The Suvudu website recently clued me in to a new title from military history publisher, Osprey Publishing: Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons From the Age of Steam.
Now, I’m not here to tell you whether this is a great book or not (it is) or whether steampunk fans should buy it (they probably should).
I’m here to tell you that the fact that this company is releasing this title is all kinds of amazing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back things up a bit so you can appreciate the full impact of Steampunk Soldiers and why Osprey is one of the most innovative publishing companies out there right now.
You, Me and Osprey
I’m not sure about you, but not too long ago, I had never heard of Osprey Publishing, the Oxford-based company specializing in military history. Osprey has garnered a well-earned reputation in the military and history communities for producing well-written, beautifully-illustrated works about pretty much all aspects of military and history. Featuring full-color paintings, photographs, and maps, their books are visually impressive as they are enjoyable to read.
Here’s a representative title of their core catalog:
Clean and well-branded cover designs wrapped around distinctive art and illustrations, these books are easily some of the most popular go-to references for aspects of military history.
And I had no idea Osprey Publishing even existed.
I was never overtly interested in the military, I never got into table-top war strategy games, and my historical interests tend to be as random as they are narrow, it’s not too surprising I didn’t know about them.
However, back in 2007 I started kicking around ideas for a fantasy novel inspired by medieval Japan and some of the more esoteric religious practices at that time (namely shugendo and yamabushi). During my research, I happened on a Stephen Turnbull title, Japanese Warrior Monks AD 949-1603, published by Osprey. Turns out he’s written a few other books on Japan, including Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries AD 710-1062 and Essential Histories – War in Japan 1467-1615. And yes, I bought those, too, if only because I was humored by Mr. Turnbull’s apparent obsession with nailing down the precise years covered in his books. Got to respect that in a history writer, right?
Flash forward to 2011, when Guy Gonzalez kindly introduced me via email to Rebecca Smart, who was at Osprey at the time (Rebecca ended up connecting me with Lee Harris, who was at Angry Robot Books at the time, and Lee pointed me to Mur Lafferty, who was working on the Angry Robot Books’ Wordbuilder project, which was essentially a shared story world platform).
You’d think all of this would have put Osprey on my radar screen. You’d think this was the universe working to put me on a cosmic trajectory towards some obvious-in-hindsight-but-unforseeable-at-the-time conclusion to a chaotic connect-the-dots exercise.
Osprey fell off my radar for nearly three years, until Suvudu’s profile of Steampunk Soldiers prompted me to click over to the publisher’s website and see what they’ve been up to.
Turns out quite a bit.
There’s a (Military History) Book For That
Okay, so now you know Osprey publishes books about military history. Their catalog covers Ancient Periods (I found one book covering the “Sea Peoples” of 1000-1400 B.C.) all the way to Modern Warfare. Their series include a wide range of topics: specific military campaigns, fortresses, combat aircraft, weapons, and warriors (and that’s just a sample of the full listing).
Want to know all about the conquest of Saxony? There’s a book for that.
How about self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the Soviet Union? Check.
And just how did the F4F Wildcat stack up against the A6M Zero-sen? Osprey’s got you covered.
Clearly, they know their market and their product, and they’ve been at it for decades (their first book was published in 1969). Though Osprey’s ownership changed hands many times over the years, it stayed true to its core content.
For a while, anyway.
Make Mine a Mini
So Osprey has built an enviable position in the military history niche with gorgeously illustrated books, and they show no sign of relinquishing it any time soon.
But then someone, or a few someones, at Osprey realized there was an untapped (read: “why didn’t we think of this before?”) opportunity (read: “money in markets we don’t sell to yet”) for them to expand their book lines. More than one, to be precise.
Apparently, one such opportunity is modeling. You know, the kinds of models you built when you were a kid. Except, Osprey’s demographic is old enough to drive, drink, vote and – yes – serve in the military, and they’re looking for models with a bit more accuracy and authenticity than the ones most of us built as kids. And in some cases, Osprey’s customers want to customize models because some of the kits they really want just aren’t available off-the-shelf.
Enter Osprey’s modeling guides and manuals. Tanks, troopers, terrains. Aviation of all kinds. Pretty much all the stuff already in Osprey’s original series of books now has how-to DIY coverage for folks who want to build or customize military models. Airbrushing, weathering, facial expressions, it’s all here. And not just generic advice. I’m talking super-specific books on super-specific subjects (German Fallschirmjäger troops anyone? Anyone?).
They even have a Modeling Masterclass Series. A MASTERCLASS SERIES, people.
“But Wait, There’s More!”
But why stop there?
In the late 2000’s, Osprey stepped into the miniatures (“minis”) strategy gaming arena and started releasing rulebooks, scenarios, and expansions to allow for all kinds of minis tabletop gaming. As you can see from the selection below, the settings range from ronin-flavored melees to pirates ship battles at sea to something called A Fistful of Kung Fu which promises to bring “the hyper-kinetic, bullet-spraying, demon-slaying, kung-fu-fighting action of Hong Kong movies and Asian cinema to the war-games tabletop.” Um, yes, please!
One of the entries in this line is In Her Majesty’s Name:
This ruleset, and the expansions and scenarios Osprey has published, will let you scratch that steampunk itch with an easy-to-play ruleset (minis not included). We’ll come back to this in a bit.
To sum up, our military history publishing company is now publishing titles on modeling, and it has expanded into titles you’d normally find at your local gaming shop or from one of the big RPG companies.
Sure, you could make a case that steampunk plies on the what-if attraction of alternative technology timelines set against a Victorian backdrop, and you could make the stretch that at least a subset of Osprey’s existing customers are playing WWII minis games already, so putting out a brass and goggles fantasy world of make-believe where your minis represent “Calculating Artillery Engines” and your figures hold “Arc weapons” isn’t the craziest idea. Is it?
Based on the number of titles in Osprey’s growing book lines, apparently not.
But that’s not the end of their expansion.
From The Games We Play to The Stories We Tell
Osprey has also created no less than three series of books in its “Osprey Adventures” line that, well, I’m not entirely sure how you would describe them. Osprey has a single title in its Open Book series, The Story of Santa Claus. Osprey’s legacy titles were all about truth in advertising, and this one’s no exception. It’s an origin story of Santa Claus.
The other two series are more densely populated though only slightly less head-scratching.
The first is Dark Osprey, which Osprey’s website describes as exploring “the shadowy worlds of fantasy, secret histories, and conspiracy theories. From Zombies and Werewolves, through the Nazi Occult programs and the secret history of the Knights Templar, on to Alien Invasions and paranormal investigators, each book in the series starts with the true history about its topic and then goes onto give the full story. Heavily illustrated with both new and classic artwork and photographs, these are the books that finally shine a light on many of the world’s darkest secrets.”
Then there’s Myths and Legends, which promises to examine “the great stories that have echoed down through time and have helped to shape our cultures. Each book in the series focuses on a specific legendary figure, such as King Arthur, Hercules, or Sinbad, or upon a collection of myths about topics such as giants, wizards or dragon slayers. The books retell these classic myths in a straightforward but entertaining style, while providing interesting, information about the history behind the stories and how these legends have changed and developed over time.”
I’ll be honest. I’ve never read a single title in either of these series, but the description above makes me think of the History Channel’s step off the reality cliff into things that can best be described as quasi-factional.
To be fair, Osprey’s descriptions of the series and the books appear to be honest about the content in the series, and I find no fault in how they’ve marketed them. The titles on Amazon that have reviews have good ones (usually 4 stars and up). They are, though, a somewhat unexpected offering from Osprey based on their previous titles.
Unless you consider the possibility that it’s just the beginning for what Osprey ultimately has planned.
Like every media sector, traditional publishing has been struggling to maintain relevance and profitability (I would argue for reasons both external to the industry and internal to the imprints’ executive offices). Osprey, for all appearances, has been smartly expanding its offering, capitalizing on an existing consumer base, and organically and coherently bringing new titles on line that “feel” at home with its current catalog.
For those not keeping score, the publisher with a humble beginning in military history books over forty years ago is currently managing titles in the following categories: non-fiction, fiction, military history, table-top minis, gaming, science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and how-to modeling guides.
And it’s newest project continues that expansion trend.
Orcs and Dwarves and Elves, Oh My!
As if I wasn’t impressed already by their strategy, I stumbled on an upcoming Osprey title that made my head explode.
Think about this for a minute, and consider just how far flung this title is from what Osprey is best known for. Who in their right mind would have predicted in the 1980’s or even 1990’s that Osprey would ever publish a title like this?
I seriously doubt Osprey’s management sat down years ago and decided that the world needed Orc Warfare (“say, Bob, this new title about the Messerschmidt is great, but you know what kids can’t get enough of these days? Orcs!”). I certainly never would have guessed they would release a book that examined fantasy creatures through the military history lens, but Grom’s Hammer if they aren’t.
And Orc Warfare is just the first in a new series focused on popular fantasy characters, with Dwarves and Elves soon to get their own military history treatment over the next year or so.
Okay, so why is this interesting? What makes these fantasy books different from the others already on the market? Why is Osprey perfectly positioned to be the publisher for these kinds of titles?
Because they’re using the same templates for these fantasy books that they perfected over decades for their military history books: stunning artwork, concise writing, and an authoritative tone. By presenting Orc Warfare (note the important qualifying word, “warfare”) through a factual lens, the book takes on a more documentary feel, lending a credibility to the content.
And before you dismiss the potential popularity of such a book, consider other similar titles such as Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, which provides pictures, descriptions, and detailed breakdowns on the equipment, tactics, and weapons of the futuristic U.S. Colonial Marines featured in the Aliens movie.
Or how about the 1977 Gnomes book that approached this fantastical species with a socio-biological view?
And speaking of 1977, consider the Star Wars blueprints series, which I remember buying as one way to revisit that universe while I waited for the next sequel.
Fans love climbing back into their favorite worlds, and sometimes the only options are behind-the-scenes DVD content or The Art of… books.
Now, what’s interesting about Orc Warfare is that it isn’t set in Tolkien’s world or some other existing IP. At least I think it’s not, the info available so far doesn’t make it clear, but it’s a reasonable presumption, based on copyright and trademark restrictions and the cost of licensing. My bet is Osprey is using a generic world or perhaps rolling their own original one.
If they asked me, I’d go for the latter and continue developing internally-owned intellectual property. Osprey has been successfully playing in the public domain for decades, but the real money is in creating original IP (or locking up the rights).
Steampunk Soldiers and Orc Warfare could be the tip of the IP spear for Osprey if it really wanted to develop a robust catalog of original worlds, words, and pictures.
There’s a massive video game playing segment out there who devote hours each week (day?) to their digital passions. You think a few World of Warcraft players might be interested in Orc Warfare? Yeah, me, too. RPG gamers? It’s a slam dunk. And that’s before you hit the obvious minis tabletop gamers looking for new inspiration for scenarios.
What’s to stop Osprey from moving into the minis market, for that matter? If you’re already buying Orc Warfare or Steampunk Soldiers, I’m guessing you’d want mini figures that actually match the ones between the book covers.
Really, how hard would it be for Osprey to move into traditional fantasy novels set in the worlds of its current gaming and fiction titles? Some of their authors already come from that background.
Look, I have no idea what Osprey’s plans are. I haven’t contacted anyone there about this post, and I have no special insight into their publishing strategies.
But as an outsider looking in, I can’t help but be impressed with where they’re going, and I see lots of possibilities for some very interesting moves if the company is interested and able to pursue them.
I was on a Digital Book World panel in 2011, and I encouraged publishers to start viewing themselves as creators of IP instead of just licensees. Or at the very least, they should position themselves more as co-creators or collaborators with authors (note: this means more than just tossing an editor into the mix).
I don’t have any particular axe to grind with traditional publishers, but after watching that space for years, the only conclusion I can come to is that most still aren’t making the necessary moves to address the current, and changing, media landscape. If anything, I’m disappointed they haven’t done more or made better use of their legacy advantages (and that the efforts they have made were not better executed).
Yes, it’s always easy to criticize, but that’s also one of the reasons I wrote this post. I’m encouraged by what Osprey is doing, and maybe it’s a sign of better things to come in publishing. It’s certainly a sign of better things to come for Osprey readers.
Speaking of which, I’m off to buy some new Osprey books!