U.K. Imprint Attracts Debut Authors

Neil Baker
From the January/February 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Michael Stephen Fuchs doesn't seem particularly naive or susceptible to exploitation. The fast-talking writer has a successful day job as an Internet consultant, peppers his conversation with literary aphorisms, and, like many debut authors, can talk with an eloquence borne from personal experience about the iniquities of the publishing business. But according to some in the book trade, Fuchs has been suckered.

Macmillan's board of directors decided that its pipeline of writing talent would dry up if the company didn't find a low-risk way of publishing first-time authors. The new imprint was their answer.

After a recent move from Virginia to London, Fuchs found a publisher for his first novel, The Manuscript, which was released in the U.K. last April to positive reviews. The Times Literary Supplement called it "clever and engaging," and sales were strong enough for his publisher to commit to a paperback release in August. The book is being published in the United States in April, the rights to it in Russia and Turkey have been sold, and a film production company has optioned it for a movie. To cap it all, his publisher just bought his second novel, Pandora's Box, which will be out in hardcover in the fall. By any measure, it's been a good year for Fuchs.

There's only one problem: His publisher is Macmillan New Writing. This new London-based imprint, part of the global publishing company that owns Picador, St. Martin's, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, became the talk of the British literary scene when plans for its launch leaked to the media in mid-2005. Established authors, agents, and publishers lined up to slam the new imprint. It didn't have "a hope in hell" of success, according to one literary agent; it was labeled "a scam" that exploited the naïveté and desperation of unpublished writers—people like Fuchs.

The imprint was controversial because, according to the press, Macmillan would not pay its authors an advance and would accept only complete, word-perfect novels—if the text needed editing, it would point the writer in the direction of a good freelance editor, but it would not pay for editorial work. Its detractors claimed that, with none of its own money at stake, the imprint would have no incentive to market the books: It was just vanity publishing in disguise.

Much of that early criticism was the result of "cynicism, snobbery, and misinformation," says Will Atkins, an acquisitions editor at Macmillan New Writing. Rather than being a scam, he says, it's the best way of getting new writers in print—for many of them, it's the only way.

Like many publishers, Macmillan stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts several years ago because its editors couldn't cope with the growing slush pile of texts waiting to be read, appraised, and replied to. Instead, it relied on agents to find new writers. But the agents, too, had their own slush-pile problems and started refusing to read unsolicited manuscripts. Macmillan's board of directors decided that its pipeline of writing talent would dry up if the company didn't find a low-risk way of publishing first-time authors. The new imprint was their answer.

While it is true that, under the Macmillan New Writing model, writers receive no advance—after all, that was a major stumbling block to giving newcomers a chance—writers do get a higher-than-normal royalty: 20 percent of net receipts. (The standard royalty rate for a book bought by a major publisher is 10 percent of the retail price of the book on the first five thousand copies sold, 12.5 percent on the next five thousand sold, and 15 percent on all copies sold thereafter.) Macmillan's contract gives the publisher global rights to the book, with proceeds from any rights sale shared fifty-fifty with the author, and an option to buy the author's next novel on the same terms. The manuscript has to be finished (contrary to those press reports, however, Macmillan will assign an editor), must be a first novel, and is usually submitted by e-mail. Nothing in the contract is negotiable, so there is no need for an agent.

The majority of writers, it turns out, liked the deal. A year after Macmillan created an e-mail address for submissions, more than five thousand writers have sent their novels. The first six books accepted were published in April 2006, and one book has been published each month since then. At the time of this writing, twenty-one debut novelists have been signed. The imprint's growing list ranges across genres—from literary fiction to chick lit to fantasy—and includes authors from the United States, the U.K., India, and Africa, ranging in age from mid-twenties to over sixty years old.

Atkins doesn't know whether any of Macmillan's U.S. imprints are considering their own version of the New Writing model, but he says other British publishing houses are keeping a close eye on the experiment. "People are watching us as we evolve, but for now they're letting us take the risk," he says. While Atkins refuses to disclose any sales figures for the books published so far, one of his writers, Roger Morris, the author of Taking Comfort, revealed his figures on his blog. In the first three months after the novel's publication, Morris had sold 1,804 copies, earning him £2,085.95 (approximately $4,000) in royalties, which isn't bad, considering most members of the Society of Authors, the British equivalent to the Authors Guild, make an average of £5,000 (approximately $9,500) from their writing annually.

For most debut authors who are struggling to find someone to even look at their novels, the lack of an advance tends not to be a significant issue, says Atkins. "The important thing is that we believe in everything we are publishing and that everything has the potential to be a success," he says, "and every author has the potential to have a future career with us." Despite its detractors, Macmillan has moved on from defending the initiative: "We're just getting on with publishing the books and selecting the best books that we can," says Atkins. "We've had reviews that any author would be delighted with."

Fuchs, for one, is certainly happy to see his novel in print. "I'd been writing and hustling my work for ten years, and then suddenly a major publisher wants to get it out there," he says with no regrets. For more information about Macmillan New Writing, visit the Web site at www.macmillannewwriting.com

Neil Baker is a freelance writer in London. His Web site is www.neilbaker.info.