Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a relatively tight-knit online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result a lot of our members and writers are involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion either with a counter factual focus or not. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on the rest of this community.
Hello Adam! First of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.
Thanks for having me on the SLP blog – it’s scary with the boot being on the other foot for once, and me the one being interviewed!
You are, of course, a regular reviewer of horror, science-fiction and AH books both here and on your personal blog. So what exactly motivated you into starting a review blog of small press genre fiction?
I think my initial thoughts about a blog started to come together in 2016 or so – I’d been reviewing books on Amazon for quite a while, but had always wanted to try and do some longer-form reviews, and Amazon has a hard word limit for their reviews. So I thought about a blog, and my wife suggested I just start one up and see how it went; she even helped pick out The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer as a title, which was far better than my original ideas of The Books On My Shelf and Reading What I Want, neither of which are hugely interesting or tell you what the blog is about!
So I had this blog, empty of content apart from a nice, generic picture of a rocket taking off (still there as of 2020!) and I had absolutely no idea what to review. My Father in Law heard about the blog and brought me one of those big boxsets of A Song of Ice and Fire and suggested that I start by reviewing them. It was a lovely idea, what with Game of Thrones at its peak, but I looked up the number of reviews that even the first book in the series had, and it was into five digits already. And that was just Amazon UK, and there were probably thousands more scattered through other websites and blogs. And I thought, ‘If I review these, I’m just going to get lost in all the white noise’. So instead I began by reviewing a few of the Warhammer 40,000 books I had on my shelves, alongside some scifi books from Angry Robot I’d won in a competition, and they got a couple of views, but nothing hugely special.
But around then, I discovered Agent Lavender published by none other than Sea Lion Press and written by Tom Black and Jack Tindale, and absolutely loved it. I’ve always had a passion for Alternate History, and this intense spy thriller with a series of delightful and shocking Alternate History twist had everything I could hope for. Harold Wilson on a tractor! A Prime Minister who’s accused of being a Soviet spy! Paddy Ashdown! Tanks moving down Whitehall! I couldn’t wait to write up a review, and thanks to Tom Black sending me an electronic review I was able to write up that review. That led to me joining what was effectively the proto-Sea Lion Press community, and the encouragement from everyone there led to me reviewing more SLP books. Everything sort of spiralled from there after that!
How much do you think your success, in terms of reception from both authors and publishing companies and readers, is a sign that there was a gap in the market that was going unfulfilled?
That’s an excellent question, and I really don’t know whether there was a gap for me specifically as a blogger or book reviewer, because there are hundreds and thousands of book review blogs. But what I think I did find – as you’ve highlighted – is that there is obviously a group of readers who want to know about, and are interested in reading, titles that aren’t being published by the big names. I don’t think that publishers like Penguin, Tor, Harper Collins and the other titans of the publishing industry would ever take a chance on publishing a book like Sea Lion Press did with Agent Lavender, with its potentially controversial plot points; or indeed many of the Alternate History and Horror titles that I began to review as my confidence grew.
Once I started picking up books from SLP and reviewing them, and then reviewing other indie titles that I managed to come across through recommendations or social media, I definitely began to see that there were indie authors and small publishers – across multiple genres – that really weren’t able to get the attention they deserved. SLP was the beginning, but to take one example, I then came across author John Houlihan and his fantastic novels that blended the Second World War and the Cthulhu Mythos into these brilliantly fast-paced, imaginative and quietly horrifying adventures. The first couple of stories – such as The Trellborg Monstrosities – were released by Modiphius Entertainment, better known as an RPG publisher, and it was great to be able to speak about these gems I had uncovered. And from there I could find other indie authors and publishers – people who were releasing these absolutely amazing titles, but which couldn’t get even the fraction of attention or traction that Penguin et al would get in the lofty realms of main-stream publishing.
And that sort of decided it – the thanks and attention I got from these indie authors and publishers was hugely flattering, but it also indicated that this was the route I should take. And to this day I still love ferreting out these little hidden gems that otherwise wouldn’t be seen amongst all the other indie and self-publishing releases, which are in turn dwarfed by the big publishers, and bringing them to people’s attention.
As someone who reads a lot of Small Press books, what do you think are the main advantages and pitfalls of the amazon kindle market in terms of relatively niche books being able to be published a lot easier than previously?
As I understand it, self-publishing is probably as easy as it’s ever been at the moment, at least in terms of the technology; though of course things like market access, the looming Amazon juggernaut, and COVID-19 mean things are never quite as straight forward as they could be. But if you want to self-publish a book, or found a publishing house, then you can just go ahead and do it. It obviously requires a huge amount of hard work and thought and effort – as David Flin’s new publishing house Sergeant Frosty Publications has so recently demonstrated - but you no longer need to have this huge money base and a set of printing presses to launch a book or become a publisher. So purely in terms of ease of access to the market, the barrier has never been so low – you can write a book and launch it through Kindle or Nook or another platform and spend as little money as you want.
Those are the advantages, but of course as I said above, that does in turn mean that you’re going to potentially be lost in the flood of all of the other self-publishing authors and publishing companies and collectives setting themselves up in the market. And unfortunately that’s doubly so for a niche genre like Alternate History, which I think has a relatively small reader base; and I don’t know that much of the reader base is aware of the indie publishers like SLP, or indie authors like David Oliver-Godric (Alliance: Metamorphosis) or Mark Ciccone (Red Delta) or Michael Cnudde (War Plan Crimson) despite the original, imaginative fiction they’re working on that is helping to stop the whole genre remain stale and unimaginative. If you ask about Alternate History to your average reader, you’ll probably get names like Harry Turtledove or S.M. Stirling – hugely talented authors of course; but they represent the top of an iceberg, representing the merest fraction of the potential to be found in that iceberg, i.e. the Alternate History genre, with the real gems to be found lurking under the surface.
How do you find these quite obscure books to review them? Word of Mouth, searching through Amazon, what exactly is your process?
Wading through that flood of self-published and Small Press books is one of my delights, and really the only way to find them is do what I about once a week – load up Twitter and search for ‘Alternate History’ and #alternatehistory, or just start scrolling through the Kindle listings for the genre. That’s how I found absolute brilliant titles like T.T. Drewett’s The Oregon War (the updated second edition now released by SLP) or Defying Conventions by Joseph W. Knowles. Unfortunately there really isn’t a Word of Mouth concept in Alternate History – I genuinely don’t think the genre fanbase is large enough, and/or vocal enough online, to get something like that going. Compare that to the Horror genre, my other main area I review titles in; all I need to do is scroll a short way through Twitter once a week, and I’ll find enough titles to keep my occupied for a month reviewing-wise!
What makes a book stand out to you as something that you want to review?
Without wishing to be too vague or annoying to yourself or the readers, I really can’t nail down what makes a book stand out to me and want to review it. It just has to have something that makes me want to take a look. That might be an interesting, eye-catching cover (the most important part of a book) or an unusual title, or perhaps a back-cover blurb that makes me want to pick up a title. Every book is different, and for every book or anthology I review on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer or here on the SLP blog, there are probably a dozen or so I’ve tried out and either not enjoyed enough to review, or just stopped reading part-way through.
And once you read the book, would you review anything regardless of how you felt about it or have there been certain books where you just didn't want to write about it whether that's because you felt like you had nothing to say, that you couldn't be unbiased about it or simply that your reaction was so negative that you didn't want to 'pick on' a relatively unknown author by completely slating their work?
As you’ve cogently noted in the question, there are indeed a number of books (and therefore authors) that I’ve read (or part-read) and just not wanted to engage with in terms of taking the time to write a review. An important part of why I set up The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer was as an outlet for my depression and real-life stresses, and I wanted the reviews I did to be positive experiences for reader and author, as well as myself. So for any genre I review in, if I don’t enjoy a book, then I simply won’t review it. And you’re absolutely right – I’ve seen time and time again online an indie author get a negative review as they’re starting up, and it has a shattering effect. I’ve seen consequences range from the authors drop out of writing completely, to intense and vitriolic social media reactions that have consumed author and review completely.
Honestly, I stand by the old saw – If I have nothing nice to say, then I won’t say it. Life is too stressful and short to be writing negative, critical reviews. I’d rather try and help raise by self-published authors and indie publishers than spend time criticising; there are certainly enough bloggers online who specialise in critical reviews, both constructive and less so.
Does the fact that you have now had short stories published with Sea Lion Press change the way you'd write reviews, due to your own experiences?
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve actually had any reviews of either of my short stories in the SLP anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to be published in over the past couple of years! So I have no idea how seeing a critique or analysis of my own worn – no matter how short – would affect me, though I’d hope I’d be able to take it on the chin. I know there’s a wide range of how authors deal with reviews – from engaging with every single one, negative and positive, to deliberately ignoring any reviews found on websites or social media. I’d hope to be somewhere in the middle!
What have been some of your favourite books you've reviewed over the last few years and do you think there's any common elements which are clear signs you're likely to love a book?
There have certainly been a number of Alternate History books that I’ve particularly enjoyed reviewing for the SLP blog, and occasionally my own, over the past couple of years, and I think the main thing that links them all together is a certain level of imagination that attempts to examine or utilise the Alternate History genre as a whole in a very different way to the standard tropes and tired scenarios. So David Oliver-Godric’s Alliance: Metamorphosis takes us back thousands of years in the past and looks at how first contact between the native population of North America and traders from Asia could have led to very different consequences for the history of that continent. Or take Malcolm Mackay’s superb In The Cage Where Your Saviours Hide which is a contemporary crime thriller, but set in an independent Scotland, and examines the social and historical consequences of Scotland having a colonial past of its own.
Or it’s books that take tired, stale tropes like Third Reich Victorious! Or The Confederacy Triumphs! and then interrogate them in entirely new and fascinating ways. So for the former you’ve got Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich which manages the astonishing feat or revitalising the Nazi Germany trope in the genre by merging travelogue-style writing with an incisive examination of how exactly a 21st Century Reich would function. And for the latter there’s Mark Ciccone’s Red Delta which blends a triumphant Confederate States of America with the Vietnam War to create an eye-opening novel that refutes the common assumption in triumphalist CSA fiction that the individual states of the Confederacy would remain united after achieving independence.
In terms of AH fiction, in particular, what advice would you give to a young author looking to write their first book in this genre, in terms of pitfalls to avoid and things to try and remember when creating the setting and the story?
Crikey, where to begin? Honestly, as Leone and Ciccone and a host of others, including Black and Tindale have demonstrated, you don’t have to try and come up with some new and original setting to put your story in. You can make use of the old tropes and scenarios, but you just need something – some hook – that will make me want to pick up the book and get reading. If you have something that will make me crack open the book and carry me along, then I won’t care how clichéd the setting is or whether it’s retreading old ground. Hell, take one of my absolute favourite Alternate History short stories, Martin Roy Hill’s classic Hitler Is Coming. The story’s set in one of the most clichéd settings possible in the genre – a Victorious Third Reich lording over a shattered United States of America. Yet Hill creates these amazingly engaging characters, and an addictively shadowy and complex crime thriller plot, that whip you through the story so fast your neck almost breaks. It doesn’t matter if the setting has been used an infinite number of times before if you can use it as a basis for something engaging – it doesn’t have to be original!
And I can't not mention that this series is modelled after author interviews you do on your own blog. What's the most surprising thing you've learned from asking questions of the various writers whose work you review?
Honestly, as writing this interview has demonstrated to me personally, I think the most surprising thing I’ve learnt is just how much work independently-published authors actually have to put in – day after day after week after month - in order to promote their works and try and earn some kind of living from their hard graft. If you don’t have the towering presence of Penguin or Random House or Tor behind you, arranging interviews and releasing PR materials and arranging review copies and book tours and a hundred other promotional efforts, then your average indie author is having to do that all themselves. It can be an incredibly grinding and depressing effort, often with little to show for all of that effort; and that’s why I try and take the time to dig through the rubbish in the genres to find those gems, to demonstrate why all that hard work and graft and effort is worth it for those authors.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews