Posted by Jed Hartman
9 July 2012
This is a long and rambly blog entry. If you don't have the time or interest to read the whole thing, here's the short version:
After twelve years as a Strange Horizons fiction editor, I'm stepping down. I have every confidence in our awesome new team of fiction editors—Brit, Julia, and An—and I'm looking forward to seeing what newer and stranger horizons they show us.
The long version follows.
I had always wanted to edit a magazine.
But it didn't seem feasible. I'd been told that to be an editor, even a magazine editor, you had to live in or near New York City (I'm a native Californian suburbanite; never did get the hang of East Coast cities), and that the pay generally wasn't very good. And more importantly, when I looked around at the field in the early '90s, I didn't see any speculative-fiction magazines likely to be looking for editors anytime soon, and I wouldn't have had the qualifications to apply for such a job anyway.
So I put magazine editing in the category of things that would be cool but that wouldn't ever happen, and went on with my life.
And then, around the end of 1999, Mary Anne Mohanraj told me that she wanted to start a new online sf magazine. And she asked me if I would be a volunteer fiction editor.
I told her no, of course. I already didn't have enough hours in a day to do everything that was on my plate. There was no way I would have time to be a fiction editor.
And then I remembered that I had always wanted to be an editor. And so I made time.
Throughout early 2000, a dozen of us, led by Mary Anne, planned the magazine. She established several important principles: we would be a nonprofit (I was strongly opposed to that at first, but came around to liking it); we would publish fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, among other things; we would publish new content every week; we would pay pro rates (such as they were) for fiction; all staff would be volunteers; we would explicitly state that we were looking for material from diverse perspectives and backgrounds; we would have multiple editors in each department, so that if one got sick or busy, the others could keep going.
(That last may've been especially important to the magazine's survival. Too many sf magazines have folded when one essential staff member has fallen ill or gotten too busy to continue.)
We had a contest to decide on the magazine's title, and another to decide on a design. One of the original fiction editors dropped out, and another joined. We opened to submissions in June, 2000, with a planned September launch date; then a week before launch, my two fiction co-editors resigned, realizing they were too busy.
But we launched on schedule, with a full complement of new material.
Mary Anne helped me read submissions until a new fiction editor joined us: Susan Marie Groppi. Then another: Chris Heinemann. In 2003, Chris left, and after an extensive search process, Karen Meisner came onboard. Karen and Susan and I continued as co-editors for over eight years. In recent years, the department has dealt with greatly increased submission volume by bringing on several First Readers.
I'm really proud of what the magazine, and especially the fiction department, has done over the past twelve years. The magazine has published every single week (except for a scheduled vacation week at the end of each year) for twelve years; that's over six hundred weeks of material. In the fiction department, we've published a lot of great stuff—over five hundred original stories, and two dozen reprints. Almost all of the original stories are still available in our archives, thanks to the authors who've let us keep their stories online. I hope that we've generally (despite occasional slips) made progress toward our mission to “help make the field of speculative fiction more inclusive, more welcoming to both authors and readers from traditionally underrepresented groups” and to “showcase work that challenges us and delights us, by new and established writers from diverse backgrounds and with diverse concerns.” And we've had some recognition from the field—some major award nominations, dozens of stories reprinted in various Year's Best anthologies, praise from readers and writers.
So we've done a lot, and we've come a long way. And now it's time for me to say farewell.
There've been times, now and then over the years, when I've thought about leaving the magazine. Every time, I immediately decided against it.
But in early 2011, when I thought about leaving, instead of an immediate "No! That would be terrible!" reaction, for the first time I had a feeling of relief.
For much of the life of the magazine, I've spent a lot of time on it. (While also holding down a day job; the magazine staff is still all volunteers.) I didn't usually keep close track, but every time I estimated, it came to around twenty hours a week; call it a thousand hours a year.
And I mostly didn't begrudge that time. It meant some lost opportunities, but life is full of choices; every time we choose to do anything, it means not being able to do a hundred other things.
But by early 2011, I was feeling a little burned out. I was still finding submissions I loved, but even as submission volume went up, the number that I loved was going down. Then, too, although talking with Karen and Susan about stories every week was still one of the best things about the job, the three of us had been coming into conflict more often, and more strenuously, than had usually been true in the past, and my friendship with both of them was suffering. And although editing stories—helping an author polish a story to make it the best version of itself that it could be—was still satisfying, it was causing me more stress and tension than had usually been true before, and it was less fun than it had once been.
And so I started thinking seriously about stepping down. Not immediately, but sooner rather than later.
It always takes me a long time to make decisions. I told Karen and Susan I was thinking about it, and then I waffled for months. But by July or August of 2011, I was pretty certain.
And then Karen and Susan told me that they were leaving.
We had a lot of discussions about how best to handle our departures. In the end, I felt that the best option was to transition gradually—for them to leave when they were ready to do so, and for me to stick around until we had a new set of editors in place to carry on the department's work.
So Karen and then Susan bade the department farewell, and we started the editor search process again. Nearly fifty people applied to be fiction editors, many of them excellent candidates. And now, after six months of that process, we've settled on a new team to carry the torch onward into this second decade of the twenty-first century. I'm confident in Brit's and Julia's and An's tastes, judgment, and editorial skill.
The department will be in good hands in other ways, too. For example, Karen and Susan and I were never as good as we wanted to be at promoting the magazine, at raising its profile and inviting authors to submit, at telling readers who we were and why they should come read the stuff we published. I think the new team will be better at that. We're the longest-running online prozine ever to have existed; we've been publishing great material and paying pro rates for twelve years; our stories are regularly reprinted in Year's Bests; but I've always felt that, except among new writers looking to break into the field, we haven't had as much attention from the field at large as I'd hoped. For example, when I introduce myself to established authors at conventions, they've still often never heard of us. I think the new editors will change that.
Then, too, for all of our desire to publish a diverse range of material, Karen and Susan and I are all white. Having a racially diverse set of editors doesn't necessarily result in a more racially diverse set of authors or characters (just as having a female editor doesn't necessarily result in a magazine publishing more female authors), but I think it's a step in the right direction. (Just to be clear: Race was not a factor in any of our decisions about the new editors. But we did start the editor-search process by reaching out to some people of color in the sf community and asking them to apply for the position and/or recommend others we should invite; if you'd ideally like to end up with a diverse group of editors, then asking for a diverse pool of applicants can help.)
And I think Karen and Susan and I were all getting tired; I know that I was. Last year, our average response time was over fifty days (it had gradually been creeping upward for years), and we had multiple extended closures-to-submissions. This year, we've turned that around, thanks primarily to our amazing First Readers but also to the new editors; our average response time since we reopened to submissions in February has been eleven and a half days, for over 2,600 submissions. And although we've had a couple of stories go over sixty days this year (my fault), and a few more go over thirty (also my fault), currently the oldest story we're still considering was submitted only about twenty days ago. The low response times have increased submission volume to the point that even now, almost five months after reopening to submissions, we're still hitting our daily submission limit most days, and we've had to institute a policy of asking authors to wait three weeks between submissions. So in terms of submissions as well as in other areas, I think we're in pretty good shape; it seems like a good time to pass the baton.
I've always disliked change. Part of me still wants to stay on, comfortably doing a comfortable job that I know how to do. But as I think the above paragraphs make clear, not only have I been getting tired and burned out, I've been getting worse at the job lately.
So it's clear that it's time for me to move on.
I want to thank everyone who's kept this job worthwhile and rewarding: Mary Anne for starting the magazine; our usually-unsung thirty-person volunteer staff for keeping it going; Karen and Susan for being thoughtful, strong, smart, funny, insightful, articulate partners-in-editing for so many years; the authors who send us stories; the readers who read them. Being part of this ongoing experiment in publishing has been a central part of my life for over a decade; it's led me to many wonderful friends and marvelous stories, and it's shaped my experience of the science fiction field in ways that I only dreamed of when I was reading my father's old paperbacks as a kid. Thank you all for helping make those dreams come true.
Friends who I've told about this decision have been asking me what I'm going to do next. My first order of business will be to spend some time relaxing. I've bought a few dozen of my favorite movies over the past year, and haven't had time to watch more than a dozen of them. I also haven't had time or energy to read much published sf other than ours in the past few years. And I may try to start posting more regularly to my personal blogs, which have been sadly neglected of late.
I also hope to get more fiction writing done; I recently finished the first draft of a novel, so I hope to revise that and send it out, and to finish a couple of short stories that I've been working on.
I do plan to do more editorial work at some point. Mary Anne and I have been kicking around a couple of anthology ideas; I won't be ready to read submissions again for at least a few months yet, but I'm hoping it'll happen sooner or later.
And I may even help out with Strange Horizons in some capacity. I'll be winding down my editorial work over the next month or so, but even after that I'll be available to advise the new editors should they want advice. I may even become an assistant webmaster. I still believe in the magazine and still want to help out however I can, as long as I can limit my involvement to a few hours a week, and to tasks that exercise a different part of my brain than fiction editing.
So I'm not entirely going away. But my main involvement with the magazine is ending. And although I'm a little sad about that, mostly I'm glad, and even relieved. It's time for me to step aside and welcome the next generation of editors.
Brit, Julia, An: may you have a long, happy, rewarding, and exciting tenure as SH editors. You're doing a great job so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing what you do next.