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Ben Jeapes and Big Engine:
An Interview with Ben Jeapes

Interview by David Mathew


Photo © Ben Jeapes Ben Jeapes

Ben Jeapes
Ben Jeapes was born in 1965 in Belfast, Ireland. His boyhood was spent mostly in Cornwall and Dorset. In 1987, he began working for Jessica Kingsley Publishers in London. Four years later, he moved to Learned Information, an Oxford-based company that organises conferences and publishes journals. In 1997 he joined Isis Medical Media and worked there as a Developmental Editor until early 2000 when he left and began Big Engine. He is the author of such novels as Winged Chariot, His Majesty's Starship and The Ark.

Big Engine has published:
The Leaky Establishment by David Langford, with an introduction by Terry Pratchett
Bad Timing and Other Stories by Molly Brown
The Ant Men of Tibet and Other Stories edited by David Pringle
Feather and Bone by Gus Smith
Dead Ground by Chris Amies

Forthcoming titles include:
Swan Songs: The Complete Hooded Swan Collection by Brian Stableford
Shadow Black by Tom Arden
Ersatz Nation by Tim Kenyon
Maps: The Uncollected Stories of John Sladek edited by David Langford
The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy
Guardians of Alexander by John Wilson
The Cyber Puppets by Angus McAllister
Weird Women, Wired Women by Kit Reed
Festival of Fools by Charles Stross
The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

Ben Jeapes Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Big Engine
SF Site Review: The Leaky Establishment

Winged Chariot
His Majesty's Starship
The Ark
Big Engine is a newly launched publishing company that will specialise in fantasy and science fiction. Stoking its fires is Ben Jeapes, a writer in his thirties with science fiction novels and a host of short stories under his belt.

"Why did I decide to start up Big Engine? Well, this works on a number of levels. I needed a job, I had a vision... More seriously, the opportunity presented itself -- I lost my previous job working for someone else. Well, I've always worked in small publishing companies and I had already drawn the conclusion that to get ahead in publishing, the secret of success is to start your own company. In a large company, someone will always get ahead because there always needs to be someone at the top, but the statistical chances of that person being you are slim. In a small company you can be a much larger wheel in a small machine, but you can only rise so far because the management are also probably the owners and they're not going to step aside any time before retirement. So, you do it yourself, and the reason I hadn't done it myself any sooner was I couldn't think what to publish. I always thought it would be non-fiction or even academic publishing, simply because the markets and the niches are so much easier to define. But then one thing led to another and I decided to concentrate on what I knew best."

Jeapes is clear about what he hopes the venture will achieve. "It's in the business plan," he says, "third quarter, year two -- discover the next Harry Potter. Failing that, there's always the vision. There's a distinct perception within SF fandom of the science fiction publishing industry and it isn't entirely inaccurate. It's seen as big, complacent, churning out the same authors over and over again, not letting in any new talent or if it does then it stifles it with a complete lack of publicity... Of course, there are very good commercial reasons for why the industry appears as it does. Paper prices are going up; book stores are asking for higher and higher discounts; office rents are expensive. Publishers publish established authors because they know they'll sell, and they have a business to run. You can't blame them for doing so. At the other end of the scale there's me, with a low mortgage, no family or dependents, a modest lifestyle... I felt it shouldn't be too difficult for a low-overheads publisher with modest print runs to make a go of it. I explain this carefully to my authors: I'll publish the book, promote it, take it to conventions, give it a track record so that at the very least it gets reviewed and noticed. Then it will hopefully become a desirable property for the bigger publishers to take on. Books get noticed, new authors get published, the amount of original and decent fiction available on the market goes up. Everyone a winner!"

Determining the order of publication was done in a "very feel-your-way" manner, he admits, although "the obvious opener was David Langford's The Leaky Establishment (a satire on the nuclear power industry), because it's quite well known in fandom and Terry Pratchett kindly wrote an introduction, so it had the "P" word on the front. The next two, the anthologies Bad Timing & Other Stories (by Molly Brown) and The Ant-Men of Tibet & Other Stories (a collection that first appeared in Interzone magazine), I wanted to have out in time for Eastercon -- and for the uninitiated, that's the British National Science Fiction Convention -- where the books would get maximum exposure. Unfortunately [hollow laugh] the printer's predilection for printing them the wrong size and omitting pages managed to bollix that effort. Thereafter, I simply tried to mix old and new, SF and fantasy, so that every month was different. Definitely a learning experience."

Jeapes cannot be drawn on what work he is particularly pleased about printing? "Trick question," he states, "because the authors whom I don't name will want to know why! I'm very pleased with the whole list, because I've read and enjoyed all the books and I know their readers are in for a treat. But from a purely business point of view, I have to say I'm most pleased with the calibre of veteran names, (a) because it's a privilege to be publishing them and (b) because they'll help the company's image. I'm talking David Langford, Brian Stableford, Tom Arden, Leigh Kennedy... you can also be the first to know that I've signed up Kit Reed's excellent collection Weird Women, Wired Women for next year."

On the subject of veteran names, Big Engine will also be publishing (to your interviewer's delight) a collection by John Sladek, who died recently. "There's a very long story which Dave Langford, the book's editor, will be happy to tell anyone. In a nutshell, Chris Priest (a fantastic author in his own right, with a career that goes back to the New Worlds days of the 70s) is agent both for Dave and for the Sladek estate. Because of The Leaky Establishment we had some three-way conversations and the Sladek subject came up. Dave innocently ventured the thought that there was scope for a final collection to round up those stories that never made it into any other Sladek anthology. A man of his experience should know better than to say things like that to an agent and a publisher, because guess who they'll want to do the job?" The volume promises to be a real treat.

Running a new company must be costly in terms of time. How has the venture affected Ben Jeapes's writing career?

"The most obvious effect to date has been that my career has been put on hold. I recently started work on novel number 4 -- I've been thinking of starting work on novel no. 4 for nearly a year. Modest by some people's standards, extreme by mine. Now I have things like an accountant and distribution sorted out, that does seem to have freed up some time... I'm also aware I'm going to have to tread very carefully: it's okay to pinch someone else's ideas and use them in your own writing when you're just a reader, because that's what every author does anyway (find me one who denies it). It would be quite another thing, and a despicable and unethical thing at that, to pinch ideas sent to me in my capacity as a publisher, so I'm very careful to avoid even the hint of the possibility. Fortunately the idea for novel number 4 -- and number 5 after it, which I want to write -- has been with me since pre-Big Engine, and I have witnesses to prove it."

In a difficult publishing climate, especially for genre fiction, has Jeapes been pleased by the reception of his novels?  He handles this Devil's Advocate question with the sort of confidence and aplomb that will see him through many a scrape in his new venture, no doubt. "Well, I would have liked more attention, I suppose... but I can't complain!" he replies. "I haven't read a bad review of either novel published so far, and Winged Chariot came within one vote of the shortlist for the BSFA Award, which isn't bad. (Though it was handicapped by its cover. The first chapter features a time traveller in 11th century Persia, so the cover concept was described to me as this Arab-looking character striding boldly forth out of the cover and towards the reader. The actuality looked like a sketch from the Junior Book of Bible Stories, and I think that held the book back to some degree.)

"His Majesty's Starship meanwhile (the first novel), has had a US edition published (under the bafflingly inappropriate title of The Ark) and one of the nicer moments of my life was seeing it reviewed in SFX next to a Star Trek: Voyager novel. The Voyager novel got two stars, I got three... And talking of nice moments, my life achieved perfection for a few minutes the day I went to collect my author copies from the Parcel Force depot. It was late December, a couple of days before Christmas, and I'd stopped work for the year. As I drove away with the parcel, Classic FM was playing one of my favourite pieces, Vaughn Williams' Folk Song Suite, with a triumphant trumpet fanfare that I thought was entirely appropriate for the occasion. Then the news came on and the headline was that Peter Mandelson had resigned. Life doesn't get much better..."

A few last words on the Big Engine project are offered.

The question is something like: Would you have thought, as your younger self, that you would ever have been a businessman?

"No, I wouldn't have imagined myself as a cut-and-thrust businessman, finger ever on the pulse of finance, spitting off spreadsheets and memos to my cowering employees. Still can't, in fact. But I know how many beans make four and I just have to trust my own instincts as to what makes a good book. It's a case of knowing my own limits -- keep it simple, and if I see something beyond my self-proven ability to handle, call in a professional. Hence the accountant. I've also had the good fortune to work for a very successful publisher (my first job) and someone who carelessly ran his company into the ground (my last). So I can learn from example."

The good news for readers is that Big Engine will not only be soliciting manuscripts. "I welcome submissions from readers," says Jeapes -- before laying down the law, necessarily: "but please note the submission guidelines. Send a couple of chapters and a synopsis of what happens next; I'll read them and decide if I'm sufficiently grabbed to see the rest of it. Send hard copy, not a disk, in the first instance.

"And a few 'nots': I do not publish poetry, mainstream fiction, biography, criticism, erotica... I'm a science fiction and fantasy publisher. I publish anthologies of writers who have made a name for themselves but I don't publish collections of unpublished stories from first-time writers. There's plenty of magazines to try your luck on. I don't read manuscripts with a view to 'let me know what you think of it'. I read them with a view to whether I would like to publish them. So please don't use me as a writing tutor. Sorry to be negative, but these points (apparently, to judge by experience) need to be made!"

Copyright © 2002 David Mathew

David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.


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