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 …

Big Engine: ten years later

From 2000-2003 I ran my own science fiction publishing company, Big Engine. I forget when exactly in 2003 it folded: it must have been before Easter, because I remember being able to go to Eastercon and it was already a fait accompli. A grateful Rog Peyton added the table I had booked in the dealers’ room to his own.

So, ten years later and in four parts, here is the first official history of Big Engine. Abridged.

I’d always expected that if I ran my own company then it would be a publishing company: that was all I had ever worked in. I had also expected that there would be a planning period, a run-up of several years. I hadn’t expected to be cast out into the wilderness quite so suddenly as I was in the first week of January 2000.

There was also the minor matter of knowing what I was going to publish. For all my love of science fiction, I really didn’t expect to end up publishing it. I had expected that my hypothetical company would find a niche in some non-fiction field, selling to professionals who actively need your books (or can be persuaded that they do) and can quite often buy them out of their departmental budget. I did consider military history as there were two books that immediately came to mind for reprinting: my own father’s SAS: Operation Oman, and The Log of the Centurion, the story of a distant relative who circumnavigated the globe with Commodore Anson on HMS Centurion.

I wasn’t strapped for cash; I had my two months’ pay in lieu of notice, I had a bit put away in savings and Wingèd Chariot was shortly to be published, releasing the final instalment of my advance. But I still had to be doing something, and doing it quick. So I went with what I knew best, which was science fiction.

And the name of the company? In an email to a friend, discussing the company, I finished with the line “I can do it, I can do it,” quoting Gordon the Big Engine as he pulled an unexpectedly heavy line of carriages – or was it naughty trucks? – up a steep hill.

So, Big Engine it was.

I wanted to do reprints: that had been at the back of my mind ever since falling in love with Brian Stableford’s Hooded Swan series, and having to track it down, book by book and out of order,  in those pre-eBay or days. And guess what: the Hooded Swan series appeared in a single volume,  as Big Engine’s fourth title, launched at the 2002 Eastercon in St Helier where Brian Stableford was Guest of Honour, and titled (inevitably) Swan Songs.

I also wanted to publish original fiction. I reckoned that even if I didn’t make new authors famous, I could at least get a book out with their name on, and get it in front of reviewers, and give them something to show for their effort. Because I had helped critique them through my writers’ group, 3SF, I immediately knew two very good novels that were languishing for want of a publisher: Feather & Bone by Gus Smith (CJD, child abuse, cannibalism and skinny dipping lesbian witches on the Northumbrian moors) and Dead Ground by Chris Amies (HP Lovecraft in the South Pacific: sun, sea and imperial decline merging seamlessly into the much darker forces at work). [Both, incidentally, to be republished shortly by Clarion Publishing.]

And short story collections – don’t forget those. Molly Brown had a good portfolio of published work, which came out as my second title, Bad Timing; and when I contacted David Pringle at Interzone to ask how to get in touch with Brian Stableford he offered me a collection of Interzone stories that had fallen through with a previous publisher. This was published as The Ant-Men of Tibet & Other Stories. He even offered to put one of my own stories into the collection but I declined; I thought it best not to get my own writing and Big Engine confused.

But for my launch title there could only be one: David Langford’s The Leaky Establishment, which I had read at university and had been long been out of print.

I think Dave was the first of the reprint authors that I contacted. He put me in touch with his agent, Christopher Priest, who was very helpful in this and many other ways over the next couple of years, and the contract he provided for this book was to be the model I used for all the others.

When I asked Dave if I could publish Leaky, it turned out he had just finished getting it scanned onto disk so that it could be published in the US as an e-book. He kindly pulled it from that project and let me have it. He also dropped a mention that a big fan of the book and fellow veteran of the nuclear industry, one Terry Pratchett, had kindly offered to write an introduction if it would help get the book back in print. Was I interested?

Well, what do you think?

Leaky – quite possibly because of the Pratchett connection – was my best-selling title.

Big Engine’s first public appearance was in the form of leaflets scattered at Eastercon 2000 in Glasgow. This was my first Eastercon – I’d always been able to think of better things to do with my Easters, previously – and unfortunately one of the worst-run ones in recent memory. I had nothing to compare it with so assumed the rampant mismanagement was normal. I handed out/dropped flyers and sample chapters and generally did what I could to raise awareness and interest – which wasn’t much, given my usual shyness and a sudden, crashing awareness of exactly what I was taking on.

I got my very first order! It was for Leaky and it was from a Swedish gentleman, whose credit card had expired by the time I actually got round to publishing the book a year later. But he was quick to give me the new number and so he became my very first customer.

I generated enough interest that I soon had a launch list of twelve titles. Twelve titles, twelve months in a year … I know, why not do a “founder member” offer: get people to give me money up front and receive a book a month for a year at less than their cover price? Actually that would have been disastrous and sunk me almost immediately. As it was I got the first eleven published over a two year period – still ambitious but, frankly, something I’m also proud of.

Books need printing.

The grand plan was all very well but if the books couldn’t be printed affordably then it would all come to nothing. In principle you can charge what cover price you like to pay for a book’s production, but if it’s beyond what a reader thinks is a reasonable price for the book in hand then they simply won’t be bought.

Nowadays any good printer will offer a short run digital print service. It was less common in 2000. A pioneer of this in the UK was Lightning Source. This was the first time I heard of print-on-demand and I was immensely sceptical at first, but couldn’t argue with the evidence of my own eyes. It really was possible to print short runs of books, even one book at a time, that looked just like a ‘real’ book.

For a slightly higher unit cost …

(With POD, in principle a book never needs to go out of print, but that raises a contractual issue that Christopher Priest brought to my attention. Its ancient wisdom now but was counter-intuitive and revolutionary back then: an author might actually want the book to go out of print so that rights can revert to him rather than be retained, dog-in-the-manger, by the publisher. Thus, Big Engine contracts all included a time limit clause.)

But, as I was to discover, POD is fine for keeping titles in print but it isn’t for a new publisher launching new titles. Lightning Source were the initial printers of my first books – as well as individual copies, they also did runs of however many hundred copies I wanted, and of course I wanted multiple copies for promotion. But POD has (or had) no economies of scale: unit costs were identical whether you printed one book or 1000, and those unit costs were higher than for a normal print run. This is fine if you want to charge a lot but not if you want the price to be as reader-friendly as possible.

For publicity purposes, you need copies of books that you can just give away to reviewers, and you would normally do that by having a run of books sufficiently large that the unit costs are negligible. The sales that you manage should pay for the entire run.

But with POD, every free publicity copy is a loss, because every copy is paid for in the same way. So, although POD enabled me to get started with Big Engine, I was soon printing books conventionally with short print runs (typically 200-400). The idea was that with the initial publicity and sales drive out of the way, I would shunt the book over to POD for further sales.

I also found some incredible hang-ups about the whole POD thing which made the authors nervous. The urban myths were maintained with a near-superstitious dread. “POD books come apart in the sunlight,” I was told – um, no. “Amazon won’t stock POD” – well, they have their faults, but that wasn’t one of them.

I lost a pretty big name author who was torn between offers from me and Golden Gryphon, and went for the latter “because I will get a print run.” Which he would have got if he’d chosen me, too.

There were also, let’s say, operational difficulties with Lightning Source. At the time they had an office in Milton Keynes but no actual printing equipment; their books were printed in the US and shipped over. And for some reason – maybe because we were using UK book sizes, which confused the Americans – they seemed unable to print the books right. First they printed Leaky a size too small, so that everything was off-centre and all you could see of the Big Engine logo on the front cover was the wheels of the steam train. (Dave kindly announced that he would not refer to the company as Big Bogies.) Despite immediately correcting that and apologising, they did exactly the same for my second title, Bad Timing. For my grand launch at Eastercon 2001, I therefore had piles of (finally) correctly sized Leakys, one badly sized copy of Bad Timing to show that it did at least exist in some form, and laser proofs of that and The Ant-Men of Tibet. I had been hoping for all three in sellable form.

These errors were all promptly corrected at the right size at no further cost to me, but I felt like I was pulling teeth every time I went about the very simple process of getting a book published.

Fortunately that was just an operational hiccup, and once Lightning Source’s UK operation was running there were no further problems there. In fact, a reprint of Leaky was the very first title to run off their presses and it was framed in their office when I last visited.

Eastercon 2001 was Big Engine’s first big public outing with tangible products rather than promises and it made a considerable amount of money, mostly through the founder member offer. It was a highly profitable weekend and I took great pleasure from banking the proceeds. I ignored the small voice at the back of my mind pointing out that I would need a weekend like that every weekend of the year to stay solvent…

To be continued!

John Dickinson

It is a crime against English fantasy, and a major indictment of the Random House marketing department, that John Dickinson isn’t more famous. He has written several books but in particular I’m talking about a fantasy trilogyThe Cup of the World, The Widow & the King, and The Fatal Child.

At first glance we have yer usual medieval fantasy – a world of kings and queens and lords and draughty castles. It’s the philosophy, the religion, the ethics of the series that make it such fun. The set-up is original and unusual, and it provides a backdrop for all kinds of thought and speculation on morality and duty and good and bad.

The official religion is vaguely Christian but with the four archangels taking the place of the Trinity, the saints and the BVM. Co-existing with this in the background is the local lore, which – this being a fantasy series – is also absolutely true. There is no necessary clash between the two, though the church says there is. The church provides political power and the lore provides the real power. That’s where the narrative tension arises and is what makes the series great.

The ancestors of the present inhabitants arrived from across the sea a few centuries ago, led by a group of brothers. The leader and eldest brother committed a grievous sin – the murder of a child whose mother happened to be the local goddess – when they arrived and this crime has become part of the lore. Now anyone who practices the magic that the lore makes available tends to be contaminated with the guilt of that sin. And the practitioners tend to be the aristocracy of the land – the descendants of those brothers.

Unfortunately it’s a very politically useful magic – the ability to see what’s happening elsewhere and even the ability to travel in hours through a kind of magical hyperspace between points in the realm that would take weeks or months to do on foot. (Said hyperspace is a barren, rocky bowl where, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the goddess weeping, still mourning her child.) The weaker rulers use it for fun but even the stronger, best-intentioned ones find it too hard to resist sometimes. If you want to put down a rebellion many leagues away and get there now then you do the putting down first and worry about the consequences for you, your loved ones and your royal house second. Thus you have a land where even the most well-intentioned efforts of the noblest rulers are contaminated by a kind of original sin and effectively doomed to failure in interesting and unpredictable ways. There is still free will and there are few out-and-out villains beyond any kind of redemption. Individuals can be saved – but can the land?

The three novels are sequential but can be read on their own too. So do yourself a favour and then tell me if I’m wrong.