What publishers do with your book

Today’s awesomeness is #209: Share your knowledge. Which I’m doing by posting this.

First, let’s make something very clear: Publishers do a lot of work. They might earn a steadier income than you or I (there’s perhaps a dozen in Australia genuinely doing well), but they work just as hard and love books just as much.

You think your novel is the best novel ever written, but so do 90% of the other 300 people sending a novel to the same publisher as you this week. So settle down, and prepare yourself for a long wait. A month is a lightning-fast response time – it often means they didn’t have to think hard about rejecting you. Don’t ever contact the publisher unless at least 3-6 months have passed since you sent your stuff. (Agents are similar – and neither group will be pleased if you resubmit a book, so make sure it really is the best it can be FIRST.)

The book process goes a little like this in Australia (In Britain and America, you pretty much need an agent – in Australia it’s optional at this stage):

1. You send the first three chapters of a finished book, plus a short cover letter and one-page synopsis – or whatever the web site says you should send (and done in standard manuscript format – usually courier new size 12, double spaced with one-inch margins on all sides and a header with the novel title, author name and page number. The very first page is a cover page with the author name, address, email and phone on the top left and the total word count on the top right, then the title and author pen-name in the middle of the page, with lots of white space all around).

2. The book waits on a slushpile for weeks or months – not because the publishers are lazy, but because they get hundreds of manuscripts every week (and pay staff hundreds of dollars each week to sort through them all). The initial read is generally given to editors and/or interns.

To have an idea of their life, go to an online critique group, pick someone at random and volunteer to read their novel. Read it and edit it that day (you need to think of good points as well as bad points). Now imagine doing that every single day of the week (including, often, your weekends and holidays).

Once you’ve read twenty or thirty unpublished novels (go on, I dare you) you’ll realise that three chapters is far more than you need to tell if someone is good at writing or not. Random House in Australia asks for just 250 words (and replies within two weeks – genuinely!) They’ve often requested my full MS (manuscript) based on that little, so it’s clearly not a ploy to get out of reading the slushpile.

Also, any reader who picked up your book in a bookshop would read perhaps two sentences before making their choice. So if you can’t grab a publisher RIGHT AWAY – how can you expect to grab a reader, who is expected to financially invest in you from their own wallet? (Side note: when’s the last time you read and/or bought a book? Hopefully less than a week. If you won’t, who will?)

3. After 3-6 months (closer to six, despite the charming optimism of publisher estimates on their web sites and/or the rare “yes we have received it; we’ll get back to you soon” responses), you will get a one-line reply saying either, “Your book does not suit our list at this time” (which is particularly true if you were stupid enough to send a cookbook to a scifi imprint) or “Please send the full manuscript.”

That form reply of “Please send more” means you’re in the top 5% of unsubmitted manuscripts. Time to celebrate – a little.

The form rejection usually means your manuscript needs more work (or perhaps you need to write a new book from scratch – but I wouldn’t assume the latter from a single rejection. More than six rejections, maybe). Since it’s probably been at least a month since you last edited (if you never edited it, you’re a moron and a waste of publisher time), now is a great time to have a different look at your book, realising for real this time that it’s not an instant classic after all. You may want to eat a kilo or so of chocolate before you start, especially if this is your first rejection. But above all, don’t say a word to the publisher who rejected you – not even a dignified thank you. It’s unprofessional, and can be career suicide.

4. If your full book was requested, you may have time for an edit and then you send it off, with an extremely brief cover letter saying, “You asked for it; here it is.” Resend the synopsis, too. Send the full book, not just chapter four onward. And then wait for another 3-6 months (at least; as I write one of my full-MS books has been with a publisher 17 months). Meanwhile. . .

5. Your book is read by anywhere between one and a dozen different people. Some of them include more editors/editorial interns, publishers (who are often also editors), readers (who may belong to the publisher, or be hired as contractors), and acquisitions editors. At every stage, people are looking for reasons to either reject your book (saving the company a lot of time) or believe in it (so perhaps they might someday make money off you). If everyone along the way thinks a section of the general public will like your book, your book gets to an acquisitions meeting. Everyone present will have read at least an outline of the book (very possibly your own synopsis, so make sure the synopsis reveals your style, and what the book is like – humour if it’s humour, philosophical if it’s questioning, or whatever). There will be one or two people who are the champion of your book, and they will argue for you. Of all the books that are requested  by publishers (say twenty a week), one or two will go to the fortnightly acquisitions meeting.

This is a hilarious example of roughly what that meeting looks like (horrifying, though, if you don’t already know the process):


6. At some point during #5, you will get a reply. It will almost certainly be a form rejection, even if they’ve taken an astonishingly long time to reply. In about 25 rejections of full novels, I’ve had personal comments twice (excluding the publishers I’d actually met, who knew I and my books were at a professional standard – and therefore gave comments).

Be professional, and don’t respond. Be wary of blogging, tweeting, or facebooking about your experiences, too. Never, ever burn a bridge with anyone. In Australia, all the major publishers are friends. Many are married to each other.

Don’t be rude to ordinary people, either, because (a) You never know who they are, and (b) They might someday be a fan of yours – maybe even the extra-special kind who buys your books, and (c) It’s rude.

7. Your book is accepted! Awesome! Deals do sometimes fall through (especially with small publishers), but that’s rare. So break out the champagne. And – brace yourself. Over the next couple of months you will be doing a lot of painful editing work. Your royalty is usually paid in three installments – one when the contract is signed, one when the book is ACTUALLY ready, and one when it’s released. The whole process takes about a year (if the book is illustrated, it’s more like a year and a half). Incidentally, if your publisher charges you money – they are a scam (ditto for agents).

This is a great time to get an agent to make sure everything is in order, and that the contract is beneficial to you. Large publishers often buy world rights – but don’t sell them (which means they’ve just prevented you from making two or three or seven times as much money by selling your book to other places for similar advances). Others don’t understand e-books (which, to be fair, is true of the entire human population, since the current e-book system is extremely clunky and user-unfriendly at present).

You don’t want a super large advance, because that can backfire. Your advance will be between $3000 and $10,000, based on predicted sales. Most of the time, the publisher doesn’t actually sell the predicted number (sad but true). You get to keep your advance, but it may be difficult to sell them your second book if they’ve just gambled on you and lost (which happens 9 times out of ten). However, with a smaller advance you may look good.

If your advance is $3000 (based on 1000 books) and you sell 2000 books, you look like a hero.

If your advance is  $10,000 (based on selling 3000 books) and you sell 2000 books, you look like a failure.

Publishers make a loss on MOST of the books they produce, so (a) Be kind to them when they reject you, and (b) Promote yourself like crazy if you’re published (but remain polite – eg no spamming).

You probably won’t get much input into the cover design, unless you’ve already sold several books successfully to the general public. Publishers know more about the public than you do, so let them do their thing.

8. Books are usually given to booksellers on a “sale or return” basis, which means that even if the bookshop lets your publisher send them twenty copies, they can all be sent back after a few months if they don’t sell. Publishers have a LOT of warehouses full of unsold books. “Firm sale” means smaller profits, but the bookshop has to keep them (you know those bargain bin $1 books? They’re firm sales that the shop just wants to burn for the shelf space.)

9. Promotion happens for about two months before and after the release date. You can expect to travel a lot. Get used to being a commodity, and dealing with people insulting you. (As soon as you publish, you’re public property, and people will feel free to mention how much they hated your most precious characters – often to your face.) You will also have a web site made, and possibly start (or continue) a blog. The average attendance for a book signing in the USA is four people, so call in every favor you’re owed to rent a series of crowds. Personally, I recommend getting a whole lot of helium balloons with faces drawn on.

10. Your promotion period soon ends (for better or worse). You’ve probably already written and edited another book, so hopefully you’re already accepted and gearing up to next promotion season. Most writers produce a book a year working full-time (probably financially supported by someone else), and publishers rarely want more than that.

There are a lot of gaps in my knowledge, but that’s the general gist of things as far as I’m aware.

Remember: Be patient, be polite, and work hard (before, during, and after publication). As always, my most important piece of advice is – if you don’t enjoy writing for writing’s sake, don’t do it. Why punish yourself?

Click on this for a mildly-naughty comic series (language, and otherwise fine as far as my extremely limited knowledge goes) – the first refers to Isambard Kingdom Brunel*, a heroic engineer of a time when engineers were. . . well, heroic.

My friend Will says, “Some Hark! A Vagrant does have sexual references. I give it PG to M, depending on the person. But it’s soooooo worth reading.”

For some reason, you need to scroll down quite a bit. Do it; it’s worth it.


*Real name. Yep, I know. Awesome.

Published by Felicity Banks Books

I write books (mainly adventure fantasy for kids and young adults), real-time twittertales, and a blog of Daily Awesomeness. @Louise_Curtis_ and http://twittertales.wordpress.com. My fantasy ebook is on sale at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/278981.

2 thoughts on “What publishers do with your book

  1. Some Hark! A Vagrant does have sexual references. I give it PG to M, depending on the person. But it’s soooooo worth reading.

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