Monday, October 23, 2006

From the Mailbag: Publishing Is Weird (Publishing 101, with Helpful Digressions)

I had an e-mail from an old acquaintance asking for some basic publishing information, which highlit some of the common bits of mystification. Since my response was ... erm ... comprehensive, I figured, I'd share.


I have an editing/publishing industry question for you from a friend of a friend, and I hoping that you can at least point him in the right direction.

The guy's an artist and musician with shows under his belt, has a couple of self published books, and is looking to widen his exposure and/or talk to someone about starting to look around for some merch licensing opportunities (yeah, I know whole different ballgame). He lives in [US CITY], but is wondering if it's possible/and or suitable to find a literary rep (or other agent) in Toronto as it's closer than New York.

I haven't a clue, beyond thinking that New York is a more appropriate place to start as a) he's American and b) dealing with regional or American rights is a better place to start than Canada. I don't know if you're dealing with this sort of stuff in your editing gig. I figured at least you could point him in the right direction.

Have to admit, I'm kind of curious about the whole process myself. :)

Friend of jennie's


My response
Okay. This is long. Sorry. Publishing never works the way people think it does.

First: He doesn't want a literary agent. He may think he does, but that's not what a literary agent does.

A literary agent takes a manuscript and tries to sell it to a publisher. When the agent sells it, he or she negotiates the author's contract and receives a commission on the author's advance and royalties.

Agents do not deal with sales of already-published materials. They may have something to do with negotiating an author's share of subsidiary rights sales, but that's done at the time the agent, the author, and the publisher negotiate the author's contract. I think. We don't deal much with subsidiary rights-sales in educational publishing, so I'm less conversant with that part of the biz.

But your friend wants a marketing and sales department.

Here Begins the First Digression: Publishing 101—Getting Books to Readers

Publishers employ salespeople to sell books to retail outlets and have warehousing and distribution departments to make sure the books get to the bookstores. This is the unglamorous, hard work of publishing that nobody ever thinks about, and it's why publishers are picky about whom they publish—they're going to have to convince people that this book will sell.

Some self-publishing outfits offer distribution support (they'll take orders for the self-published author's books and ensure that the books get to the buyers); however, they don't do marketing, publicity, or any of the hard work of sales (any moron, me included, can make a website saying THIS BOOK IS THE BEST BOOK EVER!! That's not what sells books, alas. What sells books is getting the books to where the right readers can find them, and having a good book (where "good" means "what the reader wants to read."))

Publicity departments comprise the people who think "Gee, I bet this book would sell well if John Grisham wrote a cover blurb!" and have the connections to send it to JG for the blurb (sometimes other networks come into play there, too). They send it to the various trade review outlets (Publisher's Weekly, Quill&Quire, etc.), and to the mainstream review outlets too (CBC, Globe&Mail, etc.), arrange interviews with the author, and do anything else they can to make the public aware of the book, without spending a lot of money to do so (that's the working rule for "publicity": it's free.)

Marketing departments write the cover copy and ensure that the book gets into the publisher's catalogue; they also come up with marketing plans (possibly getting the book into a non-traditional sales niche), and do all sorts of other stuff that I don't touch (such as arrange for prime placement (face-out, front-of-store, with a display rack, whatever) for the book in the bookstore), designed to make the book attractive to buyers. (Remember that there are two stages of sales for a book: the publisher-to-vendor sales, and the vendor-to-reader sales. Most publishers sell to vendors (bookstores and other retail outlets), rather than directly to readers).

Salespeople get out there and sell the book to distribution outlets (except in educational publishing, where they sell it to school boards or institutions of higher education. But I'm mostly talking about trade publishing here, because that's what everyone thinks of when they think they want to publish a book). Then it's up to the adoring public and the book itself, assisted by the efforts of the marketing team, the publicist, the cover designer, the blurber, the reviews, and every other bit of incentive the publisher can provide the buyer to pick up this particular book.

Once the book is a Literary Sensation OMG!!! then the subsidiary rights people at the publisher get to sell rights to other publishers, screenplay people, and tie-in people. If you're Franklin the Turtle's publisher, this will keep your publishing company in interns, your author in cheezedoodles, and your author's agent in letterhead for a very long time.

Suggested readings for the keen student (actually, if you want a notion of how this crazy industry works, these are damn' near required readings.):

  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden On the Getting of Agents. Actually, everything Teresa's written on Making Light, and probably off, about the publishing industry is well worth reading for anyone venturing into print. While you're on Making Light, don't neglect Patrick's publishing posts (also very useful), and remember that the commenters are often pros, too.


  • [Wah! I can't find the post in which Teresa collected many of her publishing posts! Bother!]

  • Teresa on Neil Gaiman's blog: Everything You Wanted to Know About Literary Agents...


  • Agentobscura's Livejournal: Nadia's a literary agent, and her LJ is the usual mix of personal and professional, with a fair bit of valuable information about How Agents Work mixed in.


  • I've been remiss in not mentioning the redoutable and engaging Miss Snark: Lots of delightful snark and good information on what agents do, and how this particular one does it.


  • Anna Louise Genoese's livejournal: if you click on the "demystifying publishing" tag, she's collected all her informative entries on publishing. I am especially fond of this overview of the publishing industry.


  • End of digression


    So, very few (if any) agents will touch a self-published book, and I can't think of an agent who does the kind of work your friend needs (I would say "no agents do that, but I haven't taken a complete survey. There may be someone out there working on a non-traditional business model, who isn't a scam artist. But it seems unlikely to me). There're no commissions in that. As a self-published author your friend is responsible for his own sales and distribution, which means that instead of having a trained and connected sales department at his disposal and a warehouse and distribution vector, he gets to do it all himself, which, I gather is what he's been doing, and it's a pain, and authors aren't generally salespeople, so he very cleverly wants someone else to do it for him.

    (Short digression: In general, publishers don't do this for self-published material. There have been instances—David Chilton's The Wealthy Barber springs to mind—where an established publisher has bought the rights to a successful self-published book and been able to capitalize on the author's work, and market the book to even greater success.These are rare, and usually happen because the self-published book demonstrated remarkable success as a self-published book.)

    So your self-published author/artist friend needs to find a freelance marketing and salesperson, or get together with other people who have similar books and stuff, and form a sales and marketing collective, or something. Or he needs to enter into some sort of arrangement with a distributor of self-published books, but that's really outside my ken.

    If he thinks he's found an agent, he should tread with extreme caution. I can't think of any legit literary agents who will do the sort of thing you say he's looking for, and there are a lot of dodgy people out there, who will take those who know less than they do about the publishing industry for a ride. But, I repeat, he's not really looking for an agent. He's looking for a publicist, marketing guru, and sales force.

    Given that I've mostly worked in traditional publishing, I don't know where one finds those, other than down the hall, and he can't have ours.

    Second: If he did have a manuscript to sell, it wouldn't matter where his agent was, if they were a good agent. A good agent is connected to the people who buy the kinds of books that the authors that agent represents write. They can be connected from NYC, Toronto, London, or Tucson. Much of the agent's work takes place via e-mail and phone, and at book fairs (Book Expo America, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and others), and if an agent wants to meet with an author, they'll make it happen.

    But, I repeat, he's not looking for an agent.

    Here Begins the Second Digression: Publishing 101—Successful Self-publishing Models, and What Publishing Is

    When an author self-publishes he (or she, but this guy's a he, so I'll stick with the masculine pronoun. Rest assured that what I write pertains equally to female self-published authors.) is assuming the publisher's role. Now, as noted above, a publisher does a lot of things: A publisher finds or creates books to publish, buys those books from authors or packagers, produces the books, and sells the books, and gets the physical books to the bookstores.

    I work in the creating-books end of this process, and this and the supposedly glamorous process of finding books to publish is the part that most of the world thinks of when they think of publishing. However, if I just did my job, and we didn't hire marketing and sales people, I'd be lonely and broke (and probably unemployed) with a pile of books that only a few people knew about, selling, like 20 books a year, even if I had a spiffo website.

    Most self-published authors do the making-book part of the publishing process, with a greater or lesser degree of success. Then they think "I've made the book, my work is done."

    But the self-publishing author is the book's PUBLISHER. That means that his job is just beginning, because if nobody knows a book is there, nobody will buy it. He gets to try to get it into stores and other distribution outlets. He gets to create buzz, he gets to put the book into the paths of people who might want to read the book. He gets to convince retail outlets to take copies of their book (which usually means they'd better be prepared to offer a returns program, the way a publisher does, but that's another long digression, and we're already in the middle of a digression.)

    (Shall I tell you a secret? In most publishing companies, sales people are better paid than editors. This should tell you something about the relative value of our jobs to the publishing company.)

    Stay with me, I'm going somewhere with this.

    In recent years (and possibly longer, but I've only been in the industry for about five years, remember), we've been hearing a lot about how "traditional publishing" is breaking down, and savvy self-published authors are capitalizing on easily available publishing technologies to succeed where traditional publishers are not taking risks. Smart people who have a book in them no longer need to gain the acceptance of some elitist gatekeeper who's only interested in publishing established names. Blah blah blah David Chilton, The Wealthy Barber, blah blah blah, The Celestine Prophecies blah blah blah.

    Inside the hyperbole is a kernel of truth. A savvy marketer with a good idea who takes the time to do it right can publish a book, and successfully get the book into the hands of readers who are willing to pay for it. What these stories often neglect to mention is that these self-published authors are, as I said savvy marketers. Some of them have an established audience because they're well known in their established fields—they have built-in publicity, marketing, and distribution fields (people who are public figures or speakers, for example). Others just devote themselves full-time to marketing their books, and because they have a good book and a good marketing plan, they get the book into enough good distribution outlets that the right readers find it.

    Other successful self-publishing models involve an author who publishes in a field so specialized that it wouldn't be worth a conventional publisher's while to publish for the 1000 people worldwide who care about this book, but in which this author is well connected, and for which this author is writing the book that all 1000 of these people have been waiting all their lives for. Or, in more general terms, when an author is better connected to the small market for his book than a publisher would be (afficionados of esoteric subjects, family historians sorta thing), then the author can do a better job of getting the book to its market.

    End of Digression


    Ummm ... this is a really long-winded way of saying "sorry, I can't help your friend," but I figured that if I could at least tell him why what he thinks he's looking for is not what he's looking for, he'd be better off.

    Today's lessons:

  • Agents do not sell self-published books, usually.

  • Making books is only a small part of what a publisher does. If nobody sells the books, we're left with a pile o'books and no money.

  • Self-publishers take on multiple roles: author, editor-in-chief, permissions coordinator, designer, publicist, marketing department, and sales force. Any one of these jobs is challenging. This is one reason that self-publishing bestsellers are rare (but not unheard of, because some people are just that good, that lucky, or some combination of good and lucky).

  • Publishing is weirder than you think. If you are thinking of trying it, it's a good idea to become acquainted with how it works, and marvel that it does.
  • 4 comments:

    BTK said...

    Oddly enough I gave this talk on Saturday morning to a bunch of aspiring writers... too bad I hadn't seen the post then.

    I like it..."Publishing is wierder than you think..."

    MrsMacNeil said...

    Great post. I found it through TNH's part of Making Light. It's always nice to have a light hrown into the dark corners of publishing for those of us who don't really know what goes on.

    "Publishing is wierder than you think…" Hmm? Words to live by.

    Anonymous said...

    A simple walk through the New Fiction section of anybookstore makes me despair of my novel ever joining them. Still, I write, and dream.

    jennie said...

    mrsmacneil, btk, I'm glad you like the post. I think Teresa probably crystallized the notion that publishing is weird for me, long before I had any notion how weird it really is.

    zhoen, good luck with the novel. Keep writing, be ruthless, learn your craft, learn from everyone you can, and don't despair. Publishing is weird. That doesn't mean it's impossible to get published ... it's just sometimes very very hard.

    If it was easy, everyone would do it.