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New deal for authors

16 May 2005

The British publisher Macmillan’s New Writing initiative may have been missed by those who don’t read either the Guardian or the Bookseller, but it does present an interesting comment on the current state of publishing. Macmillan will look at directly submitted manuscripts and from them choose a small number of books to publish on the new list. They will not pay the authors advances, but will give them a 20% royalty and a half share of subsidiary rights income. They will only accept manuscripts which need ‘light editing’ (presumably copy editing) and will tie the author in to the same deal on their second book. All the books on the list will be published at £15 in hardback format with a standard cover design.

What does Macmillan get out of this? Primarily potential access to some good new authors at very little risk to themselves, although the author can ‘escape’ after the second book and option type arrangements are notoriously difficult to enforce in practice if the author is unwilling. It’s also presumably good for the publishers to be seen as the champions of new writing.

From the writers’ point of view, it looks as if many of them, having been unable to get published elsewhere, have very little to lose. The lack of an advance is not in itself a deterrent and the royalty is generous by any standards. The authors do not have to take the publishing risk and their work will get into print and get some attention.

Agents, predictability, are scathing about the new scheme. In a memorable phrase, agent Natasha Fairweather described it as ’the Ryanair of publishing; it’s like having to pay for your own uniforms.’ Jonny Geller, said: ‘I don’t think there is a hope in hell of this succeeding… It’s clearly not in the writer’s long-term interest: this does not protect them in any way.’

The scheme does of course circumvent the agents’ virtual stranglehold on the submission process. It takes publishing back to an older model whereby authors are paid royalties for what they sell, rather than an advance which may not be earned out and is therefore often more like a purchase price. At a time when many writers are desperate to get a publisher to take them on, this could make sense.

But the real problem is the question of sales. Top agent Deborah Rogers drew attention to this: ‘What worries me is where are these books going to land in a bookshop? To make any book work you’re got to support it.’

Fellow-publisher Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape should have the last word: ‘If a book takes off Macmillan will be doing fantastically well – and they won’t lose much if they don’t. But will retailers want an influx of yet more new books – which could be a glorified slush-pile?’

Getting the New Writing books into the bookshops and selling them will be the real challenge. But writers should watch this new initiative, which may in the end offer a way forward.