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Two or More Years Before Publication – the Publisher at Work

Two or More Years Before Publication—The Publisher at Work

Once the manuscript has arrived at the agency or publishing house, a vast number of things go on—probably teeth-grindingly slowly from an author’s perspective. If the book is coming in on spec, the editor or agent must look it over and decide if it’s worth pursuing. Because publishing lists are crowded and editors are overworked, there’s a strong tendency to look for reasons NOT to buy a book. On the other hand, editors and agents love what they do or they’d be making lots more money doing something else, and they’re always searching for that next wildly profitable bestseller that will be their contribution to the publisher’s bottom line, bringing them fame, recognition, and maybe even promotion or fortune. So they read manuscripts and proposals hoping for the lightning of inspiration to strike, but ready to drop the material and reject it at the first sign of trouble, even if the trouble’s in the opening line. It’s like having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, both whispering in their ears every time they have to make a decision on a new project. I recently conducted an informal poll among my friends—they reject roughly 95% of the material that crosses their desk without bringing it up for purchase. But they never stop looking for the diamond that gleams in the dross. And they make mistakes—everybody has stories of the big one that got away.

If an agent loves a project and thinks it’s saleable, she’ll bring it up with the editors she thinks it will suit, or with any suitable publishing house she’s heard is buying.  Agents are notable—and very focused—gossips. It’s essentially their job.

If an editor loves a project and thinks it’s saleable, she’ll bring it up at an editorial meeting, hoping to get permission to purchase it. These meetings are usually held once a week, and are attended by the publisher and the editors, along with representatives from the marketing department, the art department, and the sales department. Every editor has pet projects, but nothing is certain to be bought. Because room for new projects is limited, and because each new project will require a significant investment of company money, time, and resources, editorial meetings are free-for-alls, where quality, timing, personalities, political undercurrents, commercial good sense, pet peeves, blind luck, and bizarre twists of fate all crash into each other, sometimes loudly, depending on the publishing house. One of the ironies of the publishing business is that writers and editors are devoted readers, but marketing, sales, and art people aren’t always fans of the written word. In fact, for reasons that have a great deal to do with the kind of person who is likely to be very good at selling, salespeople are rarely readers. These non-readers have as much input into the process as the editors, and often more. After all, salespeople bring in money and editors spend it. Who’s a publisher going to listen to? This means that an editor’s ability to pitch a book in a fast, focused way and to make it sound interesting to a non-reader often has more to do with whether a book gets bought than the actual merits of the book.

Naturally, an author’s previous track record as a bestseller is useful in getting a project purchased, as is an editor’s solid track record for picking winners, but amazing things happen in editorial meetings. An unknown writer who has only completed a ten-page proposal ends up selling his work for a million dollars because he has a film deal in the works with Robert Redford. A fabulous, commercial, well-written non-fiction proposal gets turned down because the author isn’t photogenic enough for media appearances. A title resembles a previous project that lost a lot of money and is killed before the editor gets a chance to tell the assembled multitude what the book’s about. A promising project by an up-and-coming writer is purchased for possible immediate lead status because the manuscript is complete, and the book currently scheduled for that lead position is so late it’s making everybody nervous. Anything can happen in an editorial meeting, and frequently does.

Once a project has been approved, the amount of money the editor can offer for it is discussed. In most cases, the editor will produce a profit and loss (P&L) sheet, based on a projected print run supplied by the sales people and the estimated cost of producing each copy of the actual book, supplied by the production department. The P&L takes into account publisher overhead (this covers the cost of the publisher’s existence—salaries for everyone involved, real estate costs, the light bill, and so on, and is a set percentage of every book budget, typically from ten to twenty percent of the cost estimate, depending on the publisher), how much it will cost to produce the projected book and any associated expenses (size of manuscript, paper and cover stock, trim size of finished book, art, hand-lettering, foiling, die-cuts, matte finishes, embossing, step-back covers, photo sections, maps, legal vetting, interior design, gift with purchase offers, marketing, dumps, headers, author tours, ads, sweepstakes, black and white versus full-color printing, copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, and so on) and the projected shipping costs for the print run (postage, cartonage, number of accessories to be produced at cost per unit) to give an estimate of what the publisher investment in the book will be, and at what point (number of copies sold versus number of copies returned) the publisher will break even on the project if all goes as planned. The P&L will give the editor a road map of what the book is supposed to do, and will provide a reasonable estimate of what the advance to the author should be to break even and make a profit, if everything goes as planned. One of the great secrets of the book business is that almost nothing ever goes as planned, so it’s really an exercise in futility, but P&Ls do make the various publishing departments think about the kind of support the book will get from the publisher and reassure the accounting department that the editors have at least considered business costs before purchasing books—something auditors will never believe, no matter how pretty the P&Ls are.

The editor then tenders an offer for the project to the author or author’s agent, and starts negotiating. Everything from the amount of money in the advance to every possible right to be licensed is discussed. This is where a really good agent proves useful, because an established agent will have negotiated an agency boilerplate contract with each publisher that is more favorable to the author than the standard boilerplate contract. Even though an author can negotiate those points and make some headway, it takes time. In almost every case, a good agent will have already discussed every line of the standard contract and gotten the maximum benefit the publisher will allow in each clause, and so the wrangling ends up being about a few selected points that impact the specific author, and about money. Once the negotiating is over, the author accepts or rejects the publisher’ offer. Everybody wipes the sweat off and relaxes for a moment. The contracts go out, are signed and returned. The publisher issues a check to the writer or agent for the advance. This all sounds simple. It generally takes months. And months.

Then the publication date is assigned. The publisher, editor-in-chief, and editorial directors hold meetings once a month or more often to determine what the publishing lists (these are actual lists of everything the publisher plans to bring out, organized by publishing month or season, with the book they expect to sell the most copies of at the top, and running downward to the book they expect will sell the fewest) will look like, and they generally have things firmly scheduled at least 18 months in advance, with most books scheduled several years in advance. Each new book gets assigned a list position in a given month or season, though the publication date can shift at any time until the day the book is shipped.

Next: Ten to eighteen months before publication – the Editor at work.

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