Exclusive: Editor Stephen Jones on the State of Modern Horror -- Part 1


Alongside Ellen Datlow, England's Stephen Jones is arguably the most acclaimed book editor in horror, having crafted countless fiction and non-fiction titles – including the ongoing essential Year's Best Horror. Jones has won twenty British Fantasy Awards for his efforts, as well as numerous other Stoker, World Fantasy, and International Horror Guild Awards. I recently caught up with Jones – who's winning praise for his edgy new anthology A Book of Horrors –  and asked him about the current state of horror fiction and what the future holds for our favorite genre on the printed page. Read on for part 1 of my interview with Jones (part 2 will run tomorrow on FEARnet) and experience his keen insight and acerbic wit and wisdom for yourself.

The last time I formally interviewed you, several years ago, you spoke about horror being cyclical, and about how it was then on the upswing in the book publishing world. How are things looking now?

I think even better. It's taken longer than I expected or than anybody else expected. And certainly in Europe, horror and fantasy are now the next big things. All the major publishers in the UK are now creating new genre lists; they're bringing in editors to find new writers and new work. And although book sales are down, e-books are coming in. People love the e-book thing. I'm still not sure about it. But everybody's looking for the next horror wave and trying to cash in. It's very positive at the moment. A lot of the trade magazines are reviewing horror again and reviewing fantasy again. So I think it's quite positive, actually.

Prime Books editor Paula Guran was telling me recently that anthologies were doing very well for her publisher, and novels and short story collections not so well.

I think the trouble with Prime, and imprints like it, is that they're swamping the field at the moment with anthologies. And what's going to happen is there's going to be an implosion. There are just way too many anthologies out there. The perceived intelligence among professional publishing houses is that anthologies do not sell. So when somebody does an anthology, like A Book of Horrors for Jo Fletcher Books, or Haunts, which has just come out through Ulysses Press from me, it has to be a sort of special thing. I was looking at the Halloween tables this weekend at Barnes & Noble and there are just loads and loads of anthologies from small imprints. My big fear is that they're going to flood the market and kill it stone dead. Again, you have to look at what sales are like on some of these books. They are being published by smaller imprints, so you're not going to get huge print runs anyway. They're not paying a huge of money for a lot of these stories; a lot of these stories are reprints. So I'm a little worried. I'm a little concerned about the anthology market at the moment. It's obviously lovely to see all these books coming out, but do we really need yet another zombie anthology or another vampire anthology? I don't think so.

I'd like to see more big publishers doing significant anthologies, rather than all these little anthologies that are coming out from the moment from various small presses. Also, it's self-preservation. Because, basically, at the end of the day if they flood the market they kill it for everybody – they kill it for the writers, they kill it for the editors and they kill it for the publishers. That's what happened to horror as a genre in the ‘80s. And it could well happen now to the anthology market. Let's see what happens. I just don't think there's enough room for everybody out there anymore. Simply because, even in our genre, the market has shrunk significantly in the last few years. So I think we have to be more careful about what we put out there. That's all.


Do you think part of the reason the market is being flooded with anthologies is an increase in the mainstream's awareness of horror, due to things like True Blood and Twilight. And if that is the case, do you think there are better ways of tapping into that market?

The thing about anthologies is that people think they're easy to put together. A lot of anthologies I see are not really edited. They're just compiled. People get a bunch of stories and throw them together in a book and think that that's an anthology. I was explaining to somebody recently that when people like myself or Ellen Datlow or Mike Ashby put together an anthology, we craft it like a novel. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has highs, it has lows. And you can't pull that apart without destroying the flow of the book. I see a lot of these books for Best New Horror every year, and I'm not sure they're going to be remembered in five years time. There are genuinely great anthologies out there that stand the test of time that will be there forever. These books just seem ephemeral to me, a lot of them. It's like, "What's a good idea? We can throw a bunch of stories together and get a Neil Gaiman story or a Stephen King story or whatever, and just bang it out there with a zombie on the cover or whatever the fad is at the moment." Whereas obviously it takes more effort to publish a novel, develop a writer. Short story collections – a writer needs to have a reputation before they can really do a short story collection, because no one knows who they are so they're not going to buy it. Although, having said that, writers like Robert Shearman, the up-and-coming British writer, he's done three or four collections now and they sell like hot cakes, they're up for awards. So I think I've said before in interviews with you that at the end of the day talent will always out. It will find its own level, find its own balance.

I guess we're very lucky that the genre is so broad at the moment and so exciting that people are happy to put out more and more and more books. But I think we have to be careful about what we do, because we did it in the ‘80s – we flooded the market with too much material and it just imploded. I think there is a slight danger. Not from the mainstream publishers yet, because they're just starting this process, but from the smaller independent presses. Particularly in America. To a certain extent more in England we have a number of small press imprints now – much more than we had when I last talked to you in a proper interview – and even they are starting to retrench slightly and bring in the number of copies they're doing. Simply because people don't have the money to spend on books anymore. Sometimes it's a choice of spending it on food or your children's clothing or whatever. Books are expensive, and so they're a luxury that some people can't afford anymore. So I think we have to be careful. There is a worldwide recession going on, and a lot of people don't see books as that important in their lives, when they've gotta pay for their travel or their kids or other stuff.

And it seems new media is invented every day to compete with books.

I think last time we talked about this… Obviously the one thing that's changed the market significantly in the last few years is e-books. I'm not convinced that e-books are the answer. I'm not convinced that e-books are the saviors of the publishing industry. I think they're an interesting way of getting material out to people, but the problem is that with what they charge for e-books at the moment, you can't live on as a writer. So it can't replace, or it shouldn't replace, the actual print book. Because technically writers will not be able to survive if all they have are e-books, because the unit costs are too low. They don't want to charge anymore for e-books, and people start thinking, "Well, why are we even paying? We get five hundred of them free when we buy a kindle or something. Why would we buy books at all?" That's a dangerous way to go, and that worries me slightly. The market doesn't know yet what it wants to be, and so everybody's trying something different – different price breaks, different ways of doing something.

I've got an e-book myself, which is an old title I just brought back into print – Horror Halloween. But because it was five novellas, we were able to break it up into five shorter books and build towards the fourth book coming out at Halloween. Again we've experimented with giving the first part away free on Amazon, so people get a taste of it and hopefully go on to buy the other parts of the book to know what happens. It's quite exciting in many ways, because it's a new frontier. We're all trying to find out what works, what doesn't work. But I think it will be a few more years before we do know. At the end of the day, I suspect that the e-revolution will just become another way of delivering information, whether it's on your phone or your kindle or your television screen or whatever. But we still need to pay writers and editors real amounts of money to produce the product. How we deliver it is a whole different deal again. It's the whole hardware-software conversation.

So I think the jury's still out, but it's an exciting time to be working in publishing. But I couldn't tell you what the answer's going to be. Think of the 3D explosion in cinema – it's already starting wane, people are starting to get bored with it. It was going to be a big revolution, the savior of everything.

It's an implosion.

It's an implosion. Three years into it everybody's going, "It's not worth the money. Why do we bother?" I actually saw somebody advertising, "In Incredible 2D!" [Laughs.] It was like, "Oh, okay, so we're going back to that again."

How retro.

Yeah. How retro. [Laughs.]

Editor picture © Les Edwards 2003