A friend came to me furious because, unlike her colleagues’ publishers, the company that produced her book wasn’t arranging a launch party or media interviews. I thought that her book had been beautifully edited and produced (very quickly because the subject was time-sensitive), and that she had paid a very modest fee to have this done.
“Did you agree that they would handle promotion and marketing?” I asked. The question didn’t register. She’d arranged to have the book “published” and to her that meant everything she saw happen with other people’s books. She didn’t know that her colleagues’ parties and media tours were probably being paid for by them or their organizations, rather than by the publisher. She simply wanted what everyone else got.
Another friend told me about getting his books “published” by a very nice company and that he was hoping to raise enough money to publish a few more. Thanks to someone he knew, the books were being carried at this and that local bookstore, and he hoped there would be more if his coauthors could find time to visit more stores.
“Doesn’t the company you used provide distribution?” I asked. He didn’t know. “You can buy an ISBN for $100 and I did that. And they can get the book on Amazon, too.”
If you are not a publishing professional, you may wonder what the connection is between those two stories. If you are, you’ll know that these are stories that show how little even highly educated, literate people know about publishing.
The following notes apply to self-publishing, a booming industry, as well as to “hybrid” and “custom” publishing, as well as to what we generally call “traditional publishing” (with agents and advances, at companies with many different departments).
A startling number of editors, agents, and even publicists who formerly worked for established traditional publishing house now make a living selling their services to individuals. Some have set up businesses selling publishing services. Amazon, of course, has a dominant place in that market, but there are plenty of smaller companies. They often do excellent work, but the two problems illustrated above are among my concerns.
First, the author may end up unhappy because she doesn’t understand the components or stages of launching a book and has no idea what each stage costs.
Second, some of these businesses are aimed at the ignorant and unwary, charge excessive fees, and don’t even provide a full range of services. I have met more than one person who thought that paying to produce a book themselves—in one case, a remarkably attractive and no doubt expensive jacketed hardcover—would make it more likely that a big publisher would want to take it on and promote and sell it. (This is not the case.)
Then, of course, there are the authors who work with traditional publishing houses who are almost always confused and frustrated by the whole process. I was a newbie author once, glad to accept an advance of £1,500. I learned about the business as an author, and have also been a publisher for twenty years. This is a crib sheet, off the top of my head, of the things I think everyone should know about the publishing process. I have made this very general, but included details related to academic publishing because that’s an area I work in. I’m sure there are many details I’ve missed, and I will be asking colleagues for their suggestions.
The photo at right shows my dear friend and mentor W. H. McNeill delivering the manuscript of The Rise of the West, which won the National Book Award, to the University of Chicago Press. This was, of course, posed. Bill was a historian and he must have had a sense that this book was a historic breakthrough, to world history.
It was also a vital part of his personal history and I am happy to got help in capturing the moment. I was not happy, however, when he told me that the press had said the manuscript was far too long and that he needed to reduce it by one third. He did so, and that is the book that was published to great acclaim. “But the original manuscript,” I asked, “where is that?”
“I have no idea,” he said, “it must have been thrown away. I certainly didn’t keep it.”
Today, in the era of electronic copies and cloud backups, there are far too many copies. Here’s my run-down of how things work, written not for my colleagues but for those new to publishing. Comments from colleague and newbies are most welcome!
Acquisition leading to contract: This can be a time-consuming process or something that takes minutes once there is an established relationship. One reason new authors have a hard time getting a foot in is that dealing with someone completely new can be a time sink. Getting to a clear and complete agreement makes everything that follows easier. (This is tangential, but I was startled when an established author who had had big advances looked puzzled when I mentioned a “P and L.” “Profit and loss,” I said, “that’s how publishers decide on what advance they can offer.” “Really?” he said, “I never thought about it.”)
Development: Some editors provide a lot of guidance. Some editors do no editing at all. When they do, this too is a considerable time commitment. Authors essentially work for nothing when they are writing, but editors are paid salaries (or freelance hourly fees) and this time can add up to a lot of money.
Peer review: Trade manuscripts get passed around for comment, but academic manuscripts are subject to something called peer review, which is considered both highly desirable professionally and also a major source of delays, both before a contract is signed and before a manuscript is approved for publication.
Copyediting: Copyeditors are freelance professionals who go over a manuscript in laborious detail to ensure that grammar and punctuation are right, and sometimes reworking text and checking facts. This is almost entirely done on screen today, and publishers expect to get corrections marked on the PDF.
Design: Every book has to have an interior design before it goes to the compositor to be put into pages (a process still casually referred to as typesetting). A design includes fonts (typefaces) for the text, the title, and the headings and running heads, as well as many other details that few readers notice but that enhance, we publishers think, the reading experience.
Registration and other data issues: When we have a final manuscript, we start the Library of Congress registration process and prepare metadata. Metadata is more important all the time, and is becoming a significant part of preparing to market a book.
Composition: The manuscript is set into pages in a design program (almost always Adobe InDesign) that can spit out PDF pages for a printer as well as different ebook files for Kindle and so on.
Proofreading: Proofs start going back and forth between compositor, editor, and author. Some errors pop out in pages, and many people find that errors are even more obvious on a printed page. This process ranges from quick and easy to unbelievably laborious. Authors’ contracts always limit the percentage of changes they can make at this stage, though I’ve always wondered exactly how that percentage is measured.
Indexing: This is a professional field and can add considerably to the cost of a book. My first publisher refused to pay for an index so I did it myself and ended up with McDonalds threatening us with a lawsuit (quite ridiculously, but that was in the days before the infamous McLibel trial). My second publisher used Microsoft Word to make an index and it was downright silly. As a publisher, I’ve paid thousands for an index, but today we are developing better technical systems and have greatly reduced the cost and integrated the work with copyediting.
Advance promotion: Trade publishers need what seems eons between the time they have a final manuscript and the actual publication date. They have a complex series of steps that are undertaken by the marketing and sales departments, including getting jacket blurbs, and meeting with sales teams and major bookstore buyers. Nowadays the IT people are involved, too, setting up webpages and social media links. Without arguing the merits of some of these activities, I urge authors to stay in the loop as much as they can, and to understand that the publisher is investing in your book by having all these people at work.
Online listings: Amazon etc., metadata, and SEO. Again, an area that takes increasing effort and time. My feeling is that the generational divide within publishing houses shows up most when someone uses the word metadata. And publishers do get things wrong—so it’s worth learning enough about how Amazon categories work to be able to check for yourself. (I found, for example, a book about world history called The Human Web (W. W. Norton) categorized as a computer book.)
Reviews: When publishers say there are far fewer places today to get books reviewed, they are telling the truth. The legitimate publications have a hard time even fitting in frontlist books from the big publishers who advertise. A surprising number of publications now charge for reviews, marketing this service to self-published authors. Ask where your book has been sent for review, and ask to see and edit the cover sheet that goes with it.
Publicity and public relations: Everyone wants a book launch party, but it’s been decades since publishers paid for them. This is probably the most confusing stage in the publishing process because it’s so varied, and so hit-or-miss. It’s almost impossible to know if what was spent, whether it was a little or a lot, was justified. Whether it’s someone in the publishing house or someone you hire (as authors quite often do), a PR agent’s personal networks are crucial. A good PR effort makes full use of the author’s networks, too.
Distribution: Books don’t magically appear in bookstores and on library shelves. There are a plethora of middleman services that feed books into places where prospective readers will find them. These “channels” are one of the valuable things a traditional publisher has to offer its authors.
Marketing: This is another area that varies widely, but includes postcard mailings, e-blasts, social media posts, and paid ads. Designing and executing a marketing plan is a skilled job, and the budget never seems enough. I’ve always heard that print advertisements don’t pay—they’re run to make authors feel good, or as a trade-off between the publisher and the magazine.
Sales: Most publishers use sales reps or agencies, who go to conferences and book fairs, and sometimes visit individual libraries. This is an area that is continually changing. It’s worth trying to understand how any publisher you work with does things, and what they do outside the United States. Some of this information will be on their website, probably under Rights.
This is a first attempt to write something very short, and it will no doubt need revision once my knowledgeable publishing colleagues get a chance to take a crack at it. Comments are most welcome.
Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and occasional scholar who also writes about how women gain and wield power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a research associate of the Fairbank Center at Harvard, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and founder of the Train Campaign. She was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, Read Karen’s occasional dispatches from the frontlines of international publishing at Karen's Letter on Substack, and follow her on Twitter etc @karenchristenze.