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An Interview with Sean Wallace

Sean WallaceSean Wallace is an executive editor for Wildside Press; founder and senior editor of Prime Books; co-editor of Clarkesworld Magazine; co-editor of Fantasy Magazine; and the editor of several anthologies, including Best New Fantasy, Horror: The Best of the Year, Jabberwocky, and the forthcoming Japanese Dreams and Phantom. In 2006, he took home a World Fantasy Award for Prime Books in the "Special Award: Professional" category.

What prompted you to start Prime Books? And Fantasy Magazine?

Pure circumstance, actually, for Prime, as I was editing Cosmos Books at the time, for Wildside Press, when I was approached to help out a failing publishing company. Despite all efforts the company had no choice but to wind down its operations after about six months, and I was left with a lot of unpublished authors. It turned out that none of these projects really fit well with what I was publishing at Cosmos Books, so I launched Prime Books rather quickly, I think all in a matter of a month or two. I never want to do that again, within reason, but it worked itself out and I’ve never really looked back. Though, it has to be said that if this hadn’t happened I probably wouldn’t have gone into that direction, so I’m quite happy either way.

However, quite unlike the creation of Prime Books, basically thrown together quickly without much thought or planning, Fantasy Magazine was actually thought-out, over a period of about a year and half, especially once I realized that I wasn’t finding a lot of short fiction in the other magazines that I really liked, that really matched my tastes. (The closest examples that somewhat filled the bill were Realms of Fantasy or Strange Horizons). I wanted something more, and I felt that there was a big gap in the field for a magazine like this. I’d been thinking about this quite a bit, since early 2004, but it wasn’t until later in 2005 that I felt confident that I could put something together. Learning that World Fantasy would be in Madison, WI, in 2005, I aimed for a November release and quickly put something together by inviting submissions from a number of my Prime authors. Everything came together very nicely and culminated at World Fantasy, with the finished product at the convention and in everyone’s bags!

Horror: The Best of the Year

You’ve worked with a number of publishing companies. Do you have any editors that you consider role models or mentors? If so, what have you learned from them and what do you admire about their editorial style?

No, not really, as I don’t think I’ve followed in anyone’s footsteps, though, of course I’ve admired the accomplishments of book and magazine editors like Ballantine, Campbell, Del Rey, Gold, and many more, but when I was just learning the ropes of publishing I didn’t have anyone that I worked with, really, no one that I studied with. I learned a lot just by observing and, oddly enough, by collecting and reading books and magazines from the thirties onwards, and if anything, I learned what not to do, occasionally, but that simply means that you get to make all new mistakes—and learn from them as best as you can.

Is there anything you’ve encountered which you would hold up as something not to do as an editor?

The biggest fear that I have is that as an editor, I might lose any understanding or grasp of what’s going on in the field and to short fiction in terms of new approaches, new styles, and new authors, and I strive to keep on top of that by reading online zines, message boards, mailing list, anything that I can get my hands on. It is a dangerous position or stance to assume that what one publishes at the beginning, or middle, or end, of one’s editing career is the end-all-be-all-of-existence, which is a quick way to being out-of-date and irrelevant to today’s readers.

Japanese DreamsWhat are your foremost goals and aspirations as an editor?

What I’d like to bring to the field in my career is my personal love of short fiction, novellas, and novels and share it with as many readers as I can reach, really. It’s like some horrible secret bursting to be told, with no other recourse but to gently push it out into the world and see what happens—and to a large degree this drives my aspirations to work on marketing, on distribution, on whatever needs to be adjusted, so that people can enjoy what I’m enjoying, what I’m reading, what I’m publishing.

The business model of publishers who use print on demand technology versus traditional offset printers is often criticized, with such publishers stigmatized and accused of being glorified vanity presses. Detractors claim that without the pressures of inventory and making a positive return on an investment, there’s no incentive to promote, market, or publicize titles. Prime Books uses POD technology. What’s your response to these sorts of criticisms?

It’s just a technology like any other, and it doesn’t necessarily detract from anything that you can do for a traditionally-printed book, as it’s what you put in it that really matters. I’ve certainly had no issue gaining reviews, sales, or awards for my authors or books over this issue, and I don’t expect it to be a problem in the future.

Secret History of Moscow

You’re engaged in one editorial capacity or another with Fantasy Magazine, HPL’s Magazine of Horror, and Weird Tales. There would seem to be an overlap in the target audiences of these publications. Do you think there’s room in the current market for all of these to thrive without negatively competing with each other?

Let me turn this question over to our magazine director, Stephen Segal, who says:

“That’s an excellent question, and one that we’ve devoted a lot of thought to recently. Over the past six months or so, we’ve been focusing more consciously on developing the individual identities of these three magazines—and with the reinvigoration and redesign of Weird Tales unfolding over the course of 2007, I think it will be clear that, while all three mags feature various flavors of dark fantasy, they are actually conceived and aimed at three different audiences.

Fantasy Magazine is sophisticated, cutting-edge, literary fantasy. It’s for the modern mythologists, the magical realists, the subtle psychological dreamcrafters. It’s for all those people who fell in love with Datlow & Windling’s reinvented-fairytale anthologies, and it’s for all those people who feel that they’ve grown up out of the cookie-cutter fantasies they enjoyed as kids.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror is exactly what the title promises. It’s for horror lovers who dig fiction at least as much as film, who want a more sublime reading experience than they’ll find in those media magazines full of gore, splatter, and B-movie debauchery. And it’s also for Lovecraft fans—the lifelong readers as well as the young crowd of gamers and such—who in recent years have rediscovered and made icons of both Cthulhu and H.P.L. himself.

Weird Tales represents an incredible opportunity for the genre, for the painfully simple reason that the title is so inclusively enticing. I mean, who on Earth doesn’t like hearing about weird stuff? The original Weird Tales in the 1920s was a subversive cultural statement, born of a desire to print the kind of bizarre writings nobody else would. That’s why Weird Tales has the potential to be such a unique magazine today—that underground spirit is alive and well in 21st-century America, just waiting for us crazy storytellers to wake up and stop letting the musicians and political activists have the whole audience to themselves! We really see Weird Tales as the gateway drug, if you will, that can grab the attention of a new generation of ‘freaks and geeks’ and lead them down the winding path into the world of speculative fiction.”

New, short fiction magazines and small presses are notoriously short-lived. What are the ones that fold doing wrong?

I don’t think that’s really a question with an easy answer, but the entire field is actually suffering, and that’s not limited to just genre magazines or small presses. After all, we’re all working against all sorts of entertainment, sharing and dividing smaller and smaller portions of a heavily-fragmented pie, with the result that, perhaps, something has to give, somewhere. Having said that, however, companies and projects go under for any number of reasons, some for personal reasons or financial reasons and some for just pure bad luck and timing. And even the best-intentioned of magazines or small presses can go wrong at any time, and that’s the nature of business.

A prevalent sentiment is that genre short fiction is dying, as evidenced by plummeting subscription numbers for the last several decades of the “Big 3″ digest-sized ‘zines, Analog, F&SF, and Asimov’s. Yet you continue to involve yourself with short fiction projects. What’s your take on the state of the short fiction industry?

I’m actually quite pleased with what’s going on with short fiction, but before you get out the pitchforks and come after me with a vengeance, let me explain: what I think is actually going on is that the market is diversifying in all directions and not actually getting smaller, as some would have you believe. Between the growth of online zines, “boutique” magazines, and original anthologies, the argument that it’s the end of the world doesn’t hold much water as much as it’s all changing, and that’s really not anything different from what’s gone on before. As such, I think it’s entirely premature to sound the death-knell of the short fiction industry, with the market in flux these days—perhaps as a result of various trends, including online experimentation, easy access to publishing resources, and more. The market is fragmenting, broadening, stretching, which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. However, after much thought, after reading Richard Park’s journal posting on this subject, I certainly agree with his premise, that we’re actually living in a golden age, at least both for readers and for authors. In the last few years the small press has truly stepped into the fray, issuing magazines, anthologies, and collections in recent years. This isn’t limited, however, to just the small press, as we’re even seeing more major anthologies from the bigger publishers, especially this year and in coming years, with no signs of slowing down or stopping.

The market is still working itself out, as it always has done. It’s not at all a cause for alarm or concern as much as an opportunity, and I very much enjoy introducing and providing stories to readers in the best way that I can. And that’s why I continue to support short fiction with magazines and anthologies, because I still strongly believe that it is not dying—it’s only adjusting, adapting, and moving forward.

Have you observed any trends in publishing with regard to differences between what mainstream genre publishers are putting out versus smaller, independent ones?

Apart from more and more small presses picking up the slack in regards to publishing short story collections or anthologies, I’m not really seeing any trends currently, no—though in the last few years we’ve witnessed increased chain penetration from the small presses, and that trend isn’t slowing down. This may be a result of market fragmentation, perhaps, but I think it’s a good thing, either way, as it provides readers with more choice. And that can’t be bad.

There are some readers and critics who complain that genre short fiction has become more literary and mainstream and therefore less entertaining and accessible to the average SF fan. What’s your response to these complaints?

I don’t know what they’re talking about, considering that mainstream acceptance has increasingly integrated science fiction and fantasy within itself, which is what we’ve been working towards for years, now. For years, genre has wanted to get out of the ghetto and be recognized, and now that it has, it seems like it wants to retreat back from whence it came—but I’m not convinced that being more mainstream is necessarily the end of the world, not if you consider that more people are probably reading science fiction and fantasy today. With genre markets shrinking, fragmenting, and collapsing, I think it would be a terrible mistake to place the blame on the literary or mainstream establishments instead of realizing that this is an opportunity to reach a lot more readers than ever before. You can’t put the genie back into the bottle. It’s time to deal with what’s going on and work with what we’ve got.

You’re in a unique position to examine the marketing and viability of both print and electronic magazines. What are the comparable weaknesses and strengths of the two mediums?

There are so many differences in the two mediums that it’s hard to point any one thing out, but the biggest issue between them would be revenue streams, in that at least with print magazines you can still work with a variety of venues, including subscriptions, advertising revenues, and newsstand sales. With an online zine, however, it’s a bit more difficult to work out a business model that works in a similar fashion, but I just think that means that short stories in the future will be utilized as marketing tools to bring readers to websites, and as such, be allocated as a marketing expense. I don’t think there’s any other way around that, and I’m convinced that that’s the way to go, but it can only work if it’s done in conjunction with other tools. Short fiction, in and of itself, is not enough to attract readers, nor should it, really. You need value-added components to make it work, and I think the field is still working that out.

Beyond that I think that with the declining subscription bases of the print magazines, it may actually be easier to get “eyes” or readers for online magazines, eventually, as the potential is much higher, but it’s a question of getting the good word out, which boils down to marketing. If anything the quality and production of webzines have improved and matured, currently, and so I think the next step is figuring out how to best approach readers and keep them. It’s only a matter of time before someone hits on a business model that works.

Do you think short fiction continues to be a good way for an aspiring writer to break into the industry? And do semi-pro publications and independent publishers succeed in bringing fresh voices to the attention of readers?

I think so, as it’s one of the best ways to hone one’s craft, to interact both with editors and readers early in one’s career, particularly if that’s the form that the author wants to work with. (Short fiction is not always the answer for aspiring writers, as some people like to work at longer lengths, so it really depends on the author.) It all depends on what you want to do and how you want to do it, I think.

I do think that small press, both of books and magazines, do introduce fresh voices to the field, which is essential to keeping it exciting, original, and new. That’s where, certainly, I find a lot of new authors, by keeping an eye out on the market, but I’m sure that’s where a lot of readers go for their fiction, as well, when looking for something new and original to read.

What are the most important things a new writer should know when submitting work to you?

Be original. That doesn’t mean an original plot, but an original style, an original approach, an original character, something that speaks to me and the reader with what you are trying to do with your story. More than anything that’s what makes you different from any other author, and what your editor or your reader will notice, when reading your submission.

What do you look for in the fiction you publish? What makes a story stand out or really succeed for you?

Style. Style. Style. You begin to recognize truly original style very quickly, and it’s something that as an editor I look forward to strongly in submissions. You can differentiate between a story by Theodora Goss, or Holly Phillips, or Caitlin Kiernan, or Gene Wolfe, quickly, and so can anyone else. That identification is very important to both the editor and to readers, and I think that on the basis of that that style is essential to making a story successful. You can’t pull it off without it, after all, and it’s what makes you different, and that’s something to strive for.

Is there any specific content that you’re actively looking for? What’s really “hot” right now?

Something that’s really lacking in our pages is material from overseas sources, as I like a variety of stories and storytelling in what I read and publish, and it’s something that I look for a lot in our own slush. However, so far as I can tell, I don’t know what’s hot right now, apart from faery-tale retellings, which seemingly goes through cycles but even that isn’t too hot.

Are there any taboo subjects for you or material you see so much of that it’s a hard sell?

I don’t think so, in regards to taboo subjects, because it’s rather how you handle the material that really matters, which is pretty much the same answer for anything that I might see a lot of. I’d prefer to see it all and make a judgment then, sometimes with or without the help of my peers, which would include other editors, co-editors, authors, and readers. I think, in all of the last two or three years there has been, perhaps, half a dozen stories that I might have raised my eyebrows on, but I don’t think I’ve really turned it anything down, really. I’m much more inclined to find a venue for those particular short stories, as I have done recently, with Bandersnatch, an anthology I edited with Paul Tremblay, which contains . . . well, what I might think is edgier or explicit material. There’s an audience for that, somewhere, and I think I’m justified in publishing it for them, in some way or fashion.

What’s the most common thing you encounter in a slush pile that will result in a speedy rejection?

Simply bad writing with spelling and/or grammar mistakes. It’s an automatic turn-off, and I can’t read any further, particularly if it’s unusually excessive.

Have you ever been tempted to doff your (many) editorial hats, and try your hand at writing fiction?

Never! I tried that when I was younger, in high school, and I’ve never felt the urge to go back to writing. If you’ve ever seen any examples anywhere, you’d know well enough why. (Please don’t go searching for them, whatever you do.)

Finally, tell me about the new projects you’re most excited about currently.

There’s too many to shake a stick at, but I’ll take a stab in a hundred words or less of books I’ve got scheduled for early to late summer: for early July we have The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia, her new novel, on the heels of her successful The Secret History of Moscow; Desideria by Nicole Kornher-Stace, a slipstream dark novel set in an alternate mid-to-late 17th century, again for July; Phantom, a new original horror anthology series, edited by Paul Tremblay and myself, with stories by Steve Berman, Michael Cisco, Stephen Graham Jones, and others, another for July; and Seeds of Change, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams with stories by Ken MacLeod, Tobias S. Buckell, Jeremiah Tolbert, Mark Budz, Jay Lake, and more, for a special Worldcon release. The other slightly-unrelated-to-Prime-Books projects I have coming out in the summer: Realms: The First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine, edited by Nick Mamatas and myself. It comes out in June, and it’s a compilation of twenty-four stories from our first year, with all kinds of goodies, including stories by Sarah Monette, Catherynne M. Valente, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Barth Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Tremblay, Cat Rambo, Ekaterina Sedia, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and many more.