Friday, 3 April 2009

April's Feature - Interview with MNW editor Will Atkins

Contributors to this blog will all know Will as their editor at MNW, but to others he may need an introduction. Will is responsible for all MNW acquisitions and so has perhaps a unique brief in UK publishing to identify and promote new writing talent. The critical acclaim enjoyed by some of the MNW stable (Eliza Graham, Brian McGilloway, L.C. Tyler and Ann Weisgarber have all been award-nominated) is proof of his eye for a new writer, and increasingly MNW writers are moving onto longer-term deals with other PanMacmillan imprints.

Will took time out of his schedule to answer the questions of two other MNW writers, David Isaak (author of the political thriller Shock and Awe) and Tim Stretton, whose fantasy The Dog of the North was published last year.

When MNW was launched three years it was seen as highly controversial--famously dubbed "the Ryanair of publishing", there was a perception that in some way it ripped writers off. With several writers graduating from the imprint to to multi-book deals on the main PanMacmillan list, do you feel that slur has now been laid to rest?

I don’t think most readers, or even most reviewers, are very interested in what royalty the author’s on, or indeed the logo on the spine (‘shagging seagulls’, as the distinguished Macmillan colophon is known here). And readers, after all, are the folk we ultimately want to appeal to – not industry pundits. Our priority hasn’t really been to lay misconceptions to rest but to publish good books by talented authors, and create a strong and sustainable list that we’re proud of. What is gratifying, though, is that there remains a measure of goodwill towards the imprint amongst its authors. (I’m touching wood with one hand as I write this.)


One of the interesting things about MNW is the sheer range of the list - everything from literary fiction through genres like historical, crime and even fantasy. Is there any common quality which makes a "MNW novel"?

Yes, you are a diverse group! Actually that’s part of the joy of the list from an editor’s point of view. Good books are good books. What else do they have in common? Well, not all that much, I suspect, apart from a certain something that appeals to some unexplored niche of their editor's psyche. I think it’s true that some of the novels we publish can be said to evade categorisation to some extent; but that’s often just a matter of marketing. I think a novel needs a distinctive, plausible, sympathetic voice that readers will want to spend time with, whatever the genre; actually, that’s it: voices that ring loud and clear and resonant. How's that for a corporate motto?


The imprint has evolved over its three years. The MNW volumes are now more indivualised in their presentation and you're looking to publish some titles as paperback originals. Can you outline the strategy for MNW over the next three years?

Yes, and I think it’s fair to say that the imprint will continue to evolve. What won’t change is what’s at the heart of the imprint: our policy of welcoming unsolicited submissions and a belief in nurturing writers; I also hope that this blog – and the sense of shared interest and mutual support it represents – continues to thrive.


Some of the MNW titles are starting to get real critical acclaim, and only last month Ann Weisgarber was longlisted for the Orange Prize, one of the biggest in British fiction. What does that sort of attention mean for MNW?

Well, each plaudit heightens the imprint’s profile and prestige, which in turn means more attention for the titles that follow and for the imprint itself. The chief benefit of prizes, in my view, is that they highlight good books that might otherwise struggle for readers’ attention (i.e.: most good books). It's also plain gratifying, obviously, and in Ann’s case extremely well deserved.


Many of the books published by MNW are from outside the UK, with American authors strongly represented. Is that a deliberate strategy or does it simply reflect the fact that it's even harder to get published overseas than in the UK?

I’ve not done any analysis on this, but I reckon it’s a simple matter of proportions: we accept submissions from all over the world, and there are, I assume, more novelists in the States than anywhere else. Perhaps there’s a lesson for humanity there somewhere . . . Of course, email also means that the geographical distance of an author is no impediment to successful publication. That said, we're yet to publish anything from Australia . . .


Distribution of MNW titles in the US has always been limited; although Amazon has stocked them to some extent, they haven't made much effort to ensure they restock once the initial stack has sold. Is there any possibility that a format like the Kindle could allow MNW to penetrate overseas markets more easily, without the need to ship physical copies?

Ah yes. Our policy is to restrict distribution of our titles in the US for six months after UK publication while our rights team continues to seek a US rights deal, if one hasn't already been struck. But we also work with one of the biggest independent distributors in the US (IPG), which stocks all MNW titles that have not found an American publisher during this time (the US is a highly competitive rights market). In principle, therefore (and I’m aware that this doesn’t always hold), titles more than six months old should be available from Amazon.com, assuming stock exists. That said, imports will never have the same kind of profile that domestic editions enjoy (compare the visibility of US-originated editions in the UK, for instance). E-books are a slightly separate kettle of fish: I don’t see digital publishing chiefly as an alternative to conventional distribution so much as an adjunct. Still, it’s unquestionably quicker to download wirelessly via your Kindle than order from Amazon or a bricks-and-mortar store.


You're the acquiring editor for all MNW titles, and your authors will also have worked closely with MNW's tireless publicist Sophie Portas. Is MNW really just a two-man band or is there a lot going on behind the scenes? How much autonomy do you have on the final selection of books?

Picture me on the squeezebox and Sophie on the ukulele. Actually it’s not the two-person band it once was, by any means; originally MNW was a kind of feudal autocracy ruling from a broom cupboard in Basingstoke, and farming much of the specialist work (design, copyediting, typesetting, etc) out to freelancers, and printing at a premium in the Far East. It was system that worked very well, I think, but as the imprint evolved, we decided that a more sustainable solution was to bring it fully into the Pan Macmillan ‘fold’, and to exploit the various departments’ substantial expertise in sales, marketing, design, production, rights, and so on. This strategy increased overheads but has, I think, made the imprint more sustainable in the long-term: we all felt that, once MNW was running under its own steam, it was vital that it not be seen as in any sense detached from, or even marginal to, Macmillan’s ‘mainstream’ publishing.

I continue to be every book’s cheerleader and advocate within the company; a big part of my job is persuading my colleagues that a novel I personally love deserves to see the light of day. I don’t always succeed. Ideally everything we publish will enjoy the enthusiastic support of all departments.

As for other bandsmen, apart from our friends in marketing, sales, export, rights, design and production, one unsung but vital member (piccolo?) is wonderful Mary Chamberlain, our staggeringly efficient and astute reader.


If you remain as the editor for the authors you discover and develop--which is the classic author-editor relationship from the Golden Age of publishing--won't there come a day when your stable will be so large you can't keep up with all of those authors plus the stream of manuscripts coming to MNW?

That bridge remains to be crossed but, yes, you’re right, and the time may come when others become involved in the imprint’s day-to-day operation. It’s also true that both ends of the process are important – in order to publish well, we need to be confident that the submissions we receive are being effectively and reliably assessed, which is where Mary comes in. Those submissions are our bread and butter, after all.


The recession is hitting all sectors of the economy and publishing won't be immune from that. How do you think it will affect MNW? Are new authors likely to be squeezed out of the marketplace, or does the "no advance, net royalty" business model make MNW a relatively low-risk proposition?

Publishing is inherently risky, and actually that’s part of the fun of it. The MNW business model reduces exposure but by no means eliminates it: so yes, I think we can, still, publish excellent novels that wouldn't necessarily find a home elsewhere -- but the basic overhead on an MNW title is the same as on any other Pan Macmillan title – i.e. thousands of pounds. That said, risk is a matter of perception, isn’t it? Good writers don’t stop writing in a recession (still touching wood), and it’s important that we hold on to the view that a good author will, in the end, find his or her reader. If publishers lose that optimism, then we’re sunk, I think. New authors are, needless to say, the lifeblood of every publishing house, however they might have entered the bloodstream.


19 comments:

Doug Worgul said...

David and Tim,

Thank you so much for this. What an honor it is to be in this company.

Doug Worgul

Eliza Graham said...

Shagging seagulls have made my day!

Matt Curran said...

Fantastic blog entry. Echoing Doug - thanks to Tim and David for this...

...and apologies for not commenting on the blog recently (I've been a little absent!). Still, this is all massive - Macmillan New Writing is gaining huge momentum. Looking forward to the day when one of the titles and their authors are up there on the top ten bestsellers list. I reckon it's now a question of "when" and "who" rather than "if"...

Faye L. Booth said...

Excellent interview, although now I can't shake the mental image of Will and Sophie playing the accordion and ukulele while seagulls shag in the background.

Ann Weisgarber said...

Terrific interview, Tim and David. Thank you for making it happen.

All conversations with Will reinforce my belief that I'm one lucky dog (or seagull) to be part of this band.

mags said...

Thanks to Will, David, and Tim. This is great stuff, especially for a first-time MNWer.

Mags ... trying to decide between trombone and triangle.

suroopa said...

David and Tim, kudos to you for getting this interview up on the blog. And thanks, Will for making each MNW writer feel proud.

Haarlson Phillipps said...

A really very interesting post. I'll post a link to this over on my blog. Many thanks.

Alis said...

Great post, guys! Just to reassure Will, I see no signs of this blog flagging at all - it's a great support network for all us fortunate MNWers.

David Isaak said...

"...now I can't shake the mental image of Will and Sophie playing the accordion and ukulele while seagulls shag in the background."

Ah, yes--Macmillan New Writing: The Music Video.

Len Tyler said...

Thanks, Tim and David - a great interview of a great editor (and the leader of a great team).

Brian McGilloway said...

A great post to help celebrate MNW's 3rd Birthday!

Frances said...

Thanks Tim and David (do you ever get time to write, Tim??). Excellent interview!

Tim Stretton said...

Frances - "between projects" at the moment, until I find out what MNW want to do with The Last Free City...

Faye L. Booth said...

Go. Away. Spammer.

Anonymous said...

Top blog, I had not noticed macmillannewwriters.blogspot.com earlier in my searches!
Continue the wonderful work!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this link, but unfortunately it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at macmillannewwriters.blogspot.com could post it.

Thanks,
Peter

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