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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Neil Clarke on Clarkesworld, the UPGRADED Anthology, and Patreon

Neil Clarke is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Clarkesworld Magazine. His work at Clarkesworld has resulted in countless hours of enjoyment, three Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine and four World Fantasy Award nominations. He’s a current and three-time Hugo Nominee for Best Editor (Short Form). In 2012, Neil suffered a near-fatal “widow-maker” heart attack which led to the installation of a defibrillator and a new life as a cyborg. Inspired by these events, he took on his first non-Clarkesworld editing project, Upgraded, an all-original anthology of cyborg stories scheduled for publication this summer. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons.

CHARLES TAN: Hi Neil! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how are you? How about Clarkesworld Magazine?

NEIL CLARKE: My pleasure. Thanks for asking.

Doing well. I’m almost recovered from back-to-back convention weekends (Readercon and Detcon) and happy to be back at home with my family. Clarkesworld is healthier than ever and moving in the right direction, so I have no complaints there either.

CT: If you don’t mind me asking, I wanted to ask how your heart attack influenced your current view of the field, how it affects Clarkesworld, and how it generated an anthology like Upgraded.

NC: I think it’s safe to say that my heart attack was a major life-changing event. There’s nothing like facing your own mortality to help remind you what’s most important in life. It completely changes your priorities, provides focus, and helps you let go of baggage that’s been holding you back. It forced me to notice that the passion I had once had for my twenty-five year career in academic technology had evaporated and moved onto what I was doing with Clarkesworld. My view of the field didn’t change at all, but the view of my place within it shifted. I had always dreamed that someday Clarkesworld would be self-sufficient enough to become my job, but on some level, I didn’t believe it was possible until I started looking at things with open eyes.

Upgraded was the acknowledgement of another goal and renewed determination to pursue some dreams. Even prior to the heart attack, I had been trying to come up with a good idea for what would eventually be my first non-Clarkesworld anthology. I think the idea for Upgraded came to me while I was recovering from my defibrillator surgery. I had been joking that the procedure would make me a cyborg and somewhere along the line, I realized that no one had recently tackled that theme and who better to do so than a recently-minted cyborg? In the end, the project became my attempt to turn a bad series of events into a positive experience. So far, it’s worked.

CT: In your July Clarkesworld editorial, you mentioned how you still have a long way to go to transitioning from making Clarkesworld into a fully self-sustaining professional publication. Can you share with us your current milestones and your goals for achieving that target?

NC: If I’ve done the math correctly, it would only take fifteen percent of our readers becoming supporting readers (subscriptions, Patreon, buying our anthologies, etc.) to allow me to quit my day job and focus entirely on Clarkesworld. At the moment, we’re somewhere between twenty-five and thirty percent of the way there.

In addition to marketing and recruiting new readers, the magazine has to grow. To that end we’ve established various milestone goals around subscriber counts and monthly Patreon support that trigger the addition of extra material to the magazine. In June, our Patreon supporters helped fund an extra story in every other issue.

As far as I can tell, no one has managed to convert an online genre magazine into to a full-time job (without the support of a spouse, publishing house, or TV network). I’m determined to be the first, but that means we’re exploring new territory here. There’s no roadmap, but that’s part of what makes it fun.

CT: What impressed me is how you often interact and turn to the community; just today, you tweeted about Clarkesworld’s empty slush pile for example and was asking for people to submit. How big of an impact does the community play in how Clarkesworld does its business?

NC: Despite all the grief the science fiction community gets, it’s a damn supportive group of people. In my mind, Clarkesworld doesn’t work without keeping them involved. While we make the final decisions about the course of the magazine, their feedback has heavily influenced and shaped nearly everything we’ve done.

I also think social media is absolutely critical to our efforts to reach out to writers all over the world. I’m after good stories. Sometimes you have to shake the trees to get them.

CT: For Upgraded, what make you turn to Kickstarter? What were the challenges with that project?

NC: From the start, Upgraded has been a very personal project. Funding it through Kickstarter gave me the freedom and resources to pursue this project my way. It just seemed like a no-brainer and fortunately, people liked the idea enough to fund above and beyond the original budget I had set.

The majority of the challenges revolved around the fact that this was my first original anthology. Clarkesworld was a good warm-up and helped me establish many connections that helped make this work, but the approach to herding stories is very different. I think the big lesson learned was when some contributors dropped out very late in the game. Had I scheduled things differently, I would have been better prepared to quickly address the situation. Next time around, I’ll do things very differently.

CT: How about Patreon, what made you turn to that venue and what are some of the things you’re learning when using that service?

NC: From the moment I heard about Patreon, I knew they were onto something. I love how they’ve managed to create a platform that combines the best of Kickstarter with the elements of a subscription system. It just felt like a natural fit for podcasts and magazines and the tools they provide on the back-end are very close to what I would have built myself (in the world where I have infinite time and resources).

At this point, I’d say I’m still learning how to best take advantage of this model. For example, one of the strengths of Kickstarter is the sense of urgency a campaign takes on. The ticking clock encourages support “now, before it’s too late!” Since Patreon is an ongoing campaign, it lacks some of that urgency, so I’ve been experimenting with ways to reward urgency. The first one worked, but that could have simply been connected to the extra marketing. Give me a few months and I might have something more concrete to say on the matter.

CT: It’s been nearly eight years since you started Clarkesworld; in your opinion, how has the field changed since then?

NC: It’s very different now. In 2006, many authors were reluctant (or refusing) to submit to online magazines, print submissions were the norm, ebooks hadn’t taken off, people thought it was funny that an online magazine had cover art, reviewers largely ignored online stories, and readership for online magazines was way below that of the print magazines. These days, it’s not surprising to see some of the year’s best stories published online. No one would have expected that.

More recently the field has matured. I no longer feel that it has a wild west vibe to it. Sure, there continue to be elements of chaos and change in the mix, but nothing as dramatic anymore. It’s been an exciting time to be on the front lines and I’m glad to have had the experience. There’s something quite rewarding about having survived and thrived through all that.

CT: Where do you see the science fiction and fantasy industry heading?

NC: The industry is still in significant degree of flux. You can see it now by watching how people are reacting to the Amazon-Hachette negotiations. In some ways, the genre magazines are ahead of this part of the curve. We’ve already had our indies vs establishment period and came out on the other side of it as colleagues. I’m hoping the same happens with these traditional publishing vs indie publishing arguments. There is more to be gained by taking the best of both worlds than there is by one side “winning.”

CT: What changes would you like to see?

NC: I’d like to see changes in the distribution system:

1. There needs to be a simple solution for small magazines to get digital distribution through the major retailers. We lucked out and got into Amazon before they closed their program down. Others have not been as fortunate. I’ve also made many efforts to get us into the Nook newsstand, but I can’t even get an email back from people. That’s lost revenue for all sides and it needs to be fixed.

2. It’s time to end the broken print distribution model used by bookstores. I’m specifically talking about the ability for bookstores to return unsold books for a complete refund. The bookseller loses nothing for overestimating potential sales. The distributor makes money on sales AND returns. The publisher is left carrying the burden for the bookstore. I’ve seen too many small publishers put out of business by abuses of this model.

CT: Any updates on your future projects you’d like to share?

NC: Upgraded goes out to the Kickstarter supporters in the next month and then gets national distribution in late September. I should also have Clarkesworld: Year Seven wrapped up before World Fantasy Con and maybe Year Eight by the holidays. We’re also working on some exciting projects for Clarkesworld, but the contracts aren’t signed yet, so all I can do is say that it will be big and unique. I’m dying to be able to tell people about this one.

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