End of the line

The history of Big Engine, part 4

The clue was when I first needed to put the printing bills on my credit card. Getting into debt on the card was something I had successfully avoided all this time, despite Mastercard’s kindly sending me unsolicited chequebooks drawn against the card, with friendly invitations like ‘why not write yourself a cheque and give yourself some funds?’ I finally succumbed. I remember sitting at the computer, shuffling about amounts of money from one account to another on the spreadsheet to see how it could all be made to work … and throwing back my head and howling, “I hate 3SF!”

3SF managed one more issue, February 2003. The fourth was in preparation. Meanwhile I was about to publish the twelfth and last of Big Engine’s initial founder member titles, after which I intended to publish Charles Stross’s Festival of Fools (which went on to be published as Singularity Sky: see his version of events here) and Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine. (That’s Chris, as in, Clarke winner this year.) And Kit Reed’s Weird Women, Wired Women and Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers series. The big names had heard of me by now.

But I looked at the spreadsheets, saw the bills that were falling due within the next couple of months, and then balanced that against projected sales, the amount of money presently available, and the maximum credit that I could squeeze out of every available resource, up to and including my own credit card. It just didn’t work out.

There was another choice, because by now I was getting the hang of running the company. I’d made all my youthful mistakes, I knew what I was doing, and I could have gone down the path of finding some secure backing and really, really committing to the company for the next… oh, five years minimum. But by then, to be honest, I’d had enough, and I didn’t think I had five years’ worth of belt-tightening and poverty in me.

I also looked at all the writing I could be doing instead. I knew the company had to close.

I made the decision on a Wednesday evening and called Liz, because I thought she had the right to be the first to know. I felt absolutely terrible about it because it made 3SF the second magazine to be shot from under her by a publisher through no fault of her own and she deserved so much better. Then I called my parents and told them. Then I dropped my accountant a line and asked how one actually did this; she told me about liquidators. And then I retired to bed with Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, the first book I could read in three years without feeling guilty that I wasn’t reading manuscripts instead. The next day I called up two liquidators out of the phonebook. One of them wasn’t in and never called back. The other was in Witney, just down the road from the day job, and I could make an appointment for that afternoon.

Word soon got out.

The next to hear, after Liz and my parents and my accountant and the liquidators, was Chris Priest; I thought as a veteran author with so much experience tucked under his belt he might have useful hints. Everyone up to and including Chris kept quiet about it, pending the official announcement, though Chris was soon champing at the bit for me to go public because he really wanted to tell Dave Langford. I had every intention of telling Dave ASAP, not just because he was an author but because I wanted to make an announcement in Ansible.

Then I told the authors. At this point in my life I had very little conception of the power of blogs. Charlie Stross put it on his blog and later the same day people were getting in touch to express condolences. Before long half the SF community knew.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun, but I’m pleased and proud to say that no one really lost out. The contributors to 3SF #3 didn’t get paid, which isn’t good by any means, but it was out of my hands. I hadn’t realised that, immediately I declared my intention to liquidate, I could no longer write a cheque to anyone – from them on every payment had to be at the liquidator’s discretion. Otherwise, a subscription to 3SF is the most that anyone lost out on – and of the six planned issues for the first year, they all got the first three.

It was far from ideal but it wouldn’t break anyone’s bank. I emphatically didn’t blaze a trail of red ink across the ledgers of half the publishing industry, and I’m very pleased about that. Big Engine disappeared with barely a ripple.

All the authors had the right to take their books back if the company folded – I had been careful to put that in the contracts – and most of them exercised that right straight off, which of course diminished the company’s resale value at a stroke. (The more traditional course taken by insolvent publishers was to sell the company and then let the authors know about it, which gets round that problem, but I didn’t want to treat the authors like that.) A loyal remnant hung on in case a buyer could be found, but none could, so all rights reverted.

John Betancourt of Wildside Press put in an offer of £500 for the books but not the magazine. He then got so fed up with the liquidator’s dallying (I don’t think the poor man was used to companies that only had intellectual property, with no physical assets to flog off) that he withdrew it so Big Engine didn’t even get that. It was well and truly over.

And I had no regrets. It was a great three years; it meant I could have my fun while I was still young, free and single, with no one to hurt but myself; it opened doors and helped me make new contacts and friends that I value; and it means I will never be haunted by the question of ‘what if I ran a company?’ because I now know the answer. I think the world is better off that way.

3SF, and the beginning of the end

The history of Big Engine, part 3

To make ends meet in mid-2001 I started working for a Witney-based publisher of law journals. I became much more aware of how a journal publisher actually works than I ever had before. I hadn’t realised before just how useful periodicals are for smoothing out the cashflow. You get a constant, steady stream – or at least a trickle – of cash in the form of subscriptions, whereas if you just publish books, all your income clusters around the publication dates. So, I decided Big Engine needed a magazine.

I mentioned it to Liz Holliday, who had edited the short-lived Odyssey back in the nineties – a very worthy attempt at a science fiction magazine but sabotaged by an inept publisher (a sad story shortly to sound strangely reminiscent). Liz didn’t quite bite my hand off by asking if she could be editor, possibly only because I moved quickly enough. It was exactly what I had intended to suggest, though, because I knew I couldn’t handle that workload too.

Liz had long dreamed of calling a magazine 3SF, after our writers’ group. So why not? It was short and catchy and people would wonder why we chose it. We retrofitted an explanation into the magazine’s strapline: Science Fiction, Speculative Fantasy, Strange Facts.

Word spreads very quickly in the SF community. Liz just had to mention in a couple of discussion groups that she was involved in planning a new magazine, and immediately pledges of subscriptions started coming in. She’s an extremely capable editor and that is the regard she’s held in by those who know.

The main competition was of course Interzone – not that we wanted to compete. We wanted to complement. Interzone was safely into magazine middle age, no longer turning out new talent with quite the frequency it once did but relying on staple producers of fiction. It had its own distinct style and stable of authors; we wanted to develop a new stable. Liz had enough contacts in the community of beginning authors to manage that.

Interzone had started as a quarterly 20 years earlier, gone bi-monthly and was now a monthly publication. We thought that a quarterly magazine would soon lose impetus, with too long a gap between appearances, and a monthly would break the bank and drive us into an early grave in nothing flat. We decided 3SF would start off as a bi-monthly.

Fiction would be the main ingredient, but there would also be much more science fact than Interzone published, and speculative pieces, and of course reviews covering the full range of media. By some twist of magic Liz managed to hire Gwyneth Jones as UK reviews editor and Rich Horton as US reviewer generally, which made our lives much easier.

The guidelines on the 3SF website said:

“We take stories up to 10,000 words long – but at that length, a story will have to be brilliant. Especially if you’re a new writer, you have a much better chance with something shorter. And yes, we will buy short-shorts (under 1000 words).

We pay £30 per thousand words, pro rata (i.e. 3p – or around 4.5 US cents per word depending on the exchange rate – per word), on publication. We buy first English Language print serial rights, i.e. we buy the right to use your story once, in English, in the printed version of the magazine, and we need to be the first people to do so. We intend to do an electronic version of the magazine at some point in the future, and our guidelines and contracts will be amended to take account of that.”

Both the upper and lower word limits for stories were unusual and opened the magazine up to a wider range. As well as the quoted pay rate – which matched professional rates – Liz also had the idea of one even higher-paying story per issue, coming from a recognised Big Name. We were quite open about this.

And, Liz said, there would be illustrations. Personally I’ve never got on with illustrations in fiction – not since I was a child, anyway. I read a story for the words. At best illustrations are a distraction, at worst a badly placed illustration can spoil what you are about to read, and from a publisher’s point of view they’re one more thing to pay for. But there is a constituency of readers that enjoys them, and would therefore expect them in a quality magazine; a good artist is just as likely to win awards and acclaim as a writer (and hence associate it with the magazine’s reputation); and I will admit that an A4 page of small type looks pretty dull. So, illustrations there were.

Interzone still hailed from a time when written and televisual SF were two very distinct creatures with different sets of fans: the only televisual SF had been Doctor Who entering the final stages of its decline and repeats of the original Star Trek. Now there was a new generation of much more determined science fiction on TV and we wanted to cater for the increasing overlap, with critical pieces that would give, say, Stargate SG:1 or Farscape just as much in-depth attention as the latest China Miéville or Alastair Reynolds (as much as is possible with media SF; I still maintain that even the best lags at least ten years behind the printed form, and while one TV season might rattle off twenty different SF concepts that would each need a whole book to do justice to, it won’t do them well). There would also be a column on factual topics that should be of interest to an SF audience, even if they weren’t specifically science fictional; thus issue 1 featured an article by John Whitbourn on 11th Century English soldiers who went to fight in Constantinople for the dying Roman Empire; issue 2 featured an essay on ‘The Republic of Heaven’ by Philip Pullman, which I didn’t think could hurt; issue 3 had a science column on prions.

Word reached David Langford. “I hear you’re starting a new magazine in competition to Interzone,” he said in an email. “When can we expect the first edition of Die, Pringle, Die?”

I responded in a similar light-hearted mood: “I thought Eat Dirt, Pringle might strike the right balance between hostility and friendly challenge … though he’s seen so many of the opposition come and go, I doubt he’ll lose much sleep.”

My half of the conversation was duly reported in the next issue of Ansible. “Asked about the title, Ben mused: ‘I thought Eat Dirt, Pringle might strike the right balance between hostility and friendly challenge …’” I was glad he also included my line about David P. not losing much sleep over the matter, but it still led to a little awkwardness the next time I met the man socially.

I went to my first foreign worldcon: ConJose, in San Jose, 2002. The main object was to sell 3SF and I came home with a lot of subscriptions. Most of which were from Brits.

Incidentally, you really have not known what a homicidal impulse is until a major New York editor stops by your stall, fingers your stock, looks approvingly at the covers, even laughs at some of the jokes in one of the books, then compliments you on the little cardboard stands holding the books up and walks away.

Issue 1 of 3SF appeared in October 2002. If you’re selling subscriptions, it always helps to have something tangible to show. The number of subscriptions started to climb. Issue 2 followed in December. The dream of evening out the cashflow was working, if you only looked at the credit column of the spreadsheet. In the debit column …

I was right. You do get a trickle of subscriptions. You also get a regular outflow – ‘haemorrhage’ would be a better word – of cash in the form of typesetting and printers’ bills and author payments. This wouldn’t be a problem if you had enough subscribers. We never did. Launching 3SF can be summarised as a simple, elegant scheme to get a bit more money coming in, and it only needed another 700 subscribers to work.

We were all doomed.

To be continued …


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 …