Sunday, March 26, 2006

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.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Stephen Fuchs said...

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,
Michael

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.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

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,
Ian

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Neil A said...

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.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Thanks for your post, Neil. I'm not sure it was so good an idea for Michael to publish the book either; mind you, it might help carry through some of this publicity.

I loved 'Someone Comes to Town...' and there's a review on my blog here: http://ianhocking.com/2005/10/review-someone-comes-to-town-someone.html

9:35 AM  
Blogger John said...

"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.

11:46 AM  
Blogger John said...

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.

11:49 AM  

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