Interview with Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld, Forever, Upgraded)

My guest today is Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld, Forever, and Upgraded, and a three-time Hugo Award Nominee for Best Editor (short form). 

SCy-Fy: Thanks for stopping by, Neil. You are best known for Clarkesworld, but you also have a new initiative.

NC: This month, I’ve launched Forever, a reprint science fiction magazine that will feature a novella and two short stories in each issue. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a while, but it only recently became practical. I’ve enjoyed the few opportunities I’ve had to work on novella-length projects, so this will give me an outlet to focus on that and stretch my editorial wings a little.

As for Clarkesworld, we’re moving towards a series of different goals like adding more fiction, translations, improving and expanding the podcast, and raising our staff pay rates. The big goal is to be able to quit my day job and focus on editing. The future of Clarkesworld is actually the theme of my February editorial.

SCy-Fy: Staying with Clarkesworld now, tell me about a typical day working on the magazine.

NC: One of the things I like about Clarkesworld is that there isn’t a typical day. Sure, we have a specific list of things that need to be done every month and a never-ending pile of stories to read, but I pace it in a way to keep it from becoming boring. Today I’ve read some slush (maybe forty stories), queried an artist, exchanged a lengthy series of emails with one of our distributors, uploaded a podcast, sent out notes via Patreon and Joyride, and answered your questions.

SCy-Fy: I’m surprised you’ve found the time!

NC: All of this is done around a full-time job and time with my family. It’s a bit of a juggle, but it works. If you’re curious about what goes on behind-the-scenes, my December 2013 editorial covers a lot of territory.

SCy-Fy: What do you think will be the major future challenges for SFF magazines?

NC: The major challenges will continue to be financial. There are a lot of great magazines being published at the moment, but most of them are not able to pay their staff a living, or even a somewhat reasonable wage. Things have improved considerably during the eight years I’ve been working on Clarkesworld, but the ecosystem is still unhealthy in that regard.

In this context, some people are concerned about the growing number of markets. Are there enough readers to sustain all these magazines? I like to think so – based on online readership data – but will they pay for it? Only time will tell. At present, the vast majority don’t. If we could convert ten percent of our readers to subscribers/supporters, this would become my full-time job. No one has managed to do that yet.

SCy-Fy: Any technical issues?

NC: One of the things that bothers me is that so many of the major digital subscription systems rely on PDFs, which don’t make for convenient reading across platforms. The text in app-based subscriptions should reflow like it does in ebooks so you get a great experience across phones and tablets. I know this is a deterrent for some readers. There’s an opportunity there for some clever app developer. [call me]

SCy-Fy: Tips for writers?

NC: The first instinct is to say “follow the guidelines,” but deep down, most people know they should. Instead, I’ll suggest:

Don’t self reject unless you’re considering sending me a zombie story.

Write what you want, not what you think a market wants (unless they overlap).

Don’t assume you need to start at the bottom. Submit to your dream market first.

Most stories can be improved by cutting them by 10%. Give it a try sometime.

Make sure your story starts on page one, not page three.

Consider volunteering to be a slush reader. It’s a great way to build confidence and discover the common mistakes most writers make.

SCy-Fy: Pitfalls in SFF zining?

NC: The big mistake most people make is underestimating the workload and overestimating their potential for success. Part of your homework before launching a magazine is to talk to people who are already doing it. Learn from their mistakes. Most of us are willing to share because someone did that for us when we started. I’ve probably consulted on at least a hundred by now. Many have run for the hills when they’ve finally done the math. There’s a reason one of my first questions is “How much can you afford to lose?”

SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?

NC: It’s a job you have to love to survive. I enjoy finding the gem in the slush pile and getting to share it with people. I’ve been lucky enough to have good friends alongside me at Clarkesworld and a family that has been more than supportive of my crazy little dream. All things said though, it pays to be a little stubborn. It helps you deal with those people who want to take you down by saying things like “You’re killing science fiction” or “It’ll be dead within the year.”

Since this question lends itself so well, I have to give a quick thank you to all our readers. They’ve been fantastic, particularly a couple of years ago when I had my heart attack. I’ll always remember that.

SCy-Fy: Which has been the most controversial story you have published?

NC: That’s easy. “Spar” by Kij Johnson is, by far, our most controversial story. It’s a powerful and nasty short that unspools in your head and becomes bigger than it really is. Nothing we’ve published has elicited such polarizing comments from readers. That said, it was a Nebula Award winner and a nominee for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Locus Awards.

SCy-Fy: The most popular?

NC: Our most widely read story is “The Things” by Peter Watts. It went viral when we first published it and continues to attract new readers today. For many people, it was their introduction to Clarkesworld.

SCy-Fy: Your personal favourites among what you have published so far?

NC: That’s a book project further down the line. Until then, I’ll favor the babies and say the most recent issue and the upcoming (within a month) Clarkesworld: Year Seven anthology. I’m quite pleased with how the first issue of Forever came together as well.

SCy-Fy: Which upcoming releases are you most looking forward to reading?

NC: Two of the books I’m looking forward to had their start as Clarkesworld stories:

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente started as “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor started as “The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book)”.

I am also eagerly awaiting The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu and The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson.

SCy-Fy: Anything to add?

NC: Just a thank you for having me here. I’d be happy to answer any follow-up questions you or your readers might have.

SCy-Fy: Thank you, Neil. And good luck with everything.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld, Forever, Upgraded)

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