Publishing Industry Basics
Publishing Industry Basics
Alexandra Pringle (Editor in Chief) gives expert video advice on: Will writing make me rich and famous?; What makes a good writer? and more...
What is a publishing company?
A publishing company is a company whose job it is to find books, to spot books that should be published, and to then make a contract with the author. That is done usually by a literary agent. That publishing contract is negotiated and then made. Then it is the publisher's job to take the book from the raw material that it starts at, all the way through the various stages of publication, of production and design and editing and so forth, until its published.
What is a book deal?
A book deal is what happens when a manuscript is offered to a publishing company by an agent, although it can be by the author directly, if the publishing company wants to publish it. There is quite a long process that happens until you get to that point. You do a financial calculation which is based on the first years sales of the book and the amount that comes to is what you offer for the book. That is called an advance against royalties, so that is the advance against what the publisher thinks they will earn in royalties in the first years sales of the book. It can vary literally from £1,000 to £100,000 and beyond, depending on how bullish the publishing sales department envisions the sales of that particular book to be.
What is an editor?
An editor is the person who is, I would say, the midwife for the book. And the editor, I also describe as being the engine that drives the train of the book and everything that goes around it, along the track and through publication and past that. So in the first place, the editor is the person who has to decide that this is a book worth publishing. They then have to sell it to their colleagues internally, because an editor just doesn't think "Oh, I like this book I'll just go ahead and buy it". The whole company has to want to buy the book, and the whole company has to think it's worthwhile. So the first job of an editor is to read the manuscript, decide that they want it, and they have to want it a lot, because it's such a big job to get a book published; to take it to a meeting - an editorial meeting, and say "I think this book is great, I want you to read it, I want you to discuss it with me and let's see what you think". And then, they have to slug it out, and sometimes it's slugging it out; because sometimes people would say "Oh, I'm not so sure about that" and if the editor is really passionate and holds on and holds on, and convinces their colleagues. In the best case scenario, one's colleagues say "This is great, we want to publish it". So then they, it's the editor's job to get the calculations in, to work out with the advances. The editor then has to decide with the other people, in this case the CEO of the company, how much money you're going to be able to offer for the book. The editor then has to negotiate that with the agent, and that can take some time. And it's not just the amount for the advance; it's all the points in the contract, for example - the royalties, the reserve against returns, the audio rights, the translation rights, and first year and so on so forth and dozens of clauses in the contract. So then, when that is done, and that's done & dusted, the book is either then bought on a finished manuscript, or if it's is non-fiction, it can be bought on a synopsis - which is a proposal detailing what that author wants to write, why they want to write it, and so on. If it's in a synopsis, the editor then has to kick his or her high heels off, often he is waiting for the manuscript to be delivered, and they're there along the way if they're needed, if the author needs help. But basically it could be 2 years along the line or more. If it is a finished manuscript, the editor then gets to work with the author. Now sometimes a manuscript and I'd say it's quite rarely, is ready to go that it's just so perfect that, that's it. But often there is a lot of work that needs to be done. And not only with non-fiction, it can be with novelists. It can be with novelists who are internationally known, who are fantastically talented, but who need help. And I see an editor as being the person who has a conversation with the author. It's not prescriptive, it's about working with the author in a very empathetic way, because the end is to make the book as good as it can possibly be.
What is a copy editor?
The copy editor is the next stage on from the editor, the commissioning editor, in a publishing company. The commissioning editor does what we call structural editing, which is the big picture, and the copy editor is the fine crafts person. They are the person who goes through the manuscript in fantastic detail, looking at every comma, correcting spellings and correcting grammar, but also looking for inconsistencies like date problems and anything which strikes them as being odd. Copy editors also check up when there is a foreign language used, or technical terms, or any of those things. They literally mark the manuscript and raise any queries that they then go through with the author. It's their job to make the manuscript ready to go to the typesetter, who then sets it.
Will writing make me rich and famous?
Writing will not make you rich and famous unless you're very, very lucky. I think the problem with writing is that everybody can do it, more or less - I mean, they can physically write a page whether it's with a pen or a pencil, or a typewriter or a computer. However, very few people can write well, and people can sometimes write the most extraordinary and wonderful books and they can sell nine hundred copies. There is nothing to say that writing will ever make you rich and famous. One thing we can be certain of is that, when J K Rowling was sitting in her cafe writing her first Harry Potter, probably the last thing in her mind was that she would be either rich or famous. What she wanted to do was write a fabulous book. There is no point in writing a book unless you passionately, burningly want to write a book. If you're dreaming or riches and fame, you're better off going on Big Brother, or anything else for that matter.
What makes a good writer?
Mainly, I have to say talent is what makes a good writer. It is something that some people were born with and some people weren't. On top of talent, to be a good writer requires a fantastic persistence, good determination and personal ambition that you should be good at what you do. But creativity is something people are born with.
How long does it take to get published?
The length of time it takes to get published can depend enormously. Quite a lot of that is actually luck. One of the most important things is getting a good literary agent because that will be bound to make the time a lot shorter. The most disastrous thing you can do is to send in an unsolicited manuscript into a publication company because it will not get looked at properly due to the volume of manuscripts that are sent in being so enormous, that physically the editors could not read everything. Publishers only read the work that properly comes in from agents. Your luck is really whether the agent finds the right editor quickly or whether is takes a long time. For example: there was a first novel I published, years ago, called Hideous Kinky by Ester Freud, and from when the agent sent me the manuscript to when the deal was done was literally a passage of days. This was because the agent knew that I would be the publishing editor to fall in love with it. I knew that she understood my tastes so I took that very seriously and read it immediately. I was so determined to buy the book that I pushed my colleagues so quickly that it was done in days. Then there are other authors, such as Tim Peers, whose first novel I also published, who sent his manuscript to dozens of agents who then one picked it up and sent it to dozens of publishing companies, and it took years. When the manuscript arrived on my desk, at that point I was working at Hamish Hamilton. It was pretty dog-eared. It had clearly been around the block a few times and I had a reader who worked with me who said, "This book needs a lot of work but this voice is extraordinary. I think you will love it." I will have to say that it sat on my sitting room floor for some time because we publishers all have to enormous amounts of work to do all the time. When I read it, I saw it did have something special. However, it wasn't ready to be bought. I couldn't take it to my colleagues. I then rang the agent and said, "Could I please meet with the author?" I met with him, he went away and did some work, and then we bought the book. It was the most successful first novel that was published that year and so many bought it and gave it fantastic quotes. It won the Hawthorn Day prize. There were a lot of publishers and agents thinking, 'Why did I turn this book down?' That was the passage of that book and it didn't affect his career. He became a best selling writer but it took him a long time to get published.