Why is my publisher doing that?

Until moving to my current position–oh, last month, when I started this stupid thing–I worked in professional publishing. That is, I worked on books that sold primarily, not through traditional trade channels, but direct online, at professional conventions, or through university adoptions, associations, or other professional networks. My list spanned a variety of topics of interest to businesses and nonprofits–board development, leadership, strategy, ROI, training and development, talent management, perhaps most startling, coming from a literature back ground, industrial and organizational psychology. For the (I’m guessing here) 98% of the population who’s never heard of it, OD/ID is, in layman’s terms, the study of what makes workplaces productive. The science combines elements of statistics, group and individual psychology, and detailed analysis.

Anyway, the reason I’m sharing this: I recently received an email from one of my former authors asking, essentially, the questions above–why is my publisher doing that?–but asking it in a way only an I-O Professional ever would: what are the incentives and disincentives to action within this company?

So here we go. Bad news first. In general, I would say, the disincentives to act within a publishing company (at least the four I’ve worked for) are as follows:

A prohibitive workload

If you work in publishing, you never, ever run out of things to do. Your to-do list is long, and probably color coded–and, like Homeland Security, threat levels red, orange and yellow are the only real options–blue and green might be on the chart, but you never actually use them. This is okay. It’s actually kind of exhilarating. But it does make it hard to pick up those little extras.

Budget constraints

Budget is a problem in every business of course. In publishing, budget rears it’s ugly head in two main ways. First, all expenditures are supposed to be tied to particular book projects. This is designed to ensure that publishers don’t spend more making a book than they have projected they will earn by selling it, but it has the (unintended?) side effect of making it insanely difficult to invest in non-book projects–like infrastructure, a better website, an alternative content delivery system, or hiring staff. Basically, if the RIO can’t be measured on an expenditure-to-sale basis, it’s not something publishers will do easily. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get funding for a long-term project, and that in turn makes publishing companies cumbersome and slow to adapt to certain kinds of market pressure. Second, marketing budgets (like marketers’ time) are tied to next seasons’ front list. If your book didn’t launch strong, it’s really kind of too bad. Your money has been spent and your marketer is already working on whatever is coming out in six months. Any secondary marketing efforts are going to be gorilla-style, and on a shoe string.


In a billion dollar international company that has absorbed dozens of smaller companies wholesale, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to perform certain tasks, who can help you to perform them, and sometimes even whether they are possible. And of course, there are all the usual bureaucratic issues. Like the age old question, famous among editors and salesmen alike: who’s territory is this, really. No one is totally sure, but you can bet they’re going to hammer it out, over and over and over again. And then there’s that other favorite: what does the boss like? If your publisher has decided that, say, strat planning books are out this year, and everyone should sign vampire romances instead, that’s what’s going to happen.

Basically, if the world were full of time and money, and everyone answered “yes,” then publishing would be a perfect business.

So, what are the incentives to act? What makes publishing people jump up and get things done?


If there’s real sales potential your publisher will move, probably faster than you’ve ever seen them move before. If you wrote a history book that’s supposed to be out in May, and you get a gig as key note speaker at the National Historical Society conference in March, odds are good that schedule will move up fast. This doesn’t mean your book was on a slow schedule before. It means your publisher offered the copy editor (and the pagers, and the indexer, and the illustrator) a raise to turn the manuscript around in half the time. Also, perhaps, a drop ship. This is the flip side of the budgetary coin. Book specific expenses with a good upside are easy to get approved.

Professional pride

A successful book gives everyone who worked on it–the publisher, the editors, the assistants, the marketers, the sales team, the production staff, the designers, the web guy, the systems people, everyone–a sense of accomplishment. When authors do well, it means publishers did well. Tons of work goes into every book, and the whole team wants to see it succeed–not as much as the author does, probably, but a lot. Working on to a high quality book mean a lot; working on a high quality book that people end up loving is the best thing ever.


Books are prioritized based on projected sales numbers. Certain sales thresholds are tied to corresponding levels of marketing and production expenditure, and there’s only so much an author can do to get around that. HOWEVER, if your publisher likes you, they’ll go out of their way to help you. It’s a function of limited time and limited resources, divided by who calls yelling and screaming vs who calls and asks for help. Somewhere between the “squeaky wheel” and “you win more flies with honey” is the approach that will serve you best with your publisher: when you have a small question: email, when you have a big question: call, AND be nice about it.

Personal gain.

This is actually less of a motivator than you might think (or at least, than I thought going into it). Only two groups within a publishing company have financial incentives they can directly impact, but they are arguably the two most important groups: editors and sales staff. Virtually everyone else, from the support team to management, earns their bonus based not on the performance of the books they personally work on, but on the success of the company a whole, or a particular imprint, or some combination. For editors and (some) sales people, however, compensation is tied to the success of their own particular books. Many, but not all, sales staff earn commission. Editorial compensation is somewhat more convoluted. An acquiring editor is generally evaluated based on three criteria: signing, delivery, and profitably. That is, the number of projects signed within a fiscal year; the number of books published within a fiscal year; and most important, the value (perspective and actual) of those projects. Obviously sales expectations and signing goals will vary from topic to topic and from publisher to publisher–but wherever you go performance in these three areas determines an editor’s bonus. A little practical application for you: if you’re getting a lot of pressure to turn around a contract fast, it’s probably close to the end of the quarter. Delivery dates, though, are more complex.


A late manuscript can theoretically impact an editor financially–but not that much. The real motivator here is the domino effect a late manuscript has on all the other team members. If a book is late to the editor it’s late to production, which means it’s late to the independent contractors, who may already be booked for some or all of the new time slot, so that new contractors need to be hired, which means it’s even later, which means it’s it’s late to launch, which means all the marketing needs to be pushed back. Just hope it hasn’t dropped out of the season, in which case the catalog is probably wrong, and the sale team and cover designers have incorrect information, and someone needs to make sure the book doesn’t get launched on the website based on the previous date. Is this the end of the world? No. But it makes everyone’s job harder, it costs you sales, and if a particular editor’s projects are chronically late, that editor gets get a rep. The odds are good that if your editor is hounding you to turn in your manuscript, it’s because a dozen other people are hounding them.

Thoughts on “The Acquisitions Editor” Spoof

I read (okay, sometimes skim) Joe Konrath’s blog the way I occasionally listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio–because even though he pisses me off, it seems like a good idea to know what different people are saying. Not that I want to compare Joe Konrath to Rush Limbaugh as a person. I mean, Rush is a crazy, mean, asshole. Joe’s just a bit of a curmudgeon. But sometimes, like I said, he really can piss me off. Like this post, “The Acquisitions Editor” from two weeks ago (look, I don’t check it everyday).

Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture? Well, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve worked at a lot of publishing houses and visited a lot more. Let me just say: none of them are in hip happening buildings, and at none of them are Editorial Assistants expected to get coffee for anyone. What is this, Madmen?

Okay, yeah, I know, it’s not literal. I’m over it.

The top five infuriating inaccuracies in this article are as follows:

5. ebooks rights only?

On what planet are publishers contracting exclusively for e-rights? According to current estimates, ebook sales represent 6% of the total book market–a lot more than I would have thought, but hardly enough justify going through the whole manuscript process. Especially when whoever owns the print rights could presumably undercut your price at any time, or even just do something as simple as creating market confusion with a new edition.

4. The implication that publishers came up with the $9.99 ebook price point.

It may be shooting myself in the foot to mention this one, but the $9.99 price point is Amazon’s. It wasn’t created by publishers. In fact many publishers prefer a price point closer to the $14 trade paper standard, which is why so many ebook prices are going up now that publishers have a say. I can sort of understand this. Cheapo mass market paperbacks have always been my personal favorite book format as a consumer, but traditionally publishers only release those for their most popular books, so they can make up in volume what they loose in price.

The thing is, I really liked the $10 price. It’s equivalent to eating lunch out or going to a movie. That is, it’s the kind of little splurge I can indulge in on a semi-regular basis. More than that, it struck me as pretty fair–$5 more expensive than say, renting a movie, $5 less expensive than buying a trade paper you could potentially resell. RIP.

3. “Well, we could spend two or three weeks working on a single title in order to get it ready.”

All I can say to this one is, “I wish.” The standard time-table for publication, from the time the author turns in their finished manuscript to the day it goes up for sale is more like six or seven months. True, about six weeks of that is time spent at the printer and in transit to the warehouse–but that still leaves five months. What happens in that time? Well, copyedit, author review, integrating changes, design, proofs (2 rounds), author review again, another round of proofs, cover copy, author review, cover design, author reviews that, too, endorsements, putting the ebook in different formats as needed, and QC-ing the ebooks formats.

Keep in mind that all this happens after the author has turned in a first draft, received feedback, and made revisions. If you count the developmental process it’s closer to ten months.

2. “But paper books cost money to create.”

Not as much as you might think. The unit cost of a standard black and white 6 x 9 paperback is really, really low. Like really low. They are made in China.

Making a book does cost money, but the costs are mostly stacked on the content creation and vetting end of things. For instance, you have to pay for developmental editorial work, design, acquisitions and marketing time, and you have to all the production staff (mostly freelancers) like the copyeditor, copywriters, the pager, the person who handles the QCs, etc.

To be fair, old Joe does mention these costs. Based on his estimates, I guess he really doesn’t like designers.

Yeah, that was a joke. More seriously, when you go with a traditional publisher, one of the things you’re getting is experience and expertise. Konrath argues that publishers don’t product test, but actually the whole (failing) publishing business model is one big product test–basically you just throw everything at the wall, see what sticks, and then try to recreate it. Not the most refined approach, but over time it has let publishers build up a strong good body of market knowledge and, yes, actual data. From this article, and this whole blog actually it’s clear that Konrath prefers to go his own way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that 200 years of industry experience are wrong–just that this guy prefers his own title and cover.

1. “Do you know how much it costs to rent this office? We’re paying $25k a month, and that doesn’t even include utilities. I’ve got three assistants. We all have health insurance and 401k. Expense accounts. Do you have any idea what it costs to take agents out to lunch?”

Delusional. Seriously. Delusional. Everyone working in publishing, and I mean everyone, is overworked and underpaid. Literally everyone in the business, the designers, the tech people, the editors, the finance people, the publishers, everyone, could make more money working elsewhere. The only exceptions are the executive teams at the big six, and perhaps one or two other large houses.

Assistants are shared, offices are eclectic at best, there are no admins at all, there are a ton of temps (that means no health care, son), and lots of people, (especially editors and marketers) put in free nights and weekends. These are not the fat cats of the literary world (I’m really not sure who those would be. Critics, maybe? Or Madona, when she wrote that children’s book?). They are mid-level (at best) professionals who’ve invested their careers, hearts, minds, blood, sweat, and leisure-time in making art happen. Essentially, they are good, hardworking advocates who don’t deserve a bunch of shit from the likes of this guy.

I’m not saying prices couldn’t get lower. I’m not saying the royalty split is perfect, or that it’ll fall out that way in the end. I’m not saying the system is efficient, or the business plan is a good one. I’m not saying authors can’t double as agents and micro-presses.

I’m just saying: publishers aren’t the enemy; they just may not be your solution.

And you don’t have to be such a feakin’ jerk all the time.

What you sign up for when you sign with a traditional publisher

I’ve been reading a lot on alternative publishing lately, looking for creative solutions to what is becoming an increasingly complex and fractured space. I’ve been a little disturbed by how much of the content focuses on the perceived failings and inequities of traditional publishing, rather than on possibilities for improvement. I say perceived because, while the publishing business has some serious problems, those aren’t the issues that are attracting the notice in the online, as far as I can see.

The book industry’s business model is clearly failing–I’m not disputing that. But many commentators are blaming that failure on greed in the industry, a negative attitude toward content and authors, and a fundamental lack of valuable services provided.

In response, I have to say first, that greed is something I’ve never witnessed among publishing professionals. Working in publishing is a labor of love. Every single person at a publishing company, from the publisher to the IT staff, could earn a higher salary elsewhere. They do what they do because they enjoy it, they care about it, and they think it maters. Book editors are always at work: they work all day at the office, they work all night at home, and they talk up their books like crazy to anyone who will listen.

The second point can be a little more ticklish. By and large, editors love their authors. Editors select their authors because they believe in their work; they help to hone and shape the manuscript; they represent the book and fight for it within the company and in the marketplace. Many authors and editors become close friends.

But there are always those authors. You know the ones. They use the home phone number you gave them for emergencies every other day. They request six separate short extensions instead of just saying “I’ll be six months late.” They turn in the manuscript six months late and then can’t understand why the book’s not out for BEA. They change the title four different times after the manuscript is already in production, then complain when Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t update their websites right away. Essentially, they behave unprofessionally. That’s because (guess what) they aren’t professionals. They’re writers.

The third point, that traditional publishers no longer provide a valuable service, is I think, best redressed by explaining exactly what traditional publishers do (and do not) offer. This will vary from press to press, but basically, here’s what you sign up for for when sign with a traditional publisher:

1. The product

Your book will be released in at least one hardcopy version, either cloth or paperback (or, less frequently, both at different times). The hardcopy edition will have a professional cover created by designers specializing in your book’s particular market. The interior design will most likely be a variation on an existing template for which the publisher and printer both already own the necessary fonts.

Your book will also be made available in assorted ebook formats. Typically, these include mobi/kindle, ePub/apple, eReader, PDF, and if you’re lucky, at least one format for the disabled, such as Daisy.

If the publisher has high hopes for your book, they may also produce a audio version, a vook, or an app right out of the gate, BUT THIS IS RARE, especially for first-time authors.

2. Editing and production

Constructive, effective editing is the most valuable and important contribution a publisher can make to any book. At the manuscript stage, authors work with their editors to revise and improve the work. For high-level nonfiction, this may involve a peer review and/or competitive analysis. For fiction and softer nonfiction it more typically involves a more collaborative line edit approach.

When the final manuscript is submitted and approved, it will be vetting for copyright violations, fact checked if necessary, copyedited, and designed. Three rounds of page proofs is about average, although the publisher generally only shares one round with the authors unless there are special concerns. During this period, illustrations are commissioned, executed, and inserted into the text. Photographs and screen shots may come from the authors themselves (this is very common in nonfiction), taken from stock art, or more occasionally developed by the publisher. The e-versions of the book are also QC-ed during this period.

3. The marketing

This will differ significantly depending on the type of book you’ve written and the audience your going after. Regardless, much of the marketing will depend on the author. Here’s what you can expect from publishers.

The base-line no-frills B-level book treatment is as follows. All books receive back cover copy and web copy, catalog and newsletter coverage, social media coverage, availability on web retailers, and email blast promotions singly or in clusters (typically these go to previous customers or target groups like librarians, professors, indie bookstores, etc.). In addition, all trade books (that is books intended to be sold in a bookstore, as opposed to professional books or text books) will be presented to key accounts such as Barnes & Noble, Boarders, Books, Books-A-Million, what-have-you. Trade books will also be sent to industry reviewers such as PW, Library Journal, and newspaper book review sections (and yes, freaking Oprah).

The next level of publisher driven promotions, those reserved for A-level titles, can include a whole variety of outreach: promotional websites, facebook pages, ad-value content for Amazon, ads online and in trade publications/newsletters, giveaways like book marks and post cards, chain bookstore display table placement, Amazon special promotions, booksense boxes, press releases, magazine excerpts, interviews, contest entries, conference features (BEA, NLA, Midwinter, Frankfurt) and so on. For nonfiction titles with a specific topic/audience (computer books, business books, etc.) these promotions may be more specialized–i.e. a feature on 1-800-CEO-Read begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              1-800-CEO-Read      end_of_the_skype_highlighting, email blasts MBA professors, a focus on leadership conferences, but the concept is similar.

Finally, at the very top of the echelon, for AAA+ books only, there is the promise of actual print advertising and the elusive publisher-planned book tour.

Obviously, none of this on it’s own is enough to make a book sell. Publishers count on authors to do a lot of self promotion: to network with other authors, to blog, to tweet, to write editorials, to go to conferences, to plan signings and give talks. Authors who are unwilling or unable to do this will have a hard time getting signed. Conversely, the authors who are best at promotion themselves and their books may find that, like Seth Godin, they are better off without a publisher. Of course, Godin was with a traditional publisher through 12 bestsellers before he decided to go out on his own. So I guess make of that what you will.

*A note on ENDORSEMENTS: Authors always have some role in obtaining endorsements, although it can very widely from one publisher to another. Some publishers will ask the author to provide endorsements by a particular date and leave it at that. Others will ask the author for suggested endorsers and handle the requests themselves.

4. The sales

I really can’t put enough emphasis on this one. This is one of the biggest benefits of going with a major publisher: they have all kinds of sales staff. They have a team of trade reps to call on major buyers; a team of college reps to call on large adopters; direct sales staff, who cold call potential customers; sometimes they even have special reps for libraries and Indies. All these people just out there, all the time, selling.

Admittedly, this is less important now than it was five years ago. These days, you don’t have to see an actual book in front of your face to buy it…but it still helps.

Also, notably, many really big publishers have dedicated Amazon employees. That is, staff at Amazon whose salaries the publisher pays, who work exclusively for that publisher. Extended sales staff, if you will.

5. The money

Very few people get rich writing books. Or editing them, for that mater. So what can you expect money-wise? Well, every company is different, but typically you can expect to earn a royalty on a graduated scale between 10-15%. A typical scale might be 10% on the first 3,000 copies, 12.5% on the next 2,000, and 15% thereafter. Interestingly, in negotiations it’s easier to get publishers to change the break points (3,000, 5,000, >5,000) than it to change the royalty rates themselves.

Royalties are paid twice yearly or quarterly (again, depending on the publisher) and do not kick in until after the book is published and begins to sell.

In addition, many publishers offer their authors an advance against royalties. The advance is theoretically intended to give the author the leisure to write and edit the work, although the actual amount of the payment is rarely sufficient to make this possible.

The amount of the advance is based on the publisher’s sales projections and is calculated to be roughly equal to the author’s royalties during the first 6 months to one year after publication. The payment is payable in one or more installments (for example, half at contract signing, half on the submission of the manuscript). In cases where an advance is paid, the author will not start earning royalties until the advance has been “earned out.”

Royalties may be based on list price, the total cost of the book as advertised by the publisher, or net receipts, the money the publisher actually receives for each sale (because of bulk discounting this will vary according to the size of each sale, but is typically 20-50% off list price). These days, royalties based on net receipts are far, far more common than royalties based on list price.

6. Rights, legal and miscellany

Assuming you decided to grant your publish foreign rights in your publishing agreement, your publisher may sell foreign rights to your book to one or more other publishers around the world. For fiction, translation typically comes only after the book has received a degree of success in the market. However, for some sub-genres translations may come early on. For example, it’s not unusual for nonfiction business titles to be translated into Korean and Chinese before their sales records are proven.

If you are plagiarized, your publisher will likely begin by issuing a cease and desist letter. If the other party has been making a profit from the material, there may be some recompense or retro-active permission fee, which will be divided between author and publisher as specified in the original publishing agreement. However, it must be said that if the other party is based in Asia, this is extremely unlikely. If the material is web-based, the best you can really hope for is that it be taken down. The reality is that digital books, like digital music, are vulnerable. People who wish to steal them will continue to do so, no matter what technological protections are put in place. But the vast majority of readers still value what you do enough to pay a reasonable sales price.

If you have questions about permissions, or disclaimers, or any of the legal aspects of writing a book, just ask. The odds are good that your editor has experience with the issue, and if not, there’s a whole legal team to help.