Rare words! Brave world!
in conversation with
John Jarrold has been prominent in the science fiction
community for over three decades, and a major player in genre publishing.
He's been responsible for the sf/fantasy output of Macdonald Futura,
Orbit Books, Random House UK, and Simon & Schuster's Earthlight imprint.
As a freelance editor he's worked for Century/Arrow, Gollancz, HarperCollins,
Hodder Headline, Hutchinson, Little, Brown UK, Orion, Pan Macmillan,
Robinson Books and Transworld. His editorial expertise has been applied
to virtually every notable British science fiction and fantasy author,
and a good proportion of American names. Recent times have seen John
setting himself up as a script doctor, an advisor to the gaming industry
and a literary agent. If that wasn't enough, he also writes features
and reviews for SFX, the Alien Online website and other
outlets. Fortunately he found the time to tell infinity
plus how all these projects are coming along, and to make some
observations about contemporary sf/fantasy publishing.
SN: With your many
connections to and functions within publishing, you're uniquely placed
to offer an overview of the current science fiction and fantasy scene.
What's the state of the market? Do you regard it as healthy?
JJ: Yes, very healthy. I'd say it's healthier
than it has been for many years. It's also more varied. I've just returned
from the World SF Convention, where I had meetings with all the major
sf publishers from the States in my new position as a literary agent.
Almost everyone was in agreement about the fact that no new bestsellers
in epic fantasy have happened since Terry Goodkind, and they aren't
expecting to see any more. It gives publishers the chance to acquire
a more varied list of authors, when that accepted wisdom about Tolkienesque
fantasy being the be-all and end-all is no longer true.
SN: The present perception
is that fantasy's outpacing science fiction in sales, but sf might be
leading in terms of creativity and freshness of ideas. In the UK at
least, there seem to be more talented young writers entering sf than
fantasy. Do you see it that way?
JJ: Sf, as opposed to fantasy, is certainly
is a stronger position in the UK than it has been at any time since
I started working professionally in 1988. The list of UK authors who
are gaining both critical and commercial success is long and getting
longer. However, I don't think one or the other is intrinsically better
or more thoughtful. China Miéville and the New Weird will bring
a number of new authors into fantasy where swords and dragons are not
the norm, which has to be healthy for the genre. Any genre which doesn't
change will eventually stagnate and die.
SN: As an editor, and
now wearing your script doctor hat, what common mistakes have you seen
aspiring writers make when presenting their work?
JJ: Writing believable dialogue seems
to be beyond the majority. Everyone should read their dialogue out loud,
to see if it sounds right. And trying to write humour is bloody difficult.
I also see a great deal of second-hand and old-fashioned ideas, of course.
Any author intent on publication should be aware of what is selling
and, equally importantly, what is not selling. Few have the genius to
plough a completely new furrow successfully. If a writer can create
their own voice in mainstream sf/fantasy--taking into consideration
what I just said about Tolkienesque fantasy--they will have a better
chance. Assuming that they can write!
SN: What is it about
a submission that captures your imagination and makes you think a writer
JJ: I think any editor or agent really
knows within five pages whether or not the author has got talent. Certainly,
with the two debut authors I've taken on as an agent, Jasper Kent and
Mark Newton, I could have e-mailed them before the end of the first
chapter to say I'd like to represent them. To some degree it's indefinable,
a pricking of your thumbs. If the writing is good but you don't get
that reaction, you may not be the correct editor or agent for that writer.
Publishing really is an art rather than a science; so much of the personal
reaction in unquantifiable.
SN: Is there a distinction
between your personal taste and your judgement of a piece of work's
commercial promise? In other words, as an agent, would you be comfortable
representing a work that wasn't to your own taste but matched market
JJ: I think that acquiring an author
as a publisher--or taking an author on as an agent--if you don't have
a personal love and belief in that author and their writing you're doomed
to failure. It ain't about selling baked beans. There has to be a real
enthusiasm to be passed on from agent to editor, and from the editor
to their colleagues and the book trade.
SN: What advantages
does a small agency offer writers?
JJ: I suppose personal service is the
obvious one. I have seven authors on board, so even if they all ask
questions on the same day, it isn't difficult to reply very quickly.
I'm not planning to take on a huge number of authors. I've turned down
over fifty so far.
SN: Will the agency
specialise in science fiction and fantasy?
JJ: I'd guess that seventy-five percent
of my clients will write within the genre. But I'm also looking at thrillers,
mysteries and historical fiction.
SN: This might be a
good point to briefly remind us of the writers you've signed-up to the
agency, and say something about them. And can you speak about prospective
JJ: In order of taking them on: Stephen
Hunt, who'd had a novel published by WH Smiths in the 90s, having won
their New Talent contest. For the Crown and the Dragon is a great
rumbustious novel, a flintlock fantasy, which I enjoyed at the time
but didn't feel I could publish commercially. Timing is all. So we're
now talking about his new fantasy novel, which will be complete this
time next year. Mark Newton's 23, and the sf/fantasy buyer for Ottakar's
in Coventry. His debut, The Book of Transformations, is definitely
New Weird, without being in any way a Miéville clone. His writing
is powerful and imaginative, and Jeff VanderMeer has already sent us
a quote. Jasper Kent's debut, Twelve, is set during Napoleon's
invasion of Russia in 1812. It's a thriller with strong fantastical
elements. Jasper's writing and characterisation is better than many,
many long-published authors. Then, Zoran Zivkovic. Zoran won the World
Fantasy Award for The Library last year, and has been writing
fiction in his native Serbia and Montenegro for ten years and more.
Some of his work has been published by magazines and small presses in
the US, but he really deserves a much wider audience. He reminds me
of Kafka and Milan Kundera, amongst others. William King is a Scot,
living in Prague. He has written a number of Warhammer novels
for Games Workshop, and short stories for Interzone and original
anthologies -- we first met in the late eighties, when one of his stories
was in an anthology I published at Orbit. He is planning a series of
fantasies which you could characterise as Sharpe meets David
Gemmell. The finished first volume and fifty-page series synopsis has
just been submitted to London publishers! Then, John Whitbourn. Having
won the Gollancz/BBC Radio First Fantasy Novel competition back in the
90s, John has had nine novels published -- I published four of them
with Earthlight! If publishing is about timing, I think this is John's
time. His wonderful way with history, fantasy and storytelling should
be perfect for an audience primed by Susanna Clarke and Jasper Fforde.
He told me he was looking for a new agent and I was delighted to take
him on. We'll be discussing a number of possible projects. And finally,
as of today, December 10th, I have taken on Scottish-American writer
Phil Raines, writing under the pseudonym Harvey Raines. He has written
various short fiction, including one story which was chosen for the
most recent Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology, and his debut
novel, Moondog, is a 190,000-word masterpiece. It's one of the
most original scripts I've ever read, but if you want comparisons I
suppose you could mention Philip K Dick and Neil Gaiman. So, as you
can see, it's already a varied list of authors! I receive enquiries
and material from around ten putative clients every week.
SN: A writer might
have an abundance of skills--shrewd characterisation, a way with dialogue,
sound plotting--but is there a clinching X-factor? Do they also need
the spark, hunger, call it what you will, to truly succeed?
JJ: If I knew what the X-factor was,
I'd be very, very rich. Which I'm not, as my bank manager will confirm!
But yes, it's no good an author being a dilettante, or getting fed up
when their first story or first novel doesn't sell immediately. Although
the genre market is strong, publishing in general is not in a particularly
happy situation. Two separate science fiction/fantasy editors have told
me recently that they have only taken on two authors each throughout
2004, January to September. They will have seen maybe twenty scripts
a week from members of the public, and a dozen or more each week from
agents. From the author's viewpoint, being good is no longer good enough--you
have to be very special. And then you have to overcome the publishing-by-committee
which is taking over many companies, not allowing an editor to acquire
books or authors in whom he or she can see a spark unless everyone and
their dog believe the book is ready to publish without editing.
SN: We know that sf
is a literature of ideas, but is originality overrated? I mean in a
commercial sense. Can a book lacking originality of concept, but scoring
on every other level, not least readability, be successful?
JJ: Every book--more importantly, every
author--has their own strengths and weaknesses. I don't believe it's
a matter of 40 per cent originality, 30 per cent readability, etc. You
honestly have to deal with every project separately, always bearing
commerciality in mind.
SN: There's an argument
that writing sf and fantasy is more demanding of an author than mainstream
fiction, if only because the fabulist has to create everything in their
fictional world. Do you go along with that?
JJ: Yes. One of the putative authors
who contacted me regarding the script doctor business said, "I've started
off with fantasy because it seems easier". I disabused him of that notion
with a four-page e-mail.
SN: Do you see any
evidence, personally or professionally, that the reading public is tiring
of trilogies and long series, particularly in the fantasy genre? Do
you foresee an increasing number of one-offs?
JJ: See what I just said about epic fantasy.
I don't think series will ever die, because readers like retuning to
a place they enjoy. I know I do. But I think the form of fantasy which
is successful will certainly change and evolve.
SN: Not a few book
editors confess that they'd like to take a crack at writing themselves.
Some have. How about you? I know you write reviews and other non-fiction
pieces, but what about fiction? Do you want to play Hamlet?
JJ: I was in a writers' group with Robert
Holdstock, Garry Kilworth, Mike Scott Rohan, Dave Langford and others
in the late 70s. Basically, I wasn't good enough. I still get ideas,
which are saved on the hard drive, and if one of them hangs around for
long enough, and becomes fleshed out in my head, I may give it a serious
go. However, acting as a freelance editor, script doctor and literary
agent takes up all my time, right now! Don't want to play Hamlet. Wouldn't
mind playing Falstaff.
SN: It was reported
that Gollancz have employed you to act as Structural Editor for Maggie
Furey's new fantasy trilogy. What does a Structural editor do? Is it
like being a continuity person on a film?
JJ: It's basically the same job I did
in publishing for fifteen years, once an author had delivered a typescript.
I go through looking for scenes or sections that are too long or short;
at characters that need work; at dialogue I don't believe; at plot strands
that suddenly disappear, and at the overall sweep of the book. This
is also what I do as a script doctor.
SN: You've long advocated
a closer working relationship between publishing and gaming businesses,
and you've been acting as the literary link for SCi Games. How is this
developing, and what criteria do you apply when assessing if a game
can move to the page?
JJ: I'm presently talking to two authors
about specific game novelisations, so I have a package to submit to
publishers. As someone who has played computer games for well over ten
years, I think the novelisation possibilities are fairly obvious, game
SN: This isn't supposed
to be a facetious question, but do gamers read beyond gaming literature?
It seems that one of the drawbacks of entertainment delivered digitally
is that it tends to dampen enthusiasm for reading, particularly among
young people. Are you confident there's a market out there?
JJ: I know a number of gamers who are
also great fans of written sf and fantasy, historical fiction, etc.
Radio didn't stop people reading, neither did TV or videos. I appreciate
that games are more interactive, but I think books are here to stay.
To say that gamers won't use other media is insulting to them, I believe.
SN: The fact that we're
talking about sliding work from one medium to another underlines the
increasingly blurred borderlines that exist not only between technologies
but genres. Some see science fiction as being slowly but surely absorbed
into, not so much the mainstream as a general welter of popular culture.
Do you think sf will still exist as a discrete form thirty years from
JJ: I think some will, some won't. Many
publishers like to move their bestselling genre authors into the mainstream
imprint, because of the wider possible audience, and some authors want
that change for the same reason. It really has to be dealt with on an
author-by-author basis; however, that may not be the case in thirty
SN: Many horror enthusiasts
bemoan the fact that it's the poor genre relation at the moment. Does
the agency's writ run to taking on horror novelists? And do you see
the form ever coming out of the doldrums?
JJ: Everything goes in cycles. However,
I wouldn't necessarily say that straightforward genre horror will ever
be as strong again as it once was. There's a broader range of both psychological
and supernatural horror now--which the book trade does not consider
to be the same genre--and much of which is published under the thriller
umbrella. I suspect that's the way things will go, in the short term
at least. After all, M Night Shyamalan is pretty successful as a mainstream
filmmaker with horror subjects.
SN: No doubt you left
publishing unwillingly, and certainly through no fault of your own,
but is there a sense in which you've found the change liberating? In
that it allowed you to pursue the agency, script doctoring and other
JJ: One has to deal with everything as
positively as possible. Every change is going to open up new possibilities
and I've certainly taken on challenges in the last two years which were
totally unexpected. The day I can't surprise myself I'll roll over and
SN: You're obviously
having fun with the new ventures, and starting to make them work, but
if tomorrow morning you were offered an editorial job with one of the
major publishing houses, would you go back?
JJ: I truly love working in publishing.
I would look at any offer seriously, but now I have the agency up and
running that would be more difficult, obviously. A portfolio lifestyle
is exhilarating, and it would certainly be another challenge to add
publisher back in to the mix.
© Stan Nicholls 2004.
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