Monday, May 02, 2005

What Was Rule #1, Again?

Several people have noticed Macmillan's new acquisitions scheme. In fact, we're kind of late in discussing it (it's been busy at the Comma Mines.)

Some folks at Making Light, are unimpressed.

Greg is unconcerned.

I don't share his nonchalance.

If it [Macmillan] decides to accept a novel for the list, terms are unnegotiable; no advance will be paid, though writers will receive 20% of royalties from sales. Macmillan will copy edit books, but if manuscripts need more detailed work, it will suggest that writers employ freelance editors. According to notes sent to authors, such editors "will charge realistic fees and this will not in itself guarantee publication". [Emphasis added.]
There's a rule in mainstream publishing, clearly articulated by James D. Macdonald: Money flows toward the author.

In some low- or no-advance publishing arrangements, it's true that money doesn't always flow toward the author
immediately. I know of one reputable, very small Canadian publisher whose advances run in the $500 range. The house offers its authors royalty rates similar to those of larger houses; it just can't afford to take the financial risk of a large advance. However, once that advance is paid, by all reports, the house is commited to the book, and the editor works closely with the author to produce the best book possible. Their print runs are tend to be small, initially, but once the book earns out its piddly little advance, the author earns a royalty on every copy, and on rights sales. Money flows toward the author.

If a publisher recommends editorial changes to a book, then the publisher should be willing to commit to the book. It is both unscrupulous and unfair to ask an unpublished author to pay a freelancer for a structural edit, with no guarantee that this will make the book publishable.

About once a month, a call comes into the Comma Mines or to my professional association from an author who has written a manuscript, and who has some vague idea that books get edited before they get published (which is indeed supposed to be the case. The poor dears are simply a bit confused about the order of operations). So they call, asking for someone who can edit their MS. If they call the Comma Mines, we tell them, gently, that if a publisher acquires the MS, the publisher's editorial staff will handle the editing. We can do an evaluation—a careful read of their book and an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, marketability, readiness for submission to a publisher. We warn authors that we can't promise them that our evaluation will help them get published. We warn them that we may not like their book. We quote them the flat fee for the evaluation. Some go away. Some bring us a manuscript.

It takes approximately three working days to do an evaluation of a 500-page manuscript. At the end of that, the author has report that candidly evaluates the book based on the criteria that several publishers use in their evaluation forms, and a set of recommendations (none of which involve paying for further editorial services or sending the book to a PoD or vanity press). What the author does with the recommendations is their business. We have a disclaimer to the effect that this is our what we think will make the MS more publishable, but we can't guarantee that it will work--we're not publishers.

We don't edit pre-submission manuscripts. To do a good structural edit of some of the manuscripts I've seen would take me way more than three days. And I bill by the hour for that kind of work. It's going to cost a heckuva lot more than the prices that would be authors offer editors on Craigslist (the average is $200. This won't get you an evaluation, let alone an edit.)

I'm not willing to ask an author to invest that kind of time and money with no guarantee that a publishable manuscript will result from it. If a publisher acquires a book, and discovers that the author needs to work with an editor, that's another story entirely (no pun intended).
Money flows toward the author.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Macmillan is asking these authors to shell out a lot of money*, with no guarantee that the result will see publication. That's not on. Most fiction authors cannot afford a decent structural edit. And if Macmillan is promising these authors "affordable" editors, they're either recommending cheap decent editors who are devaluing the market that I'm competing in, or they're recommending cheap editors who are cheap because they're incompetent.
Either way, they're not doing my profession any favours.

*To give you an idea, where I work the going rate for structural/substantive editing falls somewhere between $20/hr and $50/hr for trade books. A definition of editorial tasks can be found here.


Greg said...

I really seem to be in a minority on this one, but that's not so unusual. I haven't noticed anyone in the various online discussions of this actually going to the source, which says:

"Macmillan New Writing is an imprint within the Macmillan group, designed to give an opportunity for new authors to achieve publication. The books are published at the company's expense, no contribution costs will be sought from authors, and royalties on sales will be paid. The books are sold in the market by Macmillan and will be carried in the company's catalogues, but to keep costs to a minimum to allow the maximum number of new writers to get a chance at publication, all arrangements for publication and contracts with authors are standard and there is a minimum of communication between publisher and author." (Emphasis mine)

"No contribution costs ... from authors." As far as I can see, there goes the only valid objection to the idea. MacMillan are paying for copy editing, design, layout, printing, warehousing, distribution, and advertising -- and paying a royalty that is double the going rate.

Rule #1 doesn't seem to apply.

(I love your blog, of course. Was wondering when you were going to find time to add to it again!)

jennie said...

It's this bit from the Guardian article that worries me:

Macmillan will copy edit books, but if manuscripts need more detailed work, it will suggest that writers employ freelance editors. According to notes sent to authors, such editors "will charge realistic fees and this will not in itself guarantee publication".

Not sure where the Guardian came up with the "notes sent to authors."

Macmillan isn't seeking contributions from authors--they're referring authors to freelancers. But they're still asking authors to shell out for a serious edit prior to signing a contract for the book, with no guarantee that they will publish the book after it's done.

So an author could, conceivably, be told "Your book needs a substantive edit. Go contact one of these freelancers, and tell them that." Author contacts Freelancer. Freelancer charges a decent rate, let's say even a really cheap rate of $15/hour, and the book takes a good fortnight's work (the book was in pretty good shape). So the author's paid $1200, which isn't that much at all, if you happen to have the money, and takes the book back to Macmillan.

Who say "O.k., now that we can actually see what you were trying to do, we think it sucks, and it's not the sort of thing we want to have our name on."

You know it could happen.

Do you really want to be the editor who edited that book?