Editor-in-chief of both Solaris and Abaddon Books, Jonathan Oliver took time out from his hectic schedule to talk about how he fell out of love with academia, found his place with Rebellion and started publishing the best pulp science fiction and horror novels around.
BSFA – Can you tell us a little about how you first got in editing graphic novels and what your background was that led you to work for Rebellion?
Jonathan Oliver – I was working for Taylor & Francis, an academic publishing house at the time when I saw an ad for an editor for a new line of genre fiction, and I saw that the email address was 2000AD. Having been a fan I thought that it was interesting. I applied for that job which was for the editor-in-chief position at Abaddon Books. When I took that job they also asked if I’d like to edit some of the graphic novels which I did for five years at the same time as setting up Abaddon. Then in 2009 Rebellion bought Solaris and I took that on as well.
What was it like working on both graphic novels and books?
There is a massive difference between the two. With graphic novels you are essentially collecting material that has already been published. So you are working with material that has been through an edit already. I was commissioning covers and we tried to add some extra, bonus material. With Abaddon everything was from scratch. We were a fairly small operation at the time so I was doing all the commissioning of covers, the editing, I’d be in all the sales meetings with the distributors and even the printer liaison. There was a hell of a lot more to do from the birth of the novel all the way through so it was a lot more involved.
You head up both Abaddon and Solaris imprints – how tough is it to juggle those two arms of Rebellion publishing?
It was a challenge when we took on Solaris in that it was a living list with a considerable back catalogue so had to ensure we kept stock levels up on that, carried on the authors who were successful for the line. It was twenty four more books a year so something had to give and it was the graphic novels.
What the hard and fast differences between Abaddon and Solaris?
With Abaddon it is work for hire in the shared worlds we’ve created, so the style of books we’re taking on are a little different, whereas Solaris is much more traditional publishing where the properties are owned by the authors and so working with slightly more high profile authors perhaps. We don’t really separate the two in the sense that there is an impermeable barrier. We do have authors that cross over and one of those is Al Ewing. I published his first novel and every single novel we work with him on is fantastic. He always surprises me and his books are always different so something I was keen to do when we took on Solaris was to give Al free reign, within reason, to write whatever he wanted. Eric Brown has even crossed over the other way and helped to launch our new series with Abaddon called Weird Space. There is a difference in that the mission statement for Abaddon is to create shared worlds and distinct flavours of fiction whereas Solaris’ remit is to publish the best in science fiction and horror.
Do you think pulp fiction is making a comeback or has it always been there, simmering away and is just a bit more accepted these days?
In some sense Abaddon or pulp fiction is looked at in the same way as tie-in fiction and that it is in some way inferior to ‘proper’ fiction which is quite plainly bollocks. Dr Who books operate on the same model and there have been some fantastic works there. Any writer worth his salt will do the best job they can. We were doing new pulp before it was cool. It’s never entirely gone away. Pulp fiction doesn’t mean bad fiction. There is a certain economy of style and rules that was inherited from the time but some of the best writing from the golden era of the 20’s,30’s and 40’s is some of the best fiction in the genre or indeed anywhere. In crime you’ve got pulp fiction writers such as Jim Thompson who produced incisive and brilliant literature and has been recognised as such. H.P Lovecraft came out of the pulp scene and is one of the most significant horror writers of any generation. Robert Howard is still being published and Fritz Leiber is another great writer and what they did helped spawn the modern genre fiction. I think Abaddon’s reaction to all these big epics was to take concise, exciting, punchy storytelling and show how big ideas can be used in a couple of hundred pages to the same effect. I wanted to use the term pulp because it is not a bad thing. Rather, it shows a commitment to storytelling.
You’ve also written two books – how tough is it to turn off the editor in your head and allow yourself to write?
I’m a slow writer. The difficulty isn’t in switching between the modes but in motivating myself to write. I deal with words all day long editing and reading so when I get home there is the desire to write but also the desire to play Xbox. The conflict is there in trying to make yourself work in a way. I do edit quite a lot as I go along. I don’t really bust through a novel and then take it apart and reconstruct it. I think the second novel was written in 300 word chunks during my lunch breaks but you write because you have to. You can procrastinate as much as you want to but eventually you’ll have to tell a story or two.
Has editing so many titles been a benefit in terms of your writing abilities – knowing what works and what doesn’t?
Of course. Any qualification for a writer is to read. Lots. All the time. You get out what you put in and as an editor you’re more aware of what works in fiction. But, obviously, that is different for every editor but that is fine because if we all agreed on things then genre fiction would be very bland. But we don’t all agree and that is why genre fiction in this country is so vibrant. But, basically, as a writer you know what works and as a reader you know if it works so really you have to read a lot.
Has the editing helped you market your own novels to a specific area – allowing you to see what may succeed or do you write the stories that just excite you?
The thing about publishing is that you can’t predict what will succeed. I think Stephen King was living in a caravan when he wrote Carrie and after he finished it, he threw it in the bin. It was only his wife taking it out and sending it to the publisher and, lo and behold, he had a best seller and became one of the most popular horror writers around. There’s no magic wand but what publishing is good at is following trends. But, the thing with trends is that they can end over night. So, I commission based on the story entertaining and moving me. Obviously you keep your commercial sense and you keep your eye on the market but really it is a case of picking stories that speak to you.
Both imprints have been at the forefront of the SF and Fantasy, publishing post-apocalypse and zombie novels before most – why do you think that is?
With the post-apocalypse Afterblight series for Abaddon we just thought about the kind of pulp fiction genres that we liked; it was as simple as that. Then we fleshed out the world with Simon Spurrier and now we’ve got a fascinating series going on. With the zombie novels the idea has always been fairly popular and we decided to try a series of zombie alternative historical novels but we quickly realised that the timeline and continuity for that would be a nightmare. So we decided to just publish unusual zombie stories like detective zombie stories, gangster zombies – all kinds of flavours and we’ve been doing as long as it’s been fun. We’re still doing zombie fiction but we’re also releasing some new series next year. We just publish what we like and zombies became a big thing. I think we must just be trend setters!
What do you think will be the next big theme/trope (after the zombie fever dies down)?
I really don’t know. There seems to be a rise in the popularity of ghost stories and I think there is a move towards more supernatural stories. Whether that is the next big thing is difficult to say. I do think vampires and werewolves will be around for a while though. Next year we are releasing a new series called Gods and Monsters, an urban fantasy series, launching with Chuck Wendig’s new book called Unclean Spirits. We’re continuing the Weird Space series with a new Eric Brown novel called Satan’s Reach. We’re also launching a new series based around the Robin Hood myth focusing on Guy of Gisborne with Toby Venables, the lead on that. And then we also have a series of novellas where we are experimenting with the form and we’ve had an open submission window recently as well as launching a line of children’s fiction under the Ravenstone banner. You know, business as usual.
What are your thoughts on the e-reader revolution? Do you think publishing is evolving with it properly or do you think we might see more self-publishing (and consequently less peer-review and less quality) emerging?
I think we’ll see a bit of both. I think publishing is evolving with it because it’s not doing what the music industry did with the digital revolution by sticky its fingers in its ears and pretending it will go away. We’re making sure we’ve kept our hand in and paid attention to it. We simultaneously publish everything in print and e-reader. E-readers are becoming an increasingly vital part of the business. Yes, you’ll see a rise in self-published books but what the quality of those books will be like will be questioned on the quality of the writer and whether they get a professional to edit their work. It is still a product and it has to convince the reader to buy their work. Digital books from the editorial and marketing point of view take just as much work as print do.
Do you think e-reader novels allow publishing houses to test new authors more easily (and economically)?
They are a great way to experiment. Obviously the one cost you don’t have with an e-novella is the physical cost of distribution. So in that sense you can experiment and maybe do something unusual that you might be unsure of in paperback. E-books open up more doors than it closes. I’ve seen people say it is the death of publishing but I think it is actually the evolution of publishing.