Scott H. Andrews lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. He is a graduate of Odyssey 2005. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is a World Fantasy Award finalist for his work as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a Hugo Award finalist fantasy magazine that Locus has called “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”
Visit him online at http://www.scotthandrews.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @Scott_H_Andrews.
Can you tell us the most common mistakes authors make in submitting to BCS or interacting with you?
Very few of the thousand writers I’ve dealt with have made what I would call an out-and-out mistake. Sometimes cover letters ramble a bit or the author seems overly proud of minor publications, but that’s nothing most of us haven’t done too. It can make the writer feel amateurish, but a good story always trumps that.
Likewise for all the writers who have interacted with me. I think that we writers, as we fire off submissions in impersonal emails and get form rejections back, often forget that editors are real people. If you’re honest with editors about what you’re feeling about line-edits or something, and you point it out politely and are willing to try to address their concern, I think they will recognize that and do their best to work with you.
Developing writers often sign short fiction contracts without understanding them fully. Can you describe the clauses writers should make sure they have in
their contracts, and the clauses that should tell them this is not a good contract to sign?
I think the most important clause in any short fiction contract is a rights reversion. Especially in this age with new magazines cropping up then dying, or funding themselves hand-to-mouth via Kickstarter, there’s so much uncertainty that writers need to protect their rights.
I’ve seen two types of wording in reversion clauses. One is ‘if our magazine ceases publication before we publish your story, all rights revert to the author.’ That’s decent, but what if the magazine doesn’t officially cease publication and merely goes dormant? A better wording is ‘if we don’t publish your story within this specific time limit, all rights revert to the author.’ That means no matter whether they go under or go dormant or just change their mind about your story, if they don’t publish it, you eventually get the rights back.
Also, in this age of electronic rights, I think it’s important to note the time limits that are applied to those rights. In the paper era, story publication was a one-time thing; the magazine issue would languish on newsstands for a month, then be remaindered and pulped. But with online magazines, your story could be up on that website forever, depending on the time limit of the rights you sold them. What if some situation arises where you would like it taken down?
BCS acquires electronic rights for 90 days. After that, it’s the author’s choice whether to let us keep the story in our archives or take it down. As an author myself, that seems only fair; it’s their story. (In five years and over 260 stories, no author has ever asked for a story to be removed.) Most online magazines have similar time-limits on the rights they buy, but I know one that buys electronic rights in perpetuity–that is, forever–and you can’t ever have them take the story down.
Audio rights are another new feature of this short fiction era, as fiction podcasting has become ubiquitous among the top magazines. Audio rights, as pioneered by the big podcast markets, are usually non-exclusive and reprint. This is good for writers because you can publish the story as an original somewhere else first, like in a text zine (most of which don’t publish reprints), then sell it as an audio reprint. You get your story reprinted for a separate audience, and you get paid a second time.
But because audio rights are often sold later like that, authors should make sure that the contract they sign on a story for its first publication doesn’t do anything that would prevent them from later selling the audio rights; for example, making sure the contract doesn’t grab exclusive audio rights for a long time period, or if it does, has a reversion clause for those audio rights. BCS‘s contract has a short time period within which we can buy audio rights, but after that time period expires, the author can sell them elsewhere.
Authors often have a lot of anxiety about receiving editor feedback and how to handle it. What advice would you offer to them?
That is a fascinating issue and a tough question to answer. It’s a lot like critiquing at a workshop–as an author, whose opinions do you heed and whose do you reject? The right answer is “do what’s best for the story,” but of course that’s totally subjective, and it’s often tough for us authors to see with an outside eye what might be best for our own story.
In every rewrite request I give, I tell the author that if my issues or suggestions don’t fit their vision for the story, I totally understand. It’s their story; it’s their right to make changes or not, as they see fit. But with that right comes the difficult responsibility of figuring out whether the changes might make it “better,” and “better” is completely subjective.
I do go to great lengths to explain all my suggestions and edits, so the author can understand what I’m seeing from my outside perspective. I think that helps a lot; the writer knowing that it’s not just arbitrary pecking at grammar or logic; there is a point behind each even tiny thing. Usually either my suggestions work for them or they come up with their own way to meet my concerns. It is a collaborative process; it sometimes takes the author explaining to me their intent and me suggesting several different options to both fit their intent and meet my concerns.
I’ve been on both sides of this. With my own stories, I’ve run across an editor who got prickly when questioned and one who refused to entertain any compromise. I’m mindful of those every time I do a rewrite with an author; I don’t want anyone to ever have an experience like that with me. I think being forthright and polite is key. I also think that as a writer, politely explaining your intent to the editor can help, if he or she asks for it or don’t seem to have understood.
Of course, it’s always possible that ultimately there is no middle ground between what the author wants and what I think the story needs. Sometimes those stories end up working for another editor as-is, which is great for the writer and the story. Often I hear from writers that they used my comments to rewrite the story and it then sold to an equally prominent magazine. Which is great too. In the end, it is indeed all subjective.
Podcasts add a wonderfully fantastic dimension to BCS. It’s one thing to read a story, and quite another to listen to it. This extra format is also useful for readers who wish to access stories while on the move. Not counting EscapePod or Starship Sofa, whose formats are strictly podcast, only a few magazines, such as Clarkesworld, were utilizing podcasts in 2008. When you were envisioning your magazine, were podcasts always on your drawing board, so to speak, or were they a later addition?
Podcasts were not part of my original design for BCS, but when I heard about the large and untapped audience for podcasted short fiction (coincidentally, in 2008 from Neil Clarke), I added them before the magazine’s launch. I knew from my amateur musician background that I could do a great job with audio fiction and achieve production quality well beyond what others were doing at the time.
BCS was the second magazine, behind only Clarkesworld, to feature regular podcasts of their short fiction. Since then, all major e-zines have added them, and the production quality has increased dramatically. I think it’s a great boon to the short fiction field; the podcasting community seems to have minimal overlap with the text readership, so the podcasts are getting magazines’ short fiction to a new and large audience. The production quality is important too; short fiction fans may not mind average sound, but the podcast community has a more discriminating ear, and good sound helps our podcast appeal to those audio fans.
In 2009, we asked what kinds of advice you’d give to someone who wanted to start their own magazine. Has any of that advice changed over the years?
No, I think that advice is still the same. It’s a huge time commitment, and my own writing has had to take a back seat for many years. There’s also a long, slow build to establish a zine’s identity and vibe and for it to garner recognition in the field. If you don’t have the dedication or patience for that, you’ll burn out or your magazine will end up seeming mediocre to readers and writers.
Where do you see Beneath Ceaseless Skies in five years? Any future plans for the magazine? Any future writing plans for you?
Five years seems a very long time yet still the blink of an eye. I hope that in five years, BCS is still publishing great stories by new authors and veterans alike. I wonder if most of the readership then will be reading the magazine via ebooks or mobile devices rather than the website, but I bet the website will remain a significant portal.
Future plans for the magazine include the possibility of another science-fantasy theme month next year, and perhaps other theme-months as well. For our 100th podcast episode last March, we did a special large-cast audio reading of a story that had multiple narrator characters; I would love to do another large-cast audio reading. Last year we did a theme anthology along with our annual Best of BCS anthology: Ceaseless Steam, a collection of steampunk stories from the magazine. I would love to do another theme anthology.
The future plan for my writing is to write. I have been better the past few years at delegating some of the magazine work, including slush reading and audio narrations, and that has let me carve out some writing time. I’m looking to improve my writing–we’ll see if my insights from editing can carry over into my fiction–and start drafting one of two fantasy novels I have partially outlined.
Many agents and novel editors read BCS, and several of our authors have sold novels based on their BCS stories. An outgrowth of my creating a home for literary adventure fantasy may be that that style is now on the radar of publishers, which might make it easier for me along with our authors to sell novels in that style. We’ll see.