We woke this morning to the sad news that Angry Robot has shuttered the Exhibit A (crime) and Strange Chemistry (sci-fi) imprints. I’m focusing here on Exhibit A because I’m not familiar with Strange Chemistry (don’t read much sci-fi), but everything I’m about to say likely applies equally to both.
At first glance, this seemed like a bizarre move. But like many things, when we follow the money, there’s a logic. I’m no financier, so am not sure whether this makes real sense, but here’s what I’ve been able to figure out:
Angry Robot started as an imprint of Harper Collins UK in 2008; it started publishing books in the UK in 2009 (they added the US in 2010). Angry Robot was acquired by Osprey Group in 2010. Osprey specializes in niche publishing, with military history driving the bulk of its business; its primary shareholder is Alcuin Capital Partners. Today, Publishers Lunch reported that Osprey is actively seeking to sell itself, and this move is part of their cleaning up their spreadsheets toward this end.
In their statement, Angry Robot says that the imprints have been “unable to carve out their own niches with as much success.” This statement is telling indeed. Exhibit A had all the makings of tremendous success: a terrific catalog, editors and staff committed to the success of the books and their authors, robust distribution (via Random House in the US and Faber in the UK), simultaneous international multi-platform release schedule…so what happened?
I think the problem lies in the niche.
I understand the concept of narrow-marketing books. The idea is that the book market is vast, and so capturing just a small part of it can be enough to catapult a publisher to success. When marketing is narrow, it can also be specific and targeted, which, in theory, provides tremendous ROI. And readers tend to be loyal to a genre, so speaking to those avid about crime fiction sub-genres seems to make sense.
The problem, though, is that even—sometimes especially—readers who are genre-loyal are inundated with reading choices. So capturing this niche is much harder than it seems in a Marketing Department PowerPoint. Which leaves the legions of casual readers, the 76% of American adults who read at least one book every year (that’s more than 150 million people, and the average number of books read per year is 12). And by most estimates, crime follows romance as the most popular type of book.
That’s a big enough market to make any company successful. But it requires a different kind of marketing.
First, it’s important to recognize that not every book is going to appeal to the great unwashed masses. But Exhibit A had at least one book—THE PROFESSOR by Robert Bailey—that I’m aware of which fell squarely into that category. Unfortunately, part of their narrow-marketing approach meant that they printed few paper galleys, and as such, some of the (indie) stores and reviewers who don’t do electronic galleys that would have embraced this title didn’t know about it.
Also, effective broad marketing requires some OOP investment in advertising. If there was any for THE PROFESSOR, I never saw it.
I was scratching my head recently when Exhibit A went to Phoenix ComicCon. Their explanation made sense—that they wanted to cross-pollinate with the Angry Robot audience—I just didn’t see their books as being ones that ComicCon attendees would embrace and advocate. (I could be wrong, of course…I’ve never been to a ComicCon nor have I read all their books.) It seemed an odd marketing choice to me, mostly because events of any stripe are expensive (more so when bringing attendees from overseas), and I didn’t see tangible ROI in this case.
I’m not saying every Exhibit A book could or should have been marketed broadly—and I don’t mean to Monday-morning quarterback the people who put their formidable hearts, souls, and brains into the company’s success. I’m just hoping we—as individuals involved in some form or fashion in publishing—can learn something from what is a terrible situation.
I don’t know what happens now for the books and authors under the Exhibit A umbrella, but I hope at very least that right revert quickly back to authors so they and their stories can find new homes. Because they deserve this much. Readers deserve to have access to these stories.
One last note: To those who are condemning the staff of Angry Robot (thanks, social media) for this development I say (pardon my language and all), shut the fuck up. I’m fairly certain (see above) that the decision to shutter Exhibit A and Strange Chemistry originated at a company that invests (and un-invests) in other companies, and I’m quite certain that if the Angry Robot folks could have stopped it from happening, they would have.