Now here's an interesting thing. As a matter of fact it's the most interesting thing that I've come across -- at least in the book world -- for a very long time. What has happened is that a publisher has begun to do some fresh and original thinking; and if that doesn't stop you dead in your tracks then it jolly well ought to.
I have often wondered, as I sit here pondering upon the follies of mankind in general, and of publishers in particular, what the bloody hell publishers think they are playing at. To be precise, where do they think the big-selling authors of the future are going to come from?
After all, the established practice seems more or less lunatic. What happens in today's world, typically, is something like this. First, an agent finds a halfway competent book. Now the agent, of course, lives on her commission, so it is very much in her interest to get as big an advance for the writer as possible. Particularly as the agent knows full well that this book may be the only one the writer ever gets to publish, and it probably won't earn out its advance anyway.
So, having found something not too clueless, the agent then begins to tell every publisher in town what an amazing, astonishing, clock-stopping book she has in her possession. And, since every editor in town is desperate to find another big seller, otherwise she will be out of a job, there is a tendency to let hope triumph over experience, yet again, and to believe what the agent says. After all, she may actually be right this time.
There follows a bidding war, in which five or six firms compete for the right to publish this totally untried and untested book which everyone hopes will be a big seller. And since no one has a clue how real sellers are manufactured, other than through the grace of God, the bidding can go quite high, sustained only by the spirit of competition and several stiff drinks to strengthen the nerve.
And then what? Book is published, doesn't do very well, editors all change the firms they work for, and the farce starts all over again.
As I say, I have often wondered, as I survey this display of incompetent, crass, and hopelessly ill-informed activity, how it is that publishers imagine that they are going to find the writers of the future who will turn out steady sellers year after year, as the survival of the publishing industry requires. Are they going to depend upon the forces of randomness alone? In which case editors are not needed. You might just as well depend upon the judgement of agents, or pick manuscripts with a pin.
But now, it seems, one publisher, at least, has begun to address the problem. Dear God, will my heart withstand the shock? Pause to recover.
Take a look at this page on the Pan Macmillan (UK) web site and you will see what I mean. Macmillan have set up an imprint called Macmillan New Writing, and are actually encouraging new authors to send in their mss -- without benefit of agent.
This is akin, roughly speaking, to opening the gates of the city and inviting the barbarian hordes to come in and have a cup of tea. It constitutes a wholly new approach by a big-time publisher.
If you look at the invitation page, you will also note that Macmillan are doing some other sensible things. They are taking submissions in the form of digital files, for a start. No more bloody great piles of paper everywhere. And they are discouraging you from telling them your life story in the covering letter. And they say that there will 'a minimum of communication between publisher and author'. Which would suit me just fine. I don't want to be close personal buddies with my publisher; I just want him to do a decent professional job.
Macmillan seem to have all sorts of reasonable ideas like that. Life gets weirder by the minute, doesn't it? Who is running this operation? What medication is she on? Is it available on the NHS?
And how did I come to hear about all this? Well, there is an article in the Guardian, which I found courtesy of booktrade.info. That's how. And guess what -- it seems that the Macmillan initiative is not universally welcomed. In fact it is regarded with deep suspicion. Some writing professionals have referred to the scheme as 'a scam', or 'an exercise in futility'. There's just no pleasing some people.
The objections, apparently, are to the nature of the contract, which is absolutely standard and not negotiable. We aren't given a copy of the full contract, of course, so judgement would have to be reserved. But if someone with the clout of Macmillan offered to take world rights in one of my books, without an advance, but with a royalty of 20%, I reckon I would be pretty damn pleased.
Objection is also made to Macmillan's statement that they will copy edit a book, but not provide any more detailed, hands-on editing of the kind which used to be, once upon a time, provided by certain big-time publishers, usually of the literary variety (Max Perkins and all that).
Well, hellfire, I have always taken the view that a writer ought to write her own damn book anyway, and take responsibility for it. And if the thing isn't highly polished and ready to go by the time you send it in, then it ought to be. It shouldn't need any hand-holding by some so-called expert. So Macmillan's editing proviso doesn't bother me in the slightest.
There are other grumblings quoted by the Guardian, most of which seem to me to be wholly unrealistic. We are told, for instance, that it is wrong to sign a world-rights contract: writers ought to retain their rights. To do what, precisely? Do you think that you, the unknown and unconnected writer, are going to be able to sell the Peruvian rights, or interest a Hollywood film producer? Good luck if you do. The fact is that rights of that kind, in the majority of cases, are of zero commercial value because no one will want them. But if, by some rare chance, your book starts to take off by word of mouth, then Macmillan will have a strong incentive to sell these rights on your behalf; and, what is more, they will know the best people to do it.
If you have a ms in your bottom drawer, you really ought to take a long hard look at the Macmillan offer, and at the Guardian article. But my personal view is that the Macmillan deal sounds like bloody good offer, and it is the most attractive piece of new thinking that I've come across in a long time. Subject to sight of the small print, I congratulate Macmillan on doing something eminently sensible and worthwhile.
What has brought about this initiative, I wonder? Is it possible that someone's been reading my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, and has decided that it is time to start thinking clearly for a change?
No, no. Couldn't possibly be.