Writers Unmasked

I’m answering questions on my contribution to the superhero anthology Masked over on Stargate Universe producer Joe Mallozzi’s blog.

The anthology compiled by editor supreme Lou Anders has been massively well-received, and features stories from both prose and comics authors, including Paul Cornell, Gail Simone, Mike Carey, Bill Willingham, Ian McDonald and more. Many of them are answering questions over on Joe’s blog (where he also has a little fun and identifies each of us as well-known super-heroes. Guess who I am?)

My story, By My Works You Shall Know Me features the debut of the hero Nox and the villain Styx.

Oh, yeah, you can buy it here.

The US Joins The Kingdom Of The Serpent

Just heard from my editor in the US, Lou Anders, that he’s bought the Kingdom of the Serpent sequence – Jack of Ravens, The Burning Man and Destroyer of Worlds – to be published shortly by Pyr.

For American readers, those books will finish off the massive story that began with World’s End in the Age of Misrule, a trilogy of trilogies covering more than two thousand years of human history, three worlds – this world, the Otherworld and the world beyond death – and our greatest mythologies.

Maybe I’ll stop getting all those emails now.

The Sword Of Albion Catch-Up

Lou Anders, my editor at Pyr Books in the US, has done a brief round-up of some of the amazing reviews I’ve been getting in the US for The Silver Skull – out in the UK under the title The Sword of Albion, from Bantam, in May. To say, I’ve been bowled over by the US reception would be under-stating.

Lou has been working up the catalogue copy for the follow-up book, which will be announced in the US soon. In fact, it looks like there’ll be news of the sequel before the book is even out in the UK.

There’s also a new review of the The Silver Skull out today here. Enough blowing of trumpets.

With Great Power! Superhero Anthology

Ages since I’ve written a short story and two announcements come along at once. Typical. I’m very proud to be included in a new anthology of superhero prose tales, With Great Power! which will be published by Pocket Books in 2010.

Award-winning editor Lou Anders has put together a great list of fellow contributors, a mix of leading comic book writers (including some personal favourites) and f/sf authors who are comics fans. Here’s the full list: Matthew Sturges, James Maxey, Paul Cornell, Mike Carey, Mike Baron, Daryl Gregory, Gail Simone, Stephen Baxter, Chris Roberson, Peter & Kathleen David, Joseph Mallozzi, Marjorie M Liu, Ian McDonald and Bill Willingham.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a long-time comics fan, like many authors within the genre, and I’ve had comics published by Image and Caliber. Superheroes – so big in the movies – really is an untapped genre in prose form, though, and all credit to Pocket Books for taking the leap into this new area.

Always Forever US Cover

Here’s the final version of the cover to the Pyr US edition of Always Forever, Age of Misrule Book Three. Another fantastic piece of work by the artist John Picacio. Warning: don’t look directly into Balor’s eye…

always-forever1

There’s a detailed account of the process of creating all three covers for the US editions of Age of Misrule over on Tor.com, with contributions from John, editor Lou Anders, and a few of my own ruminations on how the original idea came to be.

And just so you can see how much thought has gone into the design of these editions, here are the spines for all three books:

misrule-spine

The New Fantasy

Pyr editor Lou Anders discusses “the New Fantasy” in the latest Agony Column podcast from Rick Kleffel. Here’s the direct link.

The New Fantasy is a catch-all title for a specific, grittier kind of fantasy by Joe Abercrombie, Tom Lloyd, Joel Shepherd, James Enge, Justina Robson, Matthew Sturges, Chris Roberson and yours truly, according to Lou. Listen to the podcast to get the full picture.

New US Deal – Six, Count ’em, Six Books!

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement, I can reveal that I’ve just agreed a six-book deal with US publisher Pyr.

The highly-acclaimed SF and fantasy imprint will publish the first of my epic Elizabethan fantasy sequence, The Swords of Albion, in Fall 2009, with books two and three in subsequent years.

Pyr has also acquired the rights to my British Fantasy Award-nominated Age of Misrule sequence. The three books – World’s End, Darkest Hour and Always Forever – will be published in Spring/Summer 2009.

Here’s the rest of the press release:

Chadbourn says: “I’m very excited to be working with Pyr on the launch of The Swords of Albion and the US debut of Age of Misrule. Pyr has a dynamic, cool and smart approach to the genre, which, of course, is an excellent fit for my writing!”

Pyr Editorial Director Lou Anders says: “Mark is a brilliant writer – who not only has a tremendous imagination but manages to marry his vision to a very readable, accessible and fast-paced style. It’s amazing to me it’s taken this long to get him to America, but between these six books and the epic fantasy trilogy that Solaris recently acquired, that egregious oversight is about to be resoundingly corrected.”

The Swords of Albion, which will be published in the UK and Commonwealth by Transworld, follows Elizabethan England’s greatest spy, Will Swyfte – adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit and scholar.

Lou says of The Swords of Albion: “I first encountered Elizabethan Superspy Will Swyfte in the short story “Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast,” originally published in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (and subsequently selected for Hartwell and Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy), and fell in love at first read. I was weaned on Ian Fleming and Fritz Leiber, and this wonderfully fun character seemed to marry both these loves into one. I wrote Mark to ask if there were any more planned outings for Swyfte, and was thrilled to hear back within minutes that a proposal for a trilogy was going out the very next day. Naturally, I couldn’t wait for the next day. Now, I can’t wait for him to finish writing the first novel. And the second. And the third…”

The Age of Misrule deals with the return of the Celtic gods to modern day Britain and is steeped in the mysticism and mythology of the Isles with an edgy modern take – from Fabulous Beasts firebombing the rush hour-packed motorway outside London to the ancient secrets of Avebury stone circle.

Lou says of The Age of Misrule: “Every once in a while you read a work that treats its subject so well you realize it’s the last and final word on the topic. Like the way a certain Boy Wizard pretty much owns the school for magic space, and the idea of all of reality being a virtual illusion ends (for the foreseeable future) with the film The Matrix. That’s the sense I got reading the books of the Age of Misrule. Mark’s rigorously-researched exploration of Britain’s sacred sites reads with such authenticity that I can’t imagine there being any other explanation. That it underpins a fantastic adventure story chocked full of great characters – a sort of modern day Lord of the Rings transposed onto contemporary Britain – makes for a simply irresistible combination. I can’t wait to spring it on unsuspecting Americans – they have no idea what’s in store for them!”

With the Solaris book, and another unannounced tome, I’ve got six books out in the US next year, which, I think, justifies a trip…

Selling Fantasy By The Pound

Fantasy and SF for the connoisseur or for mainstream tastes: which path should a publishing house follow? That’s an interesting debate which the ever-erudite Lou Anders has raised on his blog. When founding the excellent Pyr imprint, Lou and his team took the conscious decision to publish what Norman Spinrad called “science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in”.

I think that’s an excellent policy for Pyr. It’s certainly a truism that the more you indulge in a particular taste the more refined that taste becomes (which can also be a problem for critics, who, as Stephen King puts it, “lose their taste for pizza”). The core readership of fantasy and SF – the fans, although they probably don’t categorise themselves that way – deserve some gourmet dishes.

But there is a wider debate here. On The Genre Files, Ariel gives a smart overview of marketing genre books in the 21st century, a post that all authors and publishers should read. And in a separate article, editor George Mann writes about Solaris’ choice of traditional covers for their genre titles.

Both these articles get right to the heart of trying to sell books to a fragmented audience in the 21st century, and it’s something the music industry in particular, and TV and Film, are all struggling to deal with. Do you go for the hardcore fan or reach out to the wider audience? There are pros and cons for both. It seems that Lou, Ariel and George are all swinging towards an approach that caters to the dedicated reader, and I think that’s a business model that will work very well for Pyr and Solaris.

But if it was applied to the whole industry I would have real problems. In the music industry, where I worked for a while, the marketeers have struggled. By focusing on the tribalist music fan that has emerged over the last twenty years, they have had trouble gaining breakout hits from genres. Attention shifted to marketing bland fare that would appeal to all tastes to gain those mainstream hits, and sales have fallen dramatically (yes, I know there are many other factors, but this is a core concern).

The comics industry in particular has faced a great many problems because of the loss of its mainstream audience. That was caused by the collapse of its distribution network in the late seventies and early eighties and the shift to specialist comics shops. But the comics producers then found that to maintain sales in this rarefied atmosphere required stories that excited the jaded palates of the core fan – and were nigh-on incomprehensible to the casual reader. Sales fell further, the core fan market had to be shored up to a greater extent, and a desperate retreat from the centre ground took place, that is still damaging the industry.

The issue of covers and marketing is not just an industry issue. I’ve had several readers complain about my move away from traditional illustrative fantasy covers to the latest design-oriented ones. I’ve had just as many applaud the move. These covers are a personal choice. I like design; they work for me. And, I have to say, sales have been much, much better. But I don’t think you can extrapolate too much from that for the wider market. If all covers were designery, mine wouldn’t have had the same impact.

I love fantasy, science fiction and horror. I believe these three genres are appealing to mainstream tastes, if some way can be found to communicate their values to the casual browser. I’m afraid that an across-the-board retreat to the ‘core fan model’ will ghettoize them even further and lead to a long-term decline. The best way for the industry, I think is – to use music industry analogy – hardcore labels for the purist, and general labels to attract new users.

But that is a fiendish and crippling trap for the writer. Once you establish yourself in one pool or the other it will be very hard to crossover and gain, on the one hand, the new readers and wider sales that sustain your career, and, on the other, credibility that is just as valuable a commodity in the internet-empowered world.

The Slow Death of Science Fiction

SF editor Lou Anders is talking about the sales decline of SF – from about one third of the mass market in the 70s to around 7 or 8 per cent now.

One of his readers suggests: “the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories.”

The thinking is that movies and TV have colonised the more populist form to such a degree that SF books need to move into more rareified territory.

To me, that is not the answer, but exactly the problem. It’s like saying, ‘Labour (or the Republicans or fill-in-political-party-here) has so successfully colonised the middle ground, we need to become more extreme’…

The real problem for SF, in my eyes, is that too much of it is failing in the art of communication. It’s written by scientists, for scientists. Every time this charge is levelled, the Big Machine Writers always talk about not wanting to do ‘dumbed-down fiction’ – SF is the genre of ideas, they say.

But they are confusing the art with the delivery of the art. If you have a fantastic idea, surely you want to communicate it to as wide an audience as possible. That means developing forms of communication – in this case, story, plot, and, most importantly, recognisably human characters with human concerns – that will piggy-back the idea into the minds of readers.

By becoming more esoteric, SF will only go the way of the Western genre: a tiny backwater for specialists and nostalgia lovers.