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Angry Robot. The nuts and bolts of a science fiction and fantasy publisher

June 10, 2016

LOGO

Science Fiction and fantasy publisher Angry Robot will be seven next month. Chief Engineer Marc Gascoigne unbolts the panelling, while Penny Reeve stands by with the oil can, so we can take a peek inside its inner workings.

Marc, take me through your journey in publishing

Marc Gascoigne: My official title is Publisher and Managing Director. I am the founder and boss of Angry Robot. My career has meandered through a range of jobs. I started in game design for Games Workshop, where I designed and edited roleplaying and board games. This was in the 1980’s when they were in London. When they eventually moved up to Nottingham in the mid-eighties I followed them up here and continued to work for them for another year or two before I went freelance.

I used to be consultant editor for the Puffin series of adventure gaming books called ‘Fighting Fantasy’. If you were a lad of a certain age, you would beg your mother for £3.99 to buy a new one every Saturday. The whole thing became massive, somewhere between a craze and a hobby. These were the ‘choose your own adventure’ books, where you would get to the end of a tunnel then go right to fight the goblins or left into the unknown where “there may be dragons”. So which way do you go?

I ran that as a consultant editor for Puffin for about ten years. We ended up selling about 16 million books, so the format worked really well. At the same time I was learning my craft by editing, compiling and occasionally writing other books, mostly in fantasy and science fiction, also TV tie-ins and cross-media books, for teens and adults.

When Games Workshop wanted to restart their fiction line in 1997 I was asked if I wanted to help. That turned into the Black Library, which is still going strong for them. When I moved on in 2008, 28 people were working for the imprint, which was turning over several million pounds every year, and publishing four to five books every month.

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So how did Angry Robot come about?

The moment I left Black Library, I was approached by HarperCollins, who had been keeping an eye on Black Library and me, because we were selling a lot of books to teenage boys – with just a few exceptions, the perceived wisdom in publishing is that no one sells a lot of books to teenage boys. We had done this by getting much closer to our readers, creating the feel of a club and community through online forums and social media. HarperCollins wanted me to apply that to a broader science fiction line.

They already had their Voyager imprint, a fabulous and well respected award-winning publisher, particularly of fantasy. But HarperCollins wanted us to be something different. We would be far more social media-based, fast moving, a place to experiment with new ways of publishing. We would be acquiring world-wide rights and not be hemmed in by only being able to publish in Britain and Australia, including or excluding Canada, and all these similar little tangles. There was a remit to create an imprint that was modern and for a customer who might want to read an e-book, audiobook or physical book, depending on their preference or even how the mood would take them. An Angry Robot reader could be based anywhere in the world, would be part of that global science fiction and fantasy enthusiasm and would form the core of a passionate group of customers.

The first Angry Robot books were published in mid-2009, so in July this year we will be seven years old. That first period with HarperCollins lasted about a year and a half.

Why did the situation change?

The problem was we didn’t naturally fit in at a huge, very commercially orientated publisher like HarperCollins. They are also a very traditional publisher that uses extremely long time scales. So they weren’t open to us cutting corners, just getting on and doing stuff, changing the way the contracts and rights worked. The idea of us buying a book that would come out in the US and the UK, as well as Australia and Canada, simultaneously, caused all sorts of conniptions – to the extent that when we came to publish our first books in the USA, HarperCollins US declined to distribute them. A senior editor there even claimed at a WorldCon that we weren’t a part of HarperCollins, that we were nothing to do with them. This proved very… interesting and caused all sorts of ructions.

A year and half in, the senior people who had supported us at HarperCollins had moved on to be replaced by folk who were perfectly fine, but didn’t know what to do with us. So by mutual consent we moved to Osprey, who were a fabulous large indie who were broadening their various imprints. Their core was a well known line of military non-fiction for obsessive, deeply fanatical readers – who unsurprisingly had a massive crossover with readers of science fiction and fantasy. We stayed with them for five years.

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Angry Robot went through another change in ownership. How did this affect the imprint?

In order to grow further, Osprey Group received some significant venture capitalism investment. When the business didn’t return on this investment, the group was broken up and sold off the year before last. Angry Robot is now part of Watkins Media, which is owned by the entrepreneur Etan Ilfeld. He’s super-keen on new strategic approaches to publishing for the twenty-first century, and is a big fan of ours – though he’s often encouraging us to go further.

When Angry Robot first started, a lot of the things we were proposing were revolutionary. Now, pretty much all of them are commonplace. For example, that question of buying rights everywhere in the world is something even good old HarperCollins often do, as do Orbit, Titan, and Solaris – the SF imprint I began at Games Workshop, which is now thriving as part of Rebellion. Publishing simultaneous ebooks and audiobooks as standard alongside the physical release is no longer revolutionary.

We were also the first people in science fiction to be pushing our review copies out through NetGalley (an online service that enables reviewers to read advance copies of books) and, they tell us, we are still the most popular NetGalley publisher in Britain, which is nice. So we get an amazing response by using digital means. We also have very lively Twitter and Facebook feeds, far greater than some larger publishers.

The strategy underlying it all is really quite simple – the people we communicate with are not only our potential readers and customers, they’re just enthusiastic fans and geeks like us. We’re just the older kids behind the bike shed handing out contraband. It a case of “We’ve found these great books, so now we’re bringing them to you”. We’re just a little bit ahead of the pack because we’re out there looking. We’re sci-fi readers and writers, we’re bloggers, we’re fanzine editors, we’re part of the gang, whose role in the gang is to bring you interesting stuff.

What is the advantage to a writer of working with a publisher of your size?

Because of our small size we can remain very fast moving and very approachable. This is where there is a noticeable break in two types of publishing – your big corporate publishers and the smaller indies. The largest, the ‘Big Five’ publishers, often have separate marketing teams who are not all working on one product or even one imprint at the same time. The different parts of the process are so often divided out between departments, and there are demarcations and even petty little kingdoms. This means you have to go to someone else to ask if you want to suddenly discount an ebook or do something mad with a marketing idea.

At Angry Robot we might have an idea in the pub at half-past one on a Friday – we can have it go live a quarter of an hour later for the weekend crowd. Even right at the start, when Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke award, two minutes after we read the announcement we made the ebook available for 99p, so anyone interested could snap it up and read it. No long meetings, no office politics, no protocol; if it feels good, do it.

So we can respond ridiculously quickly – but also, because we are in charge of our own channels, we can convey our passion for our books and sci-fi without any dilution. What we do is put out amazing books, and our passion for them is what drives us. Every month it’s “Listen to this”, “Look at that” or “Read this”, because here’s another amazing novel for you.

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What do you think is so special about Angry Robot?

I’d like to think we have a good eye in finding great writers who push the genres forward. And if not, at least our books are much more fun than your standard literary nonsense or so called higher-quality writing, which to us are never imaginative or innovative enough, and rarely as well written in many cases. Over the years we’ve found or helped further so many great authors. Some have stayed with us and some we have helped on their way to even greater climes. It’s totally unsurprising that writers of the quality of a Lauren Beukes or Chuck Wendig would come along and then be picked up for even greater things by a major, because they were already on a trajectory. I like that AR is the plucky indie who can encourage but not restrain such a writer’s singular talent and bring them wider exposure, before they continue their path to the lofty heights of bestsellerdom.

You clearly have to have a passion for science fiction. Judging by the books I know Penny Reeve, Angry Robot’s publicity manager, has read and currently has stacked all round her desk like a gothic fortress, it is clear she does too.

Penny Reeve: When I came into publishing I was already a bibliophile but maybe had less knowledge of science fiction and fantasy than I should. Luckily, I had Marc to learn from, who’s like a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to both publishing and sci-fi, and a great many other things. So much so there’s almost a temptation to become lazy, because instead of looking things up on the internet, I’ll just ask him the for the answers to my questions. So he made the transition, from a more straightforward PR job for a medium-sized publishing company, much easier.

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What is your role within Angry Robot?

Penny: I make sure the books are getting all the exposure and credit that they deserve. I upload copies of upcoming books to NetGalley and do much of the work uploading to publishing databases, like the Nielsen database, which informs Waterstones and other big booksellers about our books. Along similar lines are the title information sheets, which go out to reps so they can sell books to bookstores. I also contact authors and make sure they’re being supported in the way that they want. There are also blog tours, which are important for all of our books, and the organising of competitions and attending conventions. So there is a great deal of admin work and a lot of promoting our books to the world in general. I do also post on Twitter and Facebook, although Marc has gotten a taste for that recently…he’s the one that posts all of the daft tweets.

It takes quite a lot organisation, because there is so much admin. I use a variety of tools to ensure I stay on top of everything, including e-mails, Google calendars and to-do lists. We have a schedule I have to check every day because Angry Robot starts promotions many months ahead of the book being published. All our information is shared with the team through online Google docs so the Robot team know exactly what is going on from day to day.

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How else do you ensure you’re giving attention to each author/book?

Penny: I originally worked in PR. Before I worked for Angry Robot, I had to juggle publicity for various different accounts that often had no connecting qualities. What does potato farming machinery, a shopping centre, used cooking oil and a walled garden have in common? I did the PR for them. It meant, though, that I was used to doing more than one type of promotional activity at one time, so I’m perfectly happy with juggling our authors and their books in whatever stage of publication they’re in. Gantt charts are my best friend, trust me.

It’s good to have so many things to do because it stops you getting bored and complacent. That can happen if you’re just working in an admin job from nine to five, if you’re just inputting data. There’s always diversity here. For example, if I do admin in the morning, then I might be on author calls in the afternoon or arranging blog tours. It’s that diversity and dynamic element that keeps the job so interesting and keeps me wanting to get there in the morning.

The publisher’s job is also pretty hectic…

Marc: Yes, it can be. The other reason we use shared documents is because our structure editor, Phil Jourdan, currently lives in Argentina, and our US sales and marketing manager, Mike Underwood, is based in Baltimore, and our sales and accounts are handled by various lovely people at Watkins down in Islington, London.

The other thing to say about the work, and keeping the various diffuse parts in focus, is that it’s helped by the rhythm of monthly publication. Underneath it all, it’s like an engine; once a month it ticks over, and a couple of new books come out. So what we do week by week is driven by that end result – before the book comes out it has to be printed and before that typeset, after being proofread, and prior to that copyedited, and so on. Before the book comes out you also have the planning for publicity tours, for a growing online presence across months to specific convention appearances and launches.

Before the concrete plans, there’s the vague stage, checking in even before you sign up an author. We tend to talk to them maybe nine months out about what they could be doing, what they’re particularly good at, and what they’re not so good at. Some come with an established social media presence, others have a back catalogue of stories they’ve had published through Asimov’s or Apex or wherever online, or have online blogs where they continue the debate about the State of science fiction. Others will be new to it all.

Very occasionally, a new author might be working under the impression that we’ll take the book off them and somehow make a bestseller out of it, while they sit by where their pool will eventually be. Others will be fully briefed, with their campaign scheduled and worked up with their agent, and have worked up all sorts of ideas. It’s on a sliding scale of experience and expectation. Ultimately our job is to meet them and make sure we know where they’re at, what their little madnesses are, and what they’re not keen on, but also what they’re especially good at.

Penny: There is usually a lot of hand-holding going on, so I can help them with anything they’re not so good at. I’m always e-mailing so I can keep an eye on our authors at every stage. So in the case of an author who needs a little more help, I can support them.

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It sounds as if publishing always requires you to go that extra mile…

Marc: It’s not always a nine-to-five job, I admit, because we work with many American authors and events. So we work the day then go home, and then maybe we’re back online later pushing another Robot event, or catching up with an author.

Penny: I tend to be doing Robot business or on Twitter checking the latest SFF trends in the evenings. Last night I did a Penguin Random House training course that was run in America on Eastern Standard time. So I was home at about seven o’clock but then doing the training programme until about half-eight.

Marc: I just remembered I have to talk to someone about a film deal later tonight and, because he’s in Los Angeles, he doesn’t get into work until ten in the morning his time. The work is demanding in that way, because it’s not a nine-to-five, clock-in-clock out sort of job.

So why do you both like working for Angry Robot so much?

Marc: If you’re in a job where there’s so much passion for what you do, or even a passion that can be acquired, because of the wonderful people you work with, that drives you through. It’s not all that keeps us going, because that implies it’s a struggle, but it is something we willingly fling body and soul into because it’s damn good fun. I always say it’s better than working, because it’s rare that there are grey days, even when you’re sat in a quiet office and the rain’s lashing down outside. There’s always some amazing thing going on inside the great Robot hivemind.

Penny: We are first and foremost book lovers and therefore passionate about what we do. That’s the thing that keeps you going. If you’re passionate about your medium then it’s not a day at work, it’s another day where you’re doing what you love. I think it’s also the team, who are amazing. I always say that the Monday team meet is my favourite time of the week, because catching up with Mike and Phil always sets the week off on a high note, and it’s much the same with author calls. I wish we all had an office together somewhere so we could hang out all of the time…maybe one day when the metal uprising has taken place we’ll get ourselves a little base on an island somewhere.

Marc: I think there’s the passion for the books, but it’s also the passion for the process of working with those authors. Our authors can (whispers) sometimes be a pain, but then every creative person is slightly mad in some way, but it’s about working with them to help them extract the most wonderful story, and then seeing the reaction of people on reading is great. It can be hard on people like us, because we don’t always get thanked or our name in lights. You’re like the director at the back of the theatre clapping quietly to yourself while all the actors take a bow. But we are the glue that helps that happen, that gets that novel from desktop to bookshelf. Reflected glory’s not at all bad. And, every so often, they give us an award for publishing, which is good.

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There is a sense of community about being part of Angry Robot.

Penny: I’m very much a people person. I like having people around constantly. That’s what I love about the authors. It’s like a little robot family.

Marc: It is a deliberate strategy. We try to be welcoming and friendly, send cards on birthdays, and check in with the authors frequently. It’s not so much about working with your closest friends, but more about working with people who respect and trust you. That also means if there are any problems, the author doesn’t feel they have to grumble to their agent and we get a snotty note. We just have a friendly chat. A lot of speed bumps and snares along the way are eased, just by having good communications with the people we publish.

Penny: I do feel a bit like a mother hen. Every time one of our debut authors goes into print it feels like it’s their first day at school and I’m pushing them out of the door, making sure they’ve got their packed lunch, and all the rest of it. It also about getting that exciting feeling when they progress further down the line, and it’s nice to be able to share that excitement with someone. You feel as if you’re part of their big journey and your helping them along.

Marc: Pretty much everyone in publishing, from the person in their tiny back room working single-handed to the largest corporate, is in it for the love of books, because the salaries in the industry are generally average to low. There has been an overall decline in the industry over the last few years although it appears to be stabilising in many areas. But the ability to work so closely with talented people is what drives us. That family approach to our authors is very important, and of course it mirrors how we want to come across to our readers.

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You publish a lot of debut authors. Apart from all the support you get as an author, what else makes it helpful to have a publisher like Angry Robot behind your debut novel?

Marc: They are helped because Angry Robot is increasingly a recognisable brand (although there is plenty more work to be done on that). If you’re looking at a wall of debut authors and you don’t know anyone, but you spot an Angry Robot logo and have read two or three of our other books, you’ll have a fair idea of our taste and our line. This is why we have expressly and deliberately built that into our strategy and our marketing, and from the feedback we get on this it seems to be working. That is then further supported by the fact that you can join the Angry Robot gang. Our authors look out for each other, cross promote each other and share events.

What would you say to someone who thinks that literary writing is the only great form of writing?

Marc: We don’t care; whatever. If you’re someone who dismisses science fiction or sci-fi, as we remain happy to call it as an entire genre, then plainly you’re pretty dim. Ten years ago I would have felt the need to refer exclusively to ‘SF’, in a lofty voice, because we were trying to pretend it was somehow important, but all books are important.

One of the great things about science fiction and fantasy novels is that they take you to other worlds, other journeys, other experiences, but they still reflect on the human condition. The assumption from snootier types still seems to be that if a book has a sci-fi or fantasy setting, it somehow won’t do that, so we still get little frissons of scorn headed in our direction. For example, the new Don DeLillo book out this week, Zero K. It’s about cloning and future society, so it is of course a science fiction novel, but reviewers are at great pains to distance it from the genre. It’s often laughable when authors who have a reputation for working in other parts of literature dabble in science fiction, because they so often get the basics wrong in quite a crass way. That’s really what we object to. Well, that and the insufferable condescension. If an acclaimed writer like Jeanette Winterson wants to write a book set on an alien planet, that’s lovely. But to come out with the equivalent of “It’s definitely not science fiction, because I look down on fans of science fiction”, or “My publisher won’t call it SF, because they think that by calling it that they will sell less rather than more books” is all pretty insulting. It’s a book, get over it.

For readers who look askance at science fiction as a genre (because you’ve already readers who look down on the genre), we have nothing to prove. But I bet you still sneakily enjoy Game of Thrones or that Hobbit Rings thing that was on the telly. If you are going to be snooty about it, well that’s your call, there are plenty of people who love science fiction and fantasy. You go and enjoy your thing, we’ll be over here having our fun.

Our only real enemy are the people who don’t read any books, the “What are you reading for?” people. That’s quite a big problem in the UK, particularly amongst the adult male population. A few years ago the average adult male read 0.5 of a book per year; there are some men who do not read at all, ever, once they finish school. On the other hand within science fiction and fantasy there are some parts of the genre that are very male dominated, with a lot of male readers, while in other sections there are more female readers. In general, across the whole of available reading, more women than men read and more older women read than younger women. We saw with the rise of, teenage into adult, into young adult female readership particularly, massively boosted. Perhaps it was because the books coming out were the ones that they wanted to read. But whatever it is, the real challenge is not the people who look down on us, but people who don’t read at all.

Our work is always to persuade people who do read, to read more of us, rather than someone else. There are publishers who try to publish and market books to people who don’t read books. That must be an immense challenge because what you actually have to do is create a craze where people pick it up and look at it because it’s the new big thing, but they’re still not naturally sure what it is. All the corporate publishers do this every summer with supermarket reads and the book you’re going to take on your holiday. If you’ve sold so many million copies of a Dan Brown or J K Rowling, putting it out in a new cover to get the last people who haven’t read it, is really pushing out there. That’s great if they can convert non-readers into readers. Here, our real mission is to convert a Gollancz, or a Tor or an Orbit reader into being more of an Angry Robot reader.

We work in the States with Penguin Random House who are our distributors and that’s the other reason that we are so strong. We are independent enough to be fast but we have this walloping great powerhouse that then takes us off out into all the stores in the US. And of course, that’s why we thrive – we sell most of our books in the US. The UK has its on-going challenges, with Waterstones still not getting their head around how to actually stock, restock and sell science fiction again, the way it was seven to eight years ago. Despite the fact that there are some truly heroic people working in many of their shops, their head office can’t seem to decide whether to give up and send SF/fantasy readers to Amazon, or have a go at stocking more than a handful of copies of a handful of books, so their offering is always half-hearted. Meanwhile, Amazon is a massive shop window but not always actually selling more than a few hundred copies of anything. But in the USA we are allied to the biggest publisher and distributor of books in North America, who take us out everywhere that books are sold. Penguin Random House do the most amazing job for us. But, even then, their strategy is to sell people who already buy and read six or more books a year. They only sell books to readers, not to non-readers.

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What about diversity? This has been slow to be developed in the science fiction and fantasy field.

Marc: For me this comes back to the core Angry Robot attitude. We were only set up seven years ago and therefore we do things in a very current way. Our modern world is diverse and moving fast – not in terms of increasing diversity, because it’s always been a massively diverse world. But it’s a world where we are learning more and more, faster and faster, about the many diverse aspects of culture, sexuality, race and gender, and the cultural resonances of all these aspects are thankfully becoming stronger and more frequent.

It’s always such a shame when someone writes a fantasy epic and you find yourself thinking: “You may be a great storyteller, but really, mate? You could have set this book anywhere on our planet, in any part of human history, or in any world you can make up that’s got nothing to do with our human history. And yet you’ve chosen, like all those other authors before you, to set it in a barely disguised fantasy Europe, with white people everywhere, with barely changed thirteenth century technology, oh, but look, you’ve shoved in flintlock pistols too because you quite like them.” Sixteen years into the twenty-first-century that’s always going to be disappointing, even if they’re the best storyteller ever.

Despite the heavy weight of traditionalism, though, there are writers bringing us amazing new worlds that reflect their own very different cultures. From now on we will see an increasing diversity of influences and reach and opportunities. However, some of these victories are going to continue to be hard won. There will be heated debates and even battles along the way, as people who like to read books that are about their own small part of the world get upset by the very existence of stories written by people different to them. But whatever they may say or do the world has already moved on.

Our recent Open Door has been fascinating, because we have made an explicit call and open-armed welcome to as many diverse submissions as possible with the instructions “Please send in your books. Don’t hold back. Don’t think we don’t want to read your work.” But there are still issues, because of course for many potential novelists outside the standard white European/American culture we’re asking them to write in a second language. It’s wonderful getting a great book proposal from someone in India or Indonesia, say, but it’s heartbreaking when their English and writing skills aren’t strong enough, even though the ideas and influences they’re trying to wrangle are wonderfully fresh. There’s more work to be done in working out how we can achieve that. The answer may be as simple as picking up more books in translation. We’ve seen a UK publishing industry report in the last few weeks that discovered more translated books from outside English and American writers were sold than ever before. That might be down to Scandinavian crime more than anything, but I’m not concerned where the hot spots are – it’s all healthy.

In terms of Angry Robot’s approach, we remain as wide open to books and authors from everywhere, as we always were. The first two books AR ever published were from Kaaron Warren, an Australian living in Fiji when we published her, and Lauren Beukes, a South African, writing about young teenage South Africans. So we launched with two female writers, both non-European, and we’ve never looked back.

Where diversity is concerned, we don’t blink. And the more that society and publishing, and as a subset of that, science fiction and fantasy publishing, doesn’t blink when an author happens to be of fluid sexuality, or from a very distant, non-white, non-Western country, or brings a very different viewpoint, or world view, or cultural resonance to their amazing writing, then the better it’s going to be for readers – that’s all readers, around the whole of the world.

Penny and Marc

Penny and Marc

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