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A Conversation With Ellen Datlow
An interview with Rodger Turner
October 2000

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Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow was the fiction editor of OMNI from 1981 until it folded in 1998. She now works as the fiction editor of SCIFI.COM. Her well-deserved reputation as an editor for the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror series and for the Fairy Tale Anthologies series (both with Terri Windling) has garnered her numerous awards.

SCIFI.COM
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Black Heart, Ivory Bones
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 12th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Silver Birch, Blood Moon
SF Site Review: Black Swan, White Raven
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 11th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: 10th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Fairy Tale Anthologies

Sci Fiction at SCIFI.COM

All Art: Thomas Canty
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection
Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 12th Annual Collection
Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 11th Annual Collection
Black Swan, White Raven
Black Heart, Ivory Bones
Silver Birch, Blood Moon

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At the SCI FICTION section of scifi.com you post original fiction as well as classic stories every week or so. Why did you choose this approach rather than all original fiction?
We post a new story weekly and classic stories every other week. We thought the mix of "classic" with new would give a new generation of readers a taste of science fiction's past. Many of the stories -- and authors -- although well-known by my and earlier generations' standards, are completely unknown to readers who are only aware of SF through the media, and just aren't familiar with the wealth of material published over the years.

I suppose this unfamiliarity is due, in part, to the dwindling readership of the digests along with the number of magazines available on newsstands. Do you think that SCI FICTION can be a force to re-establish a short fiction audience/market?
I hope so. Certainly our existence should help the short story market. Any time you get new markets paying professional rates this encourages established writers and newer writers to produce more short fiction. I saw this happen when I worked at OMNI. Robert Silverberg had "retired" from writing short fiction until OMNI started offering markedly higher rates for fiction.

I'd like to think that we're encouraging websurfers to take a chance and read fiction on the web.

I think the unfamiliarity is a result of the decline of the backlist. Very few single author collections remain in print for any length of time any more. Most of the pb collections I have of writers such as Richard Matheson, Gerald Kersh, Richard McKenna, etc. were bought by me second hand in bookstores or at conventions.

I've always thought it a shame that many short fiction collections by single authors like that series Ballantine Del Rey did a number of years ago don't remain in print. I suppose the publishers don't feel there is a sufficient market for them. Do you think that there will be a market for such reprint collections with the recent proliferation of print-on-demand publishers and the e-book retailers?
I know a few book websites that are indeed buying up single author collections for good money. Generally, the only way a writer can sell a collection is if her agent makes the next book contract contingent on the publisher also buying a collection. But obviously, the publisher has to really want the next novel or two to invest in that collection. The small press has already taken up the slack of traditional, larger book publishers. Golden Gryphon, Cemetery Dance, Babbage Press, Dreamhaven, Gauntlet Press, Subterranean -- they're all doing a major service for the fields of SF, fantasy, and horror by publishing collections.

Anthologies, particularly ones with themes, still manage to be considered viable. What aspect do you think they have that author collections don't?
First of all, I think publishers believe that theme anthologies have more of a "hook" to draw readers in than non-theme anthologies. There is little promotion money available for anthologies (unless the publisher is forced to pay BIG money, something that can only be done with the guaranteed appearance of magic "names" -- moreso in horror than in SF/fantasy, although there are a few names in fantasy that might guarantee sales.

Then, just the fact that an anthology is made up of many contributors is perceived as giving the reader more of a choice -- again, especially if some of those contributors are so-called "big names." This, of course, is mere speculation on my part. Since I don't regularly work in book publishing I'm not kept abreast of sales figures for collections or anthologies (except for my own) so can't compare them.

With the wealth of classic short fiction available, is there a particular element you look for in each story you chose?
First, I started with stories that I've loved and stuck in my mind from when I first began reading SF. I look for those stories that transcend the time in which they were written, and those that haven't been overexposed in the past few years. Or just stories that I think readers would enjoy and may not have read. I can't always acquire the rights to every story I want to reprint and I feel that's a shame because we're bringing some wonderful stories to the attention of a whole new audience.

I'd have to agree with you. But rereading some, I've found that they seem different from the story I remember. Do you reprint those stories as they were published or do you approach them as if they were new? I'm asking if you start editing with what was written by the author or with what was published.
Oh no, I wouldn't edit a "classic" work. The stories I choose either hold up for me or I wouldn't want to use them. Of course, many of the classics I'm publishing are by authors no longer alive. But in some cases during copy editing or proofreading we've found obvious typos in the version of the story we're reprinting from. If the author is alive, I'll inform her so that she can fix it for the next time the story is reprinted.

Many of the authors whose material appears in the SCI FICTION section of scifi.com are established authors, well-known by most folks who read in the genre. Have you had any submissions by first-sale authors that will appear in the months to come?
Hey, we've only been publishing for six months (as of mid-October); give us a chance! I don't have a very full inventory at this point so am looking for great new work by established and new writers. I'm working with a newer writer on a story right now. I don't yet know whether I'll buy it but if the rest of his work is as good as this one story then I'll probably eventually buy something by him. If not the particular story we're going back and forth on, then another.

I've published science fiction stories by writers known more for their horror than their SF, such as Graham Joyce, A.R. Morlan, and Tim Lebbon. Lebbon, in fact, is not very well-known in this country although he soon will be. His SF/horror novella "White" was published as a chapbook in the UK and I picked it up for The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection. It recently won the British Fantasy Award. Although Lebbon has had novels published in the UK, they haven't yet been published in the US.

And I published another talented new writer, Dave Hutchinson, who I'd never heard of before receiving his story. Reading his bibliography I see that he's published a few stories in the UK and in Poland but he wasn't known to me and I doubt he's known to American readers.

It seems apparent that the bulk of the folks who cruise the Internet expect to find most of what they're searching for available free of charge. Music via Napster is the most obvious example. Do you think there is a viable equivalence with respect to short fiction?
Short Fiction markets have already found a viable place on the Internet. I don't think it's even a question. I've been publishing short fiction on the web since around 1996. The two World Fantasy Award-winning stories I published in OMNI INTERNET and EVENT HORIZON, were the first online stories to win any major award. I've always paid my authors decent money -- although I haven't always earned a living from editing online ("Event Horizon" was not profitable). But if an author gets paid and readers read the fiction then a site is viable.

That leads me to ask you about how material can be protected. Do you think the traditional concepts of copyright and royalty are going to have to change before short fiction markets will find a viable place on the Internet?
I think copyright law must be adapted to the web in order to protect intellectual property and authors -- soon. But I also think it's a really exciting time for publishing on the web. A number of other webzines specializing in science fiction and paying well in addition to SCI FICTION are springing up. This can only be good news for the field as the more decent paying markets there are in short fiction, the more writers write short fiction. And I still think that short fiction is the lifeblood of the field.

How do you see copyright law adapting?
I don't know. I think that's up to copyright lawyers and publishers to figure out. But I do feel strongly that if there is intentional copyright infringement, the piracy must be rigorously prosecuted and the work removed from the offending website. I think the ISPs must assume some responsibility in this. If it's pointed out that their system is being used in this manner, they've got to take the site down or withdraw services from the perpetrator.

Earlier you said that "short fiction is the lifeblood of the field." But how does a reader go about distinguishing "the chaff from the wheat" on websites? Certainly your considerable reputation brings significant cachet to the work you publish. But there are so many others out there striving to publish quality work, often hidden among others that are questionable at best.
How is that different from print publishing? Because I've been reading for The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for so long, I'm aware of the existence of many many small press magazines. Only a relatively small percentage of them publish what I'd call professional quality fiction. If I know an editor's work then I'll trust that editor to provide the kinds of fiction I like. Is it that different on the web? There are a few websites I check out regularly for their fiction. And just like in print magazines, if someone recommends a new website, I'll check it out periodically.

Copyright © 2000 by 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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