February 22, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Fred Coppersmith, editor and publisher of KALEIDOTROPE

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.

Each monthly interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and will then be posted here at Maria's Reading. (If you want to support my work, check out my Patreon or Ko-Fi.)

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 2006, and 

“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 come from?

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 hoping for.

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 before?

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 process like?

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 in 2006.

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 endeavours?

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 writerly news?

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.


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