What does a Publisher Do?
There are many types of book publishers: traditional (large house) publishers; niche publishers or small press; assisted self-publishing and author-as-publisher. It’s a rapidly changing market place — by 2016 42% of trade fiction in the US was from non-traditional publishers.
This post discusses what publishers do for fiction authors, and what is expected in return.
Publishers had so many submissions they began using specialists in finding and sourcing quality work. These specialists are called literary agents. Nowadays, many large houses will only look at work if presented by an agent. This does vary between houses, so check a publisher’s website before applying.
An agent is a broker, a negotiator, and editor and sometimes a coach. They may offer advice to an author as to which publishers are short of work, and frequently have a deep understanding of the industry. I don’t have an agent, and they’re not essential. However, many highly successful independently published authors have them, just as traditionally published authors do.
Types of Publishers
The publisher provides full editorial, printing, distribution and some marketing support.
- Developmental edit. An editor will provide an overview of the plot, characters, and identify areas for improvement. For example: you need to bring out one character’s story. Or: it’s too long, you need to lose twenty thousand words. Developmental editing sometimes feels like a dance, and as in dancing, you need to trust your partner.
- Structural edit: this is more like a continuity edit – checking for consistency in terminology, things like locations, directions and timelines are correct within the plot. This process sometimes includes a light copy edit – things like em dashes, speech marks, spelling.
- Copy edit: detailed spelling. A style sheet for the work is developed and applied consistently.
- Line edit/proofing edit: this usually happens just after the work is set for printing; the edit is done on the print proof. This is the last chance to catch any major errors.
Nowdays, many large publishers, having downsized their editorial teams, are likely to outsource to a freelancer. although sometimes they’ll do the copy and line-edit in house.
The publisher may use a PR agent to put out a press release and arrange interviews — radio, TV, newspaper and so on. Sometimes they may organise tours, like attending book festivals. Marketing teams have been downsized, so often they’re small on resource.
Social marketing, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, is usually done by an individual author; unless you’re a big name author, it seems unusual for the house to provide support in the social space. Some well-to-do authors hire assistants to do these activities.
A publisher works with distributors and printers to make sure the book is printed and ready for bookstores to order and arranges disposal of unsold books.
Other services :
If the publisher has world-wide rights for all formats, they may work with translators. They’ll make sure your book is set out in electronic format, and they may do audio versions.
Other (unspoken) benefits of a large house:
There is more catchet with a large house. If you have a contract with, say Penguin Random, my feeling is you’re more likely to be accepted for residences, have your work in stores, and asked to present at conferences/book tours. In New Zealand you are more likely to be supported by state agencies. For example, the NZ Book Council told me I ‘do not qualify as an author.’
Disadvantages of a large traditional publishing house:
It is very hard to get a book contract with a large house, and it’s normal for a large publisher to take up to a year before confirming they’ll accept your work. Over this time it’s bad form to submit to another house (simultaneous submissions). So submitting to a traditional house may tie your manuscript up for a long time.
Contracts with large houses are frequently drafted in favour of the house. For example, they may not have a termination date, and may require world-wide rights. If you get a contract, read it, and if you’re not sure, check with an author’s advocacy agency, such as the New Zealand Society of Authors.
Although a publisher may sign you up for worldwide rights, they may not exploit them. This can mean you only have your books sold in one territory. Even if you think readers in other places may be interested you’re unable to sell to them. So again: read the contract.
Large houses usually take around 85 – 90 percent of the sales price of the book, although this varies depending on print run and locality. The usual advance in New Zealand for children’s fiction seems to be around $2000 although it is higher internationally. Any advance is paid of over sales of the book, so the author doesn’t receive anything more until the royalties are paid off. In New Zealand, this seems to take around 2 years, although again it can vary between genres and publishers.
If you want to read more information on average incomes, royalties and advances, here’s a useful 2016 article by Horizon Research
Anecdotally, if you write literature for New Zealand children it is fairly common to receive the $2000 and then that’s it: unless your book is exceptionally popular, your work is unlikely to be reprinted.
A word of warning: If you’re fortunate enough to be offered a large advance, do not spend it; you should see it as a loan. Because if sales do not meet expectations a publisher may seek reimbursement of this advance.
Small presses have low overheads and may be owner-operator, that is, they only have one or two people working with them. As they usually service niche industries and operate with tight margins they can be insecure.
However, a small press may be very collegial, and the authors may act to support each other.
Generally, they’re full-service, offering editorial and other support. They may be only work in ebook format, so you may not be able to access bookstores or print-based distribution.
A small press can be a great option if you’re new to writing, as you get the editorial support and learn how the publishing process works. You’re less likely to receive an advance, but you may still be seen as being ‘published’ by the establishment, so therefore you may still be eligible for residencies and book tours.
Because small presses are vulnerable to closure or acquisition, make sure any contract you sign will give you your rights back. Sometimes if the publisher closes their author’s rights are sold off as an asset; make sure this doesn’t happen to you. If you’re not sure, talk with your local author’s society.
Assisted publishing is basically a fee-for-service. A company may offer some or all of the services of a large traditional house, but rather than paying the author, the author pays for the services. Sometimes this is called ‘partner publishing’ or ‘vanity publishing’. The model varies between companies so make sure you know what you’re buying.
Assisted publishing is frequently very expensive, and sometimes is a scam: do your homework before you sign any deal. The New Zealand Society of Authors and the Writer Beware websites can offer you more guidance on how to avoid being scammed.
Do-it-Yourself or Independent Publishing
Indie publishers, like me, generally follow a similar process as a traditional publisher: editorial, design and marketing. But instead of an advance, we pay for it ourselves. We source editors and cover art. We may hire a formatter, engage a marketer and source our own PR. Some of these tasks we may do ourselves — for example, I do my own formatting. Sometimes we use software to help. Link to useful tools HERE
Independent publishing is a lot of work. However, royalties are around 30 – 90% on each sale, PLUS the author owns all the rights.
You’re unlikely to be offered a residency as an independent; frequently newspapers and other media are scathing of your abilities.
While it’s not technically difficult to do-it-yourself, it is time consuming. There is one mandatory requirement: you MUST be comfortable with computers.
Other models of publishing:
Publishing is changing all the time. Here’s a few examples:
- Crowd-sourced – for example, Kickstarter
- Commissioned work – textbooks, columns or articles
- Social media – Check out Tyler Knott Gregson’s work.
- Free sites – like Wattpad or FanFiction
Over to you – any other publishing processes I’ve missed out?