Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Feature: Interview with Neil Clarke

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.


Neil Clarke is the publisher of Clarkesworld Magazine and the founder of Wyrm Publishing.

Hi! Thanks for doing this interview. First off, what's it like being the head honcho over at Clarkesworld?

You’re welcome! I’ve enjoyed running the magazine. At times, it can seem a bit surreal to me, but always in a good way.

What's the division of work like at Clarkesworld? Your staff page at the site just mentions you, Nick, and Sean. If the last two handle the fiction, does that mean you handle everything else including the HTML coding for the site (or do you get someone else to do that)?

Sean and Nick are my editors and the responsibility for the fiction in each issue is split evenly between them. All of Sean’s stories are solicited from authors we’d like to see represented in the magazine. Nick’s stories, on the other hand, are selected from among the hundreds of stories submitted to us each month. Nick is also selecting the commentaries we run.

I arrange for the interviews, select the art, maintain the website, handle the marketing, and take care of anything else that might arise.

What made you start Clarkesworld?

It all started at Readercon in 2006. At the time, I was still running Clarkesworld Books and had been experimenting with online fiction as a means of promoting some of the print magazines I was selling. Fantasy Magazine (still a print magazine at the time) was one of the publications that I had made arrangements with. After one of the evening events, Sean (Fantasy’s editor) and I started talking about how that was going. The conversation eventually turned to marketing Clarkesworld and the state of online fiction. Somewhere along the line, we started brainstorming about what it would take to build a sustainable professional rate online market. It was just a natural fit for a lot of my interests. By the end of the weekend, Clarkesworld was fully staffed and on its way.

Did you always know you wanted to be a publisher? Did you consider other career possibilities such as editing or writing?

The best jobs are the ones that find you. My path to publishing probably started with writing Bulletin Board System (BBS) software in the 1980’s. I’m dating myself a bit with that, so for those who don’t know what a BBS is, think really slow online communities in the pre-internet days that relied on modems and phone lines. I’ve been involved in online activities since (primarily working for universities and schools) and eventually launched Clarkesworld Books, which served my education in the small press. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to seriously consider publishing as a career option and it took bit longer for the right opportunity to pop up.

As for my own writing, I’ve published some academic papers and the occasional humor piece, but it’s not likely you’ll see much more than that from me. It’s more likely that I’ll edit something first.

What were some of the difficulties in setting up the magazine? In running it?

I don’t recall experiencing any significant difficulties in getting the magazine set up, but from month-to-month there are deadlines and sometimes making them can become a nail-biter. Fortunately, we haven’t missed yet, but it’s been close. There is one issue that I have to claim responsibility for. The chapbook editions of the magazine have been seriously delayed. It’s been a series of lessons in what not to do, but I’ve recently enlisted some help and should have that back on track shortly.

Nick and Sean of course are great editors but what made you initially choose them (or did they choose you)? Were they part of the secret cabal that thought about establishing Clarkesworld, did they win the position in a drinking contest, or were they accepted on a purely professional level?

Ah, the Secret Cabal Theory again. I’m pretty sure that it was either the Illuminati or Discordians that started that rumor and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to clear that up once and for all. The Secret Cabal does not exist. No one is secretly controlling our lives. It was pure chance that I knew these guys through the bookstore and they just happened to be attending Readercon that weekend. Clarkesworld is not a tool towards global domination, nor is it the up-and-coming evil empire. We are looking for a few good minions though.

Clarkesworld has some awesome pieces of artwork. Who chooses which pieces to accept/commission?

Thank you! I’ve been selecting the art for each issue. I spend a few hours each month looking over portfolios that have been submitted to us or going through websites like deviantArt. Everything we’ve bought so far has been existing artwork. I haven’t felt the need to commission anything given the wealth of good pieces already out there. I get a lot of personal enjoyment out of finding these, so it’s an aspect of the magazine that I’d like to do more with.

What in your opinion sets Clarkesworld apart from the other magazines? What do you think is your biggest asset or strength?

I think we’re still fairly unique in how we approach distribution of the fiction we’re publishing. Every story appears online for free, in signed chapbooks for collectors, and also in an annual anthology, Realms. Not only is it how we plan to pay our bills, but it’s also a deliberate attempt to get these stories in front of as many eyes as possible. Print readers still outnumber online readers. We couldn’t ignore that.

Does Clarkesworld have a specific editorial agenda? Or what do you hope to accomplish with Clarkesworld?

I sum up what were looking for as well-written stories that will stick with you. It’s a result that will vary from person to person and story to story, but it’s a good goal.

Are there situations where you might influence either Sean or Nick's choice in the stories they pick? Or is it completely a hands-off approach on your part as a publisher?

I tend to take a hands-off approach with my editors. On occasion, I may be asked for an opinion on a story, but ultimately the final decision will be theirs. There is probably a line in the sand somewhere, but I doubt that they’d pass along something that would cross it.

Can you tell us more about Wyrm Publishing? How did it develop? (And why didn't you call it, say, Clarkes Publishing?)

When I closed my bookstore last year, I realized that I had an opportunity to redirect some of my resources into publishing. I didn’t want to completely withdraw from the field and I had at least one magazine-related project that needed a home: Realms: The First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine.

With some excellent advice from people like Bill Schafer (Subterranean Press) and Sean Wallace (Prime Books), I launched Wyrm Publishing and started acquiring projects from Gene Wolfe, Charles Stross, Tobias Buckell, and Jeff VanderMeer. With the exception of Realms, all of my current projects are signed limited editions. Based on my own experience and the advice I received, that just seemed like the best place for me to start. As I get more comfortable with this new career, you’ll see a lot more trade hardcover and trade paperback books from me.

Clarkesworld was never meant to be a business name. When I launched the bookstore, I stuck it in the domain I had bought for my family, the Clarkes. By the time I was ready to move it to its own domain, renaming wasn’t an option. It would have just confused our customers. The magazine was initially connected to the bookstore, so hoping to reinforce the brand; I gave it the same name. It never occurred to me that people who didn’t know the bookstore would assume that the magazine was connected to or in some way influenced by Arthur C. Clarke. There were reviews that said as much. When the time came to name the small press, I was done with the name, the spelling issues, and the confusion.

What projects from Wyrm Publishing that you're eagerly anticipating?

All of them! Really, I can’t believe the starting lineup of authors I have on board for the first few books. If you told me a year ago that I’d be working with these people, I would have bet money that you’d be wrong. I can’t wait to have these books on my shelf, let alone make the available to others.

What's the relationship between Ministry of Whimsy and Wyrms Publishing?

As of January 2008, by an agreement with Jeff Vandermeer, the Ministry has become an imprint of Wyrm Publishing. That effectively means that we’ll be publishing some Ministry titles including the next edition of their landmark Leviathan anthologies.

What's the business model of Clarkesworld right now? Did it change or will it change? What effect did it have on Wyrm Publishing?

In its most simple terms, the plan is to cover all the magazine costs through donations, signed chapbooks and an annual anthology. The print projects have the added benefit of allowing us to reach the much larger audience of people who read books, but don’t read online. So far the model has changed in the very slightest of ways. Advertising on the site that once directed people to Clarkesworld Books now directs them to Wyrm Publishing. I think it’s safe to say that if the magazine didn’t exist, Wyrm would have been less likely to have happened.

How did you get started into fantasy/horror/science fiction?

I suppose my first introduction to science fiction was through Lost in Space. As a child, I was addicted to the adventures of the Robinson family, Doctor Smith and their trusty robot. It’s a lasting experience from my childhood that I’ve recreated with my own children. We own the whole set on DVD.

When I was about ten years old, my cousin gave me a small stack of used science fiction and fantasy books: Tolkien, Heinlein, Herbert, Asimov, and a huge volume of classic SF short stories.. That was over thirty years ago and I’m still hooked.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Philip K. Dick is my all-time favorite. If you consider only living authors, it would be Tim Powers. Others (in no particular order) include: James Blaylock, Robert Charles Wilson, Charles Stross, Jeff Vandermeer, Catherynne M. Valente, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, George R. R. Martin, Peter Watts, Steven Erikson, Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepard, John Scalzi, Caitlin R. Kiernan, James Morrow, Jeffrey Ford, Paul Park, and Elizabeth Bear. Then you have authors like Tobias Buckell or Ekaterina Sedia who have made their way onto my must-buy list after just one or two books. I really could go on for pages…

Any other hobbies/interests/profession or is publishing a full-time gig?

I’ve been working in educational technology for about 20 years and that’s the job that pays the bills right now. Someday, I hope to make publishing my primary job, but that will take some time.

What's your opinion on online publishing? Do you think it's sustainable or it's the wave of the future? Or merely a supplement to print? And given the choice (assuming you're given vast but not unlimited resources), would you still work the same business model or try something different?

I think that we are living in interesting times. Online publishing is definitely growing and has the attention of companies like Amazon and Tor. That said, I have no delusions of print books vanishing.

Putting on my educational technology hat for a moment, I think one of the first places you’ll see widespread adoption of online publishing is in education. The number of e-journals available in university libraries has been growing steadily for some time and I believe it’s a fairly safe bet that the first major e-book adoptions will be textbooks and other reference materials. It’s also the group most likely to be open to that kind of solution. Technology-awareness aside, there are two big factors: price and weight, both of which should be reduced… one more obviously than the other.

I think the business model we’re using right now is a good place for us to start. Being online gives us the opportunity to go beyond what you expect from a print magazine. I’d love to build something bigger with more frequent content, audio, video, and even have stories translated into other languages. If vast resources suddenly appeared, I’d have to ask what was expected in return and build out a new model from that. I suspect it would have something to do with marketing or anticipated ad revenue, both of which I’d be weary of as a long-range plan. I’d prefer to have multiple revenue streams.

Any advice for aspiring writers? For would-be publishers?

The only advice I feel qualified to offer an aspiring writer is that good writing is always worth being paid for. I understand that there are a few markets that pay very little but can provide good exposure. They are the rare exceptions and tend to have well-established editors with solid reputations in the field. I can understand how those specific markets could be an investment in your future as a writer, but the others? I tend to put self-publishing a novel in the same class. I was a bookseller for seven years. The best way to make sure your book won't get stocked is to publish it yourself. A bookstore is limited in what it can buy, so they have to make some qualitative decisions. Self-published novels have a reputation for not selling. Yours could be the best novel ever written, but they'd never know it. You're simply guilty by association. Sure, you can get listed on Amazon, but they still represent a very small segment of the market. Ask yourself, are these really the best routes for you to take? Either way you go, best of luck to you.

As for would-be publishers, I’d suggest doing as much research as you can. I’ve seen too many publishers fold do to poor planning. And by planning I mean everything from not budgeting properly to failing to market their books.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Remember, there is no secret cabal.

1 comment:

john said...

Digital revaluation in print media is worked well. Online readership is increased dramatically from the past three years. All the publishers are presenting their publications through online to attract the advertisers, increase the readers and generate the revenues. There are some companies like Pressmart Media providing the e-publishing solution for all print editions and distributing them through various new technology mediums.