Since June of 2004, U.K.-based Fandemonium has regularly published full length, original Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis novels, including Elizabeth Christensen’s 2008 Scribe Award winner Stargate Atlantis: Casualties of War.
Sally Malcolm is the joint-owner of Fandemonium, along with her husband, Tom, and she is the publisher’s Chief Editor. She recently joined GateWorld for a discussion of Fandemonium’s history, their process in working with MGM, and their future goals as a company. Sally also talks about writing her own Stargate novels and watching Michael Shanks perform Gift of the Gods, the script Sally wrote for audio book publisher Big Finish.
GateWorld’s interview with Sally Malcolm runs about 25 minutes. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe now to the iTunes podcast! The full interview is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: I am Shaun Farrell of the Adventures in Scifi Publishing podcast and GateWorld.net, and I’m joined by Sally Malcolm, author of the Stargate SG-1 novels A Matter of Honor and The Cost of Honor, and the Stargate Atlantis novelization of “Rising.” She is also the joint-owner and Chief Editor of Fandemonium, the publishing company responsible for bringing Stargate to your local bookstores. Thank you for being with us, Sally!
Sally Malcolm: Hi! Thank you for having me.
GW: It’s a pleasure. I’m really excited to talk to you as I’m a huge fan of Stargate and a reader of science fiction, so it’s the best of both worlds. I’m wondering if you can start us off by telling us a little bit about the history of Fandemonium and how you came to be a part of the company.
SM: It’s kind of a strange story, actually, and it’s probably one that’s not all that common. I started writing fan fiction many years ago. Not Stargate, but eventually I discovered Stargate and started writing Stargate fiction. And about five years ago my husband was saying to me, “You’re doing all this writing, you should be able to publish it.” And I said, “You can’t publish. It’s licensed. You can’t do this.” And then someone said, “Why aren’t there any Stargate novels? There are lots of Star Trek novels. Why are there no Stargate novels?” So, we thought that was a good point!
We looked around and saw Penguin had published two or three books way back at the start of the series, which had not been that successful. Literally one evening we were hanging around the house. My son at the time was about eight weeks old, so we were up a lot pacing about, and we were thinking we should look into this. Really on the spur of the moment, Tom, my husband, looked online to find the Licensing Coordinator at MGM and just sent a fax. We didn’t think anything would come of it. We had a history in magazine publishing, or at least my husband did. On the back of that we said, “We’re interested in publishing Stargate novels.” We honestly didn’t think we’d get an answer.
To our immense surprise, the next day we got a call from the London branch of MGM asking us about it. They said, “There are these books. Penguin has the license.” And we said, “Yeah, but they have not published a book in four years.” And there was a bit of rustling of paper, and the guy at the London branch said, “Okay. Give me a business plan, and we’ll see what we can do with the U.K.-only license.”
We went into a slight panic mode because we’d never done anything like this before, but we thought this was a fantastic opportunity! We wrote a very brief business plan, and we sent it off to MGM in London, and amazingly they came back and said, “Well, tweak this, tweak that, and that’s pretty good. We’ll send this to L.A. for approval.” Within a couple of months we got approval for the U.K.-only license for Stargate novels.
At that point we went, “Eh!” and we contacted Sabine Bauer, who wrote our first book for us, and she had also written some fan fiction that was very well received online. I e-mailed her and said, “How do you fancy doing a book for us?” She was like, “OK, why not.” And that’s really how it started.
If we had known how much work was involved, we probably wouldn’t even have started. We thought, “We’ll set up a Web site, we’ll sell a few online, maybe on Amazon.” That’s how it started, and it really snowballed from there.
We realized we couldn’t sell the books only through the Web site, so we had to investigate distribution and all the complexities of the book publishing business — which we had known absolutely nothing about when we started. We really jumped into the deep end with it, but MGM is really happy with the books.
The origin of the name of the company, Fandemonium, came from the fact that what we really wanted to do was write books that were written by fans because we wanted fans to have the same kind of love for the show. Someone who’s a fan of the show will write a book in a different way than someone who is a paid author who doesn’t understand all of the show. We got fans, we got them writing books we knew the fans would like, and MGM really appreciated that quality of the books. They said to us right from the start, “We really like what you’re doing with this because the quality of the writing is really, really high.” And the depth of knowledge and obvious love for the show that comes through, I think, with all our writers, was something they really appreciated.
On the back of getting the U.K. license, we found out that the worldwide license was coming available. There was a slight change of staff at MGM, and a couple of years after we got the U.K. license we got the worldwide license, which enabled us to start selling in U.S. bookstores and around the world.
GW: That is really an amazing story. I mean, be careful what you ask for, first off! And just the power of asking. I think most people would have said, “Oh, that’s a pipedream — that’s never going to happen.” But just by asking, you have this whole business and this whole career that almost came out of nowhere.
SM: I know, it was quite amazing. It’s been an amazingly interesting experience, and we’ve learned a lot. It’s been incredibly hard work, as well. We’ve got something like 18 books now with almost the same number in various stages of production. It’s a whole new ballgame from the initial couple of books that we planned to start with to see what happens, to see if we could sell any.
GW: I, for one, am very grateful you’re doing it as a fan of the show. A few years ago — or I should say, a few years before you guys started publishing these books — I was looking around for some because I thought Stargate is such a vibrant science fiction property and had been on the air several years by then, surely there are novels based on this. I found the few that Penguin did, and I didn’t ever bother buying them because they just didn’t look right. They didn’t feel like Stargate just from flipping through the pages. And then yours came out and I bought the first two through Amazon U.K., and boy that was some expensive shipping right there! [Laugher]
But I had a lot of fun with them, and then I read Martha Well’s Atlantis novel and I did an interview with her for Far Sector. As a fan I’ve really appreciated that you’ve done this and that the books are here in the United States. I can go down the street to my Borders and they have them there.
SM: That’s very cool for us as well. We were printing everything in the U.K. and oversea shipping through Amazon at first. And once we got the U.S. license we were still printing here and shipping to the States. We have in the past year moved all our printing to the States and we ship a few things back to the U.K. We are actually a multinational company.
GW: I want to ask you about that because I’ve noticed that the newer books have a higher quality look and feel then some of the earlier ones. Are you using different printing technology now than you were before?
SM: We’re using different printers. We’ve gone through about three different printers. We started off really not knowing much about books at all. There’s so much involved in printing and shipping the books, so it’s really been a process of trying to discover which is the most economic way of having the books printed, which printer to use, which printers have the most expertise in paperback printing — and then how they’re packaged and how they’re sent on to our distributors, who then distribute them to all the book shops, and all these sorts of things. We keep moving around and looking for a better deal because in publishing, the margins are very small, so you have to make your savings where you can.
We have some ideas whether to do the larger print, paperback format of some of our books, and there are other things we have to think about in the future. But at the moment, with the current economic situation, it’s not the best time to be looking to splurge money. We have a few ideas of what we might do in the future in terms of the look and feel of the books.
GW: You mentioned that you work closely with MGM. Can you talk to us about what the normal process is like in submitting a book to MGM, and then how you work with them as the book is being written and is ready to be published?
SM: Sure. The first thing we get [from the author] is a one-page outline that comes to me, and if I like it and think we haven’t got a book too similar, I’ll ask for a 4,000-word outline of the story, which goes to MGM. They look at that and make sure it ties in with the feel of the show, and hopefully there’s not too much of an overlap with upcoming episodes. Although, we have recently had a problem with a book that is going to be published soon by James Swallow — and it’s an excellent book, and we are publishing it and it’s a wonderful book — I’m not going to say what, but there’s an element to it which has recently appeared in an episode.
GW: Oh, really?
SM: Yeah. It’s not huge. It doesn’t spoil the plot or anything. It’s just a surprise element. I’m not going to say what it is because it is a brilliant book. Our lead time is much longer than the show. We’ll have a year thinking about a book, and then they’ll come in and rush an episode that gets filmed a couple of months after it’s written. We don’t work that close with production, so that can happen occasionally. This is the first time it’s happened at this point, but the book is ready to go and it’s going to go to the printers soon.
By and large, what happens is we send the outline to MGM, they approve it, and it comes back to us. The author writes the manuscript, which comes to me, and I do some editing if it needs it, and it goes back to the author, and then it goes back to MGM, and they will read it and come back with some comments.
They usually have some comments. It could be anything. Sometimes our authors get a bit carried away with a bit too much gore, a bit too much blood here and there. So, we have to tone that down if they feel like it’s going a bit beyond what you’d see in the show. They give us their comments, which then go back to the author, who incorporates those. We come up with an agreement with an MGM. Sometimes we’ll argue a point if we think there is a reason to keep something a certain way.
And then we get final approval from MGM and it all gets laid out and proofed. They sign off on the galley print, which is basically the book as you would see it printed out on the computer screen with all the legal stuff that will have to get approved by their legal department every time. Once that’s all okay it’s off to the printers! So, that’s how we work with them.
GW: Has there ever been a time where you had a book you really liked and really wanted to publish, but MGM said, “You can’t do this one for reason A, or reason B.” Has that happened yet?
SM: No. We’ve never had it where they say, “No, not that.” I know that has happened with people of other TV shows where they say, “No, you can’t do that because that’s going to come up in the season coming up.”
Because our authors are fans of the show, by and large, they will take a concept from an earlier episode and they’ll say, “I wonder what the implication of that event was?” A lot of our stories are woven around things that have happened in the series. They tend to be set, say, in Season Three, so they’re not dealing with issues that an upcoming show has to deal with. In that sense we’ve been quite lucky that we have not really trodden on their toes or they’ve not trodden on ours. The production has priority, but we didn’t start doing the books until Season Seven, so we only had three more years where they were still in production with SG-1 — which gives us a bit more freedom to weave our own bits of story around what the show established.
What I like about tie-in books is we can get inside the characters’ heads that television doesn’t allow. You have your 45 minutes to tell a story, and you have your actors and they bring all the emotion to it, but in a book you can really be inside the character’s head and play out what they’re thinking, how they feel about certain events, and really analyze some of the things that have happened in the show. Julie Fortune did that really well in “Sacrifice Moon,” I thought.
GW: I liked that one. That was a good one.
SM: I really liked that one as well. A lot of that was about Daniel and Sha’re and his feelings about that. That’s what I like.
We actually have a lot of male writers coming up. I realize we have had a lot of female authors, and I’m aware that women write certain subjects in a certain way. They have an interest in the more internal aspects of the story, and male writers will often go for a more gung-ho plot. We deliberately looked for some more male voices to bring in that aspect of the show.
GW: I interviewed Michael Shanks at Comic-Con this year, and he was saying that working on Stargate is an actor’s dream, but it is an action-adventure show. So, often times the one thing that has to get cut is some of that character development, some of that stuff you’re talking about. While in a novel you have 70,000 words to work with, so you can give a couple chapters to that and not take away from the action. That’s really a fun part of the books that I enjoy.
Looking ahead: You started only doing SG-1 novels, then you moved on to Atlantis novels. Well, here comes Stargate Universe! Have you already started talking about that?
SM: We’re looking at it. I don’t want to invest money until I’ve seen what kind of show it’s going to be, to see what the fans think of it, to see if people will buy into the show. Because like everything else, you never know what’s going to fly and what’s not.
I was a big fan of Voyager, and there’s quite a lot of that element in [Universe]. I like the idea of them trapped in an alternate universe. There’s definitely a lot of scope there for playing with the established universe but then reflecting it in this alternate universe. We’ll definitely be putting our pitch in if we like the show and if our writers like the show.
We don’t want to force [anyone to] churn out a book if people aren’t into it, but I imagine that they will be and that we’ll be in there.
There’s also Stargate Worlds, the video game that is pending. We might have some involvement with books based on that. Again, it takes awhile for it all to fall into place. You have to wait for all the different bits to come together. I’ve talked with people who would be interested in writing them, so it’s something that might happen down the line.
We’re also looking at perhaps expanding beyond Stargate into some other shows. We haven’t made any approaches to anyone yet. We have to be conscious to the size of our company and who we can afford to approach. We can’t go to Disney and say, “We’d like to do Pirates of the Caribbean novels.” We have to look carefully and see where our fan base is. We came into Stargate as fans, so we knew it really well when we started. We don’t want to go blind into another show. We really want to know it well before we go into it, led by our interests as much as any commercial considerations.
GW: I want to ask you about your writing and the books you’ve written in the Stargate universe. You wrote a duology: “A Matter of Honor” and “The Cost of Honor.” Did you think it was going to be a two-book arc, or did it grow on you as you went along?
SM: [Laughing] Oh, yes. It was meant to be one book. I was getting to about 75,000, 80,000 words, and I’m saying, “I’m not going to finish this in one book.” A friend of mine, Sharon Gosling, who works for Big Finish now (she does the Stargate audio books) said, “Well, why don’t you make it two books.” And I thought, “There’s an idea!”
A lot of the pro writers I’ve been working with do an outline, and they will deliver that outline to the letter. That amazes me because then I start writing and I just have a vague idea of where it’s going. I just start typing.
GW: Well, Stephen King writes that way, so it’s alright!
SM: Does he? Well, it’s alright then. I’m in good company. The problem was that is just grew and I had to split it up. That was quite scary because we published the first one before I finished the second. When you write you think, “Ah, I just thought of this really cool thing, but in order to make it work I have to go back to chapter one.” I couldn’t do any of that, so that was quite scary. I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way, but that’s just how it turned out. And, of course, it was our third book. I was doing it because I didn’t have to pay myself any royalties. [Laughter] It was really good and I did enjoy writing it.
Having written fan fiction for Stargate before, it was a real challenge to try to write a book that had a much wider appeal. Fan fiction is quite narrow by default, which I like about [it]. Fan fiction, I think, always picks the show apart. Deconstructs it. A book has to try to replicate it as much as a book can in a different format.
Since then I’ve done some of the audio dramas as well for Big Finish, and that’s been another completely different challenge.
GW: Let’s talk about that. The audio dramas are very cool. I’ve listened to some of the previews, though I haven’t purchased any of them. You’ve written several. Michael Shanks performed one of them.
SM: That was amazing, yeah!
GW: Can you talk to us about the experience of writing for that? And did you work with any of the actors?
SM: I got to be there when they recorded the first one, “Gift of the Gods,” with Michael Shanks, because they recorded that one in London. That was really exciting. It was so fun. I was really nervous actually. I was really pleased with how the script had turned out, but I can’t tell you how nervous I was when Michael Shanks walked into the studio holding the script and just flipping through it. I was just waiting for him to go, “This bit is rubbish, isn’t it?” [Laughter]
He was fine, and he was very kind after a lunch break: “It was good script. You got Daniel’s voice really well.” So, that was a real thrill. I was like, “Thank you so much!” It was great.
I was with Sharon, who was directing it, and we were in this sound booth behind Michael Shanks and this other actor, who was very good. Michael Shanks starts talking, and me and Sharon look at each other and she says, “Oh my God, it’s Daniel Jackson!” And it was. It was just amazing to hear the words I had written come out of Daniel Jackson’s mouth. That was a real thrill.
And then later, when Sharon sent the final version with the music and all the effects, I was really nervous. It’s kind of a strange sensation to hear something you’ve written produced like that. It was the first time that had happened. I had to lie down in a dark room with my earphones listening to it. I actually got goose bumps because with the music and everything it just sounded amazing.
Writing a script is so different from writing a novel because a script is just a blueprint, and everyone else puts in all this stuff that makes it come alive. It was just amazing to hear all that talent put onto something I had written. It was a real thrill.
Interview by Shaun Farrell