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John Jarrold
in conversation with Stan Nicholls

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 has potential?

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 needs?

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 clients?

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 by 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 now?

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 years.

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 projects?

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 die!

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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