Friday, January 19, 2007

The Road to Macmillan New Writing, Part II

Jump to Part I

Go East, Young Man

Having parted from my New York agent, there was nothing for it but to try and get an agent…again…this time in the UK. I went to a local philatelist and bought enough UK stamps to pay for a dozen SASEs, went to the post office and bought a dozen International Priority Mail envelopes and stamps, and settled in to query a few UK literary agents.

Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor…

A couple of years back, Michael Barnard, with the enthusiastic support of Pan Macmillan publisher Richard Charkin, decided to start Macmillan New Writing. Although in many ways the terms set by MNW are little more than a return to traditional publishing practices, the howl that came from the industry—agents, pundits, and even a few novelists (who damn well ought to have known better)—carried right across the Atlantic.

For those of you who somehow missed that shitstorm, here are two of the opening salvos in the battle, the first one critical of MNW, the second favorable.

My sympathies from the start were with Michael Allen (Grumpy Old Bookman), whose attitude seemed to be nothing more than sensible and pragmatic. (A little grumpy, sure, but who isn’t?) Anything that subverted or sidestepped the current so-called system without venturing into the realm of self-publishing seemed to me like progress. (If you want to read more about the genesis of MNW, pick up a copy of Barnard’s Transparent Imprint. All proceeds go to charity.)

The MNW plan sounded like a damn good idea to me, and I was jealous that no American publisher had that kind of vision; but for a few months Macmillan-bashing was a hot new sport on the web. This dwindled after the facts about MNW's plans turned out not to match the wild accusations critics had created out of thin air. Authors will pay for editing! (No, Macmillan has its own editorial staff and pays them itself.) The books will all be cheap PODs! (They are traditionally printed hardbacks, and better produced than most.) They'll accept anything that comes in! (MNW accepts about 0.3% of the manuscripts submitted, or about 3 in every thousand.) There will be a flood of novels! (Yes--if you consider 12 new books a year a flood.) No bookstores will carry them! (They do.) No legitimate sources will review them! (There have probably been more reviews than for most debut novels, and reviews have come from sources up to and including the Times Literary Supplement.)

The only element of controversy that was correct is that they pay no advances against royalites (though they pay a 20% royalty on the sales that are made).

Once the pundits realized their conjectures had nothing to do with reality, things grew quieter. Some damage was done as some people never learned the accusations were false. On the other hand, it did generate publicity, and gained the venture support from some surprising sources, including the buying manager of one of the major UK book chains.

Back when I was still planning on selling Smite in the US, MNW had offered the first six launch titles for 50% off the cover price. I ordered them. It was a slow boat that brought them to our shores, but the books were good. I dashed through Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (effing brilliant!) and then started into Fuchs’ fast-paced existential thriller The Manuscript, followed by Conor Corderoy’s eclectic crossgenre Dark Rain (which is so cinematic I’m surprised Terry Gilliam hasn’t snapped it up). Brian Martin’s North was elegant and recalled for me the repressed, moody sexuality of John Fowles, and Cate Sweeney’s Selfish Jean had me snorting coffee out my nose (her “letting the wine breathe” scene was so funny I read it aloud to my long-suffering POSSLQ Pamela. [Pronounced possel-queue. Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters according to the Census Bureau, those incurable romantics.]) Finally, Suroopa Mukherjee’s Across the Mystic Shore accomplished what the novel does better than any other medium by taking me into someone else’s worldview.

Hell, this was the most fun I’d had with a seemingly random set of books since my grade-school teacher first took us to the library. I cursed the accidents of fate that had me born in America when such fun was to be had back in the Motherland. (Ignore my surname, I’m from a long line of Drakes and Davidsons. It’s a long story—and yet surprisingly uninteresting.)

It seemed unlikely to me that MNW would accept an American author. Mind you, there was nothing official stating they wouldn’t, but my former agent had told me I had little chance of publication in the UK, and there were a number of UK agents who stated upfront that they under no circumstances acted as primary agents for writers based in the United States. Perhaps the idea of literary asylum in the UK was a dead ideal. Yet I'd been told the only things that stood between me and publication in the US were that the bad guys were Americans, and there was no real hero…and Smite seemed like a publishable book…

What the hell. I sent my novel off to Macmillan New Writing. The worst that could happen was rejection, and rejection in this business is the norm. I also mailed off a few query letters to UK agents, and got back to work on another novel.

I was on travel when Pamela called to tell me I’d received an e-mail from Will Atkins, MNW’s editor. She read it to me over the phone. It opened by saying some very complimentary things about the book, and I began to feel queasy—in my experience, kind words were typically a prologue to Unfortunately, however

Instead, to my astonishment, the message went on to say MNW would be delighted to publish Smite. Delighted? I would have settled for Grudgingly willing. I made Pamela read it again, and again, and even asked her to forward the e-mail to a nearby computer so I could read it myself. There was no small print, no maybes—I was being offered publication by one of the world’s great houses.

Did I say yes? Does Spring follow Winter, and doth pride, like Summer, goeth before a Fall, and does ontogeny really recapitulate phylogeny? (And will this be on the exam?)

The book is due for launch in September, 2007, about three years after I finished writing it, and I couldn’t be happier with my publisher.

Jump to Part I


Jeremy James said...

Hi David. Another great post...

After following the links you referenced about MNW's controversial business model, & reading up on why it's controversial in the first place (no advances, non-negotiable contracts, granting of all rights to publisher, etcetera), I'm curious to see if you'd expand a bit more on your reasons for signing with them.

I've read a little of your writing, and it's pretty clear to me at least, you've talent to spare, and if not SMITE, another book of yours would probably find a home with some U.S. publisher of note.

I guess I'm stuck on the "no advance" concept of their contracts. Others have argued that an author shows more confidence in their work if they're willing to take a low (or no) advance, hoping they'll make it up in royalties. But I remain skeptical of this logic.

To me, that's really a show of faith in your publisher's ability to market and promote your book--something which you have very little control over, no matter how much you believe in your work.

I think I'd rather go the opposite way: agree to no royalties, but demand a much higher advance. That just makes more sense to me, because then I'm getting paid for the value-added work I put in (writing and delivering an entertaining story)--not for work I won't be performing (marketing and selling the book after it's printed). Plus it turns an "advance" into an investment by the publisher--one they'll need to get their butts in gear to realize a return on.


cate sweeney said...

Hi David
glad I made you laugh (more than once I hope!) and thanks for reading Selfish Jean.