Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Interview with Ian Rose of NINE

Publishing and the new electronic frontier are issues nerds-feather cares deeply about. Just how will ebooks and electronic delivery alter the way we produce and consume fiction? Though previously this blog has concentrated on the world of novels, this is every bit as true for the world of edited short fiction. And short fiction is, in many ways, the lifeblood of SF/F: it's where new authors come from, it's where ideas for novels are generated (see Saladin Ahmed's precursor to Throne of the Crescent Moon, for example), and so on. Enter Nine, which bills itself as a "journal of imaginative fiction" and is taking a different approach to publishing short fiction. The G recently "sat" down with managing editor Ian Rose to discuss these and other issues.

Please explain the genesis of Nine. How did it come about?

We officially launched the site in January 2012, but we didn't publish our first issue until April 24th. The editorial staff of Nine consists of three editors (Ian Rose, Tom Corcoran and Sam Reed). We also have five other reviewers. Our editorial and publishing experience is negligible, mostly various college literary magazines and a lot of nonfiction on the web. We're all writers, and we tried to create the market that we would most want to contribute to, ironically the one for which we are all now ineligible.

The three of us were talking about short fiction markets and what we'd like as authors in our ideal market. The top criteria were decent payment, fast response times, and a relatively open online platform. A few drinks in, we decided that there was nothing that exactly fit those criteria (though a few that I list later are mighty close). Talk naturally turned to doing it ourselves, and a few months later, after some more sober planning sessions, we launched the site.

How do you see Nine fitting into the existing ecosystem of SF/F journals? What journals do you see yourselves most closely resembling? What differentiates Nine from existing journals?

I think, to a certain extent, that's up to the ecosystem to decide. We are small, with the advantages and disadvantages of a tiny staff. At this point, it's hard to say who we resemble, but we try to emulate Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Analog, and a few others. What differentiates us is that we consider ourselves more beholden to our writers than our readers. We love our readers - they pay us for something that we love to do - but we exist for the purpose of creating a paying market for writers.

You describe Nine as a “journal of imaginative fiction.” I like the more inclusive nature of that framing, but on the other hand, all fiction is arguably imaginative. So what defines the ideal Nine story? What kind of stuff are you looking for?

It's true - you don't need spaceships or faeries to be imaginative. We chose "imaginative fiction" partially because we have never been comfortable with the term "speculative fiction" as a catch-all to include fantasy and science fiction, and also because we wanted to encourage the mixing, bucking and outright ignoring of genres in our submissions. So far, we've been very happy with the results of that encouragement.

Clarkesworld has a rather detailed list of things it doesn’t want, such as zombies, lusty pirates, libertarians/communists who save/ruin America, kids who find stuff in fields, etc. Do you have subjects, devices or tropes you’d like to avoid?

We've actually been thinking about this as a blog post, but we've been waiting until we get more submissions under our belt and have a better idea for what tropes annoy us the most. We are 99% opposed to twist endings. If the last paragraph of your story can be summarized as "He/She/It was the killer/monster all along!", we're going to pass. In almost all cases, an unexpected turn is better than an outright twist. Other than that, don't cover a song or remake a movie unless you're adding something to the original. Using elements from other stories is fine, and is probably inevitable, but the less original the story becomes, the better it has to be written. We're talking mostly about re-imaginings of faerie tales and myths. Fan fiction or references to a more recent property won't make the cut, ever.

How has the submission process gone so far? Your launch issue had a story from Ken Liu, who’s one of the hottest names in SF/F short fiction at the moment. I’d say that’s something of a coup for a new journal. How did you manage that?

I'd love to say that we earned that one, but I'm not sure that would be honest. Ken is not only one of the best and hottest writers in short fiction right now, he's also one of the most prolific. The man writes, and submits, a phenomenal amount of high quality fiction. We were lucky enough to be one of the places he chose to send one of those stories, and once we read it, we knew it would make the first issue. Ken would have to answer for himself why he chose to submit to us, and being that he is one of the most responsive and friendly writers we know, he certainly would if you asked him.

As for how submissions have gone overall, we've been thrilled by the response to our calls on Twitter and elsewhere for submissions, and we've had more than we ever expected to choose from. Duotrope has been a huge source of submissions for us, and probably our best partner in this experiment outside of the writers themselves.

We seem to share concern with the low rates of author compensation that are standard in publishing. The usual argument against raising author compensation is that it would put publishers out of business, but you have promised to give 81% of every issue’s cover price to authors. How are you able to do this in the current market?

We can do it for two simple reasons. First, we have very low costs. Our founders include a web developer who does all the maintenance and technology work on our site and that site is hosted on a server we already owned. Our only out-of-pocket cost (aside from the enormous amount of time everyone on staff basically donates) is the $360 base fee for our writers each month.

Second, we are prepared to lose money. All of us have other jobs, which to varying degrees supply us with our income. We see it this way: if no one at all subscribes to Nine, we pay out $360/month to writers. We can afford to do that for quite some time. Luckily, some people have decided to subscribe, and so we feel like we can do it for even longer.

Do you anticipate becoming a Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) qualifying market?

Realistically, we aren't aiming for that right now. We are concentrating on picking the best nine stories that are sent to us each month, getting them on the site, and making it as easy as possible for our subscribers to read and, if they wish, download them. If we get to the point where we are consistently earning out the $40 advance we give to the writers and paying out additional royalties, then we'll start to think about raising the guaranteed payments and getting closer to pro-level payment. Since the concept of high-royalty revenue sharing is a foundational part of this project, we want to pay writers more that way, not necessarily through higher base pay.

Currently Nine is available through your website, but I don’t believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) that you can buy it from Amazon, B&N or Apple. What went in to the decision to do things that way? Are you looking to sell Nine through those stores at a later date, or are you consciously avoiding them? If the latter, why?

This one's simple. They take too large of a cut. I don't think they take an unfair cut, considering the incredible amount of added exposure and marketing that their platforms provide, but if we are really going to give away 81% of what we take in on every issue, we don't want to give away too many slices of that pie. The only outside vendor that takes any percentage of the cover price right now is PayPal, and that's how it will remain for the foreseeable future. Each of those marketplaces also has their own thoughts about format, DRM, etc. We want our readers to have access to read our stories in as many ways as possible, which is why we offer a web version as well as .mobi and .epub downloads.

What has been the response to issue #1 so far?

Overwhelmingly positive, with some helpful reality checks mixed in. Readers have chimed in with ways we can improve, and we've tried to take those thoughts on board without changing direction in any major ways. But overall, we've gotten 100 pats on the back for every slap on the wrist.

What can we expect from issues #2 and 3?

For one thing, Issue 2 is turning out to be quite dominated by female authors, which is exciting to us. Our first issue had great stories by Kristin Janz and Shannon Wendt, but was 7/9 male, which had a few of us a little concerned because we wanted the best fiction we could get our hands on, and that means a diversity of writers. So far, Issue 2 is much more weighted to women writers, and is oddly and entirely coincidentally dominated by Sarahs. Issue 3 is still just a twinkle in our eyes, so there's not much to say about that one. In general, we hope to settle into a nice balance between the major genres. Once again, we'd love to see more science fiction. Issue 2's novelette is scifi where #1's was pretty high fantasy, so that's going our way. Other than that - cliche alert - you'll have to read to find out!


And there you have it! You can pick up the inaugural issue of Nine through their website. We highly recommend it, not only because they've figured out a cool way to do things, but also because the stories are really good.