Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Interview: John Joseph Adams (2009)

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

John Joseph Adams is the editor of the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead, Seeds of Change, and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. Forthcoming work includes the anthologies Brave New Worlds, By Blood We Live, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Living Dead 2, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, and The Way of the Wizard. He is also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Adams also works as a freelance writer. He is currently a blogger for Tor.com, and he has written reviews for Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. His other non-fiction has appeared in: Amazing Stories, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Locus Magazine, Novel & Short Story Writers Market, Science Fiction Weekly, SCI FI Wire, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Subterranean Magazine, and Writer’s Digest.

He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from The University of Central Florida in December 2000. He currently lives in New Jersey.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview (and being our first return guest!). Let's talk about your recent anthology Federations. In the introduction, you mention how series like Star Trek was your gateway drug into the genre. Why did such series appeal to you? Is it because it was on TV? Or is it due to some fascination with space and interstellar societies? What would you say is one of the modern gateway drugs to SF?

I guess what appealed to me about Star Trek and Star Wars and the like was the sense of wonder they imparted upon the viewer, and that's one of the reasons they worked effectively as a gateway drug, as sense of wonder is one of SF literature's primary ingredients, so the transition was an easy one to make. There were other influences for me, though--like Robin Cook medical mysteries and Michael Crichton's kind-of-but-not-SF (not SF, because in his stories science is the antagonist)--which all came back to science, and once I realized I liked reading fiction that deals with or is about science, it was a natural progression. It's really at this point that Trek and Wars helped me out, because of their tie-in novels; I, for some reason, had the foolish notion in my head that regular SF novels would read like technical manuals for fictional technologies and/or would be too hard for me to understand.

As to your other points, I'd say the fact that Trek was on TV made it an easy thing to appreciate because watching TV is such a passive activity, and watching an episode will only take an hour, *and* you can do it with your friends. If I recall correctly, I only really started watching Star Trek because my role-playing group friends were talking about it, and had talked about meeting up on Saturday evenings to watch that week's episode. (Note when I say Trek, I'm talking about The Next Generation, which, when I was growing up aired in syndication, on Saturdays; we time-shifted using VCRs and watched them after everyone got off work--well, not me, I wasn't working.) Anyway--I didn't have any previous fascination with space or interstellar societies at that point, so it was really Trek that started that for me. (Star Wars came later for me, really, even though I'd surely seen it at that point, and had toys at some point when I was a kid, but it wasn't something that had shaped my life from the moment I saw it--I actually kind of discovered it anew in my late teens, after Trek put me on this path.)

As for modern gateway drugs, I'm sure TV and film properties still accomplish that same thing to some degree, especially when good movies are made from actual SF novels or stories, or when smart (i.e., not explosions-based) SF films (like Moon, or hopefully District 9, if it's as good as it looks) are released that engage the audience on a level beyond the typical Hollywood blockbuster SF film. But specifically, I'm sure the recent Battlestar Galactica series did a lot to turn more people onto science fiction (even if the finale utterly ruined an otherwise brilliant series and betrayed everything that science fiction stands for).

I'd like to say that comic books/graphic novels also are doing their part, but I'm not sure if it's entirely true--publishers don't seem to advertise in comic books or try to get distribution in comic book stores, so I think the jury is still out on that. But the fact that the graphic novels are always right next to the SF section in bookstores probably means that some cross-over is inevitable.

And finally, I'd say the YA boom we're experiencing right now is one of -- of not the primary -- gateways for young readers. Hopefully when they read some really excellent YA SF novel like Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, they'll realize that there's more stuff like that in the SF section, or when young Harry Potter readers get a little older and want more stories about wizards, they'll find their way to the fantasy section.

The anthology features a combination of reprints and original fiction. What made you decide to go this route? What are some of the advantages of doing such a selection?

When the book was first conceived, we were going to do a book much like Seeds of Change--i.e., a short (40,000) all-original anthology, in a small hardcover format, which would be intended primarily for sale to libraries and direct order. But Prime Books's distributor, Diamond, wasn't really interested in a book like that, and suggested we do something more like my Night Shade anthologies, Wastelands and The Living Dead, which both sold very well. So, we decided to expand the book to 125,000 words, and incorporate a mix of reprints and originals, and made it a trade paperback intended for traditional distribution.

There are several advantages to putting together a book that way. For one thing, by incorporating reprints, you can get stories by some top, big name writers who you might not be able to get otherwise (since they're quite busy); and the other thing about reprints is that it's generally less expensive to secure reprint rights to stories, compared to the cost of originals. From a creative standpoint, I think it also serves to make a fuller book, in that it can showcase some of the evolution of the theme you're working with; by running stories from 10, 15, or 20 years ago, alongside stories written today, you can get an idea of where the theme or sub-genre comes from and where it's going, in a way that's not possible with an all-original anthology. Another advantage is that it allowed me a lot of flexibility in the original fiction I acquired; because I secured enough "name" writers via reprints (which are necessary for an anthology, otherwise bookstores may not order it in sufficient quantities), I was able to publish stories by a lot of newer writers readers might not be familiar with.

Since this is the second time you're doing an anthology for Prime Books, what lessons did you learn from working on Seeds of Change that you were able to apply here? How about on your other anthologies such as Wastelands and The Living Dead?

Well, one thing I learned from Seeds of Change was to over-invite (necessary, because some people, despite their best intentions, will drop out of the project) even more than I thought I needed to--a lot of folks dropped out of writing a story for that book, more than I anticipated, so I'm fortunate that it turned out as well as it did. Of course, the obvious solution to that predicament is to have an open reading period, which for Federations, I did, and gladly did so; I would have done the same for Seeds too, in fact, but Gordon Van Gelder (my boss at F&SF) thought it might be a bit of a conflict of interest with my duties as assistant editor (and slush reader) at F&SF, since the theme of Seeds of Change was so broad. Because Federations was quite specific, he had no problem with me reading slush for that book, for which I'm grateful, as it made assembling the book much less stressful, and because several pieces from the slush made it into the book.

Lessons learned from Wastelands and The Living Dead? Well, for one thing, the bigger the author, the sooner you should start the process of negotiating permissions. A lot of authors, even quite prominent ones, handle their own short fiction permissions, but several have their agents handle them, and for agents, short fiction is an understandably low priority item (i.e., there's not much money in it for the author, not for a reprint, and even less for the agent). Such delays are understandable, but they can make deadlines scary.

As an editor, what was your criteria in terms of story selection?

For the reprints, I wanted to find great stories by well-known authors, but instead of focusing on their most famous stories, I went looking for ones that were perhaps not as well-known (and not as often reprinted) but are damn good despite that; that way, even though they're reprints, unless you're a voracious reader, maybe they'll be new to you, and thus as good as an original piece.

For the original stuff, I was looking for stories that did something interesting or different with the theme, or made the concepts feel fresh to me. Obviously I wanted to avoid anything that read like Star Trek fanfic with the serial numbers filed off. So there was that, along with the typical anthology selection criteria, which considers variables like balance and thematic variety.

If you would have further reading list of novels for readers of Federations, off the top of your head, what books would you recommend?

The Stars My Destination comes first to mind because it's my favorite novel, even if it's not purely relevant to an interstellar SF reading list; it's not about interstellar societies, but it does have spaceships in it. I'd also mention that it's MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME. So, you know, you should read it.

As for more relevant titles, to start with, there's classic series like Dune and Foundation. Lots of stuff by Lois Bujold and Alastair Reynolds and Orson Scott Card and some of the other contributors to Federations. I especially like Robert J. Sawyer's novel Starplex. More recently, Matthew Hughes's recent novel Template is staggeringly good. There really is a great list of books that could be compiled on the subject. Now I kind of wish I had.

How did the Federations come about? Was it a project you pitched to the publisher?

Prime came to me wanting to do another project, having been pleased with how Seeds of Change turned out. We batted some ideas back and forth before settling on Federations; I believe they first suggested the idea, which I immediately seized upon, given my long-time love of the sub-genre. I would have liked to have more time to put the book together, so that I could have given authors more of a window to write stories for me, but once we decided on the theme, we realized it really needed to be done and ready to publish when the Star Trek movie hit theaters, so it was a shorter deadline than was ideal, but we had it in bookstores by the time the movie hit theaters, so the timing worked out.

Since you've worked on both original anthologies and reprint anthologies, which are you more comfortable with? Which do you hope to work more on in the future?

I'd like to work on more all-original anthologies in the future, and more mixed original/reprint, but I enjoy doing all three kinds. They all offer different challenges and rewards. One of the nice things about a big fat reprint anthology like The Living Dead or By Blood We Live is once I line up the big names necessary to sell the book, I have a lot of freedom in filling the rest of the book, and it's fun to hunt down relevant stories in out-of-the-way places. Although you might not think so, reprint anthologies are a lot more work for the editor--to adequately survey any particular theme, there's a vast, vast amount of material to consider, whereas with an original anthology, your reading list is limited to the stories submitted to you, which will no doubt be smaller, even if you have an open reading period. Sure, you might need to work with authors to revise a story, or you might have to deal with people dropping out for various reasons, but the sheer number of hours spent on a reprint anthology--at least for me, so far--has far outnumbered that spent on acquiring and editing original work.

What I appreciate about you is how you market your anthologies, especially the websites you create which feature short interviews and excerpts from the book. How involved are you with the marketing/promotions, and who comes up with these ideas? What techniques in your opinion have been the most effective so far?

I'm glad you and others seem to find the anthology websites useful; it's hard to measure how effective they are, but I figure they can't hurt, and it's always nice to be able to sample before you buy. I believe I decided to do the website for Wastelands on my own, or perhaps it came about as a result of a discussion with my friend and colleague Jeremiah Tolbert, who built and designed that website for me. Later anthologies have all employed a WordPress template customized to the anthology; building a new template for each book proved to be too time consuming and costly (as I can't do that stuff on my own), but what matters most is the content, and the template I've been using is clean and has a nice aesthetic. Basically what happens is, I get Jeremiah (who is also my web host and webmaster) to setup the blank template for me (substituting the default banner with one for the anthology), then I just use WordPress to fill the site with content. (Lately, I've had my interns help me out with this; huge thanks go to Haris Durrani for the work he did on the By Blood We Live and Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes sites.)

As for marketing and promotions otherwise, well, for my Night Shade titles, I'm pretty involved otherwise, as I'm also Night Shade's publicist. (That's not how or why I was able to sell Wastelands, incidentally; they hired me to be their publicist after I sold them Wastelands.)

Aside from Prime Books, you've also worked on anthologies from publishers like Night Shade Books. Could you tell us more about the pre-publication process, such as how do you convince a publisher to pick up your anthology?

For my first anthology, Wastelands, I basically put the whole anthology together on paper before pitching it to the publisher (via my agent, Jenny Rappaport). I wrote up a pitch for the anthology, and included a (mostly) complete proposed table of contents--meaning I basically selected all (or most) of the stories for the book without a contract in hand, so it was an on spec exercise, which very well could have gone nowhere.

Wastelands did spectacularly well, selling much better than anyone would have possibly imagined. So selling my subsequent anthologies was a bit easier. All of the ones I've sold since then, with the exception of The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination, came about because the publisher came to me and said, hey, let's do (an or another) anthology; what would you like to do next? What about this theme, or that theme? The Mad Scientist anthology, which I recently sold to Tor, had to sell the hard way--that is, get a bunch of awesome writers to promise to write you a story for it, and then convince a publisher it's commercially viable. That's really hard to do, even when your other anthologies have sold as well as mine have; you know why? Because anthologies are really really expensive to put together, and they usually don't sell as well as novels, so they're a high risk-to-reward product.

On the business-side of things, is working as an anthology editor a sustainable career?

It seems to be for me at the moment; ask me again in 5 or 10 years and I'll have a better answer for you. I'm still new at this, so it's hard to say with any certainty how sustainable it is. Someone told me that based on the success of The Living Dead they expect By Blood We Live will sell a "metric fuck-ton." I'm not sure how many copies that is, but if it's in the same range as The Living Dead, the sustainability thing will start looking pretty good.

How about an update on your current projects: what are you currently working on and what can we expect from the future?

Well, By Blood We Live and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes should now be out and available in fine bookstores nationwide. As to the stuff I'm working on assembling now, I'm currently working on The Living Dead 2, which will be a mix of reprints and original fiction; Brave New Worlds, a mammoth reprint anthology of dystopian fiction. I'm also reading for The Way of the Wizard, a mixed reprint/original antho for Prime. And finally I'm doing at least some preliminary work on The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination; that book is all-original, and the contributors' deadline is pretty far off, so the amount of work I can do on it at this point is pretty limited, but I'm at least thinking about it off and on, so I consider it a current project.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give John Joseph Adams of 2 years ago?

I'd tell him to stop wasting time reading novels and read only short fiction, and that when he reads anthologies or collections or magazines, he should CATALOG THEM, identifying their themes and how much he liked them.That would make things easier for current me.

Anything else you want to plug?

Besides my anthologies, you'll also want to check out The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, out in October from Tachyon; it's a 60th anniversary retrospective, collecting the best of the best stories from the pages of F&SF. It's got "Flowers for Algernon" AND "The Deathbird" in it, which I think of 1a and 1b on the best of all time list, so run, don't walk, etc.

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