Welcome to my very first Behind the Zines interview! This is a new monthly feature where I will be interviewing people working behind the scenes (see what I did there?) at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share some insights from the people doing that work in order to bring us so much excellent fiction.
My very first guest for this interview series is the amazing Fred Coppersmith, editor and publisher of Kaleidotrope.
(Artwork by Cindy
Fan for the latest issue of Kaleidotrope.)
Kaleidotrope has been around as a publication since
“publishes predominantly speculative fiction and poetry—science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but also compelling work that blurs the lines between these and falls outside of neat genre categories.”
As mentioned, Fred Coppersmith is Kaleidotrope’s editor
and publisher, and I was very happy that he agreed to an interview. You can
find Fred on Twitter at @unrealfred.
Q. What’s your background, and how did you end up
starting a speculative fiction zine? Also: where did the name Kaleidotrope
Fred Coppersmith: I wish there were more exciting
answers to “how’d I end up starting Kaleidotrope?” and “where’d that
weird name for it come from?” than “I just kinda did,” and “sorry, I don’t
remember.” But that’s the honest truth.
I’d wanted to start a zine for the longest time, and in the
early 2000s, there were a lot of really neat and interesting ones popping up in
the speculative fiction field. Zines like Electric Velocipede, Flytrap,
Full Unit Hookup, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. I remember
LCRW in particular really encouraging other people to go out and embrace the
DIY zine-making approach. And, after a false start or two, that’s what I did.
As it happens, “the Kaleidotrope” was a mechanical
magic lantern very briefly marketed in the late 19th century. But I honestly
can't remember if I knew that ahead of time or only well after the fact. It’s
certainly not why I named the zine that. All I know is, in 2006, it sounded
like a fun made-up word and nobody else had taken it.
As for me, I was born and raised in New York, on Long
Island, which is where I’ve lived most of my life, and where I am now. I work
as a development editor in academic publishing. I don’t know if that informs
the editorial work I do in speculative fiction, but they’re not as far removed
as you might think.
Q. What drew you to speculative fiction? Any particular
shows or books or movies that attracted you?
FC: Oh, too many to name! Kaleidotrope actually
didn’t start out as an exclusively speculative fiction magazine, but that’s
always where my interests have been. That’s always the shape the zine was
destined to take. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t actively interested in
science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And, frankly, it’s in genre where I think
the most interesting and exciting short fiction is being published nowadays.
It’s also where you’ll find a much more engaged readership.
Q. You are the editor and publisher of Kaleidotrope.
That sounds like two very big jobs! How would you describe what your work
entails? And what are the best things and the hardest things about being editor
and publisher? What are the major challenges, whether financial or creative?
FC: I think they’re both part and parcel of the same thing,
at least in the way I run Kaleidotrope, so maybe it’s just one very,
very big job. Chief cook and bottle washer, as it were.
It’s a one-man operation, so I’m not making publishing
decisions separate from my editorial decisions, or vice versa. I’m just trying
to find great writing that connects with me, then trying to connect it with
other people. That’s a lot of fun, and it’s what keeps me engaged after all
these years, but it’s also sometimes difficult finding the time and resources
for it. It means reading a lot of work that doesn’t connect, sending
hundreds of rejection letters, spending a lot of my own money, and occasionally
seeing stories I thought were amazing fail to get the kind of response I was
Q. As a reader who loved speculative short fiction, it
seems to me that every zine has its own personality. How would you describe
what Kaleidotrope is all about or what you would like people to
associate it with? What’s your sales pitch to someone who hasn’t read the zine
FC: Well, a very early review of the zine did say that you’d
enjoy it “if you dig Martians, robots and people with melting heads…” :)
I agree that every zine has its own personality, but sixteen
years in, I may have even less of a handle on what Kaleidotrope’s is
than when I started. Certainly, my own peculiar tastes and sense of humor help
shape the zine, but I think what I respond to more than anything else is
variety. A mix of genres and styles, tones, and perspectives. Kaleidotropewould
certainly be more marketable if I had a simple elevator pitch—if I could
point to something and say, “there, that’s a Kaleidotropestory!”
But I like that you’re going to continually find something new and unexpected
in its pages, because I’m continually finding something new and
unexpected in them.
Q. Could you pick three stories from past issues that in
your opinion captures what you look for in stories for your zine and represents
the kind of tales you want to publish?
FC: Oh, that is an incredibly difficult question—and right
after I got done saying I couldn’t point to anything as a distinctly
Kaleidotropean story! One of the main things I’m looking for in a new story is
something I haven’t seen before.
However, a quick glance at the very first stories in the
Winter 2022 issue does suggest I’m maybe more interested in characters and
voice than strictly plot—less in what happens than in who it happens to, and
how it’s told. For instance, Scott Edelman’s “And, Behold, It Was Very Good” is
on the surface pretty standard Garden of Eden story, but Scott’s cleverness and
humor made it something really special for me. Likewise, I was truly unsettled
by Richard E. Gropp’s “The Skin Inside,” even if it’s not always clear how or
why those unsettling things are happening.
Themes often emerge in the types of stories I accept, but
they just as often take me by complete surprise.
Q. When you open for submissions, how many subs do you
usually receive? Do you have slush readers or do you read them all? What’s that
FC: I don’t have slush readers, so it’s all me, reading
everything. That means getting through a lot of submissions in an
increasingly short timeframe. It’s a little hard to gauge since I was closed to
submissions entirely for almost two whole years and only just re-opened in
2021. However, the number that I get has definitely increased since I started
Last year, I was open to submissions a month at a time four
times throughout the year, and I received easily over 600 stories and a couple
hundred poems in each and every reading period. I obviously couldn’t publish
all of that, even if I wanted to, so every day there’s a lot of reading and a
lot of rejection letters. And I was replying to most submissions in just a few
days. So it’s maybe less of a process than a mad scramble.
Q. If you could give advice to the writers wanting to
submit stories to your zine, what would you say?
FC: You mean besides “read the guidelines” or “read the
zine”? I think it’s important to try and know the markets you’re submitting to,
but also to be as well read in the field as you can. If you’re submitting
stories, you should be reading stories. I also think it’s good experience for a
writer to work, even briefly, as a slush reader. It helps you better understand
how editors work within their guidelines, why even good stories often don’t
quite fit, and how you can better diagnose common mistakes you might otherwise
make yourself. It’s a good perspective to have, even if you don’t plan on
editing or publishing a zine yourself.
Q. If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when
you got into the business of running a zine, what insights and tips would you
share with your younger self?
FC: If I could go back in time, I think I’d do something
more productive, like ride a dinosaur or something. I worry that if I told my
younger self how difficult working on Kaleidotrope would sometimes be,
I’d dissuade him from ever starting it. And then I’d miss out on all the parts
that aren’t difficult or are a joy despite that difficulty.
Q. In your opinion, how has the business of publishing Kaleidotrope changed
since you started out? I know your zine was available in print for a while but
that is no longer the case: tell us a bit about that evolution. And what trends
and changes have you seen in your business and what would you like to see more
of? Less of?
FC: Kaleidotrope was an exclusively print zine for
its first six years, during which I put out thirteen issues, usually twice a
year. It was a lot of work, a lot of money and hours spent at the copy shop and
post office, and I had very few subscribers. I’m proud of those issues and the
work that I published, and they received some really good notice, but there was
also a lot of aggravation. Moving online allowed me to focus more on the parts
of Kaleidotrope that I enjoy, made it possible to share the zine with
more readers, and offered an opportunity to pay writers a little more. It just
felt like the right decision, and while there are some aesthetic things I miss
about print, in the ten years since I’ve never looked back.
Are there wider trends that I’m aware of, though? I mean,
plus ça change, right? I’ve seen a fair number of magazines come and go. I
think there’s more diversity than when I started, which is great, and that’s
starting to be reflected more in the voices working behind the scenes, which is
even better. But I don’t know that there are trends I’d like to see less of. A
story that doesn’t work for me could very easily end up being some other
editor’s favorite, and that’s exactly as it should be.
Q. What is something about your job behind the scenes
that you think most people DON’T know but that is a major part of it when
you’re active behind the scenes?
FC: Maybe that editors won’t necessarily read a short story
submission all the way through before making a decision—so hooking them right
away is even more important. A lot of that’s just the numbers game, when you’re
receiving so many submissions and need to respond so quickly, but I also know
if a story hasn’t grabbed me a few pages in, it’s even less likely to grab the
average Kaleidotrope reader.
Q. I know there are a lot of challenges for publications
like Kaleidotrope. I’ve seen zines come and go over the last few years,
and I know there are a lot of financial challenges, and I think there’s also a
fair bit of burnout happening for people behind the scenes of most zines. What
keeps you going?
FC: Foolishness and caffeine? Honestly, I really do enjoy
doing this, but it’s a very expensive and time-consuming hobby. I have the
freedom to treat it as such, but I could easily not have that, and I don’t
blame anyone for burning out or closing up shop.
Q. You are also a writer, do you feel that your writing
and your publishing work influence each other, or do they feel like separate
FC: Working on Kaleidotrope often gives me less time
for writing…or maybe just an excuse to find less time, when I’m in the mood to
do anything else but write, which is too often. I’d like to think that reading
literally thousands of stories over the years, and trying to figure out why
they do or don’t work, has made me a better writer. They’re separate endeavors,
but two sides of the same coin.
Q. What’s up next for Kaleidotrope? When’s your
next issue? What are you excited about? Or would you like to share some
FC: Kaleidotrope comes out on a quarterly or seasonal
schedule, so the next issue comes out in April 2022. And I have other fantastic
issues already mapped out for the next couple of years, which is a little wild
to think about. I re-open to submissions in June, and I’m eager to see what
happens then. Keep a close eye on the zine at www.kaleidotrope.net
and on Twitter at @kaleidotrope for updates! On a personal front, I have a
short story of my own in Bourbon Penn that I'm really happy with, as
well as scattered pieces of short fiction here and there. You can also follow
me at my personal Twitter account, @unrealfred.