Ben Bova: The OMNI Interview

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I recently had the great fortune of interviewing three of the surviving editors of the late, great OMNI magazine, a publication which, for 17 years, blew minds with its gonzo blend of science fiction and science. From 1978 to 1998 (it switched to full-time online publication in the mid-1990s) OMNI regularly featured extensive Q&A interviews with some of the top scientists of the 20th century–E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk–tales of the paranormal, speculative fantasy art by the likes of H.R. Giger, and some of the most important science fiction to ever see magazine publication: writers like Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and even William S. Burroughs graced its pages.

Ben Bova was the editor of OMNI for five years. He’s also a six-time Hugo award winner, author of 120 books of science fiction and fantasy, and was the direct successor to John W. Campbell at the helm of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Universe: You went to OMNI after seven award-winning years editing Analog. How did the two publications differ?

Bova: Analog was published in those days by The Condé Nast Publications, Inc., a major magazine house that published Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, House & Garden, etc. They had acquired Analog when they bought out Street & Smith, around 1960. The management of Condé Nast didn’t know anything about the science fiction magazine except that it made a small profit every month, and it was regarded as the leader in its field. They just let John W. Campbell Jr. run the magazine as he saw fit. Campbell, of course was a giant in the field, and had discovered most of the major science fiction writers of the time. I was picked to take over the magazine’s editorship when Campbell unexpectedly died, and tried to continue I his tradition. My only staff was Katherine Tarrant, who had been Campbell’s assistant since he first took over the editorship in the mid-1930s. I had an art director, and one of the circulation department’s senior men handled Analog’s circulation business. I made all the decisions, with no one looking over my shoulder.

Omni, of course, was a very different affair. We had an editorial staff, an advertising staff, and a circulation staff. It was a major magazine, breaking new ground in the industry. And it was, for me, a dream come true: a big, national (even international) magazine, heavy with advertising, read by millions every month. There were always issues of one kind or another with the staff, but they were minor. We worked together quite well, actually.

Universe:  You once pitched a magazine of science fiction and nonfiction, Tomorrow Magazine, to Condé Nast: did that vision turn into your work at OMNI?

Bova: I felt that Analog, good as it was, only spoke to the relatively small science fiction community. I proposed a major national magazine that focused on the future, both with fiction and fact articles. The management heard me out, but decided that they didn’t know enough about the subject matter to invest in a major effort. They knew the women’s magazine market, so they launched instead Self magazine, which had done quite well for them.

Universe: How much freedom did you have at OMNI, and what kinds (if any) of commercial expectations did you need to meet?

Bova: I had a very wide field of operations. Kathy Keeton was the actual publisher of Omni, the idea for the magazine was hers. She was in the office every day, but she hardly ever interfered with editorial decisions. She made suggestions aplenty, and many of them were good. Those that weren’t, we discussed openly, and she almost always gave in to our editorial opinions. As long as the magazine sold well, everyone was happy. And Omni did sell spectacularly well, thanks to its editorial content, its visual quality, and a very talented circulation department.

Kathy Keeton was the de facto publisher of the magazine. Bob Guccione was the boss, but he usually stayed clear of the editorial process. He was more interested in the magazine’s visual appeal. Both Kathy and Bob were vitally interested in showing the world that Bob Guccione was more than a copycat of Hugh Hefner. Omni broke new ground and succeeded when most of the pundits said it would fail. That made both Bob and Kathy very happy.

Universe: Can you roughly characterize for me what your editorial imperatives were: what was the tone of “OMNI under Bova”?

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Bova: I emphasized that Omni is not a science magazine. It is a magazine about the future. Science magazines came and went: some of our editors had worked at half a dozen different science magazines, all of which folded. I tried to get across to the editorial staff (and everyone else) that the public’s conception of science is that it’s like spinach: good for you but not terribly appetizing. Our approach was to present the future, which is like lemon meringue pie: delicious and fun. Of course most of our nonfiction pieces dealt with science in one way or another. But our approach was to talk about the future; readers swallowed the science because we made it palatable.

Universe: Did you feel that you had any predecessors, or peers?

Bova: Omni was sui generic. Although there were plenty of science magazines over the years (most of which failed eventually) Omni was the first magazine to slant all its pieces toward the future. It was fun to read and gorgeous to look at. I don’t think we had any direct competition, although our success prompted other publishers to bring out other science magazines.

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Universe: How was OMNI perceived in the science fiction community?

Bova: The science fiction community was initially leery of a magazine that included science fiction in its pages but was published by the man who published Penthouse. A large part of my responsibilities was to show the science fiction community that Omni was the real thing. I also worked to convince potential advertisers and overseas publishing houses that Omni was far more than “Penthouse in space.” The fact that our payment rates for fiction were ten times the rates of ordinary science fiction magazines helped to bring the writers to us. But I had to impress on them the fact that Omni’s audience included tons of people who never read science fiction. Our writers had to be able to write for a much more general audience, and eschew the jargon that dedicated science fiction people took for granted, but was unknown to the wider audience. Some of the best-known writers in the science fiction field were not able (or perhaps willing) to do this. Most of them were personal friends. But they couldn’t write for Omni, alas.

Universe: What do you think is OMNI‘s greatest legacy?

Bova: I think Omni’s greatest legacy is that there is a tremendous audience for fiction and nonfiction about science–if it is presented in an attractive, understandable way.

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Check out my piece, Omni: The Forgotten History of the Best Science Magazine That Ever Was, live today on Motherboard & browse some of its greatest hits.

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