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Why Care About the Business of Publishing?

Jerry D. Simmons, Guest Author
Part 2 of 2

You might think that books sell based on the ability of the writer, or the package, or the category in which they are published, or even the price. It might even depend on the marketing approach or the specific merchandising the book received. All of these things are important components in the success or failure of a book to sell at retail. However, even with the best writing, package, price, and marketing, a book can only reasonably be expected to sell a certain number of copies over the course of a set period of time. They may sell less, but they rarely sell more.

When you ship more books than the market can handle, you create an over-distribution situation. And unless your book was just featured on Oprah, that's not a good thing. This creates more returns as new product must be brought into stores to replace books that haven't sold, and the result is much higher returns than net sales.

In the real world of publishing, the quality of the writing, beauty of the package, correctness of the price, and creativity exhibited in the marketing can only go so far. And it can't outperform the dynamics of the marketplace. The only way you as an individual author can have any hope of preventing this situation with your book is by understanding the business, the language of publishing, and becoming a part of the process of publication.

Books have unfortunately become a product in the production of printed material. This process has its focus on shipping and billing, not sales. It doesn't take into account you or your book and the net sale of individual titles. It's just another book on a seasonal list that's being sold and distributed, produced and shipped. The only possible way to get your book out of the production mentality of the publisher is to become knowledgeable about the business and be willing to spend time with them in every phase of the publication.

There are clearly two parts to your job as a writer soon to be author: The first is working to get your book published. You put in countless hours writing, attending workshops, meeting with writing and critique groups, but, above all else, writing and rewriting your manuscript to get it just the way you want. Once you hire an agent and sign that contract, the first part of your job is complete. However, the second part is just beginning and that's the most critical part of your job as a writer becoming an author: Working with your editor and the publishing company to get your book to market.

And to do that, you must be willing and able to be a partner with your publisher in the decisions that surround your book. From the minute you sign that contract to the day your book hits the streets, you need to be a part of every decision regarding the future of your book. After all the time and effort that went into writing your manuscript, why would you turn everything over to the publisher and allow them to make all the decisions? Because you decided that since they're the experts, you wanted to leave the publishing up to them, which is their job. But it's important to keep in mind that if you have some basic knowledge about the business, you can be a huge asset to them in the publication and marketing of your book.

So please don't leave all the critical decisions about your book up to the publisher. You must participate in the decisions surrounding your book's publication. But how do you do that? The first step is to educate yourself on the marketplace, understand the basics of the business and learn the language so you can speak intelligently about the industry, your category, and your competition. And you've already taken that all-important first step: you're reading an article on why it's important to understand the business.

The next step is to know your genre. Know which publishers are publishing books in your particular category. Know which publishers are the strongest, have the most number of books. Know which authors are predominant in your category. Find out the editors for the publishers and authors in your genre. Know how the books are merchandised, marketed, displayed, and priced. You need to have a basic understanding of the trends of your category. You gain this knowledge by being a keen observer of the marketplace, most notably in your independent bookstore. This doesn't happen overnight, though. You need to be a regular visitor to the store to get a sense of how quickly things change and what those changes are.

For instance, did the new vampire novel that just came out look the way you expected it to look? Does the cover look how you would like your novel's to look? Do all the vampire novels look like that, or is the feel of the artwork and colors used changing? How are they changing? Are certain types of books being moved to the front of the store for better display? What kind of displays? What caught your eye when you walked into the store? This is how you begin to understand the market and the changes.

And since you'll be visiting the bookstores, gaining knowledge, why not get acquainted with the store personnel? They're typically more than happy to tell you what they know about books and authors and publishers. And employees of the independent bookstores are usually more knowledgeable than those of the chain stores, so go in, observe and pick their brains. These people are typical readers, hopefully in your category, but more importantly, of all books.

I prefer the independents because the chain stores are too often a carbon copy of each other and the employees are often less than excited about books. Only the real independents will give you a true sense of the marketplace. Independents buy books for their customers that the chains will often ignore. The independent bookstores are the last best hope for new authors in the traditional retail bookstore, not the chain stores.

I've given you some key points, and for more in depth discussion of exactly what you need to know about publishing, I encourage you to read my book. This was written specifically for writers who want to be authors. I've experienced first-hand what happens to authors writing mid-list books that are totally unaware of the marketplace. Publishers need your books, they always need product, but the market for writers wanting to be new authors is vast. If one book and one author gets published and distributed in such a way that is hurts that author's chance of ever being published again, how much concern will the publisher have? The answer may shock you.

You will never be allowed to participate in the publishing, sales and distribution decisions about your book if you don't have a basic knowledge of the marketplace. If you don't educate yourself about the marketplace you won't be seen in-house as an author capable of helping make decisions. In order to wrestle away some control from your publisher you need to be seen as someone who understands the marketplace and can speak the language. This isn't difficult and won't take a lot of time, but it's time you absolutely must spend if you want a career as a writer and author beyond that first book, especially in today's more competitive marketplace.

Now some of you may be thinking, "I'm a first time author and there's no way I'm going to be able to take control away from the publisher", and you're correct, to an extent. No publisher is going to give you the right of first refusal unless you can command multiples of millions of dollars in advances and royalties. The way to take some control is to be a willing and enthusiastic participant in the decision making process. From day one you tell your editor that you want to be a part of the process because you want to learn more about the business. And if you appear knowledgeable enough, they'll allow you to assist them in the process of bringing your book to market.

For the best possible chance of being able to influence the decisions made about your books, you want to put yourself in a position where you can be involved with decisions before they're carved in stone, and there's an approach that I advocate clearly spelled out in my book. There are ways to approach your editor and everyone who has a hand in publishing your book to where you can be informed of decisions immediately after they're made in-house, and then you can use your keen sense of the marketplace to make changes if necessary. However, you need to be willing to follow through on this participatory process from the beginning to the end. Nothing's worse in a publisher's eyes than the immediate pain in the neck who disappears once the hard work and tough decisions begin.

While you're getting to know everyone, you also need to become acquainted with the key players in the sales and marketing department because they're the last ones to handle your book before it goes on the market, and they can have the greatest impact on your book, positively or negatively, than almost anyone else in the company. And it's because of the importance of this department and it's impact on your books that you must become familiar with the way the numbers are developed and what they mean. Pay particular attention to the concept of distribution and it's impact on your book.

And you especially want to know if your book falls into that over-distribution category of titles. There are things you can do to lessen the chances of your book becoming over-distributed, and in order for you to place yourself in a position where you can have that impact you must start now and continually educate yourself on the business of publishing.

Writing, to you as a future author, is serious business, and what happens to your book inside a publisher should be given top priority, especially if you don't understand the basics yet. Invest some time, take the right steps, and begin learning the business.


Copyright © - Jerry D. Simmons. Jerry D. Simmons spent more than twenty years as an executive with The Time Warner Book Group in New York. He is the author of "INSIDE The Business of Publishing: What Writers Need to Know" and the creator of, where information essential to writers and their careers is available, FREE.


  If you would like to talk one-on-one with Larry James about issues related to this article, you are invited to arrange for a private coaching session by telephone. Go to Author & Speaker Coaching for specific details and fees.

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