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A Conversation With Paul T. Riddell
An interview with Rodger Turner
December 2000

Paul T. Riddell
Paul T. Riddell
Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist and columnist who recently hid a fortune in gadolinium somewhere near his fortified bunker on Mount Briscoe overlooking downtown Dallas, Texas. A complete map to the treasure, as well as information on the code words necessary to ward off the trained Salvator's water monitors guarding it, is available his website, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness at http://www.hpoo.com.

He was also the editor of the online website SciFiNow.com which combines the print content of Sovereign magazines SCI FI and Realms of Fantasy. He now does work for "Zealot" (http://www.zealot.com) and "Savant" (http://www.savantmag.com).

SciFiNow.com
Lydon's Lament

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Some time ago, I suggested to one of our reviewers that an interview with Paul T. Riddell might be nice. I drafted some questions and mentioned that they could be used to define certain areas of interest. Circumstances prevented us from using that reviewer's work. However, we decided to proceed with the interview and to use my original questions for this interview. In the interim, he has left his job at SCI FI magazine and moved on to work for "Zealot" (http://www.zealot.com) and "Savant" (http://www.savantmag.com).

You've had quite a varied career including a brief stint at doing film columns for SF Site. Now you are working at SCI FI magazine. How did this come to pass?

Well, that's a roundabout story. I was born in that darkest period of human history: four days before LSD became illegal in the US and exactly two weeks before the premiere of Star Trek. Combine that with my mother having an interest in science fiction, not to mention all of the NASA projects going on in the early 70s (I turned ten just after Viking 1 set down, so the Viking and Voyager missions came at just the right time), and an interest in science fiction was fairly inevitable. I was practically born a paleontology junkie, so a lot of that helped, too.

As for the writing part of things, I started down the dark path toward journalism in high school (my father wanted me to pick up a career with a better reputation among the general population, but the yearly quotas for crack dealers and child pornographers were already filled), but actually started writing for the genre as a film critic for the late and unlamented New Pathways back in 1989. I quit after two issues because the editor wouldn't let me say bad things about the Batman movie, and went on to a succession of publications such as Fuck Science Fiction, Film Threat Video Guide, SF Eye, and New Blood, most of which went under shortly after I started. Dave Truesdale of Tangent was kind enough to let me run amok for a few years, and it was partly because of that exposure that Scott Edelman decided, against all better judgment, to hire me to write the "Rant" column when Sovereign Media bought Sci-Fi Universe in 1997. When Sci-Fi Universe shut down in 1999, mostly because of the glut of genre-related movie and TV magazines (to steal from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- I don't look at it as dying; I look at it as leaving early to avoid the rush), the "Rant" column moved to SCI FI, and now I get the opportunity to bore nearly a quarter of a million people to tears every two months.

That's the strangest part: turning on Farscape on the SCI FI Channel and seeing ads for the magazine running on the Channel. The crew at SCI FI is smart in that they don't mention my column (for fear of causing uncontrollable rectal bleeding among 40 percent of the audience), but it should be interesting if they start mentioning contributors. "We run articles by outstanding writers such as David Brin, Jodi Berls, and Dan Perez. And we also run a column by some unrepentant dork out of Texas, but that's because we have to give equal time to the feeble-minded."

Despite a plethora of SF series on TV and made into movies, very few of the classic novels which dazzle us with their ideas make the transition. What is it about them that hinder them being made into quality series/movies?
It's nothing to do with the books or stories: it has everything to do with the audiences and the expectations of the filmmakers. It's easy to blame the legions of executives who seemingly graduated from the Beavis and Butt-Head School of Business Management (better known as the Cox Business School at Southern Methodist University), but we in the science fiction community have also done a horrible job at instilling a love for literary SF in the general movie-going or TV-watching audience. Because of the elitist attitude among the literary SF community (and I'm more guilty of this than anybody else), we have, by failure to act, created an audience of SF fans that think that Wing Commander and Lexx are works of genius. Nobody's told them, for instance, that George Lucas ripped off Frank Herbert and H. Beam Piper instead of the other way around, and literary SF has about as much relevance to them as the history of the Ford Motor Company has to a demolition derby fan.

Besides, another thing to consider is that science fiction, no matter how good, is reading matter to an audience that increasingly prides itself upon being functionally illiterate. Sure, we can make films for the fans, but those fans are a statistically insignificant portion of the general movie-going or television-watching population. The idea is to cram butts into as many seats as possible, and most of that audience wants nothing more than pretty pictures and safe clichés. Ergo, when $100 million could lead to either an adaptation of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Star Wars: Episode Two, and The Return of Jar Jar Binks will make ten times what Snow Crash would, no matter how insulting the script or numbing the direction in Episode Two, can you really blame the folks willing to pony up $100 million for the safe bet? Sure, you can mention that Snow Crash would become an instant classic, but the studios will just remind you that The Wizard of Oz and Blade Runner and Brazil were disappointments when they first came out, and having these films declared classics later didn't do a whole lot for the careers of the execs backing them.

There was a recent flurry of press releases touting the advent of E-books from traditional paper book publishers. Do you think any will be successful?
They'll be successful if the companies involved are willing to advertise, but a lot of these E-book publishers are looking for get-rich-quick schemes by taking advantage of wannabe novelists who are certain that their works are being held down by jealous editors and publishers. That's not to say that the publishing business doesn't suffer from laziness and bias in the ranks, but a lot of these books were rejected by dead-tree publishers for a perfectly good reason. Namely, they sucked farts from dead cats.

I'd have more faith in the E-book industry if anyone could argue that a readership for E-books is out there, willing to pay for someone's sterling prose. However, remember that a relatively tiny portion of the planet's population has access to the Web or even to a computer that could read out E-books (remember also that half of the people on Earth have never used a telephone), and that even those willing to buy E-books still have to find the right one. Also, until publishers realize that they cannot justify charging print rates for an E-book without good reason, such as selling E-books with added incentives (the way film companies sell DVDs with outtakes and commentary from the filmmakers), they're doomed.

The biggest factor hindering E-books is that they're being sold on a medium where the audience demands anything not existing in physical form to be free. I started researching this right after Harlan Ellison started hunting down the guy who was scanning his books and stories and offering them on Usenet in PDF format, and found that the argument was "Well, I bought this book used, so I deserve an electronic version for free." Never mind the logic that says that the reader is owed a free copy of something previously bought just because it's in a new medium (just because I bought a lone copy of X-Men in 1977 doesn't mean that I get to see the movie for free): so long as more people feel that it's all right to crack encrypted E-books because they're entitled than those willing to pay for them, then E-books will never become as successful as the printed ones.

It is apparent that many major SF publishers only do a crude job of keeping quality fiction in print. Do you see the Print-On-Demand companies able to do a better job? Despite their enthusiasm, can they find their market rather than a scattergun approach of search engines, friendly links and newsgroups?
Print-on-demand books have a really good possibility of beating the existing publishing companies like a redheaded stepchild. Yeah, Simon & Shuster or Tor can argue that they can't afford to keep mid-list authors in print, but when Babbage Press can publish John Shirley and Wordcraft of Oregon can publish Ernest Hogan without going out of business, why should book buyers continue to waste their time with big publishers looking for the next Hot Thing? Midlist and beginning authors may not bring in incredible amounts of money, but so long as POD publishers keep their costs down and don't base their business plan on too many viewings of The Producers, everyone can come out ahead. Remember that blue whales got that big by eating plankton and krill, and keep an eye on Wildside Press and Ziesing Books.

The other factor is the inevitable backlash going on right now against the big book superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The indie bookstores that survived the shakeout of the early 90s did so because they rediscovered such esoteric concepts as customer service and the need to promote themselves, so more bookbuyers are giving up on the potheads and burnouts manning the counters at Borders and going back to the indies. Because the indie bookstores saw the favors the big publishers cut for the superstores (in particular, where most publishers were offering deep discounts to Barnes & Chernobyl that they had no intention of making to indies), they're more favorably inclined toward working with indie publishers, who were similarly shut out by the superstores. I have a feeling that most customers in the superstores in five years are going to be the people who otherwise would buy their books at the grocery store, and indie bookstores and publishers are going to be doing quite well gathering an audience who wants more than piffle by Monica Lewinsky and Piers Anthony. Seven years of almost nothing in the skiffy section at Borders other than the latest Michael Crichton or the latest Star Trek novel is enough to make anyone slightly less than friendly.

Do you foresee any big changes in SF publishing/movies/TV in the next year? In 2 years? In 5 years?
Besides the print-on-demand movement? Naah. SF movies are going to remain as dumb as before because the audience has proven that it'll pass up Gattaca for The Lost World every time, and the only remotely intelligent SF television is going to come from overseas from countries where more than two percent of the population reads. If UPN can continue to find an audience for Star Trek: Voyager, then SF television originating in the US is pretty much doomed. As for publishing, so long as publishers continue to bitch about how the readership keeps getting older without bothering to do anything about attracting new readers, and then paying gigantic sums for the exclusive rights to Star Trek and Star Wars that'll never recoup the losses, the status will remain quo. Of course, I'm hoping to get as many people as possible as angry as possible so that they'll prove me wrong out of spite, but I've been doing that for eleven years, and nobody's paid attention to me yet.

Given the drop in magazine circulation, do you think there is a future for the print version? Would it be a mix with web sites? Or perhaps channel delivery?
Oh, there's a future for print magazines, so long as laptop computers are still impractical in the bath, in the loo, or on the beach. What needs to change is the attitude in the genre about magazine promotion and delivery. For instance, the big three digests are getting stomped in circulation because most of the magazine reps at the superstores detest digests: they have very few places to display them on standard racks, and they don't sell well as digests. However, whenever I bring up the idea of Asimov's or F&SF going to a standard magazine format, I keep hearing "Oh, Analog tried that back in 1966, and it didn't work." Well, back at the time Analog tried that failed experiment, the only things on my mind were sucking down amniotic fluid and kicking the inside of my mother's uterus. Now, I'd like to think I've changed since then, and I know the magazine industry has changed since then, but the idea is to keep existing readers happy with a familiar format than to bring in new readers. Can you imagine a recording company working the same way? "Well, we tried quadraphonic stereo in 1976, and that didn't work, so we're going to stick with 8-track. CDs are just a fad."

Now, Warren Lapine has been doing wonders with DNA Publications: sure, some smartasses in the genre may argue that the magazines that he bought weren't worth buying, but the simple fact is that he's making a profit by consolidating the day-to-day operations of all of these through a single organization so the editors can concentrate on editing instead of taking care of subscriptions and wrangling with printers. At the same time, he and his crew are really working toward getting more genre publications in the hands of people other than the folks who can afford to go to a convention. He's talking about sending copies to school and public libraries, where the librarians don't have the budget to buy genre magazines, and generally getting teenagers hooked on SF. I don't know if it'll work, but if I were expected to bet, I figure that Warren's efforts will yield more genre magazine readers than the current efforts by Asimov's, which consists almost solely of sending Gardner Dozois to conventions to bore people to death.

How does your site supplement the print version of your company's mags? Should it be a teaser for the mag or should it have a life of its own?
Five years ago, I was working as the Webmaster for a Dallas weekly, back in the days when most newspapers didn't have a Web presence, and I discovered two things about Web readers. Firstly, we got a lot of readers who had never been to Dallas and may never get the opportunity (we had an incredible number of readers in Germany and Australia), but were fascinated by what they found out about Dallas' arts and music scene. Secondly, an equally large number of readers of the print version also checked out the Web site looking for online-only material. The editors pretty much ignored me when I tried to point this out, so I figure that I'd best practice what I preach with SciFiNow.

Trust me on this one: magazines don't have an excuse to run teasers of material in the print edition, and in fact having a complete run of stories and articles from the print edition on the site is enough to get people to buy the magazine on the stands. (Yes, they're able to get the articles off the site for free, but people still have this thing about having hard-copy editions in hand so they can show friends and neighbors.) At the same time, regular readers of the print edition aren't going to bother going to the Web site unless they're given a treat in the form of online-only material. Magazine sites full of teasers are usually dead sites; if Steve Brown at SF Eye had used his site as an augmentation of the magazine, keeping people interested in the magazine between issues, it'd probably still be in print today. Or maybe not.

Of course, keeping a Web site interesting and lively is nearly a full-time job as well, and the biggest problem I've been having over the past two months is with the number of genre-related sites that have burned contributors beyond all redemption. That's the main reason why I insisted on a budget to pay contributors: I can't pay much, but I can pay, and that immediately beats the plethora of sites where the editor/publisher promises pay at some time in the distant future and then never delivers. (I won't name names: it's just that I've worked for a few in my time.) I won't rewrite writers without permission, and I pay, but so many have been burned by online venues that they're gun-shy of anyone seeking submissions. And that's a shame, because I know that the Web has produced an incredible variety of good and entertaining writers. Maybe things'll get better once more Web publications start paying print rates, but until then...

Copyright © 2001 Rodger Turner

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."


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