The Author as Publisher

(Second in a series of articles about the new realities for writers and readers.)

It seems inevitable to me now that unless they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or bath salts to subsidize themselves, the major publishing houses are going down. There will certainly be a role for niche publishers in future (literary presses that focus on poetry or esoteric fiction among them, teetering on the brink of expiration as they always have, and non-fiction houses that specialize in such limited areas as the flora and fauna of Paraguay or the battles of World War II), but for the majority of mainstream fiction and non-fiction book writers, independent publishing will soon become the norm.

In this post, I examine the “services” publishers have traditionally provided to writers and their books (and therefore to readers, I suppose), and then I look at how I believe these same functions can be managed—often in a more effective manner—by the authors themselves when they publish their own books. The post examines five specific areas:

  • manuscript selection
  • editing
  • production
  • promotion/sales
  • distribution

There are other areas that publishers have traditionally managed for writers, often with the help of agents. Most of them relate to subsidiary rights—e.g., translation rights,  dramatic rights, merchandizing rights, and so on. Publishers have traditionally taken a chunk of the money that accrues when a book has been translated or made into a movie. They have argued (with good reason) that after a manuscript has been accepted by a publisher and turned into an attractive book, it becomes more appealing to rights purchasers. Publishers have at times facilitated the process by presenting their books to prospective foreign publishers at the London and Frankfurt book fairs, for example, but for the most part they have simply secured some portion of the subsidiary rights without actually doing much to encourage an income flow for either themselves or the author from such sources.

So, on to the “services” they have offered and fulfilled.

 Manuscript Selection

Looking Back

Most readers and many publishers have always believed that publishers performed an invaluable role in the book-production process by making the initial selection from the thousands of manuscripts that were submitted to them every year of the books that would reach the marketplace. These selections were made, at least ideally, and perhaps twenty years and more ago, on the basis of writing quality, uniqueness of voice, and a variety of other subjective criteria that only highly trained, well read, passionate, experienced and discerning editors could make.

However, publishing companies have realized increasingly in the past decade that they are businesses. Senior bean counters have required the editorial departments to make decisions about which books to publish on the basis of how many copies of those books are likely to sell. Sales departments have increasingly had veto power over book selection . . .  and the sales department of a publishing house is itself directed in large measure by the buyers for the major booksellers, who are the ones who ultimately choose which books are going to end up on the shelves.

To attempt to ensure sales, publishers release books that are just like the books that sold like hotcakes last year—hence the proliferation in recent years of vampire books and in future years, I am guessing, of detective stories starring androgynous computer geeks with photographic memories. They also want books that are written by people whose last books sold like hotcakes. When publishers do pick up a new writer, they want her or him to be sexy, well-spoken and distinctive. Sometimes they will even go and get her, if she is famous enough: watch for the book by Lady Gaga which is sure to be out soon.

The days when literate editors fell in love with new literary voices and argued successfully to publish their books is long gone. If there is no research evidence (i.e., last year’s sales figures) to justify the company’s taking on a book, it isn’t going to happen.

In the initial post on this blog (“How Literary Agents Are Destroying Literature…”), and in others since, I have described at length how the book selection process is skewed away from quality literature and toward shlock. For additional and truly eye-opening discussion of how books are selected for publication, I also direct all readers, and particularly mid-list writers, to an article by Stephen Henighan that appeared in Geist –“The BookNet Dictatorship” — which discusses how book-sales data affect the selection of book manuscripts for publication (the article is about the Canadian industry, but the same system applies where you live).

Looking Ahead

In the brave new world of publishing, the worthwhile books (and the standard for what is “worthwhile” has infinite variation) are selected after they are published. The sorting is done by the readers and reviewers. They are the ones who decide which books will be popular and critical successes. No more gatekeepers who are “more knowledgeable” than readers about which books will sell, or even be of interest. If a book has an audience of three, now it will find that audience: and a few other people might pick it up as well.

This democratization of the manuscript-selection process is in itself cause for huge celebration and excitement among both writers and readers, although the haughty “I know literature better than you do” types see it as the greatest drawback to the proliferation of self-publishing. The great books will still be there, folks, and—thanks to on-line resources that you will come to rely upon the way you do now on the New York Times Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement—you will still be able to find them.


Looking Back

Traditionally, once a manuscript was accepted for publication by an established press, it would be assigned to either an in-house or a freelance editor who would work with the writer to improve the manuscript substantively. This “substantive” or “content” editor would suggest areas where more information was needed, sections that could be cut, even whole new passages that needed to be written. The writer would then do the revisions (or—at least, ideally—the ones he or she agreed with).

After the major revisions were complete to the satisfaction of the writer and the publisher, the whole manuscript would go to another editor for copy-editing. This final editing step would get the manuscript into a clean format ready for the printer, free of spelling and grammatical and punctuation errors, and adhering to the “house style” of the publishing company (often a variation on the guidelines set out in the Chicago Manual of Style, although books in certain disciplines use other style guides).

To my mind, and that of most other writers, the editorial phase was probably the most important step of the book-production process. An editor worth his or her salt, working closely with the writer, often turned an interesting manuscript into a truly spectacular, award-winning novel or non-fiction book. Despite this, in-house and freelance editors didn’t get paid very much and often received no acknowledgement at all.

Looking Ahead

Really good editors are already leaving the publishing houses because their love for turning good into great books is even less valued than it has ever been in the industry. Many of them have started taking on freelance clients (and charging what they are worth).

In future, certain editors will become so well known that having their name appear on the self-published book as editor will be enough to guarantee the book attention from the media and readers. The participation of certain outstanding editors will become a new way of sorting out the quality books from the crap that proliferates in a world where everyone can publish.

Self-published writers who do not invest the time and money in good editing are going to pay the price. Within a few paragraphs, readers like me put aside a poorly edited book: it is simply not worth the effort to read a novel or non-fiction work that is riddled with typos and factual errors, or where the point of view doesn’t work or the flashbacks are too choppy—no matter what the underlying quality. A poorly edited book means the writer doesn’t understand the value of an editor, and I am not impressed with writers who don’t value editors. We can live without publishers, but we cannot live without editors. (See my related post on the rise of the literary editor from May 2009.) In this world, “Look Inside The Book” options on booksellers’ sites become the friend of the wary reader,  and the enemy of the sloppy, unedited writer.

I can hear writers moaning that they will not be able to afford to hire good editors, that their access to publishing companies in the past meant that they had access to good editors at no cost to them, and that this possibility is now lost. Keep in mind that the vast majority of writers never had access to top-quality editors because they never had their books accepted by any of the publishing companies where these editors worked.

If you need a good editor, and your aunt is an English teacher, explore that possibility for copy-editing. Do that at least. If you really care about your book, get quotes from substantive/content editors on line and save up to pay for one, the way you would a car. The publishing collectives that are springing up offer editing services to their writers, and I am sure that editors who love great writing will occasionally take on pro bono work (No. Don’t ask. I don’t mean me. I can’t afford to do that yet.)

Please note IMPORTANT: No credentials are required in order to set up shop as an editor. Most editors’ organizations do not require any track record from their members, so membership in an editors’ association is not in itself a credential. There are people setting themselves up now as editor/publishers who can’t even spell their Twitter posts correctly or deliver them grammatically.

Ask for names from writers you respect. Check references of those you find on-line. Demand credentials. Remember, you are the creator. You are the talent. And now, you are also the employer.


Looking Back

When your manuscript had been edited to perfection, it was submitted to the layout department where the pages were set. A careful in-house editor working in cooperation with the layout department would make sure that all chapters started on the right (usually the right-hand) side of the page, that there were no pages with just one word on them, that there was an appropriate running head across the top of the page, that paragraphs had not accidentally run together, and that all the other details were adhered to that made for a professional-looking book. If you had included figures or tables in your manuscript, they would be laid out and proofread at this stage. Captions would be checked, illustrations inserted where appropriate, double-spaces and fluerons would be added where they should be, and again checked. If there was an index (usually created at the author’s expense), the typeset pages would be printed off to be given to the author, who would then insert the page numbers.

The cover design would be completed and the text for the back cover and any other promotional inside notes would be created, set and proofed. Tables of Contents would be created if necessary, Forewords inserted, Acknowledgements checked and placed.

When all of this and other related bits of work had been completed, the page proofs would be sent to the author for final checking. Then the laid-out version of the novel and the cover would be sent to the printer.

A few weeks later, the printer would send back what was known as a “blue line” (this can be imagined sort of like a negative of a photograph, although it isn’t really a negative), which would show exactly how the pages were going to look when the page was produced and what order the pages would appear in. The in-house editor would give this blue-line a final check, and would also check all the colour separations with the art department for the cover and any illustrations.

The order to print was then issued to the printer. Within a certain defined period of time (which was almost always exceeded by the printer, meaning that books were often late for important events such as book launches), 500 or 2,500 or 3,000 or 10,000 or whatever number of copies of the books had been ordered would be delivered to the publisher for warehousing and distribution.

Looking Ahead

With self-publishing, the writer submits the edited manuscript to a layout artist (paid or a relative, depending ;) ) and/or does the layout himself or herself, and then submits the laid-out version of the book to the publishing company, according to the page specifications that are provided by the company.

The author also arranges for a cover to be designed and prepared in the manner required by the publishing company.

Depending on the knowledge/skill of the layout artist/typesetter and the cover designer, this step makes the difference between a book that “looks” self-published and one that does not.

Most self-publishing houses and publishing partners now deal only in print-on-demand books, rather than running off 2,500 copies using an off-set printing press. This means that when someone orders a copy of your book, one copy of that book is created on the spot, packaged and delivered to them immediately. Since 2,500 copies of your book are not sitting in a warehouse somewhere, waiting for someone to order them, trees are saved and many middle-people are eliminated. Customers don’t need to wait any longer for the bookstore to take their order and then to contact the publisher, who then contacts the warehouse department, which waits until enough books have accumulated for shipping to one address to justify the delivery charges, before the order is fulfilled. (By which time your customer has forgotten that he or she ordered the book, has no money left in his or her account, and refuses to purchase it.)

The one drawback to the print on demand (POD) system today is that the books can look flimsy and the covers don’t always get stuck on straight or properly. But before too long the technology of self-publishing partners like CreateSpace will become increasingly refined so that books that are self-published will be harder and harder to tell apart from those that have been designed and typeset by traditional publishing houses using big printing presses. And, of course, e-books make this step much simpler; far fewer quality-control steps are required in the production of an electronic book than in the production of a “real” book. However, real books are always going to be desired by many readers, so this part of the process should not be ignored by self-publishing authors–at least for literary works that someone might want to hold.


 The primary sales tool upon which most traditional publishing houses rely is the catalogue. As an author, you and your book receive top billing (usually along with five or six other writers/books) in the season in which your book is actually published. For a few months you and your book are featured in the front pages of the publishing company’s catalogue, and then your book falls farther and farther back in the subsequent editions until it forms part of the company’s “backlist.”

I have heard from booksellers that one of the most important ways they have to discover which books in a publisher’s catalogue they might want to stock is the enthusiasm of the sales person when he or she comes around to the bookstore. If the publishing company’s salesperson has read the book and really likes it and can talk about it, the bookseller (we’re talking primarily independent booksellers here) will likely be convinced to stock a book that he or she has not heard about before. Unfortunately, the sales reps from many publishing companies have not read all the books (or at least may not have read your book) and so you just become one of many new voices in one of many catalogues the bookseller receives. Some sales people never even go around to booksellers any more, apparently. So the bookseller gets your publisher’s catalogue in the mail or on–line about the same time that he or she gets an avalanche of catalogues from other publishers, and often that is that.

In addition to the catalogue, most publishers will send out review copies to newspapers and magazines, but unless there is some unique way of getting the attention of the book-review department, your book is likely to languish in a pile of other newly published books that reaches to the ceiling and is soon shunted off to a backroom somewhere. Many traditional outlets will not review ebooks. Or POD books. Even if they are published by traditional publishing houses.

Many writers make very poor interview subjects so there are legions of radio and television hosts who do not want to talk to writers. Apparently we just don’t know how to capitalize on and entertain audio/visual audiences — our preferred medium is print! — and since so many of our number have bored viewers and listeners to death in the past, even if we are ourselves great guests on tv or radio, we will need to overcome established prejudices before we can have our moments in the sun. . . either that, or we will need to do something newsworthy that interviewers can talk about with us, like robbing a grocery store or walking 2000 miles in our bare feet.

Another unfortunate bit of news: publishers and booksellers have found that hosting book-launch parties and readings are not very cost-effective, so this happens far less often than it used to.

Looking Ahead

When it comes to promotion of self-published books, the sky is the limit. I have a bunch of crazy ideas and some more time-tested ones, and I’ll be doing a whole column about that in future.

At the Writers Union meeting I attended this past weekend, there was a panel discussion on promoting one’s own work through blogs and social media, and aside from the fact that everyone agreed that blatant self-promotion was more off-putting than attractive, there were a range of ideas that I’ll be happy to present here at some point before long.

Stay tuned.


 Looking Back

Publishers have always had huge problems with book warehousing and distribution.

If you print 10,000 copies of a book and ship 3,000 of them out to bookstores when the print run comes in, what do you do with the other 7,000 copies? On the other hand, if you only print 3,000 copies and they sell out quickly, what do you do about the fact that it’s going to take a couple of months to get more copies printed? Or what happens if the author’s book wins an award, and you don’t have enough copies available to fill the orders that result (this happens all the time, in fact). Where do you situate your warehouses? Near the editorial and sales offices, or out in a lower-rent district where the shipping department becomes like a whole separate entity. Do you combine forces with other publishers to reduce duplicate costs of distribution? How can you be sure your books are being rushed out to customers if the other publishing companies with which you have combined resources have a run on a particular title?

The craziness of the book business also means that if retailers don’t sell the books they order, they can return them to the publisher. So publishers need somewhere to put returns – unless they plan to simply shred them (which also happens).

Looking Ahead

The age of technology has resolved many distribution problems in ways that benefit writers and readers more than they do publishers and traditional booksellers. With Print on Demand and electronic books, readers can press a button and the book is on its way to them –either in the mail or electronically. No warehouses are necessary.

Of course, booksellers don’t make any profit from e-books, or at least they haven’t figured out how to do so yet, so they don’t like them. And they don’t like Print on Demand books, because they can’t return them after they have ordered them. Booksellers and publishers both look down (with good reason) on the poor quality of many POD titles, and don’t want them in their stores.

The whole area of book distribution is evolving as rapidly as any other area of book publishing, but the bottom line is that the changes are good for writers and readers—the latter can actually impulse-buy our books!—and for that among many other evolutions in our business, we can look at our futures with a new optimism, even knowing that our role as publishers or at least publishing partners is going to mean a lot more work for us.

So there you go. Poof! You’re a publisher.

6 responses

  1. What an excellent article; thank you! I’m a professional historian and researcher familiar with the scholarly publication process but I was sure in for a rude awakening after I wrote my first work of fiction and needed to familiarize myself with commercial publishing. Thankfully, my training allowed me to quickly research and assemble critical data about both traditional and indie publishing and in short order I realized I had jumped into the middle of a historical seachange in the industry. To borrow from medicine and the well understood cycles of life (and I do this so even the most thick-headed people “get it”), traditional publishing reminds me of a senile geriatric patient sadly gasping for the last breaths of life while, at another end of the hospital, independent publishing is represented by a healthy young woman giving birth to a vibrant new era.

    On a personal note, let me share this: as I was doing my own research I also danced the query jig for a short time (actually, it’s more like a mosh pit but anyway….) and, rather remarkably and almost immediately, I entered into conversations with 3 agents (I had queried 43) expressing strong interest in my ms. Those conversations absolutely convinced me that what I thought I was learning about the industry through my own research was spot on. Although I received generous praise for my writing style and unique plot, I was also told that (1) I needed “to dumb it down;” (2) the story was too “sophisticated” for the “average American reader,” and (3) one agent confessed she “couldn’t get Steinbeck published” today. That third agent, working for one of the hottest agencies in the business spoke to me on the phone for almost an hour. I learned she loved literature, had a refined appreciation for the great American and British classics, and had been living, as Thoreau would have described, “a life of quiet desperation” in an industry that had robbed her of her ideals. She said she was “sick to her core” by the “dreck” being published today. We agreed that the first person to write at the 8th grade level about an Amish vampire living in an urban fantasy was going to be very successful indeed.

    I’m so happy to have found your blog; you are definitely a keeper and I’m going to post a link to you on my own blog:
    Maureen Gill, author of “January Moon.”

    • Thank you for this most literate and empathetic response. I believe there are dozens of heart-sick editors and agents out there who are going to leave the industry before the ship sinks and will get their shingles out as 1) editors and 2) book publicists (another business we are going to come to value). They will I hope soon be able to earn their keep editing and promoting books they love.

      I know I sound a bit like Pollyanna but it is hard not to be optimistic if you are a serious writer of serious fiction who has not heard a serious note of encouragement from any of the gatekeepers for a decade. I am so happy that I am finally going to get my (third) novel published and out there (if I ever stop blogging and start getting it into production). If only three readers discover it and only one likes it, it is still better than what has happened to it in the years since I finished it (it languished. That was all it did). I love the book, I want to see it published, and doing that myself now will mean I can FINALLY move on.

      Thanks again. Nice to meet you. :)

  2. Mary, this is a great post. I enjoyed the historical comparisions of then and now. You bring a broad perspective to this discussion which is compelling.
    I am currently in the middle of self pubbing with Createspace thru one of their packages. So much of your comparision between the traditional publishing path and the newer ways are very interesting to me right now. I received a seven-page comprehensive edit letter from my amazing Createspace editor Sarah. In that letter she told me more about my book’s strengths and weaknesses than I learned in years of feedback. She praised aspects of the book no one had mentioned before. And she was also able to pinpoint plot holes that no one had pointed out before, and chapters where I rushed when I should have strolled. Prospect of My Arrival will be better book as a result. My agent sent the ms. to a dozen big and mid-size publishers but no deal emerged and he suggested I move on to my next book. But I felt my first novel was ready and I wanted to take the plunge into self pubbing.

    I also sense this is an exciting time to be a writer. And once the dust settles, it will be interesting to see exactly how the paradigm has shifted. Anything that empowers writers and readers is a good thing. Sometimes I look at the stories of self pubbed authors hitting it big with a book. And my ears are open wide to hear their marketing secrets. But I know too that one of the best ways to to become successful is to write a great book that everyone wants to read, and will tell their friends about. Then do whatever you can to ensure that book sees the light of day, is available in e-book and POD, that your blog and website are ready for visitors, and so on. Here’s to new paradigms!

    • Thanks, Dwight! I’m delighted to hear that good editing is available through CreateSpace and congrats on moving forward with Prospect. If we don’t believe in our books, no one else will.

  3. Very interesting post, Mary. For me, the big questions have to do with distribution. How does the author who is self-published, or published by a vey small house, get her book “our there” where readers may run into it? My thought would be to use a commercial distributor, although this is expensive… and may not be as effective as I would hope.

    • Merna, as Print on Demand technology improves, we won’t need to warehouse books at all, so rather than distribution, we’ll really only need to think about marketing and promotion. We need the reader to want to buy the book — when they’ve decided to do that, they will just need to click a button and it will be en route to them. I think hiring a publicist will become more valuable than hiring a distributor.

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