Monday, 3 March 2008

Interview: Mark Newton (editor at Solaris)

As promised, here's an interview with Mark Newton, assistant editor at UK genre publisher, Solaris. As an 'insider', Mark has got his finger on the pulse of genre publishing and has plenty of interesting insights into the industry...

Solaris is a relatively new genre imprint. What is the general aim of Solaris? What do you hope, in an artistic sense, to achieve?

Solaris set out to bridge the gap between smaller presses and the big conglomerates. It was apparent that there was a gap which we could fill, for authors who don't achieve million-selling blockbusters and have fallen off publishing lists, or for new authors; and even more experimental titles. The small presses such as P.S. Publishing do a wonderful job, but don't have the mass market distribution. We're perfectly placed between the two, with distribution worldwide through Simon and Schuster.

Some Solaris titles have already garnered some acclaim, such as Gail Z. Martin's Necromancer Chronicles. What future releases are you particularly excited about?

Well, this year, there are some great things. Paul Kearney's THE TEN THOUSAND - a gritty fantasy if ever there was one, very much in the line of Gemmell. Eric Brown's KÉTHANI is a remarkable mosaic novel, written beautifully, and is of a highly literary nature. Powerful stuff. And we've got Lou Anders's SIDEWAYS IN CRIME anthology - alternate history mysteries from a Hugo nominated editor! I've probably missed out many more, but I thought these ones needed a special mention.

Solaris, like the majority of publishers, only accepts solicited manuscripts. What is the reason for this? Given that some popular authors have been plucked from the slush pile, is it not a worry that you might miss out on a possible gem?

Unfortunately, some people latch onto the headlines that a slush-pile author makes, and mistake that for the norm. And yes, gems to get in them, but it rarely happens. We still have a slush pile, despite saying we accept agent-submitted manuscripts only on our website. But the reason is quite simply a filter. We'd be inundated with hundreds of manuscripts every month. We couldn't cope with that. Most of the slush pile is badly written stuff. The books which agents submit are of a high quality, usually always publishable, just sometimes not quite what we're looking for at a given moment.

What's the main problem with the manuscripts you turn down?

They're badly written, not suitable for the market (sometimes any market), bad dialogue, a bunch of terrible, terrible clichés, or the most important one - the inability to tell a good story. Nearly every one we reject falls down on those factors. Sometimes we want to move on a submission, but for commercial reasons we have to say no, or simply that we're not the right publisher.

There's always a fair bit of discussion on the various internet forums about word counts. Is there a particular number that first-time authors should be shooting for?

In America, I believe the word counts asked for by majors are lowering. This, I suspect, is to keep expenses down for printing costs. Don't forget, the big sellers in epic fantasy have fat, 150k+ word counts, so I never understand why the readers are being short-changed in this way. In the UK, you need a novel ideally over 120k for an epic fantasy, perhaps a tad less for SF. But I think writers should concentrate on the story and not get bogged down thinking about word counts. An editor can always ask for more to be added, or bits to be cut. It's the writing they have to love.

What's more important: characterisation or world-building?

You need 'em both! But concentrate on characters, in my opinion. Stories are about people. You can build a world around people, as an when the story demands it, not big piles of info dumping of made-up histories.

You've mentioned in your articles about the importance of studying the genre, seeing what's popular and then working out where you fit into it. Doesn't this approach encourage writers to write clones of novels that have already become successful?

Perhaps, and it may inevitably happen, but all I hope people do is actually go to the shelves to realise what they CAN write. Even within fantasy, things are hugely wide ranging these days. Things change. You're not writing in a vacuum. Writing is a business. Things move on. A book that sold fifty years ago might not work now. That's why I encourage people to do more research in that way. It stops us editors receiving sub-Conan submissions, and it means that writers aren't going to be wasting their time.

The word on several blogs and forums is that epic fantasy is being rejected at the moment, in favour of other genres like urban fantasy. Is there any truth in these claims?

No. Epic fantasy is still one of the biggest selling genres. Why would you not want more if there's a thirst for it? The trouble we find is that there isn't enough well-written epic fantasy to publish. I've spoken to agents in the states, and even they seemed to think that there was a shortage of good new Epic Fantasy writers. I think the market is absolutely saturated with urban fantasy at the moment though, that it's become a separate and totally washed out genre of it's own.

How do feel about the claims that we are currently experiencing a 'golden age' of fantasy literature?

I think that any decade has wonderful books and awful books. I'm not sure this is a golden age more than any other. It's certainly more varied than it has been for a long time. But in terms of community, the online community, there is definitely a renaissance of sorts going on. Maybe that's what's helping things - these giant, online book groups spread across the world. The genre is really benefiting from that.

As an editor at a genre publisher, how do you view book review blogs? Do you worry that bad reviews on the more popular blogs might dent sales, or is all publicity good publicity?

Book blogs are wonderful. They're essentially online book groups, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, and those readers are then thinking about genre books. People talking about SF and Fantasy, appealing to the community nature of fandom. Few other genres have that support. That HAS to be a good thing, yeah? It keeps the genre alive. And negative reviews, in my opinion, are no bad thing, because you need to support good books. Besides, funnily enough, a bad review still gives a book air time, so it might appeal to someone, so yes, all publicity can be good. I still think that a mix along with more established review venues, such as newspapers, is essential. We still need those authoritative venues giving out recommendations....

Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to do this interview. Be sure to drop by Mark's blog at

Solaris website:


T.D. Newton said...

Very good stuff, thanks for posting that. I checked out his blog (based on your earlier post) and he has some good tips to keep in mind if you're just starting out. It's nice to see his POV on the genre and stuff.

I don't know why but I've been more interested in interviews lately. Weird.

Rob said...

Very nice to see more inside commentary on the state of the business. Thank you very much.

J.G. Thomas said...

Glad you both enjoyed the interview.