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Interview with Gemma Creffield of Angry Robot, UK

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Angry Robot Interview For this post, I had a talk with Gemma Creffield, the managing editor at Angry Robot UK. Angry Robot is an independent publisher that specializes in science fiction and fantasy. Angry Robot books have won some of the biggest prizes in SFF, including Hugos, the Philip K. Dick Award and the Kitchies.

Disclaimer: Some of the interview content is edited for brevity and clarity.

Olivia: Tell us a bit about your background and how you wound up working as the commissioning editor at Angry Robot UK.

Gemma: I started a couple of years out of university. I did creative writing with English literature and wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it. I thought maybe I'd write a book, but it's been a long time since then and that hasn't happened. I decided to get into publishing because I really liked books and thought I might like making books. So I had a look at internships. At the time I was looking, it was very, very difficult to get into publishing. I mean, it's not easy now, but it was particularly difficult at the time. You could get work experience, but you couldn't get paid from anyone anywhere. I applied for a two week internship at Penguin Random House, Transworld. I really liked the books that they did.

My favorite author, Mo Hayder, published there. It was great fun and I ended up in the publicity department. It was something I didn't know much about at the time, but it was really, really exciting. It was on the other end of publishing, where the book's been made and you just shout about it basically. After that, I applied to do more work experience. I got another two week internship at Octopus Publishing, a non-fiction part of Hachette. I worked in the special sales department, which was similar to publicity. That was really fun. They asked if I wanted to stay on longer. I still wasn't getting paid, but I was happy to do it. I worked with digital editorial which, at the time, was a department of one person. I got to do more of the editorial side of things. I checked the physical copy against the ebook copy to make sure no errors had slipped through. Then I was applying for any assistant level job.

I finally I landed a job at Watkins Media as a publicity assistant. I worked my way up in publicity, eventually I became a publicist. Then I had a baby. About ten months into my maternity leave, I did some freelance stuff because I was going a little bit stir crazy. At Watkins, their sci-fi and fantasy imprint (Angry Robot) was restructuring. The owner was bringing the imprint into London, but that didn't work out for the people who were working there because it didn't make sense for them to move from a relatively cheap place to live to one of the most expensive places to work, which meant the entire Angry Robot staff was no longer available. They were looking for a commissioning editor and a publicity and editorial coordinator.  I thought, well, I like editorial so I'll apply for that. Obviously, I got the job.

Angry Robot Interview Turned out it was just me for about 4 months. I was running absolutely everything. It meant that I definitely learned very, very quickly. So much of the editorial process involves InDesign and I knew nothing about InDesign. So I was learning as I was going. I went on to being a managing editor, so I was making sure every book went through the editorial process fine. Also ddoing publicity work, because we didn't have the publicity support, but we recently got a full time publicist, which has freed me up to being a commissioning editor, which is what I do now.

Olivia: What do you think sets Angry Robot apart?

Gemma: First of all,, being an independent publisher is completely different from being one of the big 5. Everything that is done you can have a hand in. You're in a very small team. So, like even the publicist knows how a book is put together. They may not know how to do it, but everybody is fully involved in every stage. You get so much more say, more responsibility. Your workload is always too much, but in a good way. In terms of Angry Robot specifically, we like to specialize in "genre fluid" works. We love crossover fiction. We like the weird and wonderful stuff that the mainstream publishers wouldn't really know what to do with. We've got a really great community of science fiction and fantasy fans who love the fact we are bringing out all this new stuff.

Olivia: For new authors, what do you think is the major difference between choosing an independent publisher over a mainstream publisher?

Gemma: Like with the team that works at Angry Robot, as a writer you get so much more say with an independent publisher. At a mainstream publisher, you don't get a lot of say in the cover design, for example. A lot of the time, they'll just pass you a cover and ask, "What do you think?" and you can maybe tweak a couple of things. From the get go at Angry Robot, we ask the author what they're looking for -- what tone they want, if they want a specific artist, things like that. So that we are joining their vision with our vision. Obviously it's their book and we want them to be happy with it. We like to feel that there is always someone they can come to and ask whatever questions they have. If they want to know how well their book is selling, even if it's bad news, we'll be open and honest as much as possible. That's what I've been told from authors who've come from bigger publishing houses, that they feel like the line of communication is always open.

Olivia: What are some things you look for when considering work by new authors?

Angry Robot Interview Gemma: I would always say to work super hard on the hook pitch, which I often call the elevator pitch, which is like a two line hook that will sell me your book. Especially in an open submission, which we run once a year. We specifically asked this year just for an elevator pitch and then to attach the submission and the synopsis as two separate documents. A lot of people did not follow that advice. I would also say, read what people are asking you to do and only do what people are asking you to do. Don't give me more information than I'm asking you for. Those two lines are going to tell me whether I'm interested or not. You can talk someone's ear off and they'll say, "Okay, I'll read it." But they aren't going into that with any excitement. They're reading it out of a sense of duty. If you can hook someone within two lines, then you've got their attention. That's the crucial thing about submitting.

Olivia: Other than not following the directions, what are some typical "red flags" that you see in submissions from new authors?

Gemma: I would say one of my pet peeves is sentences that are too long. If you're pitching me or showing me a synopsis and the entire paragraph is one sentence, I don't have a lot of faith in the writing itself, like they don't recognize that sentence structure is hugely important in delivering a book that's going to get people's attention. Also, not checking the submission itself. I've had submissions sent that are an early draft, where they have things crossed out. I'm not going to read that. If you don't want that there, I'm not going to read it. So double, triple check that what you're sending is the right thing.

Olivia: Do you advise new authors to seek representation before submitting to an independent publisher?

Gemma: That would entirely depend on the publisher. We don't accept unsolicited manuscripts unless it's our open submission process that we run for two to three weeks once a year. But if the publisher is open to unrepresented authors anyway, then that's fine. If a publisher says they don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, then don't send it to them. They won't read it. They won't even send you an email back. If you get selected by the publisher, you can then go to the agent with an offer in hand and say, "I have a publisher interested in me, would you like to represent me?" It gives you a better in with the agent, but it also makes it easier on our side of things. It makes the whole process super simple. Some people would disagree and say if they are offering an open submission, that means they don't want an agent involved, but that's not how we feel. We like to give people an offer and give people a chance to get an agent if they want. It's someone else fighting in your corner, and we would always say it's worth looking into.

Olivia: What are some of the most exciting debut novels that you've read in the past year? (Either published by Angry Robot or elsewhere)

Gemma: I'll tell you about one coming out in September. It's called Ledge by Stacey McEwan. It's our one hardback of the year. Stacey is a Tiktoker and she was originally going to bring out her book self-published, but an agent approached her and said, "If you want to give me a chance I can get you a book deal." And then we snapped her up. That's definitely the one I'm dying to have come out. In terms of the other book that I've read, I tend to be a year or two behind, but this year I read Followers by Megan Angelo. I love dystopian stuff. It gives a light to the dangerous side of social media and one view on how our world could evolve. I love that stuff.

Olivia: Oh, that kind of reminds me of Black Mirror.

Gemma: It is very much. That is definitely the stuff that I love.

Olivia: Thanks so much! I'm sure my readers will look forward to checking this out.


So, you heard it here first, be sure to send Gemma all your weird wonderful near future dystopias (during the appropriate submissions window) and check out Ledge coming this fall.

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