Understanding the Players in the Publishing Game

The core members of any publishing acquisition team are made up of two very different types: The creative, editorial types and the more financially driven sales and marketing types. Generally speaking, the editorial staff is responsible for obtaining a wide range of prospective book ideas and shepherding them through the publication process, while the sales and marketing people are in charge of allocating the publishing house's financial resources.

The editor

The editor is your advocate. While an editor's job entails more diverse duties than most people realize, an editor's main concern is to solicit books — hopefully successful ones — for the publishing company to publish. Soliciting books is accomplished in a few different ways: attending lunches and meetings with literary agents and prospective authors, commissioning book ideas, chasing down "hot" literary leads, and wading through the endless stack of query letters, proposals, and manuscripts that arrive daily. Most of the submissions are returned with a polite, albeit brief, rejection letter written by the editor.

The editor presents the more promising submissions at the company's weekly editorial meeting. If the company decides to publish the book, the editor then works with the author to prepare the manuscript for publication. The editor also supervises the manuscript through the production process, including typesetting and jacket design. And while the book is in production, the editor helps work on the marketing plan and provides the sales team with everything from sample pages to ringing endorsements to help launch the book out into the world.

Through the editor, an author must be prepared to fight for his book during each phase. For example, the author should seek consultation on jacket design and copy at contract time. In addition, the author must insist that his book is marketed and displayed appropriately. However, unless marketing money is promised at contract, an author can do precious little to influence display space provided in bookstores. You can sometimes effectively apply pressure to secure additional advertising and/or publicity expenditures on behalf of your book. If the author doesn't ask, the editor usually assumes the author is content. For that reason, you as an author must be persistent in your requests to your editor. Be kind, but firm.

Remember, the author's interests and the editor's are to a certain extent in alignment: The success or failure of each of the editor's books helps determine the editor's salary (short term) and career success (long term). So editors are looking for books with the likeliest chance of prospering.

The editorial assistant

An editorial assistant assists a senior ranking editor. The assistant performs many secretarial tasks: processing paperwork, filling in forms, endless photocopying, answering the phone, filing, and generally taking care of as many of the day-to-day details for the editor as possible.

In addition, the assistant helps with some of the editorial tasks: writing book descriptions, answering questions from authors, and in some cases acting as a first reader on book proposals and manuscripts submitted to the editor — championing some for the editor's consideration and simply rejecting others, often before the editor even knows they exist. If you're a first-time author, an editorial assistant can play a disproportionately important role in the fate of your book — either guiding it to the attention of a caring editor or killing your chances before you even get to square one.

The publisher

In publishing parlance, the publisher is the person who oversees the whole process of a publishing company — from which books to purchase and how much to pay for each, all the way through to how the books are sold. In most cases, the publisher has a fiscal responsibility within the publishing company: responsibility for spending a set amount of money in a given year for the purchase and marketing of books, as well as responsibility for earning a certain profit. A publisher stays informed about the profitability of each book. If a book doesn't perform up to expectation, the overall revenue and profit targets become difficult to reach, and the publisher has to make adjustments.

The editorial meeting

Most publishers hold a weekly editorial meeting, presided over by the editor-in-chief (at some houses) or herself. At most firms, the company's editors attend the editorial meeting, as do representatives from other departments, such as marketing, sales, or subsidiary rights.

The editorial meeting is where projects are discussed and refined. The only absolute decisions being made in this forum are which books to pursue and for what kind of dollar figure. At some companies, more definite acquisition decisions take place at the editorial meeting, especially if the publisher presides at the editorial meeting. But usually, the editorial meeting provides an opportunity for the editor to confer with other editors about specific book projects — soliciting opinions and expert knowledge from colleagues.

The acquisition process

In all publishing companies, it is the publisher who has the authority to green-light a book. In some companies, the publisher is the sole decision-maker on whether to publish a book. At other firms, the publisher might solicit the opinion of important department heads such as the sales department, the marketing department, and the subsidiary rights department. The head of sales can provide an estimate of how many copies of the book the company can realistically sell based on previous experience with similar books. The head of marketing can propose a marketing campaign and estimate the probable costs involved in carrying it out. The head of subsidiary rights may be able to estimate income from the sale of such rights as foreign, movie, and book club. This information helps the publisher make an informed financial decision as to whether to publish a particular book.

The decision to offer a contract to an author is usually based on a profit and loss analysis of the book, known as a P&L. To calculate a P&L, the editor — usually with the assistance of a financial analyst — estimates the number of copies the book is likely to sell, the list price, and the amount of money paid to the author as well as other costs, including manufacturing, distributing, and marketing the book. On the basis of this information, the P&L calculates how much profit (or loss) results if the book is published.

Rarely do publishers move forward on a book that yields a P&L that is not marginally profitable. So, it's important for you, the writer, when submitting your work, to provide the editor with detailed information on the audience and market for the book that translates into a very positive P&L assessment.

The acquisitions process in action

Here's how a book project works its way from submission to acquisition in an ideal world. Say that an author sends a proposal for a nonfiction book to an editor whose name she got from the acknowledgment page of a book she admires. The editor's editorial assistant reads it at midnight and is surprised to find it captivating. The assistant strongly recommends it to the editor the next morning. The editor reads it on the train home that night and decides to bring it up at the weekly editorial meeting. She (a vast majority of editors in book publishing are women) sends a copy to two other editors to read before the meeting. At the meeting, the editor sings the project's praises, and is seconded by both of the other two editorial readers. The publisher agrees to read it that night and asks that a copy be sent to the sales director to provide a sales estimate. With a sales estimate in hand, a P&L can be drawn up.

Two days later, the editor is summoned to the publisher's office. The publisher relays the fact that the sales director provided a very low sales estimate. Based on the sales director's estimate, the resulting P&L predicted a loss for the book. But the publisher says that she read the proposal and felt that with a few changes, the book could be much more saleable. The editor and publisher discuss how the book project can be altered in order to appeal to a larger audience. The editor calls the author, who agrees that the suggested changes are a good idea and may make for a stronger book. The next day, the editor returns to the publisher with the news that the author is happy to make the suggested changes. The editor produces a new P&L based on these changes. The publisher then authorizes a contract to be offered to the author for an agreed upon price.

The editor excitedly calls the author, who is thrilled to learn that her first book will soon be a reality.

This example shows you a few truths about how publishing works.

  • The editor is the author's advocate throughout the acquisition process.
  • An editorial assistant is often the gatekeeper between you, the editor (your advocate), and the publisher (the decision-maker).
  • The decision to publish your book is made, in part, by a committee. This means your book submission is likely to be read by more than one editor before a contract is offered to you.
  • Marketing and sales people are part of the decision and need to be directly addressed in the proposal.
  • Publishing decisions aren't unanimous. All you need is a majority — or the single vote of the publisher.
  • The publisher is the most important decision-maker your proposal will face. If you can sway her, your book is likely to be bought.
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