Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Editors: Ben Coppin

Darker Matter – the high quality online science fiction magazine – ran for 5 issues during 2007. It paid professional rates for fiction and featured some well-known names. In the first of a series of interviews with current and former editors of UK SF magazines, I set out to find out more about the people who take on the job of editor.

I met up with Ben Coppin in the refectory of one of Cambridge’s elite colleges, where we sipped lattes and chatted about science fiction magazines. Well, you can imagine that as the setting, but actually we corresponded by email.

GDJ: How did you decide on the look and feel for Darker Matter? Why did you choose a webzine over print?

BC: The decision to go with a webzine was an easy one - it had the potential to reach a much greater audience for the amount of money I was able to spend. Also, I'm a bit of an internet geek and liked the idea of a really high quality online science fiction magazine that provided stories for free. The look and feel came from a friend who's a professional artist. I told him roughly what I had in mind, and he produced a number of mock-ups. I ended up going with the one I did because I felt it combined a vaguely retro feel with something fairly modern and clean. I'm a big fan of clean, simple web sites, so I really wanted to avoid unnecessary clutter.

GDJ: Producing a ‘zine is obviously a lot of hard work. What inspired you to give it a go?

BC: In part, it was ignorance. Before I started doing research for Darker Matter, I had no idea there were any online SF magazines, and I certainly didn't expect to find so many. Originally, I wanted to do a number of things:

1) Publish really good science fiction stories that people wouldn't have to pay to read.
2) Publish science fiction stories by the best SF writers in the world.
3) Pay the authors what they would expect to get at the top magazines, or possibly even more if I could manage it.
4) Give any profit the magazine made (ah, such youthful optimism!) to charity.

I think I achieved 1, 2 and 3, for a short period, but the site was clearly not going to come close to making a profit, which is why I had to close it down.

GDJ: One of my favourite stories last year was Young Love on the Drowned Side of the City by William D McIntosh in Darker Matter #5, a good example of a story with a darker slant. What is it that appeals to you about that style?

BC: I agree with you about that story. It's certainly one of my favourites. It's hard to pin down exactly why that kind of story appeals to me, but since I was a child I've always loved science fiction, and have had a particular fondness (maybe that's not the right word!) for post-apocalyptic tales. This one appealed to me particularly because it was more about the story and the characters than the apocalyptic events, and it was told in such a beautiful way. To be more general, I think I am generally a cheery and optimistic person, and stories that are a little bit dark and possibly even miserable feel like a good way to indulge a different side of myself. I guess a psychiatrist might have more to say about that!

GDJ: Do you have a favourite sub-genre or theme?

BC: I think my favourite type of science fiction is the kind that really stretches the imagination. I love Iain M. Banks' books, for example, and probably love his books for the same reason that some purists reject them as fantasy; they're so distant from what we know and are comfortable with, and I guess in a way that makes them perfect escapist material. As I said before, I also have a particular soft spot for stories about the end of the world, or post-apocalyptic ones.

GDJ: Which magazines or authors do you enjoy reading?

BC: As a teenager my favourite authors were Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Robert Sheckley and Harry Harrison. I still love their stories, but more recently I've found myself reading darker stuff by people like Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks. I've always been a huge fan of Analog, and also tend to read the other main print magazines. I haven't ever really got into any of the webzines, simply because I've not been able to settle on a favourite one.

GDJ: You opted for a different payment model to most webzines. What was the idea behind that?

BC: I just felt that if you pay anything less than the going rate, you automatically eliminate the top few from your pool of potential authors. I didn't want to discourage newcomers, but did feel that in order to get the magazine off the ground, I needed it to get a reputation for publishing stories by reasonably big names as well. I was thrilled to be able to publish stories by the likes of Bud Sparhawk, Ed Lerner, David Levine and Jerry Oltion, and while I'm not saying those guys wouldn't have sent me stories if I wasn't paying, I think the fact that I was offering the same rates as magazines like Analog gave me an instant credibility boost, and helped set the magazine apart (in the eyes of the authors, at least) from the other webzines.

GDJ: Several small press and webzines have come to a finish in the past year, while several others have started. Do you think there’s an answer to be found for long-lives webzines?

BC: It's hard to say. I still feel that if I'd had the time, money and energy to keep at it, it might have been possible to make Darker Matter work, but I particularly lacked the first two. I think it's important to publish something that's different from the rest, or to come up with a self-funding model (or perhaps just a very cheap model) in order to attract enough attention to get and keep readers.

GDJ: Do you have any further plans in publishing?

BC: I'm publishing another online magazine called Serendipity with Neil Ayres (he's the editor). It's a magical realism magazine, of which there aren't so many, so it's easier to get noticed. I think we've published some great short stories, and we've already managed one more issue than Darker Matter did! Also, I've not given up on the idea of resurrecting Darker Matter some day.

GDJ: Thanks for your time.

BC: Thank you!

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