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(In which the author at last answers the initial question: Why go with MNW rather than hold out for the traditional model?)
This whole issue reminds me of a great Mankoff cartoon from the New Yorker. An author at a cocktail party is saying: "We're still pretty far apart. I'm looking for a six-figure advance and they're refusing to read the manuscript."
It's not as though I were offered a choice between a big advance with a major imprint and the MNW model. As I described before, the big NY houses had already declined the book. It would be more accurate to say that I had the choice of approaching small presses, all offering very limited distribution and very modest advances, or approaching Macmillan New Writing (which pays no advance but gets books into bookstores, gets books reviewed, and knows how to sell subsidiary rights).
I'd held MNW hardback editions in my hands, and seen how much care and cost went into their production; they're a class act. I'd also had time to read the books, and to listen to the buzz about how MNW was handling their releases, and it was clear that MNW had a commitment to the books in their imprint. (To be frank, if the MNW model were offered by a press I'd never heard of, I probably wouldn't have pursued it.)
[Note for Americans: if you don’t travel much outside North America, you might not have heard of Macmillan, but Pan Macmillan is one of the largest and most important publishers of fiction in the English language. Heard of St. Martin’s, Tor, Henry Holt, or Farrar, Straus & Giroux? Those are US imprints of Pan Macmillan. MNW is a new Macmillan imprint, but Macmillan itself has been around since before the Civil War. ]
As an alternative, I suppose I could have refused to publish the book, stuffed it in a drawer, and gone on to write other books and try for a better deal. (Though I've never heard of an unpublished writer choosing not to publish a book because the best offer he got didn’t meet his financial expectations. Does anyone know of any cases?)
And it's possible, of course, that a UK agent (when and if I obtained one) might have placed the book with a UK publisher for a better financial deal. But I thought it equally likely that the sale would go to a minor publisher with a modest advance, lower royalties, and poorer distribution--if indeed it sold at all.
In any case, if this were about money, I wouldn't waste my time writing in the first place. Only a tiny fraction of published writers of fiction earn a living from their writing. (George V. Higgins says you have a better chance of playing pro baseball or being elected to the US Senate, and he's not joking.)
I know an author who made it onto the bestseller list, and still has the same day job. Why do you think so many novelists also teach college? (Hint: it isn't just because they love grading papers.) Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize, won it TWICE, fer Chrissakes...and teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College.
I know this comes as a shock to most people (who seem to think that publishing a novel is a road to fame and fortune), but most first novels, even with major publishers, net the author thousands of dollars. Not hundreds of thousands, not tens of thousands—just thousands. Low five-figure, middling four-figure, and even three-figure advances are typical of the first novel. Not all first-time publishees are Marisha Pessl or James Frey. (In fact, it turns out even James Frey wasn't James Frey.)
According to surveys, the median income from books of authors in the US is on the order of $5,000 per year. Maybe things are better in the UK—agent Simon Trewin says writers over there typically pull down something less than 9,000 pounds per year, which is around $17,000 these days.
Given the time it takes to write a publishable book, on an hourly basis you’re far better off flipping burgers. I started writing fiction with my eyes wide open to the financial realities. If I make money, great, I’d love it. But in the same way a composer wants her music to be played by an orchestra rather than remaining notes on a page, I want my book to be out in public. People can't read it in my drawer.
In your comments, you said, "I think I'd rather go the opposite way: agree to no royalties, but demand a much higher advance." I'm not so sure about the wisdom of this, as royalties might expand as your reputation grows (or after you've been arrested for dropping your trousers on the Rush Limbaugh Show, or revealed as Condi Rice's sex toy). Royalties potentially have a very long shelf life.
But even if I agreed completely with your preference and tried to demand a higher advance rather than royalties, I'm not sure anyone in publishing, heartless fiends that they are, is terribly interested in my demands at this point.
But I'll show them all some day! Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha…!
(Ow! Don't you hate it when you're briefly possessed by a bad graphic novel?)
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