[writing|publishing] What my publisher does for me, and why I won’t just quit

In the process of various Amazon-related discussions in both my own blog comments sections and on the Kindle boards, I’ve come to realize that most people have no idea what the publisher does for a book between the time the writer is finished drafting the manuscript and the time the book hits the store shelves. Which is fair enough. I didn’t either, before I became an author in the trade press.

This is only tangentially related to the Amazon-Macmillan kerfuffle, but might of interest to those who wonder why ebooks don’t have a much cheaper cost basis than printed books. And is almost certainly of interest to aspiring writers who want to understand more about the nuts and bolts of the publication process.

The Manuscript from the Writer’s Perspective

(This sample time line ignores breaks I generally take, for example, between first and second draft to allow the book to percolate in my subconsious. Like wine, books are better with ageing. Breaks enforced by the production process are still included.)

Month -12 — Finance issues signing check to me via agent. (Payment 1 of 3 in typical contracts today.)

Month -11 — Agent issues signing check to me, less commission.

Months 1-2 — I draft a book.

Months 3-4 — I redraft the book.

Month 5 — First readers provide feedback and comment.

Month 6 — I redraft the book.

Month 7 — Second readers, including my agent and my editor, provide feedback and comment.

Month 8 — I redraft the book, paying most special attention to the changes directed by my editor.

Month 9 — I turn the book in.

Month 10 — Finance issues acceptance check to me via agent. (Payment 2 of 3 in typical contracts today.)

Month 11 — Agent issues acceptance check to me, less commission.

Month 12 — I receive a copy edit.

Month 12 — I respond to the copy edit and associated queries.

Month 16 — I receive the page proofs for the hardback release.

Month 16 — I respond to the page proofs, typos, layout problems and critical errors only. No larger revisions to the text.

Month 22 — Hardback printing goes on sale.

Month 22 — Finance issues publication check to me via agent. (Payment 3 of 3 in typical contracts today.)

Month 23 — Agent issues publication check to me, less commission.

Month 26 — I receive the page proofs for the mass market paperback release.

Month 26 — I respond to the page proofs, typos, layput problems and critical errors only. No larger revisions to the text.

Month 26 — Having now gone through at least four drafts, and read it about nine times, I am finally done with the damned book.

The Manuscript from the Publisher’s Perspective

(This is as best I understand it. I’m certainly missing a lot. I’m not sure when cast-offs are done, the legal steps, etc. And I know some of the process checkpoints and professional roles are completely missing or misunderstood, this is just what I can see Corrections welcomed! Especially if I left out your job.)

Month -12 — Finance issues signing check to author via agent. (Payment 1 of 3 in typical contracts today.)

Month 7 — Acquiring editor receives preliminary manuscript from writer. Provides editorial feedback in change letter.

Month 9 — Acquiring editor receives final manuscript from writer. Provides acceptance letter, transmits to production.

Month 10 — Production editor sends manuscript to copy editor.

Month 10 — Art director begins sourcing cover art.

Month 10 — Production editor confirms press time slot for book.

Month 10 — Finance issues acceptance check to author via agent. (Payment 2 of 3 in typical contracts today.)

Month 11 — Copy editor returns copy edited manuscript.

Month 12 — Editorial assistant sends copy edit to author.

Month 12 — Editorial assistant receives copy edit back from author.

Month 13 — Production editor turns manuscript over to book designer.

Month 14 — Book designer sends hardback book to typesetter.

Month 15 — Typesetter does initial layout for hardback release.

Month 16 — Editorial assistant sends hardback page proofs to author.

Month 16 — Editorial assistant receives hardback page proofs from author.

Month 17 — Typesetter makes proof changes.

Month 18 — Proofing editor reviews changes.

Month 18 — Hardback printing goes to press.

Month 19 — Hardback printing goes to warehouse.

Month 21 — Hardback printing released to distribution

Month 22 — Hardback printing goes on sale.

Month 22 — Finance issues publication check to author via agent. (Payment 3 of 3 in typical contracts today.)

Month 24 — Production editor confirms press time slot for book.

Month 24 — Production editor turns manuscript over to book designer.

Month 24 — Book designer sends mass market paperback book to typesetter.

Month 25 — Typesetter does initial layout for mass market paperback release.

Month 26 — Editorial assistant sends mass market paperback page proofs to author.

Month 26 — Editorial assistant receives mass market paperback page proofs from author.

Month 27 — Typesetter makes proof changes.

Month 28 — Proofing editor reviews changes.

Month 28 — Mass market paperback printing goes to press.

Month 29 — Mass market paperback printing goes to warehouse.

Month 31 — Mass market paperback printing released to distribution

Month 32 — Mass market paperback printing goes on sale.

As you can see, this life cycle lasts 44 months from contract signing to paperback release. And that’s if everything goes quickly, and well, given that this is a nearly ideal model.

What else the publisher does

In the book’s workflow, it’s touched by over a dozen people on the publisher’s side. The above doesn’t even account for legal, for public relations, for the sales force, for the warehouse and distribution folks, for the ebook format conversion and digital rights people.

Those services the publisher provides the book are invaluable. And well beyond my reach were I to attempt to secure them on my own. The editorial process, from the acquiring editor as well as the copy editor, improves the quality of my books in ways I can’t begin to manage with my individual effort, nor could I afford to contract the equivalent many thousands of dollars of labor involved. My editor has experience and depth of knowledge I won’t match in a lifetime of being an author, simply because of the number of books she handles. My copy editor has the same depth of experience, plus the training to see things invisible to me, but that will jump out to readers. Everything from continuity errors to fact checking to consistency in geography to basic physics (I was once asked how someone could jump down forty feet in bare feet, and walk away.)

Then there’s cover art: expensive and important. Cover design. Marketing and branding. My publisher gets me reviewed in trade magazines that I could never reach on my own. My starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal drive significant library sales for each of my hardcover print runs, accounting for a meaningful portion of my earn out. My publisher advertises my books in trade magazines and fiction magazines. None of which I could afford to do on my own, and some which I couldn’t manage even I had the money out of pocket.

All in all, my publisher adds an enormous amount of quality and value to my books that I couldn’t provide any other way. They make me a better author, and they give you a better reading experience.

Why I won’t quit my publisher

I’ve had people tell me I’d make more money per title if I left my publisher and self-published. I could keep more of the take. Given how much distribution I’d lose, I’d have to make a lot more per unit sold to offset the economic hit. Even doing that assumes that that selling fewer books for more money per title is a good thing. For my lifetime career as an author, I would always rather reach more readers, even if I make less money per reader. Or in some cases, less money over all.

I write 1-2 books a year, and plan to keep doing so til I drop dead. Why on earth would I want to reduce my readership to maximize income on any given title? That’s deeply counterproductive.

There’s also the issue of control. I’m a writer. How is it worth my time to self-edit, do my own layouts and production management? I add no value during those steps, I’m merely offsetting cost. All my value add come from the auctorial process, the actual writing. That’s where the unique product and brand identity come from. Not flowing words into columns and managing margins. Which I actually know how to do, fairly well in fact. But it’s not nearly the best use of my time, given that I could be writing more books and stories.

Some people have suggested I should get out of a dying business model before it takes me down with it. I appreciate the sentiment, and believe me, Macmillan knows their traditional business model is in peril. The whole Amazon negotiation is a very public way of trying to address that trouble. Whether or not it will succeed is a question I’m not smart enough to answer. Publishing is not run by stupid people, quite the opposite, and they’re looking for the right transformation for their own interests. Which in turn will protect my interests, as we are well aligned at the moment.

What I do know is that neither the New Media nor some clever independent thinker has yet offered me an alternate business model that will provide me with either the quality of service or the economic incentives that Macmillan provides me with. Show me a place to go, and you might have an argument. Telling me to quit on principle because something good is just around the corner is simply foolish, at least from the perspective of me keeping books on the shelf and some income in my bank account.

It’s also been suggested that I leave Macmillan in protest of their business practices in the Amazon ebook pricing dispute, and go elsewhere. First of all, it’s not the least bit clear to me that Macmillan has done anything unprincipled in the ebook pricing negotiations. Amazon clearly has behaved in an unprincipled manner with delisting the print titles that come under different contracts and distribution channels and are thus completely unrelated to ebooks in a business sense, but that’s been my point all along — the delisting really isn’t Macmillan’s responsibility in any way that I can see, as it was a unilateral decision by Amazon. The rest of the negotiation issues are, frankly, just business.

But for the sake of argument, let’s posit that Macmillan has in fact acted contrary to my interests as one of their authors. Why would switching to one of the other six houses improve my position, when they all follow the same business models and trade practices? I’m no more likely to find a ‘safer’ haven with one of the other major trade publishers, as they substantially share Macmillan’s business interests and issues, in much the same fashion that airlines or automakers or fast food chains share business interests and issues.

However, again, let’s posit that I can be assured that one of Macmillan’s competing houses will treat me better, hold my interests closer, and not behave in our assumed unethical manner. Switching houses is difficult at best. I’d essentially have to wait out my current contract cycle (which extends through 2012 for initial releases and 2013 for follow-ons) to be clear of Macmillan. I’d have to convince another house to invest in my author brand, which is closely associated with Tor at this point. I’d have to convince another editor to sufficient interest in my work, which is a deeply idiosyncratic process more or less lateral to the publishing house issue.

Yes, I’m established, I could probably pull it off, but only at a likely substantial cost to my career and my income — I would probably miss a year or two or more of releases, and have to deal with contract entanglements. And that’s assuming I could even sell to another house, which is far from a given. I’m low midlist, which is about the lowest form of life in the trade press. I’m simply not popular enough for another house to go to the trouble of taking me on, were I in this theoretical dispute with Macmillan.

Switching publishing houses isn’t like changing your grocery store of choice, or even car model of choice. While the author has ultimate and final control of who they publish with — we own the copyrights, after all — we have very little control and only slightly more influence over who wants to publish with us. That’s driven by market power and reader demand, and through those factors, the financial performance of our books. It’s a very strange power dynamic at best.

In other words, my principles had better be mightily offended before I’d be willing to mess with my Macmillan relationship for their sake. it’s not at all clear to me why I should consider Macmillan a villain in the first place here. Pricing disputes occur every day between corporations, there’s nothing unusual about the basic issue here, even if the larger implications are enormous.

Mind you, Macmillan could part company at the end of any contract cycle, if my books don’t hold up their profitability. If that happens, I won’t be very pleased about it. But ultimately, that’s just business too.

ETA: In answer to several queries already received, please share this blog post freely with students, critique groups, or other interested parties. I ask only that you retain my attribution, and provide info linking back to my blog.

© 2010 Joseph E. Lake, Jr., writing as “Jay Lake”.

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“What my publisher does for me, and why I won’t just quit” by Joseph E. Lake, Jr. writing as “Jay Lake” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at jlake@jlake.com.

11 thoughts on “[writing|publishing] What my publisher does for me, and why I won’t just quit

  1. Murphy Jacobs says:

    Thank you for making clear something about which I had only a basic understanding.

  2. Steve@burnap.net says:

    One thing I have not seen expressed, probably because these descriptions are from successful writers, is that one thing publishers do is take on the risk of first time writers. I wrote a few technical books in the mid eighties as a poor college student, and one reason I was able to do that was because publishers give advances on royalties. I knew that if I turned in the manuscript on time, I’d get a nice, tidy check when I turned it it, and that check couldn’t be taken if the book didn’t sell enough to cover it.

    It’s not just that the services of the copy-editors, etc. cost money, and that good ones are hard to find. If you were entirely self-publish, you’d have to pay for all that stuff up-front, with the risk that you might sell no companies and thereby see your book cost money rather than earning it.

  3. Jaws says:

    I’d like to offer one extreme caution regarding Jay’s otherwise useful (and, to my imperfect-but-still-pretty-good knowledge, accurate) summary.

    Jay’s timelines concern book-length commercial fiction. His experiences do not represent the publishing cycle — for either authors or publishers — in the 80%+ of the publishing industry that is not book-length commercial fiction.

    That “80%+” holds whether one measures by titles released, by face value, by copies sold, by compensation paid to authors, by shelf-inches devoted in general bookstores, by sales rankings at Amazon… indeed, by any numeric measure of which I am aware, and my “day job” involves being directly and immediately aware of what’s going on in publishing.* I would certainly quibble with some aspects of Jay’s timeline; for example, it makes a big difference at the publisher’s end whether this is a first/standalone book or in a series for things like art sourcing, design, the marketing cycle, etc. That said, it’s far, far more useful and accurate than you’ll see in any of the periodicals aimed at writers!

    * Which, one might add, is the bastard offspring of a three-century-long orgy among thirteen distinct and incompatible business models beginning in the early eighteenth century. You may now scratch your eyes out and reflect that there are some things you just can’t unsee… like the thought of an orgy involving both Bennett Cerf and Judith Regan. With Tina Brown doing off-color commentary. Frankly, I’d rather have dreams about Greg Van Eekhout playing strip Gorillas and Lions.

  4. IMO, your publisher has some gross inefficiencies in their process. You’d think they were still setting type by hand or something. Also, someone should let them know that the place to fork the electronic edition is after copy edit and before the hardback typesetting, not after. I think they’re doing it after, which is why it costs them so much. Baen does it right, IMO.

  5. Susan Wenger says:

    I work for a self-publishing company. We’ve had traditionally published authors come to us because they were dissatisfied by their relationships with their publishers for one reason or another. If YOU are happy with YOUR relationship with Macmillan, then there’s no reason for you to change anything.

    Sometimes self-publishing is the only option for people who can’t find a traditional publisher. The problems occur when they skip steps. Authors shouldn’t publish without copyediting. Ever. It’s also in their interest to have a professional editorial analysis done before copyediting to see if there are serious problems that a copyedit won’t fix.

    Authors also shouldn’t attempt to lay out their own books and design their own covers unless they have enough design experience that they can pick up the specifics of book design.

    Publishing services companies can consolidate all this stuff so you don’t have to run around securing every service individually. You may be able to do this more cheaply on your own, so it’s a question of whether you’d rather deal with the inconvenience or the extra cost.

    What we will NOT do is get your book into brick and mortar stores, or get your book reviewed.

    Bottom line, self-publishing can be a great option for some, but do the homework to figure out what you need and what it will entail.

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