Authors and agents becoming publishers together


It is my belief that almost all the innovations that Amazon has brought-to/forced-on the publishing and bookselling industries over the last couple of decades have eventually worked to the advantage of authors and readers. I am quite sure if I were a publisher or a bookseller I would feel very differently about the rise of Amazon to virtual world dominance, but I’m not. As both an author and a reader I love the many ways in which they have enriched my life.

There have been rumblings recently of “mysterious and secret” deals being done between Amazon and some of the biggest and brightest literary agents. They are calling it their “White Glove” service, and from the point of view of authors whose agents love their books but are unable to persuade traditional publishers to take them on, it’s a brilliant innovation, which I believe points to one of the ways forward for people working in publishing.

Last year I wrote a novella, Secrets of the Italian Gardener. I sent the manuscript to one of the biggest and best agents in London, who I have known for many years, and he came back brimming with enthusiasm. He wanted no re-writes and he was sure he could get a sale. He told me the book was a “contemporary re-casting of Ecclesiastes” and was about “the vanity associated with the desire for power and possessions and ultimately about the cycle of birth, growth, death and re-birth” – which was a surprise, but by no means an unpleasant one.

Six months later he had to admit that he had failed to convince any publishers to come into business with us on this one. In the old days that would have been the end of the story. Simple self-publishing was now one option, of course, but with Amazon’s “White Glove” service we had another, and to my mind far preferable, alternative.

Highly skilled staff at the agency proceeded to do a totally professional copy-edit and then did all the heavy lifting with getting the book up onto Amazon, ready for print-on-demand as well as electronic publication. It has become a team effort rather than a lone author’s voice in the crowd and should the book start to “gain traction” in the market place the agency is already fully engaged and ready to handle the business side of taking it to the next level.

It seems to me that this template offers future roles for all the souls who work as authors and agents and who are unable to persuade anyone else to come on board with a project. The resulting books stand as good a chance of success as anything published in the traditional way, avoiding the “ordeal by rejection” which has made life as a professional author such a nightmare for the last two hundred years.


Gutenberg was also a bookseller


It seems clear that consumers may want different formats: a library may desire a sewn hardback that will last centuries; a traveller may want a read-once papeback that fits in a handbag; an older reader may desire larger print. A student may want not whole books but the must-read chapters for his course. All these point to production on demand for books, either by ordering online or by finding bookshops that have printing machines as well. So there will be fewer, larger physical bookstores, and workers in said stores will need to work with publishing software.

This comes with a risk that copyright owners fail to get paid so shop managers and production people will need to be conscious of security as well.

Gutenberg would recognise a world where books are personalised, expensive and made to order, but he would be surprised that there is also the cheap alternative of buying the e-version.

Amazon has recently linked a cut price offer for an ebook to a previous physical purchase – the deal could work the other way also: taste the e-book, then buy physical. But having a history of customer purchasing is a huge advantage in making the link. How copyright owners can verify against abuse is not so clear!


the changing role of copy editors


As authors do not depend on publishers anymore in publishing their works work flows are changing. Authors are more independent in choosing their way of publishing. Still the process of writing itself remains hard work and is not easily done. Self publishing does not mean that the work of copy editors is no longer needed. Texts still have to be read and revised and read several times before they can be published. But where exactly is the place of the copy editor in ebook publishing? Roles are changing and I a m happy to be a part of the changes.

What deals will publishers offer in five years’ time?


Perhaps a better question will be: what will publishers offer authors they want to work with?

I don’t just mean money, but the whole package. Traditionally publishing has included all the production and arguable amounts of marketing and publicity. This all amounts to costs in the end, of course, but it’s never been seen as such by authors or their representatives until now.

All the scribbling world is going indie. New, unpublished writers are, to establish themselves – even if they’re agented. And experienced, well-regarded authors are leaving their imprints – either being dropped or deciding to seek a better way to release their work. This is creating an authorforce that is, to a greater or lesser extent, publishing literate.

At the moment publishers watch the indie scene to see who does well. They pounce on the Hocking and Howey high fliers, but in a few years’ time they’ll have a different breed of writer to consider: the well established indie with a clutch of books and a growing audience. The kind of author who used to make up the midlist. I’m wondering, what deals would they offer?

For most of us it’s unlikely to be bidding wars. But it’s really going to test the industry because it can’t be a standard midlist deal. Most indie authors will have outgrown that.

Help with production

How much production help will a competent self-publishing author need? Of course, some writers loathe production and will be glad to hand it over. Others, though, relish the control (like yours truly) or will have it so smoothly managed that they’d rather hire the help themselves than hand over a bigger share to have it arranged.

A publisher might be able to offer an economy of scale – although they have often cut staff so much they are using the same freelances who are hired by indies.

Here’s an added complication. The book needs to look professional. How would a deal legislate for a situation where a writer’s production values look like a home haircut? Spin it the other way: what would stop a publisher vetoing an outside editor to keep the work themselves and accrue extra percentage points?

I’ve already made this more complex than I imagined. Suffice it to say: production costs will become a negotiation point.

Help with promotion and marketing

I’m guessing that one of the prime reasons for partnering with a publisher is to gain kudos, exposure and credibility in places we can’t reach by ourselves.

We all know that if a publisher pulls out all the stops they can make a huge difference to a book’s fortunes. But most of the time (ie if they haven’t paid big bucks for the author), they can’t afford to.

What most non-starry authors get is a few mentions in the national press. That can certainly send an indie author reeling with delight. But does it sell copies? The evidence is that it doesn’t. Most books don’t sell unless you keep them constantly on readers’ radar. A splash in the press is short term. Indie authors know they have to keep a sustained campaign of advertising and promoting. The midlist author launch package is little more substantial than a token cork-pop at the book’s birth. It won’t keep the book alive, month in, month out.

There’s worse. At the moment, when you sign a deal, publishers are often secretive or vague about what marketing they will do. They’re used to the writers being so overawed that they never have to explain what exactly will happen or how brief the publicity flare will be.

Indeed, it’s shocking how meagre a publisher’s marketing plan might be. One writer I know was asked for a list of blogs the publisher could contact to run posts about the books. Up until then, the writer had believed the publisher would use their own special contacts, not people the writer already knew about. Another author friend, after two successful books, was sent on a social media course. He learned nothing he couldn’t have gleaned from reading a few blogs.

However, many of my writer friends are excited about the Amazon imprints – even authors who feel they’re finished with traditional publishing. Why? Because Amazon have developed and honed an amazing machine for finding readers. What’s more, the algorithms can work long term with emails and targeted deals. That’s the kind of help we would all take seriously.


I haven’t even mentioned ebooks. As ebook formatting is one of the simplest things for an author to do or source, few of us will need help to make them. Where will a publisher add value? Publicity? The trouble is, their publicity machine is still wedded to print territories, whereas indies are already marketing on the, ahem, wordwide web. Perhaps publishers will start to think globally. Or perhaps ebooks will be left out of publishing deals with indies, as those markets may already be well served.


Getting copies into bookshops is one area where indies struggle – and traditional publishers are acknowledged masters. However, go into your local Waterstones or B&N and you’ll be bewildered by the acres of book spines. What’s the likelihood of someone finding your book by chance, even if it’s there? Except for prominent displays (which aren’t given to every author), publicity is what makes readers pick up a book or ask for it to be ordered – and indies can already get onto the wholesale lists at very little cost. We don’t even need to buy the ISBN. So it is my contention that well targeted, long-term publicity is more significant to an author than distribution to a lot of shops. Do feel free to disagree.

Help with development

It probably seems cockeyed to consider this last. We can’t deny that editors can add a vital nurturing influence. Although successful indie authors will already have their infrastructure for making a book good, few of us would dismiss the chance to do it better. If we were convinced.

Equitable arrangements

At the moment a publishing deal is like a fixed-price menu. But the authors of the future will be savvy about publishing. They’ll look for equitable arrangements and publishers will have to be flexible for each situation. A la carte.

No more secrets

Publishers will also need to be more transparent. Right now the culture is to keep the author in the dark. A business relationship can’t be vague like that. And to be fair, many editors do recognise the need for change. But they don’t necessarily have the skills, systems or company culture to reinvent their relationships with authors. They’ve usually got enough to do keeping up with their publishing schedule – having managed an editorial department I know the realities of getting books out, and how diktats often come from lofty management levels that are impossible to fulfil while making the daily deadlines. So this kind of change is going to take time.

Ultimately a fair deal will take account of what each side puts in. Who, in a publisher, is equipped to strike a fair deal with the entrepreneurial author or their agent? The editors? They know about nurturing content, being its shepherd and handling production. But they aren’t skilled in converting this into workable contract terms and profit shares. And why should they be? That’s like expecting your plumber to be able to fix your computer. The other option is the contracts department. But they’re in a legal ivory tower, away from authors and the realities of book production or selling. It’s as if we need a new kind of job in publishers – a professional who can grapple with all of this.

And then there’s the value of judgement. Old-fashioned experience that tells you what works, what standards to stick to and which rules you can flamboyantly break – both in terms of book production and book writing. That might come from a long-established editor – but it might also come from an astute, talented author.

It’s going to be an interesting – and hopefully creative – future.

(This post is adapted from one that appeared on


A brave new world of super store POD hubs and Frankenstinian books


Let’s ignore eBooks for bit. We can all prognosticate as much as we want how electronic publishing will dominate the future of how books are produced. Or not.

The printed book is the real paradox of the future of books. Like radio, printing is not going to perish any time soon. The way printed books are produced though will change dramatically. Mainly as a factor of how printed books will get sold in the future.

There are three main players that deliver printed books to the end consumers:

  1. The online vendors which provide cheaper prices and infinite availability, but delayed gratification (like Amazon);
  2. The large chains which provide immediate availability for most books but typically at full price (such as Barnes and Noble); and
  3. The small independently owned bookstores that neither provide a wide spectrum of availability nor competitive prices, but an emotional hub in the community for people who are passionate about books. There are of course varying degrees of intersection amongst these three categories, like the medium-sized chain. The small book store that does lots of business online. And so on and so forth.

Like most people, I am guilty of walking into a Barnes and Noble, browsing for the books I want. Then even before stepping out of the store I usually place my order on Amazon using my phone. That is if I can afford to wait a day or two at the most to receive them. If I can’t, I pay the full price at the store.

The large bookstore chains are doomed, there is no question about that. It’s just a matter of when. Not simply because the online vendors are delivering books even faster, but because the number of books in print is increasing exponentially.

Barnes and Noble cannot and will not survive the Amazon threat.

But what if the future could provide an amalgamation of both the large book stores in in every neighborhood, and the competitive prices of online providers? The answer lies in a three letter word that’s so far has been an insult and telling of what sort of writer you are, but quickly gaining more respectability: POD. Print-on-demand.

Imagine this. You walk into a massive Barnes and Noble-like store where there are no physical books on display for you to buy. Just electronic pods as far as the eye can see where you and other customers can browse for books. Maybe there are no pods. You can use your own mobile device to browse. Even before you get to the store. When you’ve decided, you click on your screen or speak to a sales associate to place an order. Five minutes later after you’ve had a coffee or a bite to eat, the book or books you’ve ordered are ready for you: Printed, trimmed, laminated, packaged and ready to go back home with you. Even a little hot of the press. Just like a fresh baguette. At highly discounted prices.

I am talking any book you can dream of. In any language. In your choice of font size. You even get to choose the stock. Want to save a little money? Then print the cover in gray scale rather than color.

Behind the scenes, highly-automated, advanced print-on-demand futuristic robots do all the work. And the price of each book is based on complicated formulas that calculate royalty, your choice of physical specs, and how much stock and ink are used.

Still not convinced the printed book will last long enough for any corporation to invest heavily in the POD super store model I describe above?

Then let’s dream further and braver into the future.

Why do people love printed books? Mostly because they love flipping pages, and seeing each printed leaf visible in the same dimension, rather than a virtual one as in the case of eBooks. They love the artwork, and to hold a book in public and silently tell the world what they are reading. Readers also love to gauge how much they’ve read and how much they have left. It gives them an incentive to continue reading. And the progress bar of eBooks just doesn’t cut it.

Imagine if in addition to our eReaders, a new sort of book “vehicle” is invented. It looks and and almost feels like a printed book, but it isn’t quite so. It’s a hybrid between the printed and the electronic book. Let’s call it the “Pelectronic Book.” An advanced book shell made of an indestructible paper-like membrane with tiny electronic vascular circuits. Every time you want to read a specific book from your collection, you load it on your Pelectronic device through a USB like port on the back. Maybe even wirelessly. Within milliseconds the 400-500 blank pages of your device get populated with electronic ink that’s virtually indistinguishable from real ink.

Have a particularly long tome like War and Peace that will not fit in your standard 400 leaf Pelectronic book Frankenstein? Have no fear. You can buy page expansions in modules of 50-page units. Install them for the duration of your long read, then remove them when you are back to standard length books to avoid lugging around a heavy device.

The future of book production is coming. And it will be in far more shades of excitement than what the proponents of eBook vs. print would like us to think. We just have to be open and ready for it.

How will books be pro­duced in the future, and who will pro­duce them?


In considering how books will be produced in the future, we decided to approach publishing as a complex ecosystem with many stakeholders, instead of an assembly line process or a simple, unproblematic transaction between and author and a monolithic corporate entity:

Look out for our next set of pieces on the future of writing and editing, and contribute your own thoughts about the future of publishing today and tomorrow!

An Author-Centric Ecosystem


A new production and financial ecosystem is emerging in book publishing, and it’s no longer centered on the publisher. The new ecosystem, more than ever, is author-centric.

Consider the people and institutions involved in a nonfiction author’s career. They include a literary agent, editor, publisher, publicist, speaking agent and more. They work to help create and promote various products that derive from the author’s ideas and writing: books, speaking/consulting gigs, websites and consulting, among other things. These produce different revenue streams, in distinct silos, and they oblige the author to make a variety of separate deals.

Graph of financial deals between authors and a variety of others

Graph of financial deals between authors and a variety of others

The relationships get complicated fast.

A graph depicting relationships between authors and other publishing stakeholders

It’s an inefficient system, and needs updating to reflect today’s realities.

What realities? For one thing, most authors should regard their books as elements of a larger career. For me, books are at least as much about promoting ideas that have made me more interesting, hence more valuable, as a speaker, teacher and short-form writer. Speaking/consulting agents and managers regard books as excellent calling cards for their clients.

How can we align these interests more efficiently? Other creative businesses have tried, with varying success. The music industry’s “360″ deals of recent years have been one of the more notable attempts. In this model, a company (usually a record label) provides all management – including booking and promoting tours, not just recording and selling music – in return for percentage of all revenues the artist generates in record sales, live shows and ancillary sales. As The New York Times reported in 2007:

Like many innovations, these deals were born of desperation; after experiencing the financial havoc unleashed by years of slipping CD sales, music companies started viewing the ancillary income from artists as a potential new source of cash. After all, the thinking went, labels invest the most in the risky and expensive process of developing talent, so why shouldn’t they get a bigger share of the talent’s success?

Critics of this approach called the advantages for musicians dubious at best. Why cede even more control to an industry that has demonstrated vastly more concern for its own bottom line than its artists?

What should the new ecosystem look like? It’s not this:

Graph depicting a situation in which authors' books do not relate to their other activities

It’s this:

A graph depicting how ideas authors develop in books feed into their other activities

The publishing industry has made forays into this field in small ways. Many publishers have in-house speakers bureaus for their authors, but this isn’t the publishers’ specialty, raising questions about the value of the exercise.

I’m proposing new kinds of business arrangements where everyone involved in this collaborates and takes risks. Everyone needs an incentive to make the overall project a success. Each party should get a cut of all revenues, but at a lower percentage than they do today for their single slice. Done right, if everyone’s helping to promote the author’s career, there should be a bigger pie.

Authors may decide to take more control themselves. They may farm out the overall management to a single person or firm. Among others in the current system, agents (literary and speaking) will have to rethink their roles.

We’ll see new kinds of business arrangements and contracts, where all participants see value in helping the other parts of the project. (If some of them say, “Aha, free money,” this won’t work.) We’ll need to see lots of experiments, many different kinds of deals. Some will fail despite the best efforts of all concerned, but that’s the nature of trying new things.

Above all, changing the ecosystem will require a willingness to experiment – and a decision by authors to take more control of their own lives.

The Atomization of Publishing


What gets published in 2013 can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Traditional publisher output: represented by all the publishers that exhibit at events such as Frankfurt Book Fair, Book Expo America, etc.
  2. Self-publishing output: represented by the many distribution and publishing services available to authors, such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Lulu, CreateSpace, etc.
  3. Custom publishing output: represented by the vast number of businesses and institutions outside the traditional publishing industry who might produce one or many titles per year.

In the future – assuming the container or attention unit of the book has not disappeared or become anachronistic – I believe we’re going to see vast expansion in the third category, given that the function of publishing is now far less difficult and specialized, and book distribution and production pose less of a challenge and expense than ever before. Any business or institution can feasibly start their own press or imprint and publish works that are in line with their mission and values, and distribute or sell them to a target audience they likely know better than a traditional publisher. This doesn’t preclude the possibility and likelihood of partnerships between traditional publishers and institutions (as there are now) – nearly a necessity for widespread bricks-and-mortar distribution – but certainly it’s not a requirement for success to have such a partnership, particularly if the content works best in a digital environment. Industry expert Mike Shatzkin has called the trend “atomization”:

Publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. […] This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years. […] Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.

If the publishing function does in fact disperse across many entities, then what will the so-called traditional houses focus on? One imagines the realm of fiction will remain a mainstay and focus, but I’d also like to propose that publishers will turn increasingly to analytics, data, and consumer research to make publishing decisions – for both fiction and nonfiction – since this would produce more profitable publishing decisions and might not be pursued by other, new competitors.

Research-driven publishing decisions aren’t exactly new. During my tenure at F+W Media, we had a very strong consumer research component to every acquisition because we were (in part) publishing to satisfy our homegrown book clubs, where consumers were automatically sent a new book every month unless they proactively declined it. Of course, the book-club model has all but died, but F+W, as well as other direct-to-consumer publishers, often use research to ground their acquisition decisions.

Now that research often takes the form of SEO and keyword analysis, publishers can identify what people are searching for and quantify demand for a particular book concept or title. Online publications and magazines already use SEO and keyword analysis to determine what gets published, and as such analytics become more rich and detailed. And as purchasing continues to move online, we can expect that trade publishers focused on profit will be gathering all the data they can to make the best acquisitions decisions. (F+W now keeps an SEO specialist on staff who assists with book titling decisions, to ensure discoverability.)

In other media industries, consumer research has long been part of the process, whether for good or ill. Movies, TV and music are all extensively market tested and modified based on consumer reaction. It has become a widespread cliché in the movie business how little creative control a director retains if the test audience reacts negatively. There has even been software development to help predict blockbusters, which Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The New Yorker in 2006.

Such a proposition likely sounds deadening and offensive to anyone who works in publishing, which is seen as an aesthetic pursuit (even an elitist or snobbish one, if compared to movies or TV) focused on producing important work or creative work, without concern for demand. Yet because the function of publishing is now more like pushing a button and less like a specialized process, there is less and less reason for publishers to dominate the playing field. We can already see how both new and established authors (especially when they band together) can successfully self-publish and produce their books with as much sophistication as their publisher. And for any institution that reaches its audience directly, the value a publisher provides is fairly minimal; it would make more sense to hire a consultant or freelancer, or hire someone away from the publishing industry if a long-term program is envisioned. This is happening already, in fact.

Will traditional publishers lose their “best” books and authors? Perhaps some can hang onto their business if they retain a brand or prestige that remains desirable to authors. This seems an unreliable strategy, and publishers certainly can’t depend on distribution and production services to provide value. To survive in an era of atomization, general trade publishers will likely have to focus on other ways they add value to the process, which probably involve their editorial function and their marketing function. One thing the mainstream publishers can do beautifully, if they put the money behind it and fire on all cylinders, is launch, package and place a book with impeccable presentation, so that no one can possibly not know about its existence – a marketing and promotion campaign of global proportions. That’s something you won’t find a self-published author or most institutions capable of pulling off.

Our Friend the Book D.J.


In the future, book producers will not produce books. They will manage brands.

Authors are already told they have to behave like brands. They need to run their own web sites, have a presence on popular social media sites, cultivate reader communities and market their own books (publishers won’t bother). Under such conditions, who needs publishers? Aren’t they little more than parasites on the reputation and income stream of authors? Won’t publishers wither away?

No, they won’t. They’ll become more important than ever. Paradoxically, as it becomes easier for authors to establish direct relationships with readers, publishers will become more significant, not less. This will happen for two reasons, both related to their essential future function as brand managers. Because these likely future entities won’t resemble contemporary publishers, let’s stop calling them publishers. Let’s call them Autonomous Literary Imprints, or imprints for short.

Readers will want imprints. Imprints will help them navigate the confusing, effectively infinite digital graphosphere. In my previous essay, I evoked the farcical figure of the Book DJ. Well, he’s back, and he’s here to stay. In his function as an embodied imprint, he may even be the same person running your local pop-up book retailer. His job is to have good taste. His livelihood will depend on his reputation. He will make – and break – canons. His stock will rise and fall with literary history. His culture will be his capital. He may, of course, be part of a multi-person imprint. Imprints may consist of one person or one million. They may interlock or be nested within each other. The point is, you will have a relation with the imprint. You will trust it as much as you trust your friends on Facebook or the people you follow on Twitter. Imprints are people too, not only legally but also as vibrant presences on social media.

Writers, too, will need Autonomous Literary Imprints. In your role as a writer, you will look to imprints because they have the power to confer upon you a slice of their accumulated cultural capital. Earning the brand mark of the right imprint will shape your career. It will launch you toward fame or disrepute. It’ll determine whether you can get that university teaching gig that’ll pay your rent. Whether you’re invited to that posh writer’s retreat. Whether you can generate income streams from speaking engagements. Whether you’re invited to write essays for prestigious magazines and book collections. Whether readers will even (yes, it’ll still be possible) buy your books and (who knows) maybe even read them.

More importantly, in your role as a writer, you will need imprints because you won’t know who to believe in the shark-filled marketplace for author services. Do you trust that freelance editor? That book designer? In the future, the imprint will be a kingmaker and a node of trust for various literary actors. The imprint will be an orienting map in a confusing supply chain of authors, agents, editors, designers and academics.

In a field of production populated by a ragged surplus army of desperate, hungry, fame-seeking writers – in a world where more pretty good books will be published in one second than any reader can read in a lifetime dedicated to nothing other than reading – mediators will become more, not less important.

So a popular techno-utopian buzzword like disintermediation is deceptive. It suggests that we’re moving into a world of no limits or controls. Instead, we’re moving into a world of total branding. Whether this new world is desirable or not is another question. I’m ambivalent about this likely future, but I’m sure our friend the Book DJ is pretty stoked.

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.