Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More on Macmillan

On 3 May I wrote a piece about the Macmillan New Writing imprint. This is an initiative which I warmly welcomed, but I had to point out that many other observers were less than happy about it, some indeed calling it a scam.

Now, via booktrade.info, I note that Robert McCrum has put in his twopenny-worth. And he doesn't like the Macmillan deal either. In fact he is pretty damn rude about it, though he does have some interesting things to say along the way.

McCrum argues that the days of taste and literary discrimination at Macmillan are over. Worse, he says, the new writing wheeze 'appears to have emanated not from the deepest counsels of the editorial department, but from marketing and distribution.' Macmillan says that 'some great authors just get lost in the ether', and they want to find them. But McCrum describes this as an 'astounding abdication of cultural responsibility.'

Dear God. A publisher who is concerned about finding new authors, and about making a profit. How appalling.

I very definitely get the feeling that McCrum is not thinking straight here. He appears to be advocating a return to the old days, when editors with literary tastes decided what was published, without concern for the bottom line. But that policy can hardly be said to have been a great success at Faber, when McCrum was in charge, can it? Or am I missing something?

And in any case, what's all this crap about cultural responsibility? I don't want publishers holding themselves responsible for my culture, thank you very much. I can grow my own.

The last few paragraphs of McCrum's piece were the ones that fascinated me, however. Because however confused Mr M may be on some points, he sure as hell has his ear to the ground.

McCrum refers to the 'dismal editorial conditions prevailing in British (and American) publishing houses'; and I agree with him on that, though I suspect that we would differ greatly on how they are dismal.

He refers to the 'desperation rife among editorial cohorts', and indeed they are desperate. Desperate to find big sellers, and scarcely an idea among the lot of them as to how to do it.

It is, he says, a small market; and he's right there. The book business is tiny compared with most. If I remember the figures correctly, the market for books is about the same size as the market for bagged salad.

And, most significant of all, he tells us that 'several major imprints are struggling.'

Now that has the ring of truth. And truth is what you seldom hear in publishing, particularly where the financial state of the company is concerned.

From time to time all the big companies put out statements saying how well they are doing. Often they quote the magic figure of a 10% return on capital, because that's what the City investors want to hear. But if you believe all that you will believe that the moon is made of green cheese.

Robert Maxwell proved decades ago that company accounts can be made to yield any result you want, and since then we have had ample proof that some auditors will sign off anything if you pay them enough in consultancy fees. But McCrum says that several major imprints are struggling, and that publishing is 'an industry hovering on the brink of crisis.'

Food for thought there, my friends.


Dee Jour said...

Company accounts are interesting, how publishers manage to maintain their sales figures is equally interesting. The last six months I was working managing one publisher's account (in terms of customer service, data entry, order fulfillment) within a distribution centre. This distribution centre/warehouse handled some six publishers here, including an academic publisher and what one particular publisher did was halt all returns processing until they did a complete audit of their stock for their end of financial year (in March). All bookstores returning overstock were told they would have to wait until the stock count was over and this essentially meant that the returns (the dollar amounts or totals) were eliminated for that period of time. We are talking about tens of thousands of dollars of stock.

I was reading the Macmillan new writers entry with interest. It's rare for publishers to advertise like this but I do wonder about the email transmission of files only because many editors are wary in case they recieve viruses through email attachments. When they say that all contracts are 'standard', it's difficult to know what standard is when there are no descriptions. I can see the 'scam' aspect of it in one way, no company is beneath exploiting someone to make a few extra dollars. I learned that from a company I worked in for three years. Although they minimised cost by printing their bigger sellers in Singapore, the managing director of the company sent letters to authors requesting that they accept the new innovative approach of gaining more sales at low production costs which meant that there were no real brochures, no internet website updates (something that drove me batty because I had to gain entry into the site to process orders). If a publisher, say Macmillan decides on one hundred new titles from new writers, they may not put them all on their website. So this 'standard' that's mentioned gives me the creeps in one way but on the other hand Macmillan isn't a 'cottage industry' publisher.

Sometimes I get all narky, I suspect every editor and publisher in the world is hankering for another Da Vinci Code (lol).

Anonymous said...

Is the comparison of the book industry to the bagged salad industry apt? The bagged salad always looks great in the supermarket, but I take it home, open it, and in an hour it's mostly a brownish, rotting sludge.

I'm still curious if anyone's yet reported on actually dealing with Macmillian.

Anonymous said...

When I first heard of Macmillan’s New Writing initiative, I didn’t trust it a single inch, but I’ve come to think I was wrong. Having learned a good deal more about it (not least from the GOB), I now accept that Macmillan are serious and well-intentioned. I am now in sackcloth and ashes.

Such luminaries as Hari Kunzru and Giles Foden seem to object to New Writing principally because the writers aren’t guaranteed a lot of money. Well, let me express this as simply as I can: those published under the scheme would never stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making it into print otherwise.

But on to Robert McCrum’s astonishing diatribe. What is the man talking about? Seriously.

If anyone can understand his argument, please post a comment here so that I can be enlightened. As far as I can tell, he thinks that publishing is currently in a wretched state because sales and marketing have effectively taken over editorial decision-making. But then shouldn’t he be all in favour of New Writing, since sales and marketing will be effectively out of that loop? Where the writer is unknown, the decision to publish or reject will have to be made exclusively on an appreciation of the value of the manuscript.

To quote one brief example of McCrum’s tortured thinking:
‘He (Macmillan’s spokesman) went on to explain that it was Macmillan's sponsorship of Richard & Judy's new writing competition which had taught him “that some great authors just get lost in the ether”. I'll leave it to others to comment on the astounding abdication of cultural responsibility implicit in this statement.’

If anybody can offer an explanation of what he means by this, I’d be pleased to hear it. To me it is simply a bizarre non-sequitur.

If Macmillan are (as I now believe) seriously proposing to publish the work of several unknowns simply as a gesture of fairness in an unfair world, then what is McCrum really bothered about? Could it be that, like many literary insiders, he simply cannot take seriously the notion that real unknowns (i.e. those both unknown and unconnected) might be able to write at all? Because of course, if that is the case, then everything which Macmillan publish under their new initiative will be garbage.

I just don’t get it.

Dee Jour said...

The brief description of the contract, according to the journalist, isn't appealing.
It reminds me of the way my ex company used to recruit authors. No advance, editors who would make errors (and a buyer doesn't want to see typos and errors in educational publications that are supposed to feature correct information for students sitting exams and the like) so I wouldn't really 'trust' it. Macmillan has a great list of fiction authors (I love Minette Walters) but they didn't get there on 'new writer' programs. I know it's considered a 'sin' for writers to expect advances becuase it implies greed but really, a novel isn't written in a day and if a writer is sending submissions all over the place it does cost them money (it cost me ten dollars to send something, including the SASE, to the UK) in addition to the ink cartridges, paper and the like so I also think that not offering an advance is 'cheap'.

When I read the managing director's (Macmillan) statement it reminded me of all the fluffed lines my ex MD would make at those monthly work drinks 'parties' and how immense profits were made due to 'cheap production costs' (printing, editing and so on).

On the other hand this incentive may also offer editors a chance to cut their teeth editing, because many established companies don't recruit 'anyone', there are many people who finish editorial courses here for example who just don't get the chance to edit (they usually start by being lackeys for other people).

The incentive is great for those who probably work in fantastic jobs, who can 'afford' it but for those who have written for years and years, who have worked full time, those who also have families, I don't know. It's no fun recieving a rejection, but it's no fun being shortchanged by nicely worded statements when a contract is dismal. It's like a cattle call.

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