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Black Static


Peter Coleborn Interviewed

9th Feb, 2016

Author: Peter Tennant

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In the current issue of the magazine (#50, for those not keeping track) I review several titles from The Alchemy Press, and as a follow up to that I put some questions to Alchemy head honcho Peter Coleborn:-

PT: After publishing from the late 90s through to 2003, Alchemy went on hiatus until 2011. What were the reasons for that break and what prompted your re-emergence?

PC: In the early 2000s I "foolishly" became re-involved with running the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon, including a stint at editing and producing Dark Horizons, which just ate up my free time - as these things do. After that I was at a loose end. I then noticed that the Alchemy Press account held more money than I thought - not a lot, just more than I had imagined.

Stephen Jones and I were chatting over a pint or two and came up with the idea of putting out a collection by Peter Atkins; so we (Steve, David Sutton and me) co-produced Rumours of the Marvellous, which was published in a signed limited edition and launched in 2011 in Brighton, where Pete was a guest at that year's FantasyCon.

The bug bit me and the urge followed. And because I am a fan of short stories The Alchemy Press Books of Ancient Wonders and Pulp Heroes followed in 2012.

PT: How do you feel the publishing environment has changed during the years of Alchemy's existence? What's better now compared to how it was back in the 90s, and what is worse?

PC: The biggest change is the advent of print-on-demand services (POD). Rumours of the Marvellous was printed traditionally; Ancient Wonders and Pulp Heroes via POD. I was a bit apprehensive at first but research showed that the POD company I went with (Lightning Source) produced books that look almost as good as the paperbacks you find in Waterstone's. The only problem I encountered was that the pages sometimes "waved" a little. Otherwise I was very happy with the product.

POD is a boon to the small press. Yes, the unit price is higher but at least you don't need to print and then find storage space for 200, 300 ... 500 books. And no matter how good they are, invariably it takes a long time to shift them all.

DTP programs are easier to use and PDFs are now simple to generate - you can even do the layouts in Word, if you wish. (Mind, before desktop computers I was producing magazines for the BFS [including the series Winter Chills/Chills, which included stories by Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker!] using a typewriter, scissors, Letraset, reams of paper and lots of glue. The small presses of today don't know how easy they have it.)

Some small presses still opt for the definitive print run (in theory, POD books may never go out of print), but as mentioned above there is the question of storage space and upfront financing. Recent events have provided a wake-up call to the world of small presses. Unless one is wealthy with tons of money to burn, traditional printing is a risky business.

Obviously the Internet/World Wide Web makes it so much easier and cheaper to promote books - and at the same time for that message to become lost in the tsunami of information.

PT: What would you say are the distinguishing characteristics of The Alchemy Press? What differentiates you from other small/independent publishers?

PC: My tastes in Fantasy (capital F) are broad and I hope that's reflected by The Alchemy Press's range. In my mind the word "Fantasy" encompasses all of fantastic literature - and beyond. I enjoy some of everything as long as it's well written, from science fiction to horror by way of ... well, almost anything, although nowadays I do tend towards "dark fiction".

I give my editors - Mike Chinn, Jenny Barber and Jan Edwards - free rein when editing. Similarly, Alchemy's guest editors (Joel Lane, Allen Ashley and Dean Drinkel) had a similar remit: just edit damn good anthologies. I knew I had done the right thing when reading the stories prior to publication. I am very proud of our anthologies: Ancient Wonders, Urban Mythic 1 and 2, Astrologica, Beneath the Ground, Kneeling in the Silver Light and Pulp Heroes 1, 2 and 3.

Where was I? Oh yes, The Alchemy Press casts its net wide and tries to avoid the obvious tropes. I also avoid tightly themed anthologies: I find it tedious reading one story after another about werewolves battling zombies (or whatever). Our anthologies are themed, of course, but those themes are wide and loose.

PT: Several of your books have been produced in collaboration with Airgedlámh Publications. How did that relationship come about? Can you tell us a little bit about how such joint ventures work? What does each press bring to the table? How do you decide if a project is suitable for collaboration with Airgedlámh, rather than one where Alchemy goes it alone?

PC: I've known Stephen Jones and David Sutton (owners of Airgedlámh) for donkey's years. In fact I got into this small press editing biz when Steve and Jo Fletcher, then BFS co-chairs, asked if I'd like to put together a chapbook on August Derleth, written by John Howard. From there I went on to edit several other BFS titles. It's that proverbial "bug".

I first collaborated with Steve and Dave in the 1990s with Where the Bodies Are Buried by Kim Newman (which went on to win the BFS Award for Best Collection in 2000). Thus working together on the Pete Atkins book and then on Adrian Cole's Nick Nightmare Investigates was a straightforward decision - and we finalised plans to print limited, signed editions. Alchemy and Airgedlámh split the money. I did the editing and design for Bodies and Rumours; Steve, Mike Chinn and Michael Marshall Smith did it for Nick Nightmare.

Finances limit the overall number of books we can produce in a given year, be they POD or limited editions. But, to be honest, I am a bit of a control freak and I rather greater autonomy with Alchemy publications when it comes to format and design - hence the majority of Alchemy's books are Alchemy's.

PT: I notice that while most of your titles are released in paperback and/or e-format, some are produced as limited edition hardcovers. What factors contribute to your decision to give a book such "special" treatment?

PC: I covered some of this in the previous answer; otherwise I'm not sure there is a definitive reason. In general terms, the important factor is: I like the idea, I like the author and enjoy reading their words, and then eventually working with them. This ethos is reflected in the non-limited collections published over the past few years - books by Paul Kane, Bryn Fortey, Marion Pitman and Rod Rees, for example.

It also comes back to finances: how much money do I have to play with? Sadly, even with POD I am supporting the press from my own pocket. It would be rather wonderful if the books sold in huge numbers so I could pay better rates to authors and editors... Dream on.

PT: What would you regard as the highs and lows of your career as a publisher?

PC: Jan (my wife and partner) and I have a "brag" shelf - the books we're associated with either as contributor or publisher. Re-reading Alchemy Press books - looking at the range of titles and writers published - is uplifting and makes me proud.

Being recognised by my peers is always a privilege: The Alchemy Press won the BFS's Best Small Press Award in 2014; Nick Nightmare also won the Best Collection Award (2015); and we've been short listed several times over the years.

The low points... I become annoyed with people I meet at events (book fairs, mostly) asking me to publish their work, be it a story, a collection or novel, and their not even making a pretence at buying an Alchemy book. It works both ways: the writer wants support and so too does the small press.

The other low point hit recently: the sad collapse of a well-respected small press due to financial insolvency. I tried to follow all this on Facebook but suspect I missed a lot. But for the grace of you-know-who... I'm glad I work within my budget and not extend myself (bearing in mind previous comments about my supporting Alchemy Press).

Some people not directly involved with small presses seem to hold somewhat elevated and dare I say unrealistic views of the small press world. That made me wonder if it is worth it, producing all these lovely books in an atmosphere of negativity? I'm over that now and I aim to get on publishing fine books in 2016. The next one is a collection of ghost stories by Jessica Amanda Salmonson - lovely subtle supernatural tales.

PT: What advice would you give to writers seeking to submit to Alchemy, or any publisher for that matter? What are the most common mistakes you see in this regard?

PC: Number one: read the submission guidelines. They are there to make life easier for the writer as well as the editor. In fact, if you obey rule #1 ... that's it.

PT: How hands on are you as an editor? What kind of input from you can an author expect once his/her submission has been accepted?

PC: Variable. I don't want to change the writers' voice or story. I do try to spot inconsistencies in the plot, over-use of a particular word or phrase, grammar, spelling, etc., to help make their work sparkle. I do a lot more work when it comes to the DTP stage: ensuring that all the en and em dashes are correctly formatted, likewise ellipses, speech marks, punctuation, indents, font sizes, leading, use of numbers, US versus UK spelling. There is nothing worse (I think) in a book that is inconsistent in its layout, that mixes US and UK grammar and spelling (if you use "realise" use it throughout, not mixed with "realize").

PT: What level of involvement, if any, do you expect of writers when it comes to promotion? What strategies do you find work best for you in getting the work out there to readers?

PC: I would hope that authors help promote their books via their websites, Facebook and Twitter pages, every time they are interviewed, etc. It costs nothing. After all, if their book becomes a best seller there will be royalties!

I try to do the same promotion. I've found that paid advertising has little (or no) effect - an expensive discovery, that. I do send out review copies, mostly in eBook format now so I can, hopefully, engender a few reviews when the book is published. But with so, so many new books I realise that reviews may take a long time to surface, if they ever do.

The Alchemy Press attends several events a year - notably FantasyCon and Edge Lit - as it's important to have a presence where people can pick up and feel the quality, see the width (to reference a TV programme us old timers may recall - but what a terrible sitcom, it was).

PT: Looking at the business side of publishing, as somebody who has stayed in the game for a comparatively long time, what advice can you give to anyone who has just started a new press or is thinking of doing so? What are the financial pitfalls to avoid?

PC: If you haven't started one yet: don't. Or rather proceed with caution, keep a close eye on the money. Don't run before you can walk - in other words start slowly - unless you've won the Lottery or come into an inheritance and you simply want to spend money.

Be critical of what you publish. Take great care with all aspects of production (thorough editing!). Make your books look as good as professionally produced titles. Pick up a Gollancz book and see how they do it and emulate that. Don't think you can do it your own way, that you know best, because the final product often looks amateurish. DTP makes it easy - and easier to get carried away with fancy fonts and weird designs: stop!

PT: What can we expect to see from Alchemy in the near future? What projects do you have in the pipeline?

PC: We have just four books due in 2016, three to be launched at FantasyCon, including work by Adrian Tchaikovsky and a project that involves various writers completing notes left by the late Joel Lane. Our first title this year is the Jessica Salmonson book, The Complete Epistles of Penelope Pettiweather.

PT: Finally, if money was no object, what would be your dream project?

PC: I have a passion for non-themed Fantasy anthologies. I would love to edit and produce one annually and pay professional rates. The obvious examples are those edited by Mark Morris and Stephen Jones, but I wouldn't focus on just horror. I would include good Fantasy of all colours - in the tradition of Weird Tales, Unknown Worlds and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Do you know anyone with spare cash to invest?



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