Interesting Times: John Kenny talks to Ellen Datlow
Originally appeared in Albedo One #35 (2008)
Ellen Datlow is one of the most highly regarded short fiction editors currently working in the field of science fiction, fantasy and horror. She has edited numerous print and online publications such as Omni, Omni Online, Event Horizon, SCIFICTION, and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (now in its twenty-second year). Ellen has won many awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Locus Award for Best Editor, the Hugo Award for Best Editor, and the Karl Edward Wagner Award. Her latest anthology is The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Sixteen Original Works by Speculative Fiction’s Finest Voices.
John Kenny: Looking back at the halcyon days of the 80s and comparing them to now, what do you see as the major differences?
Ellen Datlow: For one thing, magazine and web markets are coming and going at a dazzling rate – although, of course, webzines didn’t come into existence until the 90s, not the 80s. In the early 90s such magazines as Strange Plasma edited by Steve Pasechnick, Century edited by Rob Killheffer and Jenna Felice and Crank! edited by Bryan Cholfin brought forth the subsequent little magazine explosion that produced Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the new burst of boutique magazines sprouting from that endeavor. These magazines are publishing very good work. The only downside is that without exception, the pay is minimal or non-existent.
As far as quality in short genre fiction, I see horror in a golden age. Every year I have more and more difficulty just choosing 125,000 words of the best. I could double the size easily and triple it, if I added the best novellas.
Science Fiction has fragmented into hard SF, alternate universe fiction, steampunk, soft science fiction, science fantasy, post-cyberpunk, military SF, and more. Fantasy has more subdivisions than ever now, too. Imaginary world, urban fantasy, paranormal fantasy, sword and sorcery, magical realism, etc.
The major change I see is that the young adult market in genre fiction as well as ‘realistic’ fiction has exploded.
JK: It’s interesting to see such an upbeat view of the current short fiction field. The feeling I’ve had for the last several years is that the market is shrinking. However, your comments tell a very different story; there seem to be more small press magazines and webzines out there.
ED: Well, the down side, as mentioned above is the payment. Original anthologies have also started springing up in the gaps left by ‘pro’ magazines.
JK: This market was killed in the 70s through flooding the market. Most anthologies these days seem to be themed though.
ED: Actually, this trend has been slowly changing over time and has culminated in a number of non-theme anthologies having been published over the last three years or so: the two Solaris books of fantasy and science fiction edited by George Mann, the anthologies edited by Lou Anders, Terri Windling and my co-edited Salon Fantastique a couple of years ago, my recent two non-theme anthologies: Inferno (horror) and The Del Rey Book of SF&F (mentioned above), Eclipse One and Two edited by Jonathan Strahan. Also, Firebirds and Firebirds Rising edited by Sharyn November and The Starry Rift, all non-theme anthologies for young adults.
In addition, there have been more broadly thematic anthologies such as The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. How long the non-theme anthology will continue to be supported by publishers and readers is anyone’s guess.
But the fact about theme anthologies is that they’re easier to sell to the publisher and to marketing and sales people because it gives them a hook.
JK: With the ascendancy of the internet and print on demand technologies, do you think the days of the major SF digests are numbered?
ED: Not being a prognosticator it’s really hard to say. But I think those held in private hands (like F&SF) can continue for as long as the owner decides to keep them running. I don’t think the internet has all that much to do with it. It’s been tough for the last two decades to get the digests seen on newsstands among larger format magazines. And if a magazine isn’t seen it won’t be bought except by very loyal subscribers. In other words, how can they attract new readers? That’s the real issue for the digests.
JK: I guess webzines, at least quality webzines, are equally subject to commercial pressures. Witness SCIFICTION. What was the reason for its demise and were the circumstances similar for Event Horizon?
ED: Event Horizon was funded with a small individual outlay by me and my three former Omni colleagues. We created the zine to promote the web business we were starting. We had already run a couple of online sf conventions for Eos while still at Omni and ran another once we left. We had hoped to sell enough advertising on Event Horizon to support the site, if not ourselves. However, none of us were knowledgeable about ad sales and although we did indeed sell some ads we had trouble collecting payment… Rob Killheffer and I were heavily invested emotionally in the webzine but we all needed to earn a living. We didn’t want to put any more of our own money into the webzine so we reluctantly decided to pull the plug.
The situation with SCIFICTION was completely different. SCIFI.COM, the SCIFI Channel corporate strategy changed over a few years from creating a content-rich website that was meant to be The center of all science fiction (which was happening when I was hired) to ultimately becoming primarily advertising for the SCIFI Channel. Corporate politics – completely different from Event Horizon, which was privately held. The SCIFI Channel went through two or three corporate owners during the six years I worked there.
JK: Sturgeon’s Law applies as much to webzines as to anything else, but is the percentage of dross even higher? Is it, perhaps, too easy to produce a webzine and too easy for writers to submit less than their best?
ED: I think the percentage holds true. But to me, it’s more a problem that there aren’t enough editors for webzines. Everyone has always thought they could write. Now everyone thinks they can edit. It’s as much a problem with print magazines and anthologies that are produced on the cheap as with webzines. POD technology makes it cheap and easy to produce books and magazines.
JK: The landscape of art and entertainment is changing radically. Books, magazines, DVDs and CDs versus e-books, webzines, downloadable PDFs, movies and music files. Is there a danger of art being squeezed out by the more lightweight entertainment as attention spans decrease?
ED: This subject has been brought up continually for decades. There are certainly newer types of reading material available and becoming more popular. Manga, for example. The popularity of the Harry Potter series created a surge in growth of the young adult market and that’s certainly encouraging.
The more important change is the delivery system of the arts. The technological age is making some things easier – to download movies and music and books. It can make books even more portable than they are – the Sony e-reader and the Amazon Kindle can make storing multiple mss/books easier. For example, two publishers, Hachette and Random House, have given their employees in sales e-readers in order for them to get and read forthcoming titles without wasting paper. Isn’t that a good thing? If people get used to certain methods of reading I see no problem. Humans got used to the change from stone tablets to papyrus to paper. We either adapt of die.
JK: Do you think the new kindle device and similar e-book devices will any impact, positive or negative, on the short fiction market?
ED: Not so much – those who like reading online and on PDAs will continue to. I don’t think those devices will necessarily attract new readers – just the same ones who will find the e-books easier to use. But see my response above… the readers are being used in a new way by publishers.
JK: Over the last number of years, you have had the back up of a regular editorial stint (Omni, Event Horizon, SCIFICTION, etc.) to the work you do with anthologies. Are you on the lookout for something similar again?
ED: My impulse is to say yes. I would love a full time job with a regular salary and medical insurance. But I’m having a really great time editing several anthologies at the same time, in different genres and on different themes. I’d just like to earn more money from each one.
JK: How did you get into editing?
ED: Editorial assistant jobs are advertised -or at least were – in The New York Times, when I was first looking for a job in publishing in the mid-70s. Presumably they’re still advertised wherever people advertise (I haven’t looked at classified ads for a very long time). My first publishing job was as assistant to the NY salesman at Little, Brown & Co‘s NY office. I got that job by sending a resume to every publishing house in the phone book whose name I recognized. They had an opening and called me back.
I was there for several months before I was able to find an editorial assistant job. One good way to get into publishing is volunteer to intern at a big company. The only problem with that of course, is that you have to live where the publishing houses are. New York is still the center of the American publishing universe. There are so many editors floating about (at readings/conventions) that it’s easy to meet them. And all you have to do is ask them if there’s an opening.
I don’t know if you can still do this but when I was starting out I asked to meet with editors/publishers even if they didn’t have an opening at the time (this was in mainstream publishing not genre).
JK: Have you ever had the urge to write yourself?
ED: Nope. No interest or ability.
JK: Tell us about your latest anthology, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
ED: I was approached by Chris Schluep, editor at Del Rey and Colleen Lindsay, who was a Del Rey publicist at the time and asked if I’d like to do an original anthology along the lines of what I was publishing at SCIFICTION. I said sure. I put together a brief proposal, sent it to my agent, and Chris bought it.
Two of the stories were sent to me for SCIFICTION, which was in the process of being closed down, but I felt they’d be perfect for the anthology I envisioned: they were ‘Sonny Liston Takes the Fall’ by Elizabeth Bear and the novella ‘Prisoners of the Action’ by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman. I put out the word to writers I’d worked with at SCIFICTION or who I wanted to work with and voila! I received one last minute submission that I begged Chris to let me squeeze in: Nathan Ballingrud’s ‘North American Lake Monsters’ – and he did. The book is 125,000 words long.
JK: Do anthologies have a long shelf life or do you need to ensure that there are new books in the pipeline all the time?
ED: They certainly have a longer shelf life than magazines. Some of my anthologies have been in print for several years. Snow White, Blood Red has been continually in print for fifteen years now. Several other anthologies have been or are being reissued: Prime and Wildside have been and are reissuing the other five adult fairy tale anthologies edited by Terri and me and my cat horror anthology, Twists of the Tale. B&N has recently reissued my two vampirism anthologies, Blood is Not Enough and A Whisper of Blood as a single large volume under the title A Whisper of Blood. But yes, as an editor making a living from anthology editing I need to ensure that both for the money and to keep my name out there. Not having a monthly magazine out with my name on it means I have to make an extra effort to keep my name in the public eye.
JK: Most of your anthologies are original. What do you look for in a story?
ED: Barring thematic content for a theme anthology, I look for stories that affect me in some way – first off, I want to become totally involved in the story as I’m reading it, just like any other reader.
For this to happen, though, I might be more demanding than the casual reader. Sloppy writing with bad grammar and dull language and otherwise poor word choices, or major inconsistencies in vision and characterization will jolt me out of the story. I enjoy a distinctive ‘voice’ in a story. Those are the basics. Of course, sometimes the specific ‘voice’ is a narrator who is ungrammatical or is speaking in dialect, but that’s an intentional choice that’s more difficult for beginners to pull off.
As I edit an anthology what I’m looking for changes. I’ve said this in other places, but at the start I am wide open to a variety of types of stories. As the anthology fills up, I start to weigh what I’ve got in terms of word length, theme, point of view, type of story, type of characters and the needs of the anthology become narrower as I try to fill in the remaining spots with something different from what I’ve already got.
JK: What’s next in the pipeline?
ED: My next anthologies (in production) are: Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, coming out from Solaris in the UK and US January 29th in honor of Poe’s Bicentennial (mid-January). Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales co-edited by me and Terri Windling is a middle grade (8-12 year old) anthology of retold fairy tales. That’s coming out from Viking in the spring of 2009. Terri Windling and I are finishing up The Beastly Bride: and Other Tales of the Animal People, the fourth in our ‘mythic series’ of young adult anthologies for Viking. That should be out in 2010. I’m also working on an all reprint anthology tentatively titled 25 Years of Modern Horror for Tachyon which will cover two decades of modern horror 1984-2005. I’m currently working on three other original anthologies: one fantasy, two dark fantasy and horror and have a couple of collaborative anthology proposals being worked on.
JK: Wow, that’s some schedule you have ahead of you.
ED: Yup. A (freelance) editor’s work is never done.