Getting up steam

The history of Big Engine, part 2

Books need distribution …

I did it all from home at first, in particular the founder member copies of each new title as it came out and any orders paid for by cheque. (Including the copy of The Leaky Establishment which, I noticed just before sticking the stamp on, was addressed to a block of flats just across the road from the post office. I hand delivered that one.) They got to know me well at the local post office just around the corner. I would weigh up a single copy in a jiffy, get the postage for UK and abroad, and buy X x UK stamps and Y x foreign ones. Naturally the amounts were never quite enough to be covered by a single stamp but would have to be built up out of two or three different denominations.

Then I would take the stamps back home, generally hire a child/teenager from friends, and we would have a jiffy stuffing + stamp sticking marathon for a couple of hours. The child would usually be rewarded with a banknote of some denomination. I will admit to getting a slight thrill whenever I was able to put “child labour” as an item under petty cash.

But, it was soon quite clear I couldn’t keep doing it this way. I called up all the distributors I had worked with before, and several others besides, but none would touch a small start-up company. There had been some notable insolvencies and they were all feeling skittish. Fortunately I learnt about Chris Reed of BBR, who took on the job and we got on very well. However, this led to further drawbacks in that Waterstones and Andromeda wouldn’t deal with BBR, due to Chris’s strange habit of requiring payment up-front. From the publisher’s point of view, especially a publisher who is used to the non-fiction market, this is thoroughly reasonable. Giving unlimited, open-ended credit is fine if you’re running your business as a charity but not as… well, a business. The only alternative, really, was to handle these odd exceptions myself.

But that was nothing compared to the problem of Amazon. Their single-handed vendetta against the book trade is nothing new …

On the day that Molly Brown’s Bad Timing was published, Amazon emailed everyone who had ordered a copy to say that they had checked with the publisher and it had been cancelled: they were therefore cancelling all the orders. This I learnt in a panicked phone call from Molly late one Friday night. It took about a week of sitting on the phone and leaving voicemails to sort this out.

‘Checked with the publisher’ turned out to mean, ‘heard a vague rumour from the wholesaler’ – even though the wholesaler got its information from BookData, and BookData said the book was in print. They were very apologetic, but because they relied purely on the wholesaler (and the occasional throw of a dice or tarot reading) for book details, they just went with what they thought they knew.

But! they asked, have you considered our amusingly-named Advantage programme? Books in the Advantage programme were supplied directly by the publisher, and the publisher’s information was the only information Amazon used. Therefore the publisher could keep a much tighter grip on what was going on. For this privilege, Amazon required a 60% discount on Advantage books. If enough sold, it was knocked down to 50%.

Thus we had Amazon effectively blackmailing small publishers like Big Engine into giving ruinous discounts, or letting them go through the wholesalers at friendlier rates but running the risk of their book being unilaterally declared out of print or otherwise hideously mishandled.

Books need acquiring.

I was expecting to be deluged with manuscripts the moment news of Big Engine broke on a waiting world, and I wasn’t disappointed. This was despite the best efforts of Parcelforce who, it turned out, could or would not deliver to a PO box number. They would happily take the customer’s money to deliver a manuscript, then presumably get as far as the Abingdon post depot where I went to collect PO box deliveries. Rather than think: “hey, it’s the depot; you know, I just bet there’s a PO box in there somewhere” it was “eek! A depot! I must return this immediately, and just for a laugh I’ll put the intended recipient’s name down as sender.” Thus, several authors had their work sent straight back to them by return, apparently by me, and assumed I was giving it an immediate rejection without even bothering to comment. It was hurtful and unprofessional, and I had no way of knowing it was happening until I got the puzzled, miffed emails. I complained, bitterly, but the whole complexity of delivering to PO boxes remained far too much for Parcelforce to handle and it was never really solved.

Most manuscripts did get through, maybe by using another courier. The deluge started as soon as I got back from the Glasgow Eastercon.

Some novels I read, and considered, and got back to the author with suggestions of how it could be improved. Others I rejected …

  • A fantasy novel in which the main character wakes up on page 1 on a glacier, with no memory of who he is or how he got there or what he is doing. He is clutching a strange artefact that he doesn’t recognise. So far so promising; and yet, by the end of chapter 1, every one of those questions had been answered. The hook for the reader to keep reading? There wasn’t one.
  • A novel in which – for reasons that I never fully gathered – the European parliament had abolished women. The entire population of Europe was male, and gay, and reproduced by cloning, while a heroic underground resistance army of women sabotaged the clone factories and fought to restore the natural order. Strangely, this one was written by a man. It was meant to be a dire warning about the dangers of cloning but sadly just ended up dire.
  • A novel in which the Cuban Missile Crisis had actually degenerated into nuclear war: years later the level of background radiation was so high that the safest way to reproduce was cloning (again) and the population lived in underground cities. Except that everything else was pretty well the same. Everyone lived a relatively normal life, the US was still a world power …

Those were all cases of ‘promising, but.’ The authors had had the germ of an idea, but hadn’t really thought it through to explore all its conclusions.

To cut down on the workload I asked authors to send me the opening chapters of a novel and a synopsis of the rest. If I liked what I saw, I’d ask to see the rest of the book. Sometimes the synopsis bore no resemblance whatsoever to what I had just read. “Ah,” would come the reply, “I’m setting up the characters for later novels. This novel isn’t really about them …”

Or, they would protest that I should be reading later chapters, because that’s where the story kicks in. The opening chapters are just set-up. So cut the opening chapters, I would reply. You may know you have the best ending ever all set up and flawlessly executed, but the readers don’t, and they need a reason to get past page one.

There were nuggets of gold. Every now and then I would read chapters that made me cry, “yes! Send me more!” And it would be great fun to read more, and work with the author on really polishing the manuscript. In 2004 Gollancz (no less) published Steph Swainston’s debut novel, The Year of Our War, to rave reviews and a rapturous reception from key names like M. John Harrison and China Miéville. She had come to me first. I’ve no idea where she heard about me, but she sent me the first draft and I was captivated. I did make some comments on it, which I thought would tighten it up still further, so she incorporated them… and sold it on to Gollancz. Which I really can’t complain about, because even if Big Engine was still around, Gollancz could do much more for her than I could, and she deserves the best.

I did get a special acknowledgement in the book for my help.

The problem is that for every Steph Swainston there are 99 can’t-make-it-and-never-wills; and plenty more in between, who could make it with the right breaks. The good writers nestle like minute nuggets of gold in the slush pile, which for me was actually a slush line as I kept submissions in a line along the floor, so I could at least try and read them democratically in the order that they came in. But you come away with the distinct feeling that some people should only be licensed to write.

As the line of unread material grew and grew, so I also felt more and more guilty about letting my prospective authors down.

And then I decided that what Big Engine really needed to do was launch a magazine.

To be continued …