Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Feature: Interview with Sean Wallace

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

Sean Wallace is the founder and publisher of Prime Books. In addition, he also served as the editor of various publications including Wildside Press, Clarkesworld Magazine, Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and various anthologies.

Hi! Thanks for doing the interview. First off, what can we expect from Prime Books in 2008? What projects are you looking forward to the most?

I’m going to break this down into novels, collections, and anthologies, to make things easier on both of us, but for novels this year I’ve got lined up a few:

In late June / early July we have The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia, which is her next novel after last year’s critically-acclaimed The Secret History of Moscow. What we’ve got here is steampunk romance, civil war, gargoyles, political intrigue, alchemy, and more: what’s there not to like? We’ve actually redesigned the cover for this, just recently, if you have seen it:

Soon after that we have Desideria, by Nicole Kornher-Stace, a slipstream dark novel set in an alternate mid-to-late 17th century, with an amnesiac young woman dealing both with loss of memory, and encroaching madness . . . I first met Nicole’s work in Best American Fantasy, and have since accepted a few of her short stories for Fantasy Magazine. She’s a rising star, and I hope that other readers agree with me, especially after we debut it at Readercon later this year. A sample of her work: http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/?p=305

For September we have two scheduled: A Gathering of Doorways, by Michael Jasper, which resonated really nicely for me, and which I’m proud to publish, the story of a missing child who leads his parents on a quest on and underneath their land. This is actually the first of two books (the other being Maps and Legends) that I’ve bought from Jasper, and both are stunning in their own right.

The other book for this month is Relics by Darren Speegle, another young author who has had several collections out in recent years, and this is his first novel, and probably the first of many to come:

In a far future Europe, following a four-thousand-year Dark Age of which man has little record or memory, an enigmatic scroll is found in a train car that has lain buried deep within the Scandinavian snow and ice since the cataclysmic end of the First Age. The document, which contains a cryptic message meant for the world before it died, finds its way into the hands of a young man who is destined to journey across the continent seeking its translation.

The last original novel of the year is The Queen of Hearts, by Daniel Homan, for November. I’d commissioned this after publishing his short story, “Queen of Hearts” in Fantasy Magazine, and fell in love with his writing style and approach. It’s fresh, original, and a real surprise.

For anthologies, apart from the usual year’s best anthologies, we have several original and reprint projects coming up:

Phantom, edited by Paul Tremblay and Sean Wallace, July. (See below for more discussion about this anthology).

Japanese Dreams, edited by yours truly, with stunning contributions by Steve Berman, Jay Lake, Ken Scholes, Erzebet YellowBoy, and many more:

Japanese Dreams takes the reader to the islands of fire and smoke—where shape-shifters, demons and lovers all populate a landscape blossoming with story . . . offering us a glimpse of a silken sleeve or the red fur of the fox as she slips between the rushes, daring us to follow.

Seeds of Change, edited by John Joseph Adams, with stories by Ted Kosmatka, Ken MacLeod, Tobias S. Buckell, K. D. Wentworth, Blake Charlton, Jeremiah Tolbert, Mark Budz, Jay Lake, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu:

Imagine the moment when the past ends, and the future begins—when the world we knew is no more and a brave new world is thrust upon us. Gathering together stories by nine of today's most incisive minds, Seeds of Change confronts some of the most important issues facing our society today; racism, global warming, peak oil, the advance of technology, and political revolution. Many serve as a call to action. How will you change with the future?

Best American Fantasy, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, with help from Matthew Cheney, for September. I’ll probably have the table of contents by early summer, but this is an anthology that truly doesn’t overlap with the rest of the genre anthologies, as well as it should, and we’ll be continuing in that direction.

An untitled Victorian fantasy anthology, with contributions by Holly Phillips, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Jonathan Wood, Marly Youmans, and an introduction by Theodora Goss. This is scheduled for World Fantasy and this is, for me, one of my favorite anthologies to edit, at least for this year :p

So Fey, edited by Steve Berman, with stories by Christopher Barzak, Holly Black, Richard Bowes, Eugie Foster, Sarah Monette, Delia Sherman, and others for November. This is a reprint, an anthology which was published last year with some stealth from another publisher, so we’re hoping to do one better with this edition.

Silver Birch, Blood Moon, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the fifth in their adult fantasy anthology series, for December. This continues our repackaging of most of the books in this series, and I think we have one more to go. (Black Heart, Ivory Bones, for 2009)

On the collection front I’ve got two or three coming out in a few months, including Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, by John Langan, for July; You Might Sleep, by Nick Mamatas; two volumes of The Early Work of Philip K. Dick, thirty-five stories from the fifties, for September and October, respectively; The Return of the Sorcerer, by Clark Ashton Smith, for October. We’ll be doing four to six collections, annually, but not more than that.

Of all of these, novels/anthologies/collections the project that I’m probably looking forward to the most would be Phantom, a small horror anthology co-edited with Paul Tremblay. He’s co-edited two previous anthologies with me, Bandersnatch and Fantasy, along with several issues of Fantasy Magazine, and this might be our best yet. It’s always a joy to work with someone who likes what you like, and can follow through on any particular shared vision. In any case this anthology comes out for Readercon, in early July, and I hope that it’s well received, with stories by Steve Berman, Michael Cisco, Steve Eller, Stephen Graham Jones, Nick Mamatas, Steve Resnic Tem, and many others.

Prime Books released three slim anthologies last year. I've read Fantasy and liked it while Rich Horton gave great reviews for all three (including Bandersnatch and Jabberwocky). What made you decide to release them? In your opinion, were they a success or is it still too soon to tell?

Fantasy grew out of a desire to represent the magazine in the chain stores, with an eye towards educating and informing readers of our presence and possibly converting that interest into subscribers. (A moot point, I suppose, now since we’ve gone online, but the main thrust of the argument still stands, in that we want to see more people coming to the magazine, either way). We figured a small introduction, of just forty thousand words of short fiction, usually an issue’s worth of content, would do the trick, and that’s what we aimed for, with this anthology. I think we accomplished that, with stories by Holly Phillips, Margaret Ronald, Jeremiah Tolbert, Ekaterina Sedia, and many others. (If you want to see some of the stories, I have a few posted up on the Fantasy Magazine website). [Link 1, 2, 3]

Jabberwocky 3 is the third contribution of a series of mixed short fiction / poetry anthologies or journals that I’ve been putting out for three years now, a project that I know that will only sell a hundred or two hundred copies. I’m quite happy with that, and don’t have any other expectations beyond that. It basically grew out of a perceived impression in the field that poetry vehicles sell very few copies, and I wanted to prove that wrong. I’m not too sure that I’ve proven that, otherwise, but it’s been a lot of fun. (I’ve always been fond of Lewis Carroll, by the way, and actually that’s how I managed to meet my wife on yahoo personals, by quoting a line from Jabberwocky, of all things.)

Bandersnatch spun out of material that we felt was too dark or disturbing, I suppose, for Fantasy Magazine readers, that we weren’t willing to let go. (It’s really hard to turn stories down just because it’s not right for a particular venue). This time we decided to go into a whole-new direction, of presenting the material in a gift-sized hardcover. If short fiction is being read less and less, then I thought that packaging it as something strange and special might be the way to go, and it seems to have resonated with readers and reviewers, as it’s been critically well-received, moreso than what we ever expected.

For all of these projects it’s probably too soon to tell, as it takes six months to a year before you can figure out how returns will impact the bottom line, but Bandersnatch is actually performing better than Fantasy, much to our befuddlement and surprise. We still don’t know what’s happening, except that the first printing might sell out by the end of this year, which would be really nice, and perhaps provide a new direction to presenting short fiction. That’s just the way it goes, sometimes, I guess.

What made you decide to start Prime Books? What were some of the difficulties? What exactly is your relationship with Wildside Press?

Prime Books was not actually really planned, but grew out of the remnants of another small press publisher who had gone under several years ago. I’d been advising them for several months, after being approached for help, but there wasn’t much that could be done and they went under soon after. The material that was later orphaned wasn’t quite right for Cosmos Books (which I was also running at the time). I quickly threw together Prime Books in a month, sometime in late 2001, and never looked back.

Most of the difficulties were just growing pains, or dealing with problems like printing a hardcover and finding out that the dustwrapper didn’t fit it properly . . . . at which point I had to pulp the first run, and start over. It cost me a pretty penny to do so, probably a thousand or more dollars, but that’s the cost of publishing. Something always happens. Shit happens. It’s just something that you prepare for (or that you don’t!), and if it doesn’t happen so much the better. Murphy’s Law holds true, largely . . .

My relationship with Wildside Press is a bit convoluted, but I’ll try to explain: I launched Cosmos Books with a friend in 1997, did half a dozen books or more over two years, and then in 1999 we entered a printing and distribution agreement with Wildside Press to take it to the next level, and that’s where I’ve been since since. And then when I moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania, to work with Wildside Press full-time in 2004, I also tossed in Prime Books under the umbrella of Wildside Press. In essence: I help run a slew of imprints, including Cosmos Books, Juno Books, PointBlank Press, Prime Books, and Wings.

It keeps me busy. :p

Can you tell us more about yourself?

Well, what’s there to tell? As my wife can attest publishing is all I think about, day in and day out, much to her dismay, but I suppose it can be overlooked in favor of my other qualities. I have gotten better, however: I no longer read books while driving in the car, and I don’t check my computer for emails every night, like I used to. Beyond that, I like to go antiquing, cuddling on the couch, hitting up used bookstores, and eating. It all somehow comes back to publishing, though. Pathetic, isn’t it?

We have two girls (cats, Amber and Jade) who like to sleep, particularly oon anything resembling paperwork, and in fact Amber is spread out on your list of questions right now. They do like, however, to assist, mostly by spreading papers around, sitting on them, chewing on the edges, which is occasionally cute but rarely helpful :p

Beyond that I’m thirty-two, happily married, five six, one hundred and eighty pounds, hard of hearing, memory-challenged, and I have a small patch on my head referred to “The Devil’s Mark.”

Who are some of your favorite authors?

This is a tough question, because I don’t have favorite authors as much as I do favorite books, but I’ll take a stab: I grew up reading a lot of the Miles Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. In recent months I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett, particularly the novels concerning The City Watch, and a later series, with con-artist Moist von Lipwig, particularly the first: Going Postal.

Beyond that I’m all over the map, reading science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and all I care about is that I have something in my hands, really.

Did you imagine yourself ever being a publisher? How about as an editor?

Yes, actually, ever since high school, maybe even sooner than that, when I realized that people were behind publishing books and magazines, and that it might be something that I could do. This was an outgrowth of my reading interests. I would read while walking, in class, during exams, any time that I could get a chance, and would hit used bookstores all the time (even when we went on vacations). I love reading, every hour, every minute, every second. I couldn’t get enough.

What's the editing process like? Do you also focus on grammar, spelling, and the like or do you solely focus on the story and the idea?

I actually don’t consider myself a traditional editor, someone who copy-edits or proofreads material, but more an instinctual editor. I don’t sit down and figure out why I do or don’t like something, which might sound a little strange to a few people, but that’s how it works out. I can tell you in generalizations why I’m hot-to-trot on a particular project, but I can’t get into specifics. Mind you, it’s easier at sales presentations, because I have a wealth of data to play with, and can sound reasonably intelligent and knowledgeable about my books, but it’s only slightly easier!

In some rare cases, however, I might encourage authors to put something together, throw a bunch of ideas at me, and see what sticks at the end of the day. A few of my authors can probably attest to this: Michael Jasper, Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne M. Valente, just among a few that have run the gauntlet, and submitted three or four short proposals at me, and stepped back. I usually come at that, then, in terms of: is this new and original? can the market handle this particular topic? does it benefit the author to have this book out with the rest of his or her material? and then follow up with the author, with my thoughts and impressions, and we run with something at the end of the day. It usually works out, because I trust the authors that I’ve approached, to deliver something close to what’s been proposed . . . and that sometimes can be a paragraph or two paragraphs, written almost like backcopy!

Here’s an example:

Alice remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall. How she doesn't know, because it never happened; there was never a Wall. There was never a Berlin. In their place is a new world, a new history unburdened and unfettered of the past except for a small few like herself, swept out of their proper places in time and stranded with their memories in the new now, people from every era, poets, gladiators, peasants and queens.

Queen Elizabeth the First finds herself, for the first time in her life, free; free of the weight of her office, her world and the constraints of her time. She relishes the opportunity to establish her own personal identity, her own personal destiny but she cannot avoid being at the center of a great struggle. Some, like Alice, want to learn the truth of what happened, and if possible, put things back the way they were meant to be . . . but in embracing the virgin world, the queen has no intent to restore the past but to see it banished, even from her own mind, forever . . .

I can see this book—can you see this book? I can! This was from Darby Harn, for The Book of Elizabeth, which is scheduled for later in 2009. I bought this book exactly on this and nothing more.

How exactly does one go about being a publisher? An editor?

It’s not something that I was really planning to do full-time, as I had a retail management career earlier in my life, and I would have never thought that I would be doing what I’m doing, now, in a hundred years. But I did a lot of reading, a lot of collecting, before I started publishing . . . you should at least know, briefly, the history of paperbacks, genre magazines, whatever it is that you’re interested in, and this I did. I bought histories of all the publishing companies that were available, and read up on them, and then followed up with general histories of the field. I read up on the genre magazines, with the help of Michael Ashley’s History of the Science Fiction Magazines and Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Magazines, again by Michael Ashley, with Marshall Tymn. I read up on genre publishers with Jack Chalker’s Index to Science-Fantasy Publishers (which, although flawed on a number of levels, proved quite useful). And so on and so forth . . . None of this is really necessary to publish, of course, but it is nice to see what others did before you, if only to avoid their mistakes, so that you can make your own!

Have you ever considered trying your hand at fiction writing?

Hell, no. I did my stint writing fiction in high school and college, and most of it is pretty much juvenile, and not worth reading these days. I don’t even think my wife has seen any of it, and thank god. It all belongs in the trash-bin, is my attitude.

What do you look for in a story?

I go for several things, but most importantly: emotional resonance. It’s missing from a lot of short fiction, and if it has an impact on me, whether I’m happy, sad, angry, or even sense of wonder, it’s done a job, and done it well. Most of the short fiction you see on Fantasy Magazine conveys that, or at least I hope so:

When We Were Stardust

The Girl with Blueberry Eyes

Time to Say Goodnight

Elsbeth Rose

Soft, like a Rabbit

During the Dance

Sparking Anger

How did you get involved with Fantasy Magazine?

I didn’t have really much interest in publishing a magazine until I joined up with Wildside Press, which had launched several in recent years. If they could do it, I thought, so could I! (So says the unexperienced and bold . . . ) I sat down and worked out what I thought was missing from the field, and executed as quickly as possible, which for me was about a year and a half, and scheduled it for World Fantasy, in 2005. Helping to speed things along, I invited submissions from a number of my Prime authors, and it all just came together very nicely. It’s been a real pleasure, ever since.

With Fantasy, you shifted to an online publication. Any opinions (under what conditions it'll work, won't work, if it's the wave of the future... or not) on the online business model?

I think it’s all still working itself out, but completely necessary for any print magazine or publisher to have an internet presence and it’s only a matter before someone figures out how to allocate the expenses of an online publication, whether it’s covered as a marketing expense, or covered by brand-related merchandise sales, or by paid advertising, or by some other revenue generator that hasn’t shown up yet. For us, it’ll probably be a combination of all the above, and we’ll be implementing a few ideas to the website in coming months and years, including a The Best of Fantasy Magazine, edited by Cat Rambo and myself for 2009; ebook editions; and more. Either way, it’s happening, and if we don’t take advantage of what’s going on right now, I fear that we’ll be left behind. It’s certainly part of our future, but it’s not a future at the expense of print or online. Both can work together, and leverage each other to something better.

Speaking of Clarkesworld, how did you get involved with that publication?

I can only blame Readercon, but I think Neil might have a better memory recall than I do. Everything is a blur at these conventions, and even moreso at Readercon. It actually came about because we had been talking about the free online fiction we had posted to the site (from you and a couple of other people) and somehow we ended up talking about the void left when SciFiction went away and marketing and everything just collided into one. (In a way, it's funny. The roots go back to trying to promote Fantasy Magazine through online content at the bookstore!) An online magazine, with Neil’s background and experience, seemed natural, and easy enough to do, and we worked out the details right there and then. I soon brought in Nick, with whom I’ve published before in the past, and I felt confident that he could bring in a different crowd than I could, and I haven’t been proven wrong yet :p

We all bring a different skill set to the magazine, and I hope that it shows.

Any thing else you'd like to plug?

Two shout-outs: one is to Weird Tales, for its 85th-anniversary this year, which is explained here: http://weirdtales.net/wordpress/the-85-weirdest/ There’ll be more on the website in coming days, as issue 349 hits the newsstands in two weeks, with Michael Moorcock's all-new Elric novella; a countdown of the century's 85 Weirdest Storytellers; Jeff VanderMeer's conversation with hot dark-fantasy star China Mieville; Cherie Priest's feature on steampunk art; otherworldly fiction by Sarah Monette; and more!

The other one is to Realms: The First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine, with which I’m associated with, and it comes out in May / June. It’s got all kinds of goodies from authors like Sarah Monette, Catherynne Valente, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Barth Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Tremblay, Cat Rambo, Ekaterina Sedia, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and many more. I just love this cover:

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