by Harold Underdown
Publishing seems like a simple business at its heart: an author writes a book, a publisher prints it, and a reader buys it. That apparent simplicity actually requires a lot of hard work and money. As just one example, to create film for printing, print, bind, and jacket a hardcover picture book can easily cost a publisher $25,000, not counting overhead, and their job isn't done (read more details in Why Does a Picture Book Cost $16?). Novels cost less. Art books cost more.
What does a publisher do? If you intend to self-publish, this is what you will have to do and who you will have to hire, unless you are happy to do no more than sell locally and to family and friends. As a self-publisher you have to compete in a national marketplace, head to head with the big publishing companies. It's possible to do that, but it takes time, money, knowledge of the market, and a carefully crafted strategy. If you are seeking a publisher, know that the following outlines what you can expect a publisher to do.
acquisition--which is the right book to publish? Editorial staff may evaluate hundreds or even thousands of manuscripts annually to produce a "list" of 20 books. If you are self-publishing, how do you decide which of your books to do? Or if you have one, how do you know it can succeed?
planning--what needs to be done to get this manuscript from draft to finished book? Once a publisher decides a book is going to be published, everything has to be coordinated so that books get out into the market when the company said they would. At a publisher, a managing editor keeps track of what everyone is doing. If you are self-publishing, you'll have to fill that role.
editing--how can the manuscript realize its full potential? Are there problems to fix? Polishing needed? At a publisher, the "development editor" is assigned manuscripts as they are acquired and is responsible for getting them into shape (at children's publishers, the acquisition and development editor are usually the same person). If you are self-publishing, how will you edit your manuscript? Editing yourself isn't effective. You'll have to hire someone.
designing--what's so complicated about designing a book? Anyone can do it with a word processor, right? Well, not if you want a book that's optimally designed for ease of reading, with a type face that suits your subject, and that doesn't just look like every other book on the market. And then there is the jacket, to make the book stand out. Publishers keep designers on staff, or hire freelancers. If you are self-publishing, you'll need a designer.
art directing--are there illustrations needed? They'll need to be art directed. Publishers have art directors to work with illustrators in picture books or just on interior and jacket art. They also oversee the designers. If you are self-publishing, you'll need to take the role of art director, or hire a designer with art direction expertise.
copyediting--once the manuscript is edited, is it done? No, it needs a copyeditor's eagle eye to check for correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation; to create a consistent approach to such things as compound words; to do some light fact-checking; and perhaps to mark up titles, heads, and subheads. If you are self-publishing, you'll need to hire a copyeditor.
production managing--how do you settle on a printer? What do you send them? A publisher has a production manager to find printers who can do a good job within their budget; to source paper and other materials; and to oversee the actual production process. If you are self-publishing, you'll have to do this yourself, or hire a freelance production manager.
distributing--how does the book get from publisher to bookstore? Publishers have warehouse operations and relationships with wholesalers and bookstore chains. Even if a book isn't in a store, it can be readily ordered. If you are self-publishing, distribution may be your biggest challenge. You may need to work with an independent distributor, if you can find one willing to take you on.
selling--how do bookstores, libraries, and schools find out about new books? Publishers send catalogs, but they also have sales people, who sit down and show the newest books, and tell booksellers or library acquisition committees which are the ones that they should be sure to have. If you are self-publishing, how will you sell your books?
marketing/promoting--how does the public find out about a book? Most don't just pick it up off a shelf in a bookstore. They read a review, see an ad, or even watch an author on TV. Publishers have marketing staffs that send out review copies, create promotional items, and book authors on tours. If you are self-publishing, you will likely need to hire a marketing specialist.
If you find this list intimidating, good, because that was my intention. Better to be intimidated now, when you can still do something about it, than after you have already made a commitment to self-publish a book and then don't know what you need to do.
You can use this as something of a checklist in figuring out what you will need to do to get a book on the market, but please note that it is not exhaustive. Nonfiction books may need to be carefully fact-checked, for example, in more detail than a copyeditor would do (and not just by looking things up in Wikipedia). Permissions may be needed for photographs, quotations, or song lyrics. You may even need to consult a lawyer over potentially libelous material.
There's a lot to do if you want to do it well.
You can learn more about a what a children's book publisher does in such guides as my Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, The Giblin Guide to Writing Children's Books, or Olga Litowinsky's It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World : A Writer's Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today's Competitive Children's Book Market. Similar books exist in other branches of publishing, but I don't know them well enough to make recommendations.
Comments? Questions that weren't answered? Contact me.
This article is copyright © Harold Underdown, 2006/updated 2011 and may not be reproduced without permission. Single copies may be printed out for personal, non-commercial use.
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