Marc Gascoigne Interview
By Cheryl Morgan
I first interviewed Marc Gascoigne back in Emerald City #101. I have come back to him in this issue for two reasons. Firstly he is one of the Special Guests at Concussion, this year’s Eastercon, but more importantly Black Library has recently announced the launch of Solaris, a new SF&F imprint that will publish creator-owned fiction rather than Games Workshop franchises or movie- and comic-tie-ins.
Cheryl: It is two years since the last interview and a few interesting things have happened at Black Library. I was particularly pleased to see the Dark Future series being launched, and the associated re-issue of Kim Newman’s books in that setting. How has Dark Future been selling?
Marc: The series has launched well, especially in the US, which means our plans to expand the range can continue. We’re especially happy that the new titles such as Dave Stone’s Golgotha Run and Stuart Moore’s American Meat have proved as popular as the Jack Yeovil (Kim Newman) titles, which we all knew already were great fun. We’re a bit disappointed no one’s tried to sue us yet, but perhaps that will change when we get to Comeback Tour. Oops, I can just picture the company lawyer’s face. I’m told that I take that all back.
Cheryl: That’s OK, this is only appearing on the Internet. No one will ever know.
Cheryl: Anyway, before we get onto Solaris, is there anything else that Black Library and Black Flame have done in the past two years that you are particularly proud of?
Marc: Black Library is utterly delighted that Dan Abnett has just broken the half million sales mark for his books with us, and we’re about to release his best book yet in Horus Rising, the first in a new series that delves back into the pre-history of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. As importantly, we have a large wave of new writers who are hard on his heels, from the old-school swashbuckling fantasy of Nathan Long to the Flashman-esque SF of Alex Stewart’s Ciaphas Cain series. Black Flame’s biggest recent success has been the three-book Fiends of the Eastern Front series by David Bishop, where good old Sven Hassel-style WWII mayhem meets vampires, and goes for the jugular (sorry). It’s Commando war comics meets The Bloody Red Baron, and why not? It seems readers worldwide have got the joke and are clamoring for more, a noise most joyous to any publisher.
Cheryl: So, Solaris. As I understand it, this will be a standard SF&F publishing line, much like Tor or Gollancz. Is that correct?
Marc: Very much so. BL and BF are tie-in lines, but the experience they’ve brought the BL team has meant it’s now time to realize one of our oldest dreams, and start to publish original SF and fantasy.
Marc: We’ve had that yearning as a pipedream since we started BL, but over the last few years it has become far more concrete as we’ve encountered so many monstrously talented writers, some of them personal heroes, who have simply not been able to get published. The rise of the modern super-publisher, especially in the UK, has meant that some authors don’t sell enough to get published. Others do manage to hit those rarefied levels, but find their publishers can only handle one book a year or every eighteen months under their own name. And if you’re a new writer… well, it’s very hard even for the most talented. Some days it seems like your only options are the likes of PS Publishing and Telos, who produce some great work but don’t always have the distribution reach to really get a new talent out there in the mass-market, or joining the lengthy queue for Interzone. It’s great to be able to offer an alternative that’s compact enough to be able to appreciate midlist sales, but with enough distribution clout through Simon & Schuster to make those sales.
Cheryl: So creators will own their work, and royalties will be competitive with other publishers in the industry. The books won’t be work for hire.
Marc: Correct, we’re buying rights and paying royalties, and the copyright stays with the authors. We’re paying industry standard rates, based on predicted sales, on industry standard terms. As a result, we’ve already signed some well-known names, and are negotiating with many more (and their delightful agents, it goes without saying).
Cheryl: Will you be doing hardcovers, or just mass-market paperback?
Marc: Many titles will debut as paperback originals, but the hardcover and trade formats will be used for our biggest titles. Some review venues are still snobby about mass-market books, but we’re happy enough to play the game to get the word out. Horse for courses, but yes, some larger formats.
Cheryl: Is there a particular style of book you will be looking for? Is the intention to publish thrilling adventures, to take risks with experimental writers like Hal Duncan, or what?
Marc: We want to publish great SF and fantasy, period. Easy answer, Marco, yes — but what that realistically means is that of course everyone wants to find the next award-winning stylist, the next sensation but we’re keen not to lose sight of the traditional, the classic, the "straight down the line". To that end, we’re playing up the fact that we want good stories, with good characters. If you can nail those, the hard work is done. Adding a stylized vocabulary or an unusually picaresque way with metaphor is the icing, but let’s have the cake there first for us to decorate. (Among the team I am especially known for my crap analogies.) So we’re looking for traditional as well as experimental, and whatever your story or style, plot and character and setting must work.
Cheryl: Do you have a position on eBooks? I note that Tor have just joined Baen in producing electronic books free of copy protection.
Marc: I’m keen for us to get a few books out, then we’ll see. Black Library has a project we’re looking at. If that comes together and works for us, we’ll be sure to roll it out for Solaris, where rights allow us. Personally though, I wonder how much of the success our friends at Baen are seeing is because it’s a novelty — in other words, is it a great marketing gimmick or is it a real breakthrough in providing books for people who wouldn’t otherwise access them? I think the jury’s out, but it’s great they’re having a go at something different. And if they do make it work, well, there’ll be a rush to adopt the same ideas and we’ll be right there in that mob.
Cheryl: One of the things that really interests me about your company is that you have a presence in both the UK and US. You publish simultaneously in both markets. I can see that being very useful for writers as they only need to sell the book once to hit both markets.
Marc: That’s true. Some agents have hesitated on the suspicion that if they could sell a book into two territories in two deals they would automatically get more cash for their authors. But we’re paying for UK and US rights, not getting one or the other free. For other agents and authors, our ability to hit the mass-market in both countries (and all the other English-speaking countries worldwide) with no extra deals has been seen as a benefit. I think the biggest issue internally is the ongoing argument as to whether the books should have UK or US spelling.
Cheryl: Are there any noticeable differences between the US and UK markets? For example, Tor in the US have gone for splitting up long novels, apparently in part because of pressure from bookstore chains, but Gollancz in the UK are still publishing enormous fantasy novels.
Marc: I wonder whether the pressure on Tor is more to do with maintaining price points. Could just be my pet theory of the day, but there is a growing problem between the US and UK markets in that the price of books in the UK has risen regularly over the last ten years, whereas in the US there’s barely been a dollar on a mass market book. It’s why publishers are experimenting with trade paperbacks and the hybrids like the recent shape that is as tall as a trade but as narrow as a mass-market — it allows you to charge more but still keeps the books in the independent sector’s spinner racks. In the UK, extra pages have meant publishers can raise the price — you’re getting more for your money, in effect, to justify paying another pound. In the US, your thicker book isn’t always followed by an increased price, which might make it uneconomic to print some of the most massive tomes. More prosaically, perhaps some books only work economically in two parts, due to large advances, nervousness about sales or whatever.
Marc: For Solaris, we’re trying to stick to the rule that the story is as long as it takes to tell, and the titles will all balance out in the end. We know that many fantasy readers appreciate the deep, immersive experience of a truly brick-sized novel and we’re not going to deny them. But I know that the marketplace will ultimately dictate the formats we use. The bigger issue for us might be grey importing of US editions back to the UK, where they might sell for a couple of quid less, since on current exchange rates US versions of UK novels should really be priced at $12-14 rather than the standard $7-8. Not all that much we can do about it though, so we’ll remain sanguine and just be content when readers buy our books, period. Sorry, that was all a bit serious and Economics 101-esque. Back to the enthusiastic frothing, eh?
Cheryl: Your initial press release mentioned a group of editors who will be working with you. Who are they and what background do they have in SF&F?
Marc: Series consultant editor George Mann. He joined us a couple of years ago from huge UK book chain Ottakar’s, where he was the company SF expert and produced their Outland fanzine. His Mammoth Guide to SF and his Telos work have shown he’s equally at home with fiction and the legacy of our peers, and his insights and connections have been invaluable.
Cheryl: Obviously you will be at Eastercon this year, and presumably FantasyCon as well given that it is in your home town of Nottingham, but will you or your staff be attending American conventions as well from now on?
Marc: Yep, both the Worldcon and more regional events too. As you know, we also have US-based sales and marketing staff, who continue to promote us at US and Canadian shows. Our links to the bigger Games Workshop corporation mean we can also call on local support for manning stands and hitting shows across the US.
Cheryl: Are you going to take any other steps to push Solaris within the SF&F community? For example, are we going to see you starting a blog?
Marc: Our marketing and promotion plans are being assembled, in conjunction with our distributors. Obviously our job is to ensure that the whole SF&F community from genre commentators like you to everyday readers know all about us. The proof of their success will be seen in the sales figures. We have a few innovative ideas, but the most important will be the traditional areas of community, reviews, events and bookstores. The SF&F community is incredibly valuable both as a means of letting people know we make good books, but also as a support mechanism that will give us great feedback and encouragement to help us grow and produce great books.
Cheryl: Are there any writers that you have already signed up that you can tell us about?
Marc: Nope! We’re about four weeks away from our next announcement, which should cover our first signings. We’re all contracted, but we’re doing this steadily and under control. If I was being cheeky, I’d dare to add that if I give you another press release in a month’s time I can ensure we get another mention from you, thus doubling our exposure on Emerald City with ease, but that would of course be most ungracious of me…
Cheryl: Fortunately I’m no longer running role-playing games, so nothing bad will happen to your characters.
Cheryl: If you could have a free choice amongst all of today’s leading SF&F writers, who would you want to publish?
Marc: Me personally? Well, you know I love that slightly left-of-centre modern fantasy, whether Jonathan Carroll, Graham Joyce, China Miéville, Ian R. MacLeod, Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem, so many tremendous writers. I’ve also just had my head explode by a chance discovery of Mark Helprin only a few decades late, and I’m bemused, shall we say, by his apparent lack of a current UK publisher.
Marc: But at the risk of sounding cheesy, I’m more excited by thought of publishing the next great author, not the next book by someone who I’ve already enjoyed. In our initial contacts for Solaris we’ve come across a couple of titles that have had us punching the air and champing at the bit to publish, that are new and fresh, exciting entertainments. In both cases we’re up against other publishers so I can’t go into details (pint of Stella the next time we’re both leaning on the same bar, eh?), but if either one comes off I’ll be very pleased indeed. That’s what it’s all about for me.
Cheryl: I’m not sure that you can get Stella in Anaheim, but I’m sure they’ll have something suitable, and there’s always FantasyCon.
Cheryl: And thinking of Anaheim: realistically what every new publishing company wants is to sell lots of books, but are you also thinking that you might one day publish a book that wins a Hugo?
Marc: Awards are for authors, not publishers. Our biggest reward over the next five-ten years will be picking the right books that sell enough to keep us publishing more of the same. That’s worth any amount of awards.
Cheryl: Marc Gascoigne, thank you for talking to Emerald City.