Market Insights: Douglas Cohen, Realms of Fantasy
It’s been an interesting couple of years for Realms of Fantasy. The magazine was launched with the October 1994 issue and never missed a single issue in its publication table for almost fifteen years. Now in the last two years the magazine has been cancelled twice and come back twice under new ownership.
As most if not all of you are aware at this point, our newest publishers are Kim & William Gilchrist of Damnation Books. By the time you read this, the February issue—the first one under Damnation Books—will probably have been uploaded to the printers. The April 2011 issue—a dark fantasy issue—is already in various stages of production/preparation, and plans for the June 2011—issue 100—are well underway.
So. Over the years Realms of Fantasy has published very little zombie fiction, but it appears we’ve mutated into something of a zombie magazine, because we keep rising from the dead to eat publish your stories. I’ve been blogging fairly regularly about our second resurrection, which I imagine is of interest to some writers. But I also realize some of fine storytellers may be leery of submitting to us, because while you’re familiar with our magazine and may like the idea of publishing with us, you want to make sure we’re not about to fold again.
So let me share a few things that might put you at ease, and then I’ll finish by sharing a few things to keep in mind when submitting your fiction to us. First, the whole staff is basically back and most of them have been through a re-launch before. It’s a lot easier the second time around. Many of our departments are already completely caught up. Second, the new publishers are paying the same rates for everything and Shawna McCarthy (our fiction editor) and I have the same levels of creative control that we did before. Third, our new publishers have found some ways to effectively cut costs without hurting our product. Fourth, our publishers have started expanding RoF’s presence in the digital world. In a time when more and more quality short fiction is available online for free, it’s important to make our product available for purchase in as many different formats as possible.
Here’s one more reason I’ll share, but let’s turn it into a question: who is the one remaining person that’s been with this magazine since issue one? The answer is its founding editor, Shawna McCarthy. She has bought every story we’ve ever published in the magazine, meaning our fiction department remains the most stable area of all. These days Shawna’s role is that of fiction editor, with me overseeing most of the other departments and assisting her with the fiction.
In fact, I started at this magazine as a volunteer assistant editor for the fiction department, and I’ve been working with Shawna for some 5+ years. In this time, I’ve pulled over thirty stories from the slush that have seen publication and I’ve assembled a complete collection of the magazine, reading every single story we’ve ever published. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about publishing in RoF.
First, Clarion graduates are an invaluable resource to this magazine. We’ve published a tremendous amount of their fiction over the years. My slush survivor count would not be what it is without your submissions. So when I see a submission from a Clarion graduate—including an unpublished one—it means something to me. It means you’ve received some excellent training from some brilliant and passionate teachers. It means the chances your work will be good are better than usual, because you’ve been given so many of the tools to achieve success in what can be a very unforgiving field.
So what can I tell you that your teachers haven’t said already? Probably not much. But there are some things I’ll pass along that might prove useful. First I want to emphasize two points that seem basic but become forgotten over time for various reasons. Then I’ll share some things you might be interested to know concerning RoF. Here we go:
1) Fantasy is a broad genre, and it’s yet to stop expanding. In addition to writers, editors are playing a crucial role in defining what fantasy is. I’ve read a number of stories in our pages that I consider science fiction. Obviously Shawna felt otherwise, or at least saw enough fantasy-related elements to justify publishing these tales in RoF. Too often, I hear about authors rejecting themselves from certain markets because their stories are “not a good fit.” Now, if you’re writing a hard science fiction piece in the vein of Gregory Benford or Isaac Asimov, it’s true that your story most likely isn’t right for us. But if there is an element that could be considered fantastical in your sf story, who knows? We just might buy it. Did you know John Joseph Adam’s recent dystopian sf reprint anthology has a story from RoF in there? Did you know we published a story with robots that were clearly inspired by Transformers? Did you know we had a story about molecule memory that was reprinted in Rich Horton’s Science Fiction, Best of the Year, 2008? I could go on. The point—and this is something to keep in mind for all markets—is that it’s not your job to reject your stories for our magazines. It sounds like a basic thing, but too often I see authors—including experienced ones—overanalyzing their prospective writing markets. This is not a phenomenon unique to RoF. It’s good to know your markets, because that might help you land a sale sooner rather than later. But don’t be the editor for them. I can’t stress this enough. When in doubt, submit. Let us decide what’s right for the magazine. The worst that happens is that we say no. To borrow (and probably mangle) a phrase from John W. Campbell: “How dare you reject your story for my magazine?”
2) Shawna and I have different tastes. Yes, there is definite overlap, and these similarities (and the differences for that matter) are why we work well together. But I hear too many authors saying things like, “Realms of Fantasy is not a market for sword & sorcery.” Ahem. I love sword & sorcery. I also unquestionably enjoy this sub-genre more than Shawna does, meaning I’m likelier to enjoy an S&S tale than she is. But since I’ve been with the magazine, we’re publishing more in this area than we ever have before. Not an overwhelming amount, but definitely more. The point is that magazines change over time. Too many people stop reading a certain venue for whatever reason, and five or ten years later, when they’re telling you their problems with this magazine, what they’re saying is no longer relevant. Again, I see this happen with experienced writers too, so I feel I should mention it here. So not only should you never reject yourself, but it’s also a terrible idea letting others do your market research for you. Sharing ideas is fine, but make sure your friends are up to date on what they’re saying. If the information is coming secondhand, make sure it’s coming from a reliable source.
3) Fantasies I like: My favorite stuff tends to be set in secondary worlds. I also love dark fantasies. I love interesting characters whose choices surprise me. But you know what? It doesn’t matter what my favorite kinds of fantasies are. It’s not my job to pluck my favorite kinds of fantasies. It’s my job to pluck the best stuff in all areas of fantasy. I’ve passed along steampunk, funny fantasies, contemporary fantasies, fairy tales, historical fantasies, new weird, ghost stories, YA fantasies, and more. All of them have seen publication. So don’t worry about sending me what my favorite areas of fantasy are. In fact, these are the stories I’m the most critical of. Regardless, at the end of the day, what I want to see most is your best stuff. The rest is immaterial.
4) Fantasies Shawna likes: Well, I know she likes stories that have interesting takes on religion. But that point I just made above? Yeah, that again.
5) Interesting fact: I don’t like most funny fantasies. I don’t find them particularly funny. However, I have a perfect track record with RoF: every funny fantasy I’ve recommended for publication has in fact been accepted by the magazine. So if you’re a slush writer and you send me a funny fantasy, chances are I won’t like it. But if you make me laugh, chances are I’ll pass it along. And if my track record is any indication, chances are you’ll sell it to us.
6) Things I’m tired of reading about: elves, dwarves, hobbit knockoffs, Gandalf knockoffs, Conan knockoffs, fairies, zombies, paranormal detectives, stories starting in bars, stories starting in coffee shops, stories starting in an office, stories belonging in someone’s D&D campaign.
7) Things that are a tough sell with Shawna: Lovecraftian stories, sword & sorcery (though we’ve made some progress here!), magic realism, and fairy tales that are too sweet. With this said, please keep in mind she’s bought fantasies in all of these categories, which is why you should never self-reject.
8) Something you’d expect me to be tired of reading about but am not: dragons!
9) Things I’d like to see explored a little more in the RoF slush piles: I’m a little amazed at how few urban fantasy submissions we receive. And most of what we do receive is terrible. I’d like to see some more original and thoughtful sword & sorcery. It’s been too long since we’ve received a good science fantasy tale. There’s a lot of room for exploring steampunk through a fantasy lens, but I see very few submissions in this vein. We achieve a strong balance of male vs. female writers (just works out this way, which is cool), we’ve published and continue to publish gay fantasies, and while we’ve published and continue to publish fantasies featuring minority protagonists, I have noticed something of a dearth of stories featuring black protagonists, be they African-American or otherwise. I see a lot of stories with Asian (mostly Far Eastern) and Hispanic protagonists, but very few with black protagonists. Native American (other than Aztecs, which are popular), Indian, and Arab protagonists are also in short supply. In terms of religion, I’d like to see more stuff falling outside the Judeo-Christian mold. We’ll happily consider submissions exploring any race/culture/creed/etc., and the examples I’ve just mentioned are those immediately coming to mind that I’m not seeing much of.
10) Other things on the horizon for RoF: well, our publishers have already let the cat out of the bag, so I’ll mention that in the very near future we’re going to start publishing poetry in RoF. We’ll be running the occasional piece, much the way F&SF and Asimov’s do, and we have the perfect poet to break this section in starting with issue 100. Guidelines will go up when the first poem sees publication. I’m also told that in the next 2-4 months our publishers plan to do a website redesign. And while we’re making no promises about anything, we are looking into ways to improve our submission system going forward.
Hope this helps! Good luck everyone!