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.

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