What Publishers Do and Don’t Do

What Publishers Do and Don’t Do

I had a run-in recently with someone on a writing group on Facebook. The individual was stomped by the admins of the group, but the discussion is something that sits ill with me and a subject that needs to be addressed. I may have talked about it years ago in this space, but it’s something that bears repeating.

The row was over the fact that authors must market their books, and publishers don’t market your book for you beyond a few specific avenues. This author was utterly aghast that I was saying publishers don’t do that, and got quite haughty over it, claiming to be some kind of bigwig with an agent and a traditional publisher and how dare I, a peon, question them. (Insert gagging noises here.)

Too many authors in the world fail to understand what a book publisher does and does not do for its authors, and it’s something that leads to major issues with authors and publishers, and everyone walks away frustrated from the experience and feeling as though their expectations were not met. This lack of understanding is also one of the major reasons new authors’ early books may flop, even with a publisher’s help.

To start with, to be a publisher of any repute, regardless of the model, publishers (whether traditional, hybrid, or otherwise) must have the following:

  • Acquisitions based on merit.
    This means an acquisitions editor who reads pitches, determines if something is the right fit for the company, and then decides whether or not to pick up the manuscript. Every company has slightly different criteria they look for in a book, and they’ll have differences in genre, preference, and so on. But either way, someone is actually looking at the manuscripts and deciding whether or not it’s a good fit.
  • An editorial process with at least one editor.
    The editorial process at Insomnia has several rounds of editing with a project’s lead editor. This will look at things like word choice, structure, sentence composition, removing excess words, clarifying confusing passages, fact checking as needed, punctuation, and so on. Then the book moves to a secondary editor who looks over it for any spelling/punctuation errors that may have been missed the first time. This happens again after the book has been typeset to ensure the maximum possible cleanliness of the manuscript.
  • Professional-grade typesetting.
    Whether for print or e-book, typesetting is extremely important, and doing it properly really can make or break a book. It’s a skill in and of itself, and while the skills for typsetting an ebook and typesetting a print book are quite different, either one or both are absolutely necessary. If you want to know how good their typesetting is, do a glance inside on their books listed on Amazon.
  • Good cover design.
    Sure, the old saying says not to judge a book by its cover, but a terrible cover won’t sell books. If all their book covers look like an eighth-grade Photoshop job, run the other direction. While not every company has the money for expensive cover design, any decent publisher will put out covers that at least look like they belong on a bookshelf and not at a garage sale.
  • A solid method of distribution.
    Distribution for most of us publishers means a combination of Ingram (or many other such book distributors) and Amazon. If your publisher is distributing only through Amazon’s KDP (formerly Createspace) services, that doesn’t mean they might not be a good seller, but it does show that they’re on the small side. Bookstores will not order through Amazon, so that’s something to be aware of. Ingram is one of the biggest distributers in the world, so any bookstore can order from them. While there’s no guarantee your book will end up in a brick-and-mortar store, having the option is important.
  • Provides an ISBN
    This is pretty self-explanatory. Your publisher should provide your book an ISBN (or multiple in the case of multiple versions of the book).

Now, you see this list of things publishers ought to provide if they’re to be considered legitimate, and you see what’s not on it?

Marketing.

This may come as an unpleasant surprise to folks, and for that I’m sorry, but publishers don’t typically do much in the way of marketing for authors. Those who do will do things like taking out occasional ads on Amazon or Facebook, and they’ll try and get your book into things like BookBub, which is a long shot by all accounts. This means that the marketing will fall to you, the author.

You will have to get out there (metaphorically during the pandemic, please) and sell your book. Your publisher will support this as best they can, but they cannot and will not do it for you. Even if you’re lucky enough to be picked up by an agent and a major publisher (one of the Big Five), they’re not going to do all your marketing for you. Sadly for all of us, writing books is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation. You can’t just get a book deal, publish it, and then do nothing and wait for money to roll in. Lightning may strike, and you may make sales, but I wouldn’t rely on it.

Sadly for all of us, writing books is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation.

E. Prybylski

The reasons for this are multi-fold, but it boils down to two key points: your publisher won’t want to spend the money on it (or maybe can’t) and readers don’t want to hear from publishers. While your publisher may well spring to have your book put into Ingram’s mail-out catalogue or will do some targeted Amazon marketing, this cannot replace the benefits of having the author talking about their book. Your publisher will not book blog tours for you and while they may work to help get your foot in the door at things like radio stations, the station is more likely to respond to an author rather than the publisher. No joke.

Hiring a publicist is extremely expensive, and small to mid-sized publishers cannot foot that bill. And the staff who’s on is often busy with other projects, so they cannot devote their time to marketing your book for you because they have other books to edit, design, and publish. At my company, for example, I am the head editor, typesetter, cover designer, and webmaster (insomuch as I poke at it every so often and hope I don’t break things).

Every book we produce comes through me, and once the book is out, I’m onto the next project. While I may take time to help an author with pre-release marketing and will make an effort to put them on my newly-minted podcast and let them give a lecture to my weekly writing group, I can’t do much more than that except maybe send a couple emails and do some cover mock-ups. I just don’t have the time because the next book is coming down the pipe and I have multiple clients hiring me for editing and coaching.

I’m not trying to complain to you about my workload, but you can see that I have no room to put another hat on the towering number I am already wearing. Most small publishers are in the same boat. In the bigtime (Big Five) they will assign you publicists, but that doesn’t mean you get to sit on your hands. In fact, you are expected to do most of the same things you’d be doing without a publicist. The real difference is that you will have access to expert advice, but you’re expected to run your own Facebook page, Twitter feed, and website and maintain an email list. While the publicists at a Big Five publisher may create a press kit for a new author and use their ties to get them articles in larger news outlets and maybe land them a spot on an NPR show, authors are still expected to use their own networks to market their book.

One of the unexpected surprises of being a new author is how much goes into promoting your books. I was lucky to be published by Penguin’s Putnam imprint for my debut novel, The Golden Hour. Yet even with the backing of a hefty Big Five publisher, I discovered that delivering the manuscript is just the beginning.

Todd Moss

Don’t believe me? Todd Moss, author of the Washington Post bestseller, “The Golden Hour” has a blog post on the subject (and she’s where I got the information on what the Big Five do for publicity.

In short, like any business venture you undertake, authors are expected to market it. While writing is romanticized (and rightly so), the less fun part of being a success is doing things like marketing, and learning how is very much available to us these days. While we might not all have publicists with the connections of Penguin, we can learn how to leverage what we do have and create a larger network for ourselves in order to boost sales.

While writing is romanticized (and rightly so), the less fun part of being a success is doing things like marketing.

E. Prybylski

It’s very possible to write an incredible book and not be lucky enough to have it sell if you aren’t willing to market the heck out of it and work hard to that end. As with many things in life, it’s not enough to be good at what you do–even great at what you do–you have to make sure everyone else knows you exist. After all, if they don’t know you exist or know that you’ve written a book (or books), then how can they possibly buy it?

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4 thoughts on “What Publishers Do and Don’t Do

      1. To you, it’s probably like falling off a log. To me, it’s more akin to single-handedly orchestrating D-Day. Please clone yourself in your spare time and send me a copy.

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