What Do Publishers Do?
A chapter from Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books
The term “publishing,” like “editor,” gestures at so many activities that it’s not surprising if writers aren’t clear just what a publishing company actually does.
There are all kinds of publishers. Most deal in hard copy. Anything printed and disseminated can be described as a publication—a mimeograph handout, a 500,000-copy-a-month magazine, a scholarly journal, a book. Anyone who produces any of these might describe himself as a publisher. Today you can self-publish. In fact, you always could. In the 1620s Johannes Kepler not only printed his own work, he disguised himself as a peddler and traveled to the Frankfurt Book Fair to sell it. Four centuries later you can disguise yourself electronically and publish online. Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and Postmodern Culture are online publications. The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times provide abbreviated versions of their texts online, with more extensive resources deeper into the Web sites. The great scholarly publishers offer an increasingly sophisticated array of electronic “product,” a term so complex it earns the right to be a singular rather than a plural. Yet despite the expansion of the electronic universe, academic publishing is still in many important ways solidly connected to the world Gutenberg made: books printed on paper and bound for repeated readings. The book is the form in which we scholars tell our stories to one another. Articles do other things: test-drive a portion of a book’s ambitious project, or deliver cold, hard data. Even when a publisher offers the choice of a physical or electronic edition of a work, or supplements a physical book with electronic ancillaries, or produces a physical book only on demand, it is the form of the book, that precious thought thought-skeleton, that holds a project together.
Twenty-first-century book publishing is dominated by a few very large and powerful corporations. Many well-known imprints are satellites within conglomerates. Scribner, for example, is part of Simon & Schuster. Knopf, Crown, and Doubleday are all parts of Random House, which is owned by the Bertelsmann corporation. (Norton stands as one of the few remaining independents in New York.) Smaller trade lists include FSG, Pantheon, and Holt, but they are part of larger organisms. Palgrave (Bertelsmann), Blackwell (Wiley), and Routledge (Taylor and Francis) are large commercial academic publishers owned by still larger entities. Alongside them are other midsize and small firms, commercial and not-for-profit, the giant Anglo-American university presses Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the archipelago of university presses that stretch across North America.
Publishing companies continue to imagine themselves as reasonably independent entities, presenting each season a collection of works that cohere in some way—either through their intellectual or entertainment value, or through the sheer force by which they are marketed to the world. Editors like to think of themselves, as they long have, as working at houses, though the label “house” is a charming compensation for a suite of offices either crowded and shabby or crowded and sterile. Yet “house” is both functional and stylish, with more than a soupçon of couture about it. Coco Chanel and John Galliano; Max Perkins and your editor of choice. Fabric and designs may be different, but these craftsmen all wield the same tool: a pair of scissors. An editor’s job is, in part, to cut your manuscript and make you look good.
Who They Are
It is easy to imagine the critical distinction in modes of scholarly dissemination as print vs. electronic, and easier still to imagine this as the latest battle between ancients and moderns. In practice, electronic scholarly publishing is bound in many ways to the forms and institutions of physical print culture. Much electronic scholarship is dependent on carefully prepared hard-copy texts. The publisher considering your work in digital form is still likely to be dependent on trees and ink for its daily business.
We can group publishers into five major categories. The digital environment, now one of the scholar’s homes, might represent a sixth category, but at this stage ion the life of “publishing,” it’s perhaps more useful to think of “digital” as a means of operating, or of delivering content, that in varying ways influences the recognizable categories of publication. The corporate organization of knowledge can still be diagrammed in terms of these five:
1. Trade. Trade publishers, the big commercial houses based largely in New York and owned largely elsewhere, are what most people think of when they think of publishers at all. Trade houses are the source of more than half of the books published in the English language, and most conspicuously those on the best-seller list. When people talk about books, it’s likely they’re talking about trade books. Trade books are the ones most people—including you—read for pleasure and information. While no trade publisher is reluctant to have a backlist of titles that continue to sell year after year, the industry’s trends are toward signing up only books that will be very profitable, and very profitable right away. Trade publishing thrives on precisely what scholarly publishing does not: the one depends upon reaching the greatest number of people quickly, while the other depends upon reaching enough of the right people over time, an objective made increasingly complex by the electronic revolution. Trade houses do publish some scholarly books, but scholarship isn’t the reason these publishers are in business. In the era of conglomerates, there are fewer independent trade publishers and more divisions, imprints, lines, and series within larger trade houses. Trade publishing isn’t the focus of Getting It Published, simply because few scholarly writers will begin their publishing careers with trade.
2. Textbook. The book you’re writing may wind up being used in a college course, even as required reading, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a book that a textbook publisher would want. Textbook publishing is often called college publishing. College publishers produce genuine textbooks—the introductions to macroeconomics and panoramas of American history that are the staples of large college lecture classes.
Textbook publishing can be the most profitable part of the publishing industry—and is when the books work. The publisher who produced the Psychology 101 text you’ve assigned in your lecture class won’t be selling it to anyone other than students, but they will buy it because it is a requirement of the course—and usually a requirement of that course semester after semester. Textbook publishers don’t get their books into Barnes & Noble or your local independent, but they happily supply the textbook counter at your campus store once an order for your course has been received.
3. Scholarly or academic. The heart of any academic’s publishing life will be the scholarly publishing community. Most scholarly publishers are university presses, particularly in the United States and Canada. Beacon, Island Press, and the New Press are unusual not-for-profit publishers with trade book lists. There are also important not-for-profit scholarly publishers, those connected, for example, with museums—the Metropolitan, the Getty, and so on. But there are other scholarly and scholarly-trade publishers in America whose readerships and author pools overlap with those of university presses.
For most of the past century, scholarly publishing has been devoted to exactly what the term describes, scholarly publishing. The term monograph persists as a description of the kind of book published by a scholarly press. Not that many years ago, a scholarly house might refer with pride to the monographs it was about to publish. “Monograph” isn’t a term heard quite so often these days, but that doesn’t mean that this kind of book is no longer crucial to learning and research.
A monograph, forty years ago as now, is a specialized work of scholarship. All university presses continue to offer some monographs, and some commercial houses have found creative ways to publish them, too. Monograph publishing is about hardback books at high prices, marketed to a few hundred key purchasers, most of which are libraries. Generations of scholars were trained to produce their first monograph, and encouraged to seek its publication. The most traditional academic publishers continue to support the monograph as part of their publishing programs. For three decades the death of the monograph has been repeatedly proclaimed, but the monograph may have merely been napping. Digital technologies are transforming the means of producing and disseminating the monograph, giving new life, or its cyber-equivalent, to works too specialized to sustain traditional printing methods. A first-rate monograph in renaissance literature, published by a leading university press, might enjoy worldwide sales of four hundred copies. The publisher may find electronic paths to other readerships, but there is no magic cursor pointing to an easy solution. Fundamentally, the number of people who need to know about maritime law in the 1620s is an inelastic figure. The first-rate monograph tells that inelastic readership something they want to know because they need to know it and are willing to pay to learn.
4. Reference. Like “textbook,” “reference” is a term that can be used too loosely. Your book on Brecht might be so detailed that it could act as a frequent reference for theater historians. That is, people will consult your long and thorough index and bibliography. You might think your project would make “a handy reference,” but that doesn’t make it a reference book. Let’s distinguish hard reference from trade, or soft, reference. Soft reference may show up in bookstores or at a discounted price from an online bookseller. There are lots of soft reference books, from paperbacks on spelling demons to handy manuals on repairing sink traps. The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music is soft reference, as is, on a more scholarly note, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (at 1400+ pages it’s soft, but heavy.) In other words, things you might buy, usually in paperback, and keep around the house.
Traditional, printed dictionaries and encyclopedias were at one time the heart of hard reference publishing, and librarians are their key purchasers. The very largest reference projects are often cooked up by the publishers themselves or by “packagers,” basically independent companies that think up big or complicated book projects and take them as far as a publisher would like, even all the way to printing them.
Reference publishing has long ceased to be about physical books alone. Reference works continue to appear in traditional printed form, but many are also accessible electronically—on CD, on a publisher’s subscription-based Web site, in the databases of online aggregators, and in formats and combinations bound to expand our understanding of what “information” and “book” will mean in the twenty-first century. Despite the experiments and advances of the last decade, discussions of electronic publishing today still recall some of the excitement of the first manned space launches in the 1960s.
5. Self-publishing. The prefix “self” speaks volumes. Friedrich Nietzsche took the text of Beyond Good and Evil into his own hands and published an edition of six hundred copies. In recent years, corporations have self-published manuals and other projects for their own use. Some business bestsellers, like The One Minute Manager, began as self-published projects, and went on to sell millions of copies. Sophisticated packagers are available to help the ambitious writer move an idea to market without knocking on the doors of trade houses.
For writers of academic nonfiction, however, the siren call of self-publishing drifts forth not from the offices of book packagers but out of the Web. In the Age of the Internet self-publishing is easier than ever. Create your text, build a Web site, slap up your document, and voilà. You’re an author with a work only a few keystrokes away from millions of readers. Putting one’s work on the ’Net is always an option, and while it has been pooh-poohed by serious scholars, trends in the culture of publishing are bringing about a rethink of these attitudes toward electronic dissemination. There will be more in this book on the subject of electronic publishing, but for now let’s say that print publication remains the dominant form of scholarly communication and the basis for almost all professional advancement.
If publishing houses are sometimes messy organizations, some books really do fall into more than one category. The Encyclopedia of New York City is genuinely a reference work suitable for public collections, and a trade book that can be sold to individuals for home libraries. So is that venerable vitamin pill, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Books can also change category over time. Take, for instance, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Like every work of literature taught in a classroom, this novel began as a trade book, but has moved up the cultural scale to the status of “modern classic,” now earning money for its author an publisher because it has become a widely adopted text. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen made meteoric transitions from play text to adoptable text. Like Beloved, these very writerly works also became teaching tools.
Like the tiny protomammals scurrying about in depictions of the Cretaceous era, university presses may be the most versatile, and resourceful, of all publishers. A press like Columbia, for example, produces a reference program alongside a more familiar list of academic titles, and a selection of trade offerings. A small university press may highlight one or two general-interest titles as its trade offerings in a given season. Oxford University Press publishes a vast list of specialized scholarship, as well as a distinguished list of reference and trade titles. (Oxford’s scope is so broad that it even has a vice president for Bibles. As a professor once said to me, Oxford signed up God as an author in the seventeenth century.) In a single season, a university press might offer a trade book on gardening, the memoir of a Holocaust survivor, a study of women in African literature, a workbook in Mandarin Chinese, an illustrated atlas of dams and irrigation, and the twelfth volume in the collected papers of Rutherford B. Hayes.
A word of caution: authors sometimes make the mistake of presenting their work as a combination of trade, scholarly, and reference, with a dash of text thrown in. You can understand the motivation—the all-singing, all-dancing academic book that might appeal to every segment of the market. But publishers are wary of authors who claim too much for their progeny, and marketing departments will be skeptical of the proposal that envisions a book for student use that will also be of interest as a trade hardback. No editor wants to take on a manuscript with multiple personality disorder.
This brief map of the publishing world is meant to demonstrate the range of publishers that exist, and the kinds of works they produce. But the point is to help you focus on what it is you’re writing, and how to match it up to who’s out there.
May I Speak with an Editor?
In a publishing house, an editor may do a number of things. An acquisitions editor is the person with whom you’ll first come into contact, since this is the person with the primary responsibility to recommend projects for publication consideration. Some houses call this position sponsoring editor or commissioning editor.
Beyond that, your acquiring editor (the person you will quickly come to call “my editor”) may line edit your book. Even if this doesn’t get a thorough line editing, the acquiring editor will need to make decisions about your manuscript that can include cutting big chunks out, insisting you rethink parts, or requiring you to add something you’ve never thought of before.
If this weren’t confusing enough, many publishing houses establish rankings within their organizations that assign different job titles to acquisitions editors at different salary or seniority levels. Some houses have adopted rankings for editors that mirror the academic distinctions of assistant, associate, and full professor. You may find yourself reading a letter from an assistant or associate editor, or perhaps someone whose title is simply editor. Don’t be distracted by this. The person who has expressed interest in your work is the first person with whom you want to bond, whether or not she has been promoted to the highest ranking at her press. Obviously, there can be advantages to working directly with a very senior editor. But if you find yourself chatting with the associate editor for politics don’t sit there wishing you could meet the real politics editor—it’s likely you already have.
A manuscript editor or copy editor will be responsible for correcting style and punctuation, and may raise questions about clarity and intention. Sometimes a piece of writing will be subject to only the lightest cosmetic adjustments, while other times the manuscript will be substantially reworked. Once, manuscript editors were housed in a publisher’s offices, but increasingly manuscript editors work freelance, and are managed by someone in-house. The manuscript editor will be the person responsible for querying anything unclear or missing from your text. You, however, who are responsible for the final version of your book.
A developmental editor isn’t an acquiring editor, but may be assigned to an important project, lending the author or volume editor crucial assistance. Developmental editors are common at textbook houses, but are rare in other branches of book publishing. Sometimes development means taking a chaotic project and organizing it, while in other cases development might mean taking on myriad details (such as permissions and illustrations) for a complex volume initiated by the press itself. Authors who have heard about developmental editors sometimes wonder aloud why the press can’t provide one to help them through the last rewrite. But a developmental editor’s time is precious, and those work hours will be committed only to projects for which the publisher sees the possibility of significant return.
You might also work with someone described as a line editor. A line editor is someone who, as the title suggests, combs through a manuscript line by line, not only reading for sense but listening for rhythm and euphony as well. You might even get some fact-checking thrown in. Though line editor and manuscript editor are closely related job titles, a “line edit” is frequently reserved for trade books. Line editing is expensive.
A managing editor usually oversees copy (or manuscript) editors, and sometimes supervises further elements of the production process. Managing editors manage not only the copyediting process, but much of the scheduling your book will require. Increasingly this means that the managing editor must juggle the schedules of freelance copy editors, proofreaders, and indexers while keeping an eye on the printing schedule. The managing editor will likely not manage the acquisitions editors, however.
Adventures in Marketing
Editors like to think that editorial is the brain that drives the publishing house, which is true as far as it goes. Marketing, then, is the muscle that moves the ideas. It’s got to be smart muscle, too. Marketing departments may include two large spheres of responsibility—promotion (sometimes also called marketing) and sales. In some houses, sales is split off into a separate department. Broadly speaking, marketing will embrace promotion, publicity, advertising, sales to chains, sales to individuals, book clubs, subsidiary rights, and translations—all the ways in which a publisher brings your book to its readers and brings in cash. If you’re publishing with a small house, you may have the luxury of calling one person who is responsible for all these marketing activities. At larger houses, however, you may need to bond with several different staff members. This is a thumbnail sketch of what they do.
In publishing parlance, advertising is the placement of expensive print ads in newspapers and magazines. There’s little agreement among publishers about what advertising does, other than make the author and the author’s agent feel better, and demonstrate that the house is capable of spending money on ads. Advertising promotes the author’s book and the publishing house itself.
Many people in scholarly publishing doubt that advertising sells books, or that it sells them in as cost-effective way as direct mail or by having the author lecture widely—and compellingly—on the subject of his latest book. It is not uncommon for scholarly publishers to devote less of their marketing resources to print advertising than they might have even a decade ago. Nevertheless, almost all scholarly houses still buy advertising space in journals and conference programs, if less frequently in magazines, and more rarely still in newspapers. Every author thinks his book should be advertised in the New York Times Book Review. Every publisher crosses her fingers hoping the Times will review the book, thereby promoting it more effectively and more cheaply than an ad could hope to. Hardly any scholarly book can generate enough income to justify the expense of an ad in the Times Book Review, where a full-page ad costs as much as a very nice car. What has changed most significantly in the past decade is the proliferation of electronic marketing opportunities. Open your Gmail account and you may find that a scholarly publisher has sent you an e-blast, basically an advertising page sent by e-mail chick-full of scholarly book news.
Frequently confused with advertising, publicity is the “Hear ye! Hear ye!” department of a publishing house. Publicity departments work with radio and TV, and get review copies and press releases out to the media. Publicity departments are also responsible for parties and tours, though in most scholarly publishing houses all but the most modest parties are reserved for the biggest books of the house’s season. So, too, are tours. Sometimes publicity departments will be able to work with an author to support an event, for example, arranging for a local bookstore to sell copies of the author’s latest when she is giving a guest lecture on campus. But big publicity—getting an author on Oprah, for example—is difficult work, and despite the widespread belief to the contrary, a scholar’s appearance on a major talk show doesn’t translate into overnight success for the author’s entire oeuvre. Television book talk has become yet one more endangered species.
Depending on the book, a publisher may put very little effort into publicity. There’s little that can be done to interest the media in, say, a work of descriptive linguistics. On the other hand, most scholarly publishers bend over backward to find something tasty in the most erudite tome, and with an author of appealing grace, it just might be possible to get a reporter or scout interested in your book on the War of the Spanish Succession.
Like advertising, publicity is an expense that a publisher will undertake for two reasons: to sell the book, and to sell the house. The publisher will certainly want to move copies of your book on bias in educational testing, but if your book is particularly important to the house, advertising and publicity for your book will be an investment through which the publisher can show that it is interested in educational issues, or that it is capable of promoting timely books vigorously.
Publishers often set a limit of some percentage of a book’s total anticipated earnings as the amount of money that can be spent on advertising and on publicity. These figures are, however, in one sense entirely fictitious, as the publisher is obligated to spend the specified percentage before the books are even sold. For example, if your book, fresh off the presses, is expected to sell enough copies to bring in $100,000, and your publisher is willing to invest 15 percent of that income in marketing, the book would then have an allocation of $15,000. This sum, however, will be spent early on in the book’s life: advance page proof, fliers or brochures, advertising space (often reserved months before the journal or magazine goes to press). If your book sells only half the expected amount, your publisher will have spent most of the $15,000 marketing allocation. It can’t be done bit by bit.
This gamble is one of the things that make trade publishing risky. In trade, every book is aimed at the general reader, and so every book should, at least in theory, repay publicity efforts by the publisher. Each pop star biography, each thriller, each diet book or memoir should be strong enough for a lecture tour, bookstore appearances, and photos in the glossies.
Scholarly publishing is a lower-yield industry, but it’s also lower risk. In scholarly publishing, the author is writing for a much smaller but more targeted community. Less money is made available for marketing, even if percentages may not be so different from trade. If your scholarly book is expected to generate sales of $25,000 rather than $100,000, and if the percentage allocations remain the same at both houses, your marketing budget would be $3,750. This sum might be enough for a couple of ads (though not in the New York Times), or for several other less visible pieces of promotion. But your publisher is likely to rely on a more complex mix of promotional initiatives: conference displays, targeted fliers to members of your professional association, scholarly advertising, a solus ad (an ad featuring your book all by itself) in a less expensive and less general publication (the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, or the Nation, for example), and increasingly a welter of electronic marketing strategies.
Publicity is only partly the result of what your publisher spends and where. Who you are counts. A well-known novelist brings to publication her fame and achievement, a first-time novelist only the enthusiasm of her supporters and her publisher. A scholarly author has something else: she has a field. Whether you are a first-time author in sociology or a senior scholar in the discipline, as a member of the academy you are writing within a defined arena, and that will make it possible for your publisher to promote your work.
In other words, the parts of a scholarly author’s network—colleagues, institution, and discipline—are key elements in the promotion of the book. It is fair to say that in the world of academic publishing an independent scholar, or anyone writing serious nonfiction outside the university, may in at least this regard be at a disadvantage.
Marketing departments issue all kinds of catalogues to promote books—ones you see and ones you won’t unless you’re a librarian or a bookseller. The trade catalogue is a publisher’s principal tool for making sales to bookstores. Like countries that have only two seasons, wet and dry, most of scholarly publishing divides its year in half. (Some larger houses now issue three catalogues; their weather is more complicated.) Publishers with two trade catalogues bring out one per season. The fall season usually begins in September and continues through the winter. The spring season begins in February or March, and continues through the summer. Books to be announced in a catalogue must be securely in place at the publishing house up to a year ahead. The book you hope to have published in September will be announced in a catalogue printed the previous spring; the copy for your book will be written during the winter. It isn’t uncommon for a house to expect the manuscript to be delivered and through its review and revision process a year prior to publication date. Certain kinds of books can’t be well published in certain months. Scholarly publishers avoid launching serious trade books in December, since the outstanding study of world famine won’t compete with holiday fare (unsold copies will be returned to the publisher before the tinsel is swept away). It’s most desirable to stock textbooks by January or February, since teachers will need to see examination copies in the spring to order texts for fall classes.
Some books can be successful without ever selling a single copy in a bookstore. These are textbooks—if you’ve written one, don’t expect to tour. Your publisher will send you on tour only if bookstores think you’ll draw a crowd. If bookstores are behind you, chances are your book has enough appeal to garner reviews in the media.
“Will I be getting a party?” asks an author breathlessly, having just turned in his overdue manuscript on the history of childhood illnesses. Publishers throw parties reluctantly. Parties make authors feel good—to which your publisher won’t object—but the publishing business is primarily about getting books sold. Unless you can deliver the movers and shakers of the media, or of your academic discipline, your publisher’s marketing budget is better spent on advertising and direct mail than on renting a restaurant for catered snacks and dancing. Of course, it might be nice to have a little do for your close friends on campus. Think warm white wine in plastic cups in the faculty lounge. Next question.
Your publisher may budget anywhere from fifty to several hundred “free and review” copies of your book. These are copies on which you will receive no royalties because they’ll be given away or used in promotion.
Books are given away to people who may review the book or in other ways do the book some good. A publisher with a book hot off the presses will want to get it as quickly as possible into the hands of the most powerful people in the field. The publisher who has just brought out a book on the ethical treatment of animals may want Peter Singer, for example, to have a copy as early as possible, in the hopes that Professor Singer will (a) like the book and spread the word; and (b) respond eagerly if a book review editor contacts him about reviewing it.
It’s important to remember that book reviews are assigned by book review editors (at newspapers, at magazines, at journals). Since almost anyone could plausibly be a book reviewer, publishers have become hard-nosed about sending out review copies to unknown persons. Your publisher will have an A-list of preferred review sites, and will automatically get copies of your book to the people at these publications and organizations. If your best friend Louise wants to review the book but isn’t a book reviewer, don’t be insulted if your publisher won’t send her a free copy. Louise should try contacting a journal where she might review the book. Chances are your publisher has already put that journal on the A-list and a copy of your book is waiting, alongside hundreds of others, in the office of the journal’s book review editor. If not, have that journal send your publisher a request—on letterhead
Remember that promotional copies are not about promoting you. Or about your promotion at State U. Don’t expect your publisher to send a copy of your book to your dean or to Betty who typed the manuscript. These are your responsibilities. Your contract will stipulate a number of copies given to you at no cost. Beyond that, you’ll be expected to pay for further copies of your own book. (But at least you’ll get an author’s discount.)
Publishing scholarly books involves several distinct but interlocking activities. Your publisher finds manuscripts, improves them, gives them definitive shape, casts them in physical or electronic form, provides them with good company, tells the world about them, protects an author’s interests, sells books, takes in some money and shares it with the author, and tries to do this without going into debt. Publishing is about
These three goals collide and join up during the publishing process, connecting and dividing departments and staff. The practical work involved might be explained in terms of these activities.
Selecting the Project
Researching a market for its needs. An editor at a publishing house doesn’t simply decide one morning that the history of technology is an area in which to publish. Or if he does, someone at the house will stop him. Before launching into a new field, a publisher will study the size of the market, the number of competing publishers actively engaged in the discipline, the house’s current contacts in this area, and the potential for making a contribution—both in scholarly terms and in financial terms. If the field is one in which the house already publishes, the editor will be able to go on the evidence of recently published books. Did our book on the history of refrigeration do well?
Selecting candidates for publication. An editor entrusted with a commissioning area contacts potential authors and also receives submissions directly from authors themselves. Some editors, particularly at the largest houses, will have the luxury—and the onus—of reviewing hundreds of projects a year. Other editors at smaller houses may spend more time on each of a more limited number of projects. Unfortunately, no editor can consider every project submitted.
Evaluating projects for quality. An editor at a scholarly press has a responsibility to assure that a manuscript meets the standards of excellence set by the house and by the discipline. While a trade editor evaluating a novel will depend on her own expertise and taste, perhaps along with that of colleagues at the house, a scholarly editor usually depends upon the advice of outside scholars. Readers’ reports are the most common way of assessing the scholarly value of an academic manuscript. But editors also trust their own instincts and experience.
Assessing competition. Having a good manuscript in hand is only the beginning. An editor will need to make a case that the book fills a market need. And to do that, the publishing house will look carefully at what’s out there. Is the competition a recent publication? Does it have similar scope? Is it widely available? Sometimes a book that should be competition isn’t (it’s poorly marketed) or a book that shouldn’t be is (it’s not very good, but the author is established and dominates the field).
Budgeting a title. Editorial, marketing, and production expertise will each contribute to the creation of a budget for a book. The house needs to know what a particular project will cost to edit, design, and manufacture, and how much effort and cost will go into its marketing. It is important for authors to understand that even projects intended primarily—or even solely—for electronic publication incur expenses. Paper, printing, and binding—the publisher’s trinity of manufacturing expenses—form only part of the costs of making a good idea a published good idea.
Presenting books for approval. University presses and other scholarly organizations usually offer contracts to authors upon the approval of a publication board composed of faculty members. At commercial scholarly houses, the decision to publish will require the approval of someone—it might be a publisher or publishing director or a vice president, or a series of such people, or an internal committee. Securing approval to publish may be purely an internal matter, but from the perspective of an author, it’s a key internal matter.
Negotiating with authors. Having determined what it can do with and for a book, a publisher will offer a contract to the author. The publisher must be fair, the author reasonable. Increasingly, publishers of scholarly books are also dealing with agents, a development that adds another layer of complexity to the process.
Making a Book
Editing. Your editor undertakes any of a series of functions to make your book as strong a project as it can be. Copyediting usually takes place elsewhere in the house, and often under the watchful eye of a managing editor.
Design and manufacture. Your book is designed, inside and out, and then manufactured. Trim size, cover design, typeface and layout, the choice of paper stock, the inclusion and selection of illustrations, charts, and graphs, even the color of the binding are all decided by the production department of the press. Authors are not usually involved in design decisions. In the case of monographs, electronic editions usually follow, and replicate, the layout of the print edition.
Marketing and promotional planning. A publisher doesn’t take on a project unless it’s clear the house expects to be able to promote it effectively and sell the copies it plans to print. Sometimes the marketing plan for a book is fully laid out prior to the book’s completion; sometimes this is done just as the book is about to arrive at the warehouse. In any event, book sales don’t just happen. Marketing scholarly books more often than not concentrates more heavily on the “invisible” tools of direct mail and exhibits than on advertising. But however the plans are made, good marketing plans involve the author.
Pricing and discounting. The publisher decides how much to charge for the book, and at what discount to sell it. The discount is granted to booksellers and wholesalers, and determines how widely the book will penetrate bookstore markets.
Spreading the News
Selling the book A publisher sells a book in many ways: first, by creating the right package (an attractive presentation of the best version of the author’s work), pricing it to market, laying out effective marketing plans, and pitching it well to booksellers and to individual buyers. Many publishers are exploring ways to reach former and potential buyers through e-blasts—tasteful messages in your inbox reminding you of new books or author appearances.
Managing subsidiary rights. In the case of most scholarly books, the publisher will manage subsidiary rights on behalf of the author and share the income from these licenses. Basic subsidiary rights for scholarly books include translation into foreign languages, reprint of selections by other publishers, and photocopying. Your American publisher may also license your book to a British house for separate English-language publication in the United Kingdom and the world outside North America. If you publish with a British house, the publisher may elect to license your book to a scholarly house on this side of the Atlantic.
In other words, your publisher is responsible for the life cycle of your book, from its gestation through its selling life until that somber moment when it’s put out of print. Publishing a book and watching its life cycle is a bit like having a pet. Every once in a while a book turns out to be a tortoise, destined to outlive its author by many years.
Why Publishers Still Exist
A generation ago, few writers seriously believed they could reach more readers on their own than they might by publishing with a traditional book publisher. The Internet has changed all that. As we are endlessly reminded, publishing in the electronic age is undergoing the most important changes in the way it conducts its business since the fifteenth century.
But have the Internet and desktop publishing completely changed the ground rules? It’s true that one touch of the Send button can transmit your text to anywhere a computer is prepared to receive it. What you create on a computer can be designed and printed out, even bound up in a way that can come close to what a professional publishing house might manage. Desktop publishing is a thriving industry. Thousands of publications produced annually take full advantage of inexpensive technology, generating just what the author wants and the author’s audience may need. Manuals, memoirs, reports, poetry, fiction—anything can be produced in a desktop format.
So why is traditional publishing still around?
A lot—too much, even—is written about publishing, but when the parties and book prizes and megabuck contracts have been factored out, the industry is essentially about selection and marketing. Publishers choose, and in doing so they make some people very happy and others very much not. Like universities, publishing houses extend their prestige to individuals by admitting them, and draw their own prestige in turn from the people they admit and the work those individuals produce. Knopf was once a great independent house, and is now the most famous division of Random House, but even Knopf’s greatness is only equivalent to the authors it has published.
From an author’s perspective, the way publishers select books, taking some on and turning many more away, is a separation of the goats from the sheep. What is less apparent, but certainly as true, is that publishers select books in order to stay in business, and, on a more abstract plane, to determine what the house’s identity is. The publishing house selects books through the mechanism of its editorial department and disseminates its books through its production and marketing divisions. But the publishing house is also figuring out, book by book, contract by contract, who it is and what it wants to be.
Why Do Publishers Choose What They Do?
Publishers select books for several reasons.
At a scholarly house, there are other, more particular reasons for selecting books. Academic prestige is one. Is the book so strong that it will win awards by scholarly associations? For some houses, this is a distinct and important reason to take a project on. Is the project likely to become backlist, that is, sell and be reprinted again and again, year after year?
No house will reject without serious consideration a project that is likely to generate an enormous amount of sales income. Surprisingly, there are reasons—even good ones—for not accepting a book with considerable sales potential. Is the work scurrilous? Would its presence on the list alienate a substantial number of the house’s authors and staff? Would the acceptance of the work monopolize limited resources at the house, so that the many other, smaller titles on the list would suffer? Every experienced editor knows of cases where each of these scenarios has come into play.
Backlist is a typically odd publishing word. In the publisher’s accounting department, all it means is that a published book isn’t part of the current year’s budget. The alternative is frontlist, which describes the books in the current fiscal year. If, for example, a press’s budget follows the calendar year, a book published on December 1, 2011, will be frontlist for just one month, becoming backlist in January 2012. So is being backlist good or bad for you? You want your book to be kept in print by your publisher, and that means you want to become backlist. After all, you’ve spent so much time writing the thing, and it can’t make any money for anyone if it isn’t in print. Sometimes, however, an author will worry that the press isn’t paying attention to her title any longer. And in most cases, a year after publication, if not sooner, you’re probably not going to see any more advertising. The author who feels an unsuccessful book’s failure is attributable not to the book but to its marketing might be forgiven for thinking that such is the fate of backlist. But when a publisher talks about backlist it’s not to describe the unsalable volumes of yesteryear still gathering dust in the warehouse. It’s to point with satisfaction at books that continue to sell in some quantity year in, year out. Where most trade houses publish books for immediate consumption, most scholarly publishers take a somewhat longer view, hoping to win the impossible race against time, obsolescence, and insolvency.
Academic publishers need backlist titles to exist. A book, even an indifferent book, will sometimes be accepted because its editor is convinced the title will sell year after year, that is, that it will (it’s now a verb) backlist. To backlist, in other words, technically means to sell for more than one year. But in standard publishing usage, it means to keep on selling for three, four, five, possibly ten years or more. Classic works of literature may be the best backlist of all, but few works of serious nonfiction will ever enjoy the sales of The Great Gatsby or The Crucible. Do you think your manuscript has backlist potential? It might if it’s the standard history, the ultimate introduction, the revisable overview, the unaccountably brilliant and accessible one-off. A study of market forces in the Philippines probably won’t, though. Or the best book yet written on Princess Diana as cultural icon. You may have a view about your book’s chances in the longevity sweepstakes, and an author who thinks that his manuscript will sell year after year should say so. Such words charm the most savage of editors.
The backlist titles that sell year after year are the ones that generate the best income for authors, and not coincidentally pay the advertising bills for this year’s frontlist. Such backlist titles can keep a house afloat and permit it to take risks, publishing imaginative but narrower books. The best backlist are those titles that seem to sell themselves because they are simply so useful or give so much pleasure.
Financial pressures in trade publishing have forced the largest houses to emphasize books that will sell very well in their first year, and to pass over projects that will sell moderately well over a number of years. (This generalization may not be true everywhere or for all projects, but as a broad-brush observation on the state of trade publishing, it’s true enough.) Scholarly presses operate with less aggressive sales targets. This is in part a function of smaller royalties advances, and in part smaller marketing department overheads. A work of serious nonfiction at Simon & Schuster will be expected to do a great deal more in its first year than a lead book at, say, Cornell University Press. Moreover, Cornell will probably have taken on that lead book with an eye to keeping it in print for many years, and generating sales income from it season after season. This isn’t to say that Simon & Schuster won’t do well by the book. It may well sell many more copies, and in a shorter span of time. But the two houses’ priorities are different, and from that difference emerge two distinct publishing programs.
In the world of scholarly publishing, much is made of the university press’s function as gatekeeper. Trade publishers need not be concerned with abstract notions of intellectual quality, since the market’s response to what they publish—the “facts on the ground” of publishing—are easily measurable. University presses, on the other hand, take seriously a charge to serve scholarship and the intellectual life of their communities. More to the point, university presses are structured to require a systematic evaluation of projects, title by title, so as to ensure what at any automobile assembly plant would be called quality control. That books are unique products, and not at all like Fords, is the source of most of the anxiety in the publishing biz. How much easier it would be for everyone if a publisher’s readers’ reports could check with absolute certainty the structure and quality of the manuscript, determining that its rivets were all in place. But the evaluation of a manuscript is an unrepeatable experiment (it’s art, not science), even if the same manuscript is read at two different houses or twice at the same house. Readers, the responses of a faculty board, the workload, habits, taste, and energy level of the acquiring editor, all subtly alter the conditions under which a project is read and the report is analyzed.
Publishers of scholarly books and other works of serious nonfiction seek advice in ways that fiction editors need not. What is being proposed is a work of fact or learned opinion, all tied up with an author’s reputation and with it that of the house itself. As gatekeepers, scholarly publishers act to protect
Gatekeeping isn’t just a matter of turning away projects that don’t make the cut. Mediocre scholarly books weaken a press’s list and do nothing to enhance the author’s reputation. And while a humdrum book on Sung pottery may do little damage to the general reader, a work lending academic legitimacy to racist ideas, for example, is something else again. Scholarly publishers are rightly proud of their role in advancing knowledge, writing history, reinvigorating the classics, challenging received opinions, and promoting positive social change.
Some publishers like to talk about what a publisher does in terms of added value. This is just a fancy way of saying that a manuscript is worth more on the market after it’s been published—reviewed by colleagues or an agent, copyedited, well designed and manufactured, and then issued under the imprint of a known and respected firm—than it was when it was written or unpublished, or than it would be if you were to self-publish it.
Added value is a nice metaphor, in which the manuscript, practically valueless when it comes from your office printer, gains in luster and monetary worth as it passes from department to department, a sooty Cinderella passed down an assembly line of good fairies. The added value idea is of course at the heart of the business of publishing, since by smartening up your pile of paper the publisher can now command a good price for it in the market and share the rewards with you, the author. What I don’t like about this metaphor is that it suggests that the author’s work doesn’t inherently have much value at all. And that puts the priorities in the wrong order.
The value of everything an academic publisher has to sell lies in what you submit. All the publisher can do is burnish your treasure through academic review, thoughtful and attentive editing, design, and marketing, and responsible author relations. While it’s true that a publisher is better placed to make money from your work than you are all by yourself, an academic publisher isn’t in the business of silk purses and sows’ ears. There’s probably less value added, in the strictest economic sense, in academic publishing than in other parts of the industry, but that’s because you as author are bringing so much.
If you think about the publisher’s three main responsibilities you’ll see that there isn’t much space for making a million-copy bestseller out of a cocktail napkin’s worth of diet tips. It can be done, and probably has. That’s real added value—but that’s not what scholarly publishing is about.