Since the advent of the digital age and self-publishing as we now know it, there’s been a backlash against traditional publishers and their position as “literary gatekeepers”. Indeed, many early exponents of self-publishing predicted the toppling of the dinosaur-like “big” publishing houses as the gates were flung open by the likes of Amazon’s Createspace. Traditional publishers themselves seemed worried. Yet the traditional publishers have weathered the storm, and remain in business. Why? As self-publishing is relatively straightforward and (potentially) inexpensive, why do the literary gatekeepers remain? What’s their role now that anyone can publish a book directly?
The prediction of the downfall of traditional publishers was wrong; most likely because of a failure to appreciate how much value a good publisher adds to a book. In fact, they add a great deal. But you’d have to have a good working knowledge of how publishing and bookselling works to understand the exact value of what they do add.
So let’s go through the multi-task publishing process step by step. (NB professional self-publishers will also do all of these, apart from number 1.)
The process whereby an editor or publisher liaises with an agency or author, reads the manuscript/s and then subsequently makes a decision on whether to take a book on or not. Depending on the size of the publishing house, this can be a lengthy, involved, process or a relatively straightforward and speedy one. Contracts will be produced and exchanged. Again, this can be a bit of a lengthy back-and-forth process depending on the author and the publisher.
Unless a manuscript (MS) is 100% print ready (and that happens incredibly rarely) it will be subject to various editing processes:
Structural editing. This happens if the MS is rather “rough” and in need of major plot changes and rewriting in terms of a change in tense and/or point of view. It should also, broadly speaking, highlight repetition, weak writing and clunkiness etc.
Line editing. This is applied to a “finer” grade of MS i.e. one that is structurally sound but still needs to be edited line by line for plot, character and world consistency, flow, grammar and typos.
Copyediting. This is the last step of editing, whereby the publisher applies its own “house style” to the text i.e. makes changes to various words e.g. ‘t shirt’ to ‘t-shirt’; ‘realize’ to ‘realise’. Another example: if an American publishing house is publishing the work of a UK author, they will Americanize all the British spelling.
Proofreading. This is the last read-through of the text by another professional (a fresh set of eyes) that will weed out the typos that have, as yet, gone unnoticed by spellchecker, author and editor.
Typesetting is, in effect, the process of getting an author’s MS from a Word document (or other word processing file) into a proper book layout. In practice, this will result in a PDF which is print ready and compatible with the printer’s software. (The printers will go on to add some of their own magical jiggerypokery to turn the PDF into the final book layout. This is called imposition.) You wouldn’t be far off the mark in thinking that, surely, in the digital age, typesetting should be a straightforward process. However, turning a Word document (which can be full of strange, hidden formatting) into text that fits neatly into book-sized pages is not simply a one-click process. In general, the more messy the typesetting of a print (or e-) book, the less time a human has spent on it. A traditional publisher will want the typesetting to look as professional and stylish as possible, so they will employ either the in-house typesetter or an experienced freelancer to carry out this task. A typesetter will often be the person converting the MS into an ebook too. Nowadays, there is also the potential to add all kinds of metadata to a book so that various platforms and retailers can harvest information from it, which can, in turn, make the book more prominent.
4) COVER DESIGN
Producing a professional-looking cover is no mean feat because within milliseconds of a reader picking up a book they will have come to various conclusions about the book: its production quality and, hence, an extrapolated judgement on the writing within (this book screams “amateurish”!). They will also immediately figure out the book’s genre/what the book is about (a chaste romance!), and who the book’s intended audience is (pastel pink = for women!). And unless the author’s name is instantly recognizable the reader may well mutter: Never heard of them! All from the cover alone.
Sometimes traditional publishing houses are mocked for their run-of-the-mill, unimaginative and slave-to-fashion book covers however, it would be contrarian to mock the effectiveness of the covers’ success in virtually instantaneously signalling to the would-be buyer-reader just exactly what the book is about. And in a time-strapped world, where buying decisions take place within seconds it’s crucial to quickly and effectively tell the reader just what the book is about. For most readers, a cover that doesn’t visually tell them anything useful about the writing inside isn’t an intriguing mystery to be solved by the purchasing and reading of the book, but merely an irritation; an instant disengagement and putting-down of the book. Particularly when there are so many other more visually decipherable and engaging covers that help the would-be purchaser/reader reach their buying choice more easily.
Traditional publishers (and professional self-publishers) understand the need for a cover that a) looks professional and b) signals to the reader the genre of the book and c) who its intended audience is (this can be to do with sex, age, profession or academic specialism), and hence they give this important task to either an in-house or freelance cover designer who is experienced enough to understand the publisher’s remit and can deliver. (The cover designer may, in addition, liaise with a specific artist if they have a certain image in mind for the cover).
Lastly, the publisher will curate the blurb on the back of the book, gather a couple of choice endorsements from well-known authors (most likely another one of their authors), and, of course, purchase the unique ISBN number (along with the ISBN’s barcode) to go on the back cover of the book.
5) LIAISING WITH PRINTERS
Based on sales figures and past experience of publishing similar books by similar authors (similar in terms of their experience – debut novelist, mid-list author, bestselling sensation etc.) the publisher will make a calculated decision about the quantity of books to print in the first print run. Nowadays, with the advent of print-on-demand, it may seem as though there’s no real need to print large quantities of books first time round, especially when many of them may remain unsold and unloved, taking up space in a distributor’s warehouse and still costing the publisher in warehouse costs. But by lithographically printing a large quantity of books upfront, the unit cost of the book goes down and hence the potential profit margins (per book) go up. Sell virtually all of the many thousand you print and you’ve made a good profit. But sell only a fraction of those many thousand and you’ve lost money (or have it tied up in unsold stock, which is, essentially, dead money). So, to ensure the solvency of the publishing house it’s crucial that they get this estimate right. Not printing enough books first time round can also be a problem because it takes time for a printer to print more books, and the time lag between a reader wanting a book (but it not being available in a shop) to getting more books out there may be long enough to discourage the reader and hence lose the sale. There’s a fair amount of expertise necessary (as well as a goodly dollop of luck) for getting this decision as right as possible. Traditional publishers stand a better chance of getting this figure right and liaising with the printers to ensure that the print copies are ready and delivered in good time pre-publication date.
6) MARKETING & PUBLICITY
Traditional publishers usually plan on getting copies of books to journalists and literary reviewers for newspapers and magazines (also book bloggers and reviewers on Amazon etc.) 6 months pre-publication date. That’s to give the reviewers enough time to read and review the book, and to ensure that those reviewers engaged by a magazine or newspaper get their copy in on time (traditional print-based media often have long lead times for set-in-stone print deadlines). Publishers also need to get information about the book to sales reps. who will be approaching book shops, retailers, libraries etc. with recommendations for “hot books”. Generating a “buzz” about a book pre-publication date can often make a huge, positive difference to those all-important sales in the first week of a book’s publication. Closer to the publication date there will be author interviews to arrange, articles to write, and launches to organize (along with a barrage of canny social media marketing). Basically, a traditional publisher will have a marketing and publicity team with their fingers in a number of media “pies” to ensure that a) they successfully raise awareness about the book to the general public and b) the ensuing raised awareness results in sales of the book. Running a successful marketing campaign for a book is a huge amount of work, and like many things in life, the more money and time you invest in the endeavour, the greater the returns are.
7) SELLING RIGHTS
By selling rights in other territories, and media (audio, translation, play, TV, film etc.) a publisher can generate extra income from a book, buoying the bank balance and helping them to stay solvent. This will also allow them to recoup costs for books that may not have as much potential commercial success in the mass market.
8) RUNNING THE BUSINESS
In addition to all the above processes involved in producing a book – the core work of a publishing house – there will be the other generic business and day-to-day administrative tasks to accomplish that are necessary to keep the business complying with various legal and financial requirements e.g. managing staff, upkeep of office space, accounting, tax returns, data compliance etc. The bigger the publishing house, the more time these tasks will take up. However, even after publishing only a dozen or so titles within a few years a small press run by only one or two people will soon rack up enough admin to keep them permanently busy. Or permanently behind with the admin! There is also one other vital aspect to running a business: planning for the long-term, in terms of finances, as well as making important decisions about the direction the business is to go if it is to stay solvent.
To summarize: publishers add a huge amount of value to a book – meaning, in actuality, that books should cost a lot more than they do (more on that later) – and they don’t charge their authors for the work. Instead, they look to sales of a book to generate income to keep the whole unlikely business afloat. Which is why they tend to focus on commercial books (aka potential bestsellers), with half an eye on literary fiction that will give them kudos come awards season (if these books bag any big awards they also have the potential to sell lots). Professional self-publishers will also ensure that their book has all the value added to it that a professional publisher would invest, but they have to pay for that investment themselves.