Monday, March 27, 2006

Michael Barnard: Transparent Imprint

Michael Barnard is the man who dreamed up the Macmillan New Writing initiative, and Transparent Imprint tells the story of how he got it off the ground. It is a paperback original, costs £10, and will be published on 7 April 2006. Royalties go to a book-trade charity.

For anyone sufficiently interested in writing and publishing to be reading this blog regularly, Transparent Imprint is an essential read. It's not expensive, and it contains a great deal of useful information -- information of a kind which is not often made available to the public.

If the Macmillan New Writing (MNW) imprint is unfamiliar to you, let me say that it is a new publishing venture, UK-based but open to writers from anywhere, and its function is, as its title suggests, to identify and publish writers of quality who have not previously had a novel published.

For reference, relevant earlier coverage on this blog can be found on the following dates:
3 May 2005
17 May 2005
25 November 2005
10 March 2006 and
16 March 2006

In order to comment sensibly on this book and the story it tells, I think we first need to take a fairly detailed look at the author. Michael Barnard says that he is within a year or two of retirement, so he is presumably in his sixties. He joined the Macmillan group in 1972, and was made a main-board director in 1985. This looks to me like very rapid progress, so he is clearly a successful manager.

Unlike most of those who come to public attention in publishing, Bernard has not had a career in editorial. Quite the reverse. His principal responsibilities have been the group's technical, production, and distribution operations. In other words, he is a specialist in the essential but low-profile and dull side of the business. He is the author of several previous books about printing and publishing technology, and lectures on those subjects at university level.

We also need to consider, briefly, the nature of the Macmillan group. Originally founded in 1843, the firm has grown to be one of the top half dozen in the UK market. It has major divisions dealing with textbooks and educational materials (always remember, children, that it is these boring bits of publishing which actually pay the rent; not the bits that get mentioned in the newspapers); and it has offshoots and branches in most parts of the world. The German firm Holtzbrinck is now the company's owner.

All of this background is highly relevant, because it explains how and why Michael Barnard was able to get MNW started, once he had dreamed it up. Barnard is a hands-on, down to earth manager who has operated at board level for years. He is clearly respected; and so, when he came up with the idea for MNW, the scheme was not dismissed with a sniff, as some hopelessly unrealistic fantasy dreamed up by some starry-eyed fan of profitless literary fiction. What is more, if the MNW imprint fails miserably, it can be closed down painlessly once Barnard has retired. This is an unusual set of circumstances, and largely explains why similar schemes are not (yet) being tried elsewhere.

Here, to begin with, are some of the key points which are made in Transparent Imprint; in no particular order.

  • Like most major trade publishers, Macmillan does not (other than through MNW) consider unsolicited fiction manuscripts sent in by anyone other than a reputable agent.
  • Agents have, understandably, got into the habit of wanting lots of money for their authors. But paying substantial sums of money for a book does not guarantee sales and profit. Neither does the present scheme of things (hit the big-time first time or you're out) lend itself to the more sensible development of talent over a series of books.
  • Accordingly, there is a need for a new approach. The idea of MNW is to find good authors, who are showing signs of being able to grow, and to publish them cheaply but effectively. Those whose reviews, sales, and reader responses justify it, will be invited to transfer to the more orthodox Macmillan imprints for subsequent books.
  • The acceptance rate at MNW has so far averaged out at less than half of one per cent. (In 10 months, about 3,000 mss were received.)
  • Macmillan do not expect MNW to be profitable, in and of itself. Ever. They do, however, anticipate that authors who 'transfer' will prove profitable.
  • MNW is a separate division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd., the top company, and stands alongside Pan Macmillan. This means nothing to the average reader (and not much, it seems, to journalists), but it is vital in terms of Macmillan internal politics and accounting. No one in Pan Macmillan (the general book publishing company in the Macmillan group), would have wanted MNW bleeding away resources as part of their empire; neither would they want to risk career damage if things go badly wrong. This way, none of that happens; which is the main reason why it wasn't kicked into touch.
Transparent Imprint gives a largely chronological account of how the imprint was conceived, approved, and implemented. It goes into considerable detail about matters such as the material in which the books will be bound, where they will be printed, and so forth. This is most unusual in a book about publishing. Most accounts of publishing affairs, even of day-to-day activity, seem to concentrate on famous names rather than on mundane but essential aspects of administration and production.

There are 40 pages dealing with the press reactions to the first news of the imprint (which seems to have leaked out earlier than anyone intended). This is by no means the most gripping 40 pages that I have ever read, but it is worth ploughing through in order to get a feel for the semi-hysterical and perhaps deliberately misleading statements which were at one time appearing in the press. The GOB seems to have been one of the few places where the MNW initiative was welcomed, and my lengthy piece of 3 May 2005 is reproduced in full. The chapter gives a valuable insight into the extreme nervousness, bordering upon panic, which is felt in some areas of the book trade.

There is a great deal more that could be said about the content of the book, but you really ought to read it for yourself, so I don't think I'm going to summarise it here. What I will say is that two of the appendices are worth the price of the book in themselves.

Appendix 1 deals with money matters. Understandably, Barnard states that he cannot go into too much detail for reasons of commercial confidence. Even so, he tells us a great deal more than most publishers ever would.

Without access to the records of particular firms, or a subscription to Bookscan (very expensive), it is hard to get a feel for such matters as the average sale for a first novel from a top publisher. However, from hints dropped here and there, over the years, it is quite clear that many novels nowadays sell less than a thousand copies in the traditional British market. Sometimes a lot less.

This creates a serious problem for publishers. Yes, printing technology has changed, and production costs have reduced markedly. In the 1950s and '60s, a publisher reckoned to need to sell 3,000 copies of a hardback to break even; and fortunately the library market could usually be depended upon to cover the basic investment, if not provide a profit. But those days are long gone, and my guess is that if MNW sales average 500 per book, the management will neither be surprised nor too disappointed. The first six, launched together, should do better than that on the back of the publicity.

Books which get good reviews may justify a later paperback edition. Each book in the first six already carries two ISBNs: one for the hardback, one for the (possible) paperback.

All of the above being the case, the emphasis throughout the creation of MNW was to reduce costs. And in Appendix 1 we get given some tentative figures. Of course, as Barnard points out, and as was noted here on 2 December 2005, you can fiddle with these figures all day. Suffice it to say here that the costs that he quotes -- e.g. £300 for jacket and cover design and artwork rights, and £2,000 for printing one thousand hardback copies -- seem to me to be very, very low. They are figures which could only be achieved by a firm with an enormous amount of business to place, and the ability to place it in any country in the world where the price is right.

However much you tinker with sales estimates and costs, it is clear that Barnard is being realistic when he says that the imprint is not expected to be profitable in itself. It will only be profitable if it throws up talent which can be developed into substantial and regular sellers.

Appendix 3 is a copy of the standard, non-negotiable contract which is offered to all MNW authors. Well, I signed my first contract with a publisher in 1962, and I have signed a good many since. I have also written contracts, with my publisher's hat on. And I am here to say that I find nothing to object to in the MNW terms. There are a couple of points which I would need to have explained, one point where I think the terms are a little mean, and a reference to returns which is not as precise as I would wish. Overall, however, I wouldn't have any hesitation in advising a writer to sign it.

This is not quite the first time that an attempt has been made to arouse interest in new authors. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s there was an imprint known as New Authors Ltd. This was operated by Hutchinson, and it introduced a number of writers, such as Beryl Bainbridge, who went on to become famous. Of the 64 books listed for this imprint by the British Library catalogue, however, most of the authors' names ring no bell whatever.

There is one name which is not mentioned in Transparent Imprint, but which I think must figure large in the collective unconscious of the longer-serving Macmillan staff. It is the name of the creator of the Inspector Morse series, Colin Dexter.

Dexter has been published by Macmillan ever since his first book, Last Bus to Woodstock, in 1975. Initially he was just another crime writer, one of the extensive stable which was run, in those days, by Lord Hardinge. But gradually he grew in popularity; and when ITV started broadcasting two-hour television adaptations of his work, starring John Thaw as Morse, sales really took off.

And the point is this: throughout his career, Dexter has never used a literary agent. He came in through the slush pile and he has stayed with the firm ever since. Macmillan handle all rights business on his behalf.

Whether consciously or not, the MNW imprint is designed to find more of the same: i.e. writers who are talented, prepared to sign over world rights, and, preferably, are unencumbered with the likes of a top agent who is constantly yelling for more, more, more. Such finds would be eminently valuable to the company. And you know what? There are many worse fates than being one of those authors. My guess is that Macmillan, with its extensive contacts worldwide, is going to be just as good at getting a decent deal for a writer as is any agent.

In my view, Macmillan's courage and common sense in launching this initiative are to be saluted.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Some good comments, Michael. I'm a little more worried about the non-negotiable aspect of the contract, plus the loss of rights. But Michael Fuchs, author of 'The Manuscript', assures me that MNW are working hard to secure deals internationally. I've posted about Barnard's book here:

Anonymous said...

Michael - Thanks very much for the even-handed and insightful treatment of Mike's book (and Mike's project, MNW). Mostly for the sake of slathering my opinions thickly across the web, here are two posts I've previously scribbled describing my experience as an MNW author: one in Ian's This Writing Life and one on Shameless Words.

Together, they say everything I've got to contribute on the topic. (Well, aside from the feature story I contributed to the Guardian, which they are assiduously ignoring . . .) I hope they are of interest to your readers.

Thanks again for your review of Mike's book, which - along with his publishing venture - I think deserves to be noticed and praised.

Michael Stephen Fuchs