Not many SFF editors are well-established enough to have an imprint named after themselves. Jo Fletcher is one of those rare editors and in the two years Jo Fletcher Books has been running it has been putting out several great titles, including some of my favourite books of the past two years. So I was really pleased when Jo was gracious enough to answer some questions on JFB and on being an editor. I really enjoyed the chance to learn more about one of the editors whose taste I’ve come to appreciate enormously, I hope you do too.
How did you become an editor? Did you always want to work in publishing or did you roll into it?
It was sheer chance . . . and a lo-o-ong story! I’ve been reading Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror my whole life (my parents were avid readers and subscribed to magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s and New Worlds), and when I was about 20 I got involved with the fantasy and science fiction scene, first in the UK, then the US, through a variety of different but simultaneous channels. I spent (far too big a chunk!) of my grant on books in the Albion Bookshop in Canterbury, and the bookseller there, himself a short-story writer called Ken Kessler, suggested I join a group who met at The Crypt coffee shop to discuss fantasy/SF books and the like, and one of the people there, Gordon Larkin, was a friend from the folk club in Whitstable, Kent, that I ran with my mother; Gordon was then editor of the British Fantasy Society’s Bulletin (as it was called then) and enticed me in, first to help collate the magazine, and then he got me writing reviews (my first was for Tanith Lee’s magnificent sword and sorcery novel Volkhavaar, and I’ve been a firm fan of hers ever since) . . . and he introduced me to Stephen Jones, who co-edited the award-winning semi-professional magazine Fantasy Tales. Steve started taking me to conventions – my first was a Novacon, where I met the lovely Ken Bulmer, and people like Malcolm Edwards, the much-lamented Rob Holdstock, Brian Aldiss – and that was that, I was hooked.
Before long I was heavily involved in the field, ending up running the British Fantasy Society with Steve, and Fantasycon, the British Fantasy Convention, then a World Fantasy Convention, the first ever to be held out of North America, then I was asked to join the Board of the World Fantasy Convention and the World Fantasy Awards, then the World Horror Convention Board and the Horror Writers’ Association for a few years . . . All this time I was a journalist.
I’d ended up in Fleet Street when Sue Fletcher (no relation), one of the triumvirate of publishers who’d left Macdonald Futura (now Little,Brown) to start Headline, went to Malcolm Edwards, then running the Gollancz F/SF/H list, and asked where she could find someone to run a genre list, and Malcolm told her it was easier to teach a journalist who knew and loved the field to be an editor, than to teach an editor to love the genre . . . and as a result, she offered me everything I never knew I wanted. In those days Sunday newspaper hacks worked four days a week, so I had Mondays free – Headline couldn’t afford much, but I was making plenty being a hackette, so we came to a very happy agreement. So I went straight in at the top, avoiding all the hard work of editorial assistant-to-assistant-editor-to-junior-editor-to-editor-to-senior-editor-to-editorial-director . . .
After helping setting up the Headline SF/F/H list and heading Gollancz for sixteen years, with Jo Fletcher Books you got the chance to build your own imprint from the ground up. JFB has been going strong for a little over two years now. How has the experience been?
It’s been a blast! I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard to leave Gollancz – I put my heart and soul into that list, and it’s now one of the biggest and best genre lists in the world – but this is something very different. When I started the Headline genre list, I had no idea what I was doing. This time it’s different. Whilst there will always be a certain element of ‘making it up as you go along’, I’ve now run several lists of varying size, from Headline to Mandarin to Pan to Gollancz – and so I know what I’m looking for, and I have a pretty good idea of how I want to publish. Because Quercus is an independent, as Gollancz was when I first joined, we don’t have to answer to some faceless Board somewhere – at least, not editorially. I will always listen to the concerns of the other departments, but the decision to take on an author should be down to one person and one person alone: the editor. That’s not the case at many publishers; it’s not a problem I have at JFB with Quercus, I’m delighted to say.
What JFB accomplishment are you most proud of?
I think it’s too early to answer that one, although I’m certainly thrilled that we launched Quercus and JFB in America this month. And I look at the breadth of my list and I am thrilled at the calibre of writers I have managed to entice to JFB.
What does JFB have in store for the rest of 2013 that has you really excited?
Well, we have the World Fantasy Convention coming up – it’s only the third time it’s been in the UK, so it’s a very big deal – and almost all of my authors are going to be pitching up in Brighton for it. So that’s going to be a blast! As well as all our UK- and Irish-based authors, Amish is coming from India (he’s now sold two million copies of his Shiva trilogy in India alone!!), and David Hair is coming from New Zealand. From Europe we’ll have Markus Heitz (from Germany), and John Ajvide Lindqvist (a Quercus author, but a contributor to A Book of Horrors and Fearie Tales) from Sweden. Sebastien de Castell is over from Canada, Chris Golden from the US – it’s going to be one hell of a party! Oh, and I mustn’t forget the Fearie Tales contributors, who include Australians Angela Slatter and Garth Nix . . .
As for books: well, I think Fearie Tales is the most beautiful book I’m publishing this year – editor Stephen Jones has put together a stellar line-up, but as if that’s not enough, we’ve managed to get Alan Lee – yes, the Alan Lee! – to take time off from his work on The Hobbit to give us not just the most wonderful wrap-around cover, but also some astonishing B&Ws for the insides. It’s a work of art in itself – and a fitting tribute to the really exceptional stories exploring the darker side of fairy-tales.
You yourself have been published as a poet. Do you still have time to write? How has your editing influenced your poetry, if at all?
I do find myself writing a little, mostly when I can’t sleep and I have so much churning around in my head. But finished poems are few and far between, at the moment at least. I don’t think editing affects my poetry especially because I have always been fascinated by language and by the conventions (or otherwise) of the poetical form. When I have the time, I like to play with different forms – I have always been fond of the sonnet, for example – because I think it makes me pay more attention.
In every profession dealing with the discovery of the next big thing, there are stories of the ones that got away. You mentioned in your April interview with This is Horror that Michael Marshall Smith was one such author. Are there any other authors that make you wish you could go back in time to convince yourself that yes, you really do need to convince them to send you their manuscript?
Everything I start the ‘I wish’ game, I have to temper it with, ‘But X did a jolly good job on them,’ so do bear that in mind! I would have loved to have published Guy Gavriel Kay’s first trilogy – and having just read River of Stars, I am pleased to see he remains one of the most elegant and elegiac writers out there. I came back from a World Fantasy Con swearing blind that this new writer called David Eddings was going to be a star, but I wasn’t a publisher myself then, so I don’t consider that got away really. I think after not managing to convince MMS that I seriously wanted to read his novel I have worked much harder at ensuring people understand I am serious when I say: Yes, I want to see it . . . of course, then the manuscripts mostly sit on an ever-increasing pile waiting for me to find the time to look at them . . . but that’s a different problem!
One thing that is often mentioned in discussions on modern-day publishing and social media is the way that authors can far more easily and extensively connect with their public. To what extend does this apply to you as an editor? Do you interact with readers more in this social media age?
I do, certainly through the JFB website and blog and Twitter (although Nicola, my amazing assistant editor, handles most of the Twitter feed, but I do take part when I feel an overwhelming need). And of course I’m always happy to do things like this, on other people’s sites. I’m on Facebook too, both personally and through JFB, and I found it exceptionally useful in announcing my move from Gollancz to JFB – and I was overwhelmed with the support, too. I am in awe of authors like Sarah Pinborough and Tom Pollock, who are so adroit at social media (although I do wonder when/if they sleep). But I must also admit to becoming increasingly concerned at the discourtesy – and in some cases downright nastiness – that is becoming more prevalent, in the Twittersphere especially. Trolling is a great problem, and there doesn’t appear to be any way you can protect against it: something you say gets taken out of context or misunderstood or simply not agreed with and all of a sudden you’re sinking under a barrage of invective and filth. I don’t get where that comes from.
How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?
When I started there were book pages in every national and local newspaper – in fact, I ran the book and film columns for my first newspaper, the Whitstable Times, and then later, the Ealing Gazette – which is how I first met David Gemmell, who worked for the same newspaper group (but that’s another story). And there were plenty of magazines covering books too, so readers were easily able to find out what was coming out. There were plenty of local bookshops, with booksellers like Ken Kessler – I mentioned him earlier. On one occasion I went in to treat myself to a book, and he saw me browsing and saw I’d picked up a book by James Branch Cabell – The Cream of the Jest, I think. ‘If you like that,’ he said, ‘why don’t you try this?’ And I came out, an hour and a half later, with an armful of books . . . I know there are still booksellers like that, but I fear they are fewer and far between, which a great loss to us all. Newspaper book coverage has shrunk to a fraction of what it was, and there aren’t many magazines with book pages. So thank heavens for bloggers and reviewers, for this is the modern way to disseminate information.
What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?
I’m working through half a dozen delivered manuscripts right now – and both thrilled and relieved to discover every single one raises the bar a little higher! When I’ve finished I’ll give myself time out for good behaviour and so I’ve lined up Anne Zouroudi’s new book, The Feast of Artemis – if you haven’t yet discovered Hermes Diaktoros, the Greek investigator who answers to ‘a higher power’, you’re missing a real treat. I have the new Elspeth Cooper, The Raven’s Shadow (leaving her behind at Gollancz was so hard!) and then I’m moving on to Tim Willocks’ Twelve Children of Paris (The Religion should be required reading too). There’s never enough time for all the books I have to read, let alone the ones I want to!
Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?
Good question! Although I’d say ‘passion’ rather than ‘obsession’, music is right up there: our house was always filled with music and musicians when I was growing up, and music pretty much saved my life (you probably know I’ve been involved in a few accidents!). I still sing – mostly classical music rather than folk these days, although listening is evenly divided – and I find it the most invigorating activity: no matter how tired or depressed or worried or hurty I feel, as soon as I start to sing, all the trials of the day slough off and I feel positively energised. And I would be lost without a garden, and the birds that inhabit it . . .
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
When I was a little girl, I made my three younger siblings give me all their books and I set them up as a library. I pasted in library card-holders and issued them with library tickets. And of course they were divided into fiction and non-fiction and shelved alphabetically . . . Well, frankly, other than no longer defacing books except to put in the bookplates my lovely sort-of-brother-in-law Randy Broecker designed, I still file fiction alphabetically, although I keep the Fantasy and SF Masterworks collections separate. And non-fiction is filed alphabetically, but by subject . . . I hope you’re proud!
Bio (from WFC 2013 website): Jo Fletcher is an editor, writer, poet and journalist who has been published widely throughout the world. She attended her first World Fantasy Convention in 1979, since when she has been to most of them, for more than a decade as a permanent Board Member. She co-chaired the 1988 and 1997 World Fantasy Conventions in London, was the Poetry Guest of Honour at the 2002 World Horror Convention in Chicago, and Mistress of Ceremonies at the 2010 World Horror Convention in Brighton. She has won an International Society of Poets Award in 1996, the British Fantasy Society’s inaugural Karl Edward Wagner Award in 1997, and the World Fantasy Award: Professional in 2002. In 1985, she joined the fledgling independent publishing company Headline and masterminded the launch of Headline’s fantasy, SF and horror list, introducing award-winning writers like Dan Simmons, Michael Bishop, and Charles L. Grant’s acclaimed horror anthology series Shadows to the UK. She left Headline in 1988 and worked for Mandarin (1988-90), then moved to Pan to run the newly revitalised genre list. She was Associate Publisher of Gollancz, the award-winning fantasy and science fiction imprint, part of the Orion Publishing Group until late 2010. In 2011, she became Publisher of Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus Publishing PLC.