Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What Publishers Do

Yesterday was a pretty productive day. I got some PR work done for the upcoming convention, made my annual batch of strawberry jam, wrote my weekly radio scripts for the medical school and wrote most of a short story. I now have four little jars of jam to have with scones throughout the winter. This batch seemed to make less than usual, and I spilled some while doing something that I thought would be less messy (it wasn't). The really satisfying thing is that all the jars sealed properly. If you've ever done home canning, you'll know the anticipation of waiting for those lids to pop down as they cool, creating the seal. If one doesn't pop, then you have to use that jar right away. But all of mine sealed. I doubt I save a lot of (or any) money making my own jam, but I think it tastes better than store-bought, I know what ingredients are in it (no high-fructose corn syrup -- just strawberries, sugar and fresh lemon juice), and I feel a real sense of accomplishment with my mad pioneer woman skills.

I took a couple of weeks off from writing posts due to travel and the need to have some form of a summer vacation, but now I'm back for the new school year. I haven't had any questions come in, but I'll address something I tend to get asked indirectly. The publishing industry is going through some serious changes right now. It used to be that if you wanted to get paid for your writing, you sold your book to a traditional publisher. Getting published any other way required a large output of money and usually didn't result in much of anything other than boxes of books in your garage, unless you were really good and really lucky. The rise in electronic publishing has changed that dynamic somewhat. The barriers to entry are a lot lower, and you're more likely to make some money without having boxes of books in your garage. It's enough to make you wonder why anyone would bother with a publisher. To be honest, I haven't taken a stand one way or another on this issue. I'm watching events unfold and doing research. But here are some things that have to happen to bring a book to the market, whether you do these things yourself (or hire someone to do them for you) or whether a traditional publisher does them for you.

1) Editing
There's probably a lot less editing done on traditionally published books these days, depending on the editor, because editors don't have the time to mold each book into perfection. They're less likely to buy the imperfectly written books with a great idea and then help the authors get them into publishable form. But there is still some editing going on, even if it's just questions and suggestions to strengthen the story and improve pacing. Removing the "we don't have the resources to deal with this" gatekeepers does mean that some of those imperfect books with a great idea might get published in a non-traditional way, but they still need all that editing to make them ready to sell. This is one of those things that you really can't do for yourself because you need that outside pair of eyes -- someone who didn't write the story who can look at it without having all the information the author has. When editors write books, they get someone else to edit them. If you're not being edited through a traditional publisher, you'll need some kind of outside editing help, and probably more than just your critique partner.

2) Copy Editing
This is different from the editing I'm talking about above. That's about story. Copy editing is the nitty-gritty details. A copy editor is a professional nitpicker. A good copy edit goes beyond just grammar, spelling and punctuation. It also picks up on continuity (Do the characters have the same eye color throughout the book unless there's a story reason for the change? Was there always a door there? What happened to the hat you said he was wearing in the earlier scene?), notes repeated words or phrases, massages sentence structure and even does some fact checking. I have worked as a copy editor (in journalism and public relations writing rather than fiction, but it's still similar skills), and my copy editors have still caught me in errors. This is another case where you need an outside pair of eyes.

3) Formatting
There is actually a plan that goes into the design of the interior of a book -- the selection of font, the minute spacing between lines and letters, the way chapter breaks are handled. In electronic publishing that may not matter as much because readers can set their own type size and style, but then you have all the electronic formatting issues for each bookseller. You're not just posting a Word document to the Internet. I'm still researching this area, and it sounds like something you could learn to do yourself or that you can pay to have done for you.

4) Cover Art
This is one of those things that separates the pros (or the illusion of professionalism) from the amateurs and that can make your book either look cheap or look like any other published book. I have friends who do art for book covers, and they say that a big consideration these days, whether or not a book is traditionally published, is how the cover looks in thumbnail size because that's very often how readers will see it. If you're browsing Amazon, that thumbnail is your first impression of a book. If it's an e-only book, that may be the only impression. Readers may have seen a print book cover at a store, but an e-book doesn't have that advantage. That means the cover has to make sense even when it's tiny, and it has to be an image that catches the eye.

5) Cover Design
A good book cover needs more than art. Part of the cover design involves choosing the art, deciding how to scale or size that art, choosing the font, color, size and positioning of the title and the author's name, and choosing anything else that will be on the cover. All of this has to come together in a way that catches readers' eyes and makes people curious about what's inside. Again, it also has to work in thumbnail size these days.

6) Marketing
This is the things that are done to position the book in the marketplace. It includes things like deciding which genre to fit the book into, when to put it on sale and which readers to target. It also includes things like the descriptive blurb that goes on the cover to tell readers about the book and the endorsement blurbs from other authors or reviewers that go on the cover or in the front matter (the stuff that comes before the book itself starts) within the book.

7) Sales
In traditional publishing, this is about persuading booksellers to stock a book. The buyers for the surviving chains may get a full sales pitch. Independent stores may get a catalog listing available titles. How much of a push depends on the book. Some books get a full-court press, with the author having dinner with the bookseller, swag related to the book, and advance copies for booksellers to read to get them enthused about the book. Some books get mentioned in the catalog. Store placement may include a combination of marketing and sales, as the good spots in a bookstore (those tables near the front or the tower of paperbacks) are paid placements. Online, paid placements may involve positioning on the front page or department page, those "buy this along with this for this price" offers and mention in various newsletters or blogs. There's some give-and-take with this, as the stores don't just automatically give those spots to any publisher willing to pay for them. Stores pick and choose, and there are formulas involving how many copies are ordered, discounts, credit, and the like. This is one area where individuals have a lot less clout. You probably can't do most of these things for yourself, although some of the online retailers are starting to offer packages to independent authors (they know a money machine when they see one).

8) Publicity
The amount of publicity a book gets through a traditional publisher depends on the book. The publisher may send news releases and review copies to various reviewers, both in print and online. They may also arrange booksignings or book tours and pitch media stories. Some may arrange blog tours for the author. These days, authors have to do a lot of these things for themselves. That wouldn't seem like it would make things too different if you go it alone, but there are some publicity barriers to self-published e-books. For one thing, it's hard to do booksignings if the book doesn't exist as a physical entity, and most stores are still leery of self-published books. A lot of review outlets still won't cover self-published books, and self-published books aren't eligible for most major awards. It may be difficult to get news coverage about a self-published book (though, oddly, my local newspaper seems to fawn all over anyone who gets a book "accepted" by PublishAmerica while ignoring most local traditionally published authors).

You can probably see that there are a lot of pros and cons involved in trying to do all this yourself or arrange for it to be done. Doing it right will probably involve some up-front investment, unless you've got a lot of talented and skilled friends willing to edit and design in exchange for babysitting services. On the other hand, traditional publishers are doing less for authors these days, and if you're going to do all the work, you may as well take more of the profit. As I said, I haven't formed a position either way or decided what I want to do, but these are the things I've been thinking about while pondering the future of my career, and they are things to keep in mind when you make your decisions.

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