Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Editors: Trudi Topham

Pantechnicon is a UK based ezine that can be downloaded in PDF format, but also has various articles and stories to be read within the website. Editor Trudi Topham gives us a great deal of insight into producing a webzine in the latest of my series of editor interviews:

GDJ: There are lots of options for a new magazine – paper, PDF, webzine etc. How did you decide on the look and feel for Pantechnicon?

TT: When Pantechnicon was initially conceived, there was no consideration for it to be anything other than electronic. We simply didn’t have the resources available to create a paper-based publication, and we both had prior experience with producing web-based content.

We felt the most important thing to get right (once the name had been chosen) was the logo. From there I could design a website, Andy could produce a PDF, and future marketing materials could take their lead from those.

The logo was a team effort. We spoke to two young designers, Luke Spillane and Tom Webster, and explained that we wanted a logo that was readable and distinctive, yet which could be rendered in black and white if necessary. They worked together to produce the logo that we use today – after several which were rejected along the way, of course. Once they came up with one that all four of us were happy with, I went on with the website design.

As the content available on the site has grown, and the number of writers authoring the content has multiplied, the site itself has evolved. While initially the design was centred around a file-based content structure, it became apparent after only one year that we’d be much better off moving to a content management system. The site’s current look and feel is very much down to trying to keep it simple and clean so that visitors can find content quickly and easily.

The PDF, too, is evolving. The original layout was constrained by being produced in a word processor and converted to PDF via PrimoPDF. After a daytime job shift, though, InDesign and Adobe Acrobat 8 became available to me, so Pantechnicon is a far more complex PDF with hyperlinks, layers, and all the fun stuff that makes a magazine more readable.

Of course, I’m not content to leave it there. But I’m evolving the PDF slowly now, trying to avoid jarring changes whilst including better features as I learn more about InDesign.

The whole process has been a steep learning curve, but one that I feel can only benefit our readers.

GDJ: There were originally two editors before you continued on as sole editor. What are the advantages and disadvantages of running the show yourself?

TT: Andy and I had a very diplomatic editorial process. A story didn’t have to please both of us to get published: So long as one of us believed in it and was willing to stand by it, we’d go ahead with it.

The most obvious disadvantage, then, of putting Pantechnicon together by myself is that stories which may have previously been selected would now face rejection.

The other main disadvantage is load-balancing. When I have a holiday, there’s no-one to pick up the slack. If I’m ill, I have to crawl out of bed and work on Pantechnicon. There’s no secondary proof-reading of a final edit, and no time off.

The advantages, though, are quite interesting. Being the sole person responsible for selection and editing of content, it’s been relayed to me that Issues Five and Six are far more cohesive than issues 1-4 were – that they have a far more unified feel to them.

There’s also no breakdown in communication when there’s a single editor. I can keep track of what’s expected when, which pieces I’ve accepted and when the next drafts are due, and how close to deadline things are getting.

The workload is the main problem. To strike a balance between maintaining that cohesive single-editor feel and not being able to take a break, I’ve taken on a sub-editor; freelance writer Alasdair Stuart, who co-edits Hub, has previously worked for SFX, Death Ray, SciFiNow, and Neo, and produces podcasts for Pseudopod and Escape Pod.

GDJ: Producing a magazine is obviously a lot of hard work. What inspired you to give it a go? In fact what possessed you to also join the Hub editorial team?

TT: Andy used to produce a Doctor Who fiction site called Doctor Who: The Legacy. Rather than simply churning out fan fiction, his mission was to create a whole alternative universe and invite both new and professional writers to create “seasons” of novellas. The goal was to produce professional-quality fiction and promote new writers alongside established ones.

One day, over lunch, we hit on the idea of doing roughly the same kind of thing, but for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. After some nailing-down we came to the conclusion that short stories, rather than novellas, was the way to go.

Hub is a very different publication from Pantechnicon. Whereas Pantechnicon is a quarterly, and usually comes to around a hundred pages, Hub is a weekly PDF which is emailed out to subscribers and contains either a story, an article, some flash fiction, and sometimes some reviews. It’s like a mini-Pantechnicon in some ways.

Lee Harris and I were always communicating, right from the start (both Pantechnicon and Hub sprang into life at roughly the same time). After a year of Pantechnicon, I wanted to see what life on the rapid-fire end of publication was like. Lee and I discussed several options (including a potential merger of the two publications), which resulted in him offering me an editorial post on Hub.

What possesses me to do any of it? I must have the crazies. It’s the only reason that I can think of.

GDJ: Have you always enjoyed ‘speculative fiction’? Do you have a favourite genre or author?

TT: For as long as I can remember, science fiction and fantasy have been my genres of choice. Well, and Biggles.

I could have a favourite, but it would change every week. I tend to favour individual stories more than obsessively following an author: Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a classic, as is The Demolished Man, but it’s widely accepted that these are his two finest works. Similarly I’m far more keen on Michael Marshall Smith’s SF and short stories (which span most speculative genres, not just horror) than I am of his crime novels.

I do read a great deal of Manga, too, wherein it’s far easier to follow a particular author, as they tend to stick to one or two series at a time. Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist is a particular favourite of mine, as are Ken Akamatsu’s Negima!, Aki Shimizu’s Qwan, and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto.

GDJ: You’re an ardent advocate of short stories. What appeals to you about them?

TT: Short stories can be incredibly powerful. Whereas a novel may build up emotional resonance and characterisation over the course of 140,000 words, short stories require an author to be so meticulous and skilful with their writing that they can deliver the same emotional punch in a far more constrained format.

For the reader there’s a tremendous advantage to be gained from reading short stories. One can absorb a whole tale in an evening, dip in and out of a book or magazine of short fiction and come away with a complete story in a single sitting. Stories can delight and entertain, they can be cathartic and desperately tragic, and the short story is the fictional equivalent of a chocolatier’s finest hand-crafted Grenache – who wouldn’t want that in place of a 1Kg bar of Dairy Milk now and then?

GDJ: What is it you’re looking for in a story, and how do Hub and Pantechnicon vary in style?

TT: The key’s in the question. What I look for in a story is, well, a story. It seems obvious, but I’ve seen so many submissions which lack any actual narrative, or which are merely snippets of a far larger story. I look for a beginning, a middle and an end (in whichever order suits the story best), which to me is pretty fundamental if you’re going to call it a “story” instead of “fiction”.

I look for stories with engaging characters and interesting plots. Stories which will evoke an emotional response in the readers. Stories which people will want to read.

Stylistically, Pantechnicon and Hub aren’t too dissimilar. Hub tends to pick shorter stories, whereas Pantechnicon has recently published one that came in at around 15,000 words. Also with Pantechnicon I have to consider not only each story, but how it will fit with the other stories and articles within the same issue to keep a tone that isn’t too relentlessly dark overall (balance Victoria Snelling’s Innocent with Jens Rushing’s Blankenship & Dawes in: The Island of Ignominy, for example).

Hub has a far freer rein when it comes to story selection, as each issue is a small, self-contained item, usually featuring a single story (the recent Flash Fiction special is obviously an exception) and a couple of reviews or an article. It’s more bite-sized, and we can be a little more experimental, as if a reader doesn’t like one week’s instalment, they may love the next.

GDJ: Several small press and webzines have come to a finish in the past year, while several others have started up. Do you think there’s an answer to be found, or should we just look on the bright side – there’s always something new to read?

TT: This is a very difficult one to answer, as there are so many factors at play. I’ll try to cover them as best as I can.

1: Time. Most small press and web-based publications come to an end within their first year, and a great deal of this is down to the founder not realising just how much work would be involved, losing enthusiasm once it’s been underway for a few months, or simply having a change of lifestyle that means something else has to go. Like most things in life, this can be overcome with adequate research, forethought, and determination, but a lot of newcomers don’t do the research, don’t see what else is available out there, and don’t realise that generating, formatting, and presenting so much content on a regular basis requires a lot of effort.

And, sometimes, life just gets in the way. New relationships, changes in living circumstances, bereavement and a thousand other factors can all get in the way. A true love for their chosen task can keep some people going (witness Trevor Denyer’s fantastic work on Midnight Street, for example), but many choose to drop their newly-started time-eater of a project.

2: Cost: Doing this isn’t free. For the small press there’s the horror of printing costs as well as time and effort, and for the webzine there’s hosting costs, man-hours, marketing, and all kinds of minor trickles of cash out of the wallet. And that’s just for the publications who don’t pay their authors.

Paying authors is a highly contentious issue. Most new zines absolutely cannot afford to do so, and fail to accumulate readers as a result (I’ll go into this later). The low readership can be soul-crushing to the person or people who set it up, and so the publication folds, cancelled due to lack of interest.

3: Payment: The thorny issue. As previously mentioned, paying authors is something most startups cannot afford to do. Instead, they offer exposure and experience, but there exists a peculiar snobbery amongst readers that if authors aren’t getting paid, the product isn’t worth reading. This results in the authors not getting the exposure that may help begin their careers, and causes so many zines to fold before they can even think about sourcing funds to pay writers with.

Some argue that not paying authors is exploitative. This can be true if the publication is making a profit by presenting the unpaid author’s work – whether through selling advertising, selling the publication itself, or a combination of the two.

I contest this, though. Pantechnicon costs nothing to the reader, and carries no advertising. I work with each and every author to polish their story before publishing it, and I honestly believe that each story is of a quality that readers would be happy to pay for. Pantechnicon operates at a fiscal loss, but the product you get is, frankly, one of the best available online today. And, yes, ultimately I hope to be in a position to pay our authors – later this year, in fact.

Hub, on the other hand, has always paid, right from the start. And what’s interesting is that whereas Pantechnicon has a regular readership of around 700, and has been snubbed repeatedly by reviewers who refuse to even read it because it doesn’t pay, Hub has around 7,000 subscribers who receive the magazine every week via email, and has no problem at all getting reviews (which, as we all know, is what can get your publication read by more readers). Even more interesting is that Hub receives around twenty submissions per week, whereas Pantechnicon garners around one a week, but Pantechnicon’s submissions are, proportionally, far higher quality than Hub’s. We can reject twenty stories on Hub just to get to a single publishable one, whereas Pantechnicon’s hit ratio is more like 40%.

People who are in it for the money send only to publications which pay. People who are in it for the love will work for both. But this means that non-paying publications will:
- See far fewer submissions, which can be disheartening in the first year.
- Receive next to no publicity or reviews, which makes increasing the readership incredibly difficult.
- Attract considerably fewer readers, which can also lead to the publisher giving up.

Obviously some terrible zines have gone the way of the dodo within their first year. But some blisteringly good ones have, too.

4: Bloomsbury: As in, small presses aren’t. Another level of snobbery is the attitude that if something’s worth publishing, the big publishing houses would have snapped it up. We all know this isn’t true. Big publishers have to buy very carefully, and they can’t afford to take the risks that the independents can. They also are in the business of making money, so if something’s out of fashion right now (as, alas, short stories are) they won’t touch it with a shitty stick, no matter how much the commissioning editor loves it.

There is an answer to be found, but it’s not going to happen. People who are in a position to support the small presses often choose not to because of some of the reasons outlined above, and with thousands upon thousands of zines available, coming and going with distressing regularity, often what a reader looks for is longevity – something they can begin reading, safe in the knowledge that it won’t vanish in three months time.

That or you just get a famous author with a huge fanbase to endorse your publication. Which as we all know is child’s play, right?


Why, yes. I am still waiting for a response from Stephen King…

GDJ: You seem to be quite involved in the BSFA and Eastercon. What attracts you to these, and do they help with your job as editor?

TT: It’s all smoke and mirrors. I’m not as involved as it seems.

I’d been meaning to join the BSFA for several years, but you know how these things slip. I finally got my arse in gear in January, so I’ve only actually been a member a couple of months. I even successfully failed to attend Eastercon this year, as I’d previously arranged to meet up with some friends on an arbitrarily-chosen Saturday which eventually turned out to be a ludicrously-early Easter.

Hopefully they’ll help with my job of editor at some point, but these things take time.

GDJ: What plans do you have for this year, in Pantechnicon or SF in general?

TT: The first Pantechnicon Anthology is due out later this year, with all-new stories for which we’ll actually be paying money!

This is a huge step forward for Pantechnicon. It’s always been the magazine’s goal to find and promote new writing talent, but also to work toward our goal of becoming able to pay those authors who we publish.

Outside of Pantechnicon I attended Alt.Fiction in Derby, catching up with friends and making new ones, and I should be at FantasyCon later in the year. I also maintain a blog which features regular advice and tips for new writers.

Finally, I’ll be reading a lot, and keeping an eye on the competition…

GDJ: Thanks for taking part.

TT: You’re welcome.

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