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Article WINTER 2005

An Interview with Editor John Morgan

by Celu Amberstone

 

John Morgan is an editor at the Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., which includes the Ace and Roc SF imprints. In addition to acquiring and editing many science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles, he's also worked on pop-culture nonfiction titles and a few popular science books. He’s also interested in general literary fiction, general nonfiction, and mystery/thrillers. He grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, and now lives in New York City.

Q. Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into the publishing business 

A. I've been a voracious reader all my life, and as a kid I intended to go into film. I had a few internships in that industry and realized that a lot of the horror stories I'd heard about it are true, so when a job in publishing opened up for me after college I decided to try it out. It's worked out really well, and I've been at Penguin for over six years now. I live in Manhattan and have become a solid New Yorker.

Q. You seem to be a man wearing more than one editorial hat. Can you explain to me what has been happening at Roc since Ms. Gilman left? Can you clarify your position at both Ace and Roc?

A. The Roc and Ace science fiction and fantasy lines were run by two separate groups of editors until last year, when Laura Anne Gilman, the head of Roc, left to pursue her writing career. (Check out her just-released novel Staying Dead--it's already a national bestseller!) After Laura Anne departed, both Roc and Ace came under the direction of Susan Allison, and Ace and Roc editors began to acquire for both lists. What this means to readers: basically nothing. Like most of the work editors do, this reshuffling is essentially invisible in its effect on our books. Roc and Ace still exist as separate imprints, and each specializes in slightly different kinds of books. We're continuing with our successful authors in each group, and both lines continue to do well in the market. And now I get to edit books for Roc, working on projects that are a little bit different than what I get to do at Ace.

Q. What future direction do you see for both imprints? Will Roc be moving in a different direction now that Gilman is gone? What sets both Roc and Ace apart from other imprints of the genre?

A. I think Ace does well with a lot of different kinds of SF and fantasy, so many various types that it's hard to sum up exactly what it means to be an Ace book--although I will say that I think Ace books generally have a very high literary content--but we've found that Roc books would sometimes be a little bit more experimental, a little edgier. That was working for them, so we're continuing with that.

Q. Do you know what percentage of Roc's authors are Canadian? What advice would you give Canadian authors wishing to be published in the U.S.?

A. I know that Scott McKay and Guy Gavriel Kay are Canadian, and I think that might be it. At any rate, I would say that Canadian writers should just submit to agents and editors through the mail the way American authors do. Mostly, selling your work involves mailing it out, which means that the only disadvantage a Canadian writer would have in the American market is a higher price for postage.

Q. I have recently come across some discussions on the web where U.S. publishers and movie directors are being criticized for changing the endings of foreign books and scripts, to suit U.S. audiences' tastes. Do you have any comment about this? Do you feel that Canadian content in a novel is a problem for getting published in the U.S.?

A. I don't know of any U.S. publisher who has changed the ending of a foreign novel to suit U.S. tastes. While these kinds of things are common in the television and film industries, publishing has always seemed much saner to me. I don't think this is something a Canadian author should worry about.

Q. Can you give me a brief profile of the average SF/fantasy reader? What market are you pitching Roc's or Ace's books to?

A. I think people imagine that we have many more resources than we do--giant marketing teams, complicated charts and graphs, focus groups. Really, our staff is very small and most of what we know about our readers comes from when they contact us, which they rarely do. We just look for books that we enjoy and that are comparable to books which are succeeding in the marketplace--which is itself sometimes hard to figure out. For science fiction and fantasy, I will say that I feel like the readership really varies--it spans many age groups and goes into totally disconnected parts of society.

Q. What do you look for when reading a new submission? How do you evaluate a manuscript to determine if it is suitable for publishing at Roc or Ace? Is there a difference?

A. The most important thing for a manuscript is that it be well-written. If the first few pages are filled with errors--be they spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or simply clumsy writing--it's difficult to continue reading. Even if the idea is terrific, the book will require too much work to make it worth publishing. After that, it's important that the book grabs me early on, because it's going to have to grab reviewers and readers early on--the market isn't very forgiving to new writers. And it has to be either comparable to something readers are looking for, or original and striking enough to succeed on its own. As for differences between Ace and Roc, I hope I answered that question reasonably well in my response to your third question.

Q. How do you contact people if you like their work and wish to offer a contract? How long does the book making process take once the contract is signed?

A. We always try to contact people by phone if we like their book, first to make sure that it's still available and that we're looking at the latest version, and then, after we've decided to buy it, we call again to make an offer. Occasionally people are unreachable by phone and we have to resort to email or snail mail, but it's always good to introduce ourselves to people as much as is possible over the phone. And, unfortunately, after we've bought a book it often takes over a year to schedule it, put it through production, and publish it. And it can take up to two years. That's standard at any large publishing house that has a full list and a thorough production process. It's a slow business.

Q. Are movies steeling the book market? Are people reading less these days; if so why?

A. I think the book market is suffering a full assault not just from movies but from television, video games, and the Internet. We're all being trained to have shorter attention spans suited for either passive viewing of fast-paced visual images or interactive text and images flowing quickly on computer screens. Again, as an industry we just don't have the kind of resources that film and other media have to target our products at consumers, or even to track precisely how many people are reading books and why. But it seems that fewer people have the patience or the desire to sit down and read a book.

Q. Travel costs in Canada are often two or three times what they are in the States. Are cons the only way to network and be noticed by editors and agents? If yes, which cons are best to attend if an author's funds are limited? How do you suggest approaching agents and editors at cons? If no, can you suggest other strategies for getting a manuscript read?

A. I definitely don't think that attending cons is at all a requirement for first-time authors to get their work read by editors or agents. It might make more of a difference to get face time with an agent, but for editors I think the most you can hope for is that they'll agree to look at your book, and for Ace and Roc, since we read unagented submissions, all we require is you sending your book in. If we like your work, it won't matter how we met you or if we've met you--the work is what matters. In the same sense, if your book isn't publishable, you could be the friendliest, most wonderful person at a convention, but we still won't be interested in your work. I think if a writer concentrates on making her submission as strong as it can be, all she needs is to send it in and keep tabs on it, and she'll have as good a chance of getting her book published as anyone else.



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Posted January 6, 2005