by Lucas K. Law
In 1989, The Copper Pig Writers’ Society, a non-profit organization in Edmonton, Canada, gave birth to On Spec magazine, a quarterly journal of speculative short fiction. For over 25 years, they have showcased works by Canadian writers and artists and fostered emerging Canadian writers by offering support and direction through constructive criticism, education, mentoring, and manuscript development.
Diane L. Walton, managing editor of On Spec magazine, has been extremely generous with her time to participate in this candid conversation.
Could you please walk us through the publishing chain from acquiring a manuscript to shipping the print copies to booksellers? Take us behind-the-scene of a speculative fiction magazine. What goes on that the reader doesn’t see? How long does it take from initiating a new issue to having that copy out in the store?
Here’s what we do:
1. First we announce a time frame during which we are open to new short fiction submissions (poetry is year-round).
2. Writers are given instructions for the use of our on-line submissions process, so they can track the progress of their story.
3. Once the submission period is closed, we divide the manuscripts into batches, and assign a first reader to them. This depends on the resources available–each reader may have as many as 100 stories to read.
4. The first reader is given the option to reject unsuitable stories, or to pass the better ones along to be read by the entire editorial staff.
5. Because we are all volunteers, and often have personal issues that can take precedence, this can be a long, drawn out process; so we encourage simultaneous submissions if an author wants to send their work elsewhere.
6. Once we meet and decide on the stories that best fit our magazine, we initiate the contract process. Authors are paid for their work at the time of purchase, not at the time of publication.
7. Each story is assigned an editor to do a thorough copy edit, and there can be a lot of back and forth communication with the author before a final version is reached.
8. That “final” version is looked at by another editor, who will frequently catch things previously missed. Once given final approval by the Managing Editor, the story is placed in the queue for layout.
9. Because we usually have a backlog of available stories, the Managing Editor will select stories for layout in a specific issue. Similarly, the cover artist is contacted with an offer to purchase the rights to a work in their portfolio. Artists are encouraged to send us samples of their work online.
10. Layout is handled by a professional graphic artist, and supervised by a volunteer with vast experience. We use a detailed checklist for each issue, to ensure every part is in the correct place, and to minimize errors. The issue is proofread by at least three people, and given final approval before the digital file is sent to the printer.
11. A printed proof is also approved before the print run gets the go ahead. A digital file is sent to a third party for production of the EPUB and mobi versions of the issue.
12. Printed copies are sent to our mailing service, where they are sorted and addressed and sent to Canada Post. The remaining copies are picked up for our inventory for later distribution or sales at conventions. The Magazines Canada distribution in Toronto handles the copies that end up in stores, although we do distribute copies locally to selected Edmonton vendors we know personally.
What are your responsibilities as the Managing Editor of On Spec?
1. As noted above– supervising the process for reading, acquiring and editing stories.
2. Handling the contract process with authors and artists.
3. Applying for grants for publication of the magazine.
4. Supervising all financial activities of the magazine (we have a bookkeeper for final reports). I make the bank deposits and pay the bills.
5. Participating in conventions, book fairs, writers’ conferences, etc to market and promote the magazine (along with available editorial staff).
6. Handling and responding to email and other mail correspondence.
7. Chairing Board and other meetings.
8. Working with volunteers, recruiting new editors when needed
9. Putting out brush fires occasionally.
10. Making long-term decisions that affect the magazine.
With the funding cut from Canada Council for the Arts (I believe it is somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000), how do you make up the difference in your current budget? What is On Spec doing differently now with a smaller budget?
Our first response was to make a large cut to our print run. One of the ways we have brought On Spec to the attention of potential readers has been through a retail presence in Canadian stores who order copies from our distributor, Magazines Canada. Unfortunately, the unsold copies are destroyed, and so the return on this investment is always a money-losing venture for magazines that already have small print runs, and that are not heavily dependent on advertising revenue. We made the difficult decision to send fewer copies to the distributor, although results of this won’t be felt for several months, due to the long delay in their reporting process.
We negotiated with our printer to find slightly less costly paper stock, without a significant reduction to the quality of the final product. Also, a smaller page count can save us money, although it does reduce the benefits to our readers, something we are reluctant to do. We are also concentrating on the digital version of the magazine, to perhaps make it more attractive to new readers, especially those who eschew paper magazines and books. An increase in digital sales would give us more revenue to use for paying authors and artists and other bills.
Our one paid staff member is currently on maternity leave, which saves us a significant amount on wages and benefits. I do hope that by the time she is ready to return to her part time job, we will have the funds to pay her.
Finally, we put out a call for help from our readers and supporters, and we have an ongoing Patreon campaign for monthly donations as small as a dollar. This sustainable income stream helps us with month to month costs, especially as we wait for results of grant applications. In a perfect world, we would not depend on grants, but it is a harsh reality for Canadian arts and culture titles– our population cannot support us. Some may argue that we should let the marketplace decide, but it is a Catch-22. We attract a loyal following, once they have heard of us, but we have no money for advertising and promotions. There is a Canadian Heritage grant for this, originally set up to give Canadian arts magazines a level playing field. Unfortunately, several years ago, the eligibility bar for arts magazines was arbitrarily raised by the Minister of Canadian Heritage, and we are considered too small to qualify for the grant. The irony is that if we had enough sales to qualify for the grant, we wouldn’t need it.
Are you going to reduce the number of issues per year? Increase subscription fees?
Currently we plan to remain a quarterly journal, and subscriptions will remain stable, at least for our Canadian subscribers. For U.S. and overseas subscribers, right now we are losing money with the huge increases to costs of postage. I need to crunch the numbers to see how we can raise those subscription rates to make it more viable. We would encourage US and overseas readers to buy the digital versions!
Is everyone working as a volunteer at On Spec?
At the moment, we pay our designer, and our writers and artists. Everyone else associated with On Spec is a valued volunteer.
What other funding do you have currently that you are thankful for?
As mentioned above, the monthly donations through Patreon are something we are very grateful for. We get some funding from City of Edmonton through the Edmonton Arts Council, and provincial sources through the Alberta Media Fund grants program, although this is never guaranteed, and must be applied for, year to year.
Each grant application is taken on its own merits. I submitted our grant application for 2016 funding to the Canada Council earlier this year, and we should learn if we had any success by September.. Each year there is a different peer review jury, so their taste in our form of literature may be different from previous juries.
We need to be cautiously optimistic.
Is there still a restriction to publishing the number of non-Canadian writers? If not, then where does On Spec stand?
The Alberta funding bodies are only concerned that the ownership of the magazine is Albertan, for obvious reasons. Canada Council has an expectation of 60% Canadian editorial content. Because Canadian Heritage requires 80% Canadian editorial content, and because our mandate is to discover and showcase excellence in Canadian writing, we tend to skew towards the 80% on average. This does not prevent us from buying a really good non-Canadian authored story or poem or work of art when we see one.
What are your near-term plans for On Spec? In 3 years?
We get a number of 3-year subscription purchases, which is both encouraging and daunting, because none of us is getting any younger. We are recruiting younger volunteers, and ultimately I may find myself stepping back into an advisory role, as the magazine goes into the hands of a new generation. We hope that we can continue to offer a print magazine, although to be honest, the discussion has included the possibility of going fully digital, which would reduce costs significantly.
We are working on increasing the number of distribution outlets available for the digital version of On Spec, since this income stream is one that might eventually sustain us if the grants dry up. For example, we are now carried by Kobo, as well as by Variant Edition, a new Edmonton comic book retailer.
Political will, of course, is a moving target, and a new arts-friendly Alberta government may serve us very well in the next 3 years.
Does your situation with Canada Council a harbinger of things to come for other Canadian publishers in speculative or commercial fiction?
I don’t think it is a harbinger of anything other than, perhaps, the jury selection process for that particular grant stream. When you look at the vast array of arts magazines applying for support–we are in the same funding boat and competing with poetry journals, dance and drama magazines, glossy visual arts magazines, and the usual Can-lit journals that come from university English departments, and are filled with works from MFA students who were taught by professors teaching the same way they have taught since the 60s. In other words, they are apples and oranges.
The peer jury comes from that pool. So how many of them will admit their prejudices, and still try to judge us on literary merit, when the story is set on Mars, instead of a small town in rural Ontario? The past few juries have said that our quality of fiction was “low”, but we have no idea what measuring stick they are using for this assessment.
So while our readers and reviewers and several of Canada’s most respected academics in the field say our quality is exceptionally high, a few jurors who may never read outside their own genre have said it’s low.
Do you see the gatekeepers of Canadian literary culture continue to cause a wider divide between literary and commercial fiction for Canadian writers? Why is it such an uphill battle when we all are supposed to help each other to be successful?
I don’t know about there being a wider divide. Perhaps in the writing community, there is a split between the genre writers who do this all the time, and the so-called “literary” writers who occasionally dabble in works of magic realism, or dystopian literature, and who are lauded by the critics as though they invented the genre. That is what we are up against.
I do think the lines are slowly being blurred, especially as more and more literary writers “come out” as genre writers, and I say that with tongue firmly in cheek. Margaret Atwood, for example, did not invent the dystopian novel. Yet in some critics’ blinkered eyes, she is the only Canadian author who ever wrote one. I’d love to introduce them to some of my friends.
Genre writing makes more money than literary writing, unless you happen to win a major award like the Giller Prize, but there will always be those who plant their feet firmly in the literary camp, and refuse to acknowledge that a romance or mystery or science fiction book may be well enough written to be considered a literary work. (They obviously have never read anything by Guy Gavriel Kay.)
Good storytelling is good storytelling. And it follows no arbitrary set of rules.
We aren’t “supposed to help” anyone! But it is better when we can acknowledge the diversity in our art. I’m sure there are parallels in the other arts disciplines too.
How do we continue to foster and discover new Canadian talents and push the boundaries of Canadian speculative short fiction?
Short answer is that you have to support the publishers who are doing this by buying their books!
Not just On Spec, but all the book publishers who take a chance on new Canadian writing. The “Tesseracts” series from Edge publishing, and the short fiction collections published by ChiZine Publications and Tyche Books and Five Rivers Publishing are good examples.
And there are excellent online publications such as Ideomancer Speculative Fiction.
I sure hope not! Even after 25 years, we have barely made a dent in the available pool of readers. And there is a new generation coming along who will do the bulk of their reading on their handheld devices, and who are more willing to take a chance on something new.
As mentioned before, our main challenge is making people aware that we exist. Several years ago, I was at an event and a young man said, rather dismissively, “On Spec? I have never heard of you.”
My next question to him was ‘”So just where would you expect to have heard of us?”
He had no response. It’s like he was waiting for us to buy a hugely expensive ad to run while he was watching “Agents of SHIELD” to get his attention. He had obviously never done anything to learn on his own about what’s out there.
This may be a snobbish question. How different is Canadian speculative fiction from American speculative fiction? If there is a difference, is it detrimental for us in the global picture? Do we have to change the way we write?
That is another thing where the lines are blurred. 25 years ago, we started On Spec because there was such a difference between Canadian and American SF that many of our best writers could not get their stories published south of the border. Now, so many Canadians are getting their books published by the big US publishers, it would make your head spin. And they are not asked to “Americanize” the books, except perhaps using “honor” instead of “honour”. That might make an American reader’s head explode.
What is your advice for young Canadian writers trying to break-through?
Write. Edit. Submit. Repeat.
And get to know others in your community. Go to science fiction conventions and meet other writers. Read what they are writing. Talk to them. Networking is fun.
I am always asked about trends, and there never seem to be any. Similarly with the what we don’t want to see question. While it would be simple to say NO MORE GODDAM SPARKLING VAMPIRES!!!, we actually don’t get sparkling vampire stories.
If someone hopes to sell a “type” of story, like a vampire or zombie or haunted house or cats in space story, they had better have something to give it enough substance to make it float to the top of all the other vampire and zombie and haunted house and cats in space stories that we are likely to see.
Easier to say what we do look for. We look for stories with a strong and engaging protagonist who, like Hamlet, sees that “the time is out of joint”, and finds that they are the one, often the reluctant hero, tasked with setting things right.
It has to be a story that makes the reader want to turn the page! It has to be the story that makes the reader forget the kettle is boiling dry in the kitchen. It has to be the story that makes a reader laugh out loud on a crowded bus, or surreptitiously wipe away a few teardrops, or even quiver with fear or revulsion. It has to be a story the reader will remember long after it has ended.
The reader has to care about what happens to the protagonist. The protagonist may be successful or unsuccessful in their efforts, but their character has to drive the story. We don’t like plot-driven stories where the characters just seem to be the pawns getting moved around on a chessboard. Bottom line is that we need to clearly identify what the protagonist WANTS, and then follow their path towards the goal. And the ending has to satisfy. Not necessarily be happy.
We should open for new submissions by the Fall of 2015. Much depends on how many stories we buy from our current reading period.
Support On Spec magazine (onspecmag.wordpress.com)