A 1998 Interview With John Ordover

by Michelle Erica Green

Paperback Writer

John Ordover, Senior Editor of Star Trek for Simon and Schuster's Pocket Books division, doesn't try to hide the fact that he's a fan - always was. Now, convention-going and book-collecting are part of his job. But he hangs online among Trekkers, and doesn't seem tired of talking about the show.

"I was a huge Star Trek fan as a kid," declares Ordover, who's in charge of all Trek fiction published by Pocket (as opposed to the trade books, which are edited by Margaret Clark). "I'd been part of the 'Let's get a Star Trek movie!' crowd - signing petitions and all that kind of stuff."

Though he attended cons in high school, he dropped out of fandom after the first movie. "I think I got comfortable watching reruns, always knowing what was going to happen; it was hard for me to relax and trust the movies, they were so up and down."

Now that he's in a position to read the scripts before the movies come out, the entire experience is different. Having been an original series fan, it took Ordover awhile to warm up to The Next Generation. He thought Deep Space Nine hit its stride more quickly, and co-wrote an episode for that series, "Starship Down." Does he have a favorite show? If so, he's not admitting it!

Ordover thinks Voyager always had potential, some of which is being realized: "The 'Message in a Bottle' and 'Hunters" episodes (in which the ship contacts the Federation) are excellent stories - a really good way to make Voyager stand on its own."

Some of Ordover's best novels are generated because he has an idea for something workable within the Trek universe, which he pitches to his writers. About forty individuals and pairs work with him on a rotating basis. "Often I tend to come up with some kind of 'high concept' - that's where the Invasion books came from, that's where Day of Honor came from, where Captain's Table is coming from," he explains. In the cases of all these miniseries, Ordover called up four "regulars" and suggested the crossover ideas.

But the editor is quick to add that credit for the books' success must go to the writers. "Invasion was four sentences that I gave to Diane Carey, and she fleshed it out." The editor is currently working on a Eugenics War proposal with Greg Cox, whose recent Assignment: Eternity, a sequel to the original series episode "Assignment: Earth," was released last month. The sequel will be about Gary Seven taking on Khan. It began with Ordover wondering, "How did we get the technology to launch the Botany Bay in 1996?"

Still, he adds, "Assignment: Eternity is a really good book, but that's not because I told Greg Cox to bring Gary Seven back. It's how amazingly well he wrote the characters. Roberta Lincoln in particular was written so that she is simultaneously the character we saw in 'Assignment: Earth' and a very dynamic, active character who is not just sitting around panicking and petting a cat."

Ordover feels the crossover ideas have reinvigorated the writers, though he denies that even original series concepts are becoming stale. "There is always more to do with TOS - it's almost easier than with Voyager, because you have the whole Federation to save," he says. "But it's also why we're doing New Frontier, and Starfleet: Year One. None of these books star the regular characters or conflict with the continuity of the ongoing shows, which gives us a tremendous amount of freedom."

Strange New Worlds, which will be released later this year, contains material written entirely by fans - amateur status was a requirement for submission. Ordover had always wanted to put together a fan anthology, and as soon as he took over the Trek division at Pocket, he put it into process. Paula Block, the Paramount liaison with the publishing division, was a onetime fanzine publisher and was delighted with the proposal.

"One interesting thing," Ordover notes, "is that after years of fans complaining that pro authors get Trek details wrong but fans wouldn't, we found that there were far more continuity errors on the 'replicator vs. food slot' or 'landing party vs. Away Team' level to fix in the fan stories than in the pro novels."

The contest for submissions was judged by Dean Wesley Smith, a Trek author whom Ordover describes as "one of the best short story editors going - he had run Pulphouse magazine for several years." Eighteen submissions were chosen out of about 3000 entries. Some fan writers who are widely known on the Internet will be in the anthology, including the one who used to maintain the alt.startrek.creative.erotica archive. Ordover says that delights him, since he wanted to resist the common fan-held notion that everyone connected with Trek is prejudiced against the internet. He is himself very accessible on America Online and Simon and Schuster's Trek site.

Ordover emphasizes that the internet is a wonderful way to market books and find out what the fans are thinking, but adds that internet newsgroups have a distorted sense of their own importance. "It is actually a very small percentage of the Star Trek audience as a whole - it is far richer and whiter, for instance," he observes. "Fandom does not speak with one voice! A good example is that if we listened to only the Internet, our Captain Sulu book would have been the most successful book we've ever done. In fact, sales dropped."

The four New Frontier books were highly successful, spending four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But niche marketing - trying to sell books specifically to the Sulu fans or the Uhura fans, which can work in television where people are trying to sell advertising to a specific audience - doesn't work in mass market publishing. Ordover points out that while millions of people watch the show every week, only a few hundred thousand buy the books, more TNG novels than TOS and more Voyager than Deep Space Nine.

"The problem with DS9 is that the show changes so fast, we can't keep up - TNG was essentially static, at least with regard to background and mission and who the bad guys were," he sighs. "Bashir's a changeling, then he's enhanced. Every three weeks, our enemies become our allies. We usually get scripts six weeks before an episode airs; with books, optimally we have them in production for a year before you see them, so it's impossible to keep up."

To insure continuity, Paramount must approve the books, but Ordover says that rarely means big changes. "The only significant complaint we got from Paramount on Assignment: Eternity was that, at one point, Roberta Lincoln asks the computer to generate a Diet Coke. And they said, 'There was no Diet Coke in the '60s; this should be a Tab,'" he laughs. It ended up being a Fresca. There was one other change in that novel: "Isis has gone down to the engineering room and is changing things against Scotty's will, and Scotty calls up to the bridge and says, 'Gary Seven's pussy is down here!'" That line didn't remain.

A long-time science fiction fan, Ordover claims that he "blew off my coursework" at the University of Chicago so he could read it: "I am one of the few people working in the field who studied it in college!" After taking classes from Science Fiction author James Gunn at the University of Kansas, he moved into publishing, working for Tor Books before going to Pocket.

His favorite writers? "Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Larry Niven." He was also a fan of Robert Sheckley, who has since written a DS9 novel for him, The Laertian Gamble.

The one-time classics major admits to being a big Xena fan. He is in the process of editing an official book by Josepha Sherman, Xena: All I Need To Know I Learned From the Warrior Princess, with an introduction by Renee O'Connor. "It's going to be a lot of fun, little essays about what it's like to travel around with the warrior princess. I want to add Xena to my little empire," he cackles. He is hopeful about pitching stories to the producers for episodes as well.

Has his Trek fandom been diminished now that Star Trek is his day job? "I'm going to the Star Trek Experience opening in Las Vegas - I might have enjoyed the celebration if they weren't making us come in black tie!" he groans. "An amusement park in a tuxedo - I'm going to feel like James Bond entering a death trap."

Still, he says, "You have to be able to wear both hats. You have to be a fan of the material, because only as a fan can you be obsessive enough to remember everything you need to remember! But you also need to be able to switch gears and be a professional."

How To Get Your Star Trek Story Into Print

It's an old dream for aspiring writers who grew up watching Star Trek: you've written a Trek novel, and you can just imagine what it would look like on the shelf of your local bookstore. But how to get it into print?

Well, the first thing you need is a literary agent. And the best way to get an agent is to have some other publications - short stories, a novel, a successful television pitch. If you do have an agent, you'll need to get Pocket Books' guidelines for writing Star Trek fiction. You can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to receive them, or download them from the web site, http://www.simonsays.com/startrek/.

Then, according to John Ordover, you should read the guidelines. "I can't tell you how many submissions I get that say, 'I sent away for your guidelines but decided to ignore them because my ideas were so good.' The best thing you can do is come up with an original story, but work within our limitations."

The guidelines are straightforward: have your agent submit properly formatted text, usually three chapters plus an eight-page summary of the rest of the novel. No alternate universe stories, deaths of major characters, or adventures set entirely on the holodeck. First-person narrative is a no-no - as are crossover stories between the series, which are all developed in-house.

Since Paramount must approve an outline before a book can even be considered, Ordover rarely even looks at complete manuscripts. He makes decisions from eight-to-twelve page proposals sent in by authors with credits. He also reads the authors' previously published work. "Often a story will be fifty percent there, and I'll call the author to talk about it." If the proposal is approved by the studio, a deal gets worked out. It takes about a year for a book to be published.

On rare occasion, a pitch for a television episode may be submitted as a proposal for a novel, but the majority of books come from a group of writers who regularly produce Star Trek novels. "Ideas really aren't as important as the ability to write a good book, page after page after page, and line by line," Ordover stresses. "You need a good idea for every sentence, not just one good idea to drive a book. Saying 'I have a really good idea for a book' is sort of like saying, 'I have a really good idea for a song but I can't write music.' Writing's the hard part."

Ordover's advice to would-be novelists is that they write books set outside the Trek universe. "[Trek]'s a very limited market," he notes. "With an original novel, there's, like, twelve places to send it." Amateur Trek writers can, however, submit short stories through the Strange New Worlds contest, which Ordover plans to make an ongoing project. The winners for the first collection have just been announced, and when the volume comes out next year, it will contain information about how to submit stories for the next contest. That information is also available on Pocket Books' web site, on America Online in the Trek forum books folder, and at the Star Trek Continuum site at http://www.startrek.com/. You can also contact John Ordover directly at those sites.

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