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Article WINTER 2004

An Interview with John R. Douglas
by Celu Amberstone

John R. Douglas has worked as an editor for  Berkley, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, Avon Books and HarperCollins. He is currently editor of the science fiction news magazine Chronicle. Celu Amberstone conducted this interview with him at Torcon3.

Stephen R. Donaldson, David Hartwell, John Douglas

John R. Douglas (right) with author Stephen Donaldson (left) and Tor Books editor David Hartwell (centre) at the World Fantasy Awards 2000 in Corpus Christi, Texas. - Photo from MidAmerican Fan Photo Archive

To begin, can you give me some background information about yourself?

I was born and raised in Toronto. I’ve always been a very omnivorous reader. I started reading science fiction at about age fourteen.  In 1969 when I was in college I went to my first convention, Luna-Con in New York City. Going to conventions became a way of life after that. After ten years paying my own way to the cons, I fell into a career in publishing. I worked for four different publishers from early 1978 to 1999. I went freelance after that when I was merged out of a job. At the moment I’m making a living at something I really love. For just over a year now I’ve worked as the news editor for Chronicle, a magazine founded about thirty years ago by a friend of mine. I do news articles, and editorials that allow me to give my opinions on things.

The next logical question after that is: Tell me about the changes you’ve seen in the industry over the past ten to fifteen years.

My perspective comes from the mass-market side of the industry. I’ve done hardcover and trade paperbacks at times, but it was always through the mass-market division of a company. That kind of publishing has gone from a very backlist orientated business to one in which it’s hard to keep books in print. The process of doing business has gotten more bureaucratic, and more cut throat competitive over the past few years. The trade off was that I was working with very creative people, and that was very satisfying.

What advice would you have for Canadian authors wanting to get published in the U.S?

The same advice I would give any author. Make sure you’ve done your research, and approach an editor in a professional manner. Don’t get coy or oversell yourself in your cover letter. The guy that trained me in the business told me that I should be rejecting about ninety percent of what I read in ten percent of my working time. That way I could devote the rest of my time to the stuff that was really worth consideration—the manuscripts my company would end up publishing.

How would you look at a manuscript to determine if it was worth your consideration?

By the end of the first page I know whether I want to turn to the next one. I can tell by then if the author can render readable prose that has some narrative continuity. I can also tell if the prose is intriguing, what tone the story has, if I like the characters’ names, and so forth. I look for an enjoyable reading experience, a sense of storytelling, interesting characters—that I want to find out more about. I also want a story that has concepts that I can explain easily in commercial terms, to the people in the sales department who don’t read science fiction. In the first few pages I will also know whether the manuscript is similar to something I already have, and in that case there is nothing I can do for that person. I can only wish the author good luck in taking it elsewhere. 

Do you read the synopsis first?

No. In fact it bothers me when I open the package and see the synopsis on top. I like to read the manuscript first. I don’t need to know the full story unless they can write. The absolute rock bottom is that the author of a new manuscript has to be able to tell a story. The first sentence should be magical.

Some people seem to be able to publish in Canada or Britain, but can’t get published in the U.S. Why do you think that might be?

I think it works both ways. There are people in the US that can’t get published in Canada or Britain. It’s more a question of combining what a publisher knows will work with a new twist to the story. Certainly for some authors setting a book in Toronto isn’t a problem. What is chosen isn’t necessarily a bias on the editor’s part, but there is a selection process that is already in place. For example more men read and therefore more men write sf. So, as an editor, you pick from what you see. There are trends, however. I’ve noticed in mainstream literature for example that there is a trend towards publishing East Indian and Asian writers at the moment. Twenty years ago you wouldn’t have seen that.

I want to thank you for doing this.

My pleasure.



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Posted January 21, 2004