an interview with John O' Neill
by Daniel E. Blackston
From website pioneer to print publisher extraordinaire, John O' Neill is a man who relishes a challenge. At a time when many SF insiders are predicting gloom and doom for magazine circulations, Mr. O' Neill has unleashed BLACK GATE, a stunningly beautiful, heavily stocked quarterly that focuses on Adventure Fantasy and top-notch entertainment. With an equal emphasis on high-quality prose and heroic escapism, BLACK GATE has emerged as an uncompromising SF pub, gathering critical accolade and adventure-hungry readers with every issue.
Though we've leveled criticism at BLACK GATE's eclectic vision of Adventure Fantasy in the past, each issue of this exquisite publication continues to chip away at our objections, revealing a truly original, perhaps visionary, pub that gives every indication of emerging as a high-water mark of the short SF genre.
Mr. O' Neill is an energetic and acutely intelligent man, who was generous enough to take some time away from his many duties to talk with us about BLACK GATE , the future of SF publishing, and some other fascinating topics. We found ourselves as captivated by his conversation as we are intrigued by his unique and alluring magazine.
What is BLACK GATE'S mission? Can you tell us what your primary motivation was in deciding to undertake such an exciting and massive project?
Well, that's actually two questions. Let me start with the second one.
In the mid-90's, some friends of mine started a small ISP in Canada, Cyberus Online, and they pestered me mercilessly until I invested. Cyberus grew rapidly and eventually became the largest independent ISP in Ottawa, and by 1996 we began bouncing ideas around about what to do next. We had dreams of creating the first big online gaming company, an online publishing enterprise, you name it. Finally in June, 1996, I started a small commercial SF site and registered the rather unimaginative domain name, "SF Site." At the same time Wayne MacLaurin, CEO of Cyberus and one of the big contributors to SF Site, registered BlackGate.com for a possible gaming spin-off which never came about.
SF Site became a huge success. In June '96 I had about sixteen readers, and I knew them all by name. By June of '99 we had over one-hundred thousand, and we were hosting many of the major publications in the industry under our banner. It was a little mind-boggling to realize that we were one of the most widely-read SF publications in the world.
It was also an enormous amount of work. I'd started doing everything myself, but that quickly became impossible. Within two years we had a staff of over forty regular reviewers, several editors, and numerous others.
In the late '90's, Cyberus struck a deal to be acquired for $5.2 million. Those familiar with the deal will tell you what a painful road that was, but for me it meant that we could finally talk seriously about doing some of the things we'd dreamed about in 1996. I drafted a business plan for a publishing house to be called New Epoch Press, and showed it to the other owners of Cyberus.
This is where our "mission" came in. The first aspect of that was the content. I'd been a reader of short SF for a long time, and it had become obvious to me that the old chestnut about "the field not attracting new readers" had some truth to it. It wasn't attracting new readers, at least not in the same way it attracted me when I was young. Short SF was no longer an easy entry path into the genre -- that seems to have fallen to TV, movies, and video games, and those outlets aren't creating new readers. And that's a shame.
What the field seemed to be crying out for wasn't another small press magazine trying to be more "cutting edge" than everyone else, "pushing the limits" of graphic horror, or catering strictly to hard science purists. All those magazines have their place, but they all have an agenda, and they presuppose you've been reading for a long time. What the field needed was an attractive, accessible magazine with genuinely exciting content, where the only agenda was the story.
We couldn't agree more....
The other aspect of our "mission" was our format. I really didn't think the format of the current magazines was attractive to new readers. The digests are hard to find on the newsstand, and many of the larger magazines tend to be thin, sixty to eighty page quarterlies done on a web press, with an upper word limit of five-thousand words per story. Black Gate's investors wanted to prove that a pub that paid top rates and published one or two novellas per issue could be an attractive market for many fantasy writers -- and readers.
The New Epoch business plan called for the creation of a fantasy magazine that would appeal to readers of all ages -- realistically, ages twelve-plus -- with the emphasis on exciting, accessible fiction. It would be perfect bound, and publish longer stories, with nearly one-hundred thousand words of fiction -- more than triple what you get from the slim sixty-page mags. In essence, it would be a modern age pulp magazine, with serials, colorful settings and characters, and an unabashed emphasis on fun, exciting storytelling.
So, what kind of unforeseen - or expected - obstacles have you encountered so far?
Actually, I think we've been fairly lucky. Other than being a little over committed in our early days, we've stuck very close to plan.
The single biggest obstacle on our path I was warned about by other publishers, and consequentially was well prepared for: getting a distributor. Every distributor we approached said no. Every bookstore chain I called said they wouldn't take us without a distributor. I was stuck with five-thousand copies of the first issue in a warehouse and a very big printing bill to pay.
In the end, we simply had to lie. I told the bookstores we were carried by a major national distributor; I told that distributor I had large orders from the chains for our first issue. Both said, "Great!" and signed me up. Our first issue was distributed nationally to Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Hastings, and many others... quite a coup for the first issue of a small press magazine, I'm told. Sell-through was fabulous, our distributor upped their order for our second issue, and we were off. Sales have grown with every issue since.
I wish the moral of that story was a little more uplifting than "abandon your ethics if you hope to survive," but thankfully I've rationalized my way past all that. (laughs)
We're glad to hear BLACK GATE is doing well - but SF magazine circulations, in general, seem to be in decline. Do you think this is a matter of the distribution difficulties you mentioned?
Distribution is certainly a part of it, but I don't think it's the whole nut. I do believe that, to a growing extent, people are turning to other media for their entertainment, especially younger people.
I have a hard time believing that people pick up the habit of reading magazines after age thirty. Like reading in general, it's something you learn to love young, or not at all. I think that for the field to survive it has to attract youth. I think Black Gate has made progress towards that, but we have a way to go.
How do you feel about the ongoing "'controversy" regarding the "adventure fantasy" or "heroic fantasy" content of BLACK GATE? Has this controversy been largely a result of prospective writers -- or have you had any similar feedback from readers at large?
I'm guessing by "controversy" you mean the fact that a handful of reviewers -- SFReader included -- have criticized us for being a little light on adventure fantasy, especially given our advertised mandate.
I really don't see much of a controversy. We are light on adventure fantasy. I wish we had a lot more of it, but I couldn't buy what we didn't receive. It's pretty much all I'm buying at the moment, and we're heavily overstocked on everything else.
We're getting a better mix of fiction nowadays, but of course in our earlier issues I didn't have nearly as much leeway in selecting fiction as I do today. I couldn't afford to turn down Cory Doctorow's superb, "Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)", two years ago, for example, even though it's more science fiction than fantasy. I was thrilled to get a piece of that caliber, believe me. I've been criticized for that in some places, but I'd much rather buy a superbly written piece that's a little outside our mandate than the reverse.
As we establish ourselves more firmly in the marketplace, we've been able to start focusing more and more on adventure fantasy, and I have some really terrific pieces in inventory now. I think the next few issues will put everyone's concerns to rest.
Surprisingly, not too many critics have picked up on this -- SFReader excepted -- but I do get some feedback from readers about it. What it tells me is that there's a genuine hunger for this type of material on the market and, as much as we publish now, readers would still like to see more.
Can you give us your definition of adventure fantasy?
Sure. To many people, "adventure fantasy" equates to, "Conan the Barbarian," which may explain a lot of the thud-and-blunder submissions I get. Sword & Sorcery certainly has a home at Black Gate, but it's by no means the definition.
To give it a definition, the epic fantasy I'm looking for is gritty and realistic, peopled with real characters, and set in a colorful and believable setting. When asked to select the great classics of Adventure Fantasy of the past decades, I point to Barry Hughart's "Bridge of Birds", Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light", Richard Adams', "Watership Down", and Stephen King's "The Mist." That's hardly a complete list, but it gives you the flavor. In terms of modern films, it's, "Raiders of the Lost Ark", and, "Lord of the Rings".
Are there any types of stories you're not seeing enough of from writers?
As an editor looking for quality fiction, and as a publisher trying to sell his magazine, I'm not looking specifically for any one kind of fantasy, as long as it's exciting and fun. Having said that, it is critical for a small press magazine to establish an identity in the marketplace. You have to give the buyer a reason for her to pick you over the competition.
What that means is that as an Editor I strive to get the most diverse range of fiction possible, and as a Publisher I try to package that as something a potential buyer can quickly understand and appreciate. In other words, be daring in content, be traditional on the cover. (laughs)
Our submission guidelines are published, in great detail, at www.blackgate.com, including examples of the kind of fiction we see a bit too much of. I don't want to waste space going over that here, but I will repeat that we are always buying quality adventure fantasy.
One thing that stands out in the fiction published in BLACK GATE is the polished, often lyrical prose. How important is narrative style to an SF writer? Do you perceive more or less of an emphasis on prose style in the genre at large?
I appreciate the compliment, and I'm glad you've noticed.
Top-notch prose is critical for Black Gate. I think quality of writing is the number one reason the field is often dismissed. This is especially true of adventure fantasy/pulp fantasy, which has a rep -- sometimes deserved, I think -- for a disregard for prose.
People notice good prose. And they should. I don't think you should have to give up your love of quality writing when you pick up a genre magazine -- you certainly don't when you pick up F&SF, or Asimov's for that matter. I don't think fans of adventure fantasy should expect anything less.
So, what SF magazines (dead or living) would you cite as influences on your own editorial vision? What magazines do you like to read?
Great question. The concept for Black Gate, as I related at length in our first issue, grew from my great love of pulp magazines, especially Astounding Stories and Amazing Stories of the 1930's. Despite their rather strident, pro-science editorials, pulp magazines of this era had little in terms of real editorial vision beyond bringing the reader back, issue after issue, for the latest pulse-pounding, laser-firing installment. The prose was awful, yes, but there was so much vigor to many of those tales. Astounding Stories in particular captured a whole new generation of readers and held them faithfully for a lifetime, up through the decades.
I began to wonder what kind of magazine could do that today -- capture the imagination of a twelve year old and hold his attention his whole life. I love much of the work going on in the field today, but frankly I can't imagine Analog or Asimov's grabbing kids like that. They both speak to a mature audience with an established grounding in SF, and we like them that way.
The other thing that fascinated me was the heft the old pulp magazines had. That's a big part of their charm -- you really felt like you got something for your 25 cents! They published novellas, even entire novels, and some very lengthy serials. The only thing that compares to it today are the annual double-issues of F&SF, Analog, and Asimov's, and they only come out once a year. The memory of that certainly influenced me when I began to design Black Gate.
We also love the old pulps, but publishing has come a long way from the twenty-five cent newsstand. Could you share some of your thoughts on electronic publishing?
Sure. I'm convinced electronic publishing is the wave of the future, but I'm not very interested in it at the moment -- either as a publisher or a reader.
What the industry needs is a better electronic reader. When I can read electronic pubs in comfort on my porch, I'll gladly set aside my books, but not until then. What I want -- and would be quite willing to pay for -- is a cheap, portable electronic reader that can download the latest news, entertainment, and fiction on demand. I want to be able to bookmark and search text on the fly... that alone would be worth the switch for me.
I think that kind of reader is coming. There are people today who are quite comfortable buying and reading fiction on their handhelds, and companies such as Fictionwise.com are working hard to bring SF books and magazines to them. I'm convinced that market will grow. I just don't know how fast.
Can you describe a typical business day for you as Editor of the magazine?
Sure, but I think you'd be disappointed. Black Gate is a small press magazine, and I don't draw a salary from it. I currently work full time as a Director of Business Operations for a telecom company here in Chicago.
I work pretty long hours during the week, and have three children under eight waiting to leap on me when I get home, so consequentially I do very little BG work Monday through Friday, other than check e-mail every few days. Black Gate is assembled almost entirely on the weekends.
As Editor, I'm currently reading all of the fiction. We've had several fiction readers help out in the past, but now that more of our production is streamlined I've taken on all that responsibility. Reading submissions is actually one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. I read and respond to every sub, and try to be as constructive as possible in my feedback. I don't use form letters. I hated getting them as a writer, and can't imagine anyone enjoys them.
I'm still naive enough to think that the feedback I give is useful. About half of the fiction I buy for Black Gate, I buy after a rewrite. And I've been at it long enough now to see a few manuscripts that have evolved from a very rough state into something I'm willing to buy. In the face of that much author determination, it's hard to tell myself I can't take sixty seconds to jot notes down on every submission.
As Publisher, I'm responsible for everything else, from layout to advertising to distribution. That takes up far too much time, and I'd give it up if I could. Todd McAulty has taken on some of the recent duties as Webmaster, and that's been a significant help.
What's the best thing about being an SF publisher/editor?
Working with talented new writers. Discovering a marvelous piece of fiction that's been turned down by many other markets, and having it reprinted in a "Best of the Year" volume. Buying fiction from a first time author. All of the above.
Editing a story, working with an author through many painful re-writes, is work. Sometimes very hard work. You get caught up in it and you sometimes forget the hopeful artist at the other end. Until you mail off the eventual acceptance letter and get a crazed response twenty-four hours later. I've had writers tell me they were so excited they ran screaming from the room, almost threw up and had to lie down -- you name it. Helping talented, frustrated authors finally get into print is enormously gratifying. I guess it's like being a coach at the Olympics... you share the rewards, even though no one in the audience knows what the heck it is you actually do.
It's a strange feeling to send a batch of terrific stories out the door, and think that if it wasn't for us many of them would never have seen print. That's very humbling. In many respects the small press is the last line of defense -- much of what we're sent has already been passed over by the major magazines. Which pieces do you rescue from possible obscurity, and which do you let get away? I've held on to stories for months that had
no business being in Black Gate, simply because I felt they didn't deserve to go unpublished. Returning a brilliant piece that doesn't fit our needs is one of the hardest things I have to do.
As a veteran reviewer, you must be quite pleased with the critical reception BLACK GATE has received so far. Do you think short fiction reviews influence a magazine's success to a meaningful degree?
We've been very pleased with the critical response for Black Gate. Short fiction reviews reach many of our core audience, and I'm sure they've brought us new subscribers. I wish they also reached new readers, but have my doubts about that.
As I discovered after years of striving to improve our coverage of short fiction at the SF Site, the most appreciate and critical audience for short fiction reviews are the authors themselves. They pay great attention to short fiction reviews. This is the real long-term benefit for Black Gate -- the warm critical reception has helped raise awareness of BG among authors and artists around the world.
Last question, when you envision a typical reader of BLACK GATE, who do you see?
This is a dangerous question. No one who reads an SF or fantasy magazine wants to be described as "typical" anything...
Still, all those years of sharing office space with the marketing department have taught me the fundamental truth that if you can't describe your target audience in one sentence, your product is doomed to fail. So here it is: Black Gate is for sophisticated readers of all ages interested in exciting, fun fantasy fiction. I hope that means you.
Firebrand Fiction Reviews: all content © 2002, Daniel E. Blackston