SF Gateway and Encyclopedia Interviews

PrintE-mail Written by Kris Griffin


It's all very well me rattling on every month passing on my opinion on this that and the other. But I suppose that's the nature of column writing and the reason you are reading this now. However being able to present a story direct from the people involved always feels so much more rewarding. When those people are involved in the SF Gateway and the SF Encyclopedia, both game changing new initiatives in digital science fiction, it is quite a thrill for me to be able to present their words.

Graham Sleight has been writing about science fiction and fantasy since 2000. As well as writing his own books he edits the prestigious journal Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, writes a regular column for Locus and pens introductions for Gollancz's SF Masterworks series. In addition he talks at conferences and conventions, appears in the media and has judged the Clarke Award. However his most recent challenge has been as an editor of the third edition of the SF Gateway where he has been part of the team who already have 3.2 million words live.

Let's start by asking how you became involved in the SF Encyclopedia?

I've been writing about science fiction and fantasy since about 2000, and John Clute (SFE editor) has been very encouraging to me almost from the beginning. John, David Langford, and Peter Nicholls announced the new edition at the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow, and I was pretty quickly drawn into writing the Doctor Who entries. But as things went on, my role ended up getting bigger. I started doing some author entries that John passed on and then, when we got the contract offer from Gollancz early this year, I found myself helping on that side too. Together with the SFE's agent, Robert Kirby, we hammered out a contract, and I then worked with Darren Nash of Gollancz on specifying the website - which we put together in just three months or so. So my job is now to get the website doing everything that users need, and to help John and David complete the content.

That obviously includes the approximate 3.2 million words that are live on your beta launch. How many do you think you are responsible for and how has the work been carved up? Have you been given any specialist areas?

I keep meaning to count up the number of words I've written, but it's not as straightforward as a word-count. Lots of entries are jointly written - for instance, I updated the Doctor Who entry but didn't do much to what three other contributors had written about the classic series. My best guess is that I've written tens of thousands of words, mostly in the author and tv entry sections.


Graham Sleight praying for science fiction respite.

So how difficult has it been planning the format, ensuring everything is covered and establishing house style? With the amount of content you are working with the scope appears enormous.

Well, we inherited a lot of good practice from the previous edition about attributions for books, films, and the like. The biggest single change this edition is that all author entries carry a full bibliographic checklist. Most of those have been done by John, who maintains his own bibliographic database of sf and fantasy, and who established the house style there. David has done an enormous amount of backroom work establishing and maintaining the HTML file that's the root version of the whole thing. So that aspect has gone pretty smoothly.

Starburst Magazine moves across genres and it is hard to define the points where one ends and another starts. In your opinion where does the line between science fiction, fantasy and horror cross and was it hard to keep within your science fiction boundary?

It's impossible to answer this definitively - academics can spend their entire careers arguing about definitions of science fiction. The Encyclopedia tries to take a pretty broad view of the genre - if a case can be made that a given work is science fiction, we'll probably cover it. But my personal view, though, is that what distinguishes it is some kind of extrapolation – either from the present day or (if it's alternate history) from some point in the past. But it's impossible to deny that genre boundaries are getting more and more blurred - look at the careers of people like China Mieville, Michael Chabon, or Kelly Link.

There has been criticism from some quarters of the decision to go completely digital with this edition. What are your thoughts on this and as a respected writer, editor and critic do you consider the printed page a dying form?

Partly, this is a question of practicality. The 1993 edition was about as big as you could physically make a single-volume book; this is about 3 or 4 times the size. We'd have to charge - at a guess - £200-300 for a book version. More than that, though, the cross reference links have always been central to how the SFE works. We try to make the links as much a part of the meaning of an entry as the words themselves. So, in a sense, a version of the SFE where each entry is a separate webpage and each link is a hyperlink – that version, which we have now, is the version we've been heading towards since 1979. About the future of print: well, everyone in publishing is trying to figure this out, and a lot of them are a lot smarter than me. My bet, for what it's worth, is that print books will become a smaller niche but will still remain a form that people want to use. And if people want to pay us for print versions of the SFE, we're more than happy to talk about that...


The original Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

With that in mind how can we expect to see the SF Encyclopedia evolve over time?

Well, the first change - as we've said in various places - is that the partial text we've got online at the moment will be slowly completed. Right now, we're at about 3.3m words; we're guessing we'll have a final text of about 4 - 4.5m. That'll be by the end of 2012. After that, we'll continue updating entries as new books, films and so on come out. Also, because as I said earlier we did the website in a bit of a rush, we want to spend some time refining it so it's as responsive to users' needs as possible. I'm incredibly conscious that we have a very wide range of users - fans, academics, editors, publishers, reviewers, people trying to settle arguments about pub quizzes. Ideally, we want to provide a site that addresses all their needs. Right now, the biggest priority is making sure that the search function returns results that are as refined as possible.

Considering the range of evolotion and the opportunity a digital model allows what is the business model of the SF Encyclopedia? Clearly many people have worked hard on the project and just the server costs to host the site will be substantial, will the site eventually be subscription based?

Gollancz are paying us a fixed license fee, and have covered the development of the website. Their rationale is that the SFE should draw people to their linked e-book site, the SF Gateway. From our point of view, Gollancz's support is very generous but probably not enough to sustain us in the longer term. So once we get the content of the SFE complete, we're going to start looking at various ways to boost that income - iPhone/Android apps, donations if people would like, maybe discreet advertising or some premium features you have to subscribe to see. But our core principle is that the text of the SFE should remain free - certainly for as long as we're with Gollancz, and hopefully in any other possible futures.

What next for you, this must have taken a considerable amount of your time, do you have any upcoming projects that we can look forward to?

Getting the SFE finished - and finished well - is a big project, as you can imagine. (And I have a day-job as well, and one that I enjoy.) So I haven't written as much other stuff as I'd like recently. But I have just delivered a book on monsters in Doctor Who, which should be published in 2012 by I B Tauris; and I'm hoping to collect the reviews and essays I've been writing over the last decade into a couple of books. After that, I plan to sleep for five years, or possibly start thinking about an online Encyclopedia of Fantasy. It could go either way.

Graham, many thanks for your time and I'm sure I speak for Starburst readers when I congratulate you on the SFE and wish you all the very best for the future.

--------------------------------------

The SF Gateway was conceived by Orion's Group Publisher and Deputy CEO, Malcolm Edwards. It was conceived as a way to make available again, the huge number of classic SF & Fantasy books that had drifted out of print over the decades. Imagine the ideal specialist bookshop; it stocks not just the highlights from your favourite authors’ careers, but every book they've ever written – and the people who run the shop have an encyclopaedic knowledge of SF (thanks to the relationship with the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).


The Science Fiction Gateway logo.

Darren Nash is Australian, but having lived here since 1998, has never tended bar in Shepherd’s Bush or Earl’s Court. He is a long-time science fiction fan who spent much his entire working life in publishing. Before joining Gollancz he was editorial director of Orbit (the UK’s second oldest SF & Fantasy imprint) and before that editor of Simon & Schuster’s Earthlight SF & Fantasy imprint. He has kindly agreed to an interview for Starburst Magazine to tell us a little more about the SF Gateway.


Darren Nash waits for the inquisition to start.

Where are you right now with the SF Gateway, how many books do you have live and what type of timescale and numbers are you looking at over time?

The SF Gateway launched with about 800 eBooks and we've published another 75 or so since. There are another 80 in the system, which will publish a couple of weeks before Xmas, and we anticipate ending 2011 with in excess of 1,000 eBooks. The goal is to get to 5,000 titles by 2015.

That is a huge amount of books and you’ve only been live for a short while now, how are sales?

So far, sales have been very encouraging. Given that the USP of the project is breadth more than the traditional publishing model of concentrating on a small number of high profile titles, we’ve been pleased with the sales at this very early stage.

But how difficult has it been negotiating the rights for this number of digital books or are all of the books you are selling free of copyright?

Almost all of our books are still in copyright, so we're negotiating rights with authors or the estates and/or agents, and paying an advance and royalty. The degree of difficulty has run the gamut from "This is wonderful, we can't believe no one's thought of this before" to "we're deeply suspicious of the whole eBook thing, so no thank you". I'm very pleased to say, though, that the vast majority of responses have been much closer to the former than the latter.

    

Tea From An Empty Cup, available from SF Gateway.

Some would say that this is a cynical way of Orion dipping their toe in the digital water without actually taking a risk on an author or much money. Is this the case are you simply testing the water for things to come?

How dare you, sir?! I demand satisfaction. Pistols at dawn! Or - to take a more sedate approach - no one who had seen our P&Ls would make the mistake of saying this is a cheap way of testing the water! A great deal of time, effort and money has gone into the SF Gateway - and will continue to be invested; believe me, the risk is very "actual". So no, we're not testing the waters. If anything, I guess we're staking a claim. Gollancz has long been the SF imprint most concerned with the heritage of science fiction - in the UK at least - and many of the SF Gateway authors were first published by Gollancz, so in many ways, we're correcting for the economics of print publishing that allowed some very, very good books and authors to go out of print. Our SF and Fantasy Masterworks series  are an attempt to keep the major works of the genre in print, and we see the SF Gateway as being the logical extension of that - we want to keep *everything* available. If we can return the great works of SF and Fantasy to availability and introduce them to a generation of new readers, while at the same time making ourselves synonymous with classic SF and have the whole project generate enough income to be a viable business proposition, that seems to me to be a situation that benefits everybody.

That is very good to here and comes as positive news for the science fiction reader. Speaking of opportunities, with the alleged tipping coming in 2020 when digital sales could outweigh physical book sales (see recent Bookseller report) would you agree that the paper book is dead and if not what does the future hold for paper?

Too early to tell. It's hard enough anticipating the next 12 months, let alone the next 9 years. If somebody tells me they know what the publishing industry is going to look like in 2020, I'm inclined to walk quickly away before they try to sell me some cheap real estate on the Moon!


The Masterworks series of books.

How does the purchase link on your site work and are there plans for you to sell books directly?

The purchase link directs you to retailers depending on what country the site detects your IP address as coming from. UK readers should have a choice of links to Amazon.co.uk, Apple's iBooks store, Kobo, The Hive (a network of independent booksellers), Waterstones and WHSmith. So the site is already country specific, and as we roll out future updates and improvements, we will improve the browsing experience for all countries. There are, however, no plans to sell directly at the moment.

What is your relationship with SF Encyclopedia and how does each brand benefit from the link?

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (SFE) is the ultimate authority on all aspects of Science Fiction. The current online iteration is the third edition of the work; the previous two editions both won Hugo Awards in the Non-Fiction category. Gollancz has facilitated and financed the development of the SFE website and in return the SFE provides links to the SF Gateway site whenever SF Gateway titles are referenced in SFE entries. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction remains editorially independent and neither SF Gateway nor Gollancz exert any influence over how authors or books are covered in the SFE.

Do you have any particular recommendations from your current SF Gateway list and do you have a burning desire to see a book added to the list (perhaps your favourite)?

What excites me more than anything is the scope of the list. It’s not particular favourites, but the opportunity to discover books I would previously have had to scour dozens of second-hand bookshops to find. Of course, I do have a few favourites, but if you don’t mind I’ll keep them to myself.

But what shaped the chap who now brings us SF Gateway?

I cut my teeth on what I like to call good old-fashioned SF - Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, John Wyndham, the sorts of stand-alone big idea books that we used to get a lot more of before the market started to demand series fiction - and disdained Fantasy completely until I read The Lord of the Rings, which blew me away with its epic sweep and history. From then on I read both SF and Fantasy, but very quickly moved away from generic post-Tolkien Fantasy, reading a lot of Michael Moorcock, some Ursula Le Guin, Robert Holdstock. That's far from an exhaustive list, of course. You could add the likes of Stand on Zanzibar, Dune, Neuromancer, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vor books, Burroughs' Martian Tales, The Mists of Avalon - the list goes on.

I'd say my tastes from there have progressed evolutionarily rather revolutionary: I still prefer my fantasy at the high end - not necessarily or solely "literary" but certainly I want more than a simple Good vs Evil quest fantasy; SF-wise I have a taste for space opera that won't go away (I'm happy to say) and I still like High Concept SF and wish there was more of it. I dabble in urban fantasy but much more at the supernatural noir end than the paranormal romance end. In fact 100% at the noir end!


Dune, one of Darren's favourite books.

I'm sure the readers of Starburst Magazine will be taking full advantage of the SF Gateway. It could certainly change the landscape of science fiction literature, encouraging classic reads and getting more people into the genre. Hearty congratulations.

Useful websites and Twitter accounts:

Darren Nash - @thenashmeister

SF Encyclopedia - @SFEncyclopedia

The SF Gateway - @SFGateway

Gollancz - @Gollancz

SF Gateway

SF Encyclopedia

In my opinion both the SF Gateway and the SFE are game-changers in the science fiction genre. This new digital age affords us great innovation and both offers take a very contemporary process and updates them. I feel the slight criticism levelled at them is unfounded and rather ridiculous. If we don't innovate we stand still. With ambitious people like Darren and Graham pushing boundaries and working hard to bring us range, service, information, diversity and creativity we have much to be thankful for.

Until next time.

FONASHEK!

@kristhescript

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Kris Griffin finds himself in the realm of Kidderminster, UK. He writes, shoots and scores (on occasion). He loves Doctor Who, his Kindle, intelligent movies, Twitter, and Richard Burton. He can normally be found dancing the night away, with The Mavericks no less, or working the day job that pays the bills.


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