Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Interview: Marc Gascoigne

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Marc Gascoigne is Angry Robot's Publishing Director; the words and plots and characters and themes guy. Previously known for The Black Library, Solaris Books, and a bunch of well-dodgy Sonic the Hedgehog books, some of them not even written under a pseudonym.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, could you give us a brief history of Angry Robot and how you got involved with the imprint?

Well, AR was created by myself, in conjunction with then HarperCollins Fiction MD, Amanda Ridout, and Fiction Brand Manager, Chris Michaels, in late summer 2008. I’d met the latter a year or so before, when he’d become interested in the strategy behind the imprints I was then running for Games Workshop, the British fantasy games masters, namely multi-million selling game tie-in line The Black Library and newly minted SF/F imprint, Solaris. Both of those imprints had a very clear strategy and ethos, driven by a mix of passion and professionalism. Something about that appealed to Chris, who was scouting new opportunities in genre publishing.

When I was let go by GW in early 2008 as part of a larger swathe of cost-cutting moves, it wasn’t long before I found myself in HarperCollins’ large London HQ. It wasn’t initially plain sailing – when Chris forwarded some notes about what HC were looking for, he included five different possible job roles. Like a fool I read it as just five duties to be covered in the one job and was seriously concerned for my workload. But in the next meet that followed, Amanda cut to the chase beautifully: if we gave you some funding to set up your own imprint, what would it be? I talked without breathing for something like sixteen minutes, and that was it. After a lot of work creating business plans, we officially came into being August 2008, with the aim even then to have our first titles in shops for July 1st, 2009.

Lee Harris joined me as assistant editor and marketing guy at the start of this year, and from being occasional help Chris Michaels is now my partner on the operational and sales side, leaving me free to run the creative vision and delivery of the actual books. Just the three of us, all multi-tasking like all good creative people should, but backed up by the weight of HarperCollins when we need it.

Why the name Angry Robot?

The strategy for AR has tightened over time, but even at the earliest stages its pitch was “post-YA” and “crossover” – SF, fantasy and beyond for the new generations turned on by Harry Potter and Twilight, computer games and graphic novels, Doctor Who and endless summer blockbuster movies.

When I first came to start thinking up names, though, my imagination was still back in the world of Solaris from which I’d come. We went through all manner of similar names, even got the Harper trademarks team checking them out. The evening after he reported back with his five most usable names, I sat staring at them, and realised they were all utter crap. I sat up late into the night, cruising the web, looking at everything from t-shirt designers and skateboard makers to death metal bands and obscure web comics. Before I called it a night, I scribbled down five or six key words, with Robot and Angry at the top. It checked out legally, the team loved it, and that was that.

That’s “how”, really, but “why”… well, we wanted something startlingly different to traditional names – either based upon the name of the founding publisher, or derived from some astronomical or imaginative term. Nothing wrong with them, by and large, but done. Once it popped out there, we’ve not doubted it for a second, and the reaction to it has confirmed we are onto something. In traditional circles it’s sorted the, well, the old men from the boys. For more youthful media contacts, it’s become a real door-opener for meetings with potential film, television and online partners – leading to contacts from major film makers saying “I know nothing about you, but Angry Robot is such a cool name we must be able to work together on something.”

It’s important for us, starting out in the world, to have a clearly recognisable and understandable brand. Once our authors have found their feet, they’ll become the stars. Right now though, as we launch first in the UK & Australia, and then North America, it’s AR that has to encompass our ethos and energy.

In this period when big publishers are laying off employees and merging or discontinuing its lines, what went into the decision of creating this imprint for HarperCollins?

From day one the idea of AR as an autonomous collective, funded by Harper and supported where necessary, but otherwise left to just get on with it, was paramount. There are actually several new teams within the company that are treated like cells, arms of the starfish rather than controlled by the spider, if you know that fashionable theory. Harper has an attitude that even when times are really hard you don’t start the cuts with the projects aimed at securing the future, in case you end up ensuring that there won’t be one.

Meanwhile, Lee, Chris and myself are all experienced at a wide range of publishing and wider world skills, and we’re all adult enough to know that there’s a hell of a lot of hard work involved in setting up any small business, so the idea of doing it mostly by ourselves has rarely caused us to blink. Fast-moving, under our own control, and very cheap – there’s a lot to recommend it regardless of the state of the economy.

What is it that a publishing director exactly does? How does one become a publishing director?

The smartass answer – I direct publishing. In traditional publishing, an editor finds and develops books, to fit a range overseen by a publisher, designed and typeset by a design team, sold by salesmen, and marketed by publicity people. We’re multitasking so some of the people I’m directing right now are, well, me with another hat on, but in time the structure will expand.

My route was as an editor and occasional writer, first of roleplay games, then fiction. Then you just get promoted enough times till someone actually asks you what you think and what you’d do. Oh yeah, simple… and the extra fact that I’ve been in publishing for 25 years now is a mere detail.

How did Angry Robot select its roster of authors?

Books that entertained, thrilled, cheered, dismayed, assaulted, seduced, demanded, insinuated… and that felt like the Angry Robot logo on their spine would not be a mismatch to either party. Some of the authors were known to me; others came on personal recommendation from longtime friends and a few from those agents who were quick off the mark. As the word got out, more established agents and authors got in touch too, and the most progressive of those are finding we’re buying a healthy amount of books. We’re also buying multiples – in most cases we’re not buying one book on its own, but series or multiple titles from an author, with a view to supporting not just one flash-in-the-pan novel but a burgeoning career.

Could you tell us something about your initial line-up of books and authors?

It’s a great line-up that goes a long way to laying out, even at this early stage, what we’re about. I’d be lying if I said it was all exactly as planned, but it’s come together just dandy. Men and women, from all corners of the globe, writing SF, fantasy, horror, urban and all manner of treats in between. The following are being released in pairs from July in the UK and Australia, with native North American editions due in a few months.

Slights by Kaaron Warren – An outrageous book of dark delights, like nothing I’ve read since The Wasp Factory. A young woman becomes fatally attracted to the near-death experience, for herself and others. Kaaron’s an Aussie, based in Fiji, with several award-winning short stories under her belt, and to look at her you’d swear she was normal. First of three novels in one year from her. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this book.

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes – Very smart near-future thriller showing just how a reliance on technology to retain identity can easily be manipulated to disenfranchise an entire generation.

Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner – Sometimes we do the obvious – Matt Richeter’s a detective, and a zombie, in a city of the dead and undead. But also, sometimes a book and a hero and a setting are so bang on you just lie back and let it take you.

Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson – A conspiracy thriller in the vein of The Da Vinci Code, except the secrets weren’t coded in the Bible, but hidden within old copies of Weird Tales. A genuine genre-mangler from a writer already attracting a lot of attention.

Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic – I published some of Rem’s gung ho military SF at Solaris. Now he’s returning to his first love, heroic fantasy, for an epic, balls out swordfest like Gemmell turned up to 11.

And much more besides. Romping hard SF from Colin Harvey, extraordinary alternate history alchemicalpunk swashbuckling from Dan Abnett, a serial killer/angel duel from J Robert King. Widescreen near-future thrills from Matt Forbeck, rollicking steampunk courtesy Lavie Tidhar, Aztec murder mysteries from Aliette de Bodard... and a half-dozen more writers who I can't talk about yet, curse it. And some spacepunk! Hell, two novels a month, there's plenty of scope to run riot.

With all the changes in the publishing industry with the rise of the Internet, Print on Demand, eBooks, etc., how is Angry Robot factoring all of these into its business plan?

With great gusto! We’re releasing eBook editions of all our releases, and ensuring that they are priced modestly too. Were not always able to control as much as we like – certain vendors add their own DRM regardless of what the stance of the imprint is, for example, but we’re making sure that non-DRM editions are out there too for those who want them. The online community has been madly helpful with advice and research as we’ve gone along too – we’ve run several surveys, whether in private or public, and the response has always been useful.

Online, too, the creation of our Robot Army has brought us in contact with a wide network of helpers and enthusiasts, not so much a street team as an inner sanctum of reviewers and opinion shapers around the globe. We’re technology users ourselves too, of course. We tend to read submissions on iPhones and Sony Readers.

What was the most challenging experience in setting up an imprint?

Just lots and lots of bloody hard work, but no different to any entrepreneurs setting up from scratch. And hell, you can always get an early night at the weekend. This isn’t the first time any of us have set up a new business or publishing imprint, so we’ve foreseen most of the holes in the road ahead of us, and even managed not to fall into a few of them. But genuinely, nothing outrageous or horrible to relate, just heaps of hard slog.

What distinguishes Angry Robot from the other publishers out there?

Genre publishing is a continuum, a wide-ranging plane if you wish. We’re over in the youthful corner, not too far from a couple of the larger and more successful British/American imprints and diametrically opposite some very traditional US space opera lines. That aside, all we ask is that we have enough time to show readers what we can bring. The difference will be in the books, not the good intentions.

In your opinion, what are the hurdles that current publishers face?

Ignoring economic gloom, though that’s hard, I’d say failing to realise that the market has changed already. There are new customers, with new tastes and new means of buying. Unit sales are down, and will not rise in the same way they did for Rowlingmania. There are far more different competing products demanding a cut of our cash. Ebooks are a fact of life now, albeit still waiting for the killer app or at least a bloody format we can all agree on, but publishers should not fear a move to digital. Most of the lessons of the death of the music business have been learned.

And in the US, more prosaically – unrealistically cheap mass-market paperbacks. The price of paper is 1400% what it was ten years ago but paperbacks have barely shifted from seven-eight bucks. No wonder most publishers are trying to move the mass-market into small trade paperbacks.

What’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you?

Escape. Every so often, I like to go somewhere else. If my pulse can race or my heart ache when I’m there so much the better. The more immersive the experience, the more I love it. Ideas, character, plot, pace and language all have a part to play in that, but that ability to slip into an authentic, beautifully realised other world for a while is paramount for me.

How did you first get involved with the genre?

I owe it all to two people, neither of whom know the effect they had on me: firstly, Miss Ellis, the hippyish supply teacher who read us The Hobbit over the course of several mindblowing weeks when I was in third grade – I still remember the picture of Bjørn I drew, even thirty-odd years later.

And secondly, just three years later, a nameless librarian, in Margate, Kent. They’d prepared free bookmarks with booklists on, including an SF/F one that featured twenty classics of the genre on one side. That was my first SF reading list right there and I did get through most of them. On the other side though, even better, was a further list, of stuff that was Way Out There. And that was what really, really snared me, even as an inquisitive eleven year-old – before I hit my teens I was reading Ballard, Moorcock, Vonnegut, Burgess, Aldiss, William Burroughs, Angela Carter’s Passion of the New Eve even. That was that. Thanks nameless librarian, thanks Miss Ellis.

Any advice for publishers?

Not really. The people who are already clued-up, passionate and driven are to be admired and we’ll eagerly learn what we can from them, and hope in time to call many of them friendly rivals. The rest can eat our dust.

If I really had to say one thing at this point, it’s that as a publisher you need to know what your aim is. There are too many imprints around, even very large ones, whose mission is little more than “Be the best publisher of SF and fantasy around” – what the hell does that even mean? Not nearly good enough any more, I’m afraid.

Advice for aspiring writers?

Be aware of the reality of the industry, and be self-aware of both your talents and your failings. Do your research, not just into writing, but into your realistic chances of being published. Know the difference between writing as a hobby (still a great thing to pass the time!) and doing it to a professional standard – there’s as much baggage that goes with the latter as there would be if you were a musician or dancer. I mean, I dabble with guitar and piano from time to time, but know all too well the massive leap it would take for me to get to a stage where I earn a living being paid to play. It’s remarkable how many wannabe published writers don’t see it that way at all.

If you want to be an Angry Robot writer, though, you need to prove that you have those chops, and indeed have had them assessed by an industry professional – we only review submissions from agented or known authors. More details are on our website.

Anything else you want to plug?

Don’t get me started! I ventured to answer a “five great authors” list in a piece for another interview site last week and ended up squeezing in something like 40 names. The talent is all around us and long may we be able to play a part bringing it to a wider audience.

PS, I should plug the Angry Robot website too: for more info or to join the Robot Army, see angryrobotbooks.com

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