How Traditional Publishing Works

How Traditional Publishing Works through thousands of bookshops

Authors need to know how traditional publishing works to have any chance of being published by a traditional publisher. Self-publishing is fine, but the real money lies in getting your paperback book on sale in bookshops throughout the country.

Unfortunately, most novels are rejected by publishers, but you can improve your chance of acceptance by understanding why so many are rejected.

Your novel may have taken a lot of time and mental activity to write, but in financial terms it cost you little. You probably wrote it in your own home and on a computer you already owned, and if you hadn’t been writing your novel you’d have been using your computer for something else, so the cost of any electricity used in the course of your writing was negligible.

Compare those costs to the costs of a traditional publisher. In order to understand how traditional publishing works, you have to understand that a traditional publishing company is a business, and they are in business to make money. They have to pay business rates and office costs, including heating, lighting, phone, stationery and equipment costs. They have to pay worker’s salaries, including copy editors who examine manuscripts to find mistakes authors have missed, graphic designers to design enticing covers, a marketing department to producing information for all the bookstores and media outlets they distribute to, and administrators to deal with all the royalty payments. They have to pay for the printing and paper cost of any book they publish. They also pay the cost of delivering books to every independent bookseller, and every bookstore chain.

In the UK in 2019, the cost of producing, printing, marketing and distributing 3,000 copies of an average novel was calculated at an eye-watering £10,000.

That’s the publishing costs. The booksellers also want paying., and booksellers usually negotiate between 30% and 70% of the purchase price depending upon the numbers ordered. Let’s assume the recommended price of your novel is £7.99 and the bookseller keeps 50% of that price. The publishers and the booksellers both receive about £3.99 for every book sold.

The author needs income too, and a typical contract may offer you about 60p per book sold. 60p may not seem much compared to a higher percentage when you self publish on Amazon, but it is better to get 60p for 3,000 books sold through a traditional publisher than £2 for 300 books sold on Amazon. On Amazon, and author would receive only £600 (£2 x 300). A traditionally published author would receive £1,800 (.60 x 3,000).

So in the above scenario, the publisher’s income if all 3,000 books are sold is £3.99 x 3,000 (£11,970). Take away the £10,000 costs, and the publisher has a profit of only £1,970. Once your royalties of £1,800 have been paid, the publisher has made a net profit of only £170.

As if just breaking even wasn’t bad enough, it’s unlikely all 3,000 books will sell. Books are provided to bookshops on a sale or return basis, so a publisher’s net profit will be reduced by the cost of unsold books returned. About 15% of distributed books are returned unsold.

The above calculations should make you realise how careful publishers need to be when selecting books for publication. Authors can’t live off £1,800 a year, and the publishers are only just breaking even.

Publishers are like gamblers. They are hoping to break even and get their stake back, but just occasionally they are hoping for a big win to make it all worth while. Whilst the average book may sell at or below 3,000 copies in its lifetime, a chart topping best selling book may sell a staggering 25,000 copies a week.

The same calculations carried out on a £7.99 book selling 25,000 copies? The author will still get 60p per book, so a best selling traditionally published author receives £15,000 per week in royalties. The publishers still make £3.99 for every book sold, so would receive £99,750 from which they have to deduct your £15,000 and their own £10,000 costs, so the publisher gets £74,750 net profit per week.

That’s the dream scenario for authors and publishers, and that can be your dream too, but you need to keep things in perspective. The vast majority of books sell less than 3,000 copies, and publishers depend upon a few books selling over 10,000 copies to subsidise those that don’t.

A 2017 survey revealed full-time UK authors annual average earnings solely from writing was £10,437 and when part-time authors were included this average dropped to a meager £3,000 per year.

Authors are gamblers too. You have put all your artistic effort into completing a novel, and you are gambling on making money from your efforts. The odds are stacked against you and in all probability you will not make much, but there is a small tantalising chance you could hit the jackpot.

The odds? About 150,000 new titles are published in the UK each year, the vast majority of which are novels. The figure for the USA is about 300,000 a year.

The work traditional publishers do for their authors is substantial and should not be underestimated. They are often working flat out with distributing and marketing, and they owe it to their existing authors to do their very best for them. Successful publishers with successful authors may simply not have the time to read submissions from new authors. All their time is spent servicing their existing authors, and many do not accept direct submissions from unknown authors at all.

That’s where literary agents come in. Publishers use literary agents as a filter system. They know the agents, and they trust the agents to weed out anything unsuitable. The agents themselves are busy, but more importantly they have reputations to uphold. If an agent wants to keep the trust of a publisher, then the novels recommended by the agent to the publisher have to be of the highest standard. (See Finding a Literary Agent)

So we’re back to the good news – bad news scenario. The good news, is that a literary agent knows how traditional publishing works. A literary agent can open doors you cannot open for yourself. The bad news is your novel has to compete against all the other novels crossing the agents desk. J. K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before getting published, and Stephen King’s first full-length novel was rejected by 30 publishers before being accepted, so the omens are not good for immediate acceptance however brilliant your novel.

How Traditional Publishing Works: The Pitching Process

It would be a mistake to believe all you have to do is find a literary agent who likes your book. That’s the start of what can be a long process.

Provided a literary agent likes your book and gives you a contract, they use their knowledge of the industry to pitch your novel to a commissioning editor of a suitable publishing company.

Provided the commissioning editor likes your book, they use their current knowledge of the market to pitch your novel in an editorial meeting.

Prior to an editorial meeting, a copy of your manuscript will be distributed to various departments within the publishing company including the sales and marketing departments.

At the editorial meeting itself, various commissioning editors will be trying to extol the virtue of their book to to the others, but may face stiff competition.

However good your story, the marketing department will be making a judgement about how much to spend on marketing, and the sales department will be making a judgement about how many copies they are likely to sell, and whether the income from sales will exceed the likely production, marketing, and distribution costs.

The editorial meeting will need to decide which of the novels being pitched, if any, are likely to make money, and like many businesses the opinion of people from the sales department will carry far more weight than the opinion of any individual commissioning editor.

Assuming your novel is accepted by the publishers, do think your book will immediately find its way into your nearest bookshop. The publishers want your book to sell, and they want to give it every chance in a crowded market. Your book will be edited line by line to find the errors you didn’t find yourself. Professional book cover designers will look at the books already on the market, and those being published in the near future, and design a suitable cover for your novel. The marketing department will provide information for book catalogues and bookshops. The publishers will use their knowledge of when the best time to publish your book is, and will probably decide on a publication launch date between six and twelve months time

There are publishers out there who will publish any book. These so called vanity publishers will publish any book as long as you pay them to. Vanity publishers tend to make lots of promises, publish your book, but do little else. Why should they market and distribute your novel? They’ve already got your money and been paid for their work.
Traditional publishers are just the opposite. They pay you, and their success depends entirely upon your success. The publisher doesn’t make any money unless your book sells, so it’s in their interest to market and distribute your book as widely as possible. The more they sell, the more they make, and the more they sell, the more you make. Traditional publishing is a partnership, and it’s in all parties interest to create a win-win situation.

So there you have it. A brief run-down of how traditional publishing works . The financial difficulties, the sheer number of people involved in decisions, and the complicated process that sees so many fail. Armed with the above knowledge, you are in a good position navigate some of the pitfalls and reap the benefits. Writing, like publishing, is a gamble, but if you’ve completed your novel, why not take the chance traditional publishing offers?

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