Macmillan New Writing: Transparent Imprint by Michael Barnard

As I’ve recoun­ted else­where on this blog, the indefatig­able mar­ket­eers behind the Macmillan New Writing imprint have sent me all six of the first New Writing titles, includ­ing an account of the imprint’s incep­tion and exe­cu­tion by Michael Barnard, the bloke behind the imprint. If you don’t know what the Macmillan New Writing imprint is, here’s a crib: MNW is a ven­ture designed to pub­lish new authors. Its author con­tract is non-nego­ti­able and some con­tro­versy has res­ul­ted from the nature of this con­tract. More below.

Though I only asked for a review copy of Roger Morris’s debut Taking Comfort (the review will appear on Spike Magazine shortly [UPDATE: here it is]), Barnard’s book arrived, sep­ar­ately, a few days ago — that in itself is an indic­a­tion of the mar­ket­ing effort behind the books, which already out­strips that afforded to most books by first authors. I don’t want to anti­cip­ate my review of Morris’s book, so I will restrict my com­ments in this post to my reac­tion to Barnard’s book, Transparent Imprint. This is not a book review; I’ve focused on one or two parts of the whole. Note also that I’m tele­graph­ing this from deep inside writer’s ter­rit­ory. If I were a pub­lish­er, I might have a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. Further, this is not a sys­tem­at­ic review of the MNW imprint; these are just a few points that sprung to mind as I was read­ing.

OK, cards on table time: Some months ago, I sent MNW an elec­tron­ic copy of my second nov­el, Proper Job, and it was, alarm­ingly, not pub­lished forth­with. I’m not too dis­heartened because (1) the same manu­script was praised by a lead­ing lit­er­ary agent as ‘fresh, lean, ori­gin­al and invent­ive’ (2) it is my second nov­el, and thus con­tra­venes the ‘debut author’ stip­u­la­tion, so it couldn’t be pub­lished any­way — stu­pid­ity on my part. However, let it be said that MNW have rejec­ted my nov­el, and though I’m not aware of biases in my atti­tude towards the imprint, bet­ter to observe this.

Who is this Michael Barnard, the man behind MNW? Here is his author bio­graphy:

Michael Barnard spent the first part of his work­ing life as a freel­ance writer and as a report­er, sub edit­or and edit­or on news­pa­pers and magazines. He joined the Macmillan pub­lish­ing group in 1972. He was appoin­ted to the main board in 1985. His respons­ib­il­it­ies have included magazine, journ­al and book pub­lish­ing and the man­age­ment of the group’s tech­nic­al, pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion oper­a­tions. His is the author of sev­er­al books about print and pub­lish­ing tech­no­logy, lec­tures on pub­lish­ing and pro­duc­tion, and is a Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts, London

So he has a fine ped­i­gree in pub­lish­ing. He is near the end of his career, and is there­fore in a pos­i­tion to take risks. Not that MNW rep­res­ents a great risk. The first chapters of the book — in which Barnard expli­citly sets out to counter neg­at­ive pub­li­city in the form of opin­ion pieces that lack empir­ic­al found­a­tion — are spent out­lining the gen­es­is of MNW, and these chapters did not enam­our me of Barnard, though that changed as the book wore on (and it does wear). He paints him­self and the Macmillan board as rather noble types who do their jolly best against the spectre of poor sales. They genu­inely worry about their role in the smoth­er­ing of new tal­ent — because they can nev­er get it to sell — and when Barnard sug­gests, at a com­mit­tee meet­ing, that they should actu­ally look at unso­li­cited (i.e. unagen­ted) manu­scripts, it appears to be met with responses of the ‘What a crack­ing idea!’ vari­ety.

In the mar­gin, I pen­cilled, ‘Hmm.’

Why, you might won­der, has this not been raised at such a meet­ing before? Well, it appears

…that we had decided some years pre­vi­ously that we could no longer man­age the mound of manu­scripts.
“Could we ask authors to send in elec­tron­ic files?” [Barnard] asked. The Pan Macmillan dir­ect­ors could not see any obstacle to that, although at the time the ‘no sub­mis­sions’ policy had been intro­duced, the idea of send­ing books as email attach­ments was quite nov­el and few authors could have man­aged it. [p. 5]

So the policy had been intro­duced God-knows-when, and nobody — pre­sum­ably those same nobod­ies who worked in a mod­ern UK busi­ness — had the idea, until 28 December 2004, that books could be sent as Word attach­ments. Well, I sus­pect that a num­ber of my fel­low writers have had that idea — repeatedly, each time they hand over their money to post office staff along with a weighty manu­script. Back to Barnard: It turns out that this is a lynch­pin of MNW. It will have a stream­lined sub­mis­sion pro­cess where manu­scripts are handled elec­tron­ic­ally.

I admit that I was ini­tially con­fused by this. Barnard sug­ges­ted the elec­tron­ic sub­mis­sion pro­cess because he thought it would save time by decreas­ing the assess­ment peri­od. My impres­sion is that the rest of the industry has act­ively avoided this route pre­cisely because they think the decrease in assess­ment time will be off­set by the increase in sub­mis­sions. It will be inter­est­ing to see if the prac­tice is taken up else­where — but I doubt it. I think the idea that the place­ment of a hurdle whereby all first-time authors print and phys­ic­ally ship their work is still regarded by both agents and pub­lish­ers as a fil­ter­ing pro­cess, where the wheat of ded­ic­ated writers will be sifted from the trash of the no-hop­ers.

Let me say that, at the close of this book, I was impressed by Michael Barnard and thought that his heart was in the right place. I’m also con­vinced that MNW — par­tic­u­larly because of the mar­ket­ing sup­port, which I’ve had first-hand exper­i­ence of — is a good option for first-time authors.

However, it took me a long time to come to that con­clu­sion. I thought that, in his efforts to swing the pen­du­lum of neg­at­ive pub­li­city in favour of MNW, his polem­ic­al style under­mined the thrust of his argu­ment: that MNW is a pretty good deal for first-time authors, is not van­ity pub­lish­ing, and involves edit­ing and good pub­li­city sup­port. The only real dif­fer­ence between this scheme and the pub­lic­a­tion of ‘nor­mal’ (whatever that means) authors is the non-nego­ti­able nature of the con­tract.

I’d like to quote some por­tions of the early part of the book. The read­er may like to note that these points are presen­ted in, as I have said, a polem­ic con­text.

This is a much-debated ques­tion, but I think it is reas­on­able to assume that the main pur­pose of an advance is to enable an author to fin­ish a book. [p. 8]

We would there­fore con­sider only com­plete books and not pay an advance because the prin­cip­al reas­on for an advance did not apply. [p. 9]

Well, Barnard and I do not fall on the same side of the debate in this instance. An advance is a loan giv­en to an author against future roy­al­ties, full stop. For the author this is an upfront return on time and energy already inves­ted in the pro­ject, and should be equally applied wheth­er the author has fin­ished a book or partly com­pleted it. Indeed, the fin­an­cial case for a pub­lish­er to give an author an advance for a com­pleted book is much stronger because (i) it is not cer­tain that an unfin­ished manu­script may be com­pleted and (ii) the pub­lish­er is in a bet­ter pos­i­tion to judge the qual­ity of the work if they can see it in com­plete form, and from there a more accur­ate sales fore­cast can be gen­er­ated. I’m afraid that, to my jaun­diced eye, the above state­ment makes me think that Barnard simply doesn’t want to pay his authors because he wants to keep costs down. If that is case, then he should say so. (At this junc­ture it should also be noted that an advance provides an incent­ive for a pub­lish­er to make its fullest efforts with mar­ket­ing. But surely, you ask, it makes sense for a pub­lish­er to do this in all cases? To an extent. But an advance rep­res­ents an invest­ment in the product over the stand­ard invest­ment already giv­en in terms of edit­ing and pro­duc­tion. The advance can remind the pub­lish­er that it must do its part, even as the pub­lish­er is busy remind­ing the author to do theirs. Post script: In the con­text of MNW, it must be said that the mar­ket­ing guys and gals have got off to a fly­ing start, des­pite the absence of an advance.)

Another string in the bow of Barnard’s polem­ic is his ‘author first’ out­look, which he makes clear in the open­ing pages of the book. This is under­mined some­what by his decision [p. 10] to cal­cu­late roy­al­ties on the basis of net receipts (actu­al unit pay­ment) rather than gross (the notion­al selling price of the book). Fine, you might say. This makes fin­an­cial sense. If the author’s cut is pro­tec­ted, then the publisher’s cut is eroded when the book is dis­coun­ted by a book­shop. So the author is forced to carry bur­den of dis­count on equal terms with the pub­lish­er. Well, boo-hoo, you might argue. But any oth­er pub­lish­ing con­tract is sub­ject to nego­ti­ation under the firey glare of a lit­er­ary agent. MNW con­tracts are non-negiotable, which renders an agent point­less. So any unfair­nesses — which I think is the right word; MNW is the behemoth, the author is the little guy — can­not be remedied through dis­cus­sion of, per­haps, the roy­alty rate, or oth­er aspects of the con­tract.

And let’s not for­get that MNW have loaded the dice in their favour. World rights: MNW has these, non-nego­ti­able. Other ver­sions of the book, in elec­tron­ic form, etc.: MNW has the rights to these. Subsidiary rights, for TV spin-offs, etc.: MNW has the rights but will split any pro­ceeds fifty-fifty (‘simple and not open to con­fu­sion’ [p. 17]; anoth­er word for ‘con­fu­sion’ would be ‘nego­ti­ation’). Next book option: MNW has the right to first refus­al on the author’s next book.

So it looks like MNW are sit­ting fairly pretty. Not bad for an enter­prise that appears, on the sur­face, to be dar­ing. It turns out that: (1) If an author sells loads of books, MNW will be com­pensated through their con­trol of the rights (I couldn’t work out wheth­er the same deal applies to the second book); (2) If an author sells few books, MNW will be com­pensated by dint of ‘stream­lined’ lack of invest­ment in advances and edit­ing.

You may remem­ber that, earli­er in this post, I said that I was impressed by Barnard and thought that his inten­tions were noble. How does this sit with the com­ments above? Well, it’s clear that Barnard is work­ing with­in fin­an­cial con­straints. Obviously. It’s a com­pany, we live in a cap­it­al­ist soci­ety, and blah blah blah, com­rade. And I think that the deal is not a bad one. After all, when an author signs away their rights, includ­ing, impli­citly, the right to nego­ti­ation, remem­ber that they do have a book pub­lished in return — unlike 99.5% of oth­ers who will not live to see their fic­tion pub­lished. So, caveat. But I do wish that Barnard had not couched his com­ments about the set­ting up of the pro­cess in such polem­ic­al lan­guage, because it under­mines the points he wishes to make. As an author, I’m used to hear­ing that pub­lish­ers don’t make money on fic­tion and isn’t that sad? Well, yes, it’s heart-break­ing. But let’s not for­get that, in the game between the pub­lish­er and the author, the pub­lish­er sets the rules.

The rules set by MNW are some­what restrict­ive, but I don’t think we need to worry about the kind of pub­lish­ing world Armageddon envis­aged by some of the nay-say­ers in regards to MNW, and Barnard shouldn’t get too worked up about it. This is a more import­ant thing than the nuts and bolts of the pub­lish­ing pro­cess: the con­tent of the books them­selves.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

7 thoughts on “Macmillan New Writing: Transparent Imprint by Michael Barnard”

  1. Ian — Cheers for review­ing Mike’s book, and apply­ing a sym­path­et­ic yet crit­ic­al eye. As an MNW author, I’m prob­ably biased, but I also con­ceiv­ably have some insight — espe­cially as regards how Mike’s account of mat­ters accords with real­ity. To keep from repeat­ing myself too much, here’s a post on Shameless Words where I described my exper­i­ence of MNW in some detail. But, here, just a couple of com­ments in response to yours:

    his ‘author first’ out­look … is under­mined some­what by his decision to cal­cu­late roy­al­ties on the basis of net receipts (actu­al unit pay­ment) rather than gross (the notion­al selling price of the book). Fine, you might say.

    I have to say I do say “fine”. ;^) For instance, my book, THE MANUSCRIPT was hap­pily just selec­ted by Waterstones as one of their 3-for-2 pro­mo­tions in April. As part of this, Waterstones demands (and gets) a 60% dis­count on the books. This dings my roy­al­ties rather deeply. But it also (appar­ently) gets me out on the front tables where I’m going to sell a lot more books. I expect I’ll make *more* money as a res­ult; but I know I’ll sell more books, which is what I really care about. Again, just me. But, as Mike also notes in the book, by not lock­ing them­selves into a gross roy­alty rate for authors, the pub­lish­er has the free­dom to wheel and deal in a very com­pet­it­ive mar­ket­place. And I (again, for my part) am thrilled to have them out wheel­ing and deal­ing on my behalf. Relatedly:

    MNW have loaded the dice in their favour. World rights: MNW has these, non-nego­ti­able. Other ver­sions of the book, in elec­tron­ic form, etc.: MNW has the rights to these. Subsidiary rights, for TV spin-offs, etc.: MNW has the rights but will split any pro­ceeds fifty-fifty

    Again: “use me, beat me, make me write bad cheques”. I admit this made me slightly uneasy at the out­set. However, Macmillan’s sub­si­di­ary rights depart­ment pretty quickly went out and sold the rights to my book in Russia. I only get half the pro­ceeds. Which is half more than I would have got­ten without them. Does any­one think I could have gone out and sold the rights to a Russian pub­lish­er on my own? Nyet, tovarisch. Similarly with film rights. If by some mir­acle the film rights sell, I know who I’ll have to thank. I’ve got a whole team of people, with a major inter­na­tion­al pub­lish­ing organ­isa­tion, out there try­ing to hustle them — if they suc­ceed, they can take their 50% with my thanks and com­pli­ments. 8^)

    So it looks like MNW are sit­ting fairly pretty. Not bad for an enter­prise that appears, on the sur­face, to be dar­ing.

    Well, in fair­ness, you must admit that Mike/Macmillan nev­er made it out to be dar­ing. The media — look­ing, as they will do, for a story — cre­ated that spin. Mike’s goal was to reclaim an agent sys­tem that had got­ten out of con­trol. With agents nego­ti­at­ing ever high­er advances for untested new authors, it was increas­ingly expens­ive (and risky) to pub­lish new authors. Inevitably, few­er were pub­lished. This was obvi­ously a prob­lem for writers, as aven­ues to pub­lic­a­tion closed down for less obvi­ously mar­ket­able writers, or ones who might take time to build an audi­ence. But it was also a prob­lem for pub­lish­ers: with few­er good new writers com­ing in, and few­er still being allowed to devel­op, their back­lists (and thus long-term rev­en­ues) suffered. Mike’s idea was simply to re-take con­trol of the pro­cess of find­ing new authors back from the agents, and try to bring costs down enough such that it was pos­sible to pub­lish more worthy new authors. If this was not the oppos­ite of dar­ing, it was inten­ded at least to be the oppos­ite of risky.

    Any oth­er pub­lish­ing con­tract is sub­ject to nego­ti­ation under the firey glare of a lit­er­ary agent. MNW con­tracts are non-negiotable, which renders an agent point­less. So any unfair­nesses — which I think is the right word; MNW is the behemoth, the author is the little guy — can­not be remedied through dis­cus­sion

    Fair enough. And this might be a prob­lem if Macmillan were prone to abus­ing this pos­i­tion of power. (This cer­tainly occurred to me at the out­set.) But, as it’s turned out, they’ve proven them­selves totally hon­our­able and above-board, and have earned my trust. And, while I won’t say I’ve had uni­ver­sally unpleas­ant exper­i­ences deal­ing with agents, I will say that, on bal­ance, I’m delighted not to have one. The way I see it, Mike — and the team at Macmillan — are my agent. They cer­tainly appear to have my interests at heart.

    Hope I haven’t been overly defens­ive here; I cer­tainly enjoyed your look at Mike’s book. I hope that my per­spect­ive is of interest.

    All best,

    P.S. I always feel com­pelled to point out, as Mike nev­er does, that all pro­ceeds from Transparent Imprint are being donated to BTBS, the book trade char­ity.

  2. Thanks for your com­ments, Michael. I’m glad you see my post as being ‘reac­tion’ rather than any attempt to eval­u­ate the imprint — some I’m not qual­i­fied to do. It seems clear that the you authors, at the sharp end of this pro­cess, seem to testi­fy again and again that the bad stuff peddled by cer­tain news­pa­pers isn’t an accur­ate reflec­tion of what’s going on behind the scenes. With luck, the suc­cess of the imprint will be down to the qual­ity of its authors — if we live in an ideal world, to para­phrase Roger Morris.

    Cheers,

  3. Hi, Ian.

    Well con­sidered post. (I’ve a sim­il­ar, briefer sum­mary head­ing my inter­view with Aliya for Aesthetica’s sum­mer issue.)

    Thought you might be inter­ested in my tuppeny’s worth.

    I used to work for Nature Publishing, which is owned by Macmillan, and did some work exper­i­ence with the Macmillan fic­tion edit­ors. The edit­or­i­al meet­ings were a real eye-opener–there are so many books going through, even without unso­li­cited mater­i­als to con­tend with–and staff there pas­sion­ate about them, but it’s exceed­ingly dif­fi­cult for the edit­ors (let alone a new writer) to get approv­al for pick­ing up a new author. They have their cur­rent stable to worry about. I read a lot of ms’s there, one of which was Cory Doctorow’s excel­lent and rather suc­cess­ful Somebody Comes to Town, Somebody Leaves Town… and they couldn’t take that on.

    I think Mike Barnard was wrong to pub­lish his book–it seems like a knee-jerk reac­tion to the pub­li­city already gen­er­ated. But I think he and Macmillan should be applauded on estab­lish­ing of the imprint. They are well placed, being such a large force in the UK mar­ket, but without pesky share­hold­ers to con­cern them.

  4. while I won’t say I’ve had uni­ver­sally unpleas­ant exper­i­ences deal­ing with agents, I will say that, on bal­ance, I’m delighted not to have one. The way I see it, Mike — and the team at Macmillan — are my agent. They cer­tainly appear to have my interests at heart.”

    I’m sorry, but this seems incred­ibly naive.

    The pub­lish­er has your interests at heart as long as you’re mak­ing money for them on their terms. You could say that’s the same rela­tion­ship as with an agent, but an agent will try to win more money for you (and her) from pub­lish­ers. If your agent is also your pub­lish­er then they clearly have no incent­ive to do so.

    If your book is a mod­er­ate suc­cess you may be grate­ful for the chance to be pub­lished by any means, but if it’s a huge suc­cess, with a block­buster movie adapt­a­tion etc, you may well come to regret this deal. Of course, at this stage it’s all about the read­er­ship, but money changes everything.

    For me it’s hard to see this as an exer­cise by Macmillan in mak­ing it easi­er and more prof­it­able for them to pub­lish new nov­el­ists and at the same time turn­ing it into a mar­ket­ing strategy.

    The fact remains that if a pub­lish­er thinks a book will make them money they’ll pub­lish it, even with a nego­ti­able con­tract.

  5. Sorry — what I should have said was:

    For me it’s hard to see this as any more than an exer­cise by Macmillan in mak­ing it easi­er and more prof­it­able for them to pub­lish new nov­el­ists and at the same time turn­ing it into a mar­ket­ing strategy.

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