Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A tale of two platforms.

Last night I shared a speaking platform with Mike Barnard, the publisher of Macmillan New Writing, and Marcelo Beilin of Trafford Publishing, to address the Oxford Publishing Society (OPUS).

The subject of the discussion was ‘Self-Publishing in the Internet Age’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was doing there as I know nothing about self-publishing. Michael from OPUS explained that the society had invited MNW along to hear how a traditional publisher was responding to the challenge of the self-publishing revolution. Maybe those weren’t his exact words, but there seemed to be the feeling that self-publishing was something that publishers ought to be aware of. Rightly or wrongly, MNW was perceived as a response to it.

Anyhow, it was an opportunity for Mike (Barnard) to explain the thinking behind MNW, which could be described as a new model for publishing, and has certainly been confused with self-publishing by certain perverse commentators and individuals. Mike himself sees it more as a return to the most traditional form of publishing, in which the publisher has a direct relationship with the author.

Whatever Macmillan New Writing is, it isn’t self-publishing. A self-publishing company like Trafford publishes every book submitted to them, at a cost of on average £1,000 to the author. Contrary to what you may have heard from certain mischievous sources, Macmillan New Writing do not charge authors a penny. Nor do they publish every book that comes along. In fact, less than half a percent of submissions actually make it through to publication (14 titles in one year, out of around 4,000 submissions). Manuscripts are assessed by editors and professional readers. The books are edited to the highest industry standards. Marcelo revealed that no one at Trafford reads the books that they publish (apart from the typesetters). No editorial service is offered at all. The writer is in effect the publisher, responsible for the editing as well as the marketing of his or her book.

For me it was an opportunity to talk about the only subject I’m at all knowledgeable about: myself. They wanted to hear a writer’s experience of being part of this brave new publishing venture.

It was a bit daunting standing up in a lecture theatre (the meeting was held at Oxford Brookes University) in front of a room of publishers. But they were a friendly crowd. They laughed in all the right places and made me feel very welcome and relaxed. And the acoustics were amazing.

That was platform number one. Platform number two was the southbound platform of the Northern Line from Highgate. It’s where my novel starts. Because of that, one of the marketing ideas I’d discussed with Macmillan was the possibility of distributing flyers to commuters going into Highgate tube station. This morning was the day of distribution.

I was travelling from Highgate myself today. (It doesn’t always happen nowadays – if I’m dropping the kids off, I go from Finsbury Park.)

I saw the young lady handing them out as I approached along Priory Gardens. It looked like people were taking them, although obviously a few walked by without biting. As I got close to her, she proffered one to me. I declined. ‘No, it’s okay. I’m the author.’ We had a brief chat about how it was going. She’d been there since 7.45 and was down to her last bundle. I expected to see them littered throughout the station, but it wasn’t too bad. I spotted two on the platform itself, but that was all.

The wording on the front of the flyer was: ‘He takes the tube from Highgate. And takes comfort wherever he can.’

We’ll have to see if it has any effect on sales.


Steve Kane said...

Dang, if I had known you were speaking at Oxford Brookes I could have popped along after work. Never mind. Glad to hear it went well.

roger said...

Sadly, Steve, it wasn't an open gig. You had to be a member of the Oxford Publishers Society to get in. I did think of you, seeing as I was in your manor (or is it 'on your manor'?).

femme au foyer said...

Hi Roger,
Boring questions but - how many books do they have to sell for you to break even and is it a one book only deal? What next?!

roger said...

Hi femme,

For me to break even? The question doesn't really make sense as I haven't invested any money in Macmillan New Writing. If you mean for them to break even, (ie Macmillan) then I think I did know the answer to that, but I've forgotten it! I'm not very good at figures. It's in Mike Barnard's book, Transparent Imprint, I think. (I'll try to remember to look it up for you, if you like - don't have it on me at the moment.)

The deal on the second book is that Macmillan UK have the option. If they like the book and your first has done well, then they will publish it under one of the other imprints - eg Pan Macmillan, or Picador, depending on which is appropriate. It will not be published by Macmillan New Writing, quite logically, as you will no longer be a new writer.

femme au foyer said...

Thanks. Oh yes, I did mean them! So, theoretically, for the second book, you should be treated like any other author i.e. get an advance?!

Don't worry too much about the exact figure - it was just idle curiosity

skint writer said...

Interesting post: so publishers are starting to see self-publishing as some sort of threat.

But the kind of publishing you describe with Trafford is not self-publishing but just another form of vanity publishing.

Self-publishing can be vanity publishing but it's not necessarily so. There are many respectable, even great works of literature that have been self-published.

btw - why can I only login and comment with a blogger account?

roger said...

Hi Skint Writer! Thanks for looking in. Yes, well, vanity or self... I don't know. Thanks to print on demand technology, even if it is vanity publishing, it's not the same as the old model of vanity publisher, where the author would be stuck with a garage full of unsellable books. With POD, the books don't actually exist until somebody orders one.

As for why you have to have a blogger account, sorry about that. I must have configured it not to get anonymous comments. Can't quite remember why I did that. If I can work out how to put it right I will do. I don't mind who comments!

Joel said...

I'd like to echo that there is a big difference between self and vanity publishing, mainly that the former does away with the middleman, that's why it's called SELF publishing. Vanity publishers appeal to those who are rather clueless about print, typography, and graphical matters, and have more money than sense. The idea that somebody (anybody) is willing to publish them, even at a large cost to themselves, appeals to their vanity. Self publishers may also be vain, of course, but they don't need someone one step up from a confidence trickster to create for them the illusion of being 'a published author' (the point at which any writer becomes a bore, should they self-identify with that conceit).

This is not to say many conventionally published authors are not vain...

roger said...

Hi Joel, thank you for visiting. As for the self versus vanity publishing, I'm only following the terms used by the Oxford Publishing society, whose event it was. It was they who invited Marcelo from Trafford, presumably because they believed his firm offered a self-publishing service. I don't really know anything about them as I had never heard of them before that night. I suppose it depends what imprint the books have, and who is listed as the publisher?

Having said that, not everyone who writes is as confident with typgraphy and design as you so evidently are judging by your stunning and very interesting website biroco.com.

Actually, a point I made, which I think may have been lost in the evening as these things usually are, is that the internet is publishing. I talked about blogs and ezines and online writers' communities. A lot of brilliant writers are using these as outlets.

Joel said...

Cheers Roger,

Well with the appearance of POD the distinction between self and vanity publishing has become hazy. But a self publisher who wants to use POD (print-on-demand) would use a company like Antony Rowe, and do all the graphics and typography themselves. Many big publishers in fact also use Rowe as the printer for their books. Vanity outlets have taken on the 'package deal', submit the typescript and they'll do the rest, even if it does end up in an awful typeface, on poor paper, and overpriced.

On typography, I looked at the PDF sampler of your own book and was surprised Macmillan hadn't used typographical ligatures (fi, fl, ff, ffi, ffl). I hope you will point this out to the Publisher, because good books need good typography.

(I used to live in Crouch End, incidentally).