[GUEST INTERVIEW] Prolific Editor John Joseph Adams on Science Fiction, Anthologies, and the Future of Printed and Digital Books and Magazines

Oleg Kazantsev had the opportunity to do an in-depth interview with John Joseph Adams for SF Signal.

John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Other Worlds Than These, Armored, Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, The Living Dead, The Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Way of the Wizard. John is a four-time finalist for the Hugo Award and a three-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award. He has been called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble, and his books have been lauded as some of the best anthologies of all time. In addition to his anthology work, John is also the editor and publisher of the magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare, and he is the co-host of Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. For more information, visit his website at johnjosephadams.com, and you can find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.


Oleg Kazantsev: Your personal bio says that The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester was a turning point in your reading experience, after which “your reading life became all about finding other books like that one.” Does your early reading experience, and this book in particular, still affect your editor’s taste? If so, to what extent?

John Joseph Adams: I’m sure it does, but it’s hard to say how. I mean, I do still very much enjoy deeply damaged (and sometimes disturbed) protagonists, like Gully Foyle.

OK: You refer to yourself as a sci-fi/fantasy editor and reader. What attracts you to this genre?

JJA: I love that the possibilities are endless—literally anything we can imagine can happen in sf or fantasy stories. That just seems so much more interesting than mainstream fiction.

OK: What do you expect from a good sci-fi novel or short story?

JJA: It’s really hard to describe what it is one looks for in a story; if it were easy to spell out, writer’s guidelines for every publication in the world would have a nice detailed description of what it is they’re looking for. The trouble is, it’s really kind of impossible to say. Or at least I can’t think of how to describe it.

I can compare short stories to novels, though. Short stories need to be really tight and don’t have much room for digressions, while novels allow the writer more room to sprawl. Also, short stories tend to be a better vehicle for experimentation, and for challenging a writer’s comfort zone.

OK: There is a saying that a good editor is usually a good writer as well. Do you agree? Why?

JJA: I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. Many good editors are also good writers, but they’re basically different skillsets; some people have both, some don’t. It’s like the way short story writing and novel writing are basically different skillsets; obviously related, but while some people can do both, some people can only manage one and not the other. I do think a good editor will have many of the same qualities as a good writer, because he needs to be able to think like a writer in order to help the writer make her story the best it can be, but that’s not the same thing as “being a good writer.”

OK: You are a publisher and editor of the popular e-magazine Lightspeed (and the forthcoming horror magazine, Nightmare) as well as a bestselling editor of many sci-fi anthologies. What are the main differences between editing an e-zine and a book?

JJA: When editing anthologies — at least for all of the anthologies I’ve done–you have a specific theme you’re working with, so that’s very different than editing a magazine, which generally has a much broader focus–in the case of Lightspeed, it’s the whole genre of science fiction and fantasy (or, for Nightmare, the whole genre of horror). But with anthologies, you’ll focus on a much more narrow field, generally. Like with Wastelands, I focused on post-apocalyptic fiction, The Living Dead is about zombies, my new anthology Armoredis military SF about power-armored soldiers, etc. A magazine is much more free-form, and in many ways feels like a purer way of editing, because you’re just buying stories you love, and you’re able to choose from a much wider pool of material, so that often leads you to find some of the most interesting stories.

Anthologies can be more challenging because you typically have to recruit a lot of bestsellers and award winners to take part so that the publisher will find the book to be marketable enough, and it can be quite difficult to not only get these very busy authors to agree to write a short story (since short stories pay so much less than novels). But also you can find yourself in quite a bind if they drop out after initially promising you something, because the publisher made an offer on the assumption that those authors would be in the book.

The other challenging thing is, when you’re working within the confines of a theme, that you need to get as much variation on the theme as possible, so that the stories don’t feel too similar. It can be very tricky to ensure variation while at the same time keeping everything constrained enough that readers won’t be upset over the fact that a story doesn’t fit the theme. And then there’s always the possibility that authors will be late on their deadline, or not enough people will come through with acceptable stories…with a magazine, there’s always a flood of material to choose from, but for a theme anthology, you’re probably only going to be considering 20-30 stories all together. Unless you have an open reading period, which complicates things a lot, since only about 15-20 stories will fit into most anthologies–not only does an anthologist maybe not want to read 900 stories to find his 15-20 (not when you can solicit stories directly instead), but then if you have a very specific theme you don’t necessarily want the market flooded with 900 stories on your theme, some of which might sell elsewhere and be published before your anthology even comes out.

OK: What are the hardest choices an editor has to make?

JJA: The hardest choices are probably the stories that just don’t fit for some reason, but you love them and desperately want to use them. In the case of anthologies, it might be a great, great story but it just isn’t relevant enough to the theme, or it came in too late and there’s just no more room, or something like that. In the case of the magazines, it might be that a story doesn’t have enough of a genre element to it, or it might be too horrific for a non-horror magazine, or things like that. It’s those stories that are obviously great stories, they’re just not the right stories for your market that are the most frustrating, and leave the editor with the toughest choices to make.

OK: Barnes & Noble called you “the reigning king of the anthology world.” What’s the secret of your kingship? In other words, what makes one editor better than another?

JJA: I can’t claim I know what the secret is, but I think that at least part of the reason my anthologies have been successful is that I think my taste appeals to a broad demographic and yet my choices are discerning enough that my anthologies tend to be critically-acclaimed; it’s a tricky thing to balance, and I’m not sure it’s something you can learn or develop—I’m just lucky that my inherent ideas about what makes good sf and fantasy are in agreement with what a large percentage of the reading public thinks too.

OK: In your career you get to work with such acclaimed authors as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Moorcock, while, at the same time, working with gifted emerging writers. What is the difference in the editing process? What do you like about each group of writers?

JJA: Well, the editing process is hugely different in the case of those writers you mention, since I’ve only reprinted stories by them. If you’re working with original fiction, rather than reprints, obviously there’s some back and forth between the editor and the writer. Typically, writers like that, as an editor you would be mostly hands off, but that’s because these folks got to where they are by being really good at what they do. But of course you do what you can to improve the story, if it needs it; when dealing with the big bestsellers, you just have to be very careful to be as diplomatic as possible about it. But getting the opportunity to work with writers of that caliber is always a thrill. It still boggles my mind sometimes the interactions I’ve had with some of these legendary writers.

Working with emerging or new writers is always exciting because it’s like discovering something no one’s ever heard of before, and new writers are often at a stage where, as an editor, you can really help shape and mold them and their career.

OK: Before becoming a publisher and editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare, you worked as assistant editor in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. How much different are these two teams in terms of the editing process, their mission, and business model?

JJA: The main difference in business model is basically that while Lightspeed is exclusively an online/ebook magazine, F&SF publishes a print edition as well.  Lightspeed is published in ebook format monthly, and is available for sale in various ebook retail channels (Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, etc.), as well as in epub format from our own store. Additionally, the magazine serializes each issue’s content online, for free, throughout the month. So if you’d like to read the magazine for free, you can, but you just get access to the website edition and you have to wait; if you’d like to get the whole issue all at once, and in convenient ebook format, you can buy the ebook edition on the first of every month. And with F&SF, of course, you have to pay for all of the content. (Nightmare will work the same way, when it debuts in October.)

I think our missions are pretty similar, basically to publish the best short sf/fantasy. F&SF publishes a lot of longer works—novellas and novelettes—whereas Lightspeed focuses exclusively on short stories (7500 words or less). Structurally, our editorial departments are similar too: both are small and staffed by just a few people.

OK: Lightspeed Magazine has a very strong position in the e-book market. What is your prediction about the future of printed and digital books and magazines? How will it affect publishers, editors, and writers?

JJA: I’m not much of a prognosticator, I’m afraid. I think it’s an exciting time to be in publishing right now, though, because it’s like a new frontier and no one really knows how it’s all going to turn out. I do think that digital books and magazines are here to stay, and they will continue to gain a larger and larger market share.

OK: Your magazine can afford to pay its authors professional wages for their work. What is the secret of having a profitable e-magazine?

JJA: I think you have to start by paying authors a professional wage, or else you won’t get enough good content to make your magazine profitable. Other than that, I think you have to have a consistent and strong editorial vision, and you need to have good contacts and connections in the field so you can get authors to send you material.

It certainly helps if you’re also a bestselling anthologist, though; I’m sure that’s a huge factor in Lightspeed’s success. Like if you look at the self-epublishing models out there—the people that that works best for are typically folks who have already established themselves via traditional publishing and so have a fanbase when they start out. That’s basically what happened with Lightspeed — although the magazine was new, it was starting with me at the helm, so it had a leg up on the competition since I had several bestselling anthologies under my belt at the time.

OK: What kind of feedback do you get from the readers of your magazine?

JJA: It’s generally quite positive, though of course we get the occasional hater. With my anthologies, there has been more memorable feedback; a number of readers have written me fan letters—really heartfelt letters expressing how much they loved my books, and of course that’s quite flattering. A number of people have cited some of my anthologies as their favorite books of all time. I think the only negative feedback on them I’ve gotten from regular readers (not critics) is in the form of Amazon reviews; several readers there have taken issue with Wastelands, Brave New Worlds, and The Living Dead in particular for having some kind of liberal bias. That kind of thing you just have to shrug off and focus on the positive comments instead.

OK: How do you feel about the Internet as a forum for writers?

JJA: I think it’s a tremendous tool. Right now, any beginning writer has a wealth of information at their fingertips, information that used to be much harder to come across if you didn’t know where to look. Now your first stop is Google, and bam, you’re off to the races. For sf/fantasy writers, the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America website is a great place to start, and you can spend a few weeks trawling through their many, many articles on the writing business. But one of the really amazing things for writers that the internet has done is provide a place of community. Writing is really a very solitary pursuit most of the time, and yet things like NaNoWiMo give people a shared experience, and social media like Twitter allow writers to meet and interact with other people who are just learning just like them or maybe just a consoling word after a tough rejection.

OK: You were named one of “100+ Geeks to Follow on Twitter” by TechRepublic, and, together with David Barr Kirtley, you produce a podcast called Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, hosted by Wired.com. How much does publicity help you in your editorial job?

JJA: Having a megaphone like Wired.com at my disposal is quite handy, as you might imagine, as it affords me the opportunity to talk to some writers that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise, and building contacts is important for a short story editor. For several years, I was the print news correspondent for the Syfy Channel’s website (formerly SCI FI Channel), Blastr (formerly SCI FI Wire). In that role, I was basically interviewing authors about the new books they had coming out and writing little news articles about them. For about three years or so, I was doing one of those every business day, so five a week, and as a result I ended up establishing contact with a ton of writers; that helped me a lot when the time came to start soliciting authors and contacting them about reprinting their stories, as I already had a relationship with a lot of them because of SCI FI Wire. Of course having a background at F&SF helped as well, and I also did a lot of reviewing for a couple years, for Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Intergalactic Medicine Show—and that really helped spread my name far and wide as well. So publicity helps a lot, I would say, but maybe not in the way you might initially expect when you ask the question.

OK: How does the saying “write what you know” apply to sci-fi and fantasy writers?

JJA: That phrase applies to sf/fantasy writers the same way it applies to any other kind of writer; the problem is a lot of people seem to interpret the advice incorrectly. It’s not saying that you should only write about stuff that you have intimate, first-hand experience with; it just means that if you want to write about something, and you don’t know much about it, you need to go research it and learn about it first.

OK: Time management and editors. How do they co-exist?

JJA: It’s always a challenge, especially with so many pictures of cute animals available on the internet.

But seriously—it’s all about deadlines and task lists. You have to create task lists to keep you focused, and you need deadlines to make sure things get done, and so you can prioritize things. I suppose it’s not very different from the same kind of challenges writers (and other self-employed people) face.

OK: What advice would you have for someone starting his or her own magazine?

JJA: If you can, I highly recommend getting someone else to pay for it, and don’t plan on quitting your day job for quite a while—and do everything I said elsewhere in the interview, only make your magazine unique and your own.

OK: What’s up next for you?

JJA: My latest anthology, Other Worlds Than These—which is about parallel worlds and portal fantasies—just came out this month, from Night Shade Books. Earlier this year, I had two original anthologies come out: Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom and Armored, the latter of which features stories about power armor and mecha.

Forthcoming anthologies includes Epic, an epic fantasy reprint anthology due out from Tachyon in November; The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, due out from Tor in early 2013, and Robot Uprisings (which I’m co-editing with Daniel H. Wilson), due out from Doubleday/Vintage in either 2013 or 2014. I expect there will be a few other projects that I’ll be able to announce in the near future as well, at least one of which should come out next year. And then of course in October of this year, my new horror magazine, Nightmare, launches. So I’ve been keeping busy!

Oleg Kazantsev grew up in Eastern Siberia, where he got his first degree in Computer Science, and came to Columbia College Chicago to study Fiction Writing. He used to work as a video game journalist and now is writing his first novel The Swan to Shoot Down. He lives in Chicago with his beautiful fiancee Sarah and their adorable six-month-old daughter Isabel.

3 thoughts on “[GUEST INTERVIEW] Prolific Editor John Joseph Adams on Science Fiction, Anthologies, and the Future of Printed and Digital Books and Magazines”

  1. Thanks, guys.

    Here’s a question not addressed directly:

    WHY the fascination with anthologies, John? You clearly have a talent and proclivity for editing them, but where did THAT come from? (as opposed to, say, editing novels)

  2. Hi Paul,

    Growing up, I was primarily a novel reader, but once I got into writing, I discovered short stories and eventually grew into an aficionado. Then, once I graduated college and went about looking to get a job in publishing, short fiction seemed like it was a good place to start. I figured that I would start there and eventually transition to book publishing, but it just didn’t work out that way (for a variety of reasons). It would have been easier to make a full-time career out of book publishing, to be sure, but that was the only real reason I was interested in transitioning away from short fiction. But anyway, I guess the real reason I gravitated toward anthologies was that at the time there didn’t really seem like there would ever be an opportunity for me to edit a magazine myself, as opposed to being an assistant editor at one (my first job in publishing was at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.) But after several years of being an assistant editor, I yearned to remove the adjective from my job title, and anthologies seemed like my only viable option. And of course I love anthologies, so that was a factor too!

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