FINAL POST: The Once and Future Robot

For this concluding post of The Robot Watcher, I will take a brief recap of the various topics and subjects that I have discussed since the beginning and leave you all with my final thoughts and predictions.

As I stated in my Introduction post, I was initially intrigued by Angry Robot’s recently-expanded Clonefiles Project, a print/digital initiative that enables customers who purchase an Angry Robot paperback at a participating independent bookstore to download a digital copy of that novel for free. Not only was a small publisher using print, digital, and indie bookstores to cross-promote each other, but Clonefiles launched a full year before Amazon’s widely-publicized Matchbook program. After coming across a publisher that was this risky, creative, and innovative, I couldn’t consider any other press.

Predictably, my very first topic was Clonefiles. I traced the history of this project, which began with an experiment in the summer of 2012 (with only one bookstore participating) and expanded with several more participants in early September 2013. Seeing as one of the more intriguing aspects of the bundling project was its inclusion of independent bookstores, I devoted a post to this topic and wrapped it up with an overall view of the state of print/digital bundling in the industry.

To summarize, I concluded that Clonefiles represented the publishing industry’s closest equivalent to the home video industry’s popular (with consumers) bundling model (where a free digital copy is included with the physical copy), with the added bonus that the digital copy is DRM-free. The inclusion of independent bookstores into the initiative appears to be a personal statement from AR about their concern for the survival of indie shops in an increasingly digital world. In their mission statement, AR claims that they “are fans” on the same level as their readers, an attitude which seems to inform their creation of a program that offers such value and freedom for their customers. Even with such a limited scope (when compared to Matchbook), Clonefiles proved to be highly profitable during its trail run, which indicates that fan-appreciation can be a good business strategy.

The “We are Fans” ethos has also inspired their strong anti-DRM stance. I took a brief look at anti-DRM practices in the industry before discussing AR’s own reasons for publishing their e-books free of DRM. In order to maintain the level of sincerity that has endeared AR to so many genre readers, AR does not want to adopt any practice which they see as anti-reader. While AR is forced to use DRM in order to sell their e-books on Amazon, the Nook Book Store, and other DRM-laden platforms, they freely advertize their stance on the AR-owned The Robot Trading Company (which, subsequently, gets the most promotion out of AR’s social media efforts). In a similar spirit of openness, AR partnered with mobile developer Boosh to enable sharing of select e-books on mobile devices, which further illustrates how often AR goes against-the-grain in favor of their readers.

“We are Fans” also describes the ways in which AR communicates with readers and markets their products. The publisher’s biggest fan initiative, The Robot Army, organizes and supports a street team that has great access to digital advanced reader copies of AR novels. AR also communicates with fans on social media in a very casual and welcoming manner, approaching their readers with a tone that is down-to-earth, tongue-in-cheek, and free of any pomposity. I spent my last few posts reflecting on AR’s output as a publisher, showing how this tone has been reflected through their imprints, quality book covers, and the novels themselves.

As mentioned in those posts, AR’s earnest attitude and business model have proved highly effective in engendering devoted readers and a following that is unusual for any trade publisher. For such a small press (they will have only published 27 novels in the entirety of 2013) with a rather niche catalog, I would consider this to be highly successful and even preferable to bigger kinds of success. If AR suddenly attempted a huge expansion in order to compete with some of the larger presses, the casual attitude and ideology-driven business practices would likely be the first things to go. I would compare AR to a beloved independent bookstore, one which would loose all of its charm and appeal if it were to attempt a nation-wide expansion. In short, I think AR simply needs to keep doing what they’re doing lest they betray what has actually made them successful int he first place. If AR wants to grow in the future, they simply need to grab even more budding talent that will bring added prestige to their catalog.

In maintaining their small but mighty stature, AR can still remain an important contrarian voice in the publishing landscape. With Amazon encroaching on the profits of big-box bookstores and setting the standard for many of the industry’s digital practices, independent bookstores are actually on the rise. In such a landscape, the independent framework is the best way to implement policies that go against Amazon’s example and prove with sales numbers that these alternatives are viable business solutions. While the majority of readers might ultimately side with Amazon over the indies, dissenting voices are important for any healthy business environment.

AR Library via  Facebook.

AR Library via Facebook.

As long as Angry Robot does not “sell out” and decide that they are no longer fans, they should continue to flourish and further cement their reputation as one of the most meaningful reader-friendly publishers in the industry. If anything, free and open products will become even more desirable if Amazon does not ease up on their restrictions and inches even closer towards industry-wide monopoly. And if the anti-DRM/Amazon voices win and the dream of a free and open digital landscape becomes a reality, Angry Robot can always claim (with complete accuracy) that they were there first.

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Thanks to everyone who read/liked/followed this blog! If you enjoyed my writing, I will continue blogging on my personal review site, Reader Raffle. If you have any lingering questions, comments, or suggestions about The Robot Watcher, don’t hesitate to write me via the Contact page.

Stay informed, and keep reading!

-Daniel Mosier

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Best of Angry Robot: Books

While I have spent a great deal of time talking about Angry Robot as a publisher and a business, I have not given much attention to the one element which defines any publishing house; their catalog. Today I will briefly reflect on a few of AR’s critical successes, which should provide a decent snapshot of the quality of AR’s output.

All cover images come from Angry Robot’s website.

ZooCity-front-72dpi-RGBBy far, AR’s biggest critical smash has been Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City (which I briefly mentioned in my intro post). This urban fantasy takes place in an alternate Johannesburg where those who have committed a crime are burdened with an animal familiar as well as a unique psychic power. The plot focuses Zinzi December, a wayward former journalist who attempts to find a missing popstar in return for a payload that can clear her drug debts. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award, a prestigious honor for genre novels published in the U.K., and became a critical darling amongst genre bloggers and reviewers. Her previous novel for AR was the well-received Moxyland (which I enjoyed immensely) and her latest was the very high-profile thriller/sci-fi yarn The Shining Girls (published by Hachette). By all accounts, Beukes appears to be a rising superstar in the SF/F publishing landscape.

Mockingbird-144dpi1My personal favorite (so far) in AR’s catalog has been Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series (consisting of Blackbirds, Mockingbird, and the upcoming The Cormorant). In these urban fantasy novels, the titular character is a hitchhiking drifter who has the ability to see when and how people will die, but can do absolutely nothing to prevent said death. While Wendig’s success might not be as prestigious as Beukes’, his irreverent and entertaining trilogy has garnered heaps of praise from many critics. Publisher’s Weekly wrote that Blackbirds “vibrates with emotional rawness that helps to paint
a bleak, unrelenting picture of life on the edge.” Wendig’s other novel for AR is The Blue Blazes, the first novel in his Mookie Pearl series. He has also written numerous other genre novels and non-fiction books for other publishers.

SevenWonders-144dpiTime to jump from urban fantasy to superheroes and SF. New Zealand author Adam Christopher made his debut with the AR-published Empire State, a tale of feuding science heroes in parallel versions of Prohibition-era New York City. After gaining plenty of acclaim for his debut, Christopher re-teamed with AR to publish Seven Wonders, a novel about a brand-new superhero in a city already teeming with them. Seven Wonders continued Christopher’s ascent into genre fame, prompting The Guardian to call his novel “…an artfully plotted and thrilling action-adventure with some satisfying set-piece confrontations and amazingly rounded characterization.” His other novels for AR include the Empire State sequel The Age Atomic and the upcoming stand-alone fantasy Hang Wire. Christopher has also signed a deal with mega-publisher Tor to publish his dark space opera The Burning Dark, which will drop in March 2014.

vN-144dpiMadeline Ashby rocked the genre landscape with her AR-published debut vN. This novel, which is the first in the First Machine Dynasty series (and is succeeded by iD) tells the story of Amy Peterson, a self-replicating humanoid robot who has grown slowly as a member of a mixed synthetic/organic family. When she learns that the failsafe which prevents all robots from harming humans has malfunctioned, she finds herself as the target of multiple parties, none of them benign. Science Fiction supersite io9 listed vN as one of the top 10 SF/F books of 2012, which reflects many of the praises heaped upon this debut. One such critic was BoingBoing legend Cory Doctorow, who wrote: “Ashby’s debut is a fantastic adventure story that carries a sly philosophical payload about power and privilege, gender and race. It is often profound, and it is never boring.”

I don’t mean to imply that these are the only AR novels worth checking out; these are just their most buzzed-about. Other notable AR books include Ramez Naam’s Nexus, King Maker by Maurice Broaddus, and The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke. Even Strange Chemistry had a big hit already with Gwenda Bond’s Blackwood. All of AR’s titles can be found on their website, and many more of them are probably worth a look. Just because it’s not a hit doesn’t mean it can’t be good!

Next time, in my FINAL POST of this blog, I will be looking at where AR has been, where they are going, at what it all means for this industry.

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Best of Angry Robot: Covers

If you were to browse the reader comments on Angry Robot’s Facebook and Twitter pages, you would quickly find a remark about the quality of AR’s book covers. Indeed, many of these covers are awesome. Even the popular review blog The Book Smugglers did a post about some of their favorite AR covers. I would not be surprised in the slightest to find out that many of AR’s fans were initially brought into the fold through these eye-catching and attention-grabbing pieces of art.

Rather than doing a lengthy commentary piece about these covers, I’ll let the works speak for themselves. I’m going to present my top 5 favorite AR covers, in no particular order, citing the artists who created them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I recommend you browse AR’s Pinterest Page, the Robot Trading Company, or read that Book Smugglers post for some more great sci-fi and fantasy artworks.

All covers come from the main Angry Robot website.

BlackbirdsJoey Hi-Fi

Blackbirds-144dpiDead HarvestAmazing15

DeadHarvest-144dpi

The Nekropolis ArchivesSteve Stone

TheNekropolisArchives-144dpivNMartin Bland

vN-144dpiThe Marching DeadNick Castle

TheMarchingDead-144dpi

Next time, in my penultimate post for The Robot Watcher, I will discuss the one element, above all others, which makes Angry Robot, Angry Robot- their books.

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Exhibit A: AR’s Strange Chemistry

I have maintained such a narrow focus on Angry Robot that I have all but ignored the publisher’s two imprints; YA outfit Strange Chemistry and the crime bosses at Exhibit A Books. I will take a brief overview of both imprints, discussing how they fit into AR’s overall marketing strategy.

Launching in September 2012, Strange Chemistry seeks to publish “the best in modern young adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in between”. This sounds quite similar to AR’s mission statement, except SC notes the specific target audience to which they cater.

“Young Adult Literature” is a difficult concept to condense into an exact definition. Some common definitions refer to the age of the book’s main characters and target readers (most typically, teenagers), while others refer to common themes and plot elements (like the search for identity, absent parental figures, etc.). Most simply conclude that YA is about both its readers and its broader content. While YA doesn’t necessarily have to be genre fiction, many of the most recent publishing sensations have been YA genre novels.

Unlike AR and SC, Exhibit A does not have a SF/F bent. Rather, they are a “a commercial crime fiction imprint,” one that is “focused on big ideas, big characters and, above all, big stories”. Launching in Spring 2013, EA distinguishes themselves from other crime publishers by adopting a “cinematic sensibility,” replete with large-scale scenarios and attention-grabbing plots. And, of course, crime fiction is that genre which “fictionalizes crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives.”

As previously mentioned, SC and EA share many similarities with AR. All three imprints sell their e-books through The Robot Trading Company, and they all take similar approaches to social media marketing (Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc.). They both speak with the same down-to-earth tone that AR adopted (“…if you came here craving cozies, then you should have checked the weather forecast first, because Exhibit A is all about brewing up storms…”), and they similarly follow AR’s “fans first” policy. SC regularly posts “Media Round-Ups” on their front page that quote not only the higher-profile YA reviewers, but also from many blogs that are on the fan level. EA has their own version of the Robot Army, which they call the Witness Protection Programme.

These similarities pose the question; why does AR feel the need to separate these three parts of the same whole into separate divisions?

If you added some blue lightning, this could easily be an AR cover.  Via Exhibit A.

If you added some blue lightning, this could easily be an AR cover. Via Exhibit A.

The simplest answer is that this is an industry standard. The Big Five/Six each have their own legion of imprints, many of which are distinct genre divisions. While the debate over the ethics of genre assignments and their implications rages on, the choice of publishers to use the imprint tactic is entirely a marketing decision.

The imprint phenomenon is an example of the “trade name” practice, in which one company will use a different brand name for a certain product in order to better market that product to a specific demographic and/or consumer base. In genre publishing, the audience is what drives the formation of imprints. Genre fanbases are characterized by a core group of readers who maintain their dedication to that specific content/thematic/etc. type. In order for a brand name to have meaning to those readers, genre publishers will want to maintain a singular focus on that specific genre. While the publishers and the readers will form their own personal definitions of what exact elements constitute that genre, such focus is what allows readers to develop an  affinity for that imprint as a provider of their favorite type of content.

Because this is an industry standard, it is also a necessary business step for publishers to think in terms of genre separation. Physical bookstores have notoriously upheld the genre separations by physically separating and labeling genres within the store’s space. While a novel might have elements of YA and mystery, if the publisher believes that the title will make more money with the YA label, then they will want to do everything to make sure that book is shelved in the YA section. While this is becoming less important with the rise of digital bookstores, many of those establishments (including the Robot Trading Co.) still maintain genre classifications in order to ease browsing for the shopper.

Genre separation within a company also allow for each of the genre imprints to have their own unique editorial team. By branching off into focused divisions, the publisher can make sure that each of their imprints are staffed by professionals who sincerely understand that genre, its audience, and that genre’s status in the marketplace.

The introduction of SC and EA allows Angry Robot to publish a broader range of content without sacrificing their marketability and appeal to their core SF/F/WTF fans.

Next time, I will focus on one element that has brought AR into the spotlight for many readers; their awesome covers.

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Angry Robot’s Tone: Yes, Indeed They ARE Fans

Image

As evidenced by this cover blurb, AR isn’t afraid to embrace quirk when appropriate- via Angry Robot.

As I have mentioned in my last few posts, “we are fans” is a sentence from AR’s mission statement that informs most of their actions as publishers. It drives their DRM policy, it dictates how they approach social media, and it’s even apparent in their “voice.” In this post I will discuss the tone with which AR approaches their public communications, illustrating how AR attempts to endear readers by talking with them on the same level.

The most apparent example of AR’s tone is in their oft-repeated phrase “SF, F, and WTF!?” This sentence can be found everywhere they have a presence, from their main website to their Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest pages. While their reasons including “SF” and “F” are clear, what does the “WTF!?” add?

For one thing, there are a couple of practical explanations. It refers to the fact that some of AR’s novels are hybrid novels that do not fit the traditional boundaries of science fiction or fantasy. The “WTF!?” also indicates that many of the novels have truly bizarre premises and situations (such as Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland) and are clearly not conventional fare. Despite these uses, there are many neutral terms (such as “other”) that could have taken the acronym’s place.

The inclusion of the “WTF!?” (and the interrobang in particular) is clearly done in a playful manner . It’s a clever, humorous play on the SF/F acronyms, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to their own admitted weirdness. I certainly don’t think it downplays the seriousness of many AR works. I would say that it communicates a concept (weirdness/unconventionality) that might sound stilted if explained with official language, but in using the slang of the internet the idea is immediately understandable and even a bit charming.

Another example of their down-to-earth tone can be found on their registration pages for the Robot Army. These pages are peppered with references to early 20th century army recruitment propaganda and general military lingo. Once again, the language is whimsical but not silly or self-depreciating. For example, the subject line asking for the readers’ format preferences reads: “What Sort of Intelligence Would You Like us to Supply You With?”

Such language adds a sense of entertainment to an advertising situation. While the Robot Army is a program that benefits select readers with free advanced copies, it is a marketing program meant to raise awareness and develop word-of-mouth for the company’s novels. Customer-company interactions that are founded on advertising tend to be uncomfortable for the consumer, who might feel that the company is being insincere in order to sell something. Adding a humorous tone and a bit of fun to the mix can ease this tension and make the transaction more enjoyable for both parties.

Zooblog 001

From the back cover of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.

AR doesn’t limit this jocular tone to their web presence, however. On the back of every AR paperback, in the top right corner, there is a small column entitled “FILE UNDER.” In addition to containing the specific sub-genre of that novel (such as urban fantasy), there are 3-4 bullet points that describe the specific plot points or themes of that novel. These have always reminded me of the way many users tag posts on Tumblr; they’re way too specific to be genuinely helpful in terms of categorization, and they’re mostly done for a comedic effect.

In addition to adding the AR flavor to the cover, the column is genuinely useful in promoting the book. While the extreme specificity is amusing, it also highlights the unique nature of that particular story, which can often be difficult with a single-paragraph back-cover description.

While the image of the prestigious publisher certainly works for many presses, AR carves their own niche with their humble but witty approach to communication. It certainly gels with their catalog; while many of AR’s novels deal with serious themes, they are first and foremost crafted as pieces of entertainment meant to excite and engage readers. It also serves as a continuation of AR’s policy towards fan relations; that is, to keep the reader not only front and center, but to also involve them in the entire process. If AR hopes to impress, engage, and connect with fans on a level beyond businessman to customer, than speaking to their readers with complete sincerity is the only way to go.

In my next post, I will present a quick overview of AR’s genre imprints, Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A.

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How Angry Robot Deploys Social Media

A small, horizontal column on AR’s main site, labeled “Social Robotics,” contains links to AR’s three main social media platforms; Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. In this post, I will briefly discuss how AR utilizes these platforms and how it reflects AR’s overall character as a publisher.

AR’s Facebook page carries out the same essential activities you would expect from a publisher’s site. All of the news stories posted on the main website are cross-posted to the FB page. New releases are announced, major company news is shared, and contests for free AR books are held. All links on the FB page to AR novels take the user to the Robot Trading Co. e-book store.

The FB page also carries out a few other functions that aren’t hosted on the main site. Announcements of author signings from AR writers are cross-posted from the events’ host. Such notices are time-sensitive and only relevant to specific geographic regions, which is why they are more appropriate for a format like FB. AR’s Facebook also shares news from AR’s imprints, Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A, whereas the main site segregates the three imprints.

AR’s Facebook also sports two open invitations for fan feedback. The first, “Recent Posts by Others on Angry Robot Books,” cross-posts any status updates or comments from FB users who mention an AR title or AR the company. Many of these posts are from the AR authors themselves, which opens us an additional channel of communication between fans and content providers. Almost all comments appear to be positive in one way or another, and there don’t seem to be any posts that happen to use the words “angry” and “robot” in an unrelated sentence, so good work AR.

The second invitation for feedback is far more literal. The page sports a “Reviews” widget that allows FB users to review Angry Robot (both their company and their Facebook page). All of the comments so far are either 5-star reviews or highly positive unrated comments.

AR’s Twitter page is essentially the same as their FB page in terms of book/company promotion. Where the Twitter page differs is that the fan-company connection is far more direct. AR responds to (seemingly all) Twitter users who address @angryrobotbooks, often in a casual and light-hearted tone. Many of their Twitter-hosted contests stipulate that users tweet @angryrobotbooks directly. One such contest was #MyFirstAngryRobot, which elicited a glut of positive comments directed at AR novels.

Many of AR’s tweets are also of a more casual, humor-tinged tone, such as the one pictured below:

ARtweet

AR has a presence on Pinterest, where their focus is on AR book covers, pictures of author signings, and bookstore displays featuring AR titles.

In 2013, it goes without saying that any company that hopes to make a profit will have some sort of social media presence. While many companies simply “check-off” this requirement by having a static page, the kind of direct interaction practiced by AR captures the essence of what makes social media platforms…well, social.

“No one on the team forces themselves to tweet or whatever, we just can’t stop ourselves,” said AR Managing Director and Publisher Marc Gascoigne in an interview with Publishing Perspectives. “It doesn’t hurt that rather than having a separate marketing it’s all us, so we respond, debate and are generally part of the community…but that’s how it should be anyway. Fans as well as publishers, full of enthusiasm for books (from other publishers as well as from us) and heaps of other cool things.”

Once again, AR’s outreach efforts show their mission statement in action. They feel no need to segregate themselves from their fans as “professionals” or “publishers,” which is a particularly effective approach on platforms that are based around the concepts of connectivity, openness, and friendship.

On a related topic, my next post will focus on AR’s unusual tone (or, why they put a “WTF” after “SF” and “F”).

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How the Robot Army Won AR’s War

The logo for the Robot Army

The logo for the Robot Army

“Join the Robot Army! See the Angry Robot World!”

This blast from the past opens up AR’s promotion page for their Robot Army (RA) program, a system that gives genre bloggers a chance to obtain advanced reader copies of upcoming AR titles. An establishment from the very first days of Angry Robot, the RA might very well be responsible for the company’s success in the marketplace.

The RA reaches out to bloggers and website-owners who write book reviews of genre novels “on a regular basis.” The frequency of reviews is very important to AR; while this system is rather liberal in its handing out of advanced copies, AR doesn’t welcome casual involvement.

“Personal blogs with very occasional book reviews, retailer website reviews and passing mentions on social media sites aren’t really what we’re looking for,” states the RA main page.

Other than this main requirement, the steps for membership are quite easy. After one successfully signs up for the RA mailing list, they will receive notices via email when new eARCs (electronic Advanced Reader Copies) are available to request  via the Angry Robot NetGalley account. NetGalley is a very popular system that allows “influential” reviewers, bloggers, and other media members to request eARCs of titles from most major publishers.

Essentially, the RA acts as a middleman between the reviewer and NetGalley with the intention of making it easier for reviewers to obtain Angry Robot eARCs.

While AR hasn’t compiled an official, public list of all RA-supported blogs, one simply has to Google search “Angry Robot Army” to gain an idea of how widespread this program has become. The RA has recruited blogs of all types, most of whom give positive reviews to AR’s books and are more than willing to mention their involvement with the RA.

crux-144dpi

Here is a positive review of the novel Crux from the blog Allwaysunmended

While the benefits of having an enthusiastic group of bloggers on your side are completely obvious, what does a polished street team like the RA give Angry Robot that masses of ratings on a website like Goodreads do not?

The answer is in the requirements for RA membership; they want enthusiasm in the reviews. As they write on the RA promo page, “Angry Robot wants the very best – the most dedicated, the most fanatical…” Their mission statement indicates that AR publishes specifically for readers who won’t simply shelve away their books once they’re done reading.

“The sheer joy, though, of being able to jump onto a table (only sometimes metaphorically) and tell the world about how bloody great a chosen writer or novel is, is what drives Angry Robot,” states AR’s mission statement.

The Robot Army is that metaphorical table. It allows readers to introduce a passion into their reviews that gets diluted through many of the short-form social media platforms. Simply put, the RA is Angry Robot’s mission statement in action.

“It’s all about the customer, the reader,” said AR Managing Director Marc Cascoigne in an interview with Publishing Perspectives. “Genres are founded on enthusiasts, dedicated superfans, and if you can make books for those readers you have a strength that will outlast any fads or fashions.”

Indeed, catering to those types of readers appears to have paid off for AR. AR launched their initial website months ahead of their first books’ release in July 2009. Even before they had books to sell, AR had launched their RA program (which initially didn’t include NetGalley). Because AR’s initial success was founded not only on critical acclaim, but strong word-of-mouth (as I detailed in my initial post), the RA probably helped to bring Angry Robot into the spotlight. While such a nebulous concept as “word-of-mouth” is hard to quantify, I can confidently conclude that AR’s strong reputation has been built on the praise of enthusiastic fans such as those who fight for the Robot Army.

Next time, I will discuss AR’s efforts within broader social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter).

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