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.
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
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
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
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.