08 April 2006

Hardbacks, Paperbacks... Wetbacks

The "publisher" (actually, marketing executive, but that's a whole 'nother story itself) in charge of Macmillan's New Writing imprint has inadvertently made me pine for César Chávez.

The "New Writing" imprint is limited to previously unpublished novelists in the UK. No agents allowed; instead, all 3,000-odd manuscripts went into the slush pile, from which 14 were chosen for publication1 under a nonnegotiable contract. The reception of the works has been less than enthusiastic; a resounding thud; almost disdain. And this leads to the real problem with the endeavour, as a couple of commentators unintentionally make clear.

In a landscape dominated by lucre-hungry agents, the end of the mid-list (a polite way of referring to books of literary merit which don't sell) and the concentration of publishing resources (a polite way of saying that modern publishing prefers to spend more money promoting fewer books), far too much promise, the argument runs, is destined to bloom unseen. The Macmillan venture, which pays no money up-front and is keenly costed—the most interesting parts of Barnard's book [The Transparent Imprint] are of course the fiscal appendices—looks to have been conceived as an exercise in semi-enlightened talent-spotting: the book trade paying its dues, acknowledging the frustrations of the unpublished masses, but also, just possibly, turning up something that may make it some money. Cynics may note that there are no agents involved.

D.J. Taylor (08 April 2006).

Well, I signed my first contract with a publisher in 1962, and I have signed a good many since. I have also written contracts, with my publisher's hat on. And I am here to say that I find nothing to object to in the MNW terms. There are a couple of points which I would need to have explained, one point where I think the terms are a little mean, and a reference to returns which is not as precise as I would wish. Overall, however, I wouldn't have any hesitation in advising a writer to sign it.

Michael Allen (27 Mar 2006). Even more telling is a comment by Mark Le Fanu of the Society of Authors, quoted in a piece in the Times.

My advice to novelists would be "approach with caution." The terms offered are really not good, but it's a tough market out there and if an author has tried every other route why not give it a go? Macmillan has a reputation to protect so at least you know they'll only publish things they believe in.

(punctuation Americanized)

And there is the rub. Or, perhaps, the dagger seen before me. In the mid-20th century, Mr Chávez organized migrant workers—a very high (but unknown) proportion of whom were probably illegal immigrants—in the face of the increasingly conglomerated American agriculture industry, particularly in the Sun Belt states. All of those jokes in the 1960s and 1970s about lettuce yearning to become part of a taco aside, what Chávez did rather successfully was to delink acceptability of labor from compensation for labor. That, however, is precisely what Macmillan New Writing does not want to do. The carrot of publication is accompanied by the stick of unacceptable terms (and here I must disagree with Mr Allen—but then, at least insofar as his blog indicates, he's been lucky enough to avoid encountering the ugliest of publishing practices enshrined in those contracts).

Unlike migrant farm workers, authors cannot unionize (at least not in the United States); any attempt at collective action against unfair contract terms (let alone unfair practices outside the terms of the contracts) would create an antitrust problem, and would be undermined by the overwhelming availability of potential blackleg miners.2 This leaves me with a disturbing image of a writer picking a peck of pickled papers by day and pecking a paperback publication on a PDA during infrequent breaks and while riding at night to the next job. Not encouraging; and not enough caffeine.

  1. Although getting validated data is awfully difficult, this is misleading in two different ways. On the one hand, it implies an "acceptance rate" of around 0.5% for first novels—which, on the basis of what gets published and backroom conversations with editors, seems rather high. On the other hand, one needs only one acceptance to get a publishing contract. Thus, the acceptance rate for an author who sends her unpublished novel to twenty publishers and gets one publishing offer is 100%, not 5%.
  2. I say "potential" because there's little way to tell whether "product quality" would suffer excessively if publishers began working only with unagented writers. Sturgeon was an optimist: More than ninety percent of everything is crap. If you don't believe me, go to an airport book stall—I'm taking pity on you, as I don't think the results would be discernably different at a trade or university bookstore—and try reading the first three paragraphs of every title offered for sale (I'll take even more pity on you and let you do this for just the books). Then remember that what you've just read is the stuff that has gotten through the slush pile, and in many instances had the benefit of serious editorial attention. I can't honestly say "most," because a fair number of books—especially craft and how-to books—get editorial attention for how they appear and not their substance. That is not an unimportant job; it is also not the point I'm trying to make.