Neil Clarke is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld Magazine, one of the world's top SF/F publications. Clarkesworld stories regularly go on to get nominated, and win, major awards. Clarkesworld Magazine is a multiple-time Hugo award winner in the Best Semiprozine category. Mr. Clarke is currently a nominee for the 2013 Best Editor (short form) Hugo award.
Alex: Can you describe what makes something a Clarkesworld story as compared to stories that might appear in other quality SF/F venues?
Neil: I don’t know how to answer that. I know what they aren’t, but what they are seems to be in a constant state of flux or evolution.
It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally I’ll see a story I would have bought in another magazine. Most of those have been off-kilter science fiction stories that make me think about or feel something in an unexpected way.
Alex: What is your slush process? Can you describe the journey a successful submission takes from submission to acceptance?
Neil: With a handful of exceptions, stories come to us via our online submissions system. The slush readers and I read through the stories and flag them for rejection or a second look. (I’m first reader on about half of them.) This whittles the pile down from seven hundred (per month) to about twenty. Sean and I reject about half of those after the next read. If I can’t remember the story the next day, it’s probably not going to make the next cut. That leaves me with a very small BUY ME pile.
At this point, most stories go directly to contract, but sometimes there are small flaws that need to be addressed beforehand. Contract in hand, we move onto editing and proofreading. The amount of work this stage entails varies by story and/or author. Some need pruning. Some are perfect.
Alex: You've been giving out copies of a very special business card at some of the writing conventions you've attended. Can you tell us a little about that?
Neil: For years, authors have been walking up to me at conventions and introducing themselves by saying “you rejected me” instead of some form of greeting. I’ve never known how to respond to that. The socially awkward bullied little boy in me half-expects them to take a swing at me, but in most cases, I know this person is probably just as nervous as I am. Eventually, I came up with the card as a fun little way to diffuse the two potential extremes. Now people come looking for me just to get the card.
Alex: You've suffered a number of personal setbacks over the course of the last year in terms of both health and employment. Despite them, you've been steadfast in steering Clarkesworld toward becoming a professional publication rather than a semiprozine. What is the technical distinction between the two, and what steps are you taking toward achieving this goal? What are some of the things your readers/fans can do to help?
Neil: Some people think that a professional magazine is one that pays their authors the SFWA-qualifying rate of five cents per word. It’s a flawed definition because it completely ignores the employees of the magazine. In my mind, a professional magazine pays the authors and the staff a professional rate. (Don’t get me started on whether or not five cents per word is professional.)
Anyhow, my goal is to make Clarkesworld the first online magazine to cross over from semiprofessional (paying something) to professional. In my case, that means being able to leave my day job. I’ve always dreamed of accomplishing this, but for some reason I put it way off in the future. The heart attack simply pushed me to re-evaluate a lot of things in my life.
The bulk of Clarkesworld income comes from subscriptions. We have over 30,000 people reading the online edition of Clarkesworld. If only 10% of those converted into paid subscribers ($1.99 per month), we’d be over the line. That doesn’t even take into consideration sales of our anthologies and back issues.
A big thank you goes out to the readers that have already subscribed. You’ve already done something tangible to help us, but if you’d like to do more, we certainly wouldn’t complain. We’re constantly told that the word-of-mouth marketing done by our readers has had an impact. Leaving positive comments on our Amazon subscription page is also quite effective.
Alex: What are some of the innovations and/or changes you're considering for the magazine? Anything new or different we can expect in the near future?
Neil: We’re about four hundred subscriptions away from our next milestone. When we hit that goal, we’ll be adding a fourth original story to each issue. I’m also hoping to release an app-based subscription option for cell phones and tablets sometime later this year. It’s just a bit too early for details on that one though.
Alex: What other creative projects are you currently involved in other than Clarkesworld?
Neil: I’m about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for my first non-Clarkesworld anthology project. It’s a project that has been bouncing around my head since I had the defibrillator installed: an original cyborg anthology edited by a cyborg. The symmetry of the situation amuses me. Besides, cyborgs are fun. Hopefully other people will think so, too.
Alex: Your aversion to certain tropes is legendary. If the ghost of William Shakespeare teamed up with J.K Rowling to write "Romeo & Juliet & Zombies," and submitted it to Clarkesworld, could they hope for a personal rejection?
Neil: I’m fairly certain someone has already written and tried to submit that story to us. (Neil’s First Theory on Zombie Fiction: There is no such thing as an original zombie story idea.) In the end, I think we suggested they send all their classic zombie mash-ups to you.
Nooooooo! Alex falls to his knees and shakes fist at the sky. Khaaan! I mean, Neeeil!