Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Interview: Pablo Defendini

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Pablo Defendini is the Web producer for Tor.com.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview.

Thanks for having me!

First off, how did you get acquainted with speculative fiction? What's the appeal of the genre for you?

You know, that’s a deceptively simple question! I honestly can’t remember life without SF—I’m thirty, so one of my first memories as a child is of watching The Empire Strikes Back with with my older cousins; at some point early on, someone stuck copies of the Foundation trilogy under my nose—I suppose this explains why one of my favourite sub-genres is Space Opera. My grandma used to take me every week to the comics store in San Juan (Puerto Rico, where I’m from), followed by lunch at Woolworth’s, where I’d (to my regret these days) ignore the hell out of her and dive into the week’s stash. I gravitated towards the science-fictional spectrum of the underwear pervert genre—the X-Men, Superman, etc. And of course, I read voraciously: Asimov, LeGuin, Haldeman, and more Asimov on the English-speaking side; and Borges, García Márquez, Ana Lydia Vega, and Miguel de Unamuno on the Spanish-speaking side, to name a few.

Puerto Rico is a colony/commonwealth of the U.S., and as such we are bombarded with American media and culture—and SF and (maybe to a larger extent) Fantasy play to our natural Caribbean tendency towards general weirdness. It’s a strange mix. I suspect there’s a similar vibe in the Philippines, since PR and the Philippines share so much history: Spanish colonies ceded to the US in 1898, and all that. So I suppose that speculative fiction is somehow hard-wired into me.

As far as the appeal of SF for me, personally, it’s all about exploring the possibilities of the human race, of our—and other—civilizations. It’s very much about the sense of wonder, the exploration of the ideas of today within the worlds of tomorrow, the building of fantastic worlds that—who knows—could maybe come to pass one day. That’s probably why I favour SF over Fantasy, actually: as far as modern science can ascertain, elves and fairies don’t exist, period. But when I’m reading about FTL drives and artificial intelligence and post-singularity lobster/hive minds traveling to the edge of known space in a tin-can spaceship, a quiet little voice pipes up and says “Hey. You know... maybe, just maybe, this stuff could actually happen someday...”

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite titles?

Asimov, of course. I absolutely love the Foundation series, and his Robot Stories are beautiful, elegant logic puzzles that are as much of a joy to unwrap the first time as the eleventy-seventh.

Neal Stephenson. I came to him late—I read the Barroque Cycle before I read Cryptonomicon, actually; and Anathem just blew my mind.

Katsuhiro Otomo. Akira remains a top favourite, and his subsequent creations are all beautiful in their own right.

Borges and his time spirals.

There’s a novel by Miguel de Unamuno, called Niebla (Fog) that’s just a mind bending trip to read. I first encountered it in high school, and I suppose that’s coloured my perception of it (as a matter of fact, I haven’t revisited it since then—I probably should), but I remember being very intrigued with what he was doing with his charactes and how he treated (or mis-treated, rather) the fourth wall.

I’ve recently discovered David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (after first having discovered him through his Safehold series, which I also enjoy very much), and I’ve been absolutely devouring those on my iPhone. I go back to Fictionwise or Baen’s Webscription site for new installments like a rat to the feeder bar. His immense breadth of military knowledge, his astute and incisive descriptions of complex political situations, and the trappings of space opera all make for a very compelling read for me.

As for newer authors, I’m a huge fan of Cory Doctorow’s—the way he uses SF to work through the ways technology is changing our society and our politics. Little Brother is a masterpiece in this sense, but my favourite is still Eastern Standard Tribe. I’ve also been reading and re-reading his next book, Makers, which is out in print in October, as we serialize it in its entirety throughout the rest of 2009 on Tor.com, and that may just unseat EST, by dint of the sheer expansiveness of the ideas he’s exploring throughout the course of the novel; again, ideas that are already out there, and that he’s—in true Doctorovian fashion, I suppose—remixing and recombining in order to extrapolate some very compelling and optimistic scenarios where someone else might only see doom-and-gloom.

Tobias Buckell, aside from being a friend, is a kickass writer, and hits me right in my sweet spot: Caribbean-tinged Space Opera. His latest, Sly Mongoose, can be summed up as “Rasta cyborgs fighting zombies in space.” There is not one word in that phrase that is not made of pure awesome (except maybe ‘in’, I suppose). Plus, it’s got one of the coolest opening sequences I’ve ever read.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—the story of a Dominican geek living in the NY diaspora—hit so close to home, it’s not even funny.

Anything Brian K. Vaughan touches, from Ex Machina to Lost.

Warren Ellis—Spider Jerusalem will always have a special place in my heart, and Freak Angels is intriguing as hell, if a little slow.

I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and The City, which is reminding me of how much I love police procedurals.

I could go on and on and on, but there are more questions to answer.

Before I proceed, maybe you could tell us more about Tor.com? It's a common misconception that it's part of the Tor imprint but from my understanding, that's not necessarily the case and Tor.com is its own entity.

That’s correct—Tor.com is actually an initiative of Macmillan’s (Tor Books’ parent company) ‘Digital Marketing’ Department, which is the department I belong to now, officially. As such, I’m an employee of Macmillan, not Tom Doherty Associates, which is Tor Books’ corporate name. It’s a fine distinction which takes advantage of the already-convoluted corporate ownership structures of the publishing industry, but for all practical purposes, it works to separate me from Tor Books, and allows me to engage with people from all over SF/F fandom and industry.

The seed of Tor.com did indeed come from within Tor Books. I wasn’t involved back then, but as I understand it, Tor.com sprang up during a conversation between (Tor Books Art Director) Irene Gallo, Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books Senior Editor) and my current boss, Fritz Foy (VP of Strategic Technology for Macmillan), who is also a lifelong SF fan—‘one of us’ in every sense of the word. They asked Tom Doherty for his blessing, and permission to use the Tor brand, but wisely kept the site separate from the daily workings of Tor Books. This is good for two main reasons:

—It facilitates our publisher agnostic stance. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I treat the people at Tor Books with exactly the same regard as someone from another publisher. After all, these people are my co-workers, collaborators on the site, and some are also dear friends. Tor.com wouldn’t work without them, particularly Irene, Jamie Stafford Hill, Liz Gorinsky and PNH. I also have more access to Tor Books than to any other publisher, obviously (although I tend to be very cautious—possibly too cautious for some people’s tastes—in how I leverage that). But being part of another, separate division of the company, not reporting to Tom Doherty, and working on a separate floor from them does help me keep a healthy distance, particularly from the marketing, publicity, and sales departments.

—It lends a bit more credibility to outreach efforts to other publishers. I can encourage editors and people involved with other houses, such as Lou Anders, John joseph Adams, etc, to contribute to Tor.com much more convincingly if I can point them to content on the site that has absolutely nothing to do with Tor Books.

Did you ever consider changing the site's name?

We did, actually, and it was a long and arduous process before we settled on the obvious. After countless ideas and iterations we finally realized that if we went with another name, it might seem like we were trying to hide the site’s pedigree, or its ties to Tor books, and that might make us seem disingenuous from the get-go. In the end, we decided to own up to what we are and where we come from, and that it would be better to deal with the branding issues as they cropped up, in a straightforward and open manner, always leveraging our track record in order to prove that we really are trying to ‘walk the walk’.

How did you initially get involved with Tor.com?

I had been working in Tor Books’ art department as a junior mass market designer—low man on the totem pole, if you will—for about two years. Since I’ve always been a pretty vocal guy, and I had my own (now sadly semi-neglected) blog, I was put on a short list of people within Tor Books to approach for blogging on the site before it launched. The powers that be decided that it would be good to make a big splash at San Diego Comic con last year, and they asked me if I wanted to go to Comic Con as one of Tor.com inaugural bloggers. It took me all of two seconds to blurt out a rather enthusiastic “Fuck yes!”. Right around that time, my predecessor on the site resigned, and I decided to apply for the job. To my surprise, they hired me on. So I put down my Wacom tablet and here I am. I have a pretty varied background: I’ve worked in new media before, as well as in advertising and branding, so my bailiwick extends far beyond simply graphic design or production for printed matter, and I’m dusting off all those old skills and more every day.

Your official position is producer. What exactly is it that a producer does?

I’m not sure there’s a straight answer for that, actually. I do a lot of little things that add up: I’m the project manager for any development work that we need done, be it site upgrades, squashing bugs, or bringing together our bookstore; I acquire, set up, and coordinate with bloggers for the site; I coordinate and run promotions, publicity efforts, and contests; I help develop content (such as the aforementioned Makers project) and acquire some comics (such as Dan Goldman’s “Yes We Can” from earlier this year); I help establish the editorial direction of the site, as well as the strategic vision for where it’s headed overall.... It really depends on the day of the week.

What would you say are the important qualities that a producer needs to have? How does one become a producer?

You need to be organized. I can’t stress this enough, and I also can’t stress enough that being organized is not so much a state of being, but more like a constant struggle, where more often than not, the goalposts keep moving on you. I used to make fun of people who went crazy over productivity and organization software or techniques like Evernote, Things.app, GTD, or inbox zero, but these days they’re my bread-and-butter.

You need to be tactful, because you’re usually juggling a whole bunch of people (and egos), and trying to massage them all into working for you. But at the same time you need to strike a balance between tact and being direct and to-the-point, and not mince words when you’re trying to get something done. As for how to become one, I’m not quite sure, since I kind of fell into it myself. If there is a formal career track or path to ‘producerhood’, I missed the memo on that.

What's your working environment like? Do you get to meet authors (whether virtual or in person)?

I share an office in the Flatiron building with the rest of the Macmillan Digital Marketing department (my little corner boasts a bunch of comics and a big, big relief print of a zombie hanging like a tapestry on the wall behind my desk). But my boss lives in California, and Torie, Tor.com’s administrative editor and community manager (and the only other full-time member of the staff), works on a separate floor of the building, so often I work from home, a basement apartment in Brooklyn that I’ve dubbed my “Underground Lair”. I work on the internet, so it’s a rare occasion when it really makes a difference where I’m located physically. As long as the tubes are fat and the lulz are flowing, we’re in business.

One of the most gratifying aspects of my job is, in fact, meeting so many interesting people, authors included, and creating good relationships with them. Mostly via the web, but once or twice a year you’ll go to a con and meet up with an IM or Xbox buddy, Every once in a while, an author will pop up in NYC for a signing or something, and they’ll swing by the Flatiron.

What are some of the challenges you're currently facing?

We’re facing the same broad challenges that the entirety of publishing is facing, and to a more general extent, the entire media/content creation industry: How does the digital paradigm affect our product: from its look and feel, to the way in which the end user interacts with it, to how the work is produced or created, to how the creator gets rewarded for their work. Additionally, we’re facing the same challenges that web-based content services are facing: decreased ad sales, a general sense of ominous foreboding that all this is going to come crashing down in a very unceremonious way, just like in the Dot Com bubble burst of 2001, etc.

In your opinion, how is Tor.com leveraging New Media and the genre? What are the things that you're doing right?

One of the things we’re doing the best, I think, is engaging with our audience, and listening. Publishing is a very insular industry, where insiders are constantly talking to each other, but very rarely do they actually talk to or listen to the actual end customer: the reader. There have traditionally been some very valid arguments as for why this is the case, but as digital media democratizes the world more and more, those arguments become much less convincing or even relevant.

Tor.com is one way in which we’re talking directly with readers, listening to what they have to say, and we’re finding out a lot about them. And I do mean a whole hell of a lot—some of the very dearly-held assumptions of the publishing industry really don’t hold much water with the reading public, and it’s very sobering to compare and contrast what I see and read every day on Tor.com in particular and the internet in general with what I see and hear from within the walls of the Flatiron building.

Currently, what's your metric for determining the site's success?

That depends on who you ask. If you ask one person, it’s traffic in order to charge more for ads. If you ask another, it’s profit from the bookstore. If you ask yet another, it’s the perception of the Tor.com brand as a leader in the online space, from the point of view of the publishing industry. If you ask me, all these factor in, but for me the site is successful if people find it useful, entertaining, and valuable. Whenever someone tells me “Tor.com is one of my top five must-check-out-every-day sites” I fee l like I’ve been doing my job successfully.

What can we expect in the future from Tor.com?

Well, we’ll be staging a robot uprising sometime in early 2010, which will lead to the activation of Skynet on August 29 2012, which will then—oh, wait. Nevermind. strike that, you never heard any o that...

All joking aside, we’ve got a few things up our sleeves:

We’ve made no secret that we’re working on an ebook store, but that’s taking us a bit longer than expected: none of the current solutions out there for purchasing and delivering ebooks—not Amazon, not Barnes and Noble, not Fictionwise, not Macmillan’s content distribution partners, no one—are all that good, and as an avid ebook consumer myself, I’m trying my damndest to create something that can help break free of that morass, as opposed to simply another iteration of the same problem which has so many ebook aficionados frustrated, and so many casual ebook consumers confused and paralyzed in perplexity. It’s been a very hard slog in trying to find just the right recipe—we’ve literally had to go back to square one on more than one occasion—and it’s taken much longer than I (naively, I suppose) anticipated, but I think we’re making some progress.

We’re also contemplating undertaking a massive overhaul of the site, taking into consideration the feedback from actual users over the last year. We’re just now starting to get this process rolling, and so far, we’ve come up with some really promising approaches.

Additionally, as always, we’ve got some really great content in the pipeline: short stories by top authors, comics by up-and-coming creators, games, illustrations by masters of the form, and not to mention our intrepid bloggers, who post on whatever fannish or SF/F related subjects they feel passionate about.

You're a designer by training. Did you ever imagine yourself running Tor.com?

Absolutely not. I’m not the most social person in the world, and in my default state, I’m perfectly happy being locked away in a dim office with a Wacom tablet, a powerful Mac, a very large monitor, and a 2GB, 150-layer Photoshop file. This job is in many ways the direct opposite of that—I’m constantly meeting people, keeping on top of contacts, forging relationships with authors, editors, publicists, bloggers, etc., and I’m still surprised to this day that I’ve been able to pull it off so far!

Do you get to practice what you've learned as a designer at Tor.com?

Sometimes, but not often. The lion’s share of the design work that goes into Tor.com is handled by the amazing Jamie Stafford-Hill, who’s real day job is designing hardcover books for Tor Books. I really can’t stress this enough: Jamie’s a badass. An incredibly professional, competent, talented, thoughtful and sensible designer who consistently surprises me in wonderful ways. As for art direction duties (which is the flipside to the designer question), we’re incredibly lucky to be able to count on Irene Gallo, who is one of the most accomplished and respected art directors in the field, not to mention the genre. She’s got an almost preternatural sensibility for finding just the right artist for a project, and she brings that to each one of the stories that PNH acquires for Tor.com. The beautiful illustrations that you see accompanying Tor.com’s stories are all her fault. Both Jamie and Irene know that I’m a designer (I’d like to think they know I’m at least a competent and relatively good one, at that), and have worked with me in that capacity in the past, so there’s always some back and forth, and I like to think that they take my opinions seriously. But (to my disappointment sometimes) there’s little time for me to really dive into design issues as deeply as they require, so I usually defer to Jamie and Irene, and trust them to do the jobs they’re so good at.

How did you become Tor Books' Mass Market Designer?

I filled out a job application, came in for an interview, and showed my portfolio. It really was as simple as that . I had just graduated from Pratt Institute with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, with a major in Graphic Design and a minor in printmaking. Before that I’d worked as an art director in the advertising industry for about six or seven years, so I’d built up a nice book, which apparently impressed someone, because I was offered the job of Junior Mass Market Designer a few days after I interviewed.

What is it that a Mass Market Designer does? What were the challenges in that position? What was the most rewarding experience?

A Mass Market Designer, for the most part—probably about 70% of the time—adapts extant designs from hardcover books (like the ones Jamie designs, for example) into the smaller mass market paperback size. There are also certain considerations with regard to what we call effects (foil stamping, embossing, etc) which may or may not differ from the hardcover design, depending on the marketing and sales strategy for the particular title in question.

The other 30% —and the fun part, for a designer—are original book cover designs, be they for new, direct-to-mass-market title, or for a book for which the hardcover design is not appropriate for mass market (or a design that didn’t work in the hardcover edition and the publisher wants to try a new approach to see if it will improve sales).

What a mass market designer does *not* do, at least at Macmillan, is design the interiors of books. This is handled by a completely separate department (sometimes outsourced altogether to a compositing house) from the group that creates covers, both on the hardcover and the paperback end. As a typographer, and a type geek who can sit in front of a monitor and set type for hours and be entertained by the slightest minutiae of the space between two letters on a given block of text, this actually came as a surprise and a bit of a disappointment when I first took the job.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers?

Never take anything for granted; there is always someone better than you out there, and no one owes you anything. Be open to criticism, which is a trite, clichéd piece of advice, but one much harder to actually follow than at first blush—a designer must always be open to critiques from others, and to self-criticism, which is even harder still. Think hard before going to art school. The benefits may debatable, but the responsibility for paying back thousands of dollars in crushing student loan debt is not. Don’t take work on spec, or no or low pay in exchange for the so-called exposure (that word should be a red flag); it hurts you, it hurts your industry, and it hurts your colleagues (see www.no-spec.org for more details). Your client doesn’t expect his or her lawyer or plumber to work for free, why should he or she expect that from you?

Advice for aspiring producers?

Be hungry. Be opinionated. Become an expert. Don’t just learn a skill set, learn instead how to learn. In other words, become an autodidact: odds are that the things you’ll be trying to wrap your head around in a year’s time aren’t even a blip on the horizon, and you’ll have to figure them out on your own, without a the help of a mentor, a teacher, or a curriculum. Don’t complain, but don’t let people walk all over you, either. Be solution-oriented: try to be the person people think of when they have a problem, and they need an answer, or at the very least a shove in the right direction.

Anything else you want to plug?

World peace. Universal healthcare. Atheism. Robot rights. A manned mission to Mars, followed by a robust colonization and terraforming program, preferably within my lifetime.


Carolyn said...

What a great interview!

I would love to hear more about those differences between what readers say and what publishing insiders are saying...

nicola said...

That was very, very useful. Thank you both.