I STARTED AN AWARD-WINNING SF/F PUBLISHING HOUSE AND ALL I LEARNED WERE THESE SEVEN RANDOM THINGS
In honour of Angry Robot’s seventh anniversary, founder and publisher Marc Gascoigne was persuaded to share some random thoughts on how the innovative imprint ticks. Unfortunately, that’s just what he did.
1) IF YOU WANT TO GET HERE, I WOULDN’T START FROM THERE
Publishing has changed immeasurably since August 2008 when Angry Robot was first A Thing in July 2009, when our very first two books were published (the terrifying Slights by Kaaron Warren and Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland, if you need reminding). We’ve been helped to a massive degree by starting when we did, ie right when new technology and the internet were creating terrible problems but offering tremendous opportunities too. We have never been hidebound by decades, if not centuries of ingrained best practice, habits and traditions that are so hard to shake off when change comes for publishers large and small. The influence of the likes of Dickens and TS Eliot still hangs over traditional London publishing houses, even if they are now based in expensive and soulless corporate skyscrapers, and turning those juggernauts around to cope with such seismic changes has taken years.
While the debate was raging about whether ebooks were even going to be worth bothering about, we were already releasing all our books that way. As companies came to realise that SF/F readers get their information from online sources around the world and would prefer not to wait for a delayed US or UK release to be arranged with another publisher, we were already contracting rights to be a book’s publisher worldwide, not limited to the UK or US. We were the first UK publisher to really use NetGalley, the online automated book reviews system, and we remain on of its most popular UK clients even after most of the majors have signed up. We were founded as a small experimental unit by HarperCollins, and we were encouraged from the start to be a modern publisher with a modern approach. That ultimately foundered, as some in power there back then were opposed to our strategies, but we thrived regardless – and we note with wry smiles how much of what we were championing has now become standard procedure there too.
2) FIRE THE MARKETING DEPARTMENT
Well no, don’t do that, they are lovely people, probably, even if their ideas rarely run to much more than a revolutionary new type of cupcake topping for the launch party (central London, of course) or an innovative use for a tote bag. But if the people who are most passionate about the books are at a remove from the promoting and selling of them, their love of a book and its author will be diluted. It’s a regular occurrence for us to have a pal from a larger publisher jealous at our ability to be cheeky, try mad things and especially move very rapidly – because in their world even lowering the price of an ebook to celebrate an award nomination could potentially take a couple of weeks and several lengthy meetings. Whereas the AR way is that if it feels good, we do it, and we do it right then. At AR we all do editorial, marketing and promotion, multi-taskers all, and the passion is front and centre in everything that we do.
3) IT’S ROBOT THIS, ROBOT THAT, BLOODY ROBOTS EVERYWHERE
The downside of having a somewhat different, definitely catchy name based on robots is that the robo-puns can get a bit wearying after a while. On the other hand, calling our street team the Robot Army worked wonders – everyone thought that was most impressive, when really it’s just our reviewer list. And while we’d love to have a fiver for every time someone who doesn’t really know us thinks we’re part of Bad Robot, that’s not exactly a terrible company to be confused with. And then again, we still haven’t told you about our plans for the Robot Resistance…the Droid Divisions, the Church of Robot…
More importantly, Angry Robot has become a trusted label of quality – and that means readers continue to pick up an unknown author because they are on the imprint. If breaking new talents like Wes Chu and Ramez Naam and Danielle Jensen and Peter Tieryas and Matt Hill and Rod Duncan and Peter McLean and many more is the upside for a few cheesy slogans (OK, you got me, “The best in SF, F and WTF” still rocks) then we’ll put up with a few robo-puns.
4) WE ARE FAMILY
Can I be frank here? A few people in dank corners of both the UK and US sci-fi publishing world were pretty rotten to us when we very first started, not just unhelpful and discouraging, but downright mean-spirited, even destructive. So it goes; it just toughened our hides.
So we try never to forget those who have helped us. When we held our North American launch party way back at the Montreal Worldcon, as well as the legendary rude seven-foot robot (ask me another time), there was a really helpful young fellow who volunteered to tend the bar all evening, even after the police and hotel shut us down (ask me ditto) and we had to relocate to another venue. Five years later, it was only after we’d bought two splendid SF novels from Adam Rakunas, that someone reminded me he was that selfsame helpful chap. It didn’t get him a book deal, I should be clear about that, but what a delight to be able to read his fine writing, when it was ready, and take him out to the world.
We try to create a family feel at AR, and while that doesn’t suit some authors who prefer a colder, more formal relationship (and of course like all families we have had our fallings-out) it really helps maintain the energy of the Robot crew and its broader gang of associates.
5) INDIE ONLY GETS YOU SO FAR
The other key component in AR’s success is that we have superb business partners. In the US, being distributed by the massive powerhouse that is Penguin Random House takes us everywhere we want to go and is the cornerstone of our ongoing success there. In the UK, the larger Watkins Media team down in London keep an eye on sales and our back office needs – all of which keeps us free to focus on what we do best, publishing your new favourite books.
An indie should never be an excuse for producing half-hearted “meh” stuff. We’re on the shelves competing for sales with books produced by the most talented publishing houses worldwide, so we work our socks off and make best use of our budgets to match them.
6) AWARDS IS FOR AUTHORS
And cover artists too, I should add. (By the way, anyone who posts a cover reveal online or elsewhere without crediting the artist should be… well, congratulated, actually, for driving that artist away and towards working for people like us who actually show some bloody respect.) When Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award, in barely our second year, if anything it was too early for us – though a tremendous help in rightfully boosting Lauren B into the stratosphere. And I guess it did tell some of those aforementioned disparaging ninnies to hush up, so no harm done for sure.
More recently these days, we really do try not to predict the results of awards, and maintain an eyebrow-raised distance. When both Apex by Ramez Naam and Windswept by the aforementioned Mr Rakunas vied for the Philip K Dick Award, we tried to keep our expectations locked right down – to the extent that we were startled when Mez won, even if the phrase “and rightly so” seems so obvious now.
7) STAY ON THE MOTHERLOVIN’ BUS
The way to succeed is to find a good road to travel, then stay on it through thick and thin. AR has had its knocks and made plenty of mistakes, and I’ve made at least as much as any of us. We’ve lived through many changes, and there will be plenty more storms to come. It’s jolly good fun though, and I hope that comes across in our free spirited, joyful approach. We don’t stop, because at the end of the day people like you and like me will always want to read good books, to be taken to a whole new world in the hands of a master storyteller. That will always be true and that is what we’re here to do, for another seven years and many more beyond.