Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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Every year, the brash bravado of major-league publishing feels more and more like the plush end of the football industry. Wayne Rooney sealed this kinship with his decade-long commitment to "write" five books for Murdoch's HarperCollins in exchange for £5m. or so. As on (and off) the pitch, so on (and off) the page: there's an obscene stretching of the financial distance between the haves and have-nots; a stranglehold grip by the international super-league of players and bosses; and a shadowy takeover by a cabal of top agents.

On the bookish side of this analogy, many able writers, both new and experienced, have watched the differentials widen and despaired of ever finding their place in a professional team. These authors - some brusquely orphaned by the non-renewal of contracts, others ambitious debutants who have given up hope of mainstream backing - can fall prey to a panoply of literary scams. They range from the antique (the absurd claims of old-style vanity imprints) to the postmodern: internet entrepreneurs who, in cahoots with our gullible media, pretend that blogging for a fee (theirs) can open the way to a publishing "revolution".

For lonely authors, the level playing-field now feels like a choppy shark pool. In such a climate, Macmillan's much-abused plan to publish first-time novelists in its "New Writing" series seems almost like a model of fair dealing. Macmillan offers no advance and basic editing, and retains subsidiary rights. The authors get a 20 per cent royalty, smart hardback production (at £12.99), and a promise to keep these books available. This is far from an ideal offer, and independents such as Maia Press have lately fixed equal or better terms for strong but high-risk literary fiction.

Yet, given the retail mood of utter contempt for serious novels without a big name or a sexy story attached, New Writing deserves a wary sort of welcome. If they can forgive his Pooterish self-importance, wannabe novelists will find plenty of enlightenment about the book business today in publisher Michael Barnard's blow-by-blow (and bottle-by-bottle) account of how his brainchild came to birth: Transparent Imprint (Macmillan, £10). Oozing a hurt parental pride, Barnard rebuts media assaults on the scheme. Ironically, the most high-minded sneers came from papers that have now chosen to deprofessionalise their contributors' work via unpaid corporate blogs.

What about the books? Chief drawback to the first half-dozen novels in the (soberly attractive) New Writing livery is that the writing simply does not feel new enough. Playing safe, Macmillan has plumped for more-or-less competent genre exercises, ranging from science fantasy to domestic comedy. Several read like respectable but unexciting near-misses from an orthodox list. Surely, a lack of fortune should favour the brave?

The hipper, genre-savvy titles here sound the clumsiest, possibly because shoddy writing often passes muster in this field. It's the more old-fashioned novels - the truly hopeless cases, from a commercial angle - that boast charm, flavour and depth. So Brian Martin's North spins a ripe, Fowlesian tale of sexual and spiritual intrigue around his Oxford characters' obsession with a gilded youth, a "damaged archangel". In Across the Mystic Shore, Suroopa Mukherjee shows a similarly sure touch with place and atmosphere - New Delhi and Varanasi - in a long-haul Indian family saga that offsets the dreams and desires of four women with an English outsider's view.

These are decent novels: low-key, quietly engrossing, and more worthwhile than some of the meretricious drivel that famous houses now select. However, after this diffident first act, New Writing should honour its name and astonish us. If new players can't secure a game in the big league, then why not dare to break its rules?