It's become a hallowed British tradition – like the Changing of the Guard or the regular Harry Potter Publication Riots – that every so often this column features a gloomy update on my dealings with small presses and e-books.
This year my favourite UK small press, Big Engine, finally went under as the creditors pressed in and its fearless leader Ben Jeapes decided to spend more time with his own writing career rather than keep up the long, bitter struggle against financial arch-enemies like Amazon and Waterstone's. Big Engine actually marketed the books, paid good royalties, and apparently didn't build quite enough profit margin into the prices. I'll miss this outfit.
Over in the States, Cosmos (www.cosmos-books.com) have higher prices but stay afloat and keep publishing Langford collections, so I love them still. Especially when the books get reviewed in SFX. (Stop dropping shameless hints, Langford – Ed.)
E-Reads (www.e-reads.com), much abused in my past columns, finally got their finger out this year and produced an actual print-on-demand edition of the Langford novel they've been failing to sell in e-book form since mid-2001. It's too soon to tell what effect the POD volume will have on the royalties, but I appreciate this US publisher's efforts to make its awful back-cover blurb as hard as possible to read, by using a fancy font in darkish green against a black background.
In an attempt to be more cosmopolitan I'm also sampling the joys of the Swiss-based [Switzerland and Bristol, actually] publisher BeWrite (www.bewrite.net), whose long-suffering designer has been wrestling for months with the unutterable horror of my and Paul Barnett's 1987 disaster-novel spoof, Earthdoom! They've given it a revoltingly appropriate cover design, which is always a good sign.
But where is the e-book revolution that each year seems to be expected, and each year I sadly find myself unable to announce? The pundits now tend to say it's awaiting the introduction of "smart paper", the next-generation technology which will enable you to click on this very page and instantaneously replace boring old Langford prose with a vibrant image of your favourite TV actress in the buff. Or the buffy. As you prefer.
I enjoy a very modest trickle of sales from E-reads, and from the selection of my short stories sold on line at Fictionwise.com, but the general public (you) still prefers not to read whole books on screen. OK, I admit I share this feeling: the only author I regularly read on a computer monitor is Terry Pratchett, and that (he smugly let slip) is an editorial job for which I get paid.
This year saw my own personal venture into the world of e-publishing, as a result of which I can report that I am not rich. What happened was that my pal Chris Priest – a novelist who moonlights as literary agent to the late John Sladek's estate – was baffled by what to do with the last Sladek story of all, a bizarrely illustrated alternate-history satire which seemed too short for book publication, but too weird to sell to any of the SF magazines. "Tell you what," I heard my mouth saying, "suppose we publish it as an e-book right here in the barn?"
Well, we did (www.ae.ansible.co.uk), and went on to produce a new edition of the SF stories of David I. Masson, a fine author whose 1968 collection The Caltraps of Time had been out of print for far, far too long. One of the frequent objections to e-books is that they're so often crappily produced, full of obvious typos from the scanning and OCR process: I brashly reckoned that literacy masters Langford and Priest could overcome this problem, merely by spending days and weeks of our lives proofreading and designing the books ...
(Let's not mention the gleeful letter I had from David Masson by return of post after sending him a copy of his book: "Joy! I've actually spotted a MISPRINT: page 180, line 7 ..." Some retired authors just have too much time on their hands.)
And lo, the prophecy was fulfilled, and despite the superb wonderfulness of their texts, the Ansible E-ditions e-books sold only a handful of copies. Even getting publicity is extraordinarily difficult, because most SF reviewing outlets refuse to cover electronic texts. Their time has not yet come.
Never despair! Instead, I devised a cunning plan. The nice people at Cosmos, already mentioned above, were willing to agree a co-publishing deal, and the final result is that the Masson and Sladek books – copyedited by Chris Priest and typeset by me – have ended up as print-on-demand volumes with the tasteful credit "Cosmos Books/Ansible E-ditions" on their back jackets.
The moral is that as Nietzsche famously warned us, he who struggles too long with dragons may himself become a dragon. All these years I've been writing wrathful jeremiads about the wickedness of publishers, and now I am one. Oh dear.
David Langford is restraining himself from gazing into the abyss, in case the abyss gazes also into him.