If you’ve been following Black Library for a couple of years or more, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that there have been some ups and downs in terms of the volume and style of releases. You might remember 2015 as a year where only a single main-series Horus Heresy novel was released, or look at a fair few of the relatively recent books and see unusually close links to what’s been coming out of Games Workshop – the Warhammer End Times books for example, or the early Age of Sigmar stories and the War Zone Fenris releases.
The general consensus at the moment seems to be that we’re moving back towards the adventurous, exciting Black Library of old with fewer tie-in books and a load of cool new series following interesting characters (both old and new) and unusual settings. Like a lot of people though, I’m interested in understanding what’s been happening behind the scenes; what prompted Black Library’s output to shift so drastically, and what’s caused it to swing back the other way of late. To that end I chatted to Laurie Goulding, who until recently was the Commissioning Editor for Black Library, to get an insider’s view of what’s been going on.
It should come as no surprise really to hear that a lot of these changes that were visible to those of us on the outside were actually the surface reflections of changes taking place within the company as a whole. Personally, I wasn’t aware of what was happening within Games Workshop until recently, when I started hearing people talking about the idea that Black Library as a department was moved around and merged into a wider Publications department within the Studio. As someone who was there throughout that process, I thought Laurie might be able to give a little insight into what happened.
As it turns out there were some pretty big changes happening, but one thing stands out to me in particular: while these changes perhaps caused short-term challenges, they’ve left Black Library looking stronger and more positive than ever before. A wise man pointed out to me recently that this is like the views of the Isstvanian faction of the Inquisition. Strength through adversity…”from periods of greatest upheaval have come the greatest leaps forward…” It’s not often I find myself aligning with the radicals, but actually this time I think I agree! I mentioned before about how we’re moving back to a more adventurous Black Library…perhaps this is what had to happen in order for us to get to where we are now…
It’s worth saying up front that this is quite a long interview; so long in fact that (like last time, with Laurie) I’ve split it up into two parts. In this first part I’ve included the main body of our conversation regarding these changes within Black Library and Games Workshop, while in the second part (which you can find here) you’ll be able to read Laurie’s thoughts on the implications of the changes, as well as a little glimpse into the future. I’ve tried to include as little of me as possible to leave you with the unadulterated comments from Laurie!
ToW: Can you provide a bit of an explanation as to what happened, and whether there was anything in particular which prompted it?
LG:It’s hard to know what I should and shouldn’t say to you, actually, off the record or on it. I should point out first that I loved my time at Games Workshop, and the decision to leave after six years was something I agonised over for a long while beforehand. I worked with a lot of really creative and talented people, and I learned a lot from them, and some of the stuff I consider to be GW’s greatest triumphs of late came out of some noticeable mis-steps along the way – we’re talking personally for me, for other people, and also I guess for the company beyond my direct (and limited!) area of knowledge. It’s no secret, GW are becoming really great at ‘owning’ their mistakes. That’s something I struggled with, really struggled with for a while. But it’s great to be able to look back on things and admit that it wasn’t perfect, but now from that the whole creative side of the business is really flourishing. And, oh man, I love the direction they’re going in with the community stuff now! Have you seen some of their videos and blog posts? Brilliant stuff!
But with BL, it’s been talked about quite a bit at events and stuff already, and what I understand happened was that for two consecutive years Black Library was among the most profitable departments in Games Workshop – not the highest turnover, but more in terms of money-in versus profit-out. The reason for that was Black Library knew how to manage their back catalogue, and how to work with freelancers; they managed those relationships, did all of the marketing themselves, and handled all the book trade contacts, internationally. They knew what the fans wanted! Before I even came to the company the groundwork had been laid, over the long period of time that they had been publishing novels under the various imprints that eventually became Black Library.
At this stage, when I first started, Black Library and Forge World were both managed by Tony Cottrell as part of his vision for that part of the company. He stepped away to focus on Forge World exclusively, because they were becoming really successful – again, another fantastically profitable part of the company because of what they do, and how well they do it. At that point Black Library became a separate entity in its own right, with its own events team and its own marketing team. This was when the digital side was really taking off, as they prepared to do deals with Apple and iBooks, and it was a really exciting, high profile time.
Anyway, it came out that Black Library products were becoming more profitable than some ‘main range’ products, which obviously begs the question, why is that? The head of Black Library at that point was George Mann, who had many years of expertise in the book trade before he came to Black Library, and he’s a really savvy guy. He knows the publishing world really well and is a successful writer himself, writing for Doctor Who and all kinds of settings as well as original stuff. When he took on the job of leading the main GW Studio he decided, in conjunction with his managers, that the best thing to do was to make sure that all publications came from the one department (what would become Publications) so that his move to the Studio wouldn’t result in the loss of his expertise. Basically, he could bring Black Library with him.
George was absolutely the right guy to be managing us… except that another level of management was put in charge of Black Library as a department, while George was in charge of Publications overall. Miniatures were handled elsewhere, but all the books and games and artwork would come through Publications. For a time it was good, and it worked reasonably well, but this was around the time that a lot of customers started getting a little bit unhappy with the number of limited editions that were coming out. Increasingly, decisions were being made based on cold, hard sales data, as opposed to following author plans or allowing people to be as creative as they would like. The Horus Heresy limited editions for example started with Promethean Sun a couple of months after I started [in 2011], followed by Aurelian, and both of those were so powerful in terms of release day sales that they both exceeded our ability to process the orders. I’ve joked before, in the Horus Heresy style: “I was there the day Nick Kyme crashed the BL website!”
People were so excited for these books, and every time another one came out people were desperate to have the story… but suddenly Black Library went into overdrive. These things were being commissioned purely to fill release slots, almost every other month. At the time I remember saying to the overall manager of Black Library, underneath George, “I can’t fulfil your requests for Horus Heresy limited edition novellas as well as maintaining the main range. You can’t have three or four novels a year as well as this many novellas.” The decision that then came was to fill some of the novella release slots by re-releasing novellas that had already been put out elsewhere, and that’s why we got Prince of Crows and The Crimson Fist as non-limited books. There were also plans to release Calth That Was, The Reflection Crack’d, Feat of Iron, The Serpent Beneath and The Lion all as separate non-limited hardbacks.
To me, that didn’t feel great. People were already no longer as excited about each limited edition, so what was the justification for this? It came down to the sales data again – selling a novella on its own makes X amount of money, while selling it as part of an anthology only makes Y amount… so why not do it as both, putting it out with a new cover as a new book for people who don’t already have the anthology? Of course, it’s no secret that some readers weren’t happy at the time.
And then, the book trade reps were saying that they didn’t want the small paperbacks any more; they wanted bigger format paperbacks because those sell better in airports and bookshops, apparently. So Black Library started releasing books in the larger trade paperbacks to keep the wholesalers happy, but we couldn’t abandon the Horus Heresy series halfway through in the original format! It became a case of ‘Let’s just carry on doing both’, so we had two separate release dates for the same book, and “Oh yeah, we’re introducing specialist hardback versions as well!” Brilliant, so we now have three release dates for the same book. Sigh.
Of course people started to get quite upset with that, because anyone who just wanted to continue their collection and didn’t want to spend £20 per book was being forced to wait nine months for the same stories, by which time the discussions online had already moved on and their friends had already read each book. It spoiled a lot of the atmosphere in the community. I mean, the series and the stories were getting better and better, the authors were refining their craft, the characters and plotlines were merging with things that people knew about as well as taking new and exciting directions. But the community aspect, the shared enjoyment of the series, started to falter really badly. I noticed that. The authors did too.
[Following on from this we talked a bit about New York Times bestseller lists – check out the second part of this interview, where I’ve included that conversation…]
At that point, right around the time that things seemed to be going completely off the rails, I didn’t know what I was going to be asked to produce next, and the authors were being stretched to the maximum possible capacity. Black Library then decided that it didn’t need separate sales teams and events team, and that it didn’t need to be separate from Publications in any way! The editorial team was merged with the games development and writing teams, all of whose desk editors were merged with our editorial team. Suddenly I was being asked to edit Codexes! Conversations went like this:
“I have NEVER edited a game book before – why are you asking me to edit this stuff?”
“Oh, it’s on your to-do list, because you’re not doing anything today and the deadline is Friday.”
“Umm, who says I’m not doing anything today?”
“On the schedule, according to the chart you don’t have any books on the go until the end of next week…”
“Well I’m doing all the other stuff that needs doing, like speaking to my authors about what they’d like to write, looking for opportunities to do collections and anthologies-”
“Well that doesn’t show up on the system so you’ll have to fill your time with more scheduled tasks instead.”
At that point as well, every aspect of what had been the editor’s role was being parcelled out to different teams, instead of having authors work with one editor all the way through the process. For example, Anthony Reynolds was one of the first authors assigned to me when I started working at Black Library. We would discuss his story ideas together, then he would work up a pitch, I would then accept or decline his pitch, give him some feedback, and he would come up with a full synopsis that I would then commission. We’d discuss fees and royalties, then agree deadlines, and I would keep everyone else in the team up to date with what all my authors were doing.
I’d say “Ant Reynolds is going to write this short story; it’s going to be finished by this date, I will then edit it and get back to him for amendments, and we can then put it out as a digital short story any time from this date onwards.” When he’d finish the story I’d sign it off, I’d thank him and authorise his payment, and then we’d talk about what his next project is going to be. Sometimes you’d have authors who were booked up maybe a year or more in advance; people like Guy Haley and Graham McNeill love to plan in advance what they’re going to be working on, and those guys were always booked up by Black Library for the foreseeable future.
Suddenly deciding what an author was going to write was done by Product Managers, which seems completely counter-intuitive to me. Commissioning was done by an ‘author liaison’ – the deadlines were discussed with the editor but then commissioned by that person, someone these guys had never even met or spoken to. Artwork would then be discussed by someone different who just dealt with the artwork; the editor would only receive the first draft and had no say in the synopsis or what the story was going to be. You can understand why this really destroyed a lot of the goodwill and relationships that Black Library had been building with so many of its authors, for so long.
Suddenly it seemed like authors and editors alike were being treated as word production robots. All we had to do was fulfil our quota for the day and then we could hit the big red button and clock off. You simply CANNOT be creative in that environment. When you have games being designed you don’t ask your rules writer to come up with artwork for the front cover, and you don’t ask your desk editor to playtest, do you? Games Workshop has always been about the designing and publishing of games and miniatures, and always done it very well, but you can’t apply the same strictures to the publication of novels and audio dramas. It just doesn’t work.
Black Library’s time in Publications was vindication and proof of that fact. We had several authors who were so dejected and so upset by this process that they essentially stopped writing for us for a while. There were rumours flying around, many of them completely inaccurate, that people had walked out of the office, too. Several people did move on, leaving Black Library and Publications, but mostly went on to other parts of the business rather than leaving the company entirely. The rumours saying “This author has sworn that they’re not going to write for Black Library again” were all nonsense, but there were people who were quite upset on both sides by the decisions that had been handed to us.
There were several books that people had been excited about for a very long time (naming no names!) which basically ground to a halt in the writing. I’m sure in the months and years to come, the authors will talk about them at conventions and seminars, or discuss them in more detail in author afterwords! Anyone who’s ever had to be creative on demand knows though that the minute you have a deadline, you either flourish to that deadline and you produce your best work, or it completely destroys any interest you have in that project. That happened several times, people just lost interest in their work because it wasn’t being treated like it should have been – like a work of art, a work of fiction. It was very disappointing, compared to all the great stuff that Black Library had done before.
ToW: That makes a lot of sense actually. I’m amazed you stuck it out, I’m not sure I would have done!
LG: Well my job title started off as Submissions Editor, then I became Commissioning Editor, and then when we merged with Publications they grabbed all of our team (and several editors from the Studio team) and put us into the ‘Quality’ team. We were Quality Editors, which just seemed like a nonsensical title to me. I mean, how do you edit quality? “Nick, do we put the quality in or take the quality out? I don’t understand, what’s my job title again…?”
Basically we had to ensure that everything was consistent and of a suitable Games Workshop standard. The problem was that the Studio standard for fiction for example, the little nuggets of text within a rulebook, is not the sort of thing that Black Library would commission as prose for publication in its own right. Different styles for different products, of course. What Black Library considers very good writing doesn’t work in a Codex, and vice versa, so there was a bit of conflict there. I just couldn’t work out the tone for Codexes, so I just tried to avoid them and give them to another editor. There were other editors on that team who were so much better at it than me, and I can’t understand why they tried to make me edit Codexes! It just wasn’t my area of expertise – I should have been doing the Horus Heresy.
ToW: So what prompted the move back, then?
LG: It was literally… ‘this isn’t working’. Games Workshop had been planning the Age of Sigmar switch for a long time, and there was this idea that Black Library would handle the fiction and the setting, while the Studio team would just handle the rules. Then when we merged together, all of that got fused into this unworkable ball of nightmarish…well, just trying to pull one thing from another and edit an author at the same time as editing a games writer. All of the streams got crossed. All of the lines got tangled. Nobody could be sure exactly what the direction was.
For me, one of the things which became most noticeable was where the Horus Heresy had been Black Library’s flagship brand, the most profitable by a long way and for me the most exciting to work on… in 2015 we had ONE novel come out. It was because of the shift to Publications, who were putting us on other things. It was because we didn’t have any authors who were available because they were all writing limited edition products with declining sales. When readers were getting vocally less excited about the books, I can only assume that a decision was make along the lines of ‘No problem, we’ll just do more of them, so even though each one makes less money we’ll make the same money overall!’
So the Horus Heresy went from something like five books in 2014 to one book in 2015 – that’s ALL I could get from our authors because of the amount of stress and strain they were being put under. We were planning ahead so Nick and I said “In 2016 we need to catch up, and that includes all of the reissues of the older books into hardback as well as new books. Everything that we didn’t release in 2015 needs to come out in 2016!” So we did NINE main range Horus Heresy books in a year, as well as ALL of the remaining reissues, and every single word of all of those books crossed my desk in that single year. That’s why it was so stressful, and that’s why I have no hair left! Suffer for your art! Ha!
The problem was, the Product Managers were the leaders of what got produced in Publications, and each of them had an area of expertise. One of them was just assigned the Horus Heresy; he was purely from games design, and he was supremely knowledgeable in that area with loads of experience, but he knew relatively little about what Black Library had been doing in publishing fiction. He knew exactly what makes games great, but he did not know as much about the Horus Heresy as a setting, separate from Warhammer 40,000. So I then had to go through this process with every single product (novels, short stories, audios) of saying “This is what I think it should be…”
I would always have to put that in writing and take it to this poor old Product Manager, who had to approve it. We would go through this meaningless ritual where I had to write out what it was in a formal document, take it to him, show it to him, he would say “Yes, do whatever you want,” and I would take it away and start work on it. I was thinking “Why do we have to go through these steps every time? He’s going to approve everything I suggest, because he knows I know what I’m talking about with the Horus Heresy, so why do we both have to go through this?” In the end I was sort of awarded the proxy powers of a Product Manager on the Horus Heresy – “You know what, just do it. Just make it happen, because otherwise we risk a decline in interest from customers…”
(Of course, the unspoken truth was that’s because we only put out one book in that last year!)
So we needed to get the novels back on track and have some forward movement, not just spreading out and looking for as many sales opportunities as possible. We needed to get the series’ momentum going again, because we’d completely lost it. The community interest in the new releases was the lowest it had ever been because of the multiple formats, we needed direction again. That’s why we put out nine novels in a year as well as something like twelve reissues, all with internal artwork (to a lesser or greater degree!)
Actually, the internal artwork is another example of why Publications as a big gestalt entity couldn’t handle the way we used to work when Black Library was its own department – there was a bit of bureaucratic lock at times, because they couldn’t always see what we had been doing with fiction before that. When I was working [with Guy Haley] on Pharos, the person who was in charge of commissioning the artwork (remember these duties had all been parcelled off to different people, in different bits of the office) was chasing me to find out when I could have the art briefs ready for a bunch of products. I supplied all of the briefs and then I said “This is good to go, but I don’t have all the products in yet; I don’t have the script for Red Marked or the manuscript for Pharos. Here’s the brief for the artwork but I’m still working with the authors to deliver the actual content.”
Then it got to deadline time on Pharos… I said…
“Okay, here’s the book. I gave you the internal illustration guidelines for these scenes, could you show me the artwork so I know where to put it?”
“No. We haven’t done the artwork because the book isn’t finished.”
“Right. Hang on a minute, the book goes to print on Friday this week, and you haven’t commissioned the artwork for it yet? The artwork that can take up to six weeks to produce?”
“We haven’t commissioned the artwork because the book isn’t finished.”
“The book GOES TO PRINT ON FRIDAY and you haven’t commissioned the artwork even though I gave you the briefs months ago? Right, okay. I need to speak to your manager because this process isn’t going to work anymore.”
We looked for a solution and I gave them a whole list of options – we could reuse artwork, we could fast-track it… we just had to get somebody working on it there and then if it was going to happen. Two days later I got an email back to say the book was ready to go to print, so I asked what we did about the artwork.
“We didn’t put any artwork in, it’s going to print without internal illustrations.”
“Hang on, hang on… We’re charging a premium price on this product on the basis that it has an afterword and four pieces of internal artwork! Can we not even find reused artwork?”
“We don’t have time, it needs to go to print.”
So the day the book was supposed to go to print I was running up and down the stairs to Forge World looking for appropriate images from their portfolios to insert into that book. Just so it would have decent artwork that had not been printed by Black Library before, you understand. It was only due to the fact that I personally had maintained such close links with Alan Bligh and Paul Rudge down in their Studio and worked with them on a weekly basis. I had to call that in as a favour, and even then it caused a lot of problems because it upset the Publications workflow as well as theirs. I was literally downloading raw image files from their server, full and uncompressed, so that I could give them to our production guys in order for them to be put into the book. The page layout then had to be redone to insert blank pages for the artwork, which basically caused the book to go to print late.
With Red Marked it had to go to print very quickly after being recorded because it was being put out as an MP3 first. Nobody had got a cover from Neil [Roberts] for it yet, so they just said “Oh we’ll use a symbol or something, or we’ll re-use a piece of artwork.” We had never, ever re-used a piece of artwork on the cover of a main range Horus Heresy product. Reissues, fine… anthologies and omnibuses, a different matter potentially across different ranges. The Horus Heresy though… you HAVE to have an original cover for every product. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, there.
No, you know what – that’s not fair of me. What works really well in the Studio is the way they can react to the problems that pop up in new and creative ways. But when you’ve got a series of fiction that’s been going for (at that point) more than thirty novels and however-many audio dramas, collections and art books, you can’t just change the format because somebody didn’t commission artwork in time! It was always one of those things like “I thought we gave this stuff to other people on other teams to deal with so that there wouldn’t be these problems, and yet it’s not been done!”
When Games Workshop had been making its sales figures public for that time to their investors and putting it out in the financial sector with its annual reports, it was quite obvious that the HUGELY profitable Black Library division had dropped down to almost nothing. It was because of the direction that we’d been given, and all of our authors were being asked to work on tie-in products for Studio stuff in order to basically provide marketing material for the games or for new miniatures.
But we do great original fiction! Not everything we do should be a scene by scene tie-in to a board game! The Betrayal at Calth stuff was my little rebellion, like “I’m not going to settle for putting out a book that’s just this game retold as a story. It needs to be something new and original.” As it was, having two narratives intertwined across two books… Publications loved that, because they got to sell two books! They did a limited edition out of it…readers loved it, and it got a lot of new gamers into the fiction as well. That’s a win whichever way you slice it!
At that point I think Games Workshop management was changing its attitude considerably. The new CEO was looking at how things could be done better and more efficiently, like for example the community aspect, and licensing. There was the joke online that licensing were giving licenses to anybody who just asked nicely, but Games Workshop’s licensing procedure is very, very strict! It’s one of those things where someone suddenly thought “What if all other parts of the company were run like this?” and it’s been a HUGE turnaround for GW. An awesome course correction, especially for those of us who saw it happen from within the company.
And suddenly the attitude was ‘Why is Black Library part of Publications? It really shouldn’t be, so let’s pull it out again’. Just as we had kind of managed to get things vaguely working, they dragged us out by the bootstraps and said “Right, it’s you guys now! You’re in a new office, half of the team are going to stay in Publications, you guys go make books… and make it all cool and awesome again!”
It was absolutely terrifying at first. We had no schedule, no idea what we were supposed to be doing, not really any idea what our remit was… but then they brought in some of the managers who had overseen the more successful and more profitable long-term aspects of Games Workshop. The guys who understood what the opportunities were for marketing and remembered what Black Library had been like before it joined the Studio, and who had expertise from areas like White Dwarf or the video team. Suddenly with these really experienced and really talented managers who totally GET Black Library… it’s now careering forwards again.
It’s almost, for me, heartbreaking to have stepped away at the moment when it seems to be returning to exactly the same philosophy as when I first joined the company, but with a much greater profile being built and so many more resources to call on! It’s simultaneously the worst and the best thing for me. I always thought I’d see the Horus Heresy through to the final page, but at least I’ve planned out the series with the authors now. I know how it ends, I know who’s working on what books all the way to the last one, it’s just going to be now that the plan’s going to get executed by whoever is there on the Editorial team after me, and I’m sure they’ll bring in loads of cool stuff as well. I don’t feel like I’ve abandoned it but I do feel like I’ve stepped away at the moment where things would have started to make up for all that we had to put up with when there was that conflict between the two departments.
That was the saga of Publications and Black Library. It just didn’t work as a combined entity!
Well. I think you’ll agree with me when I say that things make a bit more sense after hearing that! It’s fascinating to get a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, and to see what was happening within Black Library over these last few years. Like I said earlier on, it looks like the difficulties that Black Library has had to work through have actually helped in the long run. Recent releases, not to mention Games Workshop’s current approach to social media and building its community, are all pointing in one direction…let’s hope things continue that way!
I’d like to thank Laurie for taking the time to talk to me for this interview, and for being so open and honest! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the interview; next, check out the second part…there’s a little treat at the end that Horus Heresy fans might not want to miss!
Has this prompted any questions or comments? Feel free to let me know – you can leave a comment below, or drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter.