Interview: Elsewhen Press

by Allen Stroud, with thanks to Peter Buck

Interview: Elsewhen Press
February 23, 2020 Allen Stroud

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have a thriving independent publishing community. One of its mainstays is Elsewhen Press, a small publishing company operating out of the south east of England since 2011. Elsewhen are a regular feature in the trade rooms of the convention circuit, selling their books at Fantasycon, Eastercon, and other gatherings of the writing communities in the United Kingdom.

Peter Buck, head of Elsewhen Press, has been working with authors for nearly a decade and produces an array of beautiful new publications every year. Parallel Worlds caught up with him after Fantasycon in Glasgow at the end of October, for advice and information on what options new writers have when looking for a publisher.

Welcome to Parallel Worlds, Peter! Can you tell us a little bit about Elsewhen Press and what you’re trying to achieve as a publisher?

Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here. When my wife Alison and I set up Elsewhen Press, our intention was to be able to help authors — especially those who were previously unpublished — find a market for their writing. We knew how hard it can be to interest an agent (especially in genre fiction, so often demeaned by the literary establishment) and most of the large publishers will only consider agented authors. So we decided we would be open to submissions directly from authors. Our hope was that by publishing exciting new work by largely unknown authors it would help them to have more success in finding an agent and break into the big time!

We were explaining this to one of our latest authors when we met him and his wife for the first time recently at Novacon, and his wife asked why we would want to help authors. Well, first off, we’re just lovely people! It is demoralising for an author to get rejection letters from agents who haven’t even bothered to read the covering letter, and we want to encourage good authors. What’s more, when we receive submissions we get to read fantastic new stories before anyone else — how cool is that? And it’s a really great feeling when you can tell an author that you like their story and want to publish it and just feel the excitement in their voice (or email).

What got you started in the business? What was the first book you released?

Like many other indie presses, it was our own experiences that inexorably led us towards establishing an indie press. I suppose the starting point was when we asked ourselves: ‘how hard can it be?’ Which I suspect will be on our tombstones, along with: ‘what could possibly go wrong?’

Our first book, published in November 2011, was [Re]Awakenings, an anthology of short stories from debut authors that encompassed both science fiction and fantasy. It was (and still is) a great anthology but didn’t sell very well. Ian Whates from Newcon Press subsequently told us that the way to sell an anthology is to get a big name on the cover to attract the audience. As a result, the unknown authors get an opportunity to be read by that big name’s fans. That’s fine if you have contacts and know some of the big name authors, which we didn’t at the time. Having been to quite a few conventions now, we’re slowly meeting more well-known writers, so maybe we will be able to attract them to contribute to a new anthology. Some small presses seem to be able to make a living from anthologies, so we’ll see. Watch this space!

One very good lesson we learnt from publishing [Re]Awakenings was that it is never a good idea to use non-alphanumeric characters in a title, as the bibliographic databases like Nielsen and Bowkers have trouble with them and that makes it more difficult for bookshops to order the book!

The design of your novels always draws the eye when we wander past your stand. What’s your process in terms of taking a book from first draft to publication, commissioning a cover and all the rest?

Thank you. That’s the idea, of course. But, don’t just wander past – stop and browse! Other than at a convention, the first sight many readers will have of our books is a thumbnail image in an online bookshop. So we work hard to try to make an attractive cover. One of the things that annoyed both of us when we were first reading science fiction and fantasy as kids (a long time ago) was how irrelevant the covers often were – almost invariably a scantily-clad cavewoman/spacewoman/alienwoman, whether or not such a character even appeared in the story, or a clichéd rocket ship on an alien planet. We are determined that our covers should be relevant to the story itself.

So our process is that, once we’ve decided to publish a story and have signed a contract with the author, we start to think about the cover. Sometimes the author will come with an idea for a cover (or even a cover already produced for them by an artist) but mostly they haven’t given it a lot of thought. We have a brainstorm session, feeding in any ideas from the author, to come up with some appropriate cover concepts. It might be illustrating a particular scene, environment, character, or object; or the story might suggest a more abstract interpretation to convey the ideas behind the novel. We then get some feedback from the author. 

Once one concept has got most ‘support’ we then produce a brief for an artist. When we started, Alison (who is an artist as well as an author) did most of our covers, in a wide range of styles as appropriate. Now we also work with some other fantastic artists, like Dave Hardy and Alex Storer who are both well-known to many fans and convention-goers, and your readers too, no doubt. Because Alison is also an artist it means that when we provide a brief, it is more likely for it to be in terms that the artist can relate to. Which is just as well because I’m not at all artistic, so a brief from me would probably miss out all the details they really need to know! 

Different artists work in different ways: some will do some preliminary sketches with different options that we and the author can look at and make choices upon; others will just deliver the finished artwork to the brief. So far we’ve never been let down by an artist and I don’t think any of our authors have ever disliked the cover that we’ve designed for their book — and some have even gone absolutely crazy with delight when they see the final version.

I think that the covers of three of our recent books illustrate the end result of this approach very well. The Deep and Shining Dark by Juliet Kemp has a gorgeous cover by Tony Allcock that illustrates the fantasy city setting of the story, and has been widely praised. Thorns of a Black Rose by David Craig has a beautiful cover by PR Pope with an impressionist feel to it, illustrating the desert city where the story begins, based on an idea from the author. Quaestor by David M Allan has a cover by Alison that started along the lines suggested by the author (two characters in a scene with their auras interacting) but didn’t really work; and then Alison had the inspiration to zoom in on the characters and make it much more of a graphic style rather than photo-realistic. The final result is a stunning cover that has got everybody talking. 

Of course the cover just attracts a potential reader to pick the book up (or click to find out more online) — what has to actually sell the book is the story and the writing. So we work hard with each author through an editing cycle and then a proofreading cycle to ensure that the text is as good as it can be. For each title, we use a separate editor and proofreader, so that each can come to the text with fresh eyes. I’ll say more about that later.

You’ve published some real gems. The Janus Cycle by Tej Turner and An Android Awakes by Mike French and Karl Brown were two particular highlights I found when reviewing Elsewhen’s publications. Are there any other books you have at the moment you’re particularly excited to be involved with?

That’s like asking a parent which is their favourite child! We are excited about working on every book and we try to make sure that, together with the author, we produce the best possible version of it that we can. Some books are unusual, such as An Android Awakes that you mentioned — it is a hybrid novel/graphic novel and unlike anything we had ever produced before. It had its own challenges (such as making an ebook version that did justice to Karl’s artwork) but they were interesting challenges.

If you really insist on making me pick out some titles, I suppose one that was also an exciting challenge was The Rhymer by Douglas Thompson. The main character thinks he is a reincarnation of Thomas the Rhymer so he speaks in rhyme all the time. It’s a great story, very surreal, and one of those stories that has you questioning at the end whether it all ‘really’ happened or was just in the title character’s mind. Douglas is from Glasgow and the story is set in an imaginary landscape that is probably based loosely on that part of Scotland, with quite a few dialect words used (that we had to look up during the edit); but even more of a challenge is trying to edit a rhyming conversation. I have never tried to publish poetry, but I can imagine that is even harder to edit! We launched The Rhymer at Worldcon in London in 2014 and when Douglas did a reading from the book, his rich Glaswegian voice really brought the text to life in a magical way.

We are currently working on some fantastic books (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) that will be out in January. One is Shadow and Storm, the follow-up to The Deep and Shining Dark by Juliet Kemp, mentioned earlier. The cover to The Deep and Shining Dark was beautiful, so we were really pleased that the artist Tony Allcock was available to do the cover to Shadow and Storm. The books are fantasy with politics and magic, set in a fictional world with a rich backstory and protagonists that Juliet writes perfectly. Aliette de Bodard was very complimentary about the first one.

Another book that comes out in January is Million Eyes, which is the first in a trilogy of time travel/conspiracy thrillers. The author, C.R. Berry, is well-known for short stories and blogging about conspiracies — not necessarily because he believes in the conspiracy theories, but because they are great fun to research, write about, and weave into a story. We’ve made a collection of his related short stories available as a free download in advance of the first book coming out, called Million Eyes: Extra Time. It links together many well-known urban legends and conspiracy theories with a common thread running through them that implicates a group of time travellers as the cause of the various events — setting the scene for the trilogy, of course. The collection has been getting great reviews in its own right, so we’re looking forward to seeing what happens in January. 

Meanwhile, to add to the fun, we have set up a website with C.R. Berry that looks like a genuine corporate website for the fictional Million Eyes company, and he has been tweeting and blogging as them as if it is a genuine company. Various people have been playing along, to either cheer on the company or be horrified at rumours of what they are doing. We were hoping to get media coverage of the supposed clashes, but I think the current political situations here and in the US have rather eclipsed it. Nevertheless it has been fun. If your readers want to join in, the website is at http://millioneyes.co.uk/

What are the misconceptions authors make about publishing?

I suppose one is that publishers are rich. If only! I guess the likes of the big five publishing houses have large budgets, but indies don’t, and we have to be very careful about how we spend ours.

The other misconception is that the author delivers a manuscript and then sits back in their study, smoking their Meerschaum pipe while they wait for the royalty cheques to roll in. Was that ever true? It certainly isn’t today. Apart from the iterative interactive process with editor, proofreader, and cover artist, we expect our authors to participate in marketing, social media, and so on. Some are better at it than others, and those that are tend to have much healthier sales figures.

And of course, resulting from both of these is the misplaced expectation that an author can become rich and give up their day job. As you know, very few actually do make it into that elite group; but naturally mainstream media tends to focus on the author whose debut novel is an unexpected bestseller, rather than the thousands of authors who are struggling to find an agent, a publisher, or readers.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing? Why should writers look for some help?

I think self-publishing has been a breath of fresh air. The advent of many established authors self-publishing their own back-catalogue has helped to ensure it is not regarded in the same negative way as vanity publishing. If we’re honest, the opportunities for indie presses would be much reduced if it hadn’t been for the emergence of self-publishing platforms like Kindle (alongside advances in digital printing). On the positive side, it has given readers access to a much wider range of authors, many of whom would otherwise never have progressed beyond a stack of rejection letters. On the other hand, it has left some readers disillusioned because there has been a race to the bottom on pricing and, as a result, there is no quality control.

Some of our authors also self-publish other titles. Our most successful author has been self-publishing for some years (since before we met him) and has many more titles self-published than through publishers; incidentally he’s the only one of our authors (out of 45) who is a full-time fiction writer and makes a living solely from his writing.

If authors are keen on self-publishing I think they need to invest in an editor who can work through the author’s draft and identify inconsistencies, plot holes, typos, and so on, and who also knows how to format a book properly. The author should also invest in decent cover art and not expect to simply use stock images. In fairness, it doesn’t take much to raise your game above the level of many self-published titles.

Of course, an indie press will do all of that (at their own expense) if they believe in the book.

What should a new writer expect from the process of publishing? What should they expect from working with Elsewhen Press?

I suppose there is one more thing, in addition to what we’ve already talked about, that an author can expect from being published: and that is a degree of ‘validation’. This is the positive aspect of the ‘gatekeeper’ role that publishers played in the past. And with that comes self-confidence and an increased sense of self-worth, and hopefully that translates into their writing.

Working with Elsewhen Press, there are a couple more things that an author can expect. The first is, hopefully, fun. Our approach is that there’s no point in doing this unless it’s fun, and that applies to our authors too. We mostly deal with our authors (and artists) through email and the occasional phone call — especially those who live on distant continents. But when there’s a convention we encourage our authors to come along so we can all get together and have a nice meal and lively conversation. Sometimes, we’ll have two or three and, at one Worldcon, we had twenty. 

The second thing they can expect, which is related really, is the personal touch. We read submissions ourselves (we don’t use slush-pile readers); we’re involved in every stage of the editing, proofreading, cover design, and marketing blurbs — we don’t have interns. Our small team is very hands-on and we develop a personal relationship with our authors. That’s why we enjoy the get-togethers at conventions so much. In fact, our authors took to calling it the ‘Elsewhen family’ some time ago to encompass us, the editors and proofreaders, the artists, and themselves — which I think makes Alison and I the mum and dad of the family, which is a little strange when some of our authors and artists are older than us!

Do you have a preference of content? Are you looking for science fiction, fantasy, horror, or a little bit of any of the above?

We chose to identify as publishers of ‘speculative fiction’. Which, if you think about it, is an odd categorisation as surely all fiction is, by definition, speculative? So we are keen to read science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, alternative history, magical realism, and so on. In fact, what we’ve found over the years is that so many of the most interesting stories are very hard to categorise. If you have a space-based story with some characters who can use a mystical force in a way that seems like magic, is that science fiction, or fantasy, or science fantasy? Similarly, you might have a fantasy story where the underlying ‘magic’ is based on solid science. And so on. 

We’re not too hung up on pigeonholing stories (or authors). What’s important is that it is original, has a great story to tell, and has been written well — the editing can help finesse the last of these, but can’t do much about the first two.

What’s the process of a novel after a writer submits it to Elsewhen? How long is the turnaround?

We aim to have an open submission period each year (usually around November). We ask any prospective author to send us a synopsis so we can see if the story sounds like it fits in with what we publish — you’d be surprised how many authors submit to a publisher with no consideration of what they publish. We have rejected romance, crime novels, and even non-fiction at this stage. If it sounds like our cup of tea, we’ll ask to read a couple of chapters; that gives us a reasonable idea of the quality of the writing. If it reads well, we’ll ask for the whole manuscript. There are three of us on the editorial board, and our approach is that at least two of us have to read a submission, like it, and believe in it sufficiently to be able to convince the third member of the board, for us to make an offer to the author. Depending on how many submissions we’ve received and how busy we are, this stage can take a while, but normally we would expect to have made a decision within a few weeks to a couple of months. 

Next we’ll tell the author we’re interested and make sure that they understand how we work. If they’re keen to proceed, we’ll send them a draft contract and once they’ve signed, plan the book into our schedule. How long it takes from there depends on a number of factors: for example, some authors turn around edits very quickly, others take a long time (ranging from two days to three months!) So there’s the edit cycle, the proofreading cycle, and final formatting. Meanwhile the cover will have been designed in parallel. 

When they all come together, we’ll lay the book out for print and then use that as the starting point for conversion to ebook format. After testing on different platforms, we’ll make the ebook available for pre-order and at the same time send the files to our printer for initial samples. If the samples are okay we’ll approve for production, and print some advance review copies (ARCs) to go out to reviewers in advance of the publication date. 

Our policy is digital-first, so we publish a new book as an ebook first and in print two to three months later. The whole process normally takes somewhere between nine and twelve months from signing the contract with the author. It sounds like a long time, but I can assure you that it goes by in a flash! Traditional publishers often take much longer.

You’ve been at a lot of conventions. How do conventions help a small publisher?

Conventions are part of the fun, as I mentioned. We get a chance to meet readers, authors, sometimes potential authors, and catch up with our friends in other indie presses. I think that’s one of the very positive aspects of the indie scene (at least in genre publishing): we’re all very supportive of one another, always happy to offer advice and share experiences. A convention is a good social occasion. Of course you get a very different perspective on a convention when you’re in the dealers’ room the whole time! 

We also often arrange our book launches to be at a convention because you’ve got a critical mass of potential readers all in one place. We really enjoy the fan-run conventions, and I would recommend them to anyone who loves science fiction and fantasy as a place to safely get together with fellow sufferers. You are not alone!

What advice would you give someone starting out as a writer, an editor, or an independent publisher?

I think the most important advice is to have realistic expectations. If you’re expecting to be an overnight success, become rich, and retire to a tropical island, then you’re unlikely to be satisfied. If you’re hoping to have some fun, meet some interesting people, get engaged in entertaining conversations, read amazing and imaginative stories, and escape to a variety of alternative worlds, universes, and times — then you’ll probably be happy.