A quick look inside the publishing process

A quick look inside the publishing process

A Lesson by TOF_Matt

What exactly happens inside a publisher's walls? This lesson will provide a little insight into the process.


The following is a summary of notes I took at a 2-day lecture by Cynthia Good, the former president of Penguin Publishing's Canadian division.

So you've written your query letter, put a spit-polish on your sample, enclosed your self-addressed stamped envelope, and sent your work to a publisher.  Now you wait, and you wait, and you wait.  After a week you start to panic.  After a month you're sure your work got lost in the mail.  Not to fret though!  The average publisher won't actually get back to you for months.  The question is, why?  Just how involved is the process of getting published?

First off, know that your work will probably sit in a queue behind a backlog of other works for quite some time (depending on the publisher).  Publishers receive a high volume of work on a normal basis, so this lends a lot to their somewhat delayed response.  However, one of the editors at the house (or sometimes their interns) will eventually reach your work.  If they like what they've read they will become a "champion" for it internally.  In regular intervals the publisher holds an internal board meeting for new projects.  This is when your champion will bring forward your work.  Now in many of these scenarios, the space for new projects is limited.  These meetings can occur as often as monthly or quarterly, but more often they occur when the house has just finished with another project (thus creating space for a new one).  Therefore, your champion will often be competing with other champions internally for a single spot.  Once all the ideas are put forth and the champions have made their cases, the manuscripts are put to a vote and the one with the highest number goes through to the next stages.

If you are fortune enough to make it to the next stage then congratulations!  Now the publishing house needs to crunch some numbers.  Of course, the most important aspect is, how many copies of your work do they think they can sell?  The typical net income (minus printing charges, advertising costs, etc) is about 30-35% per unit.  Remember too that they must sell the books at a discount to retailers.  So how much do you make out of this?  The bigger publishing houses typically pay on an increasing scale (higher percentages for more copies sold) but average out to about 10% per unit.  Smaller publishing houses will come in a little lower at 8%. 

So does this mean you must wait for the book to hit shelves and slowly watch the money roll in?  We all have bills to pay, so what happens in the meantime?  Well, in actuality what the publisher will do is calculate the profit target assessment (how much money they THINK they will make on your book), then give you an advance based on this amount.  They base this figure on many different intangible factors: obvious promotability, longevity, amenability, existing audience (i.e. self promoted works), subsidiary rights (they'd prefer to avoid them), irresistability, and strength of message (does the book look to change the world?).  Additional factors such as liability or illustration charges are also taken into account. 

Now there are a number of tangible factors at play here too, chief of which is, what if (God forbid) your book doesn't sell up to their target assessment?  This is known as gross sales (the total number of units they sell to distributors) vs net sales (the total number of units those distributes sell to the public).  An uncommonly known fact is that distributors return unsold units after a certain time frame for a refund, which in the end costs your publisher money.  So what does this mean for your advance?  Does the publisher take back some of that money?  The answer is no; legally they can't, unless it's somehow written into your contract, and if it is, then that is a very shady publisher you're dealing with.  Putting their confidence in you is a substantial risk that the publisher is expected to take.  That is why they must crunch so many numbers before they are willing to take a client on. 

And there you have it.  As much as publishing is an art form, it's also a business and there are hard decisions to make.  Keep them in mind if you're looking to get published.

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Added on July 20, 2011
Last Updated on July 20, 2011

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Matthew Chan grew up in the harsh Tundra of Ontario, Canada, braving freezing temperatures, taming wandering polar bears, and helping the local populace battle the occasional giant ice spider - in ot..