Hey guys! You’ve just landed on the complete version of my interview with Jonathan Oliver, officially not that John Oliver since 1978, editor extraordinaire, and all-around awesome guy. He’s also the author of The Language of Beasts, a book every SFFH fan should have on their shelves.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him after DIY MFA asked me to do a column on SFF. Admittedly, I balked at being considered a resource for the subject, but as luck would have it, I’d been working on projects with Jon for a couple of years, and couldn’t think of a better person to give me a crash course on SFF and publishing. He’s also super nice and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t laugh at me.
And guys, not only did he not laugh, he said yes, and let me tell you, the man knows his stuff. He was also super generous with his time. So much so, that I couldn’t use all of it in my article, but don’t despair! He gave me the green light to post it here. I hope you find it as helpful as I did, and in appreciation, you should absolutely check out his book.
So who is Jonathan Oliver?
Jonathan Oliver is an award-winning editor and writer. For almost thirteen years he was the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books, and also worked as a graphic novels editor for 2000 AD. After a short stint commissioning non-fiction, he decided to go freelance and now specializes in editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror for a variety of international clients.
He has worked with such authors as Audrey Niffenegger, Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, and Yoon Ha Lee. Jonathan lives in the UK in Oxfordshire with his family and their cat, Minnie.
And Author of The Language of Beasts
Those dark, glistening jewels—stomach, kidneys, liver—whispered as they fell. I only caught a few words, but what they conveyed… well, it was profound.
In a slaughterhouse a group of men find they can tell fortunes from entrails; an invisible shark haunts a children’s book author; redemptive magic is discovered in the ancient chalk horse of the Oxfordshire hills; a woman vicar is possessed by the soul of a reactionary priest – in these seventeen stories of the weird, uncanny and fantastical, British Fantasy Award winner Jonathan Oliver takes the reader into imagined lives and worlds. Horrifying, weird and darkly humorous, The Language of Beasts is the first collection of stories from this critically acclaimed editor.
Pretty frickin’ cool, right? So let’s get to it!
I was seriously excited to pick his brain. I’ll spare you all the bits of banter where I jumped around and get right to the good stuff. The following has been edited for clarity:
AK: So as you know, my thought process is basically as direct as a squirrel in a trail mix factory, so this is going to be all over the place, but bear with me. First off, I loved your book. It was really good.
JO: Oh, thank you. That’s really sweet. Thank you.
AK: I don’t know if the whole Black Mirror vibe is what you were going for?
JO: I can’t say Black Mirror was an influence, but I think that sort of horror, horror short stories. That’s what we share the same gene pool that people who wrote Black Mirror.
AK: Yeah, it was like normal shit hits the fan and gets weird. It was cool. My mom’s reading it right now, and she’s enjoying it.
JO: Oh cool, right.
AK: So I have to ask about you doing stand-up comedy.
JO: Yeah, ages go. It’s been a very long time since I did stand-up. I was quite good at it. But then you meet the people who are trying to make a living out of it and they are…yeah, interesting.
And also you have to do it in London. Really, there’s a few more places around here now, but I lived in Reading at the time, which is about an hour from London by train. So you’d get out of work, then you go and do a five minute, ten-minute gig, whatever, then you get back it to at two in the morning. You wouldn’t get paid usually, so it just became impractical and then when I was doing Oxford, because they’re so few venues in Oxford, I’d be doing it to the same crowd every week and it’s like, I can’t write material that fast.
So it’s good fun, but not something I’d ever see making a living of and I know a professional stand-up. She’s married and he’s a performance poet. So that works for them, but they don’t see each other much, you know, if you’ve got a family and kids it’s just an impossible job to do.
AK: I can see how it would be. So, I think that one of the things that people would want to know is what do you look for in a manuscript as an editor? I mean, I know that as an editor; you have the option to take on a project or pass on it. I’m assuming that’s the same as when you’re working by for yourself. You have these things coming in and can say, oh, yeah, or no, not a chance.
JO: This is true to a certain degree. I don’t curate things anymore. So I’m not a commissioning editor, so I tend to take most things sent my way if they want to work with me. So, that includes professional writers and people who have already made it and publishing houses , but I deal with a lot of new writers. So even if their manuscript doesn’t work, I’m looking to make it work.
So to go back. It’s really a question about commissioning. So what do you look for in a manuscript as a commissioning editor, which is more useful to what authors want to know. When you run an imprint or several, as I did, you’re A: looking for something you’ve not seen before, but B: something that fits commercially in the world into which you’re publishing.
If I, as a commissioning editor, were to publish entirely to my own taste during Solaris, it wouldn’t have had a huge amount of fantasy on it. It would’ve been mainly weird esoteric collections of short fiction and horror novels. When I’m working for a publisher who want to be a commercial business, it’s up to me to commission titles I think will work commercially, while also keeping the identity of the imprint as I did when I worked for Solaris as a producer of fresh new voices and new fiction and exciting ideas.
So it depends. You’ll read something that’s completely out there and brilliant and you just love it and want to publish it because it’s like nothing else out there. So, an example of that would be The Fictional Man by Al Ewing, which we published with Solaris, and is still in print even though it didn’t take off immediately. Al works for Marvel now. He writes The Immortal Hulk, amongst other things. So he’s moved solidly into comics, but Al was one of those writers who started in prose at the same time he started in comics. He’d be writing comics for the comic side of our publishing and be writing books for me and when we bought our new imprint Solaris, which was more of an author owned imprint.
So we were publishing titles that the author had created themselves entirely from scratch rather than with the Abaddon Books, which was work for hire, and he was one of the authors I said to, “I know what you’re capable of, write me anything and I’ll publish it.” He did, and that’s where The Fictional Man came from.
But we’ve also got to, you know, move with the market. So things like solid commercial fantasy. We had authors like Gale Z. Martin and Rowena Cory Daniells that’s much more sort of straight down the line commercial fantasy, and if you publishing in that realm, you’re looking for a story that engages as well as has got commercial potential.
It’s no good if a manuscript doesn’t engage you, the stories got to work for you in order to commission. It may not be your personal cup of tea, but if it works well as a book, and you think there’s a market for it, then you can commission it. So it was a range of a range of commercially led and artistically led decisions as a commissioning editor, and that’s what you look for.
As a reader, what I look for is surprise and new things and strange things and things I haven’t seen before, but as a commissioning editor, you have to have that line between commercial and artistic expression, I suppose. So that’s a very long-winded way of saying what I look for.
AK: No, that’s good because that’s what you hear out there, it has to be different but the same.
JO: Yes, to a degree. I mean, I pushed against this a little bit. I did commission titles that occasionally go to a sales meeting and the US distributors, or even the UK Distributors occasionally said “What is this?” “Well, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” and they’re like, “Yeah, but we don’t want nothing we’ve ever seen before, we want Game of Thrones. Is it like Game of Thrones?”
You’d write these sales sheets, tip sheets, and you’d have to put marketing points on them and if you were doing Epic Fantasy. what they didn’t want to see was like, you know, “Deeply artistic expression of internal struggle” or something. What they wanted to see was “Will appeal to fans of George RR Martin, is a bit like Game of Thrones” because they can sell that easily.
What book reps are looking for when they’re looking to sell your title is that hook. So if you present them with something that’s a bit out there—which I sometimes did and I’ll stand by them, they’re still good books—it’s hard to give them a hook.
So, for example, one of my absolute favorite books I commissioned, and I can say this now that I’m not commissioning editor for Solaris anymore—so I can have favorites now—we published a book called Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem. He’s a World Fantasy Award-winning author and , but he’s hugely respected. I’ve known his work since I started reading horror. So when Steve’s novel came to me through his agent, it was a name I recognized and I was like hell yes, I’ll read this.
It’s a haunted hotel novel, but it’s about family and it’s about relationships and it’s really beautiful. It’s got the air of Ray Bradbury or someone like that. It’s just gorgeous. And so when we were pitching to that, we wanted it to be unusual.
So we had a comic artist do the cover, a guy called Matt Brooker did this gorgeous cover, and I loved it, and we sat down with the sales meeting. They were like, “Yeah, but that cover’s weird.” I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s eye catching.” “Yeah, but it’s weird.” I’m like, “just try it,” but we had to not go with that cover. We used it as interior art and there was another artist who’d done a Danish edition of the book who I loved as well. It was like Edward Gorey-esk type cover and we used that as a much more solidly gothic and weird rather than quirky.
You can play that line as a commissioning editor, depending on how much power you have. And by power, I don’t mean like you’re being paid shitloads of money and you lord it, because Solaris was quite a small publisher. I was the Editor-in-Chief and there were only about five of us there and the owner of the company loved publishing and took a lot of commercial risks. They weren’t about to say, well, these five books didn’t succeed, so let’s shut this down. It’s a passion project as well as a business. I was really lucky to have that.
But not every commissioner is going to have that, especially at the very big houses. They are conservative and they don’t take risks. And yes, you’re going to get big advances for projects, but they tend to go to already tried and tested authors.
If they do go to new authors, if they spend serious money behind new authors and you see a lot of marketing, that book’s gonna have to earn out pretty quickly. A lot of titles just don’t earn out, and that’s where the mid-list publishing houses it’s not so much a problem, because the advances are more modest, the costs are more modest. But with someone like Penguin Random House, they spend 50,000 pounds, or whatever that is in dollars, on a new book and it doesn’t make that back within six months, that author’s probably gonna have to change their name or go elsewhere.
So commissioning editors at different houses have different restraints on them. I had a lot of freedom at Solaris. Whereas when I moved to nonfiction, two years of strange religious nonfiction, I had to sit through sales meetings and justify each book. That was difficult because they were always like: “Oh, what do you think it will sell in a two years?” I’m like, “5,000 copies or so.” “Are you sure that’s going to sell that?” “No, this is a projection. There’s no guarantee here that how much it’s gonna sell or not.”
Commissioning editors at the big houses will have to convince all their departments, like the marketing department, finance , etc. They’ll have these big sales meetings where everybody has to agree to a title because they’ve all got to get behind it to make money. Whereas with smaller houses, it tends to be a bit more sort of, not off the cuff, but the decisions are slightly more intuitive and more creative and more sort of testing the boundaries. So that’s why, for me, you’ll see a lot more interesting fiction. The home of interesting SF and fantasy, is the mid-list and the independent publishers. No, there’s not a lot of money there, but there’s a lot of good books being produced.
AK: That really underscores why comps are so freaking important.
JO: Yeah, they are, and when you get your manuscript out on query, the comps are important because the agent, like the sales rep, wants a hook and a reason to read your book. If they just have a letter that sounds like generic fantasy, whatever, they see a hundred of those a day. It’s gonna be easy for them to pass.
Agents aren’t evil. They’re not like, looking for reasons to shoot your book down immediately. But because agents get so many submissions, they’re looking if there’s a quick reason for them not to pick up your manuscript. That’s easy for them. It’s the same as commissioning editors. Sometimes working with slush piles, which not many do and I have in the past, as a commissioning editor I would give it 50 pages to grab me, which is quite generous, I gather. People say you can tell from a first page, and sometimes you really can, but if a story hadn’t grabbed me within 50 pages, then usually it was a no from me.
They were exceptions to that. Sometimes I’d be engrossed in a novel three-quarters in, and then the author would completely break the ending and you just spent four days reading the manuscript of your work time, and you thought, oh, got something here, and then the car went off the road in the direction you weren’t expecting. That can be very frustrating. So, yeah, when getting a query your comps are important, a short, punchy synopsis is important, and clarity is important is what I’m saying.
AK: Get to the point.
JO: Exactly and I appreciate that writing a synopsis is really horrible. I hate it. I’ve never liked it. I don’t know any authors who like it, and I used to have to write book blurbs all the time. You do develop a skill in it, but it’s just—How do you condense 90,000 to 120,000 words into two paragraphs and make it meaningful?
JO: [laughing] Yeah, exactly.
AK: So you’re dealing with a lot of new writers and some big names that are out there and what they’re currently writing. What kind of trends are you seeing? Where is the SFFH genre going?
JO: The genre in the last five or so years has got more diverse, which is brilliant. You’re seeing more voices from different cultures, different backgrounds, sexuality, or what have you. I think that’s really encouraging. I’ve seen actually quite a strong thread of romance entering some genre fiction and that’s not one or two clients. It’s 10 or 20 or so clients this year alone. And I think that’s refreshing that there’s that sort of interconnectedness to that that’s bringing something new, because I think especially SF can be quite a cold genre when it comes to sort of human interaction and human warmth. It’s injecting something of humanity and in fantasy as well.
So in terms of trends, I think there seems to be more horror out there than there was, and it’s been influenced by movies. We seem to be going through a golden age of horror movies at the moment. There seems to be a good one every week, which is brilliant because I love horror, but in terms of books that are being published, you’ve got people like Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, and Catriona Wards’ incredible novel, The Last House on Needless Street, which is stunning, and has done well as far as I can tell. So I think there’s a sort of good cerebral horror.
Brandon Sanderson is the trend in fantasy, and a lot of people want to write like Brandon. That’s understandable because Brandon’s got a very accessible style, which when you’re talking about books that are 200,000 plus words, they already looked daunting. But Brandon’s style is so readable that actually it makes Epic Fantasy accessible, and I think Brandon’s mix of Science Fiction and Fantasy as well has broadened the definition of what fantasy is.
But yeah, in terms of fantasy, people still like epics, they still like multi-book series. It’s interesting that The Wheel of Time stuff didn’t take off in the same way Game of Thrones did. I’ve not read Wheel of Time, so I don’t know how faithful the adaptation is.
AK: It’s not as dark as Game of Thrones.
JO: Game of Thrones was so clearly a family drama before it was a fantasy, because it’s rooted in the War of the Roses. It’s got this sort of clear historical precedence and then and it’s not ultra high fantasy straight off the bat, you don’t have creatures and wizards casting fireballs; you have a fairly grimy sort of medieval setting, and there’s a realism to Game of Thrones, which I think there’s slightly more fantastical elements.
In terms of science fiction, it’s always a bit harder to predict the trends. I think we’re seeing a lot of climate fiction, which is completely understandable. Science fiction tends to be the more political of the genre, but because it’s more political and it’s less sort of crowd pleasing in a way, if you want escapism.
I love science, which I’ve got a degree in, but it’s not the first place you go as a reader—well, that depends what sort of Science Fiction, it is if it’s a Space Opera, which roughly can be fantasy in space really, but the sort things that worked lately in science fiction again, we’re seeing more diversity in the genre. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary novels, which were superb, and then we see people like NK Jemisin’s novels gaining traction.
You know, TOR doing brilliant work as always in science fiction and fantasy and science fiction continues to push the boundaries. It’s interesting. I was talking to a client yesterday. She’s written a brilliant fantasy SF novel. She said I’ve got this climate novel that they kept turning down because it’s too bleak. I’m like, well come to come to Britain with it. We love bleak science fiction. That’s our cup of tea.
But yeah, science fiction is much more a reflection of the current, it’s got a societal function in a way. Quite a lot of it is a mirror of what we’re going through right now, that’s not say that fantasy can’t be, but a lot of fantasy is escapism. Which there’s nothing wrong with, because we all need that right now.
The thing with trends is they’re hard to predict, but you’ll see that publishers monopolize them as soon as they occur and occur with sort of any consistency. So, with the Twilight years, for example, there were shitloads of vampire erotica for teenagers. But the thing with trends is, you can jump on that bandwagon, but you don’t know when they’ll end. They can fall off a cliff and when you’re commissioning books, you’re commissioning them one or two years out in advance. So you’re saying, I reckon that vampire thing’s going to still be around two years from now, and it might not be and you might be sitting on three novels you’ve spent, I don’t know, tens of thousands of pounds producing, that aren’t really going to reach the audience that they would have reached if Meyer’s star had been in the ascendancy. So yeah, it can be dangerous for a publisher to rely on trends, if you see what I mean.
AK: I think it’s really interesting that you’re mentioning how there’s a bleed between genres more now because I know that romance is the biggest selling market.
JO: Hmm. Yeah.
AK: And when you look at the breakdown of sub-genres within romance, there’s sci-fi romance, fantasy romance. There is urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and they’re big sellers, like somewhere within the top 15 categories or something last I looked. So it’s interesting that it’s not just affecting the quote unquote romance market, but it’s also being acknowledged in the “classical” SFF market as something that is catching on.
JO: Well, it’s broadening, and publishing has broadened fairly recently, you know with the arrival of—so ridiculous people have been self-publishing, since publishing things existed—but I think now self-published authors are gaining more traction.And you know, I work with several who do it really well. It’s still difficult. I say to my clients if they thinking of self-publishing it’s going to cost you money. It’s going to take time, and you have to do all the processes correctly. You have to learn how to format books, etc. Get a good cover artist, all these things, you know digital marketing. You have to become a publisher, because with self-publishing, there is a sense that anybody can put anything out, and that is true. There are hundreds and thousands of titles on KDP about alien Bigfoot cheerleaders or dinosaur porn.
AK: [laughing] When I had originally written Breaker, it was more like something you’d see from JR Ward. Definitely more in the romance field than straight epic sci-fi, and maybe two, three years ago when I started pitching it, the feedback I got was that I needed to get off the fence and pick a genre.
JO: I don’t really don’t think you do need that now, and that’s the thing. Publishers and agents can change their minds quite quickly. Flappy buckets, but, you know, it can take time for editors to catch up with the general trend of things. Because these trends start small and you might think they’re not worth investigating and they’ll just be a niche thing, but sometimes they can grow.
I think with romance, it’s like the last genre that it’s okay to be rude about. It’s almost like the red-headed stepchild of publishing, and everybody’s being so dismissive about it, but the readership is huge. And one of the things you don’t want to do as a publisher is just cut off a readership because it’s not your cup of tea. The fact is that romance, and rightly so, is being more respected. It’s like when people are sneery about science fiction, you know, it’s all space wizards and what have you and you’re like well… 1984, Brave New World, Mary Shelley, etc.
Romance definitely has its place ,and I think the broadening of genre is a good thing. You’ve seen it in horror. There was the big boom of 80s horror, where everybody was selling big fat 600 page Dean Koontz novels with those embossed-type faces and lured colors. That’s gone. But you know, the best of those authors from that era have survived. But now horror tends to be sold in as literary or something else, and I think there’s been a broadening that’s been happening for a while, anyway. With Solaris, some of the horror novels we’ve put out, we just took the genre off. We didn’t put a label on it, because the thought was there would be more crossover appeal.
So this sort of broadening is good and people buy books in different ways. Now people don’t always go to the store to buy the books. I do because I’m a freak and I love paper and I’ve ordered like five books this week.
AK: I literally wrote a newsletter about sniffing books.
JO: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re ever in the UK, go to Hay-on-Wye, it’s a town on the Welsh border and every other shop is a second-hand bookshop. You can just have a whole day.
AK: That sounds really good.
JO: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite places on Earth.
AK: So I should come with empty suitcases or with a lot of boxes.
JO: Yeah, it’s all that lovely second-hand book smell and it’s Heaven.
AK: People do buy books in different ways, which is why book covers are so important.
JO: Book covers are important, but the thing is, book selling has changed a lot in this country and when Borders went under, that took a big chunk of the market with it for a considerable amount of time. Rebellion saw sales just disappear and not come back. It wasn’t like consumers went somewhere else, they just disappeared.
There used to be a whole bunch of chain bookstores, but now there’s just Waterstones and shelf space is valuable and they charge for it as well.If you want more space you can pay for it, but it’s bloody expensive. So when you’re talking about the indies or the mid-list publishers, you can’t rely on the brick and mortar stores in the way that you did before and there’s different ways to get your books to market.
A lot of my friends access book through audio. They just listen to books and it’s not for me. I haven’t listened to an audiobook since it was on a cassette and a car in the 80s on some family road trip, but I think it’s great that’s an option and has become a real tool for writers, and it’s not out the reach of Indie writers either. The audio book back in the day, when it was all on cassette, you had to book studio space and you couldn’t do anything online; it was impossible. But now there are people who will record an audiobook professionally for you online.
AK: I have a friend and the only time that she will “read” a book is when she’s driving.
JO: Hopefully, not whilst she’s driving.
AK: [laughing] No, audio books.
JO: Thank God.
AK: Yeah, I tried that once in traffic and let me tell you, people beep and it’s really hard to focus on the plot.
JO: Yeah. Yeah, I think publishers are having to adapt and they do adapt, and I think that the publishing industry learned its lesson about the digital revolution from the music industry and the music industry just went yeah, that’s not happening. We’re going to control it all and lost millions and publishing were like, oh ebooks are on the way. They’re interesting. We should probably not deny their existence and lose a chunk of money in the process.
When ebooks first started I was like, well, how do you improve on the technology of a book? You know, it’s perfect in every way, and I don’t read a lot of ebooks, but have friends that do, and there’s big market for them, especially amongst my generation and older. My parents read ebooks all the time. I don’t, I just have shelves full of books.
AK: My mother refuses to, but I’ve just started doing the whole Kindle thing, mainly because I’m trying to go through so many titles and doing research in the genre, literally burning through these stupid things and a lot of them suck. So I would rather be able to return it than have it sit up on my shelf and be like, “Oh look, there’s a crappy book that got published.”
JO: Oh, you opened a can of worms about the returnableness of ebooks which I think Amazon’s been told they can’t do that anymore.
AK: Right? Well, the Kindle Unlimited you can.
JO: That’s a subscription service, isn’t it? So that’s different. But yeah, I gather there are cases where people have read the whole book and then gone, “I don’t want that.”
AK: That’s bullshit.
AK: Yeah, absolutely. I think that that’s part of the problem is that I do like Kindle Unlimited, but you go on there, and I’ve read some books where it’s a first draft, or you know, their facts are totally wrong. I almost threw my phone across the room the other day because I’m reading this book and there’s a fight scene and the person picks up the gun by its handle, and I’m like, handle? I can’t believe the story anymore.
AK: So it’s frustrating, and I think that it kind of underscores the point that you do have to be a marketer and you do have to know how to get yourself into those niches because there’s there is so much noise out there.
AK: You know, that book had a great cover, it had ratings, it had, all this other stuff, and then you crack it open and you’re like, what is this? So, it kind of makes you say, all right, I need to go on Goodreads and find something that’s traditionally published that’s been vetted because, Mmm, this isn’t working.
JO: Also, the gun stuff. We don’t know anything about gun specs in the UK, nobody’s armed. So, I’d have to make sure to Google it every time I was editing a book, making sure it was spelled right, it was the right spec or make of weapon, etc. It’s not so much an issue in far future SF because you just make it all up. But yeah, anytime real-life weaponry comes up, you have to be careful because there’ll be people out there who actually know what they’re talking about and they will find the mistakes if you don’t double check.
AK: Yeah, fact checking’s huge when you’re talking about period romances and things like that. People get really pissed off.
JO: Yeah, absolutely. Anything historical.
AK: So, what are your favorite SFFH tropes?
JO: That’s a good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. What do I like best in science fiction? I mean, it’s hard to boil it down. It’s almost like saying what’s your favorite book. I’ve got, I don’t know, however many thousands here. But what I quite like in science fiction is the stuff that’s been influenced by the new wave the sort of slightly weird or SF that’s maybe slightly more political or to do with, I hate the word issues, but to do with sort of social issues and stuff like that. They’re slightly more insidious.
We published a series of books called the Fractured Europe Sequence. The last book’s just come out. I just bought it by Dave Hutchinson, European Autumn, and we published this before Brexit and then Brexit happened. I’m like, holy shit, Dave. Did you prophesy some of this?
He was interviewed on major radio stations over here about the book, because it suddenly became super relevant. It’s about an alternative future in which Europe has fractured into many micro-states and a group of smugglers who work across borders and there’s an alternative England in a pocket dimension as well. So it’s kind of got this weird Englishness, European vibe to it.
But in terms of what do I read at the moment in science fiction, what really enjoy, I love Becky Chambers books. I’ve just finished the last one which is called The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Her books are so inclusive in a really fun way. There’s so much warmth to them and there’s, I suppose, at the moment when everything seems so bleak, to occasionally read the science fiction book set in the far future where we’re not all dead gives you a little bit of hope.
So in terms of science fiction, the stuff that I read when I was a kid, when I started reading science fiction, that sort of stuck, was the new wave stuff. People like Philip K Dick and British authors like Brian Aldiss and JG Ballard, so a much different sort of Science Fiction atmosphere back then and there was now. Trying to think what SF novels I’ve read recently… let’s go to my Goodreads and have a look.
I read so much; I don’t remember them all. In terms of fantasy, I like sort of I do like epic fantasy, but the thing with epic fantasy is it’s got to really engage you, because if a writer just writes about a world they’ve created and then they just described that in minute detail, I don’t care. Where’s the story? Where are the characters? You know, great, you figured out the geography of your mountainous region. I don’t need two chapters on your geography.
So in terms of epic fantasy, I really like Steven Erickson‘s Malazan series mainly because it’s so well crafted and you never have that fear that you get with a lot of fantasy writers that they don’t know where they’re going. He’s got it totally planned out and is in complete control. There’s no sense that it’s going to go off a cliff at any point, and there’s a great internal consistency to it.
And weird fantasy, so things that are more influenced by things like Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast that have a play around with strange imagery. One of the novels I read recently that I loved was Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which is based on European legend and fairy tale, beautiful. I think Novik’s one of my favorite fantasy writers of the modern era, every book gets better and better and she started off great.
I love the Temeraire series because I like that mix of high fantasy. Well, sorry not really high fantasy, dragon fantasy, and accurate historical description. You know Novik really thought what would happen if both sides were not just armed with a navy but an air force of dragons during the Napoleonic Wars and how would that change things.
Um, yeah, just looking through my books, but you know, it’s hard to say sort of tropes. I mean, you’ve read my books. So you see the sort of things that you preoccupy my mind.
AK: There’s definitely elements of mental health, family, and religion.
JO: Oh super. Yeah, that’s super specific to me. I’ve grown up in the church. Yeah. But I’m always looking to be surprised and delighted by new books and I’m always looking for new books. I’ve started to read more nonfiction than I used to, if I’m on Twitter and someone says I love this book nine times out of 10. I’ll go, Oh cool. I’ll order that. You know, even if it’s not something I’d usually read.
I read Stiff by Mary Roach recently, which is the history of human cadavers, which is a brilliant book, and it sounds like it should be horrible from beginning to end and it is icky, but it’s actually quite powerful and moving about human endeavor and how we treat the dead and all this sort of thing. So soon as I finished that, I was like, I’ll buy more Mary Roach books because they’re great.
AK: One of my other questions was going to be if you had any recommended reading, and you’ve been giving me some cool titles.
JO: So what I love recently… I’d say Becky Chambers. Brilliant series and they’re so much fun. They’re so beautifully written. I really liked, and I know he’s a problematic author in terms of his political opinions, but Cixin Liu‘s The Three-Body Problem Trilogy in terms of a really clever scientific science fiction and thinking about humanity’s place in the universe. It was mind-bendingly well written, and he reminded me a bit of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s writing in terms of science fiction, that absolutely nails that mix of scientific and social speculation.
Red Moon was one of my favorite books. I read not that long ago, which is about the future of the moon, if we do colonize the moon, and what do nations bring to that colonization and how are the Earth politics reflected on the moon so, you know in terms of so good solid SF. I really liked that.
All sorts of strange things in my reading list. I really loved you know, some classic stuff Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco, which is a haunted house story from the 70s, which was resurrected by Valancourt Books, one of my favorite publishers, who are dedicated to putting out classic works of horror—and they also do gay fiction—that have dropped off the radar or gone out of print, and have a really beautifully curated list of the gothic. I love their books.
What else is really good? I read so much for work that my personal reading looks like I don’t read much at all because I take my time.
AK: Did you ever get through The Bone Clocks?
JO: I’m reading it at the moment, right here.
AK: How are you finding it?
JO: Yeah, really loving it and people have said they found it dull and sort of slow, but I think the writing’s so good and the characterization so good. And I like that there’s a heavy mix of satire. I just got to the section with the literary writer, who absolutely screws over his critic by putting cocaine in a suitcase.
AK: I started reading it like a year ago. It’s one of those that’s kind of languished in my TBR pile.
JO: Yeah? I’m going to through it quite quickly.
AK: I bailed out where her younger brother gives her the map.
JO: All right, that’s quite early.
AK: Yes, but my mind immediately went to George Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time, and for whatever reason, I just shut the book and put it aside because I couldn’t get by that, but I’m going to try again because I really liked the voice.
JO: David Mitchell’s an interesting writer in that he’s one of those literary writers. He’s very happy to acknowledge the influence of genre and you know, very happy to admit he’s a genre reader. You do get literary writers who occasionally dip their toes in genre and will say things like, “Of course this can’t be a science fiction novel because it’s far too important for that type.” And it’s bollocks. It’s bollocks and literary is a genre in itself in the way it’s treated.
It shouldn’t be, because literary is the one genre that’s a judgment call on the content before you’ve even read the book. It literally suggests it’s great literature. That it’s weighty. It’s important. But you know, I’ve read books that passed themself off as literary, and they’re as awful as any shit fantasy novel I’ve read. It’s a curious genre, and I think it’s much more sort of UK based thing in terms of the publishing. I don’t see it treated in the same way in the states.
AK: Yeah, it seems like it’s broken into poetry and then genre and there’s really not that middle bridge of literary over here.
JO: But there’s a lot of you know, Margaret Atwood’s been writing science fiction and literary work for her whole career. Ursula K. Le Guin, who I think should be held up as one of the great literary American writers full stop. And the appreciation for these writers seems to be building, like Shirley Jackson.
AK: Oh, she’s great.
JO: Love, love Shirley Jackson, and the fact that there’s kind of renaissance and all her books are in print and people are making movie adaptations and TV series and the love for Shirley Jackson is continuing because she was so ahead of her time, so incredibly brilliant and she’s embraced by the horror community because of The Haunting of Hill House. She’s embraced by the literary community because she wrote The Lottery,which is taught in American schools.
AK: Scariest movie I’ve ever seen.
JO: The Lottery?
AK: No, the original Haunting of Hill House.
JO: Oh, yeah. Yes, brilliant.
AK: Yeah, absolutely. The black and white one. Still freaks me out to this day. Ok, confession, I’ve hated the Margaret Atwood books I’ve read.
JO: [laughing] I mean, I’ve not read a lot of her, to be honest. I’ve read The Handmaiden’s Tale which I liked. My wife’s read more Margaret Atwood than I have. She seems like a good type, I’ve not met her personally, but I’ve had friends who worked with her and she’s quite keen on supporting new authors, which is really nice. She’s not close the drawbridge behind herself, like super powerful authors occasionally do.
AK: I read The Handmaiden’s Tale and it was okay. I think that the problem that I have with her writing is that it’s open-ended, and that makes insane. Just tell me how freaking ends. I think that that’s what it is. I’m just not a fan, and in a lot of the books that I’ve been reading lately, more in the romance, urban fantasy genres, there’s seems to be an upswing in cliffhanger endings and I hate it. Because, no, I don’t want to buy the next book.
JO: It is tricky. I was working with a fantasy author the other week on how to expand her story, and I was like, I want to know this and I want to know that. She kept saying, “Oh, that’s in book two,” and the answer kept coming back. That’s in book two. And I said to her, no one will get to book two if you don’t seed this stuff in book one and give a good narrative arc.
You know, I get it’s important that Epic Fantasy has to have hooks for the next book, etc., but you’re asking a lot of readers if you end on a cliffhanger or something that doesn’t give you a firm hook or a firm sense of resolve or intrigue and then say “Oh, the next book comes out two years from now.” We’ll all have forgotten all the important plot points by then. And that’s not a judgment call on the book, but I don’t remember every book I read verbatim. I can’t recall all the text just off the top of my head.
It’s like with Game of Thrones. I’d loved it, loved it. When I got to whatever book it was and then I was like, right I’ve discovered this new fantasy series. It’s brilliant. When’s the next one out and nobody knows, not even George’s publisher knows, so it’s like, well—
AK: I didn’t even read the last one because I gotta read all the others before I even get to it.
JO: Yeah, really read them all to figure out where you were and I was like, there’s too many other books out there. I think we had A Dance with Dragons, the two volume set around the house somewhere and I was like, just give it to the charity shop. There’s no way I’m getting to it and—
AK: He’s not either, so it’s okay.
JO: Yeah, but George is a thoroughly nice person and a man who’s deserving of success and you know, I’m all for him. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the danger with fantasy, and also because multiple deals are really expensive.
So, you know, you’ve got a brand new author going to publisher and saying here’s my book, by the way, there’s gonna be seven of them, or twelve of them, and you’re like, okay… we’ll try one and see how that goes, or we’ll try a two book deal.
Huge multi-book deals are not the norm and they’re really expensive. So if you asking a publisher to say, spend I don’t know, 25,000 pounds right up front, and their return is gonna be quite slow on that, it’s a lot.
There are exceptions sometimes as an editor.You do trust your gut and you have an absolute gut feeling about something that’s you think is gonna succeed all the way to the end, and that’s rare because you have to really, really believe that, and really bank on it and you know, and I think it’s only really happened to me once as a commissioning editor when we got you Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire Trilogy and I commission Nine Fox Gambit.
I read Nine Fox Gambit and I said, “Holy shit. This is brilliant. Yeah, we’ll buy this” and Yoon said “There’s two more,” I was like “And it’s a complete Trilogy on the side?” I went to my boss and said, “I know we don’t usually do this, but I think we need to buy all three books now before anybody else can do it, because they’re that good.”
And that paid off but there have been series, we planned Ken McKinley’s Gates at the End of the World Series as seven books. So me and the author—Ken McKinley’s a pen name, that author does something very successfully with books somewhere else—but we both really wanted something that was sort of comparable to Erikson in that very rich fantasy vein that was compelling, well-written literary and could go on for at least seven books.
We got three out, and they were all brilliant, but they just didn’t shift as many copies. His other writing thing, he shifts thousands and thousands of copies there, but when he went completely anonymous with this where we were trying to sell it on just wanting to do something different…
Sometimes you’ll have that instinct and it won’t work out because publishing is such a crap shoot. There are books you’ll absolutely believe in, that set you on fire, that you’ll publish and they do modestly and you’re like what the hell is wrong with people? They should be buying this in the thousands, giving copies to friends.
You know, I’m very evangelical about the books I like even now so, you know, if I really, really love a book, then I’ll make sure that if the author mentions it on Twitter or whatever, I’ll make sure to retweet it. One of my favorite books—here’s a recommended reading, I absolutely adore this book, Leonard and Hungary Paul by Ronan Hessian. Is just the best book on just kindness It’s a really quiet book, but it’s just profoundly good and it’s just so moving and I read it and I bought it for my dad because he said, oh buy me some fiction for my birthday.
I usually buy him books on history and stuff like that. He’s a theologian. He’ll buy his own books on theology, but and I bought him Leonard and Hungry Paul. I bought two books I bought him that and H is for Hawk it’s a nonfiction book about a woman’s relationship with walking and it’s a reflection on TH White who wrote The Once and Future King and it’s a beautiful nonfiction where I really engaged with it Dad didn’t, but Leonard and Hungary Paul, he read it and he said that’s just a remarkable work of fiction. It’s brilliant. We loved it, and now my sister’s reading it and my mum read it while we were on holiday. And I made sure to retweet it, copied Ronan and said, you know, we all love this book and that book has gone gangbusters for him.
That was a small independent, press Bluemoose Books and that book has done so well for them and it’s a delight when the instinct that something is so good that everybody will love it proves to be right, but that’s not always the case.
AK: With multi book deals, when I originally started pitching I was told I absolutely could not pitch it as a series, because nobody wanted that.
JO: It’s not so much that you can’t picture as a series. I think what puts off commissioning editors is if you go in strong with, here’s my book, there are seven more and here’s a detailed synopsis of every single one of them and why you should buy them all. And I’ve had pitches like that and you’re already feeling overwhelmed.
It’s like, let’s look at the first book, so I understand, but genre publishers do want things with series potential. Absolutely, if something is successful, they want to do more of them. And if something sells well, they want to do more of them in the same vein. Most of the books we published with Solaris either had serious potential or were part of a series.
The ones that didn’t were the more esoteric, weird ones. Something like Deadfall Hotel or I commissioned Christopher Fowler several times and all of his books were standalone, but he’s got history. He’s already got his series. He’s got the Bryant and May Mysteries. He’s also a horror writer, so I did his horror for a while.
But yeah, they’ll want to know. If it has series potential, it helps if the author’s got a good idea where it’s going to go if you say I think it’s going to be seven books, not I’ve got three and I don’t know where it’s going after that. You want you to know where it’s gonna go because if it takes off, we’re gonna want them, want to do them a lot of them and quickly, if it really takes off, on a consistent schedule, if a series succeeds, that’s important.
Like with a self-publishing, a consistent schedule is what you need to build on that success. So if you know if you release a book that says book one of a trilogy and everybody loves it, and it sells and the tens of thousands, and then no one knows from the next book is going to come out, that’ll be it. That’s the success there.
What publishes and agents don’t want is to be overwhelmed with writers who say, I’ve plotted out this whole world, and here it is all in detail. Here’s lots of complicated characters. They want that one letter, that one sheet pitch letter, and they want it to hook them, and they want to know if there’s serious potential, but they’ll decide whether they want to take on the full series or not.
AK: So standalone with series potential is important.
JO: Yeah, but even book one of the series, I mean, like you said; you hate being left hanging. As long as the first book has got a satisfying narrative arc, if there’s room for more, that’s great. That hook’s for more in the series. Most science fiction and fantasy that you see these days is part of a series, but what I’m saying is that the very big multi-book deals are rare, but what those publishers are usually doing are two book deals with an option on a third, and then they’ll renew the option if it comes, and if the third does well, they’ll only option for the fourth and what have you, so they will still start off cautiously.
AK: It makes sense because it’s a business, right? This is all money.
AK: So I have an odd question for you. When you were younger, did you play Dungeons & Dragons?
JO: Actually, I was an adult before I played Dungeons & Dragons, believe it or not. I do game regularly. I’m meeting with my gaming group tonight via Zoom. But yeah, I’ve been in the same gaming groups since I did my master’s degree. I played a bit of Warhammer with miniature figures, and I’d like the fighting fantasy books, the sort of Choose Your Own Adventure with role play books.
I’d never played Dungeons & Dragons, but I got to the university for my second degree and somebody had told me that there was a Call of Cthulhu role-playing games and I was like, there’s a game based on HP Lovecraft? That’s mental. I have to find out more. So I joined the Gaming Society and was like:
“Apparently there’s this thing called Call of Cthulhu, the role-playing game?”
And they’re like, “Yeah, if you like that, you might like this.”
I think I very, very rarely played Call of Cthulhu as a player. It’s the one I run the most if I’m gonna run a game. But yeah, I’ve played tons of Dungeons & Dragons since my early twenties till now, so yeah, play plenty of it.
AK: So, what’s your favorite character?
JO: What? That I’ve played? [laughing] I played a barbarian dwarf called Orlock who had ice weapons because he’s from a particular ice clan. That was really fun. That’s probably the longest character I’ve played. I really enjoyed playing, I can’t remember the campaign or the character name now. Oh, I think he was called Tyrian Stark.
He was a paladin, but the thing with paladins that’s interesting, is they’ve got this religious certainty. They’ve got this book tells them what to do. They’re so fascist. So I played him as a complete fascist as a sort of you know, “look! That bad guy over there said the wrong thing, kill him with fire and judge him!”
So you just sort of play Judge Dread as a priest, and sometimes I’m just massively puerile. So I think the last character I think might be a pathfinder I called Gilbane Iron Pants. He’s sort of barbarian in steel speedos.
I don’t get intense about role-playing. It’s fun. You know, it’s not like it’s not like improvisational group theater talking with serious issues. It’s silliness. It’s good fun. You know, so you don’t tend to go very dark or very serious, even when you do the darker games, like there’s a new alien RPG out there and it’s great, and we play one of that and I think most of us ended up killing each other.
It was absolutely horrible. It’s immense amounts of fun. It’s like one of us had the alien in them but we didn’t know who, so I think one of the characters was told by the GM, you’re the incubator. Nobody else knows.
AK: Too funny. So, do you have any final words of wisdom?
JO: Keep, keep writing. I mean, it’s very very simple, but I do have a lot of clients, a lot of the newer clients, not talking about established clients, but when they send a book out on query, a lot of them ask what now? Write the next book and keep writing. Keep moving.
I mean, that’s easier said than done, coming from me, who is like the least prolific writer in the world. But the more you do, the better you get, and I think especially very new writers, they can get discouraged at the first book doesn’t land or doesn’t get picked up or what have you and it can be a long journey.
Well, you’ll know this, that writing in itself, even though it’s pain in the ass and it never, never gets easier, it’s always easier to procrastinate. It’s like doing a workout, you don’t ever want to do a workout. But once you’ve done a workout, you always feel better for having done the workout.
So with it’s the same with writing. You think I’d rather play Playstation or watch a movie than put some more words into this. But even if you do 200 words, there’s still 200 words, and you’ve done something, and it’s good for you. That’s what I’m saying.
AK: Like working out, do you think there’s benefit to swapping between genres when you’re writing or just sticking with one?
JO: Whatever interests you. Worry about that stuff later. Tell the story the best way you can possible, don’t worry about the niche or too much of where you fit for now. Write a book you’d really like to read as well. That’s what I do. I write stories that I like to read. Weird things happening to regular people.
AK: Horrible, terrible things, but yes.
JO: [laughing] Not always, but yes, terrible. Mainly quite terrible.
AK: The bird one was pretty terrible.
JO: Actually, when I put the collection together, that’s the oldest one in there, I think. And I read that back, and I was like, holy shit. I wrote that way before kids or anything like that and Ellen Datlow said how much she liked it, which is really good, and Ellen’s never bought one of my stories. Not that I’ve sent her tons of stuff, but it’s yeah, that is—that’s pretty bleak.
AK: It was. My favorite was definitely the slaughterhouse one.
JO: Oh good. Yeah, aces.
AK: I read the first page of that to my husband. I was like, this is awesome. And he goes, wait, what? Why did I marry you again?
JO: I spent a lot of time researching cadavers and what happens when you cut open a human, and how it would feel, and how painful would it be. I had asked my friend the surgeon, once you cut open the skin, what’s there before the organs to the peritoneum? Okay, how painful would that be to cut into? It’s like, agony. Absolutely the worst pain ever. So I got quite specific with the details of it. I did my research. Absolutely the bleakest thing in there, really.
AK: Yeah you did, and it was fabulous. It was really, really good. I enjoyed it quite a bit.