Publishing 101: The Traditional Business Side

Over the next few weeks, my Wednesday posts (and Twitter #PubLaw sessions) will take a look at the business of publishing. Today’s post will give an overview of traditional publishing as a business. Next week, we’ll look at the independent publishing process. In the weeks that follow, we’ll zoom in on a few specific topics of interest.

Traditional publishing involves publication of an author’s work by a third-party royalty-paying publishing house, under contract.

The process starts when an agent or author submits a manuscript to the publishing house. Submissions (or proposals, in the case of non-fiction) are sent to either the publisher’s general submissions address (aka “the slush pile”) or to a specific editor (sometimes an “acquisitions editor”). It’s better to submit directly to a specific editor, and one who favors the type of work submitted. A manuscript is essentially an offer to do business. Like all businesspeople, editors respond better to appropriate and personalized contacts.

If the editor likes the work, he or she will present the project to the publisher or editorial board responsible for making decisions about the works the house will publish. Boards usually meet on a weekly or monthly basis to decide which new works to acquire. If the editor sells the board on the work in question, the publishing house makes an offer to purchase and publish the work. If the author accepts the offer, a contract is written and signed.

Some terms of the offer and contract are negotiable. Others are not. Most of the contract consists of “boilerplate” which explains the terms upon which the publisher will publish and sell the author’s work. Authors should not expect a publisher to change the way it does business in order to comply with an author’s demands. That said, reasonable changes can be made. A publishing contract is a business arrangement – despite the emotional attachments formed to the work on the author’s end.

Be aware: it can take months for an accepted offer to become a contract in final form. Some authors end up receiving (and completing!) the manuscript edits before the finalized contract is even signed. Be VERY careful about this – you don’t want to damage relationships with the publisher, but nothing is guaranteed until the contract is fully signed.

After the offer is accepted, the editor will review the manuscript and make editorial changes and/or suggestions. The edits will be sent to the author for review and integration or approval (as appropriate). Since most traditional contracts give the publisher final approval over the manuscript, it’s vital for authors to find an editor who “gets” the author’s work and with whom the author works well.

When the manuscript reaches final form, the editor sends it to other authors for “blurbs” – cover quotes praising the work. Blurbs help sell the book to consumers, but also attract the interest of reviewers, book buyers and the media.

At the same time, the publisher’s art department will start designing a cover for the work. On occasion, the artists and/or editor consult the author about design, but more commonly the author won’t see the cover until the publisher has a proposed design completed. Authors can request changes to cover art, but remember – the manner in which you ask is often as important as what you ask for.

Once the covers and blurbs are in place (about six months prior to publication) the publisher will start marketing the novel – advertising, seeking reviews and talking about the book to bookstore buyers. The publisher (and/or author) should also be planning the launch – preparing a business plan for creating “buzz” that peaks at the book’s release date. In the old paradigm, all of this was handled by the publisher. In the current regime, authors need to be involved. In fact, an author should start planning publicity and marketing efforts from the time (s)he signs the contract. That way, there’s much less panic as the time approaches!

Business efforts don’t end when the book is launched. Smart authors plan signings, connect with readers on social media, and find creative ways to assist the publisher with the business side.

The key is remembering that publishing is a business – not just a magic box that authors can drop a manuscript into and get rich. Even this short overview of the process reveals that authors must learn communication and business skills. As a traditionally published author, you’ll need to work cooperatively with an editor, but also with the art and marketing arms of the publishing house (sometimes directly and sometimes with the editor as intermediary). You’ll need to review a contract. You’ll need to communicate with your readers and develop a plan to help people learn about your book. The publisher is there to help you (as is your agent!), but being a published author involves so much more than just writing a book and sending it off.

In the weeks to come, we’ll look at business tactics smart authors can use to make the most of those relationships. In the meantime, if you have questions about this or other publishing law issues, feel free to ask in the comments or tweet them to me @SusanSpann!

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