Interview by Ben Peek
Robert N. Stephenson is the publisher of Altair Books.
1) Altair books is one of the few small presses in the Australian scene to use the POD (print on demand) technology. What’s the attraction over a small print run, and what are the draw backs?
The idea is that Altair Australia can publish eclectic books by well known authors that would otherwise not be published by their Main Stream publisher. Small print runs mean an up front investment of a few thousand dollars per book and then you are faced with storage problem, no distribution and poor sales leaving you with an office full of books and an empty bank account. Using POD technology I can have lower operating costs (low hundreds of dollars per book), no storage problems (I keep about 20 books in stock) and still no distribution. Like small press that create small runs I am faced with direct marketing the book. I must say that of the books I’ve produced to date, only one Australian has purchased a copy. So, with the idea of a small print run, I would be left with quite a few books. The main draw back I have found is that the Australian SF/Fantasy/Horror readership in small press is generally restricted. I know Bill Congreve can sell 300 — 500 books, Agog likewise and maybe even CSFA but for some reason this small press publisher in Australia hasn’t been able to sell to these people — I don’t know why — maybe dislike of me runs deep. It won’t stop me from producing books and supporting Australian authors, but it does make earning these guys money mighty tough.
2) You’ve been critical of the local Australian scene for being, from what I understand, closed off from writers outside the country. It is true that, for the most part, when a small press publisher in Australia produces a book or magazine, it is predominently filled with local authors–and that these magazines and books dominate the awards, rather that Australians published overseas. What do you think the long term effect of this will be?
My criticism is mainly based on creating false senses of grandeur within the Australian scene. I have copies of most of the Australian publications (I do buy what is published here) but I want to see more. I would feel a sense of pride when reading an Agog for instance if it did have stories by James Van Pelt, Mary Soon Lee, Justin Stanschfield to name a few and then discover that works by Australians in those same books were on par or even better. We cannot grow as writers if all we compare ourselves to is ourselves. I have had works in magazines where the TOC has Elizabeth Moon and Orson Scott Card — it helps me assess how I am doing with my writing and how and where to improve if I want to keep on doing this. On awards I have my own opinion that is usually best kept to myself, but in the long term I feel the awards will simply become meaningless when foreign readers read the story that has won the award. Remember, they get to read the best in the world, I can’t say what has received awards over the years could be put into that category. Yes, Australians write well, but how do they compare to US writers, UK or even Japanese writers? Agog has had some success in getting writers seen in the US and this should be openly applauded, I just wish Agog readers would try McDevitt’s ‘Ships in the Night’ which I published, it is fantastic and rare. I was pleased his US agent gave me permission no do this, given it was POD with no advance. He’s not Australian, but hell, he one fine writer we can all learn from. I’ve raved enough, onward I say!
3) You’ve been reviewing the local scene for a while now. What’s your opinion of the work being produced, and are there any styles in favour?
Generally work being produced by Australians is good, not blindingly brilliant, but good. Australian writing can tend to aim for humour or even the unusual based purely on uniquely Australian knowledge. Which is okay, but not all the time. Australian settings are good but when you are only aiming for an Australian audience I feel many good stories are under-explored and developed for perhaps a wider readership. Fantasy seems to becoming too dominant and I would like to see SF (good SF) grow again. We have some bloody good writers in this country who show a deft hand at story telling, I just wish … I just wish!
4) You’re dead. That story about mobile phones at petrol pumps wasn’t just an urban myth. Anyhow, dead is dead. You go to Heaven (assuming you believe, blah blah) and you see God. You say?
Thanks for the memories
5) Favourite swear word?