FROM IDEA TO“KEEPER”:
by Denise Little
This is the first of a series of articles about publishing, which is changing as fast as technology can provide a platform to support it. This article looks at the old-fashioned method of making books. The next issue of Heart’s Kiss will look at the brave new world of electronic publishing.
If this article was the plot for a book, the editor would kill it when she read the synopsis. I can hear it now: “Much too illogical. It would stretch readers’ suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. You’ve got to rethink this.” The editor would be right, but the problem with non-fiction—in this case the story of a book’s journey from bright idea to reader-friendly product—is that it has to be true, not logical. And the process that takes an idea from a gleam in a writer’s eye to a book in a reader’s hand is crazy, and getting crazier every day.
So, how does a book happen? What are the typical steps in the process? What are some of the exceptions to the rule? And why is it so amazing that books arrive every day in bookstores, ready to amuse and move us? To answer those questions, here is the typical voyage of a typical book, along with several common variations.
Two or More Years Before Publication—The Author at Work
The parts of the process that almost every writer understands are the inspiration, perspiration, and discipline that result in a finished manuscript. So we’ll leave that out of this essay, except to note that the only acceptable substitute for a completed, polished manuscript is enough celebrity or enough money or enough specialized knowledge to convince somebody else to produce that completed, polished manuscript for you. Unless you’ve got those things, it’s time to sit down and write until you’re ready for the next step on this book’s journey.
I’d also like to point out that it’s worth the time and effort it takes to get the book into really good shape. This is the one place in the whole process where you’re really in control of what’s happening. (Yes, I’m aware your characters can stage rebellions—but keep this in mind: you’re bigger than they are.) If you’re unpublished and not sure that you’re there yet in your writing, enter a few contests. When you’re getting into the finals on a regular basis, you’re ready to submit. I know it’s maddening to wait, but if you send a book out too soon, editors and agents may remember your name and refuse to waste their time reading your subsequent contributions, even after you’ve learned to polish your work until it gleams.
If this feels arduous, remember that once you’re under contract and on deadline, you won’t have the luxury of working with a book until it’s as perfect as you can get it, so enjoy using time to polish while you have it. Multi-published authors, especially bestselling authors, live in a fairly tense world where they must provide ever better manuscripts, even as the demands of their careers steadily nibble away at the time they have to produce and polish their books.
So you’ve got your manuscript and you’re ready to send it in. If you’ve done the work on spec, you send it to the agent and/or editor that you think will be most receptive to it. Talk to published authors in your field for ideas, if possible. A quick trip to the bookstore to research your market will serve you well here, too. Look for recent books that resemble yours enough to give you some assurance that a market exists, and then make a note of the publisher or publishers who handled the bulk of those books. Check the dedications of the books, and make notes of the names of any editors and agents who are thanked there. These people and publishers are your targeted audience. Use the RWR, Writer’s Market, and LMP (Literary Market Place—check for it at your local library or on line) to get appropriate email addresses, names, and titles, as well as phone numbers, and to be sure your target will look at the material. Double-check the agent or publisher out with RWA, as well. Particularly with agents, it’s extremely important to be sure the agent deals with clients in an honorable manner. The publisher will pay the agent, not you, if the book sells. A dishonest agent can pocket a 100% commission. It’s been known to happen. So do your homework here.
SFWA’s Writer Beware is also an excellent source to keep you out of the dark corners of publishing. Some people won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts—the above sources will help you find out who those people are. It isn’t the end of the world if they won’t—they’ll look at a businesslike query letter. So send that first, instead of wasting your time emailing a manuscript. If you’ve done your research and written a good letter to send them, you’ll eventually get back a reply asking you to send the manuscript.
The day you’re going to email your manuscript, call the publishing company or agency and ask whoever answers the phone if you can verify the spelling, job title, and email address before you send the package. If you sound professional, most receptionists will either help you out themselves, or switch you to someone who can help you. That way, you have some assurance that the person you’ve targeted hasn’t changed jobs while you’ve been writing. Even if you’ve met an agent or editor at a conference, it’s worth going through this step. Publishing is a volatile industry, and many editors play musical chairs on a fairly frequent basis. In fact, whole publishing houses pick up and move or merge more often than most of us like. Taking the few moments needed to make that call can save you much heartbreak later. If you’re under contract for the book you’ve written, you send it to your agent or the publishing house that has purchased the work. Either way, it’s at this point that control seeps out of your hands, and the wild circus of book publication begins.
Two or More Years Before Publication—The Publisher at Work
Once the manuscript has arrived at the agency or publishing house’s in-box, a vast number of things go on—probably teeth-grindingly slowly from an author’s perspective. If the book is coming in on spec, the editor or agent must look it over and decide if it’s worth pursuing. Because publishing lists are crowded and editors are overworked, there’s a strong tendency to look for reasons NOT to buy a book. On the other hand, editors and agents love what they do or they’d be making lots more money doing something else, and they’re always searching for that next wildly profitable bestseller that will be their contribution to the publisher’s bottom line, bringing them fame, recognition, and maybe even promotion or fortune. So they read manuscripts and proposals hoping for the lightning of inspiration to strike, but ready to drop the material and reject it at the first sign of trouble, even if the trouble’s in the opening line. It’s like having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, both whispering in their ears every time they have to make a decision on a new project. I recently conducted an informal poll among my friends—they reject roughly 95% of the material that crosses their desk without bringing it up for purchase. But they never stop looking for the diamond that gleams in the dross. And they make mistakes—everybody has stories of the big one that got away.
If an agent loves a project and thinks it’s saleable, she’ll bring it up with the editors she thinks it will suit, or with any suitable publishing house she’s heard is buying. Agents are notable—and very focused—gossips. It’s essentially their job.
If an editor loves a project and thinks it’s saleable, she’ll bring it up at an editorial meeting, hoping to get permission to purchase it. These meetings are usually held once a week, and are attended by the publisher and the editors, along with representatives from the marketing department, the art department, and the sales department. Every editor has pet projects, but nothing is certain to be bought. Because room for new projects is limited, and because each new project will require a significant investment of company money, time, and resources, editorial meetings are free-for-alls, where quality, timing, personalities, political undercurrents, commercial good sense, pet peeves, blind luck, and bizarre twists of fate all crash into each other, sometimes loudly, depending on the publishing house. One of the ironies of the publishing business is that writers and editors are devoted readers, but marketing, sales, and art people aren’t always fans of the written word. In fact, for reasons that have a great deal to do with the kind of person who is likely to be very good at selling, salespeople are rarely readers. These non-readers have as much input into the process as the editors, and often more. After all, salespeople bring in money and editors spend it. Who’s a publisher going to listen to? This means that an editor’s ability to pitch a book in a fast, focused way and to make it sound interesting to a non-reader often has more to do with whether a book gets bought than the actual merits of the book.
Naturally, an author’s previous track record as a bestseller is useful in getting a project purchased, as is an editor’s solid track record for picking winners, but amazing things happen in editorial meetings. An unknown writer who has only completed a ten-page proposal ends up selling his work for a million dollars because he has a film deal in the works with Robert Redford. A fabulous, commercial, well-written non-fiction proposal gets turned down because the author isn’t photogenic enough for media appearances. A title resembles a previous project that lost a lot of money and is killed before the editor gets a chance to tell the assembled multitude what the book’s about. A promising project by an up-and-coming writer is purchased for possible immediate lead status because the manuscript is complete, and the book currently scheduled for that lead position is so late it’s making everybody nervous. Anything can happen in an editorial meeting, and frequently does.
Once a project has been approved, the amount of money the editor can offer for it is discussed. In most cases, the editor will produce a profit and loss (P&L) sheet, based on a projected print run supplied by the sales people and the estimated cost of producing each copy of the actual book, supplied by the production department. The P&L takes into account publisher overhead (this covers the cost of the publisher’s existence—salaries for everyone involved, real estate costs, the light bill, and so on, and is a set percentage of every book budget, typically from ten to twenty percent of the cost estimate, depending on the publisher), how much it will cost to produce the projected book and any associated expenses (size of manuscript, paper and cover stock, trim size of finished book, art, hand-lettering, foiling, die-cuts, matte finishes, embossing, step-back covers, photo sections, maps, legal vetting, interior design, gift with purchase offers, marketing, dumps, headers, author tours, ads, sweepstakes, black and white versus full-color printing, copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, and so on) and the projected shipping costs for the paper print run and the possible profit from the ebook print run (postage, cartonage, number of accessories to be produced at cost per unit) to give an estimate of what the publisher investment in the book will be, and at what point (number of copies sold versus number of copies returned) the publisher will break even on the project if all goes as planned. The P&L will give the editor a road map of what the book is supposed to do, and will provide a reasonable estimate of what the advance to the author should be to break even and make a profit, if everything goes as planned. One of the great secrets of the book business is that almost nothing ever goes as planned, so it’s really an exercise in futility, but P&Ls do make the various publishing departments think about the kind of support the book will get from the publisher and reassure the accounting department that the editors have at least considered business costs before purchasing books—something auditors will never believe, no matter how pretty the P&Ls are.
The editor then tenders an offer for the project to the author or author’s agent, and starts negotiating. Everything from the amount of money in the advance to every possible right to be licensed is discussed. This is where a really good agent proves useful, because an established agent will have negotiated an agency boilerplate contract with each publisher that is more favorable to the author than the standard boilerplate contract. Even though an author can negotiate those points and make some headway, it takes time. In almost every case, a good agent will have already discussed every line of the standard contract and gotten the maximum benefit the publisher will allow in each clause, and so the wrangling ends up being about a few selected points that impact the specific author, and about money. Once the negotiating is over, the author accepts or rejects the publisher’ offer. Everybody wipes the sweat off and relaxes for a moment. The contracts go out, are signed and returned. The publisher issues a check to the writer or agent for the advance. This all sounds simple. It generally takes months. And months.
Then the publication date is assigned. The publisher, editor-in-chief, and editorial directors hold meetings once a month, or more often, to determine what the publishing lists (these are actual lists of everything the publisher plans to bring out, organized by publishing month or season, with the book they expect to sell the most copies of at the top, and running downward to the book they expect will sell the fewest) will look like, and they generally have things firmly scheduled at least 18 months in advance, with most books scheduled several years in advance. Each new book gets assigned a list position in a given month or season, though the publication date can shift at any time until the day the book is shipped.
Ten to Eighteen Months Before Publication—The Editor at Work
Now that the publishing house owns the book, the editor gets to step in and edit. She’ll put together an editorial letter or phone call, and the author will, with varying degrees of grace, provide whatever rewrites are needed. Given that every person reading or writing a book brings unique experiences to it, this process can be a joyful voyage of discovery or a war of attrition. Sometimes the editor is absolutely inspired, sometimes absolutely wacko, most often somewhere in between. Sometimes the writer takes a great book and makes it a masterpiece, sometimes the edits destroy it, most often somewhere in between. The editor, while waiting for the rewrites, creates an art memo to help the art department design the cover of the book, and a sales memo to help sell the book to accounts. Authors, after consulting with their editors, should provide everything they can think of to help this process—photos and postcards and things ripped out of magazines to influence the cover, short bios and author photographs and ISBNs of previous books and geographical areas that might do especially well with the book and (if appropriate) lists of bookstores interested in holding signings and any planned media exposure and good quotes from reviews of previous books for the salespeople. There’s absolutely no guarantee that anybody will pay attention to any of this, but they often do, and it’s better to try and fail than to look at some disaster after the fact and realize that you never tried to help.
Once the revised manuscript is in, the editor prepares it for the production department. She writes a memo indicating any problems to be watched for, and characterizing the amount of help (usually limited to minor grammar and spelling help) she thinks the book needs, a list of any previous volumes in the series to check for spelling consistencies, and so on. On some complicated books, it’s worthwhile for an author, if you have these sorts of things, to include a list of character and place names and any foreign or unusual words spelled (and defined, if necessary, with references) as you want them to be spelled along with your manuscript. It helps keep the copyeditors from doing things you might regret later. If the book is a mass market or trade paperback or an original ebook, the editor will pull or write a blurb to appear on the first page. In addition, she’ll check to make sure the book includes any necessary dedications, quote pages, tables of contents, lists of an author’s previous books, author notes, photo page inserts, appendices or indexes, and whatever else needs to go into the final manuscript. Then she’ll turn in the manuscript to production. The production department does a cast-off of the manuscript, which is an estimate of how many pages the book will be in its finished form. This helps the art department determine what width to make the spine on the book cover and tells the printer how much paper to order per copy for the factory that’s going to print the book. Next the book goes out to be copy-edited, and to a freelance writer who’ll write the cover copy.
Six to Nine Months Before Publication—The Frenzy Intensifies
The copy-edited manuscript returns. Both editor and writer go over it. They make necessary changes on the manuscript and return it to the production department. The legal department produces a copyright page for the book and gives it to the production department so that the copyright page can be included in the galley proofs. The production department adds or reserves space for additional front and back matter, for everything from fly pages and title pages to publisher ads, in the manuscript. The production editor sends out the finished copy-edited manuscript to a typesetting company. Depending on the format the publisher provides, the typesetter will either scan the paper manuscript or load the electronic file for the book and produce galley pages. In certain cases, the book goes to a book designer as well, so it can have special layouts and lovely type design, though many books just use a standard house style. Because of the way books are produced, the number of pages for the final layout has to be a multiple of sixteen, including all front matter and back matter, whether present or prospective, and the book itself. If somebody goofs up, either by counting wrong or by not producing material that had a place held for it in the galley stage, you’ll see blank pages in the finished book that don’t appear to serve any useful purpose. Meanwhile, the copy for the cover shows up. The editor and writer will, with the approval of the publisher and copy chief, rewrite it and/or approve it. The cover copy goes to the art department. The art department will unite the art they’ve commissioned based on the cover memo from the editor, plus input from an art meeting with the publisher, editor-in-chief, and the editor, and lettering, along with mundane things like an ISBN and a price (or several, for Canada and anywhere else they plan to distribute the book) and two bar codes (one for the EAN, which is scanned by supermarkets and reads prices only, and one for the ISBN which reads book number and price) with the copy, to produce a cover proof. These days, covers are often printed on both sides (cover 1—the front cover, cover 2—the inside front cover, cover 3—the inside back cover, cover 4—the outside back cover), so cover 2 and 3 material is proofed as well. This initial proof goes around the office to be looked at, proofread, and commented upon. Everyone involved—publisher, editorial director, editor, art director, copy chief, editor, production editor—puts in their two cents’ worth and signs off on the proof. A copy of these signatures is kept for finger-pointing later in case of errors.
Meanwhile, the marketing department has been writing copy for the monthly or seasonal catalogue that accounts will get along with the cover flats (literally flat covers, with no book attached). The catalogue includes information about advertising and marketing plans, estimated print runs for lead titles, planned media coverage, sweepstakes or giveaways, whether prepackaged displays will be available and what they’ll consist of, information about author tours, whether galleys will be available, how many and what kind, where the author lives, quotes from reviews of the author’s previous books, or, in the case of a paperback release of a trade edition or a reissue, quotes from reviews about this book. Everything out of the ordinary to promote a book will require at least one meeting between the marketing people and the editor-in-chief and publisher to produce that decision. The catalogue will also include a picture of each book’s cover and a short synopsis of its contents. The proofs for this are circulated for proofreading and are signed. Any additional sales material or special kits for books to be released that month are circulated for proofreading. Again, the signatures are filed for later finger-pointing.
The art department circulates final copies of cover flats, printed at the cover factory on the same sort of stock that will be used for the actual cover flats. By this point, with a few small exceptions (changing foil color, for example, to improve readability) corrections to a cover are very expensive. It costs serious money to make color separations, and to carve the dies for foiling, embossing, and die-cutting, and then to produce the flats. Corrections can mean all of that has to be redone. It’s far better to catch errors before this stage. Too many errors, and the art and production departments get cranky, and editors start getting chewed out. Just for the record, the major rule of publishing is that everything is the editor’s fault. Even when a piece of cover art went through a major publisher’s system with a heroine with three arms (not surprisingly, she had two in the book), it wasn’t the artist’s fault for screwing up the painting, or the art director’s fault for laying it out without checking it against the art memo. It was the editor’s fault for not noticing.
Six Months Out Until The Pub Date—Everybody Gets to Play
Galley pages are printed up and given to the editor. The editor and the author go over them. The pages with changes on them are returned to the production department. It’s the last time the editor and author will see the work until it shows up as a real book. At this point, if bound galleys are going to be printed and distributed to reviewers and accounts, these pages will be used to create them. A proofreader gets a copy of the copy-edited manuscript, a copy of the marked up galley pages, and a clean copy of the galley pages, and makes sure that all the necessary changes have been made and that no additional changes need to be made. Electronic editions are done for all platforms.
Finally the catalogues and all the cover flats and other sales material from a given month or season are printed in quantity, put together in folders, packaged and mailed to all accounts and other necessary people, along with any galleys and giveaway items. Electronic editions are loaded up to make them available for reviewers. Where it’s appropriate, and sometime where it’s inappropriate, publishers make party-favor-like items to draw special attention to a given book. I’ve seen everything from T-shirts to lovely picnic baskets stocked with goodies to teeny little action figures to notepads to shoelaces to an immense pair of white cotton panties (trust me, those got a lot of attention). It’s a crowded market, and publishers want buyers to see and remember their books.
The accounts get kits from every publisher, and sort the covers and catalogues into a single pile for each buying season. Then the buyers research the titles, looking up previous books by each author, or similar titles where that isn’t applicable. They figure out roughly what they’re going to buy, add everything up, and see if the budget they’ve got to buy with will cover their estimated purchases. If the total they come up with is higher than the amount they’d planned to spend, they revise their estimated orders downward. Budgets have a life of their own completely independent of the needs and wants of publishers and the book-buying public. If, for example, a company is publicly traded and they want their inventory to be lean for a given quarterly report to help manipulate the stock price upward, budgets might be miniscule, even if multiple blockbuster books are coming out in that month. Or if everybody’s had a couple of bad sales months due to miserable weather during a hard winter, money might be tight across most of the country to buy new summer books with. Any time money is tight, buyers will make sure they take care of the titles they expect to be blockbusters first. That will mean a large number of interesting but not essential books won’t be ordered until money’s a little freer. If one of those interesting books is yours, it can be heartbreaking.
The information on the books is added to the company’s computer system—title, author, ISBN, price. Most companies get this computerized information from a central source, like Ingrams, rather than typing it all into their computers themselves. This explains why a typo in the information will show up all over the country, rather than just at a single store or a single chain.
Typos in bookselling can be extremely problematic—and not just because you can’t find a book when you try to look it up because they spelled an author’s name or title wrong. Separate ISBNs are issued, for example, for a given title and for each kind of multi-copy prepack of a given title, and they are right next to each other in catalogues and on order forms. So if you want to buy 10 copies of a Star Wars hardcover, for example, there might be a nifty 10 copy prepack available with a counter display and a cardboard header. So you’d order one copy of the 10 copy prepack using the prepack ISBN. But if you use the prepack ISBN when you actually mean to order single copies, you’ve just ordered ten times as many books as you intended to. And if Bowker accidentally put the prepack ISBN into their database instead of the single copy ISBN, every buyer in the country might make that mistake. This actually happened once to a big prepack of a title. I saw those books at dollar stores and on remainder tables for a decade.
Sales reps from the various publishers will either call, visit, or email their accounts and get estimated orders for the various books the accounts plan to stock. The rep will present the list and indicate what sort of orders they’d like to get from this account. The account’s buyer will agree or disagree with the suggested order, and then give an estimated order to the rep. Sometimes the account will increase an order well beyond the publisher’s expectations. This is often more frightening to the publisher than the standard problem of ordering less than the publisher wants. That’s because almost all books are sold fully returnable. The publisher might very well get every copy of a book they ship back at some unanticipated future date, and they’ll have to credit the accounts what they paid for every copy, less shipping. So mistakes from exuberance can be extremely costly to publishers. On the other hand, mistakes of caution are equally nasty if the books run out, because it takes more time to get them back into the stores than it takes for typical consumers to forget why they wanted the book. As a consequence, vendors lose a ton of sales they’d have made if the book was available.
The estimated orders from the largest national accounts (like Barnes & Noble, and Amazon) are accumulated about four months prior to the book’s publication date and are used to generate the actual print run of all the books on each publisher’s list. The publisher, editor-in-chief, and the sales and marketing people have a meeting. They take this initial batch of orders, extrapolate from it what the total order will probably be, and thus generate the final print order to send to the printer. Sometimes, if the orders are too far off from the estimated or announced print run for a specific title, the sales people go out and try to coerce the buyers into buying more copies. Other times, print runs and marketing plans for a given title can be expanded if the orders are higher than expected, or, if orders are too low, a title can be postponed for repackaging or cancelled completely. The publisher also decides, based on the orders, which of the custom prepacks it advertised in the catalogue will actually be produced, and which have too few orders to justify their existence. If orders are too low, prepacks will still be made, but they’ll have generic packaging and headers rather than custom-designed ones. (So they’ll say, for example, “Berkley Books” rather than “Bestseller by Bestselling Author” and the art will be the publisher’s logo, rather than the cover art from the book.) This can have a real impact on sales because it makes it harder for casual shoppers to see the book and decide to buy it.
Another decision can be made at this meeting—the publisher might decide to print covers in excess of the needs of the print run for any book that has a shot at requiring reprints fairly quickly. Since it takes about a week to produce a book, and about three weeks to produce a cover, and since the costs of setting up a cover run are massive, but the costs of individual covers aren’t that high once the presses are set up to produce them, by printing and stockpiling additional covers, the publisher can substantially cut the time and money it takes to make new books if they have to go back to press. An author can take advantage of that, too—some publishers allow the author, with sufficient notice and payment in advance, to purchase at cost any additional covers they’d like from this run. It’s a bargain—a few cents apiece for something that would cost a dollar or more if it was produced for the author commercially. The decision to produce extra covers can be a complete waste if the book doesn’t take off as expected, but it’s still an extremely efficient use of time and money if the book does well. Once the final decisions are made for all the books on the list, the publisher sets the print runs for covers and books and cardboard display cases and headers and sends the print orders off to the various manufacturers.
Covers and books are usually produced at different places. Mass market covers and hardcover dust jackets take the longest time to make. The initial step of the process requires massive sheets of cover stock to be run through printing presses. Most covers are printed on one side in a four-color process. Some mass market covers have black and white printing or four-color printing on the other side, requiring an additional run through the presses. In four-color printing, each translucent ink color (red, yellow, blue, black) goes on the cover stock separately, and the finished colors combine in an image that looks like the original cover art. Once the printed sheets are dry, they’re coated with a waterproof finish that makes them glossy and helps them resist humidity, and then they’re cut into individual covers. Some books get a fancier matte finish, or a combination of matte and glossy finishes. These finishes have to dry completely, or the covers stick together when they’re packed in cartons for shipping, ruining them. They also have to adhere well, or the covers curl up once they’re out of their boxes. Then the printed covers are embossed, foiled, die-cut, or whatever. Some covers are foil-stamped first, then printed. Others are printed on foiled stock, so the foil-stamping step can be eliminated. Each separate process requires a trip through the machines. The fancier a cover is, the more steps it requires to make it, the more it costs to make, and the longer it takes to produce the covers. Once the covers are done, they’re packed into boxes and trucked to the factory where the printed book will be produced.
At the book-printing factory, roughly the same time as the covers arrive, the galley pages come in from the typesetter and plates are set up to print the book’s pages. The finished book is divided into sixteen-page folios, and each folio is printed on a single sheet of paper, which is then folded up and cut, resulting in the pages you see in the final book. Next, the folios are loaded into a machine to be collated. The machine has a series of hoppers, each holding a stack of folios. Once collated, the folios are joined. Mass markets are glued and bound in their covers, then trimmed. Hardcovers are sewn together at the spine, trimmed, then bound and glued to their hard bindings. Endpapers are applied, covering up the join between the spine and the cover. Once the hardback is complete, the dust jacket is wrapped around it. The manufacturing process is fraught with danger to a book. When somebody loads the wrong folio into a hopper (this happens all too easily), it results in the common problem of having sixteen repeated pages in book, and sixteen missing pages. Anybody who reads much will run into that occasionally. I once had a grandparent come into my store quivering with rage because the Walt Disney picture book she’d bought for her grandson had a folio from Playboy in it. I was never sure if that was an accident or some factory worker’s idea of an evil joke. I’ve seen whole bestseller print runs shipped missing the last chapter. I’ve seen books bound with the wrong cover. I’ve seen books printed from the Spanish-language plates bound in the English cover and shipped, and vice versa. I’ve seen a typesetter send the wrong file to the printer, and print a book from the first pass galley runs, rather than the carefully proofed pages. All the books went out with the myriad mistakes and problems from the worst first draft, rather than the beautifully proofed final pass. I’ve seen books printed with covers bound to them inside-out, upside-down, or backwards. You name the possible mistake, and I promise it’s happened. But most books survive this process and emerge intact. The finished books are packed into cartons and sent to the publisher’s warehouse.
The Final Push
As the on-sale date of a book gets closer, book buyers will do a store-by-store, title-by-title order that will be used to generate a purchase order for the publisher and an inventory for the stores. If they plan to do any advertising or promotion for a book, they’ll set it up at this point. Many companies produce catalogues or bookmarks or signage or websites listing their new releases—the material to do that is assembled now. A lot of this is financed through co-op advertising dollars provided by the publisher. For every dollar an account makes in a given year for a publisher, the publisher provides a tiny percentage of that money to be spent on advertising by that account the following year. Sell enough books, and the money really adds up. The publisher has to approve how it’s spent, of course, but everything from store catalogues and author signings to newspaper advertising and visits by costumed characters (Clifford, Madeline, and Strega Nona are very popular) is supported through co-op advertising dollars.
A lot of independent bookstores will order all of their books from a wholesaler like Ingrams rather than dealing with each publisher individually. Wholesalers that sell to bookstores typically ship much faster than publishers—inside of a week as compared to six weeks or longer. This means stores that order from them can order later and keep lower inventories, refilling them faster, reducing their costs. Chains will deal with the publishers individually because the base cost of each book is slightly lower buying direct from the publisher, but will often use Ingrams for reorders. The wholesalers produce websites and catalogues in various formats for booksellers, listing the books that they are carrying from the various publishers, and their accounts order from those.
In addition, the publisher’s marketing department and publicists really start working, arranging publicity for when the book is out. For lead books, this process is often quite demanding on an author’s time. It can mean an author will be scheduled to do book tours, sometimes just in this country, sometimes in Europe and Australia and Asia as well. These sound glamorous, and they do have their moments, but on the whole they’re an exercise in stamina. And they’re not always as useful as you might think. The signings and appearances are set up with input from the publisher’s local sales reps, and generally have more to do with which accounts the rep wishes to appease than they do with how many copies will actually be sold at them. After a month on the road, sixteen cities, seventy-five interviews, and fifty signings, complicated by a variable amount of jet lag and indigestion, the poor bestselling author often comes home to discover that the next book in her contract has been moved up in the schedule, the publisher wants it three months sooner, and she hasn’t written a word of it while she was on the road.
In addition to touring, authors can also be scheduled for talk show appearances, media interviews of various sorts, live website appearances, and satellite radio or television tours. The publisher can set up an author in a single studio, and through the magic of satellite broadcasting, she can appear on programs one after another, all over the nation or world. Even if a book isn’t a lead title with a big marketing budget and signings arranged by the publisher, an author can arrange signings, interviews, and publicity on her own. Be sure and keep your editor, the marketing department, and the publicist, if you’ve been assigned one, up to date on what you’re doing, especially if it’s successful. If you’ve got something good going on, they’ll be much more likely to help you pay for it on the next book if they’re aware of your previous triumphs. And, thanks to the internet, any author with a well-organized reader list and/or website can send out a targeted mailing to her fans in any area in the country and actually pack them in at a signing, as opposed to depending on the publicity the publisher puts together to bring in readers. But all of that, though arranged prior to publication, takes place after the book is out. Back to our book….
The Book Hits the Bookstores!
When actual copies of the book exist, the legal department sends two copies of each finished book and a copyright application to the Library of Congress. Once all the orders are in for the various accounts, they’re organized and collated by the publisher’s sales department. Purchase orders are generated and sent to the warehouse, where the books are picked and packed once the new month’s books arrive at the warehouse from the printer, and the resulting stacks of books are sent off in boxes to the bookstores. Often orders are combined to reduce shipping costs, so a bookstore will get a single shipment that has the top bestsellers for the month in custom boxes with the title imprinted on their sides, plus all the new titles ordered in smaller quantities for that month in generic cartons of mixed books, plus every backlist title the bookseller ordered from the publisher three months ago—except for that one book that she special-ordered for a customer, which is now two months late, and for which the customer has been calling two times a day since it was ordered…. Any new books that have been widely anticipated will be shipped, to the best of publisher’s ability, to arrive at every bookstore in the nation on the same day. Barring shipping disasters (and they occur with distressing frequency), the book will arrive at its intended destination on time.
So the book has reached the bookstore, real or online, but it still isn’t on the selling floor yet. Some bookstore employee has to open the boxes, sort through their contents, make sure the shipment is registered in the store’s inventory and is actually what they ordered, and get the books physically to the right place to sell them. If it’s a traditional bookstore, the employee generally gets to do that while waiting on customers and watching for shoplifters and cleaning up the mess made in the children’s section by assorted browsers. (It’s not just little kids that make messes. It’s a little known piece of trivia that teenaged boys will manage to find every piece of anything the least bit erotic in a bookstore—and this includes romances, though the boys prefer pictures when they can get them—and will sit and gawk in the kiddie section, hiding their finds behind children’s picture books, until they feel in danger of getting caught in the act, when they’ll drop everything and run away. Frequent smut runs to fish this stuff out and put it back where it belongs are a fact of a bookseller’s life.) As a result of the various demands on booksellers, that long-awaited book can spend a lot longer in a back room than it ought to before it reaches a place where a consumer can find it….
If it finds that place. The bookstore employee is often a dedicated, book-loving professional, but not always (the pay’s lousy, you see), and even the most dedicated employee can be overworked into doing things slowly or badly. A book can be easily misplaced—The Vitamin Bible in the religion section, for example, or A Recipe for Love in cooking. And even once it finds it place, a book’s consumer has to know what’s available and where to find it, or has to be able to spot it while browsing. In a superstore with 150,000 titles, finding what you want in the vastness of the offerings can be a formidable challenge. In an online bookstore with even more titles, it’s easy to find the books you know are there, but browsing is sometimes difficult, and you miss treasures you’d have happily bought if you were shopping in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. New formats and new distribution systems are making the process of finding a book harder every day. Is it available on Audible.com or CD? Is it available in E-book format? Can you handle print-on-demand for this title? Is it available at my local mall store, or has my local mall store closed down? Do I have the energy to cope with going to the local superstore, the budget to handle what I’m likely to purchase if I do, and the willpower to resist the smells coming from the café?
But the struggle to go from idea to book is usually a successful one. A book, whatever shape it takes, is almost always exactly where it’s supposed to be on the day on which it’s expected. A reader will hopefully see it, grab it, read the blurb, and buy it. Like a romance, this is a story with a happy ending. And, given the number of steps in the process, and all the ways that they can go wrong, you can see why I think it’s a small miracle every time it happens.
Copyright © 2017 and
2006 by Denise Little.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor