Alan Smithees

I do a lot of work that will never show up on my credit list, on my insistence. I call these Alan Smithees, after the crediting pseudonym used in the film industry.

Why wouldn’t I want to be credited?

  • One reason would be that an author overruled much of my guidance. Since the reader can’t know that, the outcome will reflect on me even if the author ignores all of it–unless I opt not to be credited.
  • In some cases, I consider the subject matter highly controversial, or representing views I consider terminally flawed or even odious, and I don’t mind editing it but I don’t want to be associated with it professionally.
  • In others, I have told the author quite clearly that I don’t think it’s a good or viable story idea, but the author disagrees, and asks that I do my best to help it anyway.
  • Now and then, it’ll occur to me that the author might face repercussions, and I may not want to share in them. Not that I am sure this would shield me, and not that I’m sure a risk could exist, but I’ve run into it.

Me going Alan Smithee doesn’t mean that the author shouldn’t publish the book. I’m not an infallible judge of literary worth. I most often have a better mental picture of how the readership will react than does the author, but not always, and I can’t know or govern how the author will go about marketing. All an Alan Smithee means is that I do not desire print credit for my role.

All the same, when I request not to be credited, a majority of authors find it disconcerting. The authorial psyche tends to contain a fair bit of false bravado masking a lack of confidence, so while the reaction may be very defiant on the surface, in many cases the author has begun to question something, or perhaps everything. One of the chiefest such questions is, of course, whether I’m the right editor for the project. Thus, any time I mention the possibility, I am prepared to see this happen.

While I reserve the right to opt out of credit at any time prior to the book’s going gold, it would be what’s called a ‘bitch move’ for me to spring that at the end without any hint beforehand. The reason should be obvious, but here’s my nutshell version: any situation that might bring on an Alan Smithee is one that it is my job to notice or anticipate at the project’s start, not at the finish. In one noteworthy case, the original writing required a complete rewrite. I advised the author that if s/he rejected edits or added material, the voice would be disrupted–that is, that there’d be inexplicable bursts of grammar, tense, and other mistakes in the final product. In the end, I asked not to be credited because I didn’t want people to see those and conclude that I hadn’t done my job correctly. It wouldn’t mean that, but any quick session with a few Amazon reviews will tell you that most readers don’t realize that the final result doesn’t necessarily reflect the editor’s full influence. The author can overrule me at will, and then I have a decision to make. In the end, if upon final review I do not want my name in the book, the author will have known of the possibility up front, and then made decisions, followed by me making decisions.

In the ideal world, I would always want to have my name in every project in which I was a participant. Until that ideal world comes, we will have some Alan Smithees. And that’s okay.

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