Hello writerly people!
I’m back with another guest post to take you behind the scenes in the sometimes all-too-mysterious world of book publishing. In my first post last month, we talked about the acquisitions process: how an editor acquires a book for a publishing house/imprint. Now let’s pick up where we left off and discuss what happens next with that acquisition: the journey from the contract to bookstore shelves.
It’s a longer journey than you might think! One common misconception about publishing is how fast books come to market or go on-sale. People are often surprised that this process typically takes a year or more. (There are exceptions for books that may be newsworthy and have to be rushed out, which is called a “crash” schedule.)
Why does it take so much time? Well, a lot is happening behind the scenes over the course of many months to set up the book to give it its best shot to attract a readership.
The editor’s job is to oversee and coordinate all the facets of that process. In this post, I’ll walk through those steps:
- Determining the publication date
- Launch meeting
- Marketing, publicity and sales
- Book promotions and publication
For ease, let’s give the book that’s winding its way to readers’ hands a title. How about HOT NEW BOOK?
Determining the publication date
As soon as HOT NEW BOOK is under contract, one of the first things the editor and his/her colleagues must do is to determine the optimal time to publish it. (Fun fact: all books go on sale on Tuesdays).
Publishers work in spans or seasons, typically three of them: Summer (books that go on-sale between May and August), Fall (books that go on sale between September and December) and Spring (books that go on sale between January and April.)
So the editor looks into the future and decides the right season/timing for the book. Different types of books come out at different times. For example, in the Fall, you often have your big franchise writers like John Grisham, or big new cookbooks–offerings that might be good for the holiday gift giving season. In the Spring, you might have prescriptive books that go along with our desire to be better, thinner, more productive people at the start of every year (with mixed results. Just me?). Summer you have your beach reads or escapist thrills.
There are always exceptions, but that’s a rough idea of how publishers think about the publishing calendar and then look very far ahead to slot books in. Right now (late summer 2021), publishers are gearing up to start planning for books being published next summer (2022).
Let’s say HOT NEW BOOK is an exciting debut, commercial suspense. A lot of those books have been coming out in Spring, so the editor might tentatively schedule the book for Spring 2023.
First priority, of course, is making sure HOT NEW BOOK is the best book it can be. This may involve months of editorial work. The editor will do a very, very close and comprehensive read of the manuscript and offer detailed edits on the page: line edits of individual sentences and also bigger picture suggestions about characters, plot points, scenes, etc. that will be outlined in an editorial letter.
The author of HOT NEW BOOK will digest that feedback (after lots of deep breaths and maybe a stiff drink) and then embark on a revision. The editor will read that revision, offer more notes and suggestions to the author, who will revise again and so on until both the author and the editor are happy that the book has reached its fullest possible potential.
Here’s another related question I get a lot: Do editors *really* edit? The answer is an unequivocal: depends!
It’s true that some editors are less “on the page” than others. Because of their workload, they might not find it feasible to do rounds and rounds of intensive edits. But the majority of editors do want to have a strong hand in shaping a book.
One way to suss out how involved on the page an editor may or may not be is by talking to potential editors when your book is on submission (your agent can set that up) and asking point blank what his or her editorial style is and how “hands on” they are. You might ask what specific edits they already have for you, broadly, having read your book. This way you get a sense of their involvement and their vision for the story, which you want to make sure aligns with yours.
And now the work to set up the book begins. First up: publishers have a launch meeting. These happen three times a year to correspond with the seasons.
At this meeting, the editor gives a presentation about HOT NEW BOOK to the whole publishing team (sales, marketing, publicity, etc.)–what it’s about, what’s special about it, about the author, and why it’s guaranteed to be a success.
The editor’s job here is to get people in the company excited about that book and eager to read it. After the meeting, the teams responsible for producing and marketing need some time to read HOT NEW BOOK (along with all the other books being published by the imprint–another reason it takes time).
Next the other departments start kicking into action.
The art department designs an arresting jacket for HOT NEW BOOK. The first step here is for the editor and art designer to brainstorm about the vision for the cover. The editor will supply examples of comparative jackets that he/she and the author like and then the designer goes off to create.
The designer will create about 8-12 different options and the whole team (publisher, associate publisher, department heads, editor, etc) will gather in a cover/jacket meeting (usually held weekly) to discuss reactions. Sometimes there’s a clear winner, sometimes none of the options work. Most often some people like some jackets, some people hate some jackets and that’s where it gets fraught. Because everyone has strong opinions about jacket designs/visuals and it’s so subjective.
After some discussions, usually the team will agree on 1-2 options to show the author. Whatever the editor’s feelings about the jacket that emerges as the “winner” from this meeting, his/her job is to “sell” it to the author. The message: this is the jacket that the publisher loves, so you should love it too. Alas, that persuasion doesn’t always work and the author and agent may not like the jacket, in which case the whole process starts again. This is where it can get tricky, because it’s expensive and time consuming to design jackets and the art team is jugging a lot of jackets at once, too, so the longer it goes without reaching a winner, the more tedious it is for all involved.
And yet, the jacket is so important to get right, with the whole judging a book by its cover thing! So it’s worth taking the time. And the deep breaths.
While that’s happening, the hard-working (and too often unsung) production department is seeing the manuscript through the nitty gritty of copy-editing, proofreading (the book will be proofed about three times), and designing what the interior of the book (the font and page layouts).
Here’s another fun fact. Did you know that all books have a page count that is a multiple of 16, 304, 320, etc.? It’s because of the way they cut, bind and print paper at the printer.
Publicity, marketing, and sales
The publicity team starts strategizing about how to drum up excitement in the media and with events. This involves pitching the book to talk shows, magazines, podcasts and reviewers to get them to cover HOT NEW BOOK. That’s how readers are going to know it even exists! One of the tools they use is called an ARC (Advance Readers Copy) or galley. These are early versions of the book that look like paperbacks. Months before the hardcover is printed, these are shared with media folks and others to drum up excitement.
Meanwhile, the marketing team is at work, too. Their job is to promote the book on social media, via advertising, and to drum up excitement with booksellers and librarians. (There is a whole team dedicated to academic marketing too targeting schools, libraries, etc.). Marketing people also send out ARCs/galleys and sometimes they send along little gifts to help HOT NEW BOOK stand out. So if the novel is about a murder at a winery, they might send a mini bottle of wine or a fancy corkscrew along with the galleys. Yes, bribery.
And now, enter the all important Sales team. There are individuals assigned to work with each of the major retail accounts, i.e. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Target, Hudson, etc. These reps go to these accounts and tell them all about the books the publisher has forthcoming, like HOT NEW BOOK, and urges the retailers to buy a lot of copies (called stock) because the book is sure to be a hit with their customers. The goal for publishers here is to drive up the print run, that’s the initial amount of copies that will be printed and shipped to stores across the country. The higher that number, the more money the publisher makes.
These accounts buy stock months ahead of time, which requires planning far ahead. And remember bookstores have finite space, so it can be competitive to get them to buy a book and then promote it.
Book promotions and publication
What does promoting mean? That means putting HOT NEW BOOK in front of stores, or featuring it in a newsletter blast, or singling it out as special (remember Borders Discover Picks? RIP Borders sigh.) All of those promos help customers find HOT NEW BOOK, so the publisher is very keen to get retailers on board.
The publisher might send the author of HOT NEW BOOK on a tour too, though publishers have become more conservative about book tours. It can be a big expense for the publisher and so the team has to weigh that against the potential book sales that will be generated at an instore event. It doesn’t make sense to fly an author from New York to LA, and put him or her up in a hotel only to have four people show up to hear the author read. So publishers are strategic about what events will get a good turnout, via the store’s or the author’s own personal network.
Of course, most events have been virtual since the pandemic began, which is a very cost effective and convenient way to have events, and will likely continue into the future for that reason.
The goal is that people fall in love with HOT NEW BOOK every step of the way so word of mouth and excitement spreads, with the editor cheering the loudest of all.
All of this involves an enormous amount of manpower and resources. There are so many books being published and it takes ingenuity, passion, relationships (and a little luck doesn’t hurt) to break through the clutter. All of these departments are working furiously right up until the book goes to the printer and voila! About a month before the OSD (our jargon for on-sale date) HOT NEW BOOK is a real live book (the month allows for shipping) and then there it is….shining bright on bookstores shelves.
And everyone gets to toast their involvement before getting right back to work on the next HOT NEW BOOK.
Art: Boekenkramen op de Quai de Montebello, de Notre-Dame in de achtergrond by Tavík František Šimon