Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Yet more on Macmillan

You will recall, perhaps, the discussions of the Macmillan New Writing initiative.

On 3 May I wrote a piece warmly welcoming the Macmillan scheme, although in the process I did have to point out that the Guardian had published an article reporting that the good and the great on the London publishing scene universally hated its guts. Words such as 'scam' were freely bandied about, in drunken disregard of the libel laws of England.

Subsequently, on 17 May, I had to report that the mighty Robert McCrum, in the Observer, had also laid in with what, to my mind, were some wholly unfounded criticisms of Macmillan, including the allegation that the venerable old firm was guilty of an 'astounding abdication of cultural responsibility.'

Goodness me, I thought to myself. If this goes on it will be handbags at dawn before long.

Anyway, after all these various pieces had appeared, Mike Barnard, Executive Director of Macmillan Ltd, wrote to thank me for taking an interest in the Macmillan initiative. As he sensibly says, there are bound to be different views of it, and God knows I have criticised enough publishers myself in my time. But, says Barnard, Macmillan are acting with good intentions, and, at least in their own eyes, their integrity is intact.

Barnard enclosed with his email the text of a letter which he had sent to the Observer in response to McCrum's article. As it happens, the cowardy custards at the Obs didn't publish it, so with Barnard's permission I am going to reproduce it here.

Dear Sir,

What a bizarre outburst from Robert McCrum last week.

It is true Macmillan were the proud publishers of Hardy and Kipling in days gone by. It's also true that in 2005 we are the proud publishers of the current Booker prizewinner, Alan Hollinghurst, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, John Banville, Don DeLillo, Alice Sebold, Colm Toibin and many others. Hardly a publishing house displaying poor literary taste.

But, yes, we have eclectic lists of different types of publishing. This is one of the reasons why Macmillan is a vigorous, secure and successful company.

As to Macmillan New Writing, I am not quite sure why he is so critical. He identifies three problems for the publishing industry: huge advances (well, MNW is not paying those), decisions made on the basis of incomplete books (MNW is only reviewing completed novels) and publishing decisions initiated by sales and marketing departments (sales and marketing is one of the few responsibilities I have never held in my publishing career).

Incidentally, MNW was never a sales and marketing initiative. It arose out of a publishing strategy discussion at main board level and I subsequently talked to Macmillan editors I believe Robert McCrum would regard as "frontline" who told me they thought it was a good idea, although we agreed the new venture would be run independently and not as part of Macmillan's trade division, Pan Macmillan.

Is it the fact that we are reading unsolicited manuscripts which offends him? Is it only agents who may read unsolicited manuscripts? In the proud publishing traditions of the 19th century of which he seems so fond, this was how authors were chosen and I believe a few large publishers do still cast an eye over work sent in by unknown authors.

If it's print on demand which is upsetting him, he should verify his facts: all these books are being printed for stock. Print on demand will only follow after the first edition and then only for slow-selling titles. No doubt even he had a few of these in his time.

I enjoyed his comic image of agents "all over town" shaking their heads at our poor judgement. I'd hardly expect agents to welcome a scheme which has authors dealing direct with publishers. But I'm sure Pan Macmillan will continue to acquire most of its titles through agents. MNW is an additional initiative.

With regard to commenting on the grammar of a telephone quote I gave to a trade magazine journalist, that would suggest a dearth of other more useful points to be made. I don't know whether I was quoted verbatim, but if so I'm really ashamed of using "that" instead of "who". Sorry.

What I should not be accused of, however, is "abdicating cultural responsibility". How can that be the case when I am trying to remedy what he apparently agrees is an unsatisfactory situation?

I'm sure Robert Mc Crum would agree that the proof of the pudding's in the eating so I will happily send him the first titles for review next year.

Mike Barnard, Executive Director, Macmillan Ltd

6 comments:

coolie said...

Good response/

Norbert Trouser-Quandary said...

I submitted my recently-completed novel to Macmillan New Writing at the weekend, after recieving it back from an agent with its first (of many, no doubt) rejection slip.

It was much, much simpler, and better, sending the complete novel off as an email attachment, than going through all the hsasle of sending a parcel through the post.

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