Book Publishing Companies

Publishing a book: The selection process

A book publishing company is a business enterprise, and its job is to make a profit by manufacturing and distributing a product for sale, just like any other business. A publisher’s product, the book, is simply a physical manifestation of people’s ideas.

Every arts-based industry—literature, film, television, music, drama, fine art, even education—deals with ideas, which are considered “intellectual property.” Ownership of, or rights to use, that property is negotiated through complex legal and business practices. Ultimately an author’s ideas are converted into a sellable product.

Art vs. business

It’s difficult for many people to reconcile the seeming paradox of the book publishing process. How can the intangibles of creativity, emotion, time, effort, and skill become a tangible object with a price tag? Indeed, traditional publishing looks from the outside to be built on contradiction. Both writing and reading are deeply subjective experiences, yet between author and reader stands an organization driven by objectivity.

But that organization contains another layer: people who love books and desire to champion them. Those book-lovers must balance their passion against their employer’s need to pay their salaries, and its need to keep the lights on in the building, keep the building in repair, keep the tax man happy, and everything else a business must do to stay alive. Thus, editorial decisions about what books to publish are framed in terms of dollars. Despite how much an editor might love a book, if that book is unlikely to contribute to the company coffers, it won’t get acquired.

Book publishing companies

Big publishers are more likely to take a gamble

Exceptions do occur, when a publisher takes a chance against the odds, but such gambling is not the norm. Big publishers gamble more often, having more titles to offset each other, and larger sales forces and marketing budgets to support the risk. For small publishers with slim cost-benefit ratios, a publishing mistake could be financially fatal. But all publishers’ bottom lines depend on the success of their complete suite of titles. That means a book must serve its master (i.e., the company laying out the resources to move the ideas from the author’s mind into the public’s hands).

Put this way, publishing seems impersonal, even cold. But at heart publishing is a people business, because all it has to sell are information, enlightenment, and entertainment. Humanity will always hunger for those intangibles, so publishers must keep their finger on the human pulse in order to stay in business.

Key questions

Each publishing house favors a different type of book, and the big publishing houses organize multiple book types under imprints. Within each house or imprint, different editors and managers have their own preferences. That leaves a world of opportunity open to authors. But here again, numbers come into play. There are many, many more authors than there are publishing opportunities (a driving force behind the explosion of self-publishing). A company, therefore, needs some system to winnow the grain from the chaff.

Literary agents, acquisitions editors, and other gatekeepers

Enter the “gatekeepers”: literary agents, acquisitions editors, managing editors, executives, and marketing and accounting personnel. Any one or combination of these decides which projects the publishing company will take on. They balance their tastes with what they perceive to be the tastes of their market—an endlessly tricky juggle between subjectivity and objectivity, between art and commerce, which themselves are volatile and hard to predict.

Whether the company is publishing textbooks, novels, or general nonfiction, the gatekeepers ask themselves the same questions when evaluating a manuscript:

• Is the book well-written, and accessible to our target audience?

• Is it the right fit for our niche in the marketplace?

• Have we already published something like it?

• What does it need to stand out against (and outsell) the competition?

In specialty areas, such as educational publishing, additional elements might be at play. For example:

• Is the material accurate, up to date, and aligned with current educational standards?

• Are difficult concepts clearly explained with graphics, tables, photos, and illustrations?

• Is the book a better learning tool than others already out there? Is the vocabulary clearly explained and defined, does it include summaries and real-world examples that engage the learner?

• If a test preparation book, will it enhance a student’s performance on the test? Does it contain enough questions of sufficient degrees of difficulty for varied learners?

• What kind of support package comes with it?

Most important for the electronic age, which electronic devices can it be used on, and what interactive features does it offer?

The winning equation

Gatekeepers are one reason some authors choose self-publishing over traditional publishing. A book without very broad—or very specialized—appeal may not meet a publisher’s or agent’s commercial imperatives. That keeps a lot of worthy books out of the market. But an individual’s financial status doesn’t depend on the same factors as a company’s, and/or their financial goals might be easier to meet by operating independently, and/or they might desire more control than is available through a traditional contract, and/or they have unrelated goals. Perhaps they just find the idea of competing for approval to be repellent, or are unwilling to endure the long timetable of traditional publishing compared to the speedy results of self-publishing.

Self-published authors have the same considerations

What many authors learn from exploring the pros and cons of publishing either way is how much work is involved in producing and marketing a book, and how much it costs. Those facts used to be little known outside the traditional publishing industry. Now they are a key factor in deciding between channels.

Authors must now ask themselves similar questions to what gatekeepers ask, to either release their own work (self publishing) or submit it to a traditional book publishing company: Why should people buy my book? What makes it interesting? How does it stand out from the crowd? What aspect of my vision or story will make people want to read my book and be glad they did?

Finding the magic

Author, reader, and publisher all want the same thing: a certain magic in a book that nobody else has. This intangible, subjective quality makes a book a winner in the right context. Each publisher defines its own context, and all are on an eternal quest to find authors who match their criteria. When they do, the win-win scenario that results is what fuels the engine of the publishing industry.

Caroline Hiley

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