Saturday, 23 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* As I am now in the brain-melting throes of writing my dissertation (12,000 words and four weeks to go), these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.

Gollancz: have recently announced they’re making the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, ‘the definitive reference work in the field’, available free online. In another step towards helping more genre books reach wider audiences, and helping audiences to reach more books, Gollancz are launching the SF Gateway. It’s going to be the ‘world’s largest digital SF library, which will make thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available as eBooks’ (so not an intergalactic gateway to other such gateways, but still pretty neat). Available to access this autumn, the project has been headed by Gollancz’s digital publisher, Darren Nash. This really is an amazing venture, and really utilises the digital form. In a further step towards digital domination, Gollancz are also teaming up with pulp website Good Show Sir, with the goal of making every cover linkable to the actual text by 2012 (this last part might be a lie, but they’re missing out on a trick – who wouldn’t want to read about Nazi gnomes?!).

Angry Robot Books: are back again this week because I’ve been writing the section in my dissertation (known henceforth as the ‘Big D’) about how negative perceptions of the fantasy genre are often linked to cheap, and badly written, swords and sorcery fiction from around the 1950s. This was otherwise known as ‘pulp’ fiction (so-called due to the cheap wood pulp paper that enabled the printing of several key fantasy and science fiction magazines around that time). The Big D points out that publishers have been trying to put their sordid, scantily-clad maidens past behind them. Commissioning editors who were interviewed for the Big D all agree wholeheartedly that negative perceptions are linked to the covers for these texts (please see Nazi gnomes cover for reference). Art Directors and the like have been working for years to rebrand SFF away from these ‘pulp’ covers, only returning to them in a retro, ironic fashion. I write all of this because this week, Angry Robot announced the signing of swords and sorcery author Paul S Kemp. Kemp is ‘unashamedly a fan of the classic ‘swords and sorcery’ fantasy’. His series of novels will be bringing ‘swords and sorcery right up to date’. But with a few key changes. It’s about thieves and treasure hunters, who are the new assassins (Douglas Hulick’s Tales of the Kin helped with that), and Angry Robot are keen to emphasise that it uses ‘very modern language’. I’ve done a few questionnaires for my essay, and people generally find the language and names used (see Tolkien’s works for detail) off-putting when it comes to reading fantasy, and so would rather not. Could more books of this ilk being published, with modern covers, modern language and trending themes, be part of the key of helping SFF to reach wider audiences, without the need for a HBO series?

I will leave you with a quote from H. P. Lovecraft on the matter of being published by pulp magazines (which he was): ‘the field is so repugnant to me that it’s about the last way I’d ever choose to gain shelter and clothing and nourishment.’ Beautiful.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* As I am now writing my dissertation/dragging it out screaming, these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.

Angry Robot Books: have always done things a bit differently, and prided themselves on it (while still managing to publish this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, Lauren Beukes). Normally you have to take pains to point out (usually in a 5,000 word essay) the brand of a publisher. ‘Look,’ you might say (but less casual, it is an essay), ‘This publisher has been subtly putting their mark on their books for years because in the left-hand corner, they usually sneak in a little swirl design that could be interpreted (by the more optimistic) as the corner of their logo, without being too off-putting to the general reader.’ Angry Robot, on the other hand, have thought ‘sod the general reader’, or, more likely, ‘the general reader will never read our blog, they will never know the true extent to our geekiness.’ So they have taken the notion of the publisher as a brand and run wildly into the night with it. The Angry Robot Army just got a uniform. From Zazzle UK or USA you can now purchase an Angry Robot hat. And they haven’t stopped there (why would they?). You can buy a t-shirt (either ‘Robot’ or ‘Angry’, depending on what relates to you), a Zoo City t-shirt, an iPad case, a skateboard (they have a mixed target audience), bag, mug, pins, a baby grow (get ‘em while they’re young), and, my personal favourite, a skin to (irony alert) make your phone look a bit like a robot. Maybe that’s the secret to branding. Pick a logo your readers will want to wear.

Orbit: granted, this may be something only I (at the height of my dissertation fever) find fascinating, but back in the 1970s horror author James Herbert was not very happy when his publishers, the New English Library, were marketing his work as pulp. He threw in some political and thriller tropes, and intended to elevate his titles above this ‘throwaway’ fiction status. Now, Orbit are revelling in the pulp. Their covers for Philip Palmers books are absolutely gorgeous, with their plastic figurines, bold, white typography and block, vibrant colours, and the great Lauren Panepinto, Art Director, is ecstatically happy about their pulp connotations: ‘His writing has this fabulous pulp sci-fi feel to it’. In my research, I’ve read a lot about authors, editors and readers bemoaning the popular culture representation of sci-fi, that it is all adolescent ray guns and space battles (extreme paraphrasing). But Orbit are embracing it, and pushing this retro ‘pulp’ writing unashamedly, without attaching the throwaway tag so often associated with it. They achieve this rather well by quoting a Guardian review of Palmer’s Red Claw in the post announcing the book’s launch, which states: ‘Red Claw is a rare treat, an intelligent action adventure replete with intellectual rigour, human insight and superb storytelling.’ If this is the modern day pulp, then sci-fi has come a long way.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

As I am now writing my dissertation (ha!) these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.

Voyager: are gearing up for the release of George R R Martin’s long-awaited A Dance with Dragons – released 12 July. It’s been six years since A Feast for Crows, not that we should complain. According to initial reviews, it’s going to be well worth it. We should also celebrate Voyager’s new free app to ‘reward’ fans’ patience. There aren’t many apps for SFF titles, and that George (first names basis) has one is great, but also maybe demonstrates that to have time and budget dedicated to an SFF imprint author, that author needs to have proven himself (with a HBO series perhaps).

Orbit: are also gearing up for their biggest release, possibly of the whole year (warning: bias alert), Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story on 28 July. And in the process, Mark Yon, reviewer and administrator at the excellent SFFWorld, has been diligently slogging through The Dresden Files’ backlist (someone has to do it) and providing weekly reviews. Despite being a nerd for Jim Butcher, I am one fan (such a small word) who will NOT be eagerly awaiting the release of Ghost Story, because I’ve already read it. A staff member at Little, Brown on my work experience may have been subjected to several hours of My Love for Jim Butcher, and, possibly hoping I’d read it and shut up, produced a freshly printed copy for my greedy mitts. In response, and much to her relief, I exploded with happiness. Just another 12 months ‘till the next one. It’s embargoed so no review, unfortunately, except to say (without spoilers), that it’s… necessarily a departure from what readers are used to. I also recommend a re-read of Changes, to understand just how necessary a divergence Ghost Story is. Harry wasn’t just on the edge in that last book, he was free-falling from it.

Gollancz: are still celebrating their 50th anniversary. This time they’re publishing the third edition of the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction online, free of charge. The first two editions won the Hugo Award – I wonder if it’s possible for an online resource to do the same? I’m also curious to know how much this makes sense commercially. But it is great publicity for Gollancz, so maybe they will reap the benefits elsewhere. Or, you know, maybe they’re just nice. You can eagerly await the launch by watching this space, following them on Twitter or visiting their Facebook page.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

digital marketing - science fiction and fantasy

Over the last few weeks this blog has been focusing on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. As promised, this is the exciting* summary of my findings, looking at which imprint out of the four – Tor, Orbit, Voyager and Gollancz – most effectively uses digital marketing to promote its authors and titles. Here are the results.


With no blog, a Facebook page I can’t find (although I’ve heard rumour of there being one) and an area on the Pan Macmillan website that is more shop than shoptalk, Twitter is Tor’s hub for digital marketing. Events will get mentioned, review links posted, pictures of tours and author ventures plugged. Editorial Director of Tor Julie Crisp is always present on Twitter, tweeting Tor’s latest campaigns, communicating with readers and providing relevant links, whilst not being overly pushy about the books she’s publishing. She helps to trend topics like #towelday – 25 May is Towel Day in memory of the late, great Douglas Adams - really taking advantage of what Twitter (and fans) can do. Tor UK is on there too, tweeting about subjects relating to its list with personality and a good degree of vim. Tor is also using Twitter to advertise its competition in cahoots with SFX magazine for cover designing – a unique way of promoting a title. Some stats: Tor’s Twitter stream has 1424 followers, Julie Crisp, clearly doing something right, has 1520. I recently heard that Tor has been allotted the budget for a new blog, so it’s obviously deemed an important tool in digital marketing – it will be great to see what Tor does with it.


Orbit UK has a larger team than most other dedicated science fiction and fantasy imprints, with various folk in charge of digital, publicity and general marketing, and Orbit USA and Aus/NZ banding together as well to digitally market as a global imprint, which is worth bearing in mind. Although it has a strong Twitter and Facebook presence, the most remarkable part of Orbit’s digital marketing strategy is its website. Orbit’s website is its hub for marketing, and what a hub. It streamlines the UK/USA/Aus/NZ imprints into one, accessible source of information. As well as containing its publishing schedules and author profiles (with links to websites and details about its titles), Orbit’s website is basically a very well-maintained blog. It contains, among other things, guest posts from authors (not always from Orbit’s own list), editors, editorial assistants and the very excellent, always enthusiastic, Art Director Lauren Panepinto. The site also contains a blog roll and links to SFF sites, and allows for comments on each post, maintaining a healthy online community. It really is a smorgasbord of information. Some stats: Facebook – 2292 likes. Orbit Twitter – 8727 followers. Orbit Editorial Assistant James Long Twitter account – 801 followers.


Bearing in mind Voyager’s small team, it doesn’t have a Facebook page and its page on HarperCollins’ website is a bit impersonal (in-keeping with the overall professional image), but it does have a Twitter and blog, maintained mainly by one dedicated Assistant Editor, and a few guest bloggers. There tends to be about one to two posts every fortnight, and they can consist of: reviews from HarperCollins’ staff members of Voyager’s books, an huge ongoing campaign for George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, countdown widgets for upcoming titles for blogs and websites, trailers, the occasional book of the month, cover launches, a heads-up for its new ventures, a post on its physical consumer marketing campaign for Peter V Brett and a few non-marketing related posts, which arguably is good digital marketing in itself. The blog/site also contains links to other sites and every post can be commented on. Its Twitter account contains links to its blog posts as well as plenty of perky communication with fellow tweeters and readers, particularly considering there is only one person behind the tweets. What I like about this (warning: personal preference) is that HarperCollins is a hugely commercial publisher but the Voyager feed feels personal. Some stats: Twitter – 2577 followers.


Gollancz does not have a strong blog presence although its website is good, and the team know how much time it can exhort updating it (hence its book and author of the month). Therefore Gollancz’s strengths lie in its Facebook and Twitter presence. Its main technique is to run competitions for readers to win its titles (admittedly, it hammered this more a few months back). It would be really interesting to find out how these competitions affect sales, if at all, as I think it’s a unique way of marketing, and great for smaller budgets (although the postage and packaging costs must be immense). Gollancz also: knows the beauty of a good hash tag, posts YouTube links to author interviews and trailers, flags up signings, reviews, posts pictures, links to other relevant information it feels its readers will find interesting (rather than making the rookie error of only talking about itself), news about its award nominations, and a whole host of other links and comments. Some stats: 1865 people ‘like’ its Facebook page, on average Gollancz posts 2-3 times per day, and it has one sister Facebook page, Gollancz Dark Fantasy, which has 3608 ‘likes’ (thank you, Charlaine Harris). Gollancz Twitter has 3144 followers, and Gollancz Dark Fantasy Twitter has 977. This might only be something I find fascinating, but this shows Dark Fantasy fans are more likely to follow its Facebook page than its Twitter stream, and vice versa for Gollancz main.

Conclusion of summary: Every imprint has its own way and knows how to digitally market its books into a reader’s heart. Unfortunately, man power, time and money are huge factors regarding what avenues you can take. Hence why Twitter and Facebook, being free, are great tools.

Active, healthy blogs look to be the way forward. Orbit’s just zings off the screen. Voyager’s is good, and would benefit from more time and posts (not always an option when one person is doing the posting), Tor’s is on its way. Gollancz could benefit from updating its blog more – but time factors probably get in the way so it picks and chooses when it utilizes this tool (eg, for its 50th anniversary).

Voyager and Tor (I may be wrong) both don’t have Facebook pages. Gollancz demonstrates why it’s important to reach fans both through Twitter and Facebook, through its discrepancies between Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers.

With Twitter it is worth the editors and other staff having personal accounts that tweet about the industry. Julie Crisp has more followers than Tor UK but it’s probably a surety that she achieves the same promotional benefits for Tor’s titles as Tor’s actual Twitter stream, only people can feel more connected to an actual person, rather than an imprint.

Both Voyager and Orbit have a brand of their own away from their publishing groups – this could be important as it builds and taps into that essential fan community. They both also have less ‘personal’ pages on their publishing groups’ sites, so this caters for a wider readership.

Conclusion of conclusion of summary: Orbit’s model of digital marketing is fantastic. They demonstrate the ideal Twitter/Facebook/blog/website combination – all regularly updated and mostly interactive. But time and budget are huge factors that not every imprint can indulge in, which is where the personal touch, and a bit of ingenuity, comes in.

*Excitement not guaranteed