Interview: Dutch semi-pro SF/Fantasy publishing house Verschijnsel

Introduction

This is the first interview of a series with a number of Dutch (semi) professional publishers of SF and Fantasy authors. It was held in November 2012 and published Februari 2013.

My goal is to find out what drives them, how they keep up, how they find and curate their authors, what makes an author publishable and how they see the Dutch market and Dutch and Netherlands-based authors within that genre. The interviews are done via e-mail.

Verschijnsel comes forth from Babel Publications, is a semi-professional publisher and is run by Mike Jansen en Roelof Goudriaan.

Flowing from this interview and other talks, I wrote a separate post on stepping stones. You can find it here.

General

What is the history of publishing house “Verschijnsel”?

We initiated Babel Publications in 1993 to offer a venue for Dutch & Flemish authors who stood out by their quality and originality, but who could not gain a foothold with the regular publishers.

Several factors played a role there. One was the very Anglo-centric focus of publishers for SF and Fantasy. In the beginning of the 1990s, the number of Dutch genre authors being published by the large publishing houses was even smaller than today.

Wim Gijsen and Peter Schaap were published by the Meulenhof SF imprint; Felix Thijssen by De Fontein; and Eddy C. Bertin and a few others by Bruna. But a lot of authors in the SF and Fantasy genre, who we thought deserved publication as well, never were. There was no real stepping stone from being a writer for magazines to becoming a published author by a renowned publishing house.

In the “Babel SF” portfolio you see what we consider some of the best Dutch & Flemish fantastic authors of that period: Tais Teng, Paul Harland, Gerben Graddesz Hellinga, Jan J.B. Kuipers, Guido Eekhaut and several others.

Within that framework, it was also natural to publish an anthology to promote work of up and coming Dutch-language authors. This filled the hiatus left by the demise of A.W. Bruna’s long-running Ganymedes anthologies in 1989.

Note: The “Ganymedes” series was started in 1976 and edited by Vincent van der Linden. It ran until 1989 with “Ganymedes 11”.

Mike: Roelof and I stopped Babel around 2003/2004. A lot of things had changed in that period, including Roelof moving Ireland and both Roelof and I had quite challenging jobs.

When Roelof moved to Belgium he picked up Babel Publications again, renamed it into Verschijnsel and rebooted the publishing house. This was in 2006. I rejoined in 2011 when I started writing again and finished my debut novel, ‘De Falende God’. The old publishing spark was apparently still there for both of us.

Babel Publications was a not-for-profit small press that succeeded in publishing affordable yet professional grade print-publications.

Verschijnsel is still not-for-profit, both for print and for ebooks.

Why did you do a reboot in the shape of Verschijnsel? And when?

Roelof: First of all, it makes sense to wind up an old activity when moving countries, but mostly because times change.

The founding principles of Babel no longer fitted well in 2006: the change of Babel to Verschijnsel allowed me to move away from a numbered series and genre labels which have become restrictive since the early nineties, to the publication of a wider range of idea literature, with the freedom to publish individual works in a wider variety of publishing formats.

Why the name “Verschijnsel”?

Verschijnsel is the Dutch term for “phenomenon”, but also refers to the verb “verschijnen” or to be published and the noun “schijnsel” or light. That combination is a much better description of this publishing house than “Babel” was.

On the portfolio

How many titles do you publish per year?

We publish four to ten new titles, depending on the availability of suitable material.
Plus a growing number of reissues, usually in ebook format.

What is a “bestseller”? How many sold books are we talking about?

Anything that sells more than 500 paper copies in a given year is a best-seller. Before y2000 that was about the minimum number of copies we would sell. But our sales are reflecting the general tendencies in fiction publishing.

Our ebooks sales have started small but are growing exponentially, and I’m sure they will overtake paper sales next year.

Where is that market and how do you perceive that?

Verschijnsel sells to its own customer network. In addition the ebook/print activities are managed from Verschijnsel.net, which holds a complete administrative system for selling, handling and shipping books to customers.

Books which are more commercially oriented are offered through bol.com and Centraal Boekhuis. Think of writers like Tais Teng, Mike Jansen, Guido Eekhaut, Frank van Dongen and Jan J.B. Kuipers — about twenty titles at the end of 2012. Ebooks are distributed through Smashwords and sold at the various affiliated retailers, as is the best way we have discovered to distribute books in a wide variety of formats.

How does it work?

For ebooks, we work with a different publishing model than for print.

We prefer authors to publish their own ebooks. If we feel a work has the quality and originality to fit, Verschijnsel offers assistance: authors can then use the imprint as a ‘brand’, we offer editing and lay-out services – optional, only if authors want to use them – but we leave ownership & control of their material entirely with the author.

This enables ‘long tail’ authors such as Tais Teng to publish their backlist as ebooks under the Verschijnsel imprint, but it also allows authors to take their work elsewhere when other opportunities – like being picked up by a big publishing houe – arise.

How do you market your books?

Mostly through the website and through Smashwords. We make use of our own newsletter, twitter, facebook and various websites and their social media possibilities, like Fantasywereld.nlmagictales.nlezzulia.nl and others. Also the ‘classical’ scifi magazines such as Holland SF, Terra SF and Wonderwaan. Reviews of the books are also an excellent way of marketing.

How many authors do you have in your portfolio?

Just over fifteen, not including the authors published only in the anthologies.

How many of these authors are recent / new voices?

Since the establishment of Verschijnsel in 2006, we have published first books by four authors: Adinda Volkers, Frank van Dongen, Marcel Orie and Mike Jansen. Additionally we have published a first fantastic collection by an author whose previous published books are all literary, Paul van Leeuwenkamp, and one by an author whose previous book was published thirty years earlier, Mark Ruyffelaert.

How do you discover a new author?

We read. To give you an idea: contest top tens/twenties, story submissions for Wonderwaan, etc. We look for consistent quality. We also look for authors who have a distinct voice and who communicate about their work. This communication and their self-marketing is important. It shows they want to be read. Want to be seen. We do get unsolicited manuscripts, but everything on our site is specifically set up to discourage people from doing that.

Mostly, we look around. When we feel there might be a fit, we will reach out and communicate.
We’ve lost our enthusiasm for unsolicited manuscripts and are no longer actively pursuing them: acceptance rates of unsolicited manuscripts have always been well below half a percent of submitted works

On other publishers and initiatives in the market

Do you work together? If not: why not?

We cooperate with several houses and initiatives. For example: Kramat in Belgium is a wonderful partner for SF/Fantasy co-productions with Verschijnsel. We are in close contact with the various organisers of the Paul Harland Prize and in the past: with the “Ragnarok” anthologies in the nineties, the “Zwartboeken” in the early nineties and two recent individual anthologies, we have published – with some gaps – the ‘best of the PHP’ anthologies in print. After all, the spark of Babel was lit in 1990 when Roelof was administrator of a predecessor of the Paul Harland Prize and self-published the prize-winning stories in a simultaneous Dutch and English edition.

We have also on occasion promoted books by fellow small publishers, and gratefully accepted their promotion and/or benefited from their presence at fairs and events. Where we see opportunities, we try to make a synergy happen.

Other than that, we tend to disregard circles where we see too much negativity, usually spread by a small group of contributors who think their view is the only viable view on genre. We respectfully decline to participate in that delusion.

On authors and writing

What are the main qualities you expect from an author?

There are writers [in the Netherlands] who have potential, but who do not make that potential come true. Writing one good story does not make you a writer. You need to produce a consistent and constant stream of stories, books, blogs, columns. That this consistency has to show over multiple years.

How does Verschijnsel see this specifically?

An author tries to build an audience of people who come back for more, because they trust the author.

For a small publisher, it’s pretty much the same: we try to build an audience who trust the publisher’s choice and judgment. That audience follows us and expects to be able to acquire new material from us, regularly.

With Verschijnsel, the most prolific author is Tais Teng. People regularly ask us when the next Tais Teng books will appear. He has built a following, loyal customers who will buy his books.

It’s the same for other publishers. A publisher loves to hear a question like: “When’s the next Harry Potter/Song of Fire and Ice coming out?”

Not all authors are as prolific as Tais Teng and that’s why we usually take a ‘wait-see’ approach before publishing a specific author we have our eye on, to find out if that author has the capacity to build up enough materials and followers to become interesting for an actual print publication.

This building of materials and followers by the author does not happen overnight. Unfortunately, most authors in the Netherlands who participate in story contests feel that a high ranking in that contest makes them ready for publication with their own books. Or somehow entitles them to our (or other publishers’) attention.

We can’t produce books from one or two stories, no matter how good they are. We need to look to the future, need to fit this author into our portfolio, talk about plans for novels and/or anthologies and timelines. Sometimes that is a very difficult discussion, and if we feel there is no real future with a writer from that point – for instance due to a mismatch in values, ambition and possibilities, we will not talk further.

So it’s mostly a commercial decision. If we like the author, his/her work, his/her attitude, if there is a clear willingness to work with us, then we love to work with them.

When and how do you work with writers? What do you expect from them as a publisher?

How do you develop/groom them?

Once we find an author who interests us, we will reach out to that author. Usually informally, either through one of our authors or directly, by ourselves. [Roelof Goudriaan or Mike Jansen]

One trait which is growing in importance is a willingness or even a need to produce material in another language than Dutch, preferably English. We would like an author to aspire after international success.

Who [writers] do you work with now?

In addition to the writers mentioned above, we currently work with Chantal Noordeloos (www.chantalnoordeloos.info)

Why? What makes a writer worth your investment?

Potential, attitude, productivity, creativity, good stories. Chantal Noordeloos writes mostly in English. Out of the blue she published a dozen stories in the US and UK in half a year, which is quite an accomplishment.

While English is more and more important for us, this is not a must. For instance: a writer like Marcel Orie has no aspirations to sell internationally, but his tales are some of the best imaginative literature written in Dutch, drawing from an amazing variety of inspirations, from modern SF to noir, from the circus to movies by Kurosawa, from Joseph Conrad to J.M. Barrie. So of course we’ll be publishing his second book, “Een vuist vol tanden”, with just as much pleasure as the first. In the end, we are readers who like to read excellent stories.

On attitude, motivation and profit

You mentioned in our personal exchange a general attitude of negativity among Dutch writers.

What is or are the worst responses you got from a writer / writers?

Mike: 

Well, it has come to death threats addressed to the organization of the PHP.

Also, some authors feel they are sole judge of what is considered Art and the Proper Way and they will stoop to any kind of personal attack to drive their point home.

Some of these authors have hundreds of posts, most of them dripping of cynical negatism and vile personal attacks. It is not strange that people who find these fora leave do not feel invited or welcome to join.

Do you make profit selling the books in your portfolio? How much do you invest in your portfolio of writers? What are the average sales? How much do you earn yourself?

The challenge any smaller fiction press faces is how to avoid losing money, which we manage to achieve. Any money we make, we spend on higher quality books and marketing materials. We like to publish books, but financially there is no reward at all. Financially, we both know we would be better off extending our daytime job hours.

Is it worth it? Why? Why do you do this?

Roelof:

Small presses like ours are quite commonplace in the Anglo-Saxon world – think of PS Publishing in the UK or the Ministry of Whimsy in the USA – and offer a platform for both new authors breaking through and less commercial work of established authors. We fill a similar niche in the Dutch environment. Authors love it because it gives them more artistic control and more possibilities to work outside of the commercial restraints.

We used to be the only place where such authors could go; these days, authors luckily have alternatives like Zilverspoor or Parelz to go to.

Mike:

Babel Publications and Verschijnsel were and are platforms to launch authors. Our main goal is to promote original Dutch authors. Every time one of our authors is picked up by one of the big publishing firms, a part of that goal has been achieved.

Roelof:

As to our own motivation: we want to make a difference. If we didn’t, we could just write our own stuff and after that, sit back and read a huge bunch of highly talented American, British, French and Japanese authors and be content, well-read couch potatoes. But since we want to make a difference, obviously we do our damnest to make that difference materialize itself. So we organize story contests and writers’ days, hold writers’ workshops, write reviews, work on magazines, publish books we believe in.

On other stuff

On the Verschijnsel site you mention that Verschijnsel does not give in-depth explanation why a story or novel is refused. You also offer additional feedback services against payment. Why did you start this service?

We do not go into detail when we refuse a story or novel because we don’t have the time. We offer this service because we have encountered quite a few submitting authors who like to hear more and deeper reasons for rejection.

To provide feedback on a story takes time. From reading to analyzing the story to writing a proper feedback. While writing and submitting a story already is a great feat and investment for the authors, for us the relationship starts from the moment we accept the work.

When we refuse a story, we simply feel that the writer is not ready yet, or that the manuscript is not ready yet. The idea: “I sent you my work, now you owe me” simply does not fly. You are one of a hundred submitting authors each year.

When a writer wants to improve his or her skills by getting feedback, it becomes a trade. We’re not really looking to sell our own feedback services, and are quite happy if authors find extended feedback elsewhere, but we do feel an author who is genuinely interested in working with advice can benefit from such a service.

How do you see current Dutch authors against the international market. Are there some you think can and could equal the better European or American writers?

Roelof:

A handful of writers are currently showing both the writing quality and the attitude to break through. Tais Teng and Paul Evanby are two established names who keep coming up with original ideas with an international appeal. Both are also fluent enough to write directly in English.

Marcel Orie’s tales which draw from an amazing variety of inspirations, from modern SF to noir, from the circus to Kurosawa movies, are some of the best imaginative fiction written in Holland, but he has no aspirations to sell internationally.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt has submitted some stunning Paul Harland Prize entries, and invested his prize money in an English translation of the beautiful & funny study of fragility “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”.

Boukje Balder (another Paul Harland Prize winner) is another very poetic voice who’s fluent in English and should break through internationally soon, as should Chantal Noordeloos.

Mike Jansen has had more than ten stories accepted in English in the past year alone. Frank Roger and Floris Kleijne are building up a solid but perhaps less visible base of publications abroad.

Adrian Stone is trying the agent route for a translated version of his novels, but has to rely on a translator, which is a handicap.

There may be others, but we are not aware of them yet.

Mike:

We think that at this moment the best Dutch writers can achieve is non-Dutch publication in paid-for magazines and anthologies, and with genre publishers. It is yet too early to think about bestseller novels abroad, or making a living writing.

We appreciate many Dutch authors and we think they have the capability to add their voice locally, but also internationally. Breaking through in international markets – because that’s what your question boils down to – is extremely difficult.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to overcome for Dutch SF/F?

Mike:

1: General laziness and a sense of entitlement. Some writers who have written one story, won one prize, had one review on their work or wrote one novel,  think they are already there and that others like us owe them something. We often get quite emotional responses from aspiring writers when we tell them that they need to work harder. Make more effort. That what where they are now is not even the beginning, that what they are doing now is simply not good enough yet.

2: Platforms. It is easy to say people should write, but there is not much of a Dutch platform to show off your work to reach people like us. We lack the different stepping stones for writers in Holland. From the friendly publishing where any readable story is published, to magazines who already crank the filters up, to the semi-professional magazines who only take the best stories they receive? Wonderwaan seems to be one of the few remaining venues specializing on Dutch fiction.

3: Negativity. Certain elements in the writing community: certain very persistent? and vey present? people, scare off potential authors. By their general attitude to other writers: how they depict magazines, publishers, the scene as a whole. When you enter as newcomer and the first things you read is how bad everything is, it is quite understandable you get out as quick as possible again.

4: An open mind to the world and things happening out there. Most themes Dutch authors use are like “boerenkool en spruitjes”. “Piet and Klaas” stories with the Dutch mud still dripping off the edges. Unrefined. Crude. because that’s what they think they know or they think what is that appeals as Dutch storytelling. If they do not surpass that level of writing, nothing will happen.