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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Traditional Publishing

This information is widely available, so I'm only going to give a quick overview.

*Traditional Publishing* is what most people think of when they buy a book -- these are the companies such as Harper Collins, Thomas Nelson, or Random House. Entering these gates as a newbie writer is NOT an easy task. If I had to give one word that describes the process, I'd say *Glacial* because this takes months of waiting, high hopes, and dashed expectations.

The two most common ways to make contact with a publishing house are either through an editor at the house, or a literary agent. Normally the writer sends a query letter and/or a submission package to said editor or agent. These can be sent cold, or after an invitation, say at a writers conference. Most writers try for an agent first. The writer may need to make a list of 30 or more possible agents to send information to before he is able to find representation, and many writers *never* do.

Once an agreement is reached, the literary agent uses his knowledge of different editors, houses, and *the biz* to shop the writer's manuscript around, hoping to get an editor to say yes. Once the editor says yes, the manuscript goes through several committees of the house as the house determines whether, on balance, this is a good manuscript to acquire. The acquiring editor acts as the manuscript's cheerleader, shepherding it through the process.

If the manuscript is accepted, the agent negotiates with the publishing house to get an advantageous deal for the writer. This includes things like advance, ability to have a say in cover design, number of influencer copies of books, possible tours and other resources for marketing, and whatever else might be important. A release date is selected, usually about a year to 18 months from the time the manuscript is accepted. The writer is paid an advance against royalties: this is money that the publishing company thinks the book will make. The writer does not have to pay this money back even if the book doesn't make the expected profit. The manuscript goes through several edits, a cover is designed, back cover copy written, any facts checked out, and on and on to make the book as perfect as possible. The publicity department may also be called in to determine a good strategy for selling this title.

Next, the book needs endorsements. The house prints Advance Reader Copies (ARCs), which are books without final corrections and so forth, so they may contain slight errors. The acquiring editor, the agent, the writer, and the house figure out who might be good people or review places to approach, and do so.

Finally, the release date arrives. Yippee! The book is now available for sale, in brick and mortar stores and through online places such as amazon. The author does the publicity thing (book tours, interviews, book signings, etc.), and hopefully a million copies are sold. The author is paid a percent of the book price for each book sold. Before the author sees any money though, first he must earn enough in sales to cover the advance money: this is called *paying off the advance.* This often doesn't happen, and indicates that this was a losing book for the publishing house to acquire. The sales figures are evaluated carefully especially when the writer is ready to publish his next manuscript.

The sales figures take awhile to come in because of a policy called *returns.* Basically, bookstores can return the books to the publishing house for a full refund. This is a vestigial practice from an older form of business, but unfortunately still goes on, and can really gum up things for the publishing house since there's a long tail before the money is securely theirs.

A good sales number for a first book might be around 5000 copies sold. Many/most books probably don't sell this well.

There are two main methods for printing books: print on demand, and offset printing. Print on demand produces books one at a time; you can think of it as a glorified copy machine. POD tends to be a bit more expensive per book, but also more efficient. You don't need storage facilities with POD to store thousands of books.

Traditional houses mostly use offset printing, although there is some movement for using POD technology in certain circumstances, say for backlisted books. Offset printing prints books in bulk; a minimum of 500 books is usually necessary to make this a cost-effective move, but runs of several thousand for publishing houses are more common. The main advantage of offset printing is that books are cheaper per unit.

As far as the writer's interest goes for publishing with a traditional house, this post raises some questions about what goes into a query or submission package, and how to go about finding an agent. Also, I should talk a little about distributors. Again, I'm not an expert in these fields but I've learned a bit, and am happy to pontificate at will on these topics :-)

Have a good day.

2 comments:

Billy Coffey said...

This is a process that seems to monumental, so overwhelming, that it's easy to be overcome with doubt. Patience, I suppose, is the necessary ingredient. And also one I happen to lack.

Andra M. said...

It also shows why publishers are so conservative about choosing new authors. It's an expensive gamble with no guarantees.

Pontificate away!