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UNESCO City of Literature: <br>Marc Gascoigne of Angry Robot Books

19 August 15 words: Robin Lewis
"If a book gives us nerdgasms, we put it out"
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Photo: Joe Dixey

You've been an editor on Games Workshop's White Dwarf, an RPG and boardgame designer, a book editor and now you’re the mastermind behind Angry Robot Books. Which of those jobs was the most fun?
Oh, it’s all been fun. It’s a cliché, but it’s true that if you make your hobby your job, you never work again. There have been late nights and lost weekends, meetings from hell and colleagues likewise, but after I finally realised that I was much more comfortable as an editor and publisher than a writer, it was full steam ahead.

Creating my own publishing imprint with Angry Robot was a scary proposition, but as they say, get good people around you and things become so much easier. Doing a whole bunch of different things helps – from finding and developing authors to art directing the covers, marketing and going to sci-fi conventions, it’s never just ploughing the one deep furrow.

You wrote several novels featuring Sonic the Hedgehog. This is amazing - tell us more.
In the nineties I was the consultant editor of Puffin’s legendary Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books. So when other gamebooks came down the pipe I was the obvious chap to work on them. This included some licensed Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks – the first four were written by friends, then I co-wrote the fifth and sixth with FF writer Jonathan Green.

I got talking with the crew at Virgin who were planning some Sonic novels for kids, and volunteered to organise a team to write them. So I hooked up with James Wallis and Carl Sargent. We only had eight weeks to create four books, so we had a nice long lunch and planned out all the storylines. James and Carl hammered out a first draft and I edited them both while they wrote the second two, adding jokes, taking out waffle. Dare I say, the frenzied atmosphere made for some pretty unrestrained writing – parodies of horror movies, every time-travel cliché ever, that sort of thing. They sold pretty ‘meh’, but we had fun. The trick with working on licensed properties has always been, no matter what the source material may be, to do a damn good job.

You worked on the Games Workshop boardgame, Chainsaw Warrior. In it, a strong, mostly silent soldier slaughters a building full of zombies with a one-handed chainsaw. Why has this not been made into a Jason Statham movie?
The game was created by Stephen Hand, and I just tidied it up, guided it to publication, and wrote the accompanying introductory comic strip. I do think it inspired games like Wolfenstein and Doom. There was even a planned computer game that I did some early development work on, and I had a lovely day in Manchester helping the makers sample chainsaw noises. If it had ever been finished it may well have been the first Nazi-zombie first person shooter.

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Angry Robot Books

What sets Angry Robot apart from other sci-fi and fantasy publishers?
Firstly, we don’t have a century of old-style publishing traditions weighing us down. We came along just as e-books were still considered an experiment – we did them as standard. We publish in English worldwide, rather than divvying up territories and making readers in some countries wait for a book. Audiobooks as standard, e-books cheaper than print, digital rights management-free so we don’t punish fans who bought the books. And we bring in other influences – gaming, graphic novels, telly box sets – both to our subject matter and our covers.

Secondly, we’re fans ourselves. OK, massive sci-fi and fantasy geeks. There’s no uninterested marketing department, no corporate protocol or sales turf wars. If a book gives us nerdgasms, we put it out, convey that passion through our ‘Robot army street team, and thus to readers.

We're constantly told publishing is in dire straits, how have you found the last few years in the business?
The UK is tough for everyone, but the US is stable – as we sell so many of our books over there we’re in a good place. Unlike in the music industry, downloads didn’t come to dominate and streaming has never been feasible, and even the most ardent Kindle fans still buy physical books by preference. Our US high street sales keep growing – we’re distributed by Penguin Random House, so while we can be a quirky and fan-centric indie, we still have that mighty engine behind us. In the UK, it seems like Waterstones’ management are scornful of sci-fi and fantasy, suggesting fans go to Amazon. They’ve stopped stocking many titles, which is pretty self-defeating and something of a betrayal of the passionate shop staff they have doing so much great work in the genre sections. But sci-fi is a thriving genre with an enthusiast market, so it has far more to keep it strong than the chart-driven areas of publishing.

You run open submission months, where anyone can send in their unpublished manuscripts for consideration. What's the best book that’s been sent in?
We could never pick between our beloved children, but in terms of sales and impact Wesley Chu takes some beating. We picked The Lives of Tao out of the “Open Door” pile, a debut novel by an unknown writer who was working in a bank, occasionally moonlighting as a stuntman. Wesley’s fourth, Time Salvager, is just out to rave reviews, and has been optioned for a movie by Paramount, with Michael Bay attached. Not too shoddy.

And the worst?
We had one that a very elderly chap in a retirement community in Florida sent us: his life’s work, about Greek gods fighting for the soul of mankind. He hadn’t worked out how to print double-sided but was keen to make it look like a real book, so had stapled every pair of pages together, around all four sides. To even attempt to read it would have been challenging without chainmail gloves. He intimated it was his only copy too, so of course we carefully couriered it back to him, with our fondest best wishes. But alas, not quite what we were looking for.

If you had to recommend just one book from Angry Robot what would it be?
I’m going to totally cheat and recommend two recent books. First of all, our local (Leicester) author Rod Duncan, whose novel The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter blew us away from the very first chapter. His steampunk-tinged alternate history thriller was up for both the East Midlands Book Award and the prestigious Philip K Dick Award. Secondly, Kameron Hurley’s epic The Mirror Empire: she’s taken a Game of Thrones approach to a world where women rule, and kicked every fantasy cliché right where it hurts.

What have you got coming out in the rest of the year?
The usual drill – three books a month, usually a debut plus a sequel or another volume in an ongoing series. Recent raves include the Alice in Wonderland-goes-to-hell fantasy Victoriana of Ishbelle Bee, in The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath. Matthew de Abaitua’s If Then is a very different affair, a post-apocalypse tale of England at war. Windswept by Adam Rakunas is set on a distant planet and has echoes of characterful shows like Firefly, while Patrick Tomlinson’s The Ark all takes place on a vast generation starship transporting millions of frozen humans – except there’s a murderer on board with a very different agenda. On the fantasy side, Lincolnshire-based Andy Remic returns with a new series, starting with The Dragon Engine, about a vast magic-powered metal beast – and we have the rabidly awaited second book from Kameron Hurley, Empire Ascendant. That’ll keep us busy for a few months.

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