Wednesday 6 August 2014

Ten Things I Never Knew About Publishing

As you all know, I was a book blogger for a few years before taking up a position in publishing, and so I went into the process of publishing novels with rather naive eyes. I learnt a lot. And I learnt quickly. And there were some things I learnt that I just had no idea about, so here I present them to you.

1. Sales numbers for books can be SHOCKING

You always acquire books with the intention that they will appeal to readers and sell. Secretly you hope for a breakaway success that brings the company (and author) super amounts of money that then allows you to be a bit more experimental with future acquisitions. Some books gather love and buzz - and sell like shit. It's just the way it goes. According to SF Signal there are over 220 novels being published this month in SF/F alone. People have a finite budget. Less people are buying books. Sometimes a book that sells just 12,000 copies in the whole of the States can be considered a success, depending on many factors. Sometimes books go into the wild and sell less than 1,000 copies. Sad, but true. And this is a reason for why the best support to an author, honestly, is just to buy the damn book.

2. Sales numbers might not be *everything*, but they count for a HUGE amount

When considering whether to take on a previously published author, or when deciding whether to offer an author a new contract, sales numbers will have to be analysed. This is not what the editor of the presented work wants to do - they want to be able to acquire all the books that appeal to them and that they believe have a place in the market. Unfortunately, to be a success, those novels have to be presented to bookstores with a finite amount of space, and previous sales figures are what they can be guided by. Will this author mean people come to my store and buy books? How many copies of novels has this person sold previously?

3. Good cover art costs money

It's true. An excellent cover artist, with a track record of working on novels that then sell like hot cakes, can charge a LOT of money for their work - and so they should! They should be amply rewarded for such a visible part of the novel, for taking an art brief and conversations with the art director and turning it into something stunning. For producing something that can sell the book on its own, without any access to what is within the novel. I think some self-published authors are now realising that good cover art does cost money - but is essential. And guess what? That money spent by the publisher on a cover happens whether or not the novel is print and ebook, or ebook only, so there is one of your reasons why ebooks are charged at a certain level.

4. Errors just creep in

So, yeah, we've all read published books and winced at the couple of typos we encounter over a 100,000 word novel and think 'Man, how did that ever creep in? Even I managed to spot it!' Well, those published novels have already been through a structural edit, a copy edit and a proofread - often done by two proofreaders, just in case one doesn't catch everything. Sometimes the editor or the author adds something necessary after the final proofread because they noticed a different error, and manage to insert a typo. It's so easily done. The publishing industry is populated by humans. Human error is a thing. Once we have massive computers doing everything and realising that, actually, the and to are both valid words, but one is correct and one isn't in a sentence, well, then we might have perfect books.

5. "This book hasn't been edited!"

Oh yeah? How do you know? I was so guilty of saying this as a book reviewer prior to publishing. I will never include it in a review again. The novel might not be to your tastes. The editor and author might not have managed to completely pull off the edit which allowed everything to fall into place. But you did not see the original manuscript. You have no idea about its original state, length, composition, character make-up, world building. Nothing. So, without knowing the starting point, how can you make an editing comment on the final point? The amount of work that went into that book is often completely invisible to the final reader.

6. Reviews help sales! Reviews hurt sales!

If a national magazine or paper, or a website with millions of hits per month, reviews a novel, it may have some effect. In most cases, reviews on blogs - I hate to say - don't make much of a difference (in most cases - there is always the exception that breaks the rule). I have purchased novels after blog reviews. I have also purchased novels thanks to Twitter recs, Subway advertising, books being face out in bookshops etc etc. You see, the regular reader, the faceless and voiceless person who buys most of the books, does not see the book reviews. They do not read blogs. My cousin is an avid book reader. She goes into a bookshop and buys books by authors she knows, and books that are compared to authors she knows, and has never read a book review blog in her life. These sorts of people make up the majority of book buyers and readers. Review because you love it and enjoy feeling part of a community, and maybe for those one or two sales that do come as a result of your reviews. The place where your reviews might make a difference (sadly)? Amazon. Posted there your review has an audience of millions and can directly affect sales. (I think that this was the point that made me most outraged when I moved from book blogging to publishing!)

7. Money breeds money

We all want to see copies of the novels we've acquired and edited piled up on tables in Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, marked as Book of the Month, or directly recommended by the bookseller. We want the books to be face out on the shelves. We want the book to go into supermarkets to reach a wider and more casual book reader. We want the books to be taken into airport bookshops for those last minute, impulse purchases. We want the novels to be chosen for things like Richard and Judy's Book Club or for the Radio 2 Drivetime Book Club. How does some of this happen? By providing money. By offering a further discount on the price of a book. By promising high spend on marketing and publicity. By making sure you can guarantee space on TV shows and in newspapers/magazines. This is how the bestsellers are often driven. By pushing money into the promotion. Which is then rewarded by money being spent on the novel, and the casual book buyer going in a picking it up having heard about it someplace else. This is why some books barely appear on bookshelves and are gone after a few stock rotations.

8. Publishing works WAAAY in advance

By the time a novel was coming out, I was editing a novel that wouldn't be out for ten months or so, and was acquiring novels for the year after that. You do have to judge trends. You do have to poke a finger in the air and try hard to imagine what readers might want in two years' time. This is sometimes why publishers will stick with tried and tested - it means, hopefully, that they'll have at least one solid seller in a month where maybe they did try something new. If your publishing house has a distributor, they often will require covers and sales information up to sixteen months in advance of on-sale date. If you are, for whatever reason, unable to provide this, then your novels might not be sold into bookstores as fervently and emphatically as those novels that did have the information required. That is a tough part of the business.

9. Editors are project managers

This has been said so many times, but I guess I just didn't realise when editors from publishing companies were taking time to talk to this upstart book reviewer - editors work tirelessly on behalf of all of their authors, and try to share themselves around each of them. For me, that meant sharing myself across twenty-seven authors at one point! They acquire, negotiate contracts, deal with agents, talk to authors (sometimes talk them down from the ledge!). They edit, they assist with book cover design, they talk to bloggers, they do interviews, they take time out for conventions and go on panels. They talk about book production, they jiggle around publication schedules, they liaise with publicity and marketing departments. They travel for their job. They go to book fairs and trade shows. Yes, they have an absolutely awesome job, but, by God, they work for it. They are probably underpaid for the sheer amount of hours they put in for the love of reading, the love of introducing new stories to the world, the love of working with authors. Their work/life balance is usually shit. They'll often have partners or spouses who have to be THE most understanding people (well, except for those who actually marry authors themselves!)

10. Publishing can hurt

I think this is the one I never expected. I imagined that it would be such a wonderful environment. In most cases, it really is! I mean, you have this fantastic book reading community around you. You have colleagues who are just as invested in your books as you are. You work with such talented individuals. But you have to develop such a thick skin. A lot of the words given to authors should be given to fledgling editors as well. When one of the first novels you commissioned is utterly eviscerated in a review, you have to tell yourself over and over again that just one review won't hurt sales - even though it has hurt you to the quick. Not just your author, but you. When you have to have those difficult phonecalls, make those difficult decisions, like when an author is not having a contract renewed - you will have fought tooth and claw for that book, you will have believed in it, but it isn't going to see the light of day. That hurts. That really hurts. That's when you want to say 'Fuck the sales numbers, fuck the bottom line, I just want to publish this book.' And don't ever, ever engage with what is being said about your authors, your books or your company unless it is to correct factual errors. Publishing is still a business, at the end of the day.

There is never one single moment that I will regret my time with Strange Chemistry - it was amazing, and astonishing, and rewarding, and still the best decision I ever made. I would never tell anyone not to go into publishing; you will love it so, so much of the time. But I will tell you that there are always surprises in this business, always things that you might not know going on behind the scenes. Hopefully you enjoyed hearing about just a few of them.

1 comment:

  1. Re: #5 - Maybe it would be better to say in some cases that a book hasn't been edited properly, or edited well. A book may have seen an editor and may be quite changed from the original manuscript, but if there are still continuity errors and problems larger than the occasional typo and all of a sudden a certain character is being referred to by an entirely different name, then even if the book did pass through the hands of an editor who worked on it, then I don't really think they did they job well.

    You're definitely right in that readers pretty much never get to see the original manuscript and compare it to the finished product (though man, do I ever wish I could sometimes, out of sheer glorious curiosity!), but I think it's possible in some cases to comment on the editing even when you don't know just how far it's come. Sometimes the two choices are that it either hasn't been edited at all, or it needs to be edited again. You can sometimes tell even when you don't know the book's beginnings.

    I mostly mention this because I actually wrote something on that topic recently about major errors in ARCs and whether it's permissable to comment on them in reviews. Not piddly little typos or stuff you can handwave away, but incorrect word usage and characters changing names between one page and the next. Stuff that indicates that the book is still in need of another once-over.