Analog Editor Stanley Schmidt Finds the Future of Magazines to be Astounding

By Michael A. Burstein
Originally published in Science Fiction Weekly, July 23, 2001

Analog magazine, which began its life in 1930 as Astounding, is the oldest continually published science-fiction magazine in the world. Stanley Schmidt has been the editor of Analog since 1978, longer than any other editor except the legendary John W. Campbell. Schmidt is also a Ph.D. physicist and an accomplished writer, whose novels include The Sins of the Fathers (1976) and Lifeboat Earth (1978). He is also a perennial Hugo nominee for his work as editor of Analog.

Analog is the oldest continuously published science-fiction magazine in the world, and also the best-selling. Why do you think this is?

Schmidt: Part of it, of course, is that we've been very lucky; but I think another part is that we try very hard to do certain things that don't get as high a priority anywhere else. There are a significant number of people who appreciate what we do, and most of them gravitate to Analog because this is where they can find it. The other magazines tend to share their audiences, which may result in each of them having a smaller market share.

How does Analog differ from the other short-fiction magazines out there?

Schmidt: I think the main difference is that we usually put a more equal emphasis on the "science" and "fiction" aspects of our science fiction--that is, we expect our writers to give equal care to making both parts as good as they can, and as smoothly integrated as they can. It does not mean, as people who don't read us much sometimes assume, that we're more interested in machines than in people! On the other hand, neither are we more interested in people than in the entire rest of the universe. And we're not above the occasional bit of wild whimsy, sometimes involving themes that people think of as more fantasy than SF, but with our own kind of spin--e.g., Steve Kallis' story about the technologically unemployed leprechaun who invented the profession of gremlin, or Charles Harness' about the inventor using hell as the high-temperature reservoir for a heat engine.

You've been editor of Analog for over 20 years now, longer than anyone else except the legendary John W. Campbell. How do you feel the magazine has changed under your editorship? For how long do you plan to continue editing Analog?

Schmidt: I suspect the fact that I worked closely with the two previous editors has led to an unusual degree of continuity in the character of the magazine through changes of editor and publisher (I've had the same job for 22 years, but I'm on my fourth employer!), but that does not mean keeping things the same. We're constantly exploring new idea territory; we've added "The Alternate View"; we have appreciably more women writers than we used to (though I still wish some of them would write even more for us). Some of the biggest changes that have happened are behind the scenes, in the way we produce the magazine. E.g., much of our production has been brought in-house via desktop publishing.

I couldn't say how long I'll keep editing. I'm still thoroughly enjoying the job and certainly have no immediate plans to leave; but if I should unexpectedly stumble into financial independence, there are a lot of other things that I'd like to do and haven't had much time for, including more writing. ...

Speaking of which--besides being editor of Analog, you're also an accomplished science fiction writer. In fact, you've just received your first Nebula and Hugo nominations for writing, for "Generation Gap," which appeared in Artemis. What's the difference for you between editing a magazine and writing stories?

Schmidt: Actually, I also had half a Nebula nomination last year, for "Good Intentions," a novelette Jack McDevitt and I wrote. If I may be forgiven a small plug, I'd also like to mention that I have a new novel, Argonaut, coming out from Tor early next year. And for those readers who sometimes ask where they can get my old novels, I'm pleased to report that they're all available again thanks to new digital technologies. The Sins of the Fathers and Lifeboat Earth are available as print-on-demand books from FoxAcre Press (either singly or as a two-volume set); Newton and the Quasi-Apple and Tweedlioop as e-books from Embiid. If it's not already true by the time you read this, all four titles will soon be available from both publishers.

For me, writing and editing use very similar kinds of mental energy, but not in quite the same way. As a writer, I must really dig into an idea and do all the hard detail work of turning it into a story. As editor, I assist in the birth of a lot more stories, working with writers to make their babies all they can be, but I don't get as deeply immersed in any one of them. As editor, I hope I never lose sight of the fact that no matter how much the editor and publisher might do for a magazine, the writers are by far its most important part, and I have tremendous respect for what they do. Being one myself part of the time keeps me reminded of what's involved, and also makes it easier for me to understand how the creative process looks from the writer's point of view. Which, I hope, helps me edit better than I otherwise might.

By the way, I shouldn't forget to congratulate you for all those Hugo nominations you've received for Best Editor. Haven't you been nominated every year you've edited Analog?

Schmidt: Yep. I broke Susan Lucci's record a couple of years ago, I believe.

What did you do to prepare for your career as editor of Analog?

Schmidt: I've read Astounding/Analog for most of my life, so I have a pretty good feel for what sorts of things appeal to its readers. In fact, my best qualification to be its editor may be that I'm a very representative reader. The main value of my doctorate in physics for this job may be that getting it gave me an inside familiarity with how science works. I'm also an informational pack rat, instinctively and indiscriminately collecting odds and ends of knowledge in all kinds of fields, and it's astounding how many of them eventually turn out to be relevant to editing science fiction.

As far as editing Analog in particular is concerned, I did quite a bit of writing for it in grad school and in my professing days, and in the course of that I had a chance to observe firsthand how John Campbell and later Ben Bova worked with writers. I'd long thought that Campbell's job sounded like it would be a lot of fun, with not only the chance to confer, converse and otherwise hobnob with a lot of fascinating writers, but his very own monthly soapbox from which to get people riled up. I never really expected to get his job, but when I was teaching at Heidelberg College and got the chance to invent one of the first science-fiction courses, I shamelessly stole a lot of my teaching methods from John. So the way I taught my students about SF had the side effect of letting me practice the ways John and Ben worked with writers.

When I got drafted onto the college committee that recruited outside speakers, I enticed Ben out to Heidelberg to give a lecture and visit my class. He says what he saw there made him think of me as a possible replacement for when he left--long before I had any idea he was thinking along those lines. But I'm very grateful that he was.

You mentioned the "monthly soapbox" that Campbell had, by which I assume you mean the monthly editorials that were his privilege--and are now yours. What sort of topics do you choose to address in your editorials, and why?

Schmidt: Just about anything. Maybe a good way to suggest the range is by quoting the section headings from Which Way to the Future?, a collection of my editorials which Tor is bringing out in December: "Human and Other Natures: The Search for Intelligence"; "The Art of Arguing"; "Guessing the Future: A Matter of Perspective"; "Literature, Art, and Technology"; "Taking Chances: Risk Assessment, Philosophy, and Progress"; "Toward More Perfect Governments, Big and Small"; "Working to Live, or Living to Work?"; "Our Environment and Us"; "Training Our Successors: Myths and Challenges of Education." Like most Analog readers, I am interested in just about anything concerning the nature of the universe, how we learn about it, what we should do with what we learn and what kinds of futures we might build for ourselves. And, like John Campbell, I enjoy a certain amount of contrariness in considering these questions. If the popular media become too unanimous in espousing one viewpoint, I'll defend a quite different one (but not diametrically opposite; that would be too simple!). In principle, I'm even willing to propound an opinion that I don't hold at all, if it seems like the best way to get people thinking about a subject. In practice, that hasn't happened very often; but I reserve the right to remind readers that "opinions expressed in the editorials are not necessarily those of the editor."

How do you feel about the current state of the magazine market? Are science-fiction magazines going to migrate to the Web, disappear entirely or stay with us forever?

Schmidt: Obviously I would like to see the magazines have stronger circulations, but I don't think they're going away. They may change form; in fact, I think one of the most likely changes, which we're already seeing, is diversification, with the same magazine being available in different forms--either the same stuff in different media, depending on the reader's preference, or different media complementing each other. For example, our Web site is an increasingly important part of what we do, even though it doesn't duplicate the contents of the magazine itself. Electronic media and the ways people are thinking of to use them are evolving so fast I wouldn't be so brash as to guess what the landscape will look like in 10 years.

Oh, go ahead, make a guess.

Schmidt: OK, but with the understanding that it's purely a guess. I think we're going to see a lot more of it on the Internet, and though print magazines will still exist for those who prefer them, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them delivered as a print-on-demand product, instead of the present inefficient system of printing and distributing lots of copies to sell relatively few.

Speaking of electronic media, do you ever watch science fiction on television or in the movies? If so, what do you like? Do such programs bring readers to the magazines, or do you think the audiences are totally separate?

Schmidt: I do watch some SF and fantasy movies and television, but not very much. In general, as someone raised on print SF, I've found the disappointment percentage in movies so high that I seldom watch them unless somebody I trust tells me, "This one's different." A good recent example was The Sixth Sense, which several professional fiction writers recommended to me because it managed to surprise them, in a big way, with a plot twist--something which is generally very difficult to do to a professional fiction writer. (And yes, it got me, too.)

I don't think the print and movie audiences are completely separate, but there's not as much motion between them as I'd like--especially in the direction from movies to magazines. Movies and television are usually so heavily promoted that nobody can help knowing about them. Magazines don't have the resources to do that, so moviegoers seldom even know that they exist.

You have a reputation for publishing new writers. Who have you published recently and what did you see in their work?

Schmidt: We have so many issues in various stages of production at any time that it's sometimes hard for me to remember who's how new, so I apologize in advance to anybody I leave out or include inappropriately. Two who come to mind right offhand are Rajnar Vajra, who has a delightfully outrageous imagination and a style which is sometimes engagingly playful and sometimes downright poetic, and Ramona Louise Wheeler, who tells old-fashioned adventure with a fresh, vivid voice of her own. Oh, yeah--there's also this guy named Burstein--Michael A., if I remember rightly--who strikes a very nice balance of scientific speculation and human drama. And Shane Tourtellotte, who does likewise but in his own way. Both Burstein and Tourtellotte were at least nominated for the Campbell Award, and lately they've started teaming up as still another "new writer," beginning with their cover story in our July/August issue.

Um, thanks for the plug.

Schmidt: Don't mention it. (But don't forget to put the check in the mail.)

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone trying to break into science-fiction writing today?

Schmidt: Read, but don't imitate. If you're reading something now, I don't want to buy it again to publish next year. Try to come up with an idea that makes me think about something in a way I've never done before, and then tell me an irresistible story about something that happens because of it. And remember, first impressions are very important. Your first page should make it very hard for me to consider putting the story down--and in the stories I most remember, I often find that the first sentence does that.