Interview: Simon Spanton
by Ernest Lilley
Orion Books Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0702SSI
Date: February 2, 2007
Links: Gollancz Home Page /
Simon Spanton: We've built our business over the last three years by securing, whenever we can, world rights in the authors we publish. This has been important because it allows us to set our advances against foreign rights revenue and therefore take chances on authors, where perhaps a UK sale alone would make an advance more of a risk. It's been possible because we have a superb rights team who have built up relationships across the international publishing industry and are consequently able to realize those rights - there's no point having them if you're just going to sit on them. It's worked very well and we've been able to give most of our authors a good few of those wonderful phone calls where you call them up and say "Hey we got a deal in Somewherestan!". These deals are rarely going to buy you a villa (or even a camper van) on their own but they do add up and everyone likes good news.
This has allowed us, encouraged us even, to concentrate on UK based writers (tho' not exclusively - Scott Lynch hails from Minnesota and last time I looked that wasn't in the UK), a record of which we're very proud. It has also placed even more of a premium on finding new authors.
As for us having published a lot of stuff that you've liked there's not much I can say about that except "Thank you!" I don't think we're different from other UK publishers in any fundamental way when it comes to taste in books. When I fall in love with a book I'm not saying to myself, "ah but is it a Gollancz book?" We push much harder for world rights than our colleagues elsewhere in the industry and that is a difference but it's not one based on differing taste.
SFRevu: How long have you been at Gollancz, and what's your role there?
Simon: It's a long story. I've been at Orion Books since 1996. I started off with a wide role that encompassed fiction, sports books, military history, children's fiction. That spread me way too thin and from about 1997 I was much relieved to be 'just' looking after the Millennium genre imprint for Orion. When the Orion group brought the Cassell's group (which owned Gollancz) in 1999 it was decided to make Gollancz the genre imprint for the Orion group (the name comes with an immaculate genre track record) and from that date onwards Jo Fletcher (my co-editorial director), who was running the Gollancz Genre list in the Cassell's days have run the list together. At least I think that's how happened ...
SFRevu: You discovered Scott Lynch on the web, which led to The Lies of Locke Lamora), and picked up Jonathan Barnes' début, The Somnambulist off the slush pile. Slush piles, websurfing...is this any way to run a publishing house?
Simon: Possibly not! But it's certainly part of the way to run a publishing house. The internet is an invaluable way of getting to information and when you want to buy world rights you can't limit your search to what agents are sending to you as they often (and understandably so) want to control those rights themselves. Also the genre is blessed with a superb and well developed grapevine that has flourished on the internet and you'd be foolish not to keep your ear to the grapevine (if that is indeed what you do to grapevines).
SFRevu: Can you tell us a bit about the editorial process? How did The Somnambulist go from unknown manuscript to most notable release?
Simon: Well having found the manuscript the first step is to persuade the company publishing meeting to allow me to buy it. Having, hopefully, achieved this, it's then that the juggling process begins. My job as the editor is basically to be the books representative in-house and the company's representative to the author. Quite apart from the actual editing process (and The Somnambulist was very tight, very clean; it needed very little editing) the job of an editor involves bringing together a tangle of different strands that go towards making a book: I brief the art department on the cover, I brief the contracts department on the deal, I write an NTI (New Title Information sheet) on the book for the sales and marketing people, I brief the rights department on the book, I talk to publicity about publicity angles on the book and author, I badger people everywhere from the art department, to the sales department, to production, finance and beyond to read this book not that book (that some other editor is trying to get them to read), I also badger people in the wider trade to read this book not that book, I try to get quotes for the book to add to the cover copy, I write the cover copy, I check the cover copy, I attend sales and marketing meetings and talk about the book, and I try to keep the author up-to date on everything that's happening and make them feel that they are part of the process.
Going back to the strict job of editing I usually end up going through a book and providing notes for the author that are an amalgam of line notes and structural edit. These are suggestions only (in the end the author's name is on the front of the book not mine) and I'm always ready to talk anything through with the author. A final draft (it's extremely rare for a book to need a second going over) then goes to a copy editor who then embarrasses both me and the author by pointing up glaringly obvious continuity errors that we've both missed as well as checking the grammar and spelling and putting it into house style.
None of this is especially glamorous but most of it can be pretty good fun.
SFRevu: What's the mix of fantasy and hard SF in the UK market? Why do you folks seem to take SF more seriously than we do in the US?
Simon: Interesting question and probably one that deserves a longer and more rambling answer than would be fair to inflict on your readers. The short answer is that fantasy remains the most commercial of the sub-genres but that since the late 1990s and early 2000s we've been lucky enough to have been caught up in a blossoming of really high quality and commercial SF from UK authors. Whether from Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Richard Morgan or Alastair Reynolds we've seen a outflowing of excellent SF novels that have, for whatever reason, sold in previously unprecedented numbers. That has given the trade more confidence in the genre as a whole and that has meant we've been able to widen our remit and publish more authors and so, as Vonnegut (peace be upon him) would have it, it goes.
Had you said to me, in the early nineties as we all read the latest US SF blockbuster, that in 5 or 10 years time UK SF would be setting the agenda for world SF I would have laughed like a drain. But somehow UK SF does seem to have got a metaphorically unsuitable head of steam behind it in recent years. That said with authors like, in no particular order, Dan Simmons, Paul Schroeder, Joel Shepherd, Robert Reed, Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge writing world beating SF I think it's fair to say that there are plenty of people in the US taking SF very seriously. And just wait until you see the new novel from Greg Bear...
SFRevu: What's your backstory? Do you remember the first book that really engaged you? How did you come to publishing?
Simon: My backstory? I was born in a RAF hospital on a snowy night in 1964 ... Oh not that sort of backstory. I see. I started in the industry as a bookseller in 1986. I did that for four years before getting a job in the marketing department at Macmillan. I did that for a year before beginning a gradual move into editorial. This was completed by early 1994. At Macmillan I edited both mainstream thrillers and genre titles but the walk towards the welcoming arms of genre publishing titles was already a journey I wasn't going to be deflected from (not sure I necessarily knew that at the time). I was made redundant from Macmillan in late 1995 and did six uncomfortable months as a freelancer before joining Orion in 1996.
First book that really engaged me? Gorilla Adventure by Willard Price? Professionally you mean? As a bookseller, Tourist Season by, the then really not very successful in the UK, Carl Hiaasen. I hand-sold dozens of copies of that book (200 in one particular year), an object lesson for me that quality will eventually out, and that enthusiasm will often get it there that little bit earlier.
As an editor? The first debut I ever commissioned. A novel called Streamskelter by Simon Harding. Utterly wild slipstream novel told from the point of view of man who might be mad or who just might really be being plagued by the attentions of a vengeful water sprite. An object lesson for me that enthusiasm won't always get quality there earlier ...
SFRevu: What's your editorial vision? (I'll let you make what you will of what that means.)
Simon: My editorial vision? Eeeeesh. Reminds me; I'm due another prescription on my glasses. Do I have something as grand as a vision? I really doubt it. I publish books that tell stories that excite me for some reason. Sometimes I'm wearing my literary hat and I fall in love with the ability of an author to make individual words fresh in your head, sometimes I'm wearing my commercial hat and the prose never occurs to me as the pages flip by on your way to the next cliff to hang from. Occasionally I get to wear both hats at once and those are the really special ones.
SFRevu: Surfing around the web looking for stuff I could use on you, I found a comment on The Alien Online that you'd "emailed (them) in a frenzy of excitement" over the news that Warner's Brothers was making a film of Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora? A frenzy of excitement? How unBrit of you. Do you go off like this often, and if so...what causes it? Which is a long way of asking what you're passionate about in writing and otherwise.
Simon: Ooh and I am so British in so many other ways. Well see above for what prompts that enthusiasm. Do I go off like this often? Well actually you have to husband your resources of enthusiasm a little carefully. It's the currency of a publishing houses and if you spend it too freely or in the wrong places you end up being overdrawn with people whose opinions you value and need. But when something like The Lies of Locke Lamora comes along I'm afraid all that caution goes straight out the window and I'm like a 9 year old at Christmas.
SFRevu: Was it you who sparked the wave of parody publishing in the UK with the UK edition of Bored of the Rings? Did you have a hand in The End of Harry Potter? Aren't parodies the lowest form of literature? Do they offer anything to the public except the chance for a few laughs while someone rips off some legitimate author's works. (I wouldn't ask, except that I'm sure you've got a good answer for this. Personally, I find that humor is one of the best ways to understand something, but there, you don't need my help.)
Simon: Well Bored of the Rings surprised us all and me more than most. We though we might sell 20,000 on the back of the LOTR films. Going on to sell 200,000 and spending 6 months in the Sunday Times Top ten was not in the plan. That sort of success creates its own imperatives both in-house and amongst the industry at large and yes I guess the success of Bored of the Rings was at least in part responsible for the recent wave of parodies in the UK. Are they the lowest form of Literature? I thought that was SF? If they're well done they will say something interesting about the original as well as making people laugh, usually that something will be something that confirms the author's and the reader's common love of the original text. They may even be interesting stories in their own right. Humour generally has a bad reputation within serious SF and fantasy (I don't think that's quite the complete oxymoron that it sounds like). It should be perfectly possible to make serious points, to make people think while making people laugh, even by making people laugh. Woody Allen does it (well he used to), Bill Hicks did it. So have countless others. It seems to me that the genre's suspicion of parody speaks more of a (unwarranted) lack of self-confidence in its self as a literary genre than it does of an accurate summation of what parody is about.
The End of Harry Potter is not a parody. It's a companion volume to the Potter novels; a scholarly but witty and immensely readable trawl through the first six books looking for clues as to what might happen next, pointing up where Rowling has followed genre traditions, where she's departed from them, what a knowledge of fantasy as a genre might tell us about what's going on. And it's one of Jo's books.
SFRevu: What are your own literary interests? Do you ever get the urge to write?
Simon: As well as reading SF and fantasy and horror novels I also love graphic novels. Outside the genre I enjoy crime thrillers but most of my non-genre reading seems to revolve around history, politics and literary biography. I'm a real blast at parties ...
Writing? I've filled forty or so 200-page A4 and A5 notebooks with drearily self-obsessed and dully written diary entries since 1986. And I always carry a notebook with me which will get gradually filled by quotes of other people being clever and me being dumb. And somewhere I've got a lot of notes for and the first 10,000 words of a fantasy trilogy (Yaaaawwn!). But 'writing' as in proper 'writing'? Nope. Authors write, and generally they do it because they can't not write. I can find all too many reasons not to do that sort of writing.
SFRevu: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.