author and CEO of Fantastic Books Publishing
Dan Grubb swapped engineering for marketing before becoming a destination scout for a holiday company in Thailand. He returned to the UK to run his own landscape gardening business, then spent 5 years as an artists’ agent before moving into publishing, founding Fantastic Books Publishing with his wife, Gabi, in East Yorkshire where they live with their daughter, Lacey, their dog and, pre-covid, a lively stream of house guests from round the world. A regular visitor is Dan’s son, Harry, who was an active participant in the launch of Fantastic Books Gaming and its first game, The Gorgon’s Loch.
Makarelle: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Makarelle. What inspired you and your wife Gabi Grubb to create an independent publishing company?
Dan Grubb: Thank you for asking me.
It all started in a dusty dark corner of a cupboard. We discovered my grandmother's handwritten recipe book in a terrible state. My favourite recipe from it – her take on melting moments – literally crumbled to dust in our hands.
We couldn’t let that happen again, so Gabi and I co-wrote Fantastic Cookies, now an ebook and safe from dust mites. We used family recipes from both sides, and stacked on a few kilos between us with all the cooking and testing. In fact, we ended up with enough recipes for two cookie books. Family recipes continued to pour in, not only for cookies, so we carried on cooking, testing and writing until we had a series of cookbooks.
I’d been at the periphery of the publishing business (working as an agent) and this dip into the nuts and bolts of publishing lit a spark.
Makarelle: What makes Fantastic Books stand out among the myriad of independent publishers already in existence?
Dan Grubb: In a soundbite: quality, ethos and breadth. From the off, we made no compromises on editorial quality, and we’ve built a reputation on that, pulling in some big corporate clients who want to tap into our expertise.
But also, we’ve found our niche almost by not finding a niche. We launched the company with a series of competitions. We wanted to get our name out there, but without the budget of a multinational, how do you do that? We ran several prize giveaway events and – to attract writers – we ran a sci-fi and fantasy creative writing competition, and wow, did that one bear fruit!
We grew largely into a sci-fi and fantasy publisher but we also have strong titles in several other genres. We’re the proud guardians of two crime writers’ daggers, for instance, and we recently published a poetry anthology, Voices for Change, with an invited contribution from Benjamin Zephaniah. We’re unusual for the breadth of stuff we cover. We are also very proud to have spent 7 years as the largest publisher in the world of officially licensed Elite: Dangerous fiction.
Our other trademark is our charity support. Our first anthology, Fusion, supported the World Cancer Research Fund. It was so successful that we continued both with the competitions and the attached charities. We’re due to publish our 9th anthology early next year, and with most of our books also attached to charities (a percentage of profit goes to named causes) we’re now supporting dozens of charities. I’m very proud of that.
I’ve always believed in giving forward and love being able to demonstrate that a small business can operate fairly and ethically. We’re not the only ones. Over the years, we’ve teamed up with other publishers – large and small – with events and campaigns that have helped to raise awareness and money for all manner of things.
Makarelle: In an article by the Guardian in May 2020 it was predicted that up to 60% of Indie publishers would be closing in the wake of the Coronavirus. How have you managed to protect your business?
Dan Grubb: It’s been a struggle in many ways, though red-tape and uncertainty over new customs regulations have hit us harder than covid. We work with a freelance editorial team and covid cut into their availability to work for us – thankfully not through illness but through things like childcare. Our production schedules have suffered. The charity anthology that – pre-covid – was scheduled for the summer of 2021, has had to be pushed back to 2022, for example.
One piece of both good and bad luck that has helped is our move into board games. We were launching our first board game, The Gorgon’s Loch, when covid launched itself on the world. The bad luck is that it cut our UK tour in half and delayed the launch by a year. The good luck is that diversifying at that moment helped to mitigate problems in other areas.
The creative industries are the ones that tend to keep growing through hard times. We have a family of almost 100 authors and artists who’ve been totally fantastic in sticking with us, in understanding scheduling delays, and in generally being on board with us as we take this fraught journey through stormy waters. I’m confident we’ll come through stronger and more diverse than ever.
Makarelle: Do you feel that your creativity has helped you through the mental health challenges of this pandemic?
Dan Grubb: Yes, undoubtedly. We’re lucky and we appreciate that every day. That’s not to say there haven’t been tough times but we’re surrounded by the creative output of our authors and artists – some of it complete and published and perfect to lie back and relax with; some of it at various stages through the production process, needing editorial input, cover design, or work in the sound studio on the audio versions. They’re the sorts of things that immerse you to the exclusion of all else. It’s hard work but also relaxing for being so focussed and all consuming.
Makarelle: What is it you are looking for before accepting a manuscript for publication?
A coherent idea and an ability to write. We’re not currently open for submissions, nor likely to be for a while, but when we are, we also want to see that people can follow the submission instructions we give them – it’s all on the website. As a small publisher, we would rarely if ever take on someone who didn’t submit in the way we asked. It’s not us being finicky, it’s that we have limited resources and if someone fails at the first hurdle, it doesn’t bode well for them being easy to work with as things progress through the complex and multi-layered process of taking a raw manuscript to the final, polished publication.
Makarelle: Do you have any advice for authors who would like to submit a novel with Fantastic Books?
Dan Grubb: First thing is to follow our guidelines. We can judge a novel on a partial submission. We like to have an outline about the author, but we don’t need (or want) pages of explanation about the book. The novel must stand on its own merits.
Makarelle: You are not currently open for submissions and not likely to be in the near future. Is there a backdoor way in?
Dan Grubb: Yes, actually there is. Remember that initial creative writing competition we ran, that I said bore fruit… We always wanted our competition anthologies to be more than a collection of the winners and runners up. We want them to last, to continue raising money for their named charities, so we put them through the same rigorous editorial process as all of our books. After the judging process is over, the winners and shortlisted authors are asked to make editorial amendments as appropriate, and we invite up to three professional writers to contribute to the collection. It’s a model that’s worked incredibly well.
Not only that, but the quality of our editorial input caught the eye of one entrant to that initial competition. As a result, Drew Wagar submitted his first official Elite: Dangerous novel to us. We took it on and it became a bestseller. We have since published another 5 of his novels, with another due in 2022. Drew gave up his day job several years ago to become a full time writer. Of the writers who have gone on to join us through the competition route, Drew is by far the most successful, but he’s not alone.
So, the backdoor way in to catch the editorial eye, is to enter one of our writing competitions. We’re currently running a flash fiction one. https://www.fantasticbooksstore.com/competitions/current-competitions
Makarelle: How has your own career as an author changed since you have established Fantastic Books?
Dan Grubb: Enormously! It has completely ground to a halt.
The last book Gabi and I co-wrote was 50 Shades of Gravy – 50 bona fide gravy, sauce and coulis recipes – tagline “to tickle the fancy of the sexiest of socialites”. That was our last cookbook before we started the publishing house and we simply haven’t had time since then. We’ve a dozen more cookbooks in us – and we still enjoy the culinary practising and testing. We just don’t have the time to put pen to paper.
Makarelle: Makarelle is an independent literary and creative arts magazine. Do you have any tips for us?
You’ve ticked a lot of the boxes already. Good clear web presence, good looking magazine covers, and interesting content. Just keep spreading the word to build your audience. Maybe we could advertise Makarelle at the next FantastiCon event – the last two were covid cancelled but we have hopes for 2022 – let’s talk about that nearer the time.
Makarelle: Are there any mistakes you made in setting up your business that others can learn from?
Dan Grubb: I’m sure we made loads of mistakes. It’s the sort of thing that never goes perfectly. We took on some projects that didn’t work out. That’s an inevitable result of trying new things, but I think I was guilty of hanging on to some of them for too long after it was pretty clear they were going down the pan. It’s hard when you’ve put in a lot of effort to see something fail, but I have learnt to spot the signs and let go earlier. In the long run, it’s the least painful option.
Makarelle: Can you tell us about some milestones/proud moments/funny anecdotes in your journey as the CEO of a publishing business?
Dan Grubb: In 2019, author Danuta Reah was unable to attend the prize presentation for the CWA Daggers. Her story in our Fantastic Female Fables collection was on the Short Story Dagger shortlist. I attended the event and not only got a good dinner, but got to accept the Dagger when she won. It was a proud moment to see one of our books up on the big screen being beamed around the world.
In 2015, at FantastiCon, we hosted a world first. A live-action book reading of a form that had never been done before. It culminated in wild applause but veered very close to total calamity. One of those things we laugh about now, but it was hearts in mouths at the time. You can get the detail here: https://bit.ly/DrewWagarStickFighting
Makarelle: What are your future goals?
Dan Grubb: In the short term it’s to develop the gaming division and get The Gorgon’s Loch out into the world. There are already expansions and whole new games waiting in the pipeline. We also have some exciting irons in the fire with the books division and are hoping to see expansion there too – early days on that one. Can I come back and report progress at a later date?
Makarelle: The autumn issue of Makarelle is based on the theme: “Twisted Tales”. If you had to recommend only one book with an amazing twist for us all to buy as a Christmas present, which one would it be?
Of course, I’d love to make it 50 Shades of Gravy, but its only twists are of lemon, so I’ll go instead for Perilaus II by Mark Henderson – it’s a short novel, but is it crime, fantasy, psychological thriller, all of those things or none? Well… yes… but… no spoilers. Just don’t expect the only twist to come at the end.
Makarelle: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. We look forward to reading future publications by Fantastic Books!
Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. I’ve signed up to Makarelle and I urge everyone reading this to make sure they have too.
All image rights on this page remain with Dan Grubb.