Lately, one of the big stories in science fiction and fantasy publishing has been the British invasion. A number of British publishers have come to the States, including Orbit Books, Angry Robot, and now Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus. We talked to editor Jo Fletcher about why British publishers are coming to America.
Top image: Map from Mage's Blood by David Hair.
So how is the expansion to the US going so far?
Surprisingly well — [or maybe] not surprisingly, [since Quercus] put an awful lot behind it. I’ve been very agreeably surprised both by the support from the booksellers and indeed from the from the reviewers. I’ve got two books in this first month and then one book a month for the rest of this year. And then there will be one or two books, most months [next year]. And it’s been fun picking the ones that we really think will work in America. But to be honest... there doesn't seem to be such a great divide between Britain and America [for science fiction and fantasy] as there seems to be with some other forms of fiction.
What do you mean?
I mean there aren’t that many books that I don’t think would only work in American or only work in Britain. I think readers are open to new experiences. And, as I say, the reaction, especially to Mage’s Blood [by David Hair], has been absolutely terrific. I couldn’t have asked for a better launch book.
Why are so many British publishers coming to America right now? And why are there so many smaller imprints coming out of the U.K.?
I think it’s pure economics. The book industry in Britain is not great at the moment. We’re struggling through the recession with very poor sales. So obviously we’re looking to see where they can make money, and America is five times the size [of] the market in the UK. So it does seem to me that if you’re a small nimble company that you can do this much easier perhaps than the bigger boys. If you’re a big company setting up in America, it automatically becomes a much bigger thing.
But I think it’s got as much to do with all the lists. All of the major lists have their own identities. I’m sure you can look at a book just as well as me and say, "Oh, that’s an Ace book," or "Oh, that’s a Harper book." The smaller lists, like me and like Angry Robot particularly, are doing a lot of different things, rather than one particular thing, and I think that’s helping to make people [notice]. You can’t buy one Jo Fletcher book and say, "Oh, I don’t like what she’s doing." Because the next one is going to be completely different.
I’m just curious as to why there seem to be so many new publishers and imprints starting and expanding in the UK recently.
It’s weird. When I first started, there was a bit of an explosion. There were lists starting up. Most of them either didn’t last or got folded into other lists. And then for years... we just sat there, not expanding particularly, but also not contracting — and then all of a sudden [there are a lot of new imprints], and I suspect it's something to do with people at the top looking around, publishers always looking for the next best the next big thing. Both in genre and in specific titles. Women in peril, or literary memoir, or whatever.
The upper echelon seem to say, "Well, this fantasy stuff seems to be selling." Then you look at things like Game of Thrones, and they [believe] there’s money in that. There’s gold in them there hills. And most of them are having the sense to hire people who know what they’re doing. Which is not always been the case, I have to say. And so in Britain for fantasy and science fiction readers, I can’t remember when we’ve been in a better position.
The bigger boys are cutting down on the number of books they publish a year, just because it’s they are too full. If you add on all of the new imprints and search titles per year, it’s not a huge number of books in the great scheme of things. But it is a much wider selection of books that we’ve had in recent years. So if I were just a reader, I would be thrilled.
And meanwhile, the thing that everybody seems to be talking about right now in publishing is the move towards ebooks and the ability to do shorter works you know like novellas and novelettes as Kindle Singles. Do you think print publishers is going to be able to take advantage of that in the next few years?
Yes, I do. [The main problem is] that the agents are quite likely are concerned that they’re not going to make money. The trouble is, if you pay a decent advance for a novelette or a novella, the chance of it paying out are quite slender. But if you start looking at different ways to to contract this sort of thing — especially, as you say, with Kindle Singles and ebooks generally — it becomes possible for both parties to make money, publisher and author. And it’s very important to me that my authors do make money. I don’t ever want to be in a position where authors are publishing for love and nothing else. I think in that way lies ruin.
So it’s important we find different ways to contract. To buy a book [currently], everyone has to go through some sort of editorial meeting. And so the crux of it generally is how much is going to sell and how much are we going to make. If you start off by saying we’ve got a $20,000 advance on a novella, you're going to get nowhere. There are some wonderful short story collections out there, [but] the fact remains — and for reasons I truly have never understood — short story collections have never sold as well as novels. Authors want to write short stories, and I think it’s good for them — apart from the fact that I love reading them — because it hones their talents in different ways. and every time an author writes something of a different kind, it has to be good for them. But if they’re writing short fiction that they can’t sell anywhere, it becomes a labor of love, and that worries me. If we can find new ways to use short fiction like this, it’s better for everyone. It’s better for readers, it's better for writers, and it’s better for publishers too.
Is it getting harder to market books that are hard to categorize in terms of genre? Books that are beautiful but not easily pigeonholed?
It doesn't help that here in Britain, Waterstones, which for many many years has been the dominant book chain, has now changed its modus operandi. It used to consider itself part of building new authors, and when way back at Gollancz, we started pushing debut authors, Waterstones was very much a part of that. They have recently decided in the last two or three years, that is no longer how they see their role. They will respond to their customer's demands, so if a customer asks for a book, they’ll get it in — but they won’t necessarily stock it in great piles and hope that readers will come in and find it. That’s proving incredibly difficult for us, so publishers are changing the way they work. It is very hard anyway. But we do have to find new ways of getting books to the readers. And you’re absolutely right — if you can’t say this is the new G. R. R. Martin or the new Hunger Games, then you’re at a grave disadvantage right from the start.
Right. A few years ago, every book was trying to be the next Hunger Games. And there seemed to be a period where every book was trying to be the next George R.R. Martin. Do you think that the economics of publishing, and the death of the independent bookstore are making that sort of feeding frenzy more prevalent?
Yeah. I do. I think if you’ve got a new author when you're taking a book in-house you tell them what it’s about — probably the only time you tell them what it’s about —and then you say I think this will sell, because it will appeal to readers of X. And as soon as you say that, that’s all people hear. So if you say "I’ve got something that is the new Tom Clancy," [then] every time someone in house tries to sell it, they'll say "This is the new Tom Clancy."
Now, you may not mean it is the new Tom Clancy, you may just mean that, "I think someone who likes Tom Clancy will like this," which is not entirely the same thing. But it's a kind of shorthand, and it's a particular shorthand for booksellers and readers who don’t know what they want. To say, "If you like this, you will like that." But the problem is, the crash in independent bookshops is [making things worse]. Before you had a bunch of of extremely and extremely knowledgeable booksellers who know their field, whatever that field may be. You would expect to go to the bookshop and say look I want something to read, and the bookseller would say, "Well, last week you had the new Angus Donald. Why don’t you try Robert Fabri this week?"
We don’t have that anymore. We have a lot of short term booksellers — and that's not to diss them, and I know an awful lot of them do a wonderful job, but I know it’s much harder these days to make your mark on a chain, especially when your bosses just want books to come in and fly out again.
That’s the first problem. The second problem is publishing goes in cycles. We buy in cycles too. A couple of years ago the only thing you could buy pretty much was paranormal romance. And before that it was literary memoirs and before that it was chick lit. Its like publishers are continually running to catch up to what they think the readers want. Of course I absolutely don’t blame them.
What I’m trying to do — and I wouldn’t want you to think that I don’t want the next big thing, because believe me, I absolutely do! — I’m spreading my bets, if you will. So I’ve got an epic fantasy in Mage’s Blood, which I think is perfect for the epic fantasy market which at the moment is predominantly George Martin and Robert Jordan. I don’t think that it is a absolute copy of either — it’s not a copy at all — but it is right for that market. And at the same time I’ve got a massive German SS thriller which is a million seller in Germany. Which is Frank Schatzing’s Limit. For the Michael Crichton market. Those two markets are about as different as you can get, but I’ve still got to tell my sales people the sort of markets that they should be looking for.
You've worked with Ursula K. Le Guin and Charlaine Harris and other great female authors, but I saw you also posted recently on your blog that you have a hard time getting female authors to submit, especially in science fiction. Why do you think there’s that sort of barrier to female authors submitting science fiction to publishers, and how do we fix that?
That’s a really good question, and if I knew the answer… I’ve been in the field for a very long time, and in my experience, it has always been the case that there are far fewer women writing science fiction than there are writing fantasy. But those who do write science fiction I think there are many more brilliant female writers of SF, per number published, than there are male numbers published. If you are a woman writing in SF and you’re doing it well, then you tend to be pretty special. I can’t off the top of my head think of any mediocre female writers of SF.
So do you think it’s just that people get discouraged early? They see that there aren’t that many women being published in science fiction so they move into fantasy?
I think it’s also true that female writers of SF don’t sell as well as male writers of SF, again in my experience, for reasons I absolutely don’t understand. I know that when I’m in Frankfurt next week and I’ve got 3 SF writers and I know that I will spend the whole time listening to foreign editors shake their heads and say, "Oh, these reviews are wonderful, but unfortunately I can't sell a female sf writer."
I’ve had to ask some of my authors to consider using their initials if they’re going to try and sell their books abroad, and it breaks my heart to do that.
This is specifically in other parts of Europe or in the US?
In other parts of Europe. But even in Britain, female sf writers don’t sell as well as male ones. How many female SF writers can you name who sell as well as Charlie Stross, say?
We have this discussion quite often. do I consider myself a feminist? Damn straight I do! I should get paid exactly the same as my male counterparts and I think female authors writing as well as male authors should be selling as many copies. I think that, in the 21st Century, me telling a female writer that she should consider using her initials if she wants to sell her book abroad is heinous. But it’s actually her choice, not my choice. What do you do? Do you stick to your guns, and say, "No, I’m not going to suggest that," knowing that it won’t sell? Or do you say, "No, I want that author to get out there, I want people to start reading female writers, and say oh my gosh this is brilliant, why have I never picked up a women before"?
Yeah, that is really depressing.
I’ve got three female SF writers. I’ve got Karen Lord, who’s already been lauded throughout the [world]. Wonderful, wonderful writer. I’ve got Stephanie Saulter and I’ve got Naomi Foyle. and they all, they’re all very different. Except that Karen Lord and Stephanie Saulter are both Caribbean female sf writers, which I think is amazing. But they’re all brilliant, and I’m so thrilled — so thrilled to have them on my list. They don’t all do they same thing. but they're all very different. The more of that sort of book that we can publish, the more women might stop being frightened of SF. It's not scary. Maybe it needs more rigor [than fantasy] — although, to be honest, if you're doing a really good fantasy, you’ve got to be just as rigorous in the world building.
I don’t think it’s a question of rigor, I think it’s a bunch of factors. Probably the same things that keep women out of the tech industry.
I think you’re absolutely right. We’re talking about breaking glass ceilings in business. But the fact that we’re still talking about breaking glass ceilings in science and tech and SF… isn’t that awful? There’s no doubt [that] people are starting to ask questions — and the more that happens the more people will want to start to see that this is something that needs to change.
Interview transcribed by Emily Stamm.