Book Packaging: Under-explored Terrain For Freelancers
by Jenna Glatzer
I’m willing to bet my favorite pen that most people who are reading this have no idea what a book packager is. Until I worked for one, I didn’t know they existed, either. Book packaging is a quiet underbelly of the publishing world, and remains an unsaturated market for ambitious freelance writers. And that’s exactly why you should learn more about it.
Book packagers (also known as book producers) act as liaisons between publishing houses and everyone who works to put together a book--authors, artists, editors, photographers, researchers, indexers, and sometimes even printers. Publishing houses often don’t have enough in-house resources to handle all of the books they want to publish, so they out-source certain projects to third parties. In addition to assembling the other components necessary for a finished book, these packagers are responsible for hiring authors to write manuscripts.
Sometimes, packagers pitch their own ideas to publishers, and other times, the publishers hire packagers to develop projects they’ve originated. Packagers function as an interesting conglomerate of agent, editor, and publisher. They are an integral part of the publishing industry, yet even major book distributors aren’t aware that the books they carry were created by companies other than the publishing houses.
Types of books covered by book packagers
There are two main reasons for a publishing house to hire a packager: labor-intensive books, and series books.
Anything other than a standard, text-only book by a single author qualifies as a “labor-intensive book.” Books that are highly illustrated or contain lots of photographs, require several authors, or utilize special gimmicks and merchandise (for example, a gardening book that includes packets of seeds as a “bonus,” or a book about tarot card reading that includes a deck of cards and silk cloth) fall into this category. Commonly, these include coffee table books, textbooks, reference books, and children’s books, though packaged books can really run the gamut. They cover every genre and book style.
Packagers are also known for producing series books. Quite often, a successful series will become a “fill-in-the-blanks” exercise, wherein talented writers and artists can easily continue the series. In these cases, publishing houses may develop an outline, then pass it over to a packager to bring it to completed project. The packager then sends the outline to a commissioned author. Once complete, the packager delivers the final product to the publisher in print-ready condition. Occasionally, they even handle the printing.
Examples of packaged books
Would it shock you to learn that the Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Goosebumps, and many of the Complete Idiot’s Guide and For Dummies series are packaged?
Although the term “book packaging” wasn’t used then, Edward Stratemeyer may have been the father of this sector of the industry. He formed a company, Stratemeyer Syndicates, to create books from his ideas. These became classic series, including The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer hired ghostwriters to work from his outlines, paying them a flat fee and publishing them under several pseudonyms.
He also established a policy that is still used by some packagers today: authors were not allowed to talk about the books they’d written. Stratemeyer wanted to keep up the illusion that each book in a series was written by a single author, so he didn’t give byline credit to the ghostwriters. Speaking about their work would have been akin to telling a child there’s no Santa Claus; it would ruin the fantasy he created.
Packager Mega-Books was responsible for the new Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books from 1986-1997. 17th Street Productions packages the Sweet Valley High series. Quirk Publishing (formerly known as Book Soup Publishing) produced the best-selling Worst Case Scenario Handbook. Many different companies have been hired to package books like The Pill Book, Life’s Little Destruction Book, The Woman’s Day Cookbook, Swan Lake, The Little Big Book of Love, The Art of Alice In Wonderland, Scholastic Encyclopedias, and biographies of people like Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Big and small publishers alike enlist the help of packagers. Some notables include Simon & Schuster, Viking, HarperCollins, Hearst Books, IDG, Macmillan, Dell, Bantam, Hyperion, Scholastic, and Reader’s Digest Books. If you find a book you suspect is packaged, you can find out by turning to the copyright page. In addition to the publishing house, the packager will be listed there.
Perks and pitfalls of working with a packager
It may be easier to break into publishing through working with a packager than it is trying to sell your own original work. While it’s not a field for novices, authors don’t necessarily need book credits to get an assignment for a packager. Authors whose works have been published in magazines, literary journals, newspapers, etc. can certainly qualify.
“We’re working with a magician right now who has no book credits, but he knows magic really well,” says Jason Rekulak, Senior Editor of Quirk Publishing. “It always makes me a little more confident when a writer has book experience, but expertise on a particular topic can be more important. A great idea is a great idea, regardless of the writer’s credits.”
Turn-around times are fast in this field, and most packagers pay a decent flat rate for manuscripts-- on the low end, a few thousand dollars, and on the high end, $1/word. And, of course, since authors typically work on assignment, you won’t have to spend time generating new ideas, writing and marketing proposals, etc.
For experienced authors who are looking for a break from their usual fare, “It may be a chance to work on an exciting project in a collaborative fashion-- such as on a highly illustrated book,” says Andy Mayer of becker&mayer! book packagers.
Finally, because it’s not a well-known field, there is less competition. While a book publisher may receive thousands of proposals each year, a packager may only get a few dozen resumes and writing samples. Packagers often work with the same writers over and over, too, so there’s plenty of possibility for regular assignments.
However, there are down sides. First, most don’t pay royalties. Aside from a few exceptions, authors get paid a flat rate upon acceptance of the manuscript, and then they’re out of the picture. Also, many packagers won’t list your name as the author. It may be done anonymously, under the company name, under a pen name, or under someone else’s name.
Textbook authors today, for example, rarely get name credit. Mary Pearce, President of Jump Start Press, says, “I want prospective writers to have experience writing educational materials for our target market (primarily kindergarten through third grade), but considering the nature of our industry, whether or not their name has appeared is not a factor.
Finally, this is usually a work-for-hire deal, which means the publisher owns all rights in perpetuity. You can’t sell reprints or excerpts, and even if your book is made into a high-grossing motion picture, no one owes you a cent more than your original fee.
The hunt and approach
The Literary Market Place (LMP) is a good source to find contact information for book packagers (as well as lots of other key businesses in the literary world!). This expensive book is available at most libraries, and can also be found online at www.literarymarketplace.com.
Also, the American Book Producers Association has a directory of its members. You can see it at their website (www.abpaonline.org) or write to them to request a printed directory.
When approaching a packager, most like to see a cover letter detailing your interest and availability, a resume, and relevant clips or writing samples. “A really good cover letter is important,” says Rekulak, “Otherwise, you won’t get far.”
If there is a specific series for which you’d like to write, go right ahead and mention this, rather than sending a generic note of interest. You may be required to “audition.” Typically, this means that a packager will send you an outline for a book in the series, and ask you to write a chapter or two.
Packagers often keep a “stable” of writers on file, using them when assignments appropriate to their specialties come up. Send your package to several packagers, and don’t be surprised if you get an unexpected call with an assignment many months down the line. It’s also okay to drop a line with your updated credits and clips if they substantially change.
It is NOT, however, okay to send a packager your own proposals, queries, manuscripts, and ideas, unless that packager requests these things. Often, this is a pet peeve of packagers. Writers who send their own original material in the hopes that a packager will sell it usually don’t understand how this business works. Once you’ve established a relationship with a packager, it may be fine (and even encouraged) for you to pitch your own ideas, but, in general, authors work on assignment based on ideas the packager has already sold.
Quirk Publishing is an exception to this rule. “We welcome and need new ideas,” says Rekulak. “I’ve found some great book ideas in the ‘slush pile.’ We look for original, clever, funny, gift-book ideas that will fit well into a defined section of a bookstore.” He notes that it’s important for an author to consider the audience for a book, since “superstores” don’t always prominently display books based on merit.
“The financial rewards for writers aren’t as great in packaging versus traditional publishing,” he says, “But you’ll generally get more hands-on treatment, and it’s a great way for writers to start getting their work out there.”
Originally published by Writer's Digest Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com), where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to new writers! She is also the author of Outwitting Writer's Block and Other Problems of the Pen and other books for writers, which you can read about at http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm if you want to make her day.
For more information, consult this Interview with Packager Patricia Stockland, this useful list of book packaging and work-for-hire links, or read this interview with Lionel Bender, book packager.
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