Interview: Tom Black

Questions from Gary Oswald



Today is the 7th Birthday of Sea Lion Press so to celebrate that I talked to Tom Black, SLP's Managing Director. He can be found either here or on twitter.


Hello Tom, so first of all thank you for agreeing to talk to me and congratulations on seven years of Sea Lion Press.


It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Gary, and I’m delighted to be far from the first person you’ve interviewed for the blog. What you’ve done as our magazine editor – building on the excellent work of Andy Cooke, who founded it – is really impressive and as far as I’m concerned is as important to Sea Lion Press’s brand as the books we publish.


I'll start with the questions I always start with, how did you first get into Alternate History and what do you think the appeal is to you?


I got into alternate history when I was around 13 years old. I was playing a lot of MMOFPS WWII Online, a game that attracted a lot of hardcore online history nerds (and this is by 2003 internet standards!). I got involved in the forums, and someone one day was talking about this series of books about an alien invasion during the Second World War. One thing led to another and by the end of the week I had discovered that Worldwar: In The Balance was in stock at the local library I had been using all my life.

I was quickly hooked on Harry Turtledove’s works, and I think it was through discussion thereof that I inevitably ended up playing some Hearts of Iron II - and not long after that, of course, I played Kaiserreich. It’s a legendary mod for a reason, and even back then (this is 2008 or so) it was vast in its scope and really pulled me in with its rule-of-cool approach to making a very different mid-twentieth century. I worked for a year or so on the Kaiserreich mod team and became active in the AAR (After Action Report, a way of chronicling your historical strategy games) community on the game’s forums. That led me to AlternateHistory.com, where I posted my own AAR, The People’s Flag. This would become a lengthy timeline in its own right, based on work that I and (mainly) others had done on the story of the Union of Britain. SLP published it by agreement with the present-day Kaiserreich team in 2019.


So, I suppose my short answer is the highly uncool and lowbrow “I played some video games and read work by the most successful AH author in the world”! But by doing so, I came into contact with communities that introduced me to the broad scope of work that’s out there, and I’ve been hooked ever since.


Sea Lion Press began as an attempt to get the amateur writing you see on forums published and to a wider audience. Was there any particular story that you read and thought this is something that can be sold?


Put simply, everything by Ed Thomas. There’s a reason his work features heavily among our first waves of books. Tom Anderson’s Look to the West series was also something that I planned to publish from day zero.


Interestingly, A World Of Laughter, A World Of Tears (aka President Walt Disney) is one of the last great AlternateHistory.com stories of that era that we have not been able to publish. I had some conversations with its author and he wasn’t opposed to it, so if he reads this and is interested in reopening that discussion, I’d be delighted to.


Obviously you also have a long history within those amateur writing communities. One of the interesting things about those communities to me has always been that instead of just people writing knock off Turtledove novels, you had all the various formats designed for that medium, like lists and wikiboxes and timelines. Do you think that the existence of Sea Lion Press and the awareness that some of this may be published has led to an evolution away from that style and towards more straightforward literature?


A very interesting thought. It’s definitely tricky to publish list format work as it just doesn’t quite click into place in a reader’s mind as what they expect from a book. Indeed, some of the former TLIAD (TimeLine In A Day) works we’ve published, which can sometimes read like long-form lists, have attracted some of the few negative reviews SLP books have received.


Speaking from personal experience, I obviously know the work of many of the writers in the community. What I think has started to happen is that there are still many ideas that begin as - and may originally get written as - ‘lists’ or wikiboxes or other short-form formats. What SLP may be doing is giving people the encouragement to expand those ideas into something longer and more detailed.


As for straightforward literature, some of our books already meet this description - you could comfortably put them on a shelf among bestsellers in Waterstones and readers would consider them to be novels, albeit novels with unusual settings. I’d like for there to be more such things, not because the history book/scrapbook style of timeline isn’t engaging - many of my favourite AH works use it - but because I think the more strong AH work there is that’s in the form of a classic, easy-to-recognise genre, the better. I’m currently reading 'Widowland' by CJ Carey, which joins books like 'Fatherland' and 'SS-GB' in taking an alternate history setting but using it as a backdrop for a mystery thriller built on social commentary of our own reality. This kind of book has the best chance of drawing in total newcomers to the alternate history setting.


So, if anyone’s got a sword-and-sail caper set in an alternate Seven Years’ War, or a gritty cowboy tale that takes place in Zheng He’s California, you know where I am.


As a writer yourself, has your style changed in any way with the awareness that the books may be published and so you're not just writing for the other forum members?


A little bit. Apart from 'The People’s Flag', I’ve always tended to write work that lends itself to either conventional narrative style or the essay-style AH work you find in those books of what-ifs from mainstream publishers. So my own stuff has usually been easy to prepare for a wider audience.


That being said, all of the works I wrote for the forum have had some changes before publication, and not just an edit job and some proofreading. It was right to remove various in-jokes that make no sense if you weren’t a poster in the Official PMQs and British Politics Thread on AlternateHistory.com from 2013-2014, and in other cases the forum’s feedback on my work the first time proved invaluable to refining it for publication the second time.


The niche that Sea Lion Press often takes when compared to more mainstream Alternate History is it's often a deeper dive into history, with more obscure scenarios offered than just the standard Nazi or Confederate victory stories. Do you think that obscurity demands an historical literacy among the audience that limits its mass market appeal or will a good story get past that barrier anyway?


Firstly, I’m really pleased that we have a lot more on our covers than swastikas and stars and bars. I am not actually opposed to work that explores WWII or American Civil War AH – I’ve enjoyed examples of both and they’re both vast conflicts with huge consequences. I get it. But there is so much more to alternate history than working out different logistics operations during the drive to Kiev for the hundred and ninth time. To the majority of readers in the general public, that might be news.


It’s news that Sea Lion Press has set out to spread. Our name, of course, is itself a WWII AH reference and I hope that – and our catalogue – makes clear that we absolutely don’t turn our noses up at compelling, refreshing takes on the worst conflict in history. But something I enjoyed a great deal in those pre-Sea Lion Press days of reading AH online is how much I learned about real history by reading about how it could have gone differently. Eras that I know little about were coming to life for me thanks to a skilled author explaining how they could have occurred differently.


As for good stories getting through the historical literacy barrier – absolutely. It’s true that the big AH successes of mainstream literature – 'Dominion', 'Fatherland', 'SS-GB', 'The Man In The High Castle' – all focus on a certain mid-twentieth century conflict going differently. But you also have things like 'Rodham' showing that a public figure whose life has become common knowledge via the news, rather than history, can also provide fertile ground for an AH best-seller. And then you have the pre-WWI proposal to introduce hippos into the Mississippi, a much more niche point of divergence – and as you might expect, it’s set out in John O’Brien’s 'Bearfish', available from this publishing house and widely well-regarded. But it’s also the plot of the much-discussed and best-selling 'River of Teeth' by Sarah Gailey. I think that shows that a story cuts through, whatever setting you choose.


What's been the biggest challenges and the most rewarding aspects of taking the role of a publisher?


The worst part of the job is rejecting submissions. We’ve never been sent anything that’s just obviously terrible, which makes it harder - every author who contacts us has clearly put thought and effort into their work, and when it’s not quite up to scratch then it’s still not pleasant to have to find the words to say “sorry, but it’s not for us”.


On the flipside, the best moments come when informing new authors their book is on sale and selling. Creators experiencing the thrill of seeing custom-made illustrations for their covers (usually the excellent Jack Tindale) and knowing their words are in the hands of countless strangers - that’s a gift I enjoy being able to give.


As it’s our birthday, I should take a moment here to acknowledge that it’s not just me who does the work around here - there’s you, Gary, as our magazine editor. Edward Feery is our chief proofreader and he’s ably accompanied by David Flin (of children and YA historical fiction publisher Sergeant Frosty Publications). Tom Anderson handles our social media, and of course Jack Tindale as mentioned is our chief illustrator. Then there’s our volunteer moderators on the forum, Ciclavex, Dom, iainbhx, Heat, and OwenM - and others who’ve served in that role in the past.


I’m extremely grateful to all these people, and everyone else who’s helped us get this far.

And what advice would you give a new writer who wants to get something published with you, what things are you looking for when offered a book?


Confidence. That may sound odd, but I want to read sample chapters that have a clear style and stick to it – whatever that style may be. I’m sure I have my biases, but I try to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to style and tone. The books that I say no to are not of any one specific genre or setting, but rather the ones that don’t confidently tell me what kind of book this is going to be in the opening pages. Ideally, the opening paragraphs.


It's been just over four years since you expanded the Sea Lion Press website, to include a forum and blog articles like this one. Obviously that increases the expense in bandwidth of running the site, did you find that there was a compensating increase in sales or was the creation of a community around the site seen as an aim in itself?


A bit of both - sales have moderately tracked upwards since 2018, but that wasn’t the primary goal of setting up a community. We were already seeing a lot of discussion of SLP books in other forums and communities around the internet, and I always felt a bit uncomfortable pushing that further or creating too many threads about the company - nobody likes a self-promoting spammer. So a community of our own where it didn’t look self-indulgent to get into in-depth chats about SLP books and possible future work was a no-brainer at some point.


Truthfully, I didn’t consider setting up a community at all when founding the company in 2015, simply because the level of success and relevance SLP has achieved is far beyond what I had imagined was possible. It’s no coincidence that the idea for a forum emerged at the same time that we had become established in the AH reading and writing community.


Obviously you're a prolific writer yourself as well as a publisher. Agent Lavender, a book you co-wrote with Jack Tindale in which the conspiracy theory that Harold Wilson was a KGB agent is revealed to be true, is probably your best known book. How did that idea come about and how was the process of writing with a co-writer?


Jack and I became friends through posting on AlternateHistory.com, quite quickly in fact. We were soon both living in London and Jack was regularly showing me his incomparable knowledge of the city’s pubs. We were in Westminster favourite The Red Lion one day, idly chatting about alternate history and politics, and Jack just piped up with “I’ve always wanted to do something about if all the KGB rumours about Wilson were true”. I was immediately all-in, and we started work within a month.


Working with Jack was great fun. We would usually write on our own time, initially alternating the chapters but soon finding it was more effective to share the load on an ongoing basis. There was a big Agent Lavender Google Doc and we would always work in that - it sounds obvious but it meant there was never once an issue with someone editing the wrong draft. I really recommend using cloud-based software if you’re working with a co-writer, for this exact reason.


We’d usually finish chapters, and then upload them to the forum, by meeting up in person and writing for a few hours on our laptops. Matthews Yard, legendary workspace/coffee shop in Croydon, was a regular haunt for that.


About 18 months after we finished it, we decided to publish it through SLP. A rewrite followed, with new content and some structural edits. We accomplished some of this the same way as the first draft, but then completed it by going to stay in a lovely pub hotel in Cromer - a key location within the book. After three days (and some excellent meals) there, we had our final draft.


Jack’s a brilliant creative, made a fantastic partner, and Lavender remains one of the proudest moments of my professional life. Incidentally, without it and the resulting immersion into 1970s politics, I never would’ve thought to make 'Crisis? What Crisis?', the immersive show I made with Parabolic Theatre that pulled audiences into trying to solve the Winter of Discontent. I owe an awful lot to that afternoon in The Red Lion, and to Jack Tindale.


Agent Lavender is also a book where the published version is significantly different from the draft originally written on a forum. How useful do you think that initial feedback on the forums is in terms of ironing out the kinks in the idea or is it often coming from a perspective that isn't always helpful in terms of what the general reader will think?


I mentioned earlier that feedback from the forum has proved invaluable to making the SLP-published versions of some of my stories all the better. Lavender is very much one of them, and I know Jack would agree with me. Beyond a rework of the ending, we were able to adjust not just specific setpieces that didn’t ring true to all readers, but also the pace of the story as a whole.


It was a hugely helpful experience, and it was in my mind when I set up the SLP Forum in 2018 - the boards are designed to have clear places for people to request feedback and post drafts of work at various stages of development. We’ve already seen works launched on the forum end up published - both by us and by others, which was always an intention - and I have no doubt we will see more in years to come.


What can we expect to see from both you and the company in the future?


Speaking for myself, I’ve written for this magazine in the past about alternate history and its place in interactive theatre. The creation of that kind of theatre has become my main job in the last few years, and I’m excited to be working on a number of projects that should flourish in the next couple of years after a very difficult time for the live events during the pandemic. In different ways, all the projects I’m working on involve alternate timelines or a blurring of fiction and reality. I’m also going to make a small appearance on TV in the autumn for UK readers, but I can’t say more than that at the moment.


As for Sea Lion Press, we will keep on keeping on - there’s plenty more books in the pipeline for this year and submissions are always coming in. I’m pleased that we’ll be practicing what I, at least, preach: the upcoming books for the rest of this year go far beyond the well-trodden territories of WWII and the American Civil War.


We’ve got books about every continent now (except Antarctica). The ancient world remains a little underserved, but there’s more on the way. Ultimately, there’s always more to be done to diversify our catalogue, and so I’ll make that my final thought here: if you’ve got a story about underrepresented people, nations, or historical periods, we’d very much like to consider it as a submission.

 

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Tom Black is the founder and owner of Sea Lion Press and the author of The People's Flag, Meet the New Boss, Zonen, For Want of a Paragraph, Boristopia, the editor of Remain means Remain and the co-writer of Shuffling the Deck, You've always had it so good, President Ashdown is Retiring and Agent Lavender.