Tuesday, May 03, 2005

New thinking by publisher -- world grinds to halt

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.


Michelle Styles said...

Whether or not, it is good for the author would depend on the distribution.
MacMillian are talking about 15 pound hardback books with ribbon markers --- set to become collector's items (ie first edition hardbacks rather than paperbacks or trade paperbacks). Who will be stocking these books? If they will be using their regular distribution channels, then in all likelihood, the book will be stocked by more than just the local bookshop and the online bookstores. If so, no advance but royalities from MacMillian could be worth a great deal more than a small advance and royalities from a very small press with very limited distribution.
Although many people think in telephone numbers for first advances, the sad truth for most first time writers, the advance is likely to be more in 3 or 4 digits. And many authors rapidly discover they have to do the marketing on their own as marketing budgets for unknowns are often limited. The vast majority of authors haveto work hard to get their books reviewed etc.
The problem is that the jury is out. Will this change the face of publishing? Medallion in the US which is run by the Wrigley Gum heiress, I believes pays an advance but requires a commitment by the author towards marketing.
Will other big publishers decide to bypass agents and restart slush piles, but on a no advance basis? Or is this vanity publishing by another name?
Given the same amount of books MacMillian say that they are going to publish -- six books next April and then one or two a month, it hardly sounds like a glut. It will be interesting to watch...

coolie said...

Hari Kunzru, the writer who makes the horrified comment about giving away your worldwide rights in the Guardian article, is speaking from the vantage point of an author who has a contract with a prestigious publisher, whose novels receive large amounts of advertising, hype, translation rights, sales, Richard & Judy Prizes and review space; who quaffs with the London media set and makes documentaries for the BBC. I suppose when you are at that level of achievement after just two novels, worrying about 'foreign rights' and the Hollywood script is a major factor to consider and fret over.

To the paupers trying to get a break, looking up from the ground floor and the gutter, it has a whiff of the Marie Antoinette 'let them eat cake' about it.

I do not wish to sound mean, because I am sure that Hari Kunzru is a nice chap, in fact in the interviews I have seen with him he appears to be down to Earth and realistic. But he does seem to have overlooked, or forgotten, how tough it is to even get your foot on the first step of the ladder in the publishing world.

This initiative by Macmillan seems to be a welcome and worthwhile step in the right direction. The amount of cynicism it has been greeted with suggests to me nothing more than the generalised cynicism of a hyper-competitive industry. For example, the criticism from the agent is only to be expected. If you ask an agent what she thinks of an initiative that cuts her entirely out of the process, that renders her irrelevant, how else is she going to react, other than with contempt?

I will be submitting my novel to Macmillan, and I know it will be tough. But at least there is a publisher out there that has signaled a willingness to be open to writers struggling to find a home for their work. As you say, they have at least thought of breaking the mould a little. I praise them for that and ignore the jaded comments of agents, publishers and millionaire authors.

Well done Macmillan for embarking on this experiment.

archer said...

Well, digitalized manuscripts will be easier to screen.


Your novel The Chalice has been rejected for the following reason(s): Opening sentence mentions mode of transportation 117776-tr.

Anonymous said...

The fact you had a different slant on this than most people who've commented caused me to take a second look. I'd just dismissed it out of hand as another scam. Now I look at it, some aspects of the deal don't bother me. Many fine small publishers offer tiny or no advances. The contract terms I've read complaints about sound standard to me. Don't publishers regularly demand rights to your next book? (I'm not sure how that works in reality, never had any reason to want to escape the small publisher -- Poisoned Pen Press -- my wife and I write for. I suppose we all have 75,000 thousand words of garbage someplace we could call our next novel if it came down to it...)

What worries me is, first, the paying for editorial work angle. Are all books going to require editorial work, to be done at the writer's expense, by editors Macmillan suggests -- perhaps former editors they laid off and who now work for them on contract? In which case writers would indeed have to pay to be published, whatever gloss Macmillan wants to put on it. Vanity presses have increasingly been trying to disguise themselves by charging for all sorts of expenses, rather than for actual publication. A publisher without any editorial services sounds a lot like a printer to me. So I guess my question would be whether there was any possibility Macmillan would really just select a book and publish it without requiring this payment for editorial help.

The second thing that worries me is what other requirements might there be?

I wonder because, sure, I have a manuscript in the bottom drawer. The chances a big publisher would find it of interest are too vanishingly small for me to trouble myself to do anything with it. Which is why I never have. And never will. But I can attach it to an email easily enough. (And how many manuscripts are they getting now they'd had publicity?) I've been wracking my brain but I can't come up with any reason why a book would be better off sitting on my hard drive forever rather than being published by Macmillan, even if it sold 15 copies. I'm hoping maybe you'll get some responses that would shed a little more light on the true nature of this deal.

Anonymous said...

I've sort of got a similar reaction as Coolie up there has. The reactions of those who have 'made it' smack a little of elitism. My reaction is; it's your first book, it will get your name out there, and the credit will be all yours if it does well. What the hell has a first timer really got to lose?

Anonymous said...

I’m sorry to rain on Macmillan’s parade, but there’s something fishy going on here. Whatever else you might think about trade publishing, please never forget the golden rule: real publishers never advertise for writers. (How do you know a vanity publisher? They advertise for writers.) No, I’m sorry, but I smell not only fish, but a rat.

What most intrigues me is that Macmillan claim that they are doing this at least in part because they are running out of novelists. Now call me a cynic, but I just don’t see it. The world is divided between the publishable classes (celebs, the connected, and those with a marketable CV) and the unpublishable classes (everybody else). I had honestly thought that, in our world, the former would supply publishers with all the novels they would ever need, and thus enable them to exclude the unpublishable classes in perpetuity. (And, lest this be dismissed as the jaundiced view of an embittered loser, let me make clear that, at the top end of the scale, I don’t believe that the standard of fiction writing has declined even by a millimetre: the publishable classes include plenty of people who really can write.)

Maybe I’m just a suspicious bugger by nature. But Macmillan were surely aware that the result of their invitation to the unpublishable classes would be the most enormous slush pile in the history of literature. Only 200 a month since the scheme began in February, apparently – not a lot, believe me – but that will surely increase as word spreads. I mean, apart from anything else, they are allowing people to submit manuscripts in the simplest possible manner: they are accepting email attachments, to which publishers normally react as Count Dracula to crosses.

I’m reminded of the phenomenon of the manufactured pop group, the best known example being the Spice Girls. The publicity, you will recall, drew a queue of hopefuls stretching to Alpha Centauri and back. Now the organisers only needed five, and undoubtedly knew perfectly well that they could find them with much less difficulty and expense simply by standing at Oxford Circus for an hour or so and identifying a few likely lasses from whom to make the final selection. The gigantic queue was there simply to generate publicity.

But would this work in the field of novel writing? Can such an initiative generate the publicity necessary to shift serious quantities of books? If Macmillan really are on the lookout for new novelists, it would surely be far less trouble simply to change their policy on unsolicited submissions (i.e. open the door and let them in), and put the word out among agents that they really are on the lookout for new talent.

So what’s going on? Well, try this. Someone at Macmillan has, for whatever reason, been agitating for the return of the fiction slush pile. Others have always blocked it, but everyone has finally got fed up and said all right, go ahead, and on your own head be it – but don’t dare bury us under an avalanche of bulging jiffy bags. This would get us to the present position. And what happens next? Well, the electronic slush pile will by now be so enormous that only a very small part of it can receive serious consideration – especially with most of the editorial staff refusing to touch it.

Even so, it will not be too hard to find a few rats tough enough to survive. (And if you don’t get the allusion, refer to www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~mikel01/rats.htm.) Honour will thus be satisfied, and nothing will really have changed . . . Oh, all right, I suppose I am suspicious, cynical, embittered etc. etc. But . . . well, hand, to use the relevant cliché, on heart, what do you think?

Sam Adams said...

I think the negative fuss is partly a function of the elites worrying that the riff-raff is being let through the gates of the country club. Some is also a function of agents going into a panic at the thoughts of their bank accounts dwindling as writers suddenly abandon them and start submitting for themselves.
I understand other publishers are now considering similar arrangements. Bravo! In my experience, publishers were already easier to talk to than agents. MacMillan has merely made it easier.
I've fired off my manuscript. Hopefully I won't be disappointed.

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