An Interview with Editor John
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
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
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
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
Q. Are movies
steeling the book market? Are people reading less these days; if so
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
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