Angry Robot Bets On A Digital Future

angry-robot-logoIf you believe HarperCollins, ordinary SF imprints just are too quaint and old-fashioned for a generation raised on torture-porn movies, graphic novels and World Of Warcraft. It seems these consumers are forming some kind of leetspeak-shouting flash mob, holding aloft iPhone torches and Pitchforks, “and are now out there looking for the same adrenaline-fuelled entertainment in books.”

Enter Angry Robot, a newish HarperCollins imprint based in the UK but with a global outlook. Its publishing director, Marc Gascoigne, previously worked on SFF imprint Solaris Books as well as the Black Library, the Games Workshop publishing wing that commissions books to flesh out the Warhammer RPG worlds.

“The aim is to bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds, to enliven existing fans and entice new ones to the dark side,” says HarperCollins. “Angry Robot is thrilling material in dynamic forms; new heroes, new settings and new formats.”

Angry Robot takes an omnivorous approach to genre, and its titles skew young and hip. Current and upcoming releases include Kaarin Warron’s unsettling horror novel Slights, in which the protagonist is tormented by everyone she’s ever slighted; Tim Waggoner’s hard-boiled novel Nekropolis, whose private-eye protagonist just happens to be a zombie; and Lauren Beukes’s hipster-cyberpunk thriller Moxyland, in which getting disconnected from the internet is worse than imprisonment. (Not such an implausible premise for anyone who’s experienced the misery of being ‘shaped’.)

It’s also an experiment in simultaneous multi-format publishing. As well as releasing regular paperbacks, Angry Robot keeps its backlist on print-on-demand, and aims to simul-publish its releases as digital audiobooks and downloadable eBooks in various formats. It also offers limited-run special editions according to reader demand.

But more intriguingly, Angry Robot deliberately blurs the lines between publishers and fans, publicists and media. “We know many readers are madly passionate about their genres. Angry Robot is too,” its mission statement proclaims. “If anything, we’re too passionate. We are fans, given at any moment to break into a lengthy harangue about why book X is a lost classic or author Y really should give it up already.”

It aims to assemble an “Angry Robot Army” of lit-bloggers and niche websites who will review the imprint’s books and publish features and interviews with its authors, in exchange for free copies in physical, audio, or electronic format. “We’ll also send our recruits news for their sites before we distribute it to the general media – you can get the lowdown on Angry Robot before everyone else!”

This sounds puzzlingly like the usual way books are pitched to reviewers and publications – the only difference here being that the process has been democratised. However, the Army does raise some of the same ethical questions that we’ve seen before when PR companies want online coverage from non-journalists.

For instance, is it unethical to ask online reviewers to ‘brand’ their blogs with a particular imprint, thus appearing to cede their editorial independence? Will Angry Robot Army-affiliated blogs and websites also feel compelled to favour this imprint over other publishers, or to offer positive reviews, in order to guarantee continued access to Angry Robot material?

The guy on the far right of this cover shot really cracks me up. It's not quite 'The Horse Boy', but still pretty LOLsome.

The guy on the far right of this cover shot really cracks me up. It's not quite 'The Horse Boy', but still pretty LOLsome.

To get a different perspective, we asked another book publicist about the ins and outs of online versus traditional PR. Brendan Fredericks handles publicity for Hachette’s genre imprint Gollancz.

First up, Fredericks told The Enthusiast that genre fiction is attractive to publicists because it already has its own online communities. “Genre readers, are by the very nature of the subject matter they read, very techno savvy, and use the web to socialise, publish stories, blog, chat, go on forums… so publicising books online reaches this core audience,” he says. “What better place to feature a science fiction book with spaceships and advanced technology than on the internet?”

Fredericks points out that SF has traditionally benefited from niche media coverage. “Mainstream media does not cover genre that often, whereas genre websites do,” he says, “though this is changing with genre titles such as Harry Potter and Twilight attracting more readers and therefore more media coverage.”

If you’re talking about sheer market reach, online publicity is the no-brainer because it gives easy access to mailing lists and membership databases. “I myself use a database of genre contacts, both online and traditional, that I email [about] titles news and reviews, et cetera,” Fredericks says. “It is cheaper and more time-efficient, as well as getting the message out to a greater amount of people.”

And do publicists have the same relationships with bloggers and online media outlets as with the reviewers at well-known newspapers and magazines? In happy news for upstart publications such as The Enthusiast, Fredericks says he doesn’t discriminate, “however, I personally find I have a closer relationship with online outlets because they are genre specific and are only interested in genre, which makes my job easier. Having said that, I have plenty of offline media contacts that are really into their genre stuff, and I have a great working relationship with them too.

“Basically, people who are into genre are really into genre,” says Fredericks. “They are passionate and have read extensively, so they know their stuff and are therefore keen to review or cover genre titles.”

In that spirit, perhaps any publishing imprint that gives genre fans better access to the books they love is on a winner.

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