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INTERVIEW: Ellen Datlow on The Nature of Horror and Editing THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, Vol. 7

Ellen DatlowEllen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over thirty years as fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and editor of Event Horizon and SCIFICTION. She currently acquires short fiction for Tor.com. In addition, she has edited more than sixty science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies, including the annual The Best Horror of the Year, Lovecraft’s Monsters, Fearful Symmetries, Nightmare Carnival, The Cutting Room, and The Doll Collection. Forthcoming is The Monstrous.

She’s won multiple World Fantasy Awards, Locus Awards, Hugo Awards, Stoker Awards, International Horror Guild Awards, Shirley Jackson Awards, and the 2012 Il Posto Nero Black Spot Award for Excellence as Best Foreign Editor. Datlow was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre,” was honored with the Life Achievement Award by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career, and honored with the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention.

She lives in New York and co-hosts the monthly Fantastic Fiction Reading Series at KGB Bar.


Haralambi Markov: In previous interviews, you mention that you don’t play favorites when it comes to horror – you love it in all its permutations. In that case, what does it take for a short story to take its place on the table of contents for a volume of BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR?

Ellen Datlow: Either the story needs to knock my socks off the first time I read it so I know immediately that I’m going to choose it for the book, or more likely, it stands up to multiple readings, because by the time those stories are chosen, I’ll have read most of them at least two or three times. By the end, it’s a process of elimination. I may start with 150,000 -200,000 words that I like a lot, and have to winnow that down to 100,000-125,000 words.

HM: A Year’s Best anthology doesn’t have a theme other than superior writing and exemplary storytelling. However, do you ever see a theme emerge on its own once you complete work on a volume? If so, can you tell us what common grounds the stories of BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, Vol. 7 tread?

ED: Any best of the year anthology is actually the stories that I, as editor, loved the best. Personal taste is as important as the “superior writing and exemplary storytelling.” That’s why there’s so little overlap among the different horror bests of the year.

I actively try to avoid “themes” in my best of the year. But the hardest thing to avoid overall in buying short horror fiction is stacking anthologies with stories about children or about adults looking back at a horrific or life-changing incident that happened to them as children.

HM: Working with short fiction is a reward on its own, but what do you consider the best part of assembling an anthology, themed or otherwise?

ED: Knowing that I might be influencing someone’s reading habits and that I’m “pushing” great stories (newly written or reprints). And getting writers whose work I love the attention they deserve.

HM: Given the amount of short fiction published annually, how hard is it to keep up with what’s being published and meets the criteria for A Year’s Best anthology?

ED: It’s an ongoing task. I don’t get more than a month’s “vacation” between the time one volume is put to bed and when I need to start reading for the next volume. I currently have a reader who checks out some of the magazines or anthologies that I know will be unlikely to contain horror, but occasionally do.

HM: You’ve edited BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR for seven volumes now and have decades of observation on short form horror. Has the subject of what’s horrific and chilling changed over the years and if so, in what direction?

ED: I’ve been reading and editing Best Horror anthologies for going on twenty-nine years. I don’t think the subject matter of what chills us has changed all that much – we’re still afraid of death, mutilation, loss of control. That never changes.

I also believe we are currently in a golden era of short horror fiction, with diverse voices entering the field. Diverse not just in background and nationality but in writerly roots. I see lots of great horror stories by writers better known as mainstream writers, writers known for science fiction or fantasy or children’s fiction.

HM: In your career, you’ve helmed projects on your own and as part of a team. How does editing on your own differ from collaboration?

ED: First, just to clarify, the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror annuals were not collaborations, in that I and my co-editors never conferred on our respective choices. I bought horror. They bought fantasy.

In a collaboration there’s always going to be compromise, but there will also be two different sets of tastes, which can be good. Also, each editor brings their own contacts to the project so often we buy stories from writers with whom one of us is not familiar.

When co-editing, the work load is divided in different ways. Usually we both make a list of who we want in the book. We then divide that list and contact the writers. Both editors must approve a story, although generally each editor gets one “free” reject and one “free” acceptance. We both read submissions and if a story we want to buy needs work we’ll divide the responsibility, usually working with writers we know best. In most of my co-edited anthologies I do the final line edit before the entire manuscript is handed in to the publisher. I hate writing, so when I co-edit an anthology, I usually dragoon my co-editor into writing the introduction.

I admit that I prefer working on my own. When I do, the book represents my taste and my taste alone. But I’ve had great fun working with Nick Mamatas and Terri Windling. Terri and I have co-edited more than fifteen anthologies – we work very well together and I think our tastes complement each other’s.

HM: Editing anthologies is a tough gig and you’ve been doing it since the 80s with much success. What are the skills and attributes an anthologist needs to possess to last in the industry?

ED: I started editing anthologies while having a full time job, as fiction editor for OMNI Magazine. That job gave me connections to writers who I could then approach for anthologies, which pay a whole lot less than OMNI paid for a story.

Having/developing a taste that resonates with enough readers to buy your anthologies is a must. My tastes have evolved since I started editing in the early 1980s and luckily, enough readers trust my taste and will read whatever kind of anthology I edit to enable me to continue selling anthologies.

I love editing short fiction. I love working with writers, pushing them to write new stories that might never be written if I didn’t ask for them. I enjoy reprinting stories that I love, getting those stories into the hands of readers who may not have been aware of them upon first publication.

One doesn’t go into editing short stories for the money (in magazines or for anthologies) because there rarely is that much money. If you are doing it merely for the money, you shouldn’t be an editor (of any kind of fiction). If you’re not passionate about the stories you buy and the anthologies you’re editing, you should be doing something else with your time. It’s very difficult to earn enough money to live on editing anthologies full time, just as it’s difficult to earn a living writing full time. I’ve been editing anthologies full time since around 2006 when SCIFICTION closed down. I’ve received a couple of large advances over time, but that’s unusual. I happened to hit the jackpot (although the books didn’t/couldn’t earn out, one actually sold better in hardcover than any of my others).

If you’re very lucky, an anthology might find the right audience at the right time and the book’s advance will not only earn out quickly but you’ll earn regular royalties, which are shared with the contributors.

Your backlist is almost as important as the new books you have coming out. That is, my older anthologies have begun to earn more money than their initial advances for both me and the contributors. Some have been reissued in print, others have been sold as eBooks and recently over twenty have been sold and come out as audio books. As different modes of accessing books have become more popular with readers, more rights can be resold if you have a good agent.

Most important, as long as readers keep buying my anthologies, I can edit more of them. Otherwise publishers won’t buy them. It’s as simple as that.

HM: Kickstarter has grown in significance as a tool to get anthologies out in the world. You first ventured into crowdfunding with the fully funded Fearful Symmetries, which is also one of the few projects you edited with open submissions. How do you see crowdfunding change how anthologies will be edited? What did you learn from your experience with Kickstarter?

ED: Kickstarter was useful for what I wanted to do. I partnered with ChiZine because I love the look of their books and I know they have good distribution. It’s important to know what you’re doing and have at least some basic knowledge about the publishing business – what the costs are, how to publicize and market and design the interiors and exteriors of books. I don’t plan to use KS again for publishing an anthology — It was hard work (in addition to the hard work of actually editing an anthology). I’m more comfortable with traditional mass market publishing.

There’s nothing wrong with using Kickstarter to fund anthologies but I do think Kickstarter fatigue will eventually set in. I often see people using Kickstarter, without a clue as to how publishing works, with no money set aside for production, marketing, publicity, or even payment to the editor. But if you are going to do it, partnering with an established small publisher is smarter than doing it by yourself, unless you have time and skill and knowledge and energy (in addition, of course, to editorial skills/taste). It’s the same as self-publishing, with the same problems inherent in that mode of publishing (spending time and energy that could be better used for writing or editing).

HM: In your interview for Nightmare Magazine, you mention that the hardest part is having to reject solicited stories. Does this happen often and how do you approach it? 

ED: It happens often enough. It’s just something you must do at times or you’ll be a lousy editor. I’ve been writing rejection letters for over thirty-five years. Always be respectful and polite and kind. No one deliberately writes a bad story. And sometimes a story might be great but just wrong for the specific project. If that’s the case, I might recommend another market.

HM: What should we expect from Ellen Datlow in the future?

ED: Most of my anthologies are now available as eBooks and/or audio books. I hope to get the rest of them out there as well (except for the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series—the rights situation is too complicated).

More anthologies, more stories and novellas that I’ve acquired for Tor.com. The Monstrous, a reprint anthology (with an original novella by John Langan) will be out in October from Tachyon.

About Haralambi Markov (15 Articles)
Haralambi Markov is a writer and critic with a taste for weird, dangerous fiction, coffee and spreadsheets. You can him mouthing off on Twitter at @HaralambiMarkov or on his blog The Alternative Typewriter.
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