What does a publisher do?
I’ve worked in publishing since graduating from university ten (something!) years ago, briefly in marketing and more extensively in editorial. I know from my authors that the process of producing a book can be a bit mystifying when you first start out. How does it all work? What does everyone do? How do I fit in? So I thought I’d write a brief overview of all the various departments, and take you through the average life of a book. I really hope it’s useful!
We have come a long way since 1450 and Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Today publishing is a massive industry. (In the UK each year we will publish the equivalent of 20 books an hour!) A vast number of people are involved, not only in editorial and design, but also in sales, marketing and publicity, production and finance. However, to those not contributing to the day-to-day processes, the whole thing can seem like a bit of a mystery, even if you are an author (or maybe especially if you are an author). So what does happen in the life of a book from the time it is acquired (bought by the publisher) to when it arrives on the bookshelves?
These days the vast majority of manuscripts (we call them submissions) come from agents rather than directly from authors. A commissioning editor’s reading pile is the source of excitement, and guilt. We can’t wait to dive in because we know that the next J. K. might be lurking in there, and yet with ten or more submissions coming in from agents every week, it can be hard to keep on top of it all.
Like every editor, I love finding something special that I can’t wait to share at a weekly editorial meeting. It’s here that we’ll first discuss an author and a book, including where both might fit on the list (the number of titles a publisher produces each year) to check that there is no overlap with existing publishing. Once we are all in agreement editorially, an editor will take the book to the acquisitions meeting.
As publishing is very much a collective endeavour these days, a representative from all the various departments (sales, marketing, publicity, business affairs, finance, editorial, design, production, foreign rights, export) will be present at the acqs meeting. Discussions can get quite lively as we talk about the book and the author, while also trying to put both into the context of the wider market.
Sadly, we won’t make an offer on every book discussed at acquisitions. Decision are based on a combination of heart (taste, gut instinct, level of excitement) and head (sales, and profit-and-loss predictions).
As an editor, it can be heartbreaking to not get the script you love through the meeting. (We all have stories of the “one that got away”.) However, with such a large volume of submissions and only a finite amount of space on a list, we have to be very sure of everything we take on.
Making an offer
Once we are agreed on an acquisition, the commissioning editor will take an offer to the agent. After a bit of toing and froing over terms, we come to my favourite part, which is when the agent rings up and says we have a deal. Further negotiations will continue between the business affairs department and the agent until the contract is signed with the author.
After a book has been contracted, an advanced information sheet (AI) is created. As well as a blurb for the book, this document lists its bibliographic info (ISBN, price, format, and publication date) and an author biography. The AI is used internally at first but will eventually feed out to booksellers’ websites and therefore consumers. As such it needs to be accurate, relevant and engaging. It can take a long time (and lots of cups of tea) to get an AI just right.
It can be disconcerting as an author to receive the first editorial notes because they are often much longer than expected. Up until now the editor probably hasn’t mentioned that the book could be so much better if chapter four became chapter one and you got rid of chapter eight altogether. Oh, and have you considered adding a gnome (named Bob) to chapter six? Even as you are panicking about all the work you have to do, keep the faith and remember that an editor wants the same thing as you – the best book possible.
There are three main editorial stages:
Structural: This looks at the book as a whole – pace, characters, situations, structure.
Line edit: This should pick up on any inconsistencies, stylistic tics (like word repetition), awkward sentences or just hangovers from previous drafts.
Copyedit: An edit for punctuation, spelling, grammatical errors, styling as well as more general queries about conflicting statements, timeline and fact-checking. This is often done out-of-house by a freelancer.
Once the text is final, it will be typeset. This just means setting out the words in a design programme like In Design so that it conforms to a printer’s requirements in terms of format and resolution. The book will then be proofread.
After chatting to the author, an editor will draw up a design brief for the designer. Covers are discussed at weekly meetings. We normally work up a near-to final cover for the author. Hopefully he or she will love it, but if not, we spend time addressing their concerns. There is often some compromise involved but we do usually get to a place where everyone is happy.
An author may never know the name of their production controller, but he or she is essential in liaising with printers over price and spec (short for specifications of a book, i.e. page extent, cover effects, paper quality, binding).
In larger publishing houses, there will also be a digital production controller, who will oversee the conversion of final files into an eBook and ePDF.
Sales and marketing
The quickest way to describe the difference between marketing and publicity is to say that the latter deals with “free” marketing (interviews, reviews, blog tours, events, awards). The former produces sales materials (catalogues, order forms, book proofs) as well as adverts and other items for in-store promotions.
The marketing and PR teams work closely with each other and with sales.
The sales department is made up of key account managers, who sell to the chain bookstores, other large retailers, library suppliers, internet stores and supermarkets, and reps (sales representatives), who will visit local shops. It is not unusual to start talking about a book to customers over a year before publication.
There will also be an export team to sell English language books into other countries and a foreign rights department to sell translation rights, if they have been acquired.
Royalties and business affairs team
Last but by no means least is the royalties team, which ensures that an author gets paid. Advances are normally split into three (with one-third paid on signature of contract, a third on delivery and acceptance of manuscript and the last third on publication). This department also compiles and sends out author royalty statements every six months, although an author won’t receive royalties until an advance has earned out.
And that’s it: all the various people mentioned and accounted for! This whole process obviously takes time, careful planning and lots of thought. Ultimately, though, we all want the same thing: to produce a wonderful book for as many people as possible to read and enjoy.