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Market Insights: Lou Anders, Pyr Books

April 12, 2011

Hello Clarion. It’s great to be here.

I’ve written elsewhere about who we are at Pyr, how we got our start, and what we’re about, so today I’m going to take a different slant from what I’ve done in the past. Rather than talk about who we are, I thought I’d talk about who we aren’t, and take the opportunity to clear up some common misperceptions.

For starters, we aren’t the new kids on the block any more. Pyr was launched in March 2005, which means that we’ve just celebrated our sixth year in the business (and I’ve been at this job for seven). In October, we published our 100th title. Recently, I counted up some forty-seven awards and nominations our books have received in our first six years, including eight Hugos and quite a few World Fantasy, Philip K Dick, Campbells, (the other) Campbell, Sturgeon, Nebula and Locus awards. The list is all the more impressive, if you will forgive me for saying so, given that we only publish around thirty titles a year.

Second, we’re not a small press. I’m still amazed by the people I run into who think I own the company. I don’t. I’m an employee, and Pyr itself is an imprint of another company. Our parent is Prometheus Books, a mid-sized independent publisher that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and has thousands of titles in its backlist and somewhere between forty and fifty employees (every time I think I’ve got an exact count someone I’ve never heard of shows up on an inter-office email; hence my lack of an exact figure). At any rate, I think one of the technical definitions of “small press” is between one and ten employees, so what we are is a mid-sized press in a business that is predominantly split between small presses and conglomerates. Which makes us a bit of an odd bird.

Third, we’re not really a good place for gross-out horror, slipstream, literary fantasy, or those “difficult to categorize” works. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he says, in his best Seinfeld impression. It’s just not our focus. When we first conceived of Pyr, we debated about whether or not to specialize in a subgenre, create a line look, or adhere to a particular philosophy or theme (in keeping with the parent company’s reputation for rationalist/humanist works). We opted not to do any of these things. Rather, we decided that we’d publish unabashedly genre works—space opera, military SF, time travel novels, epic fantasies, swords & sorcery—works that recognize and honor the tradition of science fiction and fantasy literature, but had an eye on the 21st century. We wanted, though it sounds egotistical to say, works which took the writing to a “higher level.”

We talked a lot about “brand identity,” but rather than trade on the parent company’s brand, or go after a subgenre and make it our particular niche, we decided rather hubristically, that “quality would be our brand.”  So it was a hugely satisfying moment when Norman Spinrad wrote in the pages of Asimov’s during our first few years that he saw us as “opting for trying to maintain a consistently high level of literary quality. What Pyr has begun to publish, and yes, thus far fairly consistently, is … science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction.” When we began to up our fantasy offerings, we looked for fantasy narratives with a similar quality. Shortly after the Asimov’s piece, we began to hear from distributors, chain buyers, independent booksellers, and, most importantly, readers that we were building a reputation for “consistent quality.”  One reader said she came to us when she was looking for a “more engrossing read.”

However, this often causes confusion with agents and authors and other people in the industry.  We get sent a lot of works that fall into the “literary but not commercial” variety, works that are hard to categorize and which take too many hyphens to describe where they fall.  It’s popular to complain about the industry’s need to label, but the thing about categories is—they exist to connect readers with the right book, and when you put too many hypens in a work, you begin to limit your potential audience. There’s an editor at a major house who, bless her, keeps forwarding me manuscripts of which she says, “we are unable to publish but maybe you can.” While I appreciate it, the truth is that if she’s unable to publish it, it’s doubtful that we can either. In fact, being smaller, but still large enough to have to justify those 40-50 employees and all the apparatus of running an independent company, we probably have less room to make mistakes than a conglomerate with a deeper list in which to spread it around. Which brings me to another point.

We aren’t a publisher who thinks commercial is a dirty word. It’s often portrayed like one, even in a genre that is by its nature more commercial than its “mainstream” literary cousins. This has always struck me as odd. Because what commercial really means is—are you ready for this?—large numbers of people enjoy reading what you write. Given that the primary function of the written word is to communicate, and that a story that no one reads is like that tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear—you would think that connecting to an audience would be a good thing. We want books that readers want to read.

Which is not to say literary values aren’t important. My father instilled in me from a young age a great love of language, a great admiration for the craft of storytelling, for the ability to paint on the canvas of a readers mind with the colors of the written word.

Now, obviously, despite what we sometimes pretend, commercial and quality are not synonymous. Plenty of commercial works fall into the crap side of Sturgeon’s Law, just as plenty of wonderfully deserving works fail to find large audiences. And, of course, if you could tell in advance with 100% accuracy which was which, you could rule the world. But what we strive for to the best of our ability is the overlap, works that are aimed at the core readership of science fiction and fantasy narrative—space operas and epic fantasies, time travel tales and swords & sorceries, steampunk adventures and vampire thrillers—because, hey, that’s what the majority of fans want to read, but works that “take it to eleven” and leave the reader gasping with adrenaline in a way that only a master storyteller can elicit.

However, we didn’t want to cash in on a trend for its own sake It took us a while to publish our first vampire and steampunk novels, because we had to wait until we found novels that were “Pyr vampire novels” and “Pyr steampunk novels.” If you’ve read The Greyfriar, Twelve, or The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack you’ll know what I mean. Just as you’ll know what our brand of fantasy entails if you’ve read Joe Abercrombie, James Barclay, James Enge or Tom Lloyd. Just as Mark Chadbourn and Justina Robson define our brand of urban fantasy. Science fiction? Ian McDonald, Paul McAuley, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, soon to be Ken MacLeod. We haven’t published a full on zombie novel yet. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” We just haven’t found a “Pyr Zombie novel.” I’m sure there’s one out there, but so far it hasn’t come staggering my way demanding gourmet brains.

We publish the books we love, so that you will love them too. My wife will often ask me about the manuscripts I’m reading, and when she asks me how something is, if I have to think about my answer, if I say, “Well, it’s good, it has this, and it does this in an interesting way, and there’s something going on here that I quite like,” she’ll reply, “Put it down. Move on. You don’t like it, and you don’t have time to waste reading any further.” She knows that the ones I really love are the ones that have me bouncing up and down, bugging her with talking it up day and night, eyes as full of the “sensawunder” as any kid on their first expedition to Barsoom or Pern or the Ringworld.

As to what writers need to know about us, I will repeat something I’ve said elsewhere and say only this: Be brilliant. We stand on the shoulders of giants in SF&F, with over a century of masterful works behind us, and a sophisticated and discerning audience before us. The competition is fierce (not just at our imprint but industry-wide), but cream always rises to the top. Daunting? Perhaps, but how can a science fiction or fantasy author not shoot for the moon?

Finally, the last misconception I’ll clear up. We pronounce Pyr so that it rhymes with fire. That may not be the way the ancient Greeks pronounced it, but we’re not ancient Greeks. Although I hear they were fantasy writers too.  Thanks for having me!

——–

Lou Anders is the editorial director of the SF&F imprint Pyr Books and editor of nine anthologies. He is a four time Hugo Award nominee for Best Editor, and a Chesley Award winning Art Director. He has also been nominated for the PKD and WFC Awards. Visit him online at www.louanders.com and www.pyrsf.com

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2011 6:43 am

    Thanks for the Market Insight, Lou. In the past couple of years, Pyr-rhymes-with “fire” has become my favorite publisher. I never realized I was so “commercial,” though. Heh-heh. I’ve always felt like one of those nerdy bookworms that others looked at askance when I sat in public reading my niche-genre, dog-eared copy of CONAN THE FREEBOOTER or DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, taking me back to those earlier school days when I would hide a tattered copy of DETECTIVE COMICS or THE MIGHTY THOR in my Algebra text book. (I think the only person in class I managed to fool was the teacher… and even then sometimes I wonder.)

    I do have a question, and I hope my observation’s not in err. I’ve noticed you (or someone) made the decision to release Pyr’s titles in softcover format, rather than go the traditional route of harcover, followed 6-12 months later by softcover and/or mass market paperback. What was behind this decision?

    Thanks!

  2. April 12, 2011 7:00 am

    I’ve heard a lot about Pyr, but this is the first time I have heard someone break the company down like this. Thank you. It is good to know that the folks at Pyr seem to know what they are doing, what works for them, and how to explain this to authors in a clear manner.

  3. Lou Anders permalink
    April 12, 2011 7:19 am

    Hi J.M. – I think one of the silver linings on the recession we’ve just had is the mainstream acknowledgment that genre is popular. I watched the last few years as major chain stores moved their SF&F sections out of the back and nearer and nearer to the coffee shops!

    As to “the traditional route” – we began by publishing mostly hardcover, but (and hear we have the recession to blame again) – we’ve had to bow to market pressure and release mostly in trade these days. I love hardcover personally, but we’re hearing that less and less readers do.

  4. April 12, 2011 8:17 am

    I’ve long been a fan of Pyr almost from its start, and I’ll always be grateful for exposing me to authors like Mark Chadbourn and James Enge.

    Their book design sense and their consistent levels of quality writing, regardless of the exact sub-genre, make them a far greater publisher in my eyes than many with a longer track record.

    Here’s to many more years of Pyr, Lou!

    Steven

  5. Lou Anders permalink
    April 12, 2011 8:40 am

    Thanks Steven. Very nice to hear. Especially about the art/design.

  6. April 12, 2011 10:20 am

    You’re right, Steven. One of the things that always strikes me is how a Pyr title looks. From the choice of art to the masthead and typography, it has a certain style that attracts my eye from its place on the shelf among all the other titles. I wonder if Lou has a hand in assigning the artists and laying out the covers.

  7. Lou Anders permalink
    April 12, 2011 10:23 am

    Thanks J.M. Yes, I also wear an art director’s hat. I choose all artists, work with them on the cover, pick which of my three in house designers gets it, and then art direct them as well.

  8. April 12, 2011 12:23 pm

    Like.

  9. Lynda Williams permalink
    April 12, 2011 8:51 pm

    Pry sounds grand. I am glad to know a house like yours exists and thrives.

  10. Lou Anders permalink
    April 13, 2011 8:18 am

    Thanks Lynda!

  11. April 13, 2011 12:31 pm

    Lou knows that Pyr is one of my favorite publishers. This blog post helps articulate why.

  12. Max Gywdion permalink
    April 13, 2011 8:12 pm

    I don’t get it.
    The name of the company is Pyre Science Fiction. The name of the web-sight is PRYESF.COM.
    The company description reads, “Pyr® is a science fiction and fantasy imprint from Prometheus Books”
    And yet, in the guidelines for author submissions, I find this CONFOUNDING submission requirement (copy and pasted):

    For adult fiction, we ONLY accept submissions in the subgenres of epic fantasy, sword & sorcery, and contemporary/urban fantasy. No horror, science fiction, or slipstream.

    So, a science fiction sub-division of a science fact publishing house, that wont even LOOK at science fiction?

    Looking at their lists of currently and upcoming titles, I see A LOT of fantasy and twisted-historical settings….but no science fiction titles to speak of.

    Yet you are posting as an expert on the CLARION blog, a whole society devoted to developing (and helping to eventually get published) science fiction writers. CLARION needs to check their guest posters better. PYRE is NOT accepting our SF, folks!

    Please, if these is a reason for this (as an aspiring SF writer who was planning on submitting to PYRE FIRST), please tell us why this is.

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      April 13, 2011 9:50 pm

      I thought I would respond, since there was concern about the Clarion Blog’s “vetting” process for guest posters.

      Pyr publishes both science fiction and fantasy. Clarion trains writers of both science fiction and fantasy. The guidelines you copy and paste above are the guidelines for -unagented- authors, which to me suggests that these are the subgenres they aren’t seeing enough of from agented writers at the moment. I’m sure Lou could clarify.

      There is nothing on their site that says they won’t look at science fiction that is submitted via an agent. I’m sure you’re aware that some publishers don’t look at unagented manuscripts at all.

      Clarion does, on occasion, feature guest bloggers who are interested in only fantasy, or only science fiction. Lou Anders, however, does not fall into that category, as his post clearly states.

  13. Lou Anders permalink
    April 14, 2011 8:03 am

    Thank you Mishell; you are absolutely accurate. We have and continue to publish science fiction, and in fact, our science fiction has shown up on all the major award ballots, winning quite a few. As I noted above, we publish science fiction by Ian McDonald, Paul McAuley, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Ken MacLeod, as well as SF from many more authors including Kay Kenyon, John Meaney, Mike Resnick, Chris Roberson, Justina Robson, Joel Shepherd, Robert Silverberg, Sean Williams, and others.

    The guidelines Max has excerpted are indeed our guidelines for unagented submissions. A great many publishers do not accept unagented manuscripts at all, but we created a special avenue for unagented authors to submit to us in certain categories only, categories where we felt we weren’t seeing enough from agented channels and where we wanted to widen the net. We do accept in all subgenres via agents.

    Moreover even the guidelines Max has excerpted makes it clear in the next sentence down that “For Young Adult fiction, other subgenres will be considered.”

  14. Lou Anders permalink
    April 14, 2011 8:08 am

    Also, I am puzzled by Max’s assertion that “Looking at their lists of currently and upcoming titles, I see A LOT of fantasy and twisted-historical settings….but no science fiction titles to speak of.” If you go to our Forthcoming Books page (http://www.pyrsf.com/forthcoming.html), the very first title is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s CITY OF RUINS, second in her science fiction space opera that began with DIVING INTO THE WRECK. Of the first book (which RT Book Reviews nominated for a Best of 2009 award), The News Guard wrote: “I have not enjoyed a science fiction book this much in many years. This book reads like great Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Pohl, or any of the great masters of science fiction. The book had all the attributes that make a book great: great characters, great plot, great adventure and most of all great fun. This book harkens back to the best of classic fiction, and I hope it is a major success, because I want more books like this from Rusch. Read the book and join the adventure; you will not be sorry. A 10 out of 10. This book will be around for a long time.”

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