Friday, February 5, 2021

An interview with Alex Bobl - founder of MDB

Alexey Bobl is the man behind Magic Dome Books: a literary agency and publishing house created five years ago. Since then, they’ve released hundreds of books in Russian, English, German, French, Spanish, Polish, Czech and Korean languages. Today, I’m talking to Alex about books, authors and literary agents, about the differences in markets all over the world, about net literature braving the pandemic this year and its survival strategies for the coming year.

 Can you tell me how MDB came about?

In actual fact, it all started when I became literary producer at EKSMO, Russia’s biggest publishing house. It was my job to compile and produce new science fiction and fantasy series. At some point, I read a new novel by Andrei Livadny. I remember telling him, “This book just begs to be translated!” And he said, “Okay, go ahead, then.” And I remember telling the same thing to Vasily Mahanenko. At the time, I didn’t have a clear-cut idea of a future publishing business yet. Still, I decided to give it a go. I was curious and enthusiastic, and that seemed to motivate me a lot. Everything happened so fast. Before I got involved with EKSMO, I used to be a writer. So being a writer, I knew what a writer needed, and being a producer, I knew a publisher’s needs. And finally, when I was ready to combine these two things, MDB was born.

Still, did you know anything about foreign book markets at the time? Because that’s what MDB is known for today, first and foremost.  

I had a certain idea of how publishing houses worked in other countries, but I had very limited knowledge of the work of literary agents. That’s despite the fact that I myself had an agent who sold my books in Germany and in Spain. So I spent some quality time trying to work out Amazon, and in the end got some idea of how the English-language market worked. I even used to share all this in my own blog at the time – if I try and search for it, I might still be able to find some of those posts. But admittedly, it was quite a venture. I was quite prepared to part with a few thousand euros just to try.

In these five years, MDB has somehow managed to release hundreds of titles in a dozen languages. One would think, you must have a big team. Is it true?

At the moment, MDB counts about thirty people in total. I’m quite used to working with teams like this, so to me it doesn’t feel like we’re overstaffed. But this creates certain difficulties too, simply because we’re such a multilingual bunch. It’s the professionalism and discipline of all our members that allow us to stick to the schedule. Although we do sometimes whine about our tight schedules, workloads and belated vacations to each other, we all do incredibly exciting things publishing gripping books when you just can’t wait to find out what happens next. So we just don’t stop, as simple as that.

What do you consider your main achievement in all this time?

Probably, the fact that we keep growing and expanding. Especially considering the situation the whole world is in  now. If someone had told me back in 2015 that I would be signing up not only Russian but also bestselling British and American authors, I wouldn’t have believed it. Everything happened too fast. Still, I got my dose of healthy ambition. It’s never a bad thing.

MDB produces ebooks, paperbacks and audiobooks. Ebooks are more or less clear, but audio? How do you view its prospects in various countries?

Difficult to say. If you take the paperback market, for instance, it’s easier to make a prognosis because it took shape already a long time ago. The audiobook market is a totally different world with its own rules. But thanks to our partners from !C-Publishing we seem to be finding our feet in that brave new world – and most importantly, not just with our Russian books. We have a few other audiobook partners and keep receiving offers from other manufacturers. The audio market has its own audience which only marginally overlaps with the ebook or paperback readerships. There’re certain audiobooks that I listen to on extended trips and which I would never have read otherwise. So even though the audiobook production is much more costly than, say, publishing a paperback through POD, it’s worth it. Especially if you have professionals working for you and if the quality of the resulting product is good enough.

What about paperbacks, then?

We have a distribution network in place for paperbacks and we’ll continue to produce them. They might not offer such great returns as ebooks or audio, but they still bring something to the table. So we don’t really want to abandon it. As long as there’re people in this world who love actual books printed on paper, we’ll continue publishing them, in Russia as well.

English, Russian, German, Korean, Polish, Czech, Spanish, French. A lot of your success owes itself to the fact that LitRPG is a welcome read all over the world. Why is it so? Because people all over the world play the same computer games?

I think it’s something else. People always want to see what life feels like in somebody else’s shoes. In a way, when we play RPG, we see the game’s world through the eyes of our character, sometimes literally. And when we can develop and progress together, it can be very exciting. A good book is a book where the author wisely manipulates the reader’s feelings. Plus the escapism. Escapism and involvement – because the laws of storytelling can’t be overrun – it’s what draws us in. This is what we like.

What’s hot in LitRPG at the moment? RealRPG has been ruling the coop for over a year now. What now?

Everything that’s new hooks our attention. These days, I don’t think you can really surprise anyone with a good old LitRPG novel which starts with the MC booting up the game and creating a character for him or herself. There are some evergreen classics, of course, which are here to stay. Authors like Vasily Mahanenko, Dmitry Rus or Dem Mikhailov have secured their places in the history of the genre as the founding fathers of LitRPG. But new names keep arriving on the scene, coming up with new takes on the same theme: people like Dan Sugralinov, Roman Prokofiev or Pyotr Zhgulyov. The list goes on and on. These guys keep finding new unorthodox ideas which make their books so interesting to read. Every author wants to surprise their audience which is an important thing indeed.

How did LitRPG start in Russia and in the West?

In Russia, the arrival of LitRPG coincided with a major change in the ebook market model. That was quite a milestone which marked a dramatic change in electronic media. A lot of authors found themselves at a crossroads. Quite a few considered a career change. And in the end, it was the LitRPG authors who ushered in the new market model. New subscription-based platforms arrived, allowing authors to sell still-unfinished books on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Such a scheme required the authors to commit to finishing their books, often under strict deadlines. In Russia this system seemed to have caught on – but the West had already had its own well-established business model – and what we did, we essentially brought a new genre and a new trend to the table. The Western market adapted almost instantly, so that by now we’re facing very serious competition, but still Russian authors have carved out their own share of the English-language audience who look forward to our new stories.

Are there any differences in your readership depending on the country?

Oh yes. It takes some time to gain the necessary experience which is then analyzed. Even within the European Union, there’s a dramatic difference in audiences depending on the country. Some prefer one type of story while others would rather read something else. We keep experimenting, analyzing the results of our research and using them in our work.

You’re not the only literary agent who has his clients’ books translated into other languages. Give me one reason why I should sign up with you as an author.

In Russia, the institution of literary agents has never really existed. As Russian publishers started building their future publishing empires back in the 1990s, they handled all aspects of their authors’ careers. They kept an eye on the slushpile and edited the manuscripts. The market kept growing slowly but surely. After that, there was a period of considerable recession, but already in the early 2000s industry professionals turned their attention to other more profitable markets. That’s how the subscription-based market model I’ve just mentioned came about, once again sinking the institution of literary agents because now authors could control their own careers. There were a few instances of new literary agents coming to the scene but they were an exception rather than the rule. Our advantage is in the fact that we work in two directions at once, putting authors into contact with foreign publishers on one hand as an agent should, and publishing their books under our own steam on the other. We focus on both activities at once. Most foreign publishers do their purchasing and scheduling for years in advance which seems to drag on forever. Even traditional Russian publishers do it faster than they do. But we work fast in several directions at once. In Russia, nobody does it because it requires good connections and an infrastructure of its own. We publish books in several languages, and if we can’t do it for some reason, we turn to our partners for help. And still we’re never short of authors willing to publish with us.

A lot of them get rejected, right?

Yes, but why? Sometimes we’re approached by quite well-established authors wishing to work with us, and we’re forced to tell them we don’t see a future in our collaboration. There’s a lot of investment involved which offers little margin for error. We’re obliged to make it a success.

Why would an author need an agent at all?

An agent for an author is both security and responsibility. He or she warrants, if you wish, that the author’s rights will be protected. There were several unsuccessful translation projects in the past which have admittedly dropped the Russian authors’ rankings in the eyes of Western readership. This happened for several reasons. Firstly, the agent’s desire to save money on the actual translation. It’s understandable but ultimately it’s a bad business decision and an example of irresponsible “good enough for the masses” approach in the absence of proper legal protection in place when you don’t even have anyone to hold accountable for a botched job.  Things like these can very negatively affect the quality of a book which is something we find absolutely unacceptable.

Could you tell us something about upcoming releases?

Soon we’ll be releasing a new LitRPG series, Unfrozen by Anton Tekshin. This is a new name, especially for our Western readers. We’ve also teamed up with our partners from 1C-Publishing to produce Beyond the Fog, a romantic fantasy adventure by Marina Surzhevskaya who is a very big name with the Russian-language reading community. We’ll also continue translating our catalog for our new French and Spanish markets, as well as try to continue working on a new audio format. It’s a bit early to tell but with any luck, it might work out well. And of course we’ll continue adding new books to the already-existing series our readers seem to like so much.

I see. Thank you. And finally, what inspires you to go on?

When people from all over the globe discuss something with so much joy and involvement, it feels really, really good. Really gives you a boost. You get a kick just out of watching it. I can say the same thing about our authors who move in this milieu mixing with their readers, it’s very important for them as well. So please write reviews, ask questions, raise the subjects that interest you. For all of us, it’s just priceless.

Interviewer: Simon Vale

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