LitChat Interview: Editor, Ellen Datlow

Multiple award-winning editor Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the ellen_datlow_biolong-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

Ellen is currently tied with frequent co-editor Terri Windling as the winner of the most World Fantasy Awards in the organization’s history (nine). She has also won (with co-editor Windling) a Bram Stoker Award for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #13, and (with co-editors Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant) a Bram Stoker Award for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #17. She has also won the International Horror Guild Award for her anthologies The Dark and Inferno; the Shirley Jackson Award for Inferno and Poe; the Locus Award for Best Editor in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, and the Hugo Award for Best Editor 2002, 2005, and Best Editor Short Fiction 2008 and 2009. In addition, SCIFICTION won the Hugo Award for best Web site in 2005 as well as the Wooden Rocket Award as best online magazine for 2005.

Ellen was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre.” She lives in New York.

We are humbled and honored to welcome Ellen to LitStack.


LS: You’ve spent nearly 30 years in the industry, editing anthologies and working at OMNI and SCIFICTION. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in terms of publishing business models and practices? 

ED: With regard to anthologies, the bigger publishers are increasingly insistent on loading up any original anthology with BIG NAMES before they’ll even consider publishing the book. This makes it very difficult to sell anthologies. There are only so many NY Times bestsellers who write the kind of fiction that may be appropriate for genre anthologies. Plus, even if a name writer commits to the project, things happen and sometimes they just can’t get the story in on time or even write the story. I’m finding reprint anthologies an easier sell these days than original anthologies.

Magazines come and go, webzines come and go. Short fiction always seems to generate a few higher paying markets but mostly low paying markets. I’m happy to be acquiring stories for, currently the top paying short fiction genre market, but I’ve learned that publishing is cyclical. Everyone worries about publishing but there have always been surprises. The e-book market took off with the introduction of relatively inexpensive reading devices – something I found myself wishing for in an interview I did several years ago.

The negativity toward self-publishing has begun to erode as more writers who were published by the big houses are turning to self-publishing their back lists/e-books. This encourages new writers to do the same, although I think only a small percentage of first timers are actually successful at it. Previously published writers have the advantage of having already built up a fan base. New writers still have to find an audience and that requires time, energy, and money.  And that then takes time and energy away from the actual writing.

LS: What in your childhood informed your inclination to become an editor, specifically an editor of dark fiction? Did you have a favorite book growing up that stuck with you?  

ED: I knew nothing about editing as a child. I was a voracious reader of all kinds of fiction.  I never had one favorite book–I’ve always had lots of favorite books, favorite writers.  But reading led to my wanting to work with books in some way. I loved bookstores and libraries. Most of the books I read as a child were borrowed from the library. I worked in the University library part time while I was in college but I never considered going into library science. I did think (pre-college) that I’d like to work in a bookstore. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, post-college and post traveling around Europe for a year, that I started thinking about book publishing as a possible career.

I worked in mainstream book publishing for several years before starting as Associate Fiction Editor at OMNI and working with short genre fiction. That was primarily science fiction with some fantasy and a little bit of horror, although I’ve always enjoyed fiction with an edge to it, some would say that I brought lots of downbeat fiction to OMNI.

I began working in horror with some of my anthologies, primarily to avoid a conflict of interest with what I was buying for OMNI.

LS: Genre fiction is so diverse with many facets that do not necessarily mimic one another. What, in your opinion, makes great genre fiction and where do you see it heading?

ED: Good story telling, interesting characters, a unique voice, a beautiful use of language of whatever type that serves the story and its inhabitants the best.

LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read for pleasure without critiquing?

ED: I only read a few novels a year for pure pleasure (I can justify most of the novels I read for pleasure because I prefer dark-edged in all my reading.) So sure, when I read a new James Lee Burke novel I am able to turn off my “editor” as long as there’s no gross error. And most of the stories I end up choosing for the Best of the Year I read without critiquing. If I’m blown away by a story, I may not notice its flaws first (or even second time) reading it.

LS: You’ve edited reprint and original anthologies. Do you have a preference between the two?

ED: They’re each fun in their own way. For a reprint anthology I try to use stories that have not been over-reprinted, which is a real challenge.

With original anthologies, I’m usually the first person after the writer to see a story, and that story may not have been written at all if I’d not asked for it. So there’s a great deal of satisfaction in that.

But each is a balancing act to get the right mix. I like to stretch the boundaries/theme that I set for myself in order to show the variety of stories that can be written on one seemingly narrow idea.

LS: Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, the gaslight fantasy anthology that came out March 19, is a beautiful, intriguing collection. What can you tell us about the idea for this anthology and the process of getting it published?

ED: It was Terri Windling’s idea – and despite the fact that we had some very good names confirmed for it, the book was a hard sell. Terri wrote the proposal in the fall of 2008. After several revisions, our agent began to send it out April 2009. After almost giving up we finally sold it to Tor around February of 2011.

As for the actual process of any original anthology, we first solicit the “name” writers whose work we enjoy and that we hope will sell any given book. Then once any anthology is bought by a publisher, we solicit more writers—rule of thumb is to ask 1/3 more than you need, because invariably some writers drop out – they may not have an idea, they may not have time. Or the story submitted may just not work for the anthology.  We had one story that was submitted almost immediately after I asked (and way before the book was sold): Maureen McHugh’s. In fact, we offered to let her sell the story elsewhere when it looked like we wouldn’t be able to sell the anthology, but she insisted we hang on to it as she’d written it specifically for the antho.

During the period we await submissions from the writers who have committed to contributing, we contact them to ask how the story is going and remind them of the deadline. Also, to alert them if too many stories of a specific type have been coming and have been bought by us. A few months before the stories are all due we check what we’ve bought and what, if anything, we might be missing that we’d like to see. We might contact a few more writers at that point.

Toward the end, we received about three stories we really liked but realized would increase the wordage way too much. (Also, we ran out of the money we set aside for contributor advances). So, with regret, we had to turn them down.

LS: For many editors starting out, career goals may include being recognized by their peers in the form of Hugos, Stokers, Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy, and Locus awards in addition to being considered a highly respected and talented editor, all of which you have accomplished. Have the accomplishments you’ve made met the expectations you had when you first started out? What would you consider career fulfillment?

ED: When I started, I knew nothing about the awards, as I came from outside the field.

I remember having drinks with Shawna McCarthy and Terry Carr and over whether who, if any of us, would win a Hugo for professional editing first. Shawna was editing Asimov’s SF and won first, in 1984. Terry was editing Universe, the non-theme anthology series and the second series of Ace Science Fiction Specials and won twice in 1985 and 1987 for those. I was the (very) latecomer. My first nomination was in 1990 (ten years after I became Fiction Editor of OMNI) and my first win wasn’t until 2002.

Honestly, being nominated and winning an award never gets tired.  For me the accomplishment is to be allowed to continue editing short stories and get paid for doing so, from my first short fiction editing job at OMNI until now.

LS: What advice do you have for emerging editors or writers who would love to make it into one of your anthologies?  

ED: Those are two different questions.  If someone wants to be a short story editor, read a lot of slush. I don’t believe fiction editing can be taught. You either have an innate ability/talent or not. It’s not only about taste, although taste is certainly a large part of being an editor, and one’s taste changes over time. It’s about working on a potentially very good or brilliant story that’s broken (badly or slightly) and guiding the writer so that he can fix it. One can learn over time to become a better editor (I hope I do so forever). But I don’t feel an editor should ever tell a writer what to do with her story, but rather ask questions, make suggestions, guide with a lot of back and forth between editor and writer. I am not a writer. I have no impulse to rewrite an author’s story or to impose my will on her. Ultimately, it’s up to the writer whether to take an editor’s suggestions or not.

As far as writers getting into my anthologies—By getting my attention with terrific stories. Because I read horror short fiction throughout the year for my Best of the Year, I’m aware of a lot of what/who is out there even if I haven’t previously published them.  I’m very open to publishing new writers –I’ve published writers I’ve never worked with or even heard of before in the last two volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and I include even more in #5.

It’s easier to get into my reprint anthologies than original ones.  With original anthologies I don’t generally have an open reading period. Exceptions have been Haunted Legends, which I co-edited with Nick Mamatas, because he offered to read the submissions that came in during a limited period of time. He passed on about twenty of the 100+ stories to me.  Fearful Symmetries will have an open reading period between May 1-31st, during which the publishers of ChiZine will pass on to me the best submissions. More information on how to submit stories will be on the ChiZine website.

LS: Do you think, crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo will have an impact on the industry? If so, what do you think that will mean for traditional publishers?  

ED: I don’t know. I don’t consider it a business model but rather a way to create interesting projects that would have trouble being published in the tradition manner. I don’t see it as sustainable (for magazines as an example) although a few people are trying to make it so. On the other hand, why not? The subscription model was used a couple of centuries ago. If editors/publishers can know in advance how many copies their magazine will “sell” –then they’re just selling these subs in advance –to the backers.

However, ChiZine and I want Fearful Symmetries to “sell” to far more than just our 700 backers. The plan is for a print run and traditional distribution beyond that.

LS: What are you working on next?

ED: I recently finished Telling Tales, a fundraiser and tribute to 30 years of Clarion West writing workshop. It’s coming out from Hydra House this summer. The stories are all reprints from Clarion West graduates, with Afterwords by one of the teachers who taught during their year.

I’m finishing up Lovecraft’s Monsters for Tachyon. They only publish reprint anthologies so far and I’ve now edited three for them: Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror; Hauntings, which contains ghosts and other types of hauntings (which was just published); Lovecraft’s Monsters has stories that use various critters that H.P. Lovecraft created. There are so many recent Lovecraftian anthologies (original and reprint) out there that many of the best-known stories have been over-used. So it was especially difficult to find lesser known but high quality stories. I think I succeeded. There will be one original in that, by John Langan.

While I was in Florida for the International Conference of the Fantastic I met with the Tachyon publisher and we worked out a new all-reprint anthology that I’m really excited about: horror stories about movies.  Over the years I’ve read so many great stories about the movie industry and those in it. I’ve already got tons of material to start reading and rereading.

I’ve also handed in my Best Horror of the Year Volume 5, which I hope will be published by Night Shade or the publisher that is buying them. All is in flux over there.

I continue to acquire stories for as consulting editor. is an open market and information on submitting is here.  (I don’t read the slush. They were way behind on the slush reading, but have been catching up as a result of hiring some more readers).


Thanks so much for chatting with us, Ellen!

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