Publishers: What Are They Good For?


I think it’s important, when discussing the future of the book and the future of publishing, to start with an understanding of what publishers do today.

The job of the publisher is to take a manuscript (a written text or collection of text and illustrations) supplied by an author, turn it into a book and distribute the book to readers.

The publisher and the author may be the same person or organization, or they may be a publishing house – a company or organization that publishes other people’s work. The publisher may be for-profit or non-profit. It may range from the author distributing their own work for free all the way to a multi-billion dollar turnover multinational with divisions that handle other kinds of media. But whatever the business model of the publisher, the job is what I outlined in the previous paragraph.

This sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of intermediate steps in publishing. Manuscripts aren’t usually publishable as delivered. In the old days they may well have been handwritten; these days they’re usually prepared on a computer, but they may contain typos, spelling mistakes, internal contradictions, libelous statements (which might get the publisher and/or author sued if they are published without alteration or fact-checking) and other flaws.

The general process of publishing a book resembles the old-school waterfall model of software development, with feedback loops between author and publishing specialist at each stage. The stages are, broadly speaking:

  • Substantive editing: An editor or reviewer reads the manuscript, and calls the author’s attention to errors, problems or high-level structural flaws in the book. The author then fixes these.
  • Copy editing: A copy editor checks the manuscript for grammatical and typographical consistency, correcting spelling mistakes and punctuation errors, preparing lists of names, titles and other uncommon terms for reference, and imposing the publishing house style on the book if appropriate. The author then reviews the copy edited manuscript and approves or rejects the CE’s changes.
  • Book design: Cover art is commissioned. A cover layout/design is prepared, using the cover art. Flap copy/advertising material is prepared. Review quotes are commissioned. The book package is then ready for typesetting.
  • Typesetting: A typesetter imports the copy-edited manuscript into a layout program – typically a DTP package such as Quark Publishing System or Adobe InDesign, but it may be a formatting command language such as LaTeX – then corrects obvious layout options: ladders, runs, orphans and widows, hyphenation. The typesetter also prepares front matter and back matter such as a table of contents.
  • Indexing: Optional – an indexer prepares a list of keywords and generates an index from the typeset file; this generally goes into the back matter. The author may provide feedback on the keywords to use, or even provide the initial list.
  • Proofreading: A proofreader checks the page proofs – typically PDF files these days – for errors introduced at the typesetting stage. The author may also check the page proofs. Corrections are collated and fed back to the typesetter.
  • Bluelining: Final page proofs are prepared and re-checked for errors. The author is not usually involved at this stage, which may be described as second-stage proofreading.
  • Registration and marketing: The publisher registers an ISBN for the book and a Library of Congress (or other national library of record) database entry. A copy will be lodged with the relevant libraries. Additionally, Advance Reader Copies may be laser-printed, manually bound and mailed to reviewers (or electronic copies may be distributed). Advertisements may be placed in the trade press. Other marketing promotional activities may be planned at this stage (if there’s a marketing budget for the title and advance orders from booksellers indicate that promotional activities will generate sufficient extra sales to justify the expense).
  • Manufacturing: The publisher arranges to have the book blocks printed, bound into covers, and guillotined and trimmed. A dust jacket may also be printed and wrapped around the hardcover book. Alternatively, paper covers may be printed and the book block perfect-bound (glued into the cover using thermoplastic glue). Alternatively, a master e-book is generated from the typeset file and, optionally, uploaded to the DRM server (or distributed as-is without DRM).
  • Distribution: Copies of the physical book are shipped to warehouses or retailers. The e-book is released to the various commercial e-book store databases.

This waterfall process generally operates on a 12 month time scale. That’s not because it has to take 12 months – in extremis a trade publisher can rush a topical current affairs title through in as little as 8 weeks from start to finish, including writing time (by editing and typesetting chapters as they are handed in by a team of authors) – but because publishers operate a production pipeline – essentially a conveyor belt that takes in a number of manuscripts and emits the same number of finished books on a monthly basis. Everything runs in lockstep at the speed of the slowest supplier, because to do otherwise risks the production line stalling due to lack of inputs.

As much of the process as possible is outsourced. Publishers do not own printing presses. Copy editors are freelance workers, paid a piece rate per book copy-edited. Typesetting is carried out by specialist agencies. Artwork and design may be outsourced. In some cases, sales are outsourced. The only core activities that are always kept in-house are editorial, marketing and accounting, and editorial is as much about workflow management and marketing is as much about product acquisition as they are about their official job titles.

A major commercial publisher’s genre imprint may be emitting a handful of books a month – but the volume may be considerably higher. Tor, the largest science fiction and fantasy publisher in the United States, publishes approximately 300 books per year. Ace, Daw, Del Rey, Orbit – other genre imprints – emit 50-150 titles per year. In-house staffing levels are low; Tor employs 50-60 people full-time, so the ratio of books published to workers is roughly one book per employee per 2 months (plus perhaps another two months’ work by external contractors).

The upshot is that major publishers today operate extremely streamlined production workflows, with a ratio of perhaps five authors (content creators) per production worker (or a 3:1 ratio if we include external contractors).

A handful of final notes bear repeating:

  • The cost of manufacturing a book is surprisingly low – around 50 US cents for a paperback, rising to $2-3 for a hardback.
  • The cost of manufacturing an e-book is surprisingly high – if a publisher requires DRM, the DRM provider may charge up to 10% of the suggested retail price of the e-book for the (dis)service.
  • Of the retail price of a book, the publisher receives roughly 30-50%. The lion’s share of the revenue – 40-70% of the gross price – goes to the retail supply chain.
  • In general, trade publishers aim to make a profit on each book published equal to the physical manufacturing costs plus the (fixed) production costs (i.e. the costs of editing, typesetting, marketing and so on).
  • If the author’s agent has done their job properly, the author’s profit (a royalty paid per copy sold) will be approximately the same as the publisher’s profit. (The publisher makes themselves useful to the author by organizing the production workflow, marketing and distributing the product, accounting for sales and giving the author an advance against royalties – a non-returnable loan secured against anticipated future sales – which they can notionally live on during the writing and production phase of the project.)

This is what publishers do. Topics I haven’t covered include: the contractual basis for licensing publication rights to a book, the sales channels and pricing structure through which trade books are sold, how this spatchcock mess of an industry evolved and what the prospects are for its future development.