Book publishers do much more than just print and sell books. They oversee the entire process of bringing books to market: author selection and development, manuscript editing, promotion, distribution and financial management.
Understanding how book publishers practice their profession can help you decide which role in the book publishing industry might interest you and determine how to prepare for a career in this field.
Author Identification, Selection and Development
The first job of a publisher is to find authors who can create books that sell. One part of a book publisher’s role, therefore, is author identification. Large book publishers work primarily with authors’ agents, also known as literary agents, who screen the work of writers and help prepare their manuscripts for submission to a publishing house.
When a book publisher decides to work with an author, it assigns one or more editors to work with the writer to clean up the manuscript and create a book that sells. This might include an editor asking an author to drop or add characters, change the plot, and add or drop chapters.
This is the difference between a copy editor who focuses on grammar, spelling and fact-checking and an editor who shapes a title for optimum sales.
Depending on the size of a book publisher, the company might employ editors in the following roles: evaluation and acquisition, author development, project management, copyediting, proofreading and line editing.
Book Title Development
Just because a publisher likes an author’s submission doesn’t mean the publishing company will publish the book as is. Publishers direct books using formulas that sell. For example, a publishing house typically assigns its editors a genre. This starts with fiction or non-fiction and can progress to specific genres such as romance, children’s horror, young adult, adventure, politics, self-help, how-to or mystery.
Different publishing house staff members specialize in each of these areas and guide writers to rewrite parts of their books to better fit the expectations of consumers who purchase titles in these categories. For example, depending on the genre, the writer might need to tone down or spice up any sex scenes in the book.
Author and Book Promotion
It doesn’t matter how well the author writes if no one knows about the book. Publishers promote authors and books in a variety of ways, such as scheduling media interviews and setting up book signings. They send press releases and advance copies to members of the media. They promote the book to book-of-the-month clubs, bookstores, online sellers and other book distributors.
Booksellers also submit books for awards and promote an author or title that wins an award. Publishers keep track of sales to see if the author makes any best-seller lists or wins awards. Then, they blast this news out on their social media channels and to their media contacts and print the information on subsequent editions of the book.
Production and Distribution
Book publishers help with the printing, illustration and distribution of books, including getting them into brick-and-mortar and online stores. Depending on how well they think the book might sell, publishers might start selling the book in hardcover format to cash in on early adopters and then quickly add softcover versions.
Booksellers also distribute e-book versions of titles and work on formatting and selling digital versions of books. Publishers know how to work with these sellers and format digital titles for e-readers, tablets and other apps.
The Rise of Self-Publishing
Self-publishing technology has made it possible for authors to create, produce and sell their own books. Amazon, for example, provides services to help writers layout a book, turn it into digital or print versions, sell on Amazon, set a price and collect the money.
While self-publishing allows writers to keep all of the profits, it doesn’t provide the experience and massive support in all areas of the book publishing process that publishers have. In addition to being an author, writers have to become a part-time book promoter or hire someone who can do this for them.
The Role of Agents
Many large publishers only work with author agents to avoid being swamped by countless amateur writers who aren’t ready to make the jump to publication. When an established book agent contacts a publisher with a manuscript, the publisher knows that the title is ready – or close to ready – for publication.
This is because agents make sure a book has commercial potential before submitting it, based on their knowledge of what publishers want. Book agents have editor contacts who can help authors with potentially commercially viable books clean up their manuscripts.
Agents also help authors make character and plot changes to books to make them more likely to be picked up by a publisher. Agents can determine whether an author should try self-publishing and can help with that. Agents can also promote a book if the writer goes the self-publishing route.
The last thing professional literary agents want to do is damage their reputation with publishing houses by bringing them poor titles that are a mess to read or don’t have good sales potential. For this reason, if an agent agrees to represent an author, he or she works diligently to give the book the best chance to make a good impression on a publisher.
Finally, agents help negotiate the best contracts and compensation with publishers. They can do this because they know what publishers pay and don’t make inappropriate requests, which a new author might make. This prevents rejections.
While literary agents aren’t attorneys, they have seen enough standard contracts that they can advise an author and the author’s attorney in reviewing, accepting or rejecting contracts the writer is offered.
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