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Green Light in the City

Angry Robot

4 December 11 words: Robin Lewis
Welcome to the most exciting science fiction publisher on the block


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Marc Gascoigne has been in publishing for around thirty years, and will be a familiar name to anyone who picked up something with the Games Workshop logo on the cover. He’s now the mastermind behind a publishing imprint for science fiction, fantasy and horror in Nottingham: Angry Robot Books.

How did Angry Robot Books come about?
Angry Robot really came about through a meeting of minds - mine and a powerhouse publishing MD at HarperCollins called Amanda Ridout. In the decade up to 2008, I'd been at the heart of Nottingham's own Games Workshop's in-house publishing imprint, the Black Library. Starting as assistant editor and graphic designer and ending up as its publisher, I'd taken the imprint from lowly beginnings to being a multi-million copy publisher of bestselling tie-in novels, and founded a new original SF line, Solaris.

Some of the drivers of that success - selling to teen males, creating a reliable brand for repeat sales to dedicated readers, running marketing through online communities - were just what HarperCollins wanted to tap into for a new, forward-looking science fiction to complement their blockbuster fantasy line, Voyager. So it seemed a good fit. They let me stay in Nottingham - keeping costs down was part of the strategy - and we were pretty much left to our own devices.

Alas, when Amanda was let go from HarperCollins in a cost-cutting round, we no longer had a champion there, and AR's innovative strategies were not bought into by her replacements. So in 2010 we bought the company out and took it to new investors, namely the Osprey group - a team who I'd also been discussing an SF imprint with back when AR was first established. Since then we've gone from strength to strength, both in terms of sales and awards.

What's the ethos behind the imprint?
I thought we were starting with an ideology - we'd be different to everyone  (we used the slogan "SF & Fantasy v2.0"), we'd do what should be done if one were to start a new SF imprint right now - which is true enough. But as it's turned out, it's been just as much about a methodology. In short, we question everything - every aspect of publishing, from formats and stories, to selling and branding, to packaging and publicising. It all gets spread out on the slab, picked over, and hoary old practices that are no longer viable get junked. Which is not so say it's all innovative and experimental - there's plenty that other publishers are getting right that we've, ahem, been inspired by.

Underlying that is a confidence, that we get from being experienced at publishing, but also great lovers of what another slogan targeted as being "SF, F and WTF?!". We are just like our readers, only it's us who have our hands on the controls. For casual genre readers, happy to chew their way through 1200 pages of desperately derivative sub-Tolkien tosh every few months, that won't do much to impress them, but we certainly do appeal to those who are into genre fiction, those who are the core from which all future success will come.


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Angry Robot invades the American market 

Your content has been explicitly modern too...
The lines between genres are blurring more than they ever have before, not just in those crass mash-ups (you know, Oliver Twist Versus the Martian Tripods and similar bullshit cash-ins) but books that mix fantasy with SF technology, or steampunk and alchemy cropping up everywhere. The influence of movies, Xbox games and graphic novels is as important to us as respecting the SF and fantasy classics of old.

Angry Robot books has been publishing books for two years now. The line is up for several World Fantasy awards (as are you yourself) and it seems to be expanding all the time. To what do you attribute your success in an era when we keep hearing about the shrinking audience for books?
In general terms, we've been ready for the changes that the rest of the book-trade seemed to put its collective head in the sand to avoid. It's strange - much of London's largest publishers are stuffed full of ex-music business refugees, caught in the economic downturn caused by the move to digital. Now it's happening to books too and the same bullshit mistakes are happening.

Our slogan - we love a good slogan - was "all formats, everywhere", so you've always been able to get our books on eBook when our physical books launched, in all the important formats. We're also now releasing simultaneous audio editions through Brilliance Audio, part of Amazon. We release simultaneously in both the US/Canada and the UK, by the way.

Readers have always remained informed...
We keep close to our readers through the Robot Legion newsletters and website, and as importantly we have corralled the various SF/F bloggers and reviewers through membership of our exclusive Robot Army. This ensures we get great review coverage worldwide on our releases. We also set up our own store for readers who cannot track down our books in far-flung parts, and that's now recently launched a subscription service, whereby a dedicated fan can sign up to get all AR's books over the year, for a healthy discount.

Oh yeah... pushing AR as a trusted brand, as much as an individual author's talents, that's another big part of it. I'm a long-time music collector and used to DJ, and whether with obscure indies or the height of faceless techno obscurity, it was often as much about trusting to a favourite label. In a world where any idiot can release their unedited science fiction novel as an eBook, people will increasingly need a light in the darkness to show them where the good stuff is.

And I should say that actually, awards are for authors - sales records are for publishers. They do allow us to sell more books, but that implies that not everyone heard of the books in the first place. As a publisher, I'd almost rather an award was received by the book's many thousands of readers, who having read it already all went 'Bravo! Richly deserved!'. But then I live in a land of fantasy, with elves and little people...


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Marc's final fantasy: Lauren Beukes

If you had to recommend just one of the titles you publish that would give someone who hasn't read anything from Angry Robot which book would get the nod?
Gotta be Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Winner of this year's Arthur C Clarke Award, and nominated for the World Fantasy Award, it's a perfect introduction to modern, streetwise SF. Set in South Africa, it revels in criminals who have been burdened with symbiotic animals, street voodoo and dark gangster noir stylings. There aren't many surprises to be had in SF set in the US or UK these days, so South Africa is an ideal new frontier, and Zoo City is a balls-out, mind-blowing revelation.

You received around a thousand submissions for your open month earlier in the year. Were you expecting such a massive response and has the avalanche of manuscripts put you off doing something like this again?
Well, the jury is still out about this. For me, looking down on the project without having to do anything other than look at the 14 or so titles that have made it to our desks from our civilian readers, I think it's been a great success and we should do it again. For the poor sods who genuinely had to read somewhere between 200 and 400 novel submissions each, and then follow that up reading around 90 full novels, it's been less of an easy ride. Lee, my editor colleague whose idea this all was, feels their pain a lot more than I do.

Perhaps we will run it again, but make entry more restrictive, in terms of subject matter especially, to reduce the sheer amount of hopefuls that need reading and, alas, rejecting.

We're particularly excited about one right now, and there are several others that one or other of us in the team are championing to each other. We had guesstimated that maybe we'd buy one or none, revised that to "maybe 2" at the end of the open month itself, and I think that is looking likely.

What were the common flaws in the other submissions?
The most common flaws fell into two groups. Firstly, the "You stupid twat" list: people who wilfully ignored our guidelines and sent stuff anyway. We got crime books, children's books, romance novels with no SF/fantasy component. We got novellas and short stories, when only novels were asked for. And we got lots of folk who sent the whole book not the synopsis we insisted upon, or sent it after the deadline.

The second category of flaws were more subtle, and sometimes elicited great debate. You can sum up a great novel as being a combination of elements all working together, whether that's a slow but perfectly paced slow burn, or a racing Flying Scotsman of a book. These elements might be plot, setting, characters, point of view, underlying theme, pacing, vocabulary and so on. A lot of books fell down through pacing, or info-dumping great wedges of detailed but useless world-building at the expense of a reader's attention. Others were just downright silly. Most were just "meh", and we don't publish "meh".

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What novels have you got coming out that you're particularly excited about?
We publish two books a month, typically, and of that pair one is always a new title, whether a standalone or the start of a series. So there's always another great new rollercoaster ride that new readers can hop onto.

I'm very pleased with Roil by Trent Jamieson, that's a fantasy but in a dying where only great alchemical engines can hold back a vast chaos storm that's eating the land. Working in a somewhat similar place between SF and fantasy is Jo Anderton's Debris. Set in the far future, where experts can manipulate the stuff of matter itself through rituals, it has echoes both of Dune and all the manga comics Aussie debut writer Jo has devoured over the years.

Very much not a debut writer is Peter Crowther, who as head of quality small press PS Publishing has released books by everyone from Stephen King and Steven Erickson to China Mieville and Joe Hill. His apocalyptic SF disaster novel Darkness Falling is a classic Stephen King-esque monster of a book with movie all over it. And we should not overlook Leeds writer Gary McMahon's Dead Bad Things. His lead character Thomas Usher is a clairvoyant who helps the local police with uncanny murders. In short, he can see dead people. Haunted and terrifying, it's like The Wire in the Blood with ghosts, and it's bloody fantastic - in truth, it should be on ITV at 9pm on Wednesdays and loved by millions.

And that's just up to Christmas this year. Bloody great, every last one of them. All good bookstores and online, paperbacks and eBooks, you know the drill.

Angry Robot’s website

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