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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Christian Dunn on Black Library’s New Print on Demand Book Line

After cutting his teeth on Inferno! and Warhammer Monthly (the only comic book ever to win an Eagle Award and get canceled in the same week), Christian Dunn spent many years as the Commissioning Editor of both Black Flame and Solaris. He is now safely ensconced back in the bosom of Black Library as their Range Development Editor where runs the e-book, Print on Demand and audio ranges, as well as being responsible for unearthing new writing talent.

He lives in Nottingham, England and always keeps a freshly greased chainsaw under his pillow in anticipation of the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

SF SIGNAL: Hi Christian! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, could you tell us more about Black Library’s new Print on Demand book line? Do you have an official name for it yet?

CHRISTIAN DUNN: In a nutshell, the Print on Demand range is Black Library’s opportunity to not only bring back many of the out-of-print novels from our ten year back catalogue but also introduce new titles that we don’t think fit our main range but know that readers would like to see. Readers will be able to visit our website and order Print on Demand titles just as they would any other Black Library title. The only difference being that PoD titles are Trade Paperback format and they take slightly longer to ship than a regular title due to being made to order.

Because there’s very little difference to the reader in the way that they can order these titles and the look and feel of the finished books, we made the decision not to separately brand the PoD line. PoD titles will be flagged as such on the website so that readers know that the book they’ll receive will differ slightly from the Black Library books that they’ve been used to, but we won’t be calling the range anything fancy.

However, we are branding some of the books within the PoD range as ‘Heretic Tomes’. One of the great opportunities with PoD is to bring back older titles – some of which even pre-date Black Library – that no longer accurately reflect the Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 universes. These are the kind of novels that we wouldn’t want to put on the shelves of a Games Workshop or bookstore because anybody unfamiliar with Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 might get the wrong idea and come away with an inaccurate picture of our fictional universes. They’re all still great stories though, so badging them as Heretic Tomes allows us to get the books back into the hands of fans but also tip them off that the background and IP might be a bit different from what they’re used to. The first Heretic Tome – the first of our PoD releases in fact – is Ian Watson’s Space Marine which has been OOP for at least fifteen years but has consistently been one of the most requested titles for us to reprint. I know Ian’s very happy for it to be coming back into print as he mentions it to me every time I see him at a convention!

SFS: What made Black Library go the Print on Demand route? What are the implications of the print-on-demand method?

CD: Over the past ten years we’ve published over 300 novels. Add to that the hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books, graphic novels, art books and background books and it equals enough titles to fill several shelves of the SF/F section of the average bookstore. Obviously, it’s not practical to keep that many titles in print at any one time – the BL editorial office would have to double up as a book warehouse and, as much as we love being surrounded by books, thousands of copies of hundreds of different titles might be considered a fire risk! PoD is the perfect solution. No warehouses full of books but potential access to our entire back catalogue. In theory, no title should ever go out of print again.

Some of the implications were surprising and not immediately obvious. The first thing we did when the call was made to launch PoD, was to ignore everything about conventional publishing and treat PoD as something entirely new and different, not only in terms of manufacture and distribution but right down to the way the books themselves are put together. When a publisher releases a mass market title there are certain expectations regarding that book, not only from the publisher but also from the supplier and the end user. For instance, because the book needs to be displayed on a shelf in a bookstore, the title of the book and the author’s name are generally printed on both the front cover and the spine. The reader expects this, the retailer expects this and so the publisher – unless making a bold design decision – meets those expectations by printing that information on the front cover and spine. Likewise, the book needs to stand out from the other titles vying for attention on the shelves and cover artwork and design that is reflective of content and genre becomes another expectation. Ditto blurb on the back cover of the book so that when the reader picks it up, they’re given a short synopsis to try and convince them to take the book over to the cash register and buy it. Even an RRP and barcode on the back of the book is an expectation as the publisher and/or distributor uses it for tracking stock and the supplier uses it at point of sale to scan the item into the cash register. PoD removes these expectations. Because the only way of obtaining PoD titles is via our website, the webpage itself can display all of the information the reader needs to decide whether this is a book they’d like to read. Because the book is never seen on a bookstore shelf, the need for the title and author name on the front cover is eliminated altogether and the cover art and design can become something more than just a tool purely to sell the book.

The one expectation that did hold over was printing the title and author name on the spine; although stores display the vast majority of titles spine-out on their shelves, it’s also how most readers shelve their collections so we opted to retain this for our PoD titles.

PoD publishing is a weird hybrid between traditional and digital publishing – physical product but only sold electronically – and I think this is a direction the mass market will take in years to come. As online book retailers keep increasing their market share, the way a book cover looks displayed at an inch-and-a-half high on a monitor will begin to take precedence over how it looks at 6 ¾ inches on a bookstore shelf and, at the same time, remove many of those expectations I’ve outlined above. By taking the step into PoD publishing now, we’ll be better equipped when the mass market shifts in the future.

SFS: What are the titles that you’ll be releasing this year? Why those books?

CD: Our current plan is not to officially announce titles in advance – beyond the first few months’ releases – but instead make the titles available the instant they are announced. Publicly releasing a schedule upfront sort of defeats the purpose of Print on Demand – we’ll print the book on demand for you but only if you demand it be printed in 3 months’ time!? It also allows us to be flexible with the titles we release as PoD. If, for instance, a main range title goes out of print and we start amassing orders that indicate demand for that title, but not sufficient to push the button on a full reprint then we can slot it in as a PoD release. If we’ve announced 3, 6 or even 12 months out then we lose that flexibility.

We can also have a bit of fun building anticipation for the titles by dropping hints in various venues. When copies of the latest Dan Abnett hardcover, Blood Pact, arrived in the BL office, I put a photograph of it on our blog. It took one keen-eyed fan about 4 minutes to notice that the hardcover had been placed on one of our proof copies of The Gothic War Omnibus which is the March 2010 PoD release. I’ve also dropped a few hints on Facebook and Twitter and if anybody was following the ‘What Are You Reading’ thread on the old Black Library forums then pretty much everything I said I was reading during the second half of 2009 will be coming out as a PoD title during 2010. Except for those non-Black Library books I read of course…

Shall I drop another hint here? Alright then, our April release is an anthology of Blood Angels comic strips and short stories, and contains one all-new story along with the prose version of Heart of Rage that was previously only available as an audio drama. Wait a minute, that’s more of an announcement than a hint!

SFS: How do you gauge that there’s a demand for a certain title? How can readers inform Black Library that they want a certain title back in print?

CD: With older books we rely on the feedback we get from readers when we meet them, or from postings on our old forums and Facebook group. Space Marine is the book that we’ve been asked to bring back more than any other and, after years of saying we weren’t going to reprint it, when the technology came along to allow us to release it in a way that makes it viable in relatively small quantities, it took us a split-second to decide to launch with it. There are a few other titles that we still get requests for and they’re all on my very long list of titles to get back into print.

With more recent titles, it’s a case of monitoring how quickly a book has sold through in the various channels and deciding whether it’s worth pushing the button on a full reprint, making the title available through PoD or allowing it to go out of print and bringing it back as a PoD title at some later date. As with older titles though, if there’s enough reader feedback to suggest that even a newer title should come back into print then we’ll listen.

SFS: What’s your official title in the company? How did you get involved with Black Library and this project?

CD: My official job title is Range Development Editor which, translated out of doublespeak, means ‘that guy who does all the things that aren’t novels or part of the main range’. My brief is to run the Print on Demand, audio drama and e-book ranges along with editing our short story anthologies and recruiting new talent to the BL author roster. As the ‘Range Development’ bit of my job title suggests, I also look for opportunities to try new things. We’re already well down the road to recording and releasing our first abridged audio book and, as part of our e-book strategy, plans are afoot to launch our first digital-only publishing venture. I can’t say much more at this stage but it will be a good reason for fans of short fiction to come back and visit our website on a monthly basis.

The Print on Demand range is a weird kind of homecoming for me, weird in the sense that I never really went away. Before I was the Commissioning Editor for both Solaris and Black Flame – which, like Black Library, were both BL Publishing imprints – I ran the Necromunda, Dark Future and Blood Bowl novel ranges for Black Library and prior to that I was the editor of both Inferno! and Warhammer Monthly. Even though I’ve spent the past five years on the Solaris and Black Flame imprints, I still shared office space with the Black Library crew and kept up to speed with what was happening. Because most of the PoD titles are reprints from the early days of Black Library, I actually worked on them the first time around.

SFS: What are your immediate goals for the line and how is this different from the rest of Black Library?

CD: The first goal is to get the message out there about the new range. Because there’s no physical product on the shelves in stores, a lot of the traditional methods of marketing books aren’t as effective. As I said earlier, dropping hints on various websites and social networks helps because you’re effectively one mouse click away from the book’s webpage. Getting the books out there and into the hands of readers will be the biggest help on this front. Once they see that not only are we reissuing great books but that we’re also putting out great looking books that you can’t get anywhere else, word will spread.

Beyond that, once the range has been up and running for a while we plan to introduce titles that were never released in the mass market. Initially, these will take the form of new anthologies of previously published material where the theme is a lot tighter than those we’d release as part of the main range. The aforementioned Blood Angels anthology is the first title of that nature and we have plans to do PoD exclusive anthologies themed around other Space Marine Chapters too. We also have two brand new titles that have been commissioned specifically for the PoD range which are unlike anything Black Library have published before. They’re penciled in for late 2010 and should cause a bit of a stir once word gets out.

As for the rest of Black Library? They can concentrate on putting out all of those great books that will eventually become part of the PoD range!

SFS: Aside from the cover design, are there any changes you’re going to make to the re-released books such as minor editing? Or will we see more of what you hinted with the Blood Angels anthology, by including bonus content?

CD: There are a few titles in our back catalogue that despite being very good stories in their own right, didn’t accurately capture the Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 background. Some of these titles couldn’t be re-edited to fit the background without fundamentally altering the plot and these will be released under the Heretic Tomes branding. Others, where some of the details didn’t capture the flavor of the background, will undergo rewriting and editing before being re-released as PoD titles. Most of the books are just fine and dandy as they are though and will come out with only a few minor typos being fixed.

Where possible, a PoD title will have some kind of bonus material. The Gothic War Omnibus, for instance, includes an 8-page comic strip featuring the lead character from the Gothic War novels while the planned omnibus of the four Dark Future novels that Jack Yeovil wrote for us back in the early 90s will include a previously unpublished Eugene Byrne novel featuring the lead character from Demon Download. We received our office copies of The Book of Blood – the Blood Angels anthology you mentioned in the question – last week and the comic book pages in there are as sharp as I’ve ever seen grayscale comic book art reproduced, so you can expect to see a lot more comic book material included as PoD bonus content!

SFS: What’s the appeal of the Warhammer universe to you? What makes you keep coming back to it?

CD: Although my natural inclination is more towards SF, I did end up reading a lot of fantasy during my tenure at Solaris. The overwhelming majority left me disappointed though, sometimes through poor writing, sometimes through lack of originality but mainly through poor world-building. For me, world-building works best in fantasy novels when the plot itself is helping shape that world or when the author is trying to do something radically different with their setting, which sadly isn’t the case with many of the current crop of fantasy titles. With Warhammer the world-building has already been done, and over the past 30 years has undergone a bit of remodeling and reconstruction, leaving authors free to concentrate on telling a great story rather than having to invent over-elaborate magic systems, royal lineages, and economic models.

And that’s why it keeps reeling me in: because there’s still a heck of a lot of great stories to tell in the Warhammer world.

SFS: I visited The Black Library webpage and it’s still waiting for a relaunch. Where can readers find more information about Print on Demand?

CD: The Black Library blog and Facebook group have been filling the temporary gap left by the website and there’s information about the PoD range as well as Heretic Tomes in both those locations.

As soon as is back online you’ll be able to start ordering the first two PoD titles with at least one title being added every month after that.

2 Comments on EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Christian Dunn on Black Library’s New Print on Demand Book Line

  1. POD…good to see older titles coming back, but all in all, I’d rather they release eBooks in a format I can use. I’m cutting way back on the purchase of paperbacks and trade paperbacks (almost down to zero on paperbacks) due to storage. eBooks are the preferred format for anything I would normally buy as paperbacks and trade paperbacks for me!

  2. >We also have two brand new titles that have been commissioned specifically for the PoD range which are unlike anything Black Library have published before. They’re penciled in for late 2010 and should cause a bit of a stir once word gets out.

    And one of the twos is the fabled ‘Iron Warrior’ for sure!!!

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