British Fiction Focus

British Genre Fiction Focus: A Cold Season for Artisan Authors

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s weekly column dedicated to news and new releases from the thriving industry dedicated to speculative fictionthat exists in the United  Kingdom!

In the news this week: we touch on the topic of “artisan authors,” discuss the announcement of an epic tome about time travel, sigh with relief as we hear release details regarding River of Stars, and consider the impact the cold snap we’re having has had on the publishing industry in Britain.

And as if to make up for the rather anaemic array of releases featured last time on the British Genre Fiction Focus, I have details of eight—count ’em!—eight exciting novels due to be unleashed this week, including astonishing science fiction from Karen Lord, the beginning of a new series by The Parasol Protectorate’s Gail Carriger, Myke Cole’s continuation of Shadows Ops in Fortress Frontier, a harrowing standalone by Joyce Carol Oates, and eleven dark tales from Yoko Ogawa, mistress of the macabre in Japan.



Well, what do you know? Winter… has come!

A Cold Season on the High Street

That is to say, it’s been snowy in the UK lately, and in Scotland especially, so yours truly has been affected more than most. But nothing stops the British Genre Fiction Focus!

Be that as it may, you must be wondering why I’ve lead with the weather. After all, this is, not the bloomin’ BBC, and however timely a topic it is, how could the weather ever affect the things we’re interested in?

Well, to paraphrase a popular panel show, have I got news for you!

Though the worst of the wintry conditions that have hit Britain in recent weeks certainly seem to be behind us, alas, the cold snap has left an impression on the industry we come to to talk about. As Lisa Campbell at The Bookseller reports: “Freezing temperatures and a swathe of snow across the UK has hit the high street, with some booksellers seeing sales drop by up to 50%.”

A startling statistic, isn’t it?

The remainder of Campbell’s article is hidden behind a pesky paywall, so I can’t speak to the conclusions she’s drawn from these recent reports. But in itself, this single sentence raises an interesting and potentially distressing question.

Do we truly buy fewer books when the weather takes a turn for the worse?

Honestly, I’d have thought the opposite, and I bet my latest bank statement will back me up on that front. By dint of the review copies I receive, I can—not that I often do—go for whole weeks without buying a book, but since the last edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, I’ve ordered up a bunch. I couldn’t say why with 100% accuracy, but at a push, I’d point towards the weather: the very thing Campbell indicates as having had the reverse effect on high street retailers.

On the other hand, my most recent acquisitions came courtesy of The Book Depository, and they aren’t anywhere near the high street. So perhaps that’s what we take from this chilling tale.

But if a bit of snow can lay real world retailers low, what, I wonder, will happen when the rain gets too heavy?

Stay tuned, then, for news of the end of the bookselling business in Britain…next Wednesday?

But wait. I can do you one better!


Artisan Authors Invade Planet Publishing

The wintry weather may have been a plague on publishing, but it’s also served to stir up a great conversation. At least it looks that way, in light the myriad lilies we’ve considered this week…with predictably apocalyptic consequences.

Writing for The Guardian last Friday, and evidently ill-content to talk about just one big issue, Damien Walter collated many and various of the debates doing the rounds in the industry of today. Piracy, self-publishing and DRM all came into consideration in his timely review of the rise of the artisan author.

But first, some scene-setting:

“The community of SF writers has reason to dislike digital copying, or “piracy” as it’s commonly labelled in the tabloid press. Genre writers exist, by and large, in the publishing mid-list, where mediocre sales might seem most easily eroded by the spectre of illegitimate downloads. SF, fantasy and horror are also the literature of choice for the culture of geeks most likely to share their favourite authors’ works on torrent sites. Not surprising, then, that many professional genre writers and editors respond to the growing reality of copying with the absolutist position that piracy is theft, and should be punished as such under the law.

“But SF writers are far from united in that position. Novelist, blogger and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow is well known for providing free digital copies of all his books as a marketing strategy, arguing that in a digital economy, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy. Charlie Stross blogged such an effective argument against digital rights management on ebooks that it influenced at least one publishing imprint to drop DRM on its novels. And interviewed on the subject in 2011, Neil Gaiman, ever the gentleman, kindly points out that if you are a writer courting fans, screaming “THIEF!” at them and threatening legal action for copying might be… counterproductive.”

The author of the above article goes on to disabuse us of the so-called easy response to all this: “that Doctorow, Stross and Gaiman are all successful writers who can afford to hold such opinions. But like most easy responses, it misses the fundamentals of the argument.”

The fundamentals of this specific argument, perhaps. But—not to take undue issue with Walter’s premise—this specific argument cannot and does not exist in a vacuum, and it’s safe to say that these authors are not successful because of their opinions on piracy and rights management. They became successful—which a great many writers who deserve to be do not—and only then put their principles into practice.

Noble indeed, but how does that help authors anywhere else on the spectrum?

Well, apparently they have another option now. Now, they can become artisans:

“If the rise of the ebook and the growth of file-sharing are a huge meteorite careening towards Planet Publishing, then the artisan authors are gambling on being the fast, adaptable mammals who will crawl out from the rubble of Random House and feast like cannibals on the dismembered careers of dying mid-list writers and their editors. If the artisan authors are right, then file-sharing is the least of the problems traditional authors face. They are tied to a publishing eco-system that may simply be too big and too slow to adapt to the extinction-level event of digital technology.”

See, I told you the world would end eventually!

So what do you think about all this? Does Walter’s argument hold water, or is he simply courting controversy? Do artisan authors represent a realistic way forward, or are they as exceptional in their way as any Neil Gaiman? Or am I simply simplifying matters?

The only other point I’d make, beyond what I’ve said already, is that I think Walter’s statement of the case glosses over a crucial component: the mid-listers he mentions at the outset. The very authors who Walter himself points out make up the bulk of the genre. Where do they fit into all this?

Between a rock and a hard place, by the reckoning I’ve related. Either they can subscribe to this idea of authors as artisans—which of course they are whether or not they self-publish—and hope for the best, or they can become massively successful, along the lines of the great Gaiman—thus allowing themselves this choice, be damned their publishers’ demands—and go their own way at the end of the day.

Why, it’s as easy as A, B, C!

But hold on a moment… it isn’t, is it?

Let’s talk it out in the comments!

Now for some lighter news, before we get to the week’s new releases….


One Time Travel Tome to Rule Them All

Over at Ecstatic Days, co-editors extraordinaire Ann and Jeff VanderMeer just put out a call for submissions for The Time Traveler’s Almanac, stealth announcing their forthcoming anthology in the process.

Here’s how they introduced it:

The Time Traveler’s Almanac will function as its own time machine: the ultimate treasury of time travel stories, presented in an imaginative way, with illustrations and some nonfiction in addition to the stories. The anthology will cover millions of years of Earth’s history—from the age of the dinosaurs to strange and fascinating futures, through to the end of Time itself. The Time Traveler’s Almanac will reacquaint readers with beloved classics and introduce them to thrilling contemporary examples of the time travel genre. The UK publisher is Head of Zeus and our editor Nic Cheetham, who also was our editor on the award-winning The Weird. The US publisher will be announced soon.”

As with The Weird, The Time Traveler’s Almanac will feature no original fiction; in other words, it’ll be a reprint-only anthology… but what a one, we can but wonder! Between the co-editors’ emphasis on “mega” and the involvement of Nic Cheetham, who partnered with the VanderMeers on the aforementioned award-winner, I’m expecting something at once absolutely massive and utterly essential.

Doorstopper or not, Head of Zeus had my money from word one.

Nor will The Time Traveler’s Almanac restrict itself to a single species of story. As the joint anthologists assert, they’re “mainly interested in work that pushes the boundaries, that is truly unique to the genre. FANTASY AND HORROR incorporating time travel are just as welcome as pure science fiction. Surreal isn’t bad either.”

According to a comment from Jeff himself, The Time Traveler’s Almanac is pencilled in for publication this December. We’ll have to wait and see whether that release period is for the US and the UK, or just one of the above.

In any event, I’m thrilled. The Weird, which I’m still slowly but surely working my way through—you?—is my desert island anthology. If The Time Traveler’s Almanac even remotely resembles it—and we have every reason to believe it will—then I’ll have a hard choice ahead on the day I’m inevitably cast into the Atlantic Ocean, with room enough for only one book.

What say we close out this week’s news section with another awesome announcement?


A River of Stars Runs Through It

I’ve admitted as much elsewhere, but let me repeat myself here, albeit briefly: the work of Guy Gavriel Kay was what got me blogging.

Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back—in all likelihood I’d have ended up in this business anyway, because of another novel—but Tigana touched me so intensely that I simply had to share my impressions with as many people as possible. Thus was born The Speculative Scotsman.

So I probably don’t have to tell you how much I’m looking forward to the spiritual successor to Under Heaven, but though River of Stars has been on the cards for ages in North America and several other territories, here in the UK we’ve been waiting patiently for confirmation that we’d even see it.

To my immediate relief, that came this week: July 18th is the promised day. Which is to say more than three months after the US release date… but wait! There’s rather more to this story, you see.

The following is excerpted from the journal Kay has been keeping on BrightWeavings:

“HarperCollins UK will publish River of Stars on July 18. But—and this will please and interest some people here, I know—they will lead with the e-book edition on April 2… the same date River comes out in Canada and the States. With the increasingly interconnected book buying world, it just make sense for a publisher to have their electronic edition out when others do.


“The July timing in the UK is interesting, and I am onside with it. They are planning a new cover, and a shift of imprints, from my current Voyager to one where authors like Tracy Chevalier are published. [This is] part of a strategy to position the book for literary / historical / mainstream readers, in addition to the core of fantasy readers.”

Let us pause a moment to consider the specifics of Kay’s statement.

Tracy Chevalier’s next novel, The Last Runaway, will be published in March by HarperFiction. This is the division which has lately made headlines by announcing “a series of six novels teaming up authors of global literary significance [such as Val McDermid and Curtis Sittenfeld] with Jane Austen’s six complete works.”

I can only imagine how this shift in Kay’s marketplace positioning will sit with some. But hey, if it helps bring his work the widespread recognition it most certainly deserves, then I’m all for a bit of mainstreaming. And the author goes on to indicate exactly that thought process:

“I have always (my own stubbornness!) been challenging to slot or categorize. I know this. In fact I hated the tendency to force books into categories even before I was a writer! (Seriously, the first award-winning student paper I ever wrote was a near-rant on absurdities underlying The Classification of ‘Troilus and Cressida’… a commercial bestseller theme if ever there was one!) But this category-issue has forced my publishers in different markets and different languages to work harder (and involving very different ideas, sometimes) to try to find the books access to readers who might well be excited by them—if they learned about the novels. (That’s a reason the covers are often so different, too.)

“My own solution? Everyone hanging out here go off and tell people! Come back when you are done and we’ll play beach volleyball and toast marshmallows.”

So… I’ll see you all at the beach? :)

Roll on River of Stars!

But not before we’ve gotten to these beauties…



In contrast to the meagre selection of new releases featured last time on the British Genre Fiction Focus, there’s so much speculative fiction hitting Britain this week that I had a hard time narrowing our list down. Far be it from me to moan, though; I can hardly conceive of a happier problem to have!

The Best of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord (January 31, Jo Fletcher Books)

The Sadiri were once the galaxy’s ruling élite, but now their home planet has been rendered unlivable and most of the population destroyed. The few groups living on other worlds are desperately short of Sadiri women, and their extinction is all but certain. Civil servant Grace Delarua is assigned to work with Councillor Dllenahkh, a Sadiri, on his mission to visit distant communities, looking for possible mates. Delarua is impulsive, garrulous and fully immersed in the single life; Dllenahkh is controlled, taciturn and responsible for keeping his community together. They both have a lot to learn.

Fortress Frontier (Shadow Ops #2), by Myke Cole (January 31, Headline)

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Suddenly people from all corners of the globe began to develop terrifying powers – summoning fire, manipulating earth, opening portals and decimating flesh. Overnight the rules had changed… but not for everyone.

Alan Bookbinder might be a Colonel in the US Army, but in his heart he knows he’s just a desk jockey, a clerk with a silver eagle on his jacket. But one morning he is woken by a terrible nightmare and overcome by an ominous drowning sensation. Something is very, very wrong.

Forced into working for the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder’s only hope of finding a way back to his family will mean teaming up with former SOC operator and public enemy number one: Oscar Britton. They will have to put everything on the line if they are to save thousands of soldiers trapped inside a frontier fortress on the brink of destruction, and show the people back home the stark realities of a war that threatens to wipe out everything they’re trying to protect.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, by Yoko Ogawa (January 31, Harvill Secker)

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.

From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.

The Silence, by Sarah Rayne (January 31, Severn House Publishers)

A century-old crime menaces the present in this spine-tingling tale of supernatural suspense. Antiques dealer Nell West is valuing the contents of her late husband Brad’s childhood home, Stilter House. Set on the remote Derbyshire Peaks, there was once a much older property there, in which the notorious Isobel Acton committed a vicious crime. Warned against visiting the house by an elderly aunt of Brad’s, Nell hears mysterious piano music soon after her arrival. It becomes clear that the music is tangled with Isobel Acton’s macabre fate more than a hundred years earlier. A fate whose consequences still menace the present.

Skylark (Skylark Trilogy #1), by Meagan Spooner (January 31, Corgi Children’s)

For fifteen years, Lark Ainsley believed in a lie. Now she must escape the only world she’s ever known…

Lark has waited for the day when her Resource would be harvested and she would finally be an adult. After the harvest she expected a small role in the regular, orderly operation of the City within the Wall. She expected to do her part to maintain the refuge for the last survivors of the Wars. She expected to be a tiny cog in the larger clockwork of the city.

Lark did not expect to become the City’s power supply. Her only choice is to escape; to follow the birds into the Iron Wood, and the wilderness beyond.

Daddy Love, by Joyce Carol Oates (February 1, Head of Zeus)

Daddy Love, aka Reverend Chester Cash, has for years abducted, tortured, and raped young boys. His latest victim is Robbie, now renamed ’Gideon’, and brainwashed into believing that he is Daddy Love’s real son. Any time the boy resists or rebels he is met with punishment beyond his wildest nightmares.

As Robbie grows older he begins to realize that the longer he is locked in the shackles of this demon, the greater chance he’ll end up like Daddy Love’s other ’sons’ who were never heard from again. Somewhere within this tortured boy lies a spark of rebellion… and soon he will see just what lengths he must go to in order to have any chance at survival.

Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1), by Gail Carriger (February 5, Atom)

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to finishing school.

Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. She’s more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners—and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. However, Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, so she enrols Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s young ladies learn to finish… everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage – in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

The Queen is Dead (The Immortal Empire #2), by Kate Locke (February 5, Orbit)

Xandra Varden is the newly crowned Goblin Queen of England. But her complicated life is by no means over.

There are the political factions vying for her favour, and the all too close scrutiny of Queen Victoria, who for some reason wants her head. Not to mention her werewolf boyfriend with demands of his own, and a mother hell bent on destroying the monarchy. Now she’s the suspect in a murder investigation—and Xandra barely knows which way is up.

What she does know is that nothing lasts forever—and immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.



What a week it’s been!

We haven’t even had time to talk about Charlie Stross, whose new trilogy—set against the alt-historical milieu of the Merchant Princeshas just been bought by not one but two Tors for an undisclosed, six-figure sum.

Nor have I made mention of Chris Wooding, who recently completed the first draft of the final Tale of the Ketty Jay. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the series, but better, I think, that things end on a high note rather than petering out over the years.

We’ve got our commenting cut out for us this week, haven’t we? There’s the rise of the artisan author; the eternal question of piracy; the wintry weather’s impact on the high street; the repositioning of Guy Gavriel Kay in the UK; and the stories that simply must be reprinted in The Time Traveler’s Almanac.

Not to mention all those new releases. Anything in particular catch your eye?

See you next week!

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.


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