Interview: Douglas Cohen
Douglas Cohen is a 2000 graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing Workshop. He is the former editor of Realms of Fantasy, where he worked for six and a half years. In the magazine’s final year, they published their 100th issue, won a Nebula Award, and were nominated for a second one. Along with John Joseph Adams, he is the co-editor of Oz Reimagined, whose contributors include Seanan McGuire, Tad Williams and Jane Yolen, among many more. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such venues as Space & Time, Fantastic Stories, Weird Tales, and Interzone. He is currently putting another layer of polish on his novel.
Find Douglas Cohen on Twitter: @Douglas_Cohen.
Keep up with Oz Reimagined news at: http://www.johnjosephadams.com/oz-reimagined/.
Congratulations on the launch of Oz Reimagined! What first brought this idea to light?
Thank you very much! There were a few factors that brought about Oz Reimagined. Some years ago, back when John was still the assistant editor at the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I was still the assistant editor at Realms of Fantasy, the two of us tried to sell an anthology as co-editors. This is ancient history, as we’re rewinding to a few years before John sold his first anthology. We came pretty close to selling that project, but it never quite worked out. We had a lot of fun working on it though, and we worked together really well. So we always knew we wanted to collaborate again at some point. Fast forward a few years. John and I are both at the Nebula Awards in 2011. At this point, John has put out quite a number of anthologies. One of those anthologies was Under the Moons of Mars, which featured original stories set in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom universe. John’s anthology had come out around the same time as the movie, John Carter, which was also set in Barsoom.
So for whatever reason, I happened to be thinking about this anthology while we were at the Nebulas. In particular, I was thinking about how good the timing was for his anthology, because of the free publicity bump from coming out around the same time as the movie. A few weeks earlier, I had read online how Disney was planning on doing a new Oz movie. These factors were enough to make the proverbial light bulb go off over my head. So I turned to John, and I said, “You know what we should do? A Wizard of Oz anthology. There’s a new movie coming out. We can time the book to come out with the movie.” John liked the idea enough that he discussed it with his agent, his agent got on board as well, and we went forward from there. At some point along the way, John and I decided it would be more interesting to solicit stories that reimagined Oz. The authors proved very enthusiastic when we approached them with this idea, so I’m glad we took things in this direction.
Can you tell us a bit about working with John Joseph Adams?
John is great. His knowledge of the genre is vast, his professionalism is unparalleled. He’s very innovative when it comes to marketing our work, he’s extremely organized, and I really appreciate his attention to detail. He sets aside his ego when working with the authors on their stories–every suggestion is made with the intention of putting out the best possible story and overall anthology. I should add that he also sets his ego aside when working with his co-editor. I have a fair amount of editorial experience, but John certainly has more. This was also my first anthology, whereas John has put out a billion and counting. (I keep saying he should be known as John Joseph Anthology.) So when John and I started working on Oz in earnest, it became clear to me very early on that he had a tried and true system when it came to his anthologizing. He’s obviously had a lot of success doing this, so I didn’t see a need to try to change everything around. ”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But at the same time, if I had an idea that I believed could help improve our product in some manner, I wasn’t shy in offering my thoughts. John was completely receptive to everything; as I said, all he wants is to put out the best possible product, same as me. In the end, I feel like Oz Reimagined really is the result of a 50/50 effort. I couldn’t ask for a better co-editor. The genre is lucky to have him, and I learned a lot from working with him.
What did you learn about editing an anthology in comparison to editing short stories for a magazine? How does the process differ in terms of soliciting stories, deciding which stories to include, and editing stories?
Interesting question. Well, with Realms of Fantasy, I’d say 99% of the original stories we published were in fact unsolicited. It was the opposite experience with the Oz anthology. 100% of our contributors were solicited to submit to the anthology. This was done with an eye toward finding authors who would help sell the project to a book publisher while also approaching people whose work we liked and believed would be a good fit for the project.
As to deciding which stories to include in these venues, it’s very much the same metric for the magazine and the anthology: we need to like it enough that we want to buy it. And once you’ve accepted a story for either venue, it pretty much gets treated the same during the editorial process: you edit it as much or as little (hopefully as little) as you have to. Once you reach the editorial evaluation stage for a story, things are rather similar for either venue. The big differences happen beforehand, i.e. the editorial vision for an ongoing magazine vs. a singular anthology, marketing strategies, submission guidelines, etc.
I’m intrigued by the idea of offering individual stories from the anthology as Kindle Singles. Can you tell us a bit about that? How are the sales of single stories compared to book sales?
Well, Oz Reimagined marks the first anthology published by 47North. They’re dipping a toe into the anthology waters, and at the same time it’s an opportunity to try some different things; 47North is an imprint of Amazon.com after all, and Amazon has never been shy about pushing the envelope. In this case, 47North wanted to try out Kindle Singles. The basic idea is that in addition to having the option of buying the whole book, you can also choose to buy individual stories on your Kindle reading device. You can pretty much equate it to the idea of downloading a single song as opposed to an entire musical album. It’s an interesting concept for sure. I can’t tell you much about the sales breakdown at this point as I’m still waiting for that first major royalty statement. So anything else I say would be pure guesswork until I see some hard data.
You’ve read and edited so much work over the years. What is the one piece of advice you would give to the authors reading this interview?
Persevere. This isn’t a business for the easily discouraged. You have to keep at it. That means keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting, keep reading, keep learning, keep your discipline, and keep being stubborn. Keep doing whatever you have to do. Worry less about publication and more about improving your craft. The more you improve the closer you get to publication. There are authors who published in RoF who get rejected repeatedly, in some cases more times than you would believe. But they got in because they kept at it. I can’t guarantee that you’ll get where you want to be if you give it your all, no one can make that promise. But if you don’t give it your best, you’ve already put yourself behind the eight ball, and you have no one to blame but yourself.
Realms of Fantasy will always be missed. How are you coping with its demise?
I appreciate that, but if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m coping with its demise just fine. Realms of Fantasy went through three different publishers before its ultimate demise, meaning it experienced three separate deaths. By the third time, I was kind of used to it. [Fiction editor] Shawna McCarthy and I bid a private farewell to it over drinks at the World Fantasy Convention several days before its (final) public demise.
And on a professional level, ever since I learned about RoF‘s closure, I’ve started to accomplish a lot more in other areas of publishing. Before RoF‘s closure, I had one fiction sale. Since learning the magazine was coming to its end, I’ve racked up five additional sales, sold my first anthology, and finished the first draft of my first novel. I learned a ton from my time with RoF and I gave that magazine 110%, because I loved working there. So when I had that taken away from me, I had a lot of creative energy that needed a new outlet. So on a personal level, there is definitely a silver lining.
I do wish RoF was still around though. It was great for our community. But now that it’s gone, I’m treating it as an opportunity and making the most of it.
I really have two best moments: one is discovering “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise” by Ken Scholes in the slush pile. That story ultimately set off a chain reaction that spawned a five-book deal for Ken with Tor Books. You hear stories about this kind of thing happening, and I was really glad to play a small part in helping bring this about for Ken. The other highlight is discovering “The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara” by Christoper Kastensmidt in the slush pile and seeing it get nominated for a Nebula Award. It’s very rare that slush stories earn this nomination, so this was very gratifying for me. As to my worst moments… I plead the fifth!
Can you give career advice to those who are interested in being editors?
If you’re interested in short fiction, start off by reading slush somewhere. That’s what I did–it just happened to be with Realms of Fantasy (sometimes timing is everything). If you’re still in school or on the younger side and want to edit for one of the major science fiction houses, well, it would be a big plus if you live near New York City, as there are often internship opportunities available. Failing that, you can intern for a literary agent. And wherever you work or intern, always go the extra mile without being asked. Your bosses will notice, even if they don’t say anything. This attitude definitely helped me advance while I was with Realms of Fantasy.
What is the biggest mistake that new editors make when working with authors?
Since the bulk of my experience is with short fiction, I’ll focus on short fiction with this answer. One big mistake new editors should guard against is making editorial suggestions for the sake of putting your editorial imprint on a story. It sounds rather obvious, but suggestions should only be made where change is warranted. People talk about writers’ insecurities, but editors can be insecure too. They need to guard against that desire to prove themselves right of the gate. The best way to prove yourself is over time and through a body of work.
Also, editors should remember that they’re editors, not writers. Don’t try to rewrite an author’s story. Pointing out plot holes and such is fine; you’re supposed to do that. But never tell an author what to do instead–suggest what to do instead. Some editors don’t even do this–they leave it to the author to puzzle it out once the problem has been revealed. But sometimes you see an easy and/or great way to fix the story (in your opinion) and you want to share that. When this happens, pass along your idea as a suggestion. The author will be more receptive and might do exactly what you suggest. Or your suggestion might spark an even better solution for the author.
The key is to remember that the story belongs to the author. You’re there to help the author realize his or her vision, not co-opt it. If you want to be in charge of the story, write your own.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
Right now I’m working on draft five of my novel. When I’m finally done hammering it into shape, I have three agents who already want to look at it. Considering I haven’t even written the query letter yet, that’s a pretty good start! I’m also working on a publishing project that I hope to launch on Kickstarter this year, though for the time being I’m going to remain vague on the details. I have some other anthologies in mind as well, and depending on how Oz Reimagined does, that could open up some additional opportunities. I’m also looking into taking on some freelance editorial work while I pursue the novels and the anthologies. We’ll see how everything unfolds. If I keep my nose to the grindstone, the latter half of 2013 will hopefully be very kind to me.