A Whole New Realm: A Conversation with Diana M. Pho
Diana M. Pho was born and raised in the suburbs of Massachusetts. She’s lived in NYC most of her adult life, but has also traveled extensively, including studying abroad in Moscow. Pho earned a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College. She was mentored by Corinne Demas, Susan Daniels, and Erika Rundle at Mount Holyoke, and was also an active member of Asian-American Interpretive Realities, a performance troupe specializing in political theater about the Asian and Asian diasporic experience.
Going into publishing was her ambition out of undergrad. Pho worked in international sales at Hachette and did social media and blogging for Tor.com before picking up her first editorial job at the Science Fiction Book Club. She left full-time work for a while to earn a master’s in performance studies from New York University, where she was taught by giants in the field: Richard Schechner, Anna Deavere Smith, Tavia Nyong’o, and José Esteban Muñoz, among others. Her focus was the performance of racial and national identity in steampunk culture. Afterward, she went back to publishing at Tor.
“I credit a lot of my career to being a geek! Running my blog, Beyond Victoriana, introduced me to SFF book fandom in a weird way because I didn’t solely write about books! But about art, politics, and subculture.” Pho also spent considerable time in her twenties traveling the country as part of a steampunk performance group, and she was a published academic before becoming a book editor.
The first book Pho bought for Tor—Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley—won the 2017 ITW Thriller Award for Young Adult Novel and the 2017 Manly Wade Wellman Award. Steeplejack also landed on the Young Adult Library Services Association Best Fiction for Young Adults list and was included in both the Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Books list and the Booklist Top Ten YA in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror list. Pho now has over fifteen years of experience in publishing, and collectively the books she has edited have been up for pretty much every major genre award. Notable titles include Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, and Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. Pho herself is an Ignyte award finalist, a Locus Award finalist, and a four-time Hugo Award finalist.
Diana M. Pho lives in New York City with her wife, Ashley Lauren Rogers, who is also a playwright, and two cats, Laszlo and Nadja.
You are a story producer for Realm. What does a story producer do, and how does it compare to some of the work you’ve done with publishing houses like Tor?
Making the leap from book publishing to audio drama has been quite the experience, but also familiar in many ways. Thankfully, my jobs at Realm and at Tor have a common thread: creating great genre stories. It helps that the audio world feels established but evolving. Radio dramas, of course, have been around for a very long time, but the movement to the podcast sphere has shaped the format in innovative ways that I’m still learning about.
Work as a story producer overlaps with being a book editor because I still work with words! As a story producer, I still edit fiction and acquire works for production. I work directly with writers and creatives to develop the most compelling and strongest show possible. Like in book publishing, there is a lot of collaboration between departments, but podcasts use different lingo: show art, audience development, the business team, product, ad sales, etc.
But audio is more theatrical. Lucky for me, I have a MA in performance studies and a background in playwriting, which helps me rethink my editorial skills for a new medium. Plus, there are things I do as a producer that I never did as an editor. As a story producer, I help review casting and music compositions with our audio director, for instance. I review audio files and get collaborative feedback toward edits. I have different sorts of outside conversations with talent agencies, production companies, and Hollywood studios than I would as a book editor, but that is very particular to the type of audio entertainment Realm does and doesn’t pertain to the podcast industry as a whole.
What excites you about Realm and the projects they are undertaking?
I love the imaginative attitude Realm brings in creating premium shows with high production value and smart, engaging storytelling. Realm works with licensed IP (Marvel and DC) and new works in established brands (Orphan Black & John Carpenter Presents). Realm also develops our own in-house ideas for shows, and we acquire original works from creatives. It’s exciting to carry over the priorities I had in the book world—inclusivity and representation, smart sociopolitical commentary, popcorn fun—to a company that supports this same mindset.
While the publishing industry is having a rough spot right now, in general, it’s great to land in a media industry that is growing by leaps and bounds, and where outfits like Realm can make a huge impact.
Is the Realm audience different from the Tor/Tordotcom audience? Are they similar, is there overlap?
The Venn diagram between people drawn to books and those who are drawn to audio is a solid figure eight, I’d say. Gone are the days where people would assume listening to audiobooks was not truly “reading”; likewise, podcasts and audio dramas are acceptable entertainment for geeks who just love good stories. Admittedly, listening to narrative audiobooks is a skill that comes with constant exposure; your ear must become attuned to following the density of books when they are read aloud. That can be a challenge, since people generally absorb information differently when it’s presented in text versus in audio.
Realm has done shows that are more like audiobooks and shows that are more like dramas. We’re learning that scripted formats make Realm stories more aurally consumable for the general listener. That explains, for instance, why many popular podcasts are journalism or conversational: both formats are more receptive and easier to track narratively.
But as more people have been tuning in, they are hungry for different types of audio. Now, audio fiction has been growing. According to a report from “The Infinite Dial”, the industry tracker of radio and podcast data, in 2021 forty-one percent of Americans aged twelve or older have listened to a podcast in the past month. People follow at least eight podcasts monthly, and the listenership is booming. One estimate states that by the end of 2025, there will be over one hundred and forty-four million monthly podcast listeners in the US alone. That is a huge potential market for storytellers! Anecdotally, even when reviewing the reception of Realm shows over the past few months, it’s encouraging to get feedback on social media and in reviews from people who say, “I’d never listened to a podcast until I found yours!”
I would say that what makes Realm stand out is that a lot of our shows appeal to the SFF reader, and a lot of past and present writers we’ve worked with also have books out from Tor and other genre book publishers. We aim to be broadly commercial and progressive-minded. We work with a diverse range of creators and content. I also want to add that if writers are looking for new formats to write for, audio fiction is not going away anytime soon.
You’re a big steampunk fan! Have you had opportunities to work with steampunk projects through Realm, or is steampunk on the back burner for now?
Realm has shows that have a steampunk “flavor” to them, such as the weird western Bullet Catcher, though steampunk in general has taken a back burner for me. The things I have in the pipeline at Realm, though, really show off my editorial taste in ways that feel invigorating and fun!
Tor as a company tends to be more involved in the genre community than a lot of publishers. Does working for Realm mean you won’t be as involved in the community as you have been, at least, professionally?
I’ll always have one foot in SFF book world, but right now, I’m diving headfirst into new territory for me, but in ways that I think will expand my horizons. I’ve been lucky enough to have an eclectic career in book publishing, to serve as editor for rising stars such as P. Djèlí Clark and Bethany C. Morrow as well as SFF giants like GRRM and Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and to be a published academic and playwright. I love SFF and the community, and they have helped pull me through some rough moments in my life. I will always cherish the friends and colleagues I’ve met at conventions and writer’s conferences.
I’d love to take the people I have known and respected and bring them into a burgeoning industry where new opportunities await.
What are the most challenging aspects of working on projects for Realm, and what have you learned through addressing them?
The challenge, personally, is playing catch-up to learn the norms of a whole industry. But also knowing those norms are a moving target, especially as podcasts are seen as a big opportunity for news-makers, for entertainment, for education, and for activism. It’s a little bit of the unknown, a little bit of an untamed adventure. Admittedly, it’s also dealing with the influence of Silicon tech giants and old-school public radio and media moguls who all want a piece of audio to call their own. The learning curve has been steep, but I’m lucky to have a supportive group of fellow professionals that have helped me embrace the field.
What are some of your recent projects for Realm, and what do you love most about them?
Spider King by Justin C. Key was my first show at Realm, and the perfect type of chilling bite-sized horror that I loved to acquire in short fiction. I’ve also been happy to assist on Batman: The Blind Cut, which introduced me to the world of licensed IP projects, and it thrills me to contribute a tiny bit to a hugely popular comic franchise. In November, we announced a fabulous horror-comedy called Black Friday, that’s also a critique of capitalism-driven retail culture and has HUGE celebrity talent at the helm—something I can’t wait to break out over the airwaves.
Short fiction has been important to genre for decades, and people often talk about the similarities and differences between short fiction markets and book publishing, as well as their relationships. Do you see a relationship between what happens in short fiction and the creative work of Realm?
I do, mostly because Realm shows are designed to be bite-sized fun, to listen to episodically, and good short fiction is made to also be read in one sitting. You have to think about how to make a very satisfying experience in a very concentrated way.
For readers who haven’t heard about Realm, and who are curious, where should they get started, and why is that a great place to start?
Check out Realm.fm and click on any of our shows to start. The website has great UX design, if I can say so in a very biased way. Realm also has an app option so people can listen on their phones.
Do you feel companies like Realm are the future of publishing—especially with the recent collapse, sale, and purchase of major publishing houses? Are we seeing major transitions in the industry?
I can’t make any predictions about publishing’s future, but I do realize that writers are looking for new ways to establish a career. The traditional NYC houses will exist for a long time to come, but they’ll only become more consolidated over time. It’ll be hard for authors to break out, I think. New media—like podcasts, streaming, webnovels, and other digital platforms—is the future of storytelling.
You also do freelance editorial work: you offer developmental and line editing and editorial assessment on a limited-availability basis. What is your best advice for people who want to start doing freelance editing, and what is your best advice for writers looking for a freelance editor?
Oh my! This question alone can be a topic for a whole other interview!
My best nutshell advice for people who want to freelance: network with other established freelancers and get advice about what your financial expectations are before you even start. Establish an LLC if you want to do this long term. Make sure you know how to pay your taxes according to your local laws. Have hard boundaries about how many jobs you can do at once, and how much brain space you can dedicate to editing; it can be very easy to burn out through overwork. There are also freelancer services like Reedsy, which can help make finding jobs easier, and organizations like the Editorial Freelancers Association and ACES that can teach you more about this career.
For writers looking for freelance editors: it’s fine to ask multiple editors for their rates and shop around for the best service that fits your needs. Freelance editors often book jobs at least three to four months in advance, so be sure to keep that in mind with your writing schedule. Always have a contract. And always, always be kind and understanding with your editor—it’s a mutually established creative relationship as well as a business relationship. Just because you hire someone to edit your work does not give you the right to behave rudely, be overly demanding of their time and energy, or act unprofessionally in any way.
What else are you working on, what are you excited for people to know about?
I’m currently working with Levar Burton Reads as an editor and judge for their writing contest, and the winning story will be announced later in December 2021. Stay tuned! 😀