An Interview with Gordon Van Gelder

Far too early one morning at Norwescon, I met with Gordon Van Gelder, editor and publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’m glad he did most of the talking, as he was far more lucid than I was. We spoke of editing, publishing and the relationship of online and printed fiction.

Jason Henninger: We hear a lot about the positives and negatives of the writing life, but very little about editors. What is it about being an editor that brings you joy?

Gordon Van Gelder: Yesterday at the Philip K. Dick Awards, one of the two winners was an author named David Walton whose novel came out through Meadowhawk Press. David was sitting at the banquet with a woman I didn’t recognize who turned out to be his editor at Meadowhawk. She was beaming more than David was. This was the first book they’ve published. She said to me, “You know, when that book came in, I can’t tell you I knew this book was going to win the Philip K. Dick Award, but I knew it would win awards. You have no idea how wonderful it feels to have David win this honor.” The radiant joy of her was just contagious. That’s one of the high points for any editor, when you see something in a work and you take a risk on it and publish it, and other people see what you saw. You just can’t beat that. It’s often better for the editor than for the writers themselves. Writers generally love awards, but sometimes they’ll think they should have gotten an award for a different work, or they’ll be cynical about it or see this or that flaw in the work. But the editor doesn’t usually share the writer’s neuroses over the book. For me personally there have been dozens of novels and stories that I can point at and think of how gratifying it was to find it in the submission pile and make it happen. It doesn’t matter if it wins an award, but it reaches out to people and gets through to them in a meaningful way. Just recently, I Googled an author I’d published back in 2000. I hadn’t heard more from her and I wanted to know how she was doing. I found a post on a blog that mentioned the story and how it helped her decide to get a tattoo. It’s just the nicest thing in the world to come across this and know that the story never appeared anywhere but F&SF but this total stranger was obviously affected by the story. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Getting readers and writers to connect. That’s the function of the editor and it’s extremely gratifying. Or when you find a new writer and you work with them and develop them and see their careers flourish. That’s really nice.

Henninger: Who are some of the authors you’ve helped to become successful?

Van Gelder: In books, the crime writer George Pelecanos. Watching his career take off has been great. There are plenty I’ve fostered. Brad Denton, Marc Laidlaw, M. Rickert, Laird Barron, John Langan. Paulo Bacigalupi’s got a story collection from Night Shade this year.

Henninger: Night Shade’s been putting out some nice stuff.

Van Gelder: Jason and Jeremy know what they’re doing. Part of what’s so good about Night Shade is they have a pretty clear vision of what’s going on in the field. They started out as readers and fans and didn’t get into the publishing side until after they were out of the service. Marines, I think it was. So they have a little more grounding than kids who come out of college with a literature degree and have no idea what to do. You know, guys who say “Yeah, I’ve read some science fiction, I think I’ll become a science fiction editor.” Some of them don’t have the market sense that Jeremy and Jason do.

Henninger: How’s F&SF doing?

Van Gelder: We’re still in business. I’ve been using this line for years, but in the current state of things, when I say we’re still in business, that’s a form of bragging. These are not happy times for the printed word. It’s rougher on magazines than on books.

Henninger: If a new author, someone who is trying to get known, puts up a bunch of stories on a blog or other nonpaying market, is this a good move, or are they shooting themselves in the foot?

Van Gelder: There is no one answer to that. It depends on who they are and what they want to do with their writing. The question you’re asking is essentially the same question people were asking thirty years ago, but then it was “Should I bother publishing my work in semi-pro markets?” There used to be a lot more semi-pro magazines. Some of them stuck around for 40 years, others went away after two issues. Writers had the same anxiety over this. “Am I really doing myself any good selling my stories to Unearth Magazine?” They fear that no one would read their work. But Unearth Magazine published the first work by Rudy Rucker, Paul Di Filippo, William Gibson. They lasted about two years, I think. It’s an easy example to point to. Nobody read it back then, but it didn’t hurt those writers’ careers.

I hate to dodge your answer, but I can’t give you a simple yes or no. In general, I think that if someone wants to be a career writer, it’s good experience for them to publish everything they can. If that publication is online as opposed to in print, that’s fine. I don’t think it’s a great idea for writers looking to make a career of it to self-publish on blogs or their own websites. Reprints are one thing but I think it’s important for writers to go through the publishing process, getting feedback, as opposed to just posting the stuff themselves. The only feedback they’re getting is from people just stopping by saying, “Dude, that sucks,” or “Dude, that rocks.”

Henninger: Same for vanity presses, I’d think.

Van Gelder: Vanity presses are a little more pernicious, since you pay them to publish it. I don’t know anyone who takes the work in vanity presses seriously.

Henninger: I interviewed John Scalzi a while ago, and the online part of his business has been a huge factor in his success. But that’s a real rarity.

Van Gelder: I can think of two others: Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross. Scalzi, Stross, and Doctorow are the big three, in terms of figuring out how to make the internet really work for them. I salute them all. I like them all personally. I disagree with them all on different things, but I’ll disagree with everyone on something. Those three guys recognized very quickly, and very well, the marketing potential of the online world. A lot of people try to duplicate what the big three have done and it hasn’t worked, but nobody hears about the cases where it hasn’t worked. A lot of other people have tried to give away their work online and no one’s come and taken it. I know of a case where a publisher made an author’s work available for free online, his first novel. They gave it away as a Scalzi-esque promotion. As I understand it the novel sold less than a thousand copies. It didn’t do anyone any good to give it away. It’s easy to look at Scalzi’s success and say it’s so great to do online marketing but you don’t hear of the author I just mentioned. You also have to remember that the big three aren’t really out to do publishers any good; they’re in it for themselves. Most writers are, of course. I got into an argument with John about a year ago. He posted a story on and within a day was boasting—I think it’s fair to call it boasting—that his story had gotten more hits in a week on than Asimov, Analog and F&SF‘s combined circulations. The number was like forty-two thousand. Maybe he wasn’t boasting. Maybe he was just saying, gosh, look at this number, but it seemed to me there was an element of bragging to it. I looked into it more closely and saw some of the comments on John’s thread, and some people were saying, “Well, I’m five of those hits because I couldn’t figure out how to download it and so I had to keep coming back.” I pointed out that John was treating each magazine sold as the equivalent of one hit, which is not how it works. There are many differences between having forty-two thousand hits and forty-two thousand sales. One of the big differences is that word “sale”. I said to John, there’s a big difference between paying customers and free previews, and John said, “Eyes are eyes.” Meaning, he doesn’t care so long as people are reading his stuff and he gets paid. Perfectly sensible from his point of view, but not from a publishers point of view. I could easily give away forty-two thousand copies of F&SF and lose quite a bit of money at it, and wouldn’t continue to publish for long.

I think it’s a disturbing trend, because essentially publishers are using short fiction as a loss-leader for selling books. Tor is John’s book publisher and published the short story as a way to attract attention of the consumers to John’s books. Perfectly good marketing, but not perfectly good publishing. could not sustain itself doing that. It has to live off the profits it generates from the sales of Tor books. I couldn’t do that with F&SF.

Henninger: Tell me a bit more about the difference in generating revenue between online and print. On the print side you’ve got subscriptions, newsstand, and advertising. Other than in a case where it’s used as marketing, how do you generate money from online publishing?

Van Gelder: Nobody’s figured that out yet. They’ve been trying for ten years now and very few people look at all the webzines that have come and gone and do a detailed analysis of what worked and what didn’t. I have yet to see one webzine really prosper based on web publishing alone. Strange Horizons gets by, and they’re probably the most successful one. I believe their entire staff is volunteer. I’m pretty sure they work off donations. The best business model I’ve seen is the one Eric Flint at Jim Baen’s Universe has set up. It’s a subscription-based website with some very smart marketing. I’ve seen several big failures. Galaxy Online, for example. Paid very good rates, well funded, had Ben Bova and Greg Benford. Several big names, professional editor running it and they just lasted a few months. I never heard exactly what went wrong there. As I said, I haven’t seen a really comprehensive analysis of it all.

Scifiction, the fiction arm of the SciFi channel was a big one, too. Paid great rates, real money behind it. But nobody was reading it. Everybody in the field that I knew was keeping an eye on it, wondering it would turn a profit or not. After five years they pulled the plug on it. Unfortunately I think they did more harm than good because it conditioned a lot of people to think that all online fiction should be free.

The thing that most of the people I’ve talked to don’t seem to get is that online is great for marketing but not publishing. If you can get people for very little cost to look at your goods, that’s great. If you can get them to pay for your goods online, you’re doing something almost nobody else has been able to do. The only current exception is the growing ebook market. But it’s still in its infancy, and it’s going to take a while to see how it turns out.

Henninger: In an ideal world where print fiction is doing great and online fiction is also profitable, what would their relationship be?

Van Gelder: I quote Eric Flint, who has been a pioneer in this area, “People don’t want print. People don’t want ebooks. People want both.” I thought that was dead on. The two forms complement each other. They’re not competitive. Ideally, I think people would love to buy one form and get the other form with it. You could have the copy on your shelf, but you could also read it on a Kindle or whatever.

I love the idea of carrying hundreds of books with me in one reader. That would save me so much back strain. But then, I hate the idea of being dependent on electricity. When the power goes out, I can still read a book.


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