An outline of what needs to be done to get a book in to print and available to buy
Writing a book can be a sometimes daunting prospect and there are numerous questions that arise before one writes a single word.
For many people the idea takes shape and form; one picks up a pen or sits behind a keyboard and, often once started, the words flow as enthusiasm and passion take hold. Once finished, the aspiring (and sometimes even the established) author sits back and contemplates actually publishing.
Stop a moment…
Think on and take another look at what you have written. Ask yourself one very important question; is what you have written really done? Is it really finished? The answer is probably not. Most books, and for that matter, magazine articles as well, will only be at the ‘first draft’ stage once the last word has been penned the first time round. Re-reading it all will usually reveal a number of things, among them, a turn of phrase, or words here and there that, upon reflection, could be done again and hopefully better. So a re-write happens. Almost inevitably, that will happen several times before one really does consider the work to be ‘finished’.
Only then can one think about publication. That by itself can seem to present obstacles – surely it is a simple matter of sending your manuscript to a publisher and if they like it, away you go. There is, perhaps unfortunately, more to it than that. The first will be rejection. Almost every author will have had this, their hopes dashed as somebody replies and says, ‘Sorry, this is not for us.’ Such a rejection can (and often does) happen with every avenue one explores.
Do not however, despair. There are always alternatives. Lets look at the various ways in which books are published and recognise from the start that the printed version, whilst still holding its own, faces a tough time from the digital world, so it may be as well to think in terms of both possibilities, rather than being fixed on one way or another.
There are primarily three ways of having a book published:
The first is the traditional way; you write your book then get in touch with a Literary Agency. There are a number of them and most will have specialists who can assess the book’s potential and either accept you or not. It will help to do your background research and find out as much as you can about every agency you approach; what kind of work do they handle? What are their fees? Are they any good and do they have a demonstrable track record of placing an author’s work with an equally demonstrably good publisher? Find out as much as you can and the best reason for doing so is that it will save you wasting your time and that of an agency if they don’t usually handle the kind of book you have written.
There are two things to keep in mind with Literary Agencies; the first is that the big publishers (the ones who get the rave reviews in newspapers and have the big displays in bookshops) do not accept manuscripts directly from authors. They will only accept manuscripts from an agent and the reason for this is that the agent will have the speciality knowledge just mentioned – they will know which publisher will work best for you. The second is that a good agent will look after your interests and make sure that the publisher does what they say they will. This by the way, includes what the publisher does when editing your work but we will come that in a bit…
Once accepted by an agency, your work will then be presented to a suitable publisher but again the decision on whether or not to go further will rest with the publisher.
A second way is to publish your book yourself and there are two ways of doing so; the first is to do everything yourself, including the layout and design of the book, getting it printed, having somewhere to store all those copies you have had printed and then persuading people, including bookshops, to take copies. Most bookshops and other sales outlets (including Amazon) will demand steep discounts so the amount you will get can be very low – it is only if your book sells well, will you get any real return. You can of course, sell your book yourself, which means that you will have to do the marketing and get the book reviewed, a very costly exercise.
One way around some of this is to use what are sometimes referred to as ‘Vanity Publishers’. Such a company will still charge you for doing all the design work and so on, you still have to do the sales work but at least much of the ground work in getting your book produced is done for you. It is not however, cheap.
The third way is to use ‘On-Demand’ Publishing. There are a number of firms that offer this and put simply, you write your book, design it (including the cover), set the price using the cost guide provided and the firm then sells your book through online outlets like Amazon. The big advantage is that it costs the author nothing… Really – not a penny. The reason for this is that on-demand means just what it says; once available through Amazon, if one person orders one copy of your book then one copy is printed and sent direct to the buyer. If 100 copies are ordered, then 100 copies are printed. There is no big financial outlay in printing a stock of copies which then have to be sold.
The drawback with on-demand is that you still have to market the book yourself. Unless your book is produced for you by a publisher, it is all down to you to do the necessary work to let people know your book exists – and let’s face it, you might well have a great book, but if nobody knows about it, they aren’t going to buy it, never mind read it.
There is of course, a further alternative to the agency-led way of finding a publisher; although the larger (and thus well-known) publishers will not accept manuscripts from authors, many of the smaller publishers will.
These are often of a more specialist nature themselves and cater for niche markets or those that may not have a particularly large sales potential. By that what I mean is not that your book won’t be a good seller – it may well be, but the buyer (and reader) probably has a more specific interest to start with and there are often very large groups of such readers. As an example, let’s look at two different kinds of book; the novel and the factual account.
A novel can be about anything but if it has a particular theme to it, it may have great potential. Let’s suggest it does and is current, newsy or topical in some way. Such a novel might (only might) then ‘take off’ and you stand a chance of making some money. Whether that is enough to give up the day job is another matter of course, but your chances are greater because of the topical nature of your story.
A factual account of something can again be topical but because of the subject, the appeal may be towards a smaller potential readership. That can still be a substantial number of buyers but it may also be less so. In either case, the smaller publishers will – or should – know the market and could represent the better avenue for you.
Unless doing it all yourself, either through a vanity firm or on-demand, whether you use an agency or a smaller publisher, in both cases you will receive a contract to publish.
Most contracts follow a similar concept and essentially, most will say much the same things. First, you will have a date by which your completed manuscript must be delivered. That date will usually be some six months before a publication date and the reason for this is that publishers, once the delivery date has been met by you, will then notify the basic details of your book to the book trade. They do this in a number of ways and the object is to allow bookshops to assess how many they want to buy, deal with pre-publication publicity, get the book reviewed and so on. Those books that come with reviews in newspapers and magazines and one or two-line extracts on the back cover do so because reviewers are sent ‘advance’ copies. As their name suggests, this is before the actual publication date.
The closer one gets to the publication date, the more detailed the announcements are to the trade; once the design of your book is done (hardback, paperback, etc.) final details go out and equally final decisions are taken by store buyers; how many copies they want and so on.
However, how much of this is done depends on the publisher; some have greater resources than others, some will put more effort into certain books than others (those that the publisher thinks will sell better) and some, depending on their business model and the relationship with you as author, will do little other than notify your book to the trade. That sounds a little off-putting but it is not meant to be. As I said, it depends entirely on your book, what the subject is, what kind of relationship you have with the publisher and that of course can take time to develop.
The contract however, although there can be differences, will still be essentially the same for all publishers and the important thing to remember is that a contract will usually give the publisher all the rights there are to that publisher, often to the exclusion of anything the author might want to see. You might for example, see your book as a substantial hardback, with colour photographs but such books are very expensive to produce and your publisher will say, ‘the market isn’t strong enough to support the price a colour hardback will need, so it has to be a paperback with black-and-white photos.’ This can be rather deflating if you had a vision for your book but, under the terms of the contract, you will have no say in it, no matter how much you personally might believe otherwise. The same applies to a number of other factors regarding your book and you might well end up feeling that, having created something of which you feel justifiably proud, the finished book looks nothing like what you thought it would.
There is a reason for this and a very good one. A book is a product like any other. It has to be sold like any other and there will be a market for it like any other. That market might be strong, it might not be. There is not a lot you can do about that, only your publisher can affect it one way or another but if the market is not great (and the more specialist your book, the smaller that market will be) the risk and the financial outlay is that of the publisher – not you. It is the publisher that is spending a lot of money to get your booked designed, printed and sold. Not you. No matter how passionate you may be, it is not your money that is being spent and before a single copy is sold. It is your publisher’s money.
So not unnaturally the publisher wants to minimize the risk and take every possible course to make sure that their expenditure (on your behalf remember) is safe and they will get back their outlay.
So here you are; you have written your book and, to you, it is ‘finished.’ Let’s suggest your subject, although having potential, is also of a more specialist nature. As we have seen, that means that it will be of more limited sales potential. Even so, you could possibly still see sales of several thousand copies worldwide so that might mean your work is worthwhile – you hope.
You thus approach one of the smaller publishers, who send you a guide to what you need to do. The most important aspect to this is that you follow it and do so in every way. Such guides will tell you more about how the publisher does things, what they expect from you and what you can expect from them. If they are any good, a publisher will be clear about how they will go about handling your work and what they need from you.
The starting point is usually a request for a summary of your book; what it is about, and so on. They will also ask for one chapter, not the entire manuscript. The reason or this is that most publishers do not have big teams of people who can sift their way through every last dot and comma of a complete work, so they will deal with a sample of what you have done. The sample chapter tells the publisher a number of things, principally that you can actually write properly, have a reasonable knowledge of your subject and an equally reasonable knowledge of good grammar. The usual chapter requested is Chapter One, firstly because it is, after all, the one you did first and more to the point, whether or not it immediately grasps the nettle – either it takes hold of the reader from the first few lines or it intrigues enough to make the reader want to turn the page. This of course, can take many different forms and styles; you don’t have to start with a bang. It helps however, if it can, in some way, tell the reader to keep going.
The summary will be used to categorise your book so they have an idea of the market for it; are there already a number of similar books, did they/are they reasonable sellers and so on.
The guide will also give you a number of tips. One of them is to read through your manuscript again to make sure it really is done and you are happy with it – as I have already said, it is remarkable how many re-writes you realise can be made when you go over it again, and yet again. There are some who can rattle off 70,000 words quite happily and be genuinely satisfied before final submission, others less so but it is still a good habit to re-read your work several times over before you do send it in. Having followed the guide and submitted what is asked for, if accepted then comes that contract. The publisher should send you two copies, one for you and one to return. Both need to be signed and dated. Read through it very carefully and be warned – look for the conditions a publisher wants to impose upon you. You might want to consult a lawyer specialising in publishing and there is a strong case to be made for doing so. It will cost you something and will probably not be cheap but it is worth doing so as to protect you and your work from any questions that arise, particularly during the editing process, one of the most common areas for disagreements between author and publisher. So read in full, read carefully and get it checked. Having done so, signed and returned one copy, the contract specifies the date by which your final manuscript is sent in – make sure you do comply.
Having submitted your manuscript, it then goes to the publisher’s editor, whose job is to look for typing errors, punctuation slip-ups, spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and so on. The editing process however, can be fraught with difficulties as this is where most disagreements arise. The publisher’s editor has two primary responsibilities; the first is to the publisher. No publisher wants to produce a badly-written book but they can be very picky about how you make your points as an author. Editing sometimes means the editor actually re-writing your work and by doing so, can adversely affect the spirit, meaning and intent of what you wanted to say. Check the contract – remember the publisher usually takes total control of your book and in every way. Authors often find that the edited version of their original has had a number of changes that they are not happy with but a good editor will work with you to find the most acceptable solution. This is the editor’s second responsibility; to you as an author. A good editor will want to protect you as well as the publisher from undue criticism after your book is released. Sometimes however, the two can conflict a little.
There is also the question of legality; the editor will make sure that what you have written is actually legal and will advise you if you need to re-write something.
The same applies to technically perfect grammar. Typing, punctuation, legality and spelling mistakes are obvious things an editor looks for but grammar also can cause a problem. If your book is a novel, there can be some leeway (especially when it comes to reproducing conversations and accents between characters) but a factual account may have less room for manoeuvre, particularly with regard accuracy and if your book is a factual story, this is something else a good editor will ask you about.
From the point of view of grammar, obvious examples are starting sentences with ‘And’, along with ‘But’. People however, do not talk in grammar-perfect ways – if they did, conversations would be rather robotic. There is a school of thought that suggests starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ is, as Kingsley Amis put it, ‘An empty superstition’ (The King’s English, 1997). So if a book’s words, and thus your writing, flows off the page and is easy on the eye, then does technically perfect grammar really matter? Particularly if, when used to the exclusion of everything else, it results in a read that is wooden and stilted, and there are plenty of examples of books that do indeed, make a less than rewarding read since technically perfect grammar and good reading sometimes make uncomfortable bedfellows.
Actually, yes – good grammar is important but the trick is to find a way of compromising a little so that any imperfections result in a good read and do not adversely affect your writing or the credibility of it, and thus your standing as an author. A good publisher and a good editor will always accept that every author is different and has varying ways of telling their story.
But – check that contract before you sign it! And if needed, make either some amendments or an addendum that will give you some rights over what the editor does and agree them with the publisher. After all, it is your name on the cover. Nobody else’s (and no, this paragraph is not grammatically correct. But…do you see what I am getting at?).
Royalties and Pricing.
‘Ah’, one might say. Royalties – what you get from the book’s sales. This (obviously) originates with the price the book sells to the public for and the usual rate is seven-and-half per cent. That percentage however, is of the publisher’s receipts from sales overall, not from each individual copy of your book that is sold.
The reason for this is that although the price of your book might be set at £20, to get it into stores and online, outlets will (as stated earlier) demand big discounts on what they pay the publisher. This is so they can have ‘offers’ and undercut their competitors. So what the book reader actually pays might be something considerably less than £20.
If every copy sold at £20 then, obviously again, you will do okay if your book sells well but every copy will not sell at £20. Some might sell at half that – so what you get will depend on what the publisher does. Few copies will actually sell at £20, most will go for less. The market for books is very competitive and online prices are usually less than in-store prices, although some stores make their pitch on how much less they can sell something to the public for, and they do so by what discounts they can get from the publisher. This filters its way down to you so you aren’t going to get rich very quickly unless you have a best-seller and it is worth pointing out that a book that sells even as many as 10,000 copies in a year doesn’t come anywhere near best-selling status. For that (and to make some serious money) your book has to sell millions of copies and there aren’t many that do.
What doesn’t change is what it costs to manufacture the book to start with, so whatever is left after that is what both publisher and author gets.
Whatever the vagaries of being an author, whether you make any money or not, there are two things that make it worth doing. Neither of these however, is being able to call yourself ‘An Author’ or for you to be able to say, ‘I wrote this book’, or something similar. Write one book, get it into print and yes, you can indeed say just that – but it isn’t a reason for doing it.
The first thing is this; people write books to tell a story – fact or fiction – and do so because they want to tell that story and express their creativity in doing so. Write it well and if it meets your expectations, hardback or paperback, you can be proud of it, regardless of what the sales figures are.
The second is that you own it. It is your work and nobody else’s. You and you alone own the copyright. Not the publisher, not the reader – just you. It is yours and it is your work. When you get it published, you are, in effect, giving the publisher permission to reproduce your work and sell it on your behalf. The copyright still belongs to you and it is not negotiable. You can of course, sell the copyright or assign it to somebody else but until or unless you do, it is still yours and yours alone.
Whatever your book sells for, that little © is priceless.
© Kevan James 2018.