Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Interview: Lee Harris

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Lee Harris is the publisher of Hub Magazine and assistant editor at Angry Robot Books. He is also the editor of Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

As a child growing up in the 70s I was fascinated by Doctor Who – I loved the excess of it – something that was sorely missing from most other television I remember watching at the time. I didn’t see the appeal of Star Trek until I was quite a bit older. It’s difficult to recall my first SF literature – I used to consume mysteries by the shelf-full, and it was those that fuelled my need for something more. Eventually, I think, I found the mysteries too mundane, and craved something more, something... other.

What is it about the genre that appeals to you?

Genre literature appeals because there are no boundaries. Oh, the writer has to work within a set of pre-defined rules, of course, but the rules of their universe are determined by the author, not by our current level of scientific knowledge. As long as the author has created a believable world, all bets are off, and the reader can be transported further than any “real life” literature can usually take them.

Have you ever thought of pursuing writing as a career?

Oh, yes. In fact I have several professional theatre credits (adaptations) to my name, and like most non-professional writers I know, I am constantly halfway through one or more novels. I think I would make a better screenwriter (or audio drama writer) than novelist, though – I’m much more confident with writing dialogue than I am with prose, and I respect the hell out of any writer who can sit down and complete a coherent 100,000 word novel!

What made you decide to start Hub Magazine?

I love short fiction, and I saw what I thought was a gap in the market. I wasn’t aware at the time of the short fiction magazines in the UK, as they are difficult to find if you don’t already know about them, which is a large part of the reason for their decline in popularity over the past decade or so. I just wanted to share my passion for the short form with everyone else.

When it was still a print magazine, what was one of the biggest challenges you ran into? How about currently as an online magazine?

The biggest challenge was attracting advertising. It sold well for a new magazine, but none of us were advertisement salespeople, and it showed. We were extremely lucky that Orbit came onboard as our first paid advertiser, and while their ad spend didn’t go anywhere near paying for the magazine’s production, the fact that they were willing to spend their marketing funds with us gave us hope that others would, too.

What's the most important lesson you learned from working at Hub Magazine?

No experiences are ever wasted if you remember them, and use them in future endeavours. Also, passion will show – put enough of yourself into a project, and other people will notice.

What actions did you take in order to make the magazine a sustainable endeavor? (i.e. how did you get sponsors?)

This was our biggest failing. I trawled through the net looking for contacts that might be willing to advertise with the magazine, and looked through the pages of other genre magazines, and emailed a bunch of people. Somehow my email came to the attention of the right person at Little, Brown (even though I had sent it to the wrong people) and Orbit contacted me. If it wasn’t for Orbit I doubt Hub would be here now.

What are your future plans for the publication?

Hub is now a weekly magazine (one piece of short fiction, and several reviews/features every issue) and over the past 100-odd issues we’ve published some great horror, scifi and fantasy. We’re currently considering branching out into crime as well, or maybe having crime as a spin-off title, but those conversations are still under way. In the meantime, more great short fiction, and the occasional limited edition paperback...

How did you become assistant editor for Angry Robot Books?

I first met Marco (Angry Robot’s Publishing Director) at a British Fantasy Society event I’d organised. I invited him and one of his colleagues up to York to talk about the work they were doing at Solaris. We got talking, and I discovered that Marc was one of Hub’s original subscribers. When Marc was asked to set up Angry Robot he looked around for a suitable Assistant Editor, and I was one of the names on his list. The amount of travel initially put me off (it’s a 5½ hour round trip to my office), but we agreed on a suitable compromise, which works really well. I have Hub to thank for opening the door at Angry Robot.

What exactly is it that an assistant editor does? What's a day in the life of Lee Harris like?

The title “Assistant Editor” means something different whichever imprint you talk to. A typical day for me at Angry Robot involves co-ordinating our team of freelance proofreaders and copy editors, consolidating the changes and corrections made by our authors and copyeditors into a completed manuscript, talking to book bloggers and other website owners, working with genre magazines to obtain coverage and reviews, working with our authors to maximise their promotional activities, reading submissions from the slush pile and deciding (with Marco) which ones to take forward and which ones aren’t suitable, contacting authors we’d like to work with and running the website and Twitter feed. Every now and then I get the chance to breathe. For an imprint with a mainstream publisher it’s an unusual environment as we don’t have to liaise with the Marketing and Sales departments before we take on a novel – as we’re such a small team we can usually make decisions pretty quickly, without having to manage by committee.

In your opinion, what makes Angry Robot Books unique from the other presses out there?

We’re focussing on the “Post-YA” market – those readers who have already outgrown Young Adult books, and who perhaps don’t know what else they should be reading. Our target readers have grown up with X-Boxes and Playstations and we’re publishing the books they should be reading next – books with the vibrancy and energy of the video games they play, combined with high quality writing.

How is the Internet changing the publishing industry? How about social media?

Wow – this is a question for a whole series of articles! From a short story perspective the internet has killed the market. There are still a few pro-paying magazines, of course, and quite a few semi-pro titles, but it’s no longer an area where writers can make a living – or even a decent chunk of their income. Short stories are often now regarded as marketing tools – tasters for the longer works written by their authors.

In terms of marketing generally, the internet has made it both easier and harder to promote individual titles (and boy, am I getting splinters from sitting on this fence). Easier, because it now costs very little to reach the people who actually read your books; harder because the low costs of marketing puts everyone on a more level playing field – there are more books then ever competing for eyeballs, and the internet allows every single one of them an equal opportunity to be seen.

Social media has become an important aspect of the whole marketing mix, but too many companies forget the first word in that term – social. It’s not enough to treat Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the rest as pure marketing tools – people are smarter than that. It’s important to interact with the people who read your words; to allow your personality to shine through, and not just the corporate line. Interact – don’t just pretend to interact. This is difficult for marketing departments, as they often don’t have enough invested in the works to allow their passion to shine through. Editorial teams are better suited to these types of activity as they’re closer to the material, but of course they have other jobs to do, so it’s often a difficult balance to maintain.

How did you end up blogging about eBooks at SFX?

I blog about anything that takes my fancy at SFX, though eBooks are my pet topic. I’ve been reading books on various electronic devices for about 8 years, and I’m passionate about the medium. The whole SFX thing came about as they advertised for a team of regular bloggers at the beginning of the year, and I applied. I guess they thought I had something interesting to say.

How would you describe the current science fiction and fantasy industry?

Jeez! You don’t ask easy questions, do you?

I think we’re in a good place right now. Despite the fact that we’ve lost a few imprints over the last year, and despite the global recession, I think we’re pretty healthy. SF and Fantasy film and television are mainstream, now. The geeks truly have inherited the earth. There is some bleed over into literature, of course, but genre books haven’t yet truly become mainstream. It’ll happen at some point, but until then I think we’re ticking over quite nicely, thank you.

What change in the field would you like to see?

Assistant editors to be paid quarterly six-figure bonuses, tax free. I’d also love to see the anthology return – not just the annual Best Of books, or collections from A-list authors, but collections of stories from writers at all levels. I can’t see this happening, though. We woulda got away with it, too, if it weren’t for that pesky internet!

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Write. Don’t be put off by the difficulties in getting an agent, or a publisher. Write. Worry about the sale of your book when you actually have a book to sell! Write. Read a great deal, too – and not just in your favourite genre; all genres have something to offer. Oh, and did I say ‘write’? Sitting down at your keyboard or notepad on a regular basis is the only way you’re going to be able to do it. Don’t give yourself the excuse that you don’t have the time – you’re lying. If you can only put down 220 words a day (that’s fewer words than the answers to this and the next question – see how easy it is?) then this time next year you will have completed an 80,000 word novel. WRITE!

Advice for aspiring publishers?

Be passionate, and allow your passion to shine through. Also, network. Get to know people in the industry – authors, publishers, everyone. The networking side of things is important, but it’s equally important to not come across as a professional networker. Go to conventions, and enjoy yourself. Meet people there. Enjoy them. Be part of what you want to be part of.

Also, it’s probably a good idea to apply for positions. Intern. Start your own eZine. Research. Get to know what it is you’re letting yourself in for, because it’s a fantastic profession, but it ain’t nine to five.

Anything else you want to plug?

Oh, you know, just the entire Angry Robot list, but that would take some time, so I’ll just plug a couple of Twitter feeds for now. I’m on Twitter.com/LeeAHarris and Angry Robot can be found at Twitter.com/AngryRobotBooks – we’ll be running some cool competitions again, soon. Oh, and the Angry Robot website and blog over at www.angryrobotbooks.com.

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