Jim Frenkel on The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror is in a way the culmination of something that started when I started working at Dell Books in 1976. When I was growing up I used to see, not every single year, but at least a few years, the Year's Best SF that was edited by Judith Merril, which Dell published from sometime in the late '50s till sometime in the mid-'60s. Those were amazing books, and when I started working at Dell in '76, I thought it would be cool to do a Year's Best there again, since they had the earlier tradition. Lester del Rey had been editing a Year's Best SF for E.P. Dutton, I think, and I thought it would make sense to reprint that in mass-market paperback rather than starting from scratch which, given the length of Dell's production schedule and other factors, seemed like a good idea. But if I remember correctly, Gardner Dozois took over the Dutton series just when I was able to buy the first one for Dell reprint. I wasn't sure Gardner's name would sell the series the way Lester's had, but I really believed in the Year's Best idea, so I bought it. We did O.K., not great, but O.K. with the first one; the second one we did didn't do as well . . . and then Dell decided that there was no future in SF (my phrase, not theirs), and thus I was laid off because, though I edited westerns, covered a number of hardcover houses for reprints, and did other books that weren't SF, I was considered the "SF guy" and our then president, Carl W. "Bud" Tobey, who had become president of Dell when Helen Meyer, the president for many years, sold the company to Doubleday and a year later retired. Bud hated SF -- he claimed that Dell had never been able to sell it, and still couldn't (though it turned out he was wrong -- we were making good money, even though our list had nothing but reprints by old codgers like Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, Jack Williamson and that ilk . . . and young unknowns like Spider Robinson, Joan D., Vinge, Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, Diane Duane, Gregory Benford, Jeffrey A. Carver, John Varley and that ilk . . . and a few other writers like Gordon R. Dickson, Ben Bova and the like.

As I say, Bud was, unlike Helen Meyer, hellbent on NOT selling SF or fantasy, even though we had titles, like Another Fine Myth by Robert L. Asprin that sold so well we went immediately out of stock . . . and they refused to go back to press -- an 80% sell-through wasn't good enough for them. In Bud's -- and Milt Oehler's words (Milt was director of sales and distribution under Bud, and another experienced Dell hand) -- if it was 80% of 200,000 it would be one thing. But we only printed 50,000 copies and sold 40,000 of them, with back orders for another 8,000 within weeks. Too much of a risk, they opined.

Right.

Anyway, I left Dell 1n 1981 and started Bluejay Books in 1983. One of the books I knew I wanted to publish was a Year's Best. And having worked with Gardner on the Dutton anthologies (which they stopped publishing when Dell stopped reprinting them) I thought it would be a good idea to get him to edit a series for Bluejay.

The problem was that Bluejay was not a mass-market company; we just didn't have mass-market distribution, so were limited to trade hardcovers and trade paperbacks. And I was acutely aware of the questions that sales forces in those days would always ask about a trade paperback: "Why should people pay two or three times as much for a trade paperback as they would pay for the same book in mass-market paperback? What -- this is just a mass-market book blown up big and priced higher, eh?"

I thought about this and decided that the only sensible thing to do was to do a trade paperback that could simply not be reproduced by another company in mass-market paperback. And that meant making it a very big book. Judith Merril's anthologies had been pretty thick, but I don't think they ever got over 150,000 words, if that long. She got a lot of stories into her Year's Bests, but a lot of them were short stories. There were a lot more short stories and a lot fewer novelettes in the fifties and sixties, so you could do that. But now we were in the 1980s, and people just seemed to write longer, a lot more novelettes were being done in the major SF magazines.

When Gardner and I talked, I suggested to him that I'd like a bigger book than the Dutton series, at which point he said, "Well, I'll need more money." So we paid him more -- $7,500, as an advance (I had no idea how much Dutton was paying him, but it must have been less, because he took the offer.) But then we faced terrible opposition from the sales and marketing director at St. Martin's Press, which was distributing our books. Mark Levine was the man. He told me flat-out that he couldn't imagine why anyone would buy a big fat best of the year anthology for $9.95 in trade paperback, and he bet me (I should have made him put money on it) that we wouldn't sell 5,000 of them. If we sold that few, we would have taken a bath -- between the cost of typesetting -- this was well before computer typesetting, and more than a decade away from using authors' files from which to typeset -- and the other normal costs, i.e., cover art, separations, paper, printing and binding -- no small cost with a big book like this -- and advertising. I firmly believed that something like this, a juicy, substantial volume of the very best the field has to offer -- would benefit from advertising. I also felt that we should do something to make sure people knew we weren't just trying to con them, so I invented the Bluejay Guarantee, and included that in our advertising. Basically, we offered some money back (I can't remember right now -- it might have been $1.50) if someone wasn't completely happy with the anthology. We used this on subsequent anthologies, both in this series and other ones. Our quality guarantee.

Long story short, we ended up taking a risk. We had 4,000 advance orders for the paperback, 450 for the hardcover; I asked my partner, the production manager for Bluejay, Joann Hill, how many copies we had to print and sell to make a reasonable profit -- not a big one. So we printed 7,500 copies in paperback, 1,000 hardcovers. After the starred PW and Kirkus reviews, I got more optimistic -- I have to say that having the person who was responsible for motivating the sales force say he couldn't see why anyone would buy the book had shaken me up a little -- after the reviews.

I felt a lot better when we had to go back to press for another thousand copies. We ended up selling pretty much all of them, and the series has just done better and better ever since.

In 1986 I was just about ready to do a Year's Best Fantasy series, based on the success of the first three Year's Best SF books, but we had problems at Bluejay. They were all connected to bookkeeping. We were in a classic cash bind that happens to new companies, and needed to establish a credit line -- but our financial statements weren't ready fast enough, and we ended up stopping publishing before we could resolve the issue. So I was faced with the dilemma of what to do with our editorial inventory. SMP decided they'd like to take on some of the books we were publishing, and the one they wanted most was this series, The Year's Best SF. It was satisfying, to say the least, that the book they'd thought would never work was now something they liked so much they wanted to publish it themselves. And they've been doing so ever since.

I knew that if I didn't come up with a Fantasy companion volume, someone else would. Gardner didn't need me to do the Year's Best SF, so I was about to be superfluous. So I got busy really quickly and put together a proposal for the Year's Best Fantasy, drafting Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling to be the horror and fantasy editors, respectively. And they bought it, and we've been going ever since. When we at Bluejay first did the Year's Best SF, I remember feeling that I was following in the footsteps of Ian and Betty Ballantine, because I always thought of Ian and Betty as being people who would take risks if they thought they had a good idea and had some reasons behind their confidence in their ideas. They innovated, they dared to do things that hadn't been done before. And that's what I was doing with The Year's Best SF.

I got Tom Canty to do the cover because Terri Windling loved his work, and I couldn't agree more. He's much more versatile than most people realize, and he's done great work for the series. And Ed Bryant loves movies, so I got him to write about film and TV; we've had various people write about comics and graphic novels, and anime and manga, and music -- well, Terri wrote about music at first, but when she left, Charles de Lint took over, though he'd always been giving her recommendations, I think. So that wasn't surprising.

The Year's Best Fantasy (which we retitled . . . "and Horror" after the second year) was also successful, and, well, though we've had some turnover, when Terri stopped editing the fantasy after the 16th Annual Collection, and with various people who have done columns for us, the idea is essentially the same as when we started. A big book full of great stuff.

That's the basic story. Probably more than you wanted. Let me know if you have more questions.

Addendum. Mackenzie speaking. I did ask one follow-up question -- So were Ellen and Terri your first choices for thus project And if so, why?

Actually, Ellen and Terri were my first choices. I honestly don't remember the precise details of it at this twenty-plus-years removed, but I know that I had always felt that Terri was the best, most knowledgeable fantasy editor I knew. She'd been doing wonderful work in the field for more than ten years, probably longer, and when I thought of the book, she really was the first person I thought of to edit the fantasy side.

And I'd known Ellen for even longer, going back to when she was a young editor at Holt, and she did a little reading for us at Dell. And then she started working for OMNI, and that was really the start of her bigger profile. She has always been, in my view, one of the very sharpest editors of dark fiction. It wasn't hard to pick her, nor Terri.

I was very pleased, and slightly relieved, that they seemed to like the idea, both of them, and they didn't seem to have problems working together, though really each had her own domain in the book.

And it seems to have worked out really, really well for both of them. I feel as if I should have been getting a piece of the action on all their collaborations in anthologies -- there have been quite a number since the first Year's Best. They simply have a great chemistry between them for all sorts of fantasy anthologies. Which I think is terrific.

That's pretty much how I came to choose the two of them.