Ian Whates is a writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror, he is the author of seven novels (four space opera and three urban fantasy with steampunk overtones), the co-author of two more (military SF), has seen some seventy of his short stories published in a variety of venues, and has edited more than thirty anthologies. His work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and twice for BSFA Awards. His novel Pelquin’s Comet, first in the Dark Angels sequence, was an Amazon UK #1 best seller. His latest release is the novella “The Smallest of Things” (PS Publishing, 2018), and he has a fourth short story collection in English, Wourism and Other Stories, due via Luna Press in 2019.
Ian served a term as a director of SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) and is a director of the BSFA (the British Science Fiction Association) an organisation he chaired for five years. Ian founded multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press by accident, and he continues to be baffled by the number of titles the imprint has produced.
Ian, thank you for joining me today. I guess the first obvious question is which came first for you, the writing, the editing, or Newcon Press?
The writing, always the writing. Whilst still at school I won the Lord Mayor’s Prize for English (open to all the schools in London) and it was always English homework (ie essay writing) that I lavished all my time and effort on. My first published stories appeared in the late 1980s, but real life and the need to pay the bills then intervened and I didn’t seriously return to writing until the 2000s. The editing and publishing both came later and stemmed from the writing.
How long has writing been your full time occupation?
After some nineteen years of working in financial services, I dropped out of the rat-race in the early noughties to concentrate on writing, encouraged by my far better half, Helen, who could see how stressed and frustrated I was becoming. Helen was a nurse. We had no big pot of savings behind us, and those early days were genuinely tough, as we relied on Helen’s wages supplemented by the occasional pittance I earned from short story sales, but neither of us has ever regretted the decision.
In an average week what would be the rough percentage split of your time between these three different areas?
There is no average week. In the early days of NewCon Press I was under contract to two different publishers to write two different novel series. At that stage NewCon was very much a side issue, something I fitted in around the writing (in the first two years of the imprint I produced just one book per annum, three in the third). Currently, I’m out of contract with a major publisher, and though I do have writing commitments – two novellas to write for two different independent publishers – NewCon has grown to become far more significant. In the past three years we will have released 55 titles (if my maths is right) compared to just 5 in the first three years. I do most aspects of nearly all titles myself – commissioning stories, commissioning cover art, editing the narrative text, performing the initial layout of the text (Storm Constantine carries out the final layout for me, adding headers, footers etc), designing and laying out the covers, proof reading, liaising with authors, artists, printers etc… As far as editing goes, although I have been commissioned to edit for various publishers at different times in the past, in recent years I’ve concentrated on NewCon’s own output. It’s become a full time job, and how much time I devote to each aspect of the process on a given day depends on where we are with the various titles and how close a book might be to publication.
What inspired you to start Newcon Press?
In 2004, tired of being a lonely would-be writer sitting in front of a computer screen, I joined the Northampton SF Writers Group, then chaired by author Ian Watson. They were organising a convention, Newcon 3, which I became involved in. In 2005 we staged a quite wonderful little con with fabulous guests, but only a handful of people attended and we lost money. I felt responsible and determined to recoup the loss somehow. My only relevant skill was writing, but nobody had yet heard of me, so I approached the authors who had taken part in the convention (Ian, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Liz Williams, Sarah Singleton, etc) and asked them to each contribute a new story for a fund-raising anthology, which I then edited, assisted by Mr Watson. The resultant book, a signed limited edition called Time Pieces, appeared in 2006, with cover art by Fangorn (who had been Artist GoH at the convention). That cover subsequently won the BSFA Award for best artwork. The thrill of holding the finished book in my hand for the first time is difficult to describe. Suddenly all the hiccups and problems along the way were forgotten, and all I could think was: “I did this. Hey, I could do it again…”
As an independent publisher what is the biggest challenge you face with getting books into customer’s hands?
Lack of a distribution network. There are only so many hours in the day and I have limited time to devote to marketing, and limited time to devote to learning how to market effectively, so I rely heavily on word of mouth, a loyal readership, and my own efforts at conventions etc. The formula from the very earliest anthologies has always been to present the work of new, exciting authors alongside that of established names, in the hope that readers will buy the book for the authors they know and discover someone new as a result. It’s a template that seems to work on the whole.
Do you grow your list of authors?
Being static isn’t an option. You have to keep moving forward in order to remain relevant.
What do you find is the most effective way of finding new talent?
I’ve never had a problem finding ‘new’ talent (either in the sense of an author who is new to me or an author who is genuinely new to writing and/or publishing). I attend conventions, I attend events, I meet people, I go to hear readings, I’m introduced to new faces by agents and publishers. If I like them, or I like what I hear, I go away and investigate their writing. If I like that, we may have a conversation. Increasingly, as NewCon’s reputation grows, people are coming to me – from debut novelists to established names – asking if I would be interested in looking at their novel/collection/novella. The difficulty isn’t so much finding the talent but choosing when to say ‘no’ – which generally happens when I already have too many submissions queued up and have no idea when I’ll have the time to consider what’s already there, let alone taking on any more.
What would you suggest is the best route for an author to get their work in front of a publisher?
This is one question I always find difficult to answer. In order to put your work in front of one of the big publishers, you need to get an agent, and the competition to do that is fierce. I know how I did it, which in a sense was by a very traditional path. I wrote and sent out a stream of short stories (in 2007 I set myself the dual goals of writing at least one story a month and selling at least one a month, both of which I achieved). In those days I was receiving far more rejections than acceptances but persistence and a thick skin come with the territory. At the same time I was attending conventions, getting involved in programme items, and meeting publishers and agents. By the time I had amassed around two dozen published stories (one of which had found its way onto an awards shortlist), I felt confident enough to approach the agents and publishers I’d met and say, “I’m writing a novel, would you be interested in seeing it…?”
Even while following this strategy, I was being told ‘it doesn’t work like that any more’. It did for me; which doesn’t mean it would for anyone else.
Please don’t misunderstand me, getting to know the agent or publisher doesn’t give you a free pass to having your work accepted – only the quality of your writing will ever do that – but I suspect it does move your MS up towards the top of the tottering submissions pile and ensure it’s considered sooner.
What would you say is the biggest challenge for book publishers in this current market, and in particular for an independent publisher?
Getting your work noticed. When I started NewCon, small presses were few and far between, certainly here in the UK, and nobody was publishing anthologies. There are now many small presses and a plethora of anthologies released each year. Add to that the number of titles that are continually being self-published and that means a bewildering number of titles for a reader to choose from. The trick is to make what you publish (be it novel, novella, single-author collection or anthology) stand out from the crowd. Thankfully, NewCon Press is an established ‘brand’ which many people trust, but that’s just the beginning. You can’t sit back and count on that; you have to fight to establish a profile for every new book you release
Do you think self-publishing plays a significant part in the publishing industry as a whole?
Yes, it certainly plays a part, because it has become so prevalent. Self-publishing has always struck me as a double-edged sword. Getting your work accepted and published via traditional methods is hard, the competition ridiculous, and many perfectly good writers never succeed in doing so. It’s great that someone who might otherwise never see their work in print can now make their writing available; it’s also great that established writers who get dropped by a traditional publisher (which happens all the time) now have another avenue to publish their work. From a reader’s perspective, there is now a fabulous choice of genre fiction available… But that’s where the other edge of the blade comes in. There is some excellent stuff being self-published but there is also some terrible work: writing that should never have seen the light of day or which is crying out for a proper edit or some constructive critiquing. The dilemma for the reader lies in telling the difference.
Do you consider self-publishing to be a valuable way to discover new talent?
No, for me self-published work does not provide a useful resource for discovering new talent, because I simply don’t have the time to sort the wheat from the chaff, so I rely on other avenues.
Can you tell me about your latest release?
My newest title is a novella, The Smallest of Things (PS Publishing, October 2018), a story I’m very proud of. The basic idea is that London has many faces, some obvious and some less so, hidden behind those facets that catch the light and glitter.
Chris is a fixer, able to step between the different versions of London and put people in touch with those they need to find (even if they don’t realise they do) and able to locate items and sometimes people who have fallen through the cracks between realities. When an old friend, Claire, contacts him fearing for her life, having seen her boyfriend murdered, he is initially reluctant to help. He soon accepts, however, that he is the only one who can help, because those hunting her are not from this reality. What follows is a desperate chase through the streets of ever-more divergent Londons, as Chris and Claire strive to stay one step ahead of their pursuers whilst figuring out why Claire has become a target. If they can do that, maybe they can finally turn the tables on their enemies.
PS have done their customary fabulous job in producing the book and Ben Baldwin has conjured up some wonderful cover art. I’m delighted to say that PS have already commissioned me to write a sequel, which I’ll be cracking on with in the New Year.
Thank you Ian for joining me today and I wish you all the luck with all the avenues you pursue. The Smallest of Things is available from PS publishing here and you can take a look at all the titles available from NewCon Press on their website.
If you enjoyed this interview then why not follow my blog where I’ll be posting more interviews and conversations soon. I regularly provide an insight into my own experiences as I publish my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless, on sale now!!
A final note – If you’re ready this in December 2018 and have a moment to spare, please can you take a second to vote for my novel’s cover by clicking here and pressing the vote button! Thank you.