Sunday, October 07, 2012
Stephen Jones
By OFW Editor: Michael Keyton
Published: August 13, 2012

Accomplishment: One of Britain's most acclaimed horror and dark fantasy writers and editors.

And she had something else up her sleeve. A picture that talked. I looked for the wires but there were none. This - whatever it was - came from the abyss, a thing forbidden by everything holy. Something rippled down my spine - and it wasn't Miss Lamour's tongue.I stared into the soulless eyes of the hellish portrait, the black flickering tongue licking every syllable and vowel. I was caught and so was Sheri Lamour. So we stood there, a pair of prize chumps as the dark, insidious voice wormed its way through our heads:

STEPHEN JONES lives in London, England. He is the winner of three World Fantasy Awards, three International Horror Guild Awards and four Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards, as well as being a Hugo Award nominee and the recipient of twenty-one British Fantasy Awards. One of Britain’s most acclaimed horror and dark fantasy writers and editors, he has more than 120 books to his credit (and counting!). His anthologies of new and reprint horror and dark fantasy fiction include A Book of Horrors, the Zombie Apocaplypse! trilogy, The Mammoth Book of Vampires and twenty-three volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series. Books on film include Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Stardust, Clive Barker’s The Hellraiser Chronicles, and The Illustrated Monster Movie Guide. Non-fiction includes the studies Horror: 100 Best Books and Horror: Another 100 Best Books (both with Kim Newman), and he has edited numerous single-author collections including Necronomicon and Eldritch Tales by H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Chronicles of Conan and Conan’s Brethren by Robert E. Howard and Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James. You can...

The picture went dead, the tongue caught in mid-air as it reached for a fly. Sheri gasped, clearly impressed. "Dorian Gray," she murmured.

I thought it was Stephen Jones, I said.

Does best-seller mean good writer?

Absolutely not. You only have to look at such “best-sellers” as 50 Shades of Grey, Stephenie Meyer’s risible Twilight series or the collected works of Jeffrey Archer to realise that quality is not an over-riding factor when it comes to selling truck-loads of books. The same applies to the media – which accounts for the success of mindless fodder such as Britain’s Got Talent or the Kardashians.

The best writers (and film-makers, and actors, and artists) are those that remain true to their vision and to themselves. Authors who write because they have to write, and who are not willing to compromise their goals and imaginations in pursuit of transient fame, or wealth, or other kinds of perceived success. Those tend to be the writers and the books that we remember – works that survive and continue to be read years, decades, even centuries after they were first created. And if the author of those works is lucky enough to have a best-seller as well, then that’s just an added bonus.

But in my opinion, the work must always come first. Everything always follows on from that. And if you’ve done the best you possibly can, and can stand by what you’ve created, then it really doesn’t matter if you are a best-seller or not. The work will (eventually) speak for itself.

That said, it’s always nice to have a book that sells well. But it is not necessarily something you need to achieve to have created something worthwhile. Sadly, I’ve known too many writers who have only been recognised after they were gone, but that is often true in all aspects of the arts (and, indeed, life itself).

To agent or not to agent? Why or why not?

Well, I think it helps if you do have an agent, but you don’t necessarily need one.

I believe that most major publishers will only consider a submission if it is agented but, paradoxically, they much prefer finding new authors they can sign up before they have an agent – for obvious reasons.

I didn’t have an agent when I started out, and it didn’t stop me from selling projects. I initially linked up with my present agent because I needed someone to sell foreign rights. I didn’t know anything about that side of the business, and she already had the contacts. From there, it started to make sense that she looked after the contract negotiations and all that kind of stuff as well. That way I could concentrate on the creative side of the business.

I still come up with most of the ideas and pitch them, but she’s there to support me and to negotiate on my behalf. Back when I was a TV director, it is the kind of role that a producer would do – someone to look over your shoulder and make life easier for you. It’s something I certainly appreciate, and it is very helpful when you are working, but you don’t absolutely need that kind of support to sell a book. It just helps, that’s all.

In terms of digital publishing do you think paperbacks will ever be collectible and what would you start collecting now?

Digital publishing is totally bogus. For the most part the books look ugly, they cost more to produce and, because there are no “print runs” as such, there is no such thing as a “first edition”. Why would anybody want to collect them?

If a book is truly worth publishing, then it will – eventually – find a real publisher who is willing to take it on. Of course, the recent success of 50 Shades of Grey puts the lie to that statement – it probably should have remained self-published, but it has made a fortune for the imprint that picked it up an exploited it. As I indicated at the beginning of this interview, you can’t overestimate the poor taste of the public.

I am also not convinced that authors should allow their backlists to be brought out again as digital books. Unless they are extremely fortunate, there is not all that much money in it, and most are lucky to sell just a few copies a month.

I’m not even a great fan of e-books, but I can understand how they work in today’s market. However, if I sell e-book rights, then I insist on a print copy as well. Technology is always evolving, but the tactile pleasure of reading a nicely produced physical book will, for me, always remain the ideal method of reading. And those are books I want to collect.

You only have to look at Curious Warnings to see just how beautiful a physical mass-market book can be, even today.

Would you see it as an exciting or a retrograde step if digitisation encouraged writers to choose sound and pictures to augment their words?

That’s a different thing. That’s where I think electronic publishing can really come into its own. As the technology evolves, so we will see more of these “interactive” books – a product that will breach the gap between reading and cinema. I love the idea that you can “enhance” a book with movement and sound and create something entirely new from the form.

I have always loved illustrated books – which is why so many of the titles I do not only contain artwork, but I also work closely with the publishers on the overall design of the project. This is especially true with the Zombie Apocalypse! titles, and that is a series that I would very much like to see adapted into this new technology.

That is not to say that these all-singing all-dancing books should ever take the place of the more traditional book (or even audio book), where it is up to the reader (or listener) to use their own imaginations. I just see this new type of publishing as complementing what we are already doing.

They are no better or any worse than traditional books – just different. And for that reason alone, I find it very exciting. Particularly for the particular genre I work in.

Would you agree with some that self-publishing is the new “slush-pile”?

Yes, pretty much. There was an excellent piece by Sebastian Shakespeare in the Evening Standard back in March entitled ‘Self-publishing Makes Us Think We Can Write’. And, unfortunately, that is too often the case.

Just because you’ve “published” your own book online, or electronically, or as a print-on-demand edition, it doesn’t necessarily make you a writer. In fact, in most cases, it just makes you a little bit desperate.

The reason that the traditional publishing module works is because your work has to go through an editor, a copy-editor, a proof-reader, a marketing team, and all the other things that make up a publishing house. And at any one of these hurdles – if your book is not up to standard – you are likely to fall. Well, at the very least have your work changed, refined, for the better. That simply doesn’t happen with DIY publishing.

Returning to the analogy I made earlier about agents, publishing is not a solitary business – we are surrounded by a team of people who, hopefully, are trying to do everything they can to make us and our product look better. That’s because they want to make money off it. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as those changes do not compromise your artistic or creative choices. In fact, as I said, I welcome those people looking over my shoulder, nurturing my concept from inspiration through to fruition. Unfortunately, you don’t get that with self-publishing.

Now and again – and nowhere near as often as the Sunday newspapers would have you believe – somebody makes the transition from self-publishing to mainstream publishing and, if enough money and support is put behind it, their work can be incredibly successful. But for most people, it is a ghetto that they never escape from.

And if they are content with that, then that is fine. But if they have a little more ambition, and want to see their work properly presented to the widest possible audience it can reach, then it makes sense for them to work through the traditional channels of publishing. I may not always agree with my editors, but I would be stupid not to listen to their advice. In the end it is always up to me whether I take it or not, but if it makes what I am doing better, then I would be a fool to ignore it.

But just because your work is out there – in some form or another – it doesn’t mean you’re “published” or make you a writer.

What question do you hate most when people find out who you are?

“Have I ever read anything you’ve published?” How the hell do I know what they’ve read? Or then there’s “Oh, I write short stories. Can I send it to you and maybe you can use it in one of your books”. Or the response I hate the most: “Oh, I don’t read horror”.

Really? Have you really never read it? Stephen King? James Herbert? Are you not aware that there are elements of horror in everything from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, through George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series, up to and including Stieg Larrson’s “Millennium” titles. If you’ve read any of these, then you’ve read horror.

That’s the wonderful thing about that particular genre – it works in just about ever other branch of literature. Which is why it need never become clichéd – unless the author wants it to be, or doesn’t have the talent to know any better.

What is the greatest challenge you face on a regular basis and what would you like to achieve?

My greatest challenge these days is age. I’m getting older, and just getting the books done is becoming harder and harder. I’ve been a full-time writer and editor for twenty-five years now, and it doesn’t get any easier. This is how I make my living and it is hard work. And it’s getting harder.

As the number of mainstream publishers continues to decrease, and other entertainment platforms – not to mention the lacklustre education system and the closing of public libraries – drives more and more young people away from books, then it is becoming increasingly more difficult to sell concepts to publishers – especially with anthologies, which have always had a “difficult” reputation in the industry. And “horror” is merely a very small – and not particularly well-loved – branch of that industry.

I’ve been very lucky – I’ve had more than 120 titles published to date. And many of those books have been translated into other languages, or been reprinted, and volumes that I did over a decade or more ago are still available in various editions around the world. And the response, overall, to my work has been very positive. I’ve won awards (and been nominated for, and lost, a great many more), readers seem to like what I do, and I get to go to signings and conventions and spend every waking hour doing what I always dreamed of doing since I was a teenager. That’s not a bad life.

But there’s always more you want to achieve. I’d still like to work more with the movies. I’d like to give back to the horror genre as much, if not more, than it has given to me. I’d like to do more, and better books. And I’d like to keep doing this until the day I die. And perhaps, out of all that, I will one day achieve a book, or series of books, that will be remembered and read long after I’m gone.

But for now, I’d just like to achieve an end to the book I’m working on and then get started on the next one. To be honest, I can think of no better way to pass the day.

And what about the night? I breathed, but who was I to judge? It's not the American way. A flicker of movement caught my attention. I turned to see Sheri Lamour wearing a cross and sharpening an ebony stake. Goddamnit she looked beautiful, but Stephen Jones was our guest, and I had to let him go. He bounded up the steps, our thanks echoing through the dark clouds surrounding him.

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