The creative process, from the agent to the bookstore | Fresh Reads
Last updated 3/7/2018 at Noon
While we’re waiting for warmer, drier days. let’s pause to consider how new books come to be found in bookstores.
Following is a primer on the art and commerce behind trade books (general books, as opposed to textbooks) found at Edmonds Bookshop. My focus is on the traditional publishing business, not the niche of self-publishing, and only a little on the trials and tribulations of authors.
The publishing business is still a successful industry centered mainly in New York City. Among the big-name publishing houses, there has been a good deal of consolidation recently, though this is balanced by the continuing output of small presses publishing books that enjoy the same prominence in bookstores and among readers that the big publishing houses are known for.
Publishing incorporates many roles, and without the efforts and vision of agents, publishers, editors, copy editors, designers, marketers, publicists, sales folk, reviewers and booksellers, along with the authors themselves, we would be a much poorer culture.
Let’s have a quick look at each of these roles.
Established authors contract with literary agents to represent them and their books. Agents know their client’s work intimately, and the market(s) for each book, and negotiate all aspects of placing the new book with a publisher.
Agents negotiate the deal terms with the publisher, including what rights (film/TV, translation, etc.) are retained by the author to be exploited separately from the publishing rights. An agent usually has a good feel for what publishing house and/or editor is the right fit for her client and a particular book.
Publishers and editors
The mission of publishing houses large and small is guided by a person, management team or board unique to each enterprise. Publishers operate with a set of standards as to what kinds of writing they will bring into print, be they aesthetic, political, commercial, regional or genre-specific, among other aspects that define each publisher’s brand.
Publishers are sometimes also editors, though most houses have a cohort of editors whose main roles are to acquire new books and steward them and their authors through the publishing cycle.
The acquisition process involves artistic and commercial considerations, along with negotiating the purchase terms for a book with the agent. Typically, an author receives an advance against future royalty earnings. This advance represents the publisher’s initial investment in a book; whether or not a book is successful the advance is the author’s to keep.
Acquiring and editing books, before they move into production, can take up to several years, making this a longer-term investment. The publisher’s eventual revenues consist of the sales of the book, less the royalty rate (say, 15 percent of the hardcover retail price), printing, distribution and overhead costs.
The editorial process begins with a close reading of the author’s latest draft, followed by critical notes and suggestions that begin what can be a lengthy revision process, involving multiple drafts, before the book is accepted for publication. The editor is the book’s advocate within the publishing house, and collaborates with design, marketing, sales and publicity on a publishing strategy for each of her books.
Even erudite authors need the fine-tooth reading provided by a copy editor, who seeks out the slightest typos, less-than-perfect phrasings, unintentional slips in chronology, etc. (I’m reading a thriller that contains the sentence, “Then her mom was killed by a hit and run driver and died.” Copy editor, you let one slip!) In the case of most nonfiction books, a publisher also requires a close reading by an in-house lawyer, to avoid the risk of slander or libel.
Once the manuscript is accepted for publication, two kinds of designers get to work. The art director works with editorial, marketing, publicity and outside artists to come up with dust jacket artwork that represents the book and provides enticement to readers.
At the same time, the book designer begins working on the page layout of the book, including selecting a type font that is appropriate for the material and the book’s length. A book’s readability is the direct result of the book designer’s choices.
Marketing and publicity
As the book moves into production, the marketing and publicity teams get to work. Marketing focuses on positioning the book to the sales force and the outside world, through social media, author bios, comparable books, sales materials and connecting with advance readers.
Publicity plans author tours, interviews, lectures and personal appearances, often at bookseller trade shows, working with the author’s schedule and appetite for travel. Publicity also pitches to book review editors in both mainstream media (The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The Seattle Times) and trade publications (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal).
Quotes from early responses to these efforts, i.e., blurbs, are used in ads and other marketing materials.
Publishers employ their own sales forces, and/or use third party commission reps, to call on independent booksellers, wholesalers, chains, mass merchants, web and other outlets, to seasonally sell in new books prior to publication.
Response to these sales efforts impacts the print run, publicity plans and other factors in the book’s success. A new book often has an early life as an advance reader’s copy more than a bound manuscript, less than a finished book which sales reps provide to booksellers.
The ARC carries early quotes and sometimes a letter from the book’s editor recommending the work to booksellers.
The publicity efforts pay off when books receive review coverage, the more positive and prominent the better. A pull quote from a good review will end up in an ad, or on bookstore signage, and can be influential to a customer weighing a purchase. As much as a year or more may have elapsed between the time the book went into production and when it’s finally published.
Bookstores are where this lengthy process comes to fruition. Booksellers merchandise their unique selection of books in ways that make them attractive and easy to discover by customers. Booksellers have no greater thrill and reward than if they can place the right book in the right reader’s hands.
Accomplishing this means that the bookseller has often read the ARC, and/or been well attuned to the book by a salesperson or a marketing effort. Since good booksellers know their customers what they like to read, what they’ve discussed over the counter they can bring that personal connection into play when recommending a new book.
Authors themselves do a lot to help their book’s success. Author tours, with stops in bookstores to read from and sign copies of their books, strengthen their connection to their audience. Interviews in print and on radio, especially NPR, can drive real interest among readers, which bookstores are happy to reward.
So the next time you visit a bookstore, consider what it’s taken to deliver the book you’re perusing into your hands, and all the participants who contributed to its arrival.