Interview with Editor Neil Clarke

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Neil Clarke is a Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award-nominated editor and publisher. He is the owner of Wyrm Publishing and publisher/editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a digital science fiction and fantasy magazine. Fiction published in Clarkesworld has been nominated for or won the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Locus, Ditmar, Aurealis, Shirley Jackson, WSFA Small Press and Stoker Awards. You can read more about the Clarkesworld awards here.


Iulian: Readers and writers alike know you for your amazing work at Clarkesworld and for the anthologies you have edited in the past. But could you give us a little background on non-editor Neil Clarke– where did you start, what were your dreams and aspirations, and what were the different paths that eventually converged and brought you to your career of choice?

Neil: I graduated from Drew University with a BA in computer science and soon afterward embarked on a twenty-five year career in educational technology at various schools and universities. I suppose that deep down, however, I always knew I wanted to be a bit more independent than my career permitted. Since college, my passions then have driven me to launch a software company—we wrote BBS software—and later, an online bookstore. That was the first time I was able to combine my love of science fiction with my technology skills. Years later, I began hosting free short stories for some of the magazines I was selling. One summer, I met one of the editors I worked with on that project—Sean Wallace—at Readercon and it led to a discussion that caused me to launch the magazine. Prior to 2006, I had never considered a career in publishing. Now I’m trying to make it profitable enough to replace that day job.

Clarkesworld publishes high quality material year after year. What do you expect from a good short story? And the corollary—what is the fastest way for a short story to turn you off?

Thank you!

I expect a good short story to stand out from the crowd. I tell my slush readers, as they read about half of the seven hundred stories that come in each month, that I want to see any story that is still memorable the next day. I’m looking for the stories that surprise me, something that makes me really think or feel, because when you read as many stories as I do, it’s easy to get bored, unfortunately. Eight years and fifty thousand submissions, you’ve seen nearly everything under the sun. The fastest way to turn me off? Zombies.

I am certain your magazine’s submission queue must be always full. When you find a story that is not 100% acceptable, do you take the time to work with the author to fix that last 1-2%, or at the magazine’s level that type of activity is simply not justified? Describe the way you approach your interaction with authors.

The level of editing that was required for stories we’ve published has varied wildly. Some are near-perfect when they come in, but others have needed more substantial corrections and adjustments. If I find a good story that has a single flaw that prevents me from issuing a contract (poor ending, logic error, inconsistent behaviors, etc.), I’ll email the author and see if they are willing to work with me on it. That only happens once or twice a month.

You have a wonderful group of people working with you at Clarkesworld. Tell us how important is it for an editor to have a strong editorial team? What is the general structure of your magazine and how do the responsibilities get split?

That’s easy. Without my team, Clarkesworld doesn’t exist. I could answer the second part in length here, but it would probably be wiser to redirect you to my behind-the-scenes tour from my December editorial:

Regardless of the staff, running a magazine takes a lot of time. In addition, you also have Wyrm Publishing and all its specific time-consuming process. Is time management one of the most difficult aspects of editing a successful magazine? How do you do it?

And a full-time job, freelance ebook projects, and two kids on top of all that. It can be a bit much, but the trick is to get into a routine and know when to delegate—and how to do it well! (I have an amazing team). It also helps that I’ve been able to systematize and automate the technical side of the operation. My college degree hasn’t been going to waste.

Some people believe that it should be natural for a good editor to also be a good writer. Have you attempted to write? Or, as a professional editor, are you too critical with your own work that you’d never let it see the page?

Writing has never been my passion. I think that probably kills it right there. I enjoy reading and editing, but I find writing to be too much of a struggle. Maybe someday I’ll get past that, but I just don’t have the time I’d need to invest in it. For the moment, my priorities lay elsewhere. There’s only so much time in the day!

There’s only so much that you can publish in one year, and I am sure sometimes you must make tough choices. What are the hardest choices an editor has to make?

Actually, one of the nice things about publishing a magazine—as opposed to an anthology—is that I don’t have a limit to what I can buy. If I have too many stories in inventory, I can always close submissions and take a break for a few months. Unfortunately, I’m way too picky. It’s rare to have more than a month or two of inventory in-hand. That often means living too close to the edge, and I’ve tried—rather unsuccessfully—to work on that, post-heart attack. I’d like to eliminate that source of stress from my life.

I think the hardest stories to reject are the ones I’ve asked for rewrites on. I hate feeling like I’ve wasted the author’s time, but sometimes a story just can’t be adjusted/fixed to your liking.

Who are your editor heroes? Was there anyone in particular that you could name as a having a major influence on your style and approach to editing?

As someone who came into the profession from outside their circles, I wasn’t exposed to the manner in which any short fiction editors did their job. There were obviously editors that published stories I like—Gardner Dozois, Sheila Williams, Ellen Datlow, among others—but for me it was more like curation. We had overlapping taste, but I was woefully ignorant of what they did. I’ve learned a lot on the job. Sean Wallace, who has been with Clarkesworld from day one, has probably influenced me more than anyone else, but most of the time it feels like common sense and trusting your instincts.

Your magazine pays professional rates. Is that the secret of having a profitable e-magazine?

Interesting that you should put those two together. I’m a firm believer in paying SFWA qualifying rate—I refuse to call it professional rate—and encourage all new publishers to consider that the minimum wage. I think it is important that publishers act and present themselves professionally. Think of it like going to an interview in anything less than a suit. You are selling yourself to authors and readers. You need to make a good first impression, attract the best talent, and treat them with the respect they deserve. What you do with that is an indicator of your skill, planning, and luck. (Seriously, luck is a huge factor.) Starting small and having a planned path ahead of you is very handy.

To make money online, you need to have multiple revenue streams and an audience that is willing to support you. Things like subscriptions or Patreon are the best kind of revenue because they are stable and recurring. Donations, ads, and single-issue ebook sales are great, but the income from those fluctuates too much. You shouldn’t ignore them, but you need stability if you want to last.

Like any business, you need to be willing to invest in yourself. I generally start these conversations with “So, how much are you willing to lose?” because profitable e-magazines are few and far between. And knowing when to quit is just as important and knowing where to start.

What are the most valuable non-monetary rewards you get from running Clarkesworld? The Hugo/Nebula nominations, the increase in subscriptions, a friendly email from a reader? What makes it all worth it in the end?

All of it. A stranger walking up to you at a convention and thanking you. Someone emailing you about how a particular story has touched them. Watching one of your authors win an award for a story you published. Getting nominated or winning one yourself. Get well emails when you are in the hospital. The friends I’ve made while working on this. Simply knowing that there are tens of thousands of people reading what you publish each month… and they like it. All of it tells me that I’m not as alone in my enjoyment of this stuff as my teenage self once felt I was.

Neil, thank you very much for this interview, and we are looking forward for more amazing content from Clarkesworld!

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Iulian Ionescu

About Iulian Ionescu

Iulian is the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of Fantasy Scroll Mag. He is a science fiction and fantasy writer who enjoys blogging and technology. He runs the fiction writing blog Fantasy Scroll and if you want to know more about his works, check out his author page.