Interview: John Joseph Adams

If you read many science fiction and fantasy short stories or anthologies, you’re probably already familiar with the name John Joseph Adams, but just in case: John is the highly acclaimed editor of a truly impressive amount of genre anthologies, including (deep breath) Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on BarsoomWastelands, The Living DeadThe Living Dead 2By Blood We Live, FederationsThe Improbable Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Way of the Wizard, and what’s possibly my favorite genre anthology ever, the dystopian SF collection Brave New Worlds. John is also the editor of the excellent online magazine Lightspeed.

Far Beyond Reality: John, thanks for agreeing to do this interview! Your online science fiction and fantasy magazine Lightspeed had a spectacular first year, as anyone who takes a look at the Lightspeed: Year One anthology can see. Recently the magazine has gone through some major changes. Can you let us know how those changes came about and how the current situation is working out compared to last year?

John Joseph Adams: The first major change would be the fact that I took over as publisher from Sean Wallace and Prime Books. Sean just needed to divest himself of some of his workload, as he is also running a publishing company (and has two toddler twins to boot!), so he decided that he needed to cut ties with Lightspeed. That meant selling the magazine to a new publisher, and since I was already editor, I was the first person he offered it to.

It was a hard decision; obviously I love Lightspeed, and it’s something I’m extremely proud of, but taking that step from editor to publisher is a big one, and is not without risk. Fortunately, we’d done a lot to give Lightspeed a good solid foundation since launching in June 2010, and so when I took over all I had to do really was keep the ship running the manner it had been. There have been challenges to be sure, but I took over as publisher of something that already had a good thing going.

One of my first big decisions as publisher was to merge Fantasy into Lightspeed, to make one bigger magazine rather than continuing to publish two smaller ones. That allowed me to consolidate a lot of my efforts, and it should help with branding and whatnotit’s a lot easier to push one brand rather than try to push two different ones. Plus, it allowed me to cut some costs.

Other changes have just come up as I’ve gotten comfortable in my role as publisher. I added the novellas to the ebook editions, as a way to help encourage people to venture beyond the web edition of the magazine, and I started offering lifetime subscriptions because, believe it or not, a reader actually requested them. I figured why noteven if it’s just the one person who wanted to support the magazine in that way, it could be quite helpful, but, as it turns out, more people than I thought were thinking along the same lines.

Currently, the magazine seems to be doing quite well; I’m happy where we are now and can see the real possibility of significant growth. Since I only officially took over as publisher starting with the January 2012 issue, I’ve only now gotten most of my sales data for that first month, but it’s all looking good. We’re doing well with our subscriptions, both via Weightless Books and via Amazon Kindle (which we just launched recently), and the readers seem to still be enjoying what I’m publishing, so that’s gratifying as well.

FBR: Next to the magazine, one of the other things you’re well known for is the impressive number of quality anthologies you’ve edited. To some people, editing an anthology may mistakenly seem like a sinecure: grabbing some stories other people wrote and sticking them in a book. As someone who has edited so many anthologies, can you walk us through the process? How do you get from the initial concept to the finished product?

JJA: [Laughs.] Well, I can assure you that anyone who says that hasn’t actually edited an anthology! But like anything else, the end result is directly related to the amount of effort put into it. Sure, you could throw together an anthology quickly and easily without doing much work (assuming we’re talking about reprint anthologies here), but it’s not very likely to be very good if you do that. I’ve certainly seen some anthologies that do very much seem like they were just thrown together without much thought given to them. But, of course, I try to do much more than that, and I take the responsibility of curation very seriously.

When you’re in the initial stages of an anthology project, you start with an idea, that you then develop into a proposal, and then you need to do some preliminary research at least, before you even shop the proposal to a publisher, because to make the book viable, there have to be a certain number of established authors who can be included, in order for the publisher to be able to market the anthologies effectively and get them placed well in bookstores. So there’s actually quite a bit of work that you need to do on-spec before you can even get a publisher to consider doing an anthology.

When I do a reprint anthology, I do tons of research, looking for all of the stories that might possibly fit the theme. To help me with that, for most of my projects, I’ve solicited feedback from the community, as I have with the two projects I’m currently working on, Epic (for Tachyon Publications) and Other Worlds Than These (for Night Shade Books); for those, and other past projects, I setup a form and invited people to enter their recommendations. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve received a huge number of recommendations, some off-base, but some very, very good ones, so crowdsourcing my research has been a definite boon and probably saved me a lot of time. I also have extensive contacts in the community, of course, so I can contact friends and colleagues, seeking recommendations, but by crowdsourcing it, I’m able to reach the widest pool of people and to get the most varied types of recommendations. That, in addition to the research I do on my own, always gives me a large variety of material to work with, and then it’s a matter of doing tons and tons of reading.

After that, then you have all the contractual stuff to deal with, which can be easy-as-pie, or a real pain. Sometimes it’s difficult to even find who it is you need to get in touch with, since sometimes the rights owners are not clear, especially in the case of deceased authors, and then sometimes you run into a situation where a book publisher owns the rights to a particular story, and asks for an exorbitant fee to reprint it. On top of all this, which kind of forces you into the role of lawyer and agent, as you negotiate those waters, you also have to be an accountant, first, to keep all your advance payments straight, and second, when royalties come in, you have to divvy everything up amongst all the contributors equally, and issue a bunch of checks. Then, come tax time, you have to issue 1099s… It’s not all glamorous! [Laughs.]

FBR: And here I thought you had minions to handle mundane tasks like tax forms for you! What’s a typical “day in the office” like for you? If there is such a thing as a typical day, of course, but at least the closest equivalent you can think of.

JJA: On a typical day, I usually get up and go straight to the computer to check my email. Since I’m on the west coast, there’s often a bunch of stuff to take care of right away, as the business day is already well underway on the east coast. So I’ll handle all of what needs to be taken care of immediately and leave the rest to be dealt with later. I check Twitter, and maybe my RSS feeds in Google Reader (though more often these days I save Google Reader for when I need a little break from work). I usually start the day intending to get a lot of reading done, or to get a lot of editing done, and somehow it always seems like it’s suddenly 3 or 4 in the afternoon and I still haven’t done either of those things. There are so many other little tasks that get in the way of thatcontracts, calculating royalties, issuing payments, working on new anthology proposals, processing slush… Basically, I guess you’d say a typical day is one that I will plan most of the day reading/editing, and instead spend most of the day trying to clear my plate so that I can do so. That said, my “day” usually extends past the usual 9-5 business day, and I usually put in at least several hours of work on the weekends as well.

FBR: You’re an established name in the field now, and I’m sure many people wonder how you got started. What originally led you to science fiction and fantasy, and how did it turn into a career?

JJA: In retrospect, I was basically a genre reader my whole life, but I didn’t identify as one until much later, largely because I never personally went to the bookstore to pick out my own books; instead, I subsisted mainly on books I was given, either as gifts from my parents, or hand-me-downs from my sister. As a teen, I got into Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which helped refire my already substantial (but perhaps subconscious) interest in genre fiction, and those two things lead me to seek out related reading material. So I read a bunch of those tie-in novels, and then made my way through the Star Wars ones, but before moving onto “proper” SF, I took a detour through mysteries and medical thrillers, the latter of which lead me to Michael Crichton who, in turn, lead me directly to science fiction. (In the words of my former brother-in-law, “If you can handle the science in a Crichton novel, you can handle the science in any science fiction book.”)

In any case, around this periodwhen I was around 18 or soI experienced a golden age of reading; I was reading books at a very rapid rate, which was no doubt helped along by the fact that I was working at a bookstore and surrounded by books all day. So narrative was on my mind almost all the time in those days, and that, coupled with my regular D&D gaming sessions, inspired me to create something of my own. I first tried my hand at running a D&D campaign, but the interactive aspect of it didn’t appeal to me at the time, so I decided to try my hand at writing fiction instead. The first thing I wrote, as I mention in the introduction to my new anthology, Armored, was a militaristic sf novel about a mercenary in power armor. It was pretty terrible, but that didn’t deter me, and since I knew I’d have to have a job while I worked on my writing, I decided to go to college to get an English degree (figuring that it would help me get a job and I’d learn a lot about writing). Although many people would laugh at the naivete of such a thought process, in my case it turned out to be true (though I guess how much I actually learned about writing that I couldn’t have learned by attending Clarion or one of the other workshops is debatable).

In college, I discovered some aptitude for editing in my writing workshop classes, and I decided to pursue that after graduating, as something I would work at while continuing to write. So I moved from Florida, where I was living at the time, to New Jersey, where I had some family, since the New York City area is where the majority of the publishing jobs are located. I thought that starting off with one of the short fiction magazines would be a good place to get my foot in the door, rather than trying right away to get a job at one of the book publishers. That turned out to be a pretty good instinct and ended up shaping my entire careerwhich I basically owe entirely to the kindness and tutelage of Gordon Van Gelder of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, who gave me my first job in the industry.

FBR: Do you have a favorite project you worked on over the years? How about a favorite story that you’ve been involved with?

JJA: It’s always a hard call deciding which project is one’s favorite. I think perhaps the best, most “important” book I’ve done is Brave New Worlds. Dystopian fiction has been a long-time favorite subject of mine, and the fact that there was no such anthology like it prior to mine makes it standout in my mind as one of my best projectsbut I also feel like the anthology is certainly among my best in terms of the quality of the stories within. (It’s also got an amazing cover.)

But then what about Wastelands? I feel similarly about Wastelands as I do about Brave New Worlds, and it has the added bonus of being my first anthology, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. Or what about The Living Dead, which netted me my first award nomination and has been by far my best-selling anthology. Or what about Armored, which, as I’ve mentioned, is kind of the anthology I’ve been working toward my entire career, given my first creative attempts involved power armor? And what about Lightspeed, the magazine I built from the ground up? It’s just too hard to say!

Ah, now for stories, that’s even harder perhaps. When you ask me about my own projects, that’s one thingI mean, it’s sort of like picking your favorite child. But asking me to pick a story is like asking me which of someone else’s children is my favorite! That said, there are certainly some authors that I’ve gotten the chance to work with who it still astounds me to this day that I can call them colleagues, but it doesn’t seem couth to single them out. :)

FBR: Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any exciting projects coming up in the near future?

JJA: Well, I mentioned that my new anthology, Armored, just came out, and earlier this year, I had my first young adult anthology, Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom, come out from Simon & Schuster. Coming up in July, I have a new reprint anthology due out from Night Shade called Other Worlds Than These, which is about parallel worlds and portal fantasies. Then, in the fall, Tachyon will be publishing Epic, a new reprint anthology of epic fantasy. Shortly after that, in January 2013, Tor will publish my anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. And, of course, there will be a new issue of Lightspeed every month for the foreseeable future.

FBR: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, John!

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5 Responses to Interview: John Joseph Adams

  1. Thank you, Stefan.

    John does seem to be one of the most hard working anthologists out there today and a good editorial eye in the bargain. A potent combination.

    If I won the lottery, John would be the guy I would hire to do a dream anthology.

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