to every rule. And the exception here is that this ‘critic’ went beyond just personal opinions, into redefining a craft I am actively involved in, and in so doing, made unequivocal statements that were glaringly and technically wrong.
It’s because of these re-definitions and technically and factually wrong statements that I protest the ranking, and not as an artist who is unhappy with how his work has been received. And while I also also disagree with the assertions the faceless group know as “SFF Insiders” made after my protests, insisting on the inferiority of reprint works and Year’s Best anthologies, I agree that they are entitled to their opinion. But that does not preclude me from sharing why I disagree with them, since their erroneous and faulty definitions have already brought me to the arena.
In their rejoinder to Jason Sanford, who also challenged their definitions, they said
With this, they double down on the original statement and further elaborate on why they think a reprint publication or Year’s Best is inferior to a publication with original stories. Based on my experience as both a reprint editor and an editor of original works, I know this is not true. Their idea of inferiority of reprints is based on an assumption that its selection is less rigorous and less risk. This is an incorrect assumption at best. Reprints are a different kind of work and risk, not less. Different does not imply less–something you’d wish more people understood in a world where people are embracing their differences more increasingly.
And here lies the difference. The original story editor strives to pick good or great stories. But they’re under no compulsion to pick the ‘best’ stories of the year. They only worry if their stories will be good or accepted. They don’t know and don’t care, or have to, that they will be the most important, best, or well received stories of the year. The reprint, Year’s Best anthology, on the other hand, is saddled with the very task of picking not just good stories but the best. It’s in the very title: “Year’s Best.” And that comes with its own risks entirely separate from what an editor of an original publication has to face.
One might argue that the best stories are already out there and the reprint editor has only to pick from what’s out there. Sure, some of the stories out there are well received. But picking all or only the stories that are in the current industry limelight for the year will invariably lead to a cliche and predictable body of work. It will at best maintain the status quo, the very opposite reason for my starting a Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology.
This brings me to my second reason for asserting that reprints are a different kind of, work as taxing & demanding as editing and curating original stories; reading pool.
An editor of a publication of original stories reads stories sent their way, in their slush or solicited from the limited number people they follow or like their works. A reprint editor, especially of Year’s Best, on the hand, has to read from a far wider pool; both those submitted to them by writers, editors and publishers, and those they go out to look for. Essentially, their reading pool comprises all the works published that year, or as wide a number as is humanly possible to consider and cover the gamut of genre offerings, in order to gain a holistic view of what is available. Perhaps the critic ought to pause and ponder how many works get published, including self published, in a year.
The reprint editor picks what is already published. But the Insiders are assuming that what’s published is just lying around waiting to be snatched up. Perhaps in the mainstream American SFF market, they are. But for other markets, especially the African Speculative Fiction one, one needs to find those stories and that can involve rogorius, taxing and extensive searching, More than an editor waiting for original stories in their slush or from friends may have to do.
Then there’s the issue of selection after the search. There’s no specific marker for what stories are ‘best’. Especially as I was striving to consider not just the best among the popular, but also the best among the obscure, including the unseen and self published. This brings me to another erroneous or overlooked point in the originals versus reprints assertion.
The Insiders state that the reprints editor only edits or puts out the initial offerings of the original editor. To quote them, “Without the original editors, reprint editors wouldn’t have anything to publish.“
This is demonstrably not true. for it assumes that everyone publishing goes through an editor. This assumption, that everything passes through editors is one that points at a high level of privilege and ignorance on how writing and publishing works for lots of people. Many people self publish their stories in their own collections, Patreon accounts, websites, blogs, newsletters, etc. The places where no original editor has to look while editing originals. The reprint editor looks in all these nooks and crannies for the nuggets that fall through the cracks of pro and semi pro or official publications. And they are a humongous lot indeed.
These are three points I want to highlight So will bullet them for easy remembrance
- The reprint editor faces the risk of producing the best instead of just the good. Different risk, not less.
- The reprint editor reads from a wider pool, everything they can get that year, not just submissions and solicitations during that call. So different work, not less.
- The reprint editor finds and snatches the works that don’t pass through any editors at all, work entirely outside the purview of an original editor.
The reprint editor may not edit the substance of the story but will still do light editing, in order to not replicate errors made in the original publication. Meanwhile they make up for this with all the other work they have to do, reading from a wider pool, scouring less defined markets for less visible works and writers, and agonising over which works qualify for best in the theme or year they are editing for.
The Insiders also base their assertion on the belief that the reprint editor just wants to publish the most popular or cool stories for that year and does not do extensive selection and agonizing over which stories to pick, or feel any risk in what they choose. They also assume that original editors are infallible and all the stories already published are good by virtue of their being published and will not go through rigorous vetting, or that the reprint editor wants and can take every good or even great story. They don’t consider that publishing already published stories under these circumstances might mean more, not less work.
There are thousands of short stories published every year, in official publications. Maybe tens of thousands if you throw in works that don’t pass through any editor, which a Year’s Best anthology editor has to consider. But the Year’s Best anthology publishes what? One or two dozen stories. And where most publications putting out original works usually have staff and volunteers, an army of slush readers and other assistants, Year’s Best anthologies are usually put out by one person, the editor who sometimes also doubles as the publisher, as in my case.
There’s also the fact that there are many publications receiving original works from writers, a whole industry of publications, from pro to semi pro to token, to free. Hundreds of venues that can and do receive and publish original works from writers. But there is only one Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology catering to the flood of published works, both editor published and self published where there are many magazines to handle original works. I cannot say categorically that the Year’s Best anthologist does more work than the publisher of original stories. But I can tell you it is enough. And that you also cannot categorically state that it is less.
Also worthy of note is that two of the stories in my Year’s Best anthology were stories that appeared in my own original anthology the previous year. I both edited and published some of the most reviewed, well recieved works by African or African descended SFF writers the previous year, another reason why the statement that I merely showcased the works of other editors is wrong. I “showcased” my own original works too. If the entirety of my work can even be broken down to a showcase of the published works. It cannot.
Meanwhile I did not include my own story for the Year, which was practically the most awarded novella by a Black, African born SFF writer. The omission met some criticism. I left out the story because I genuinely did not find it a good fit. And some people felt that wasn’t a good decision. I hope this makes it amply clear how complicated editing a Year’s Best anthology is and that Year’s Best does not simply mean any or all popular, cool stories hastily slapped together. Yet people think there’s no risk or difficulty in assembling a Year’s Best anthology because the stories have appeared or been published before. As if I simply woke up and said it was time to gather ten or twenty cool stories by Jonathan Strahan, Neil Clarke, Sheree Renée Thomas, Sheila Williams, Ellen Dartlow or any other reputable editor of original stories, and reprint them. This could not be farther from the truth and showcases, to borrow the word, an immense ignorance of what goes on in reprint and Year’s Best anthology editing.
Even if it’s an opinion that one is entitled to, like one’s asshole, I am also entitled to point out that it is a poorly washed one, that smells. There’s no basis or backing for it and it displays shallow thought, lack of depth, research, and a high level confidence that is just as highly misplaced.
There are a number of other assertions that I find problematic in the ‘criticism’. One is that of there being perhaps nobody who published a Year’s Best anthology alone winning the Hugo for editing and this proving that Year’s Best anthologies are inferior. It hasn’t happened before. How does that prove inferiority? Or that it never can or never should happen? Let us apply this logic to other things and see how it holds up. So say I have only ever eaten beef and not chicken. By virtue of that, I then assert that chicken is inferior and I must never eat it. Does this sound like good reasoning? An African has never won the Hugo award for editing before. Does that also then mean that Africans are inferior editors and should never win? That is rhetorical by the way.
That it has not happened before only proves one thing: that it hasn’t. Not that it’s inferior or that it can’t. And that isn’t even surprising in a world and genre riddled with prejudices and othering of marginalized people, where certain groups enjoy gross geopolitical advantages and privileges. Shouldn’t we be thinking about what hasn’t happened before that could, instead of what hasn’t before that shouldn’t?
In any case, no matter how poor an opinion is, it’s still an opinion, one the holder or sharer is entitled to. And I agree it’s not even the place of the criticized artist to do the pointing out. So I would normally not even try to correct this opinion, wrong as I think it is. I have been faced with many, equally wrong and just as foul smelling, which I haven’t attempted to correct. But the real problem with this one is not the poorness of the opinion, but the incorrect assertion in the first post that…
“his only work for 2021 was The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction, a reprint anthology showcasing the work of other editors.“
If the statement had merely been that reprints were inferior and I edited a reprint anthology thus earning me my lower place, the assertion would have merely been an odd opinion. But here it strays into incorrectness. It does this by encapsulating the entirety of the work I did and viewing it under the lens of selection of stories, and only from the pool of stories edited by the industry’s editors. But the work I did was far broader than mere selection and publishing of works by those or any industry editors. Even mere consideration of works was from a different, wider pool than what editors published. It included works they didn’t even get to see. That statement is not just demeaning in how it totals my work, but factually incorrect. And I would like an apology for that very poor and erroneous phrasing. And not the half assed one in their recent post where they put it down to my “interpretation”. I did not misinterpret the statement. It was poorly and incorrectly constructed.
The Insiders can go on believing that reprints are inferior, but I would like the statement that I was showcasing the work of other editors rescinded and removed from. My work went far beyond just selecting and publishing, “showcasing” stories of other editors as that statement claims. It involved reading from a different pool and considering works they may not have, creating a small press in the middle of a pandemic, Endsars protest, Lekki Massacre, Twitter ban, facing down publishing giants like Amazon, Smashwords, Draft2digital, circumnavigating the restrictive and often bigoted policies of them and payment systems like Paypal. There was also dealing with currency fluctuations and inferiority, racial slurs and online harassment from trolls, review bombing, etc. So much so that I had to give the work away free here, just to have it be seen.
The statement also discounts the work that went down in my own personal context and the context of this particular book. And I suppose no reviewer owes looking into the circumstances of any one book and work. It’s just that as the group states in their latest post, I am very public about my experiences. So you would expect a group that calls itself the Insiders to be aware of the very public aspects of a project they want to judge.
The group also makes mention of being writers and I suspect that influences their perspective on originals. I just want to say that it’s highly beneficial to come to a subject you want to discuss with knowledge other than how it affects you within your own limited and selfish scope.
Also, the accusations of racism and bigotry after the ranking aired and following their defense of it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who is aware of the context of the works and creators they rank.
Every time Africans have achieved excellence in nearly anything, they’ve had to defend or explain or prove the legitimacy of their earnings or position, or fight for the validity or value of the win, or their right to be there. When Tobi Amusan the Nigerian runner broke the world record recently, there was Michael Johnson, an American questioning whether it was her work and not a broken watch. After that it was the wind, then her shoes. Before that it was Stephen Smith, another American, mocking the Nigerian basketball team that was the first African team to beat the US basketball team and asking how people bearing such African names as they bore could beat an American team.
Before that it’s Jamaicans taking gold in the Olympics and being erased for American athletes. I could go on listing cases where Africans have had their work denigrated in favour of other peoples because of the idea that excellence is beyond us. A little thing called Anti-Africanism. If the Insiders were more In on the issues that exist and affect people today, they would have been aware of how that phrasing would come across to sensible, educated people who read it and what it seemed inspired by.
Since they wrongfully encapsulated and erroneously labelled my work as merely showcasing the work of other editors and I had to protest, I’ve had people question whether I was even qualified to be a Hugo best editor finalist. As if the Chicon 8 team did not verify that before announcing finalists. They did. Someone even said that I could not have edited my anthologies because of the unedited “quality” of my social media posts. Yes, social media posts. I have had my name smeared and dragged all over the place. My protest over the initial smearing was met with yet more smearing. And my protesting in the first place did not cause this. It already was going on. I merely confronted the wrong act of totalling and labelling my work as the work of others instead of mine. Influential members of the SFF community, were already sharing the demeaning post classifying my work as not my work.
Apart from ignorance and possibly bigotry, perhaps Anti-Africanism, I believe that this idea, of the inferiority of reprints in editing is also influenced and inspired by another thing. This is the SFF industry style of valuing and categorising stories along original-reprint lines where they wane in value and opportunities after the elapsement of the publication calendar year, becoming ineligibility for awards.
It should be clear that Year’s Best and reprint anthologies are exempt from being ineligible for awards irrespective of their reprint content. Though certain awards like the Bram Stoker still exempts them and requires works to have substantial original content to be eligible.
I believe this industry standard of discarding stories after the calendar year they were published in, trickles down and influences the industry in several ways including I believe, inspiring this idea that reprints and reprint anthologies are less valuable. It’s also responsible in part, I believe, for the fact that no African writer resident on the continent has so much as been nominated for Best new writer awards which usually have eligibility periods of 2 years after first publication. Time in which the continental African writer is not seen because their works are self published or published in less known publications or not well recieved when they appear in more popular venues. This is due to othering and the authors being geopolitically disadvantaged.
It takes us more than the two eligibility years of a best new writer award to break out. And when we eventually do, we break out, old, grizzled and ineligible. This is one of the very things that the Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology aims to correct. But how will it do so, when it’s being smothered even before it’s had its first cry and is taken as inferior for the simple fact of being what it is. It falls prey to the same system that will not value African writers, their works or African Year’s Best anthologies.
This is where all the repeated reminders that all winners have edited original anthologies come in I guess, and the solution would be to simply edit a bunch of original anthologies like everyone else. But wait, there’s a little problem of lack of access to publishing and payment systems, resources, and general privilege which has already forced me to give the book away for free, choosing visibility over survival. Am I to pay a yet higher price for visibility than income which is my well being, healthcare and very life? I suppose It’ll just have to keep going to the same group of editors in the same region it’s been going to because African writers and editors have no more to give. We won’t magically edit a swathe of original publications yearly just to meet arbitrary and inconsiderate industry standards.
In the end, all shallow and poorly thought out opinions on the inferiority of reprint works may be retained by the holders. I am however demanding an apology, after that encapsulation of my work and categorisation of it as the work of other editors, has been removed. And it should be removed. It is my work and not anyone else’s. Even if I earn no pay from the work, that much at least is mine, that it’s my work. And my ownership of it is not an opinion, unlike the one about inferiority of reprints. It’s a right, a moral right, that is inalienable, and that I’d like respected.
Meanwhile to all who follow and appreciate the editing work being done, be rest assured it will continue to be curated, compiled and distributed as conditions allow, in all the required forms, original or reprint. We will not let any arbitrary standards or classifications derail us from the good work and purpose. And someday perhaps we will find a world that truly and fully values the work we do, appreciate it’s importance and sees it’s true impact.
Till then, you can get the Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology for which I am a Hugo finalist. It’s free in all formats here, along with the Bridging Worlds non-fiction anthology. You can also follow my journey from WorldCon to Year’s Best, to Hugo award here.
Since we are on the topic of reprints, I’ll be sharing an old poem of mine from Instagram, my chosen medium of publishing poetry at the time.
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an African Speculative Fiction writer, editor and publisher in Nigeria. He is the first African writer to win the Nebula award for novelette with his climate fiction story O2 Arena, which also makes him the first African Hugo award, best novelette finalist. He edited and published the first ever Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology with which he’s the first African to be a Hugo best editor finalist. He’s the first POC to be a finalist in the Hugo award fiction and editing categories in the same year. He won the British Fantasy award for the Dominion anthology he co-edited and has a Publisher’s Weekly started review for the Africa Risen anthology he co-edited, that’s forthcoming on Tordotcom in Nov 2022. He edited the collections issue of Interstellar Flight Press and the non-fiction anthology, Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In A Pandemic. His works of fiction and non-fiction have appeared and are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Tordotcom, the SFWA blog, Galaxy’s Edge, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Uncanny magazine and NBC. He has slush read for Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch shores and others. He founded The Jembefola Press, and the Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award For Disability In Speculative Fiction. He will be guest of honour in the 2022 Can*Con and the 2023 International Conference For the Fantastic in the Arts.