May 2, 2005

New Writing initiative draws old heat: Is the Publisher screwing the writer? . . .


A furor has broken out in England over an initiative launched by Macmillan UK that the publisher says is designed to get fiction by new writers into print. But the so-called Macmillan New Writing project is coming under ferocious attack by some major writers and agents, while some booksellers and others are praising it, according to a Guardian report by Charlotte Higgins. The non-negotiable deal from Macmillan is that “no advance will be paid, though writers will receive 20% of royalties from sales.” Plus, authors that need considerable editing will be sent a bill for the work, and Macmillan will acquire “all rights” — although the article does not clarify whether this means the publisher retains 100 percent of all subsidiary rights, or just the standard percentage of all rights typical in book deals. Whichever it is, it is the “all rights” element that seems most upsetting to some: “For writers the important thing is having the publishing control and retaining your rights,” says novelist Hari Kunzru. “I’d publish on the net or think about a writer-led co-operative before going down this road.” Also, reports Higgins, “Part of the objection is that traditionally an advance provides publishers with an incentive to market a book; they must sell many copies to earn out the advance. Conventionally, the smaller the advance, the less effort put into shifting books.” But this ignores the fact that publishers have other significant investments in a book they need to earn back, such as production and promotion costs — and there may even be an advantage to authors in the lack of an advance, say the buyer for Britain’s biggest chain retailer, Scott Pack of Waterstone’s. He says of the Macmillan initiative, “I think it’s a fantastic idea. When books are presented to me by publishers they prioritise the ones to which they have given large advances. But the bestsellers are not necessarily the ones that have had big advances. This creates a level playing field.” Meanwhile, one Macmillan author who’s strongly opposed to the deal raises another object — that the Macmillan deal seems “an end run around agents.” Says Paul Collins in a commentary at his Weekend Stubble blog for The Collins Library, “agents are important. Why? Because they know how to negotiate, because they actually read the damn contracts, and because they prevent the abuse of authors by publishers. They are the closest thing we have, in practical terms, to a union.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.