June 28, 2007

Introduction: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bookshelf


Everyone has a story to tell—unless you live in Nashville, Tennessee, where everyone has a story to tell and a song to sing. I know everyone has a story because we work in the book publishing industry as literary agents, and whenever a new acquaintance finds out what we do, the conversation inevitably turns to, "I have this great idea for a book…" or "My (wife, cousin, babysitter, mechanic, gynecologist, fill in the blank) has written this fantastic book…"

We’d be annoyed by these uninvited solicitations if it wasn't for one thing: we love book publishing. We love the authors, the editors, the marketing people, the production process, the proofreaders, the typesetters, the cover designers, and the retailers who sell the books. We even love the publishing executives who don't work in the trenches, but always seem to stumble their way into them, albeit for a short time (I think their trench dwellings are cut short because it scares them to see what we actually do there. Ask any editor—they're glad the visits are short.)

As literary agents, we love to help new, talented authors get published, and we love to help established authors grow their careers and learn new ways to sustain their relationships with their publishers by trying on fresh ideas and finding innovative ways to collaborate. It's rewarding work. As an editor, I love the writing process; working with the author to hone the words to razor-sharp clarity. It's exciting to be involved at any stage of a book’s life. It's like watching a baby grow in utero.

Prior to becoming a full-time book agent, I worked as the managing editor for a leading Christian publisher. Aside from parenting a teenager, working in that aspect of publishing was the most fulfilling (and the most frustrating) work I've ever experienced. It was fulfilling because managing twenty-five or more books at once is a master juggling act (the jugglers have always been my favorite circus act). It's exciting and fast-paced work, constant movement and precision thinking, careful planning and execution, combined with plenty elements of the unknown. I thrive in that kind of environment.


Interestingly, the brunt of my frustration didn't come from computer crashes, boats sinking in the North Atlantic with my author’s books on them, micromanaging bosses, all-nighters with my proofreaders to work on printer deadlines, or working in a cubicle the size of an English toilet. Although these things are part of a long list of normal, daily frustrations the most frustrating part of publishing has always been working with people on the "outside" of the actual day-to-day business—people who don't know or understand the publishing process. This obstacle alone makes publishing much harder than it needs to be—on everyone.

From my internal perspective, I noted that most freelancers and authors don’t concern themselves with the nuts and bolts of the publishing house, and how that lack of knowledge or concern creates some pretty big logjams for the publisher and for books that need to be in stores by a certain date. It's not that they don't want to know; it's just that no one can or will take the time to help them learn.

Granted, it is too complicated to explain the publishing process in one short conversation, and short conversations are all we have in this line of work. There isn't time to walk every freelance writer, editor, and proofreader through the minefields. There isn't time to educate authors (and some of them don't appreciate the notion that they need to be taught something) on how best they can serve (yes, we all have to serve) in order to publish their books.

So what motivation does a publisher have for educating their new authors and outsourcers? As long as chaos management works at the ground level (usually in-house editorial and production) why bother?


During particularly stressful times (usually when freelancers were sending me late manuscripts or authors were missing their own deadlines), I thought:

What if there was a book I could buy that would help explain all the things I wish I could tell authors?

What if I could just hand a book to a freelance editor that would help them understand what I need most from them?

I looked for this book, the one that explains the process of what goes on in a publishing house from the moment a manuscript is accepted to the celebrated day when the book is placed on the bookstore shelf. I figured authors could read it at their leisure and understand exactly what is happening inside the publishing house after they deliver their manuscript. What author wouldn’t want to know that? Freelance writers and editors would better understand why deadlines and communication are so important. Surely they want more work from me?

What I found, however, were dozens of books written on:

- how to submit a killer book proposal to publishers

- how to land an unbelievable book deal

- how to find the best literary agent

- how to self-publish your book

- how to grow a bigger bust…overnight!

Everything listed here (except the books about growing bigger boobs) is about what to do before a book is published. (And that is true, too, for the boobs books, I guess; since I've never known anyone that got a book deal because she went from an A cup to a DD cup. But I digress...)

What I needed was a resource to help freelancers and authors understand what happens after the manuscript is accepted by a publisher, because that's when the real work begins from a publishing standpoint. And it's at that point where the folks on the outside looking in can be the most helpful to those who are putting their money and careers on the line and gambling on the success of a book.

So my search for the perfect resource turned up nothing--nothing less than nine years old, and the most recently published resource wasn't even close to describing what goes on in publishing houses today.


First of all, technology has come a long way—even in ten years. But more than that, the processes have come a long way:

- Publishing houses are leaner and meaner in many ways: market focus, author retention vs. author recruitment, volume, and of course money, just to name a few.

- Publishers are looking for their niche, and they're cutting loose the revenue-sucking portions of their companies.

- Publishers aren't looking for one-shot wonders. They want authors who have staying power and the ability to change with the demands of readers.

Some publishers cut their number of titles so they can concentrate on creating fewer, better books (Warner Twelve, for example). At the same time some publishers flood the bookstores with their publishing logo. It’s “buckshot” logic. If 75% of books in the reference section belong to one publisher, the odds are greater that one of their books will sell—even if it's not the best book. Hey, if you shoot with buckshot, you're bound to hit something.

The bottom line, however, is still about the bottom line. Even in Christian publishing money makes their world go 'round. For all publishers, there are fewer dollars to spend and more books to spend them on. Every penny has to count, and believe me, someone somewhere is counting them.


Freelancers and authors don't see how all the variables play out internally; but if they did, might it affect how they collaborate with their publishers? And if they understood how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, might it actually create a more efficient, cohesive relationship between them? I'm not naive enough to believe all the frustrations of publishing would disappear if every freelance writer and author read this blog and said, “Hang on a minute! We’re on to something here!” Boats will still sink, bosses will still micromanage, computers will still crash, and cubicles will get smaller. But with knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding comes a new paradigm in book publishing: unparalleled cooperation wrapped in a theory of equilibrium, whereby all the players are pursuing a fixed strategy (in this case, getting a book published). If the goal is the same for everyone, how can the experience not be a win-win for everyone?

And this leads me back to the book I was looking for…

Since I couldn't find it, we decided to write it ourselves in a blog. It was a tough decision because the time we need to write this blog has to be taken from another place where our time is needed. (True story: my brother, Tony, bought me Time Management for Dummies several years ago…I haven't had time to read it.) But if something is important enough to you, then you find the time to do it. And this is a subject that is most important to us because (and now we've come full circle) we love publishing. Our livelihood depends on helping good authors publish great books. We want to help publishers work more efficiently and, at the same time, build better relationships with their authors.


There may be moments when you'll read this blog and think, for people who love publishing, they sure have a lot of negative things to say about it. Well, like any profession, publishing has its flaws. We've seen the best and the worst in people working in this industry. It's not perfect; no family is. But it's still a family. The people on the outside who step into the publishing world for a short time are adopted into this family. Understanding the publishing process just makes for more pleasant family dynamics.

So The Big Picture is a comprehensive guide to understanding the process of publishing; written specifically for people who work with publishers—from the outside looking in.


Freelance Writers, Editors, and Proofreaders

You can better assist publishers and authors shape the manuscripts that will eventually become beautifully bound books:

- See an honest, birds-eye view of what's going on behind the screen while you’re working your magic on the other side;

- Learn why communication is the most important thing (even more important than deadlines!);

- Know how you can work more efficiently with authors in a way that will expedite the process once the manuscript is completed;

- Understand how and why your part in the big picture is so important and how valued you are, even when you aren't mentioned in the acknowledgments.

Especially for Editors

- Learn how you can be the top choice among publishers;

- Get the insider secrets that will have you on the "Freelancers A-List" of every managing editor in your circle of interest.

Aspiring Publisher Employees

Learning and understanding the publishing process before you apply for the job may deter you! Or it will catapult you to invaluable status among your colleagues in the house.

- You won't make the mistake of thinking editorial is more important than marketing, or the sales department is more important than production.

- You’ll be in touch with the theory of equilibrium in publishing, which will give you a powerful advantage over those people who get into publishing because they think it's a glamorous (boy, that's funny!) career choice.

Aspiring and Established Authors

You can be a real asset to your publishing house in more ways than just generating book sales. Here are some quick tips from later blog entries on these subjects:

- Don't just be the person who shows up for the photo ops and book signings.

- Don't be the reclusive writer who only makes an appearance when the cameras are rolling or to complain when you don't like something.

- Get involved! You're actually invited into this process, your voice needs to be heard, and your participation is so crucial to the success of your book—but only if you're a proactive part of the process. Otherwise, you're just dead weight; no matter how well your book sells.

In this blog, authors, you’ll learn:

- the detailed process of what happens with your book from the moment they or their agent sends it to the publisher until the moment it hits the bookshelves;

- what happens after their manuscript is accepted;

- what their contract should (and should not) look like;

- who all the players are that will be involved in each step of the publishing process and what they do;

- how their book will be marketed and what the PR department does;

- how the cover of their book will be chosen, and who writes the cover copy;

- how typesetting works;

- who their editorial team is, and how that is managed;

- what is involved in production and the printing of their book;

- what is the best way to start working on their next book with their publisher;

- how they can be the most helpful so their publisher will want to work with them again;

- what they can do to build a solid reputation as an author among all publishers; AND

- even though this blog deals primarily with process AFTER the book arrives at the publisher, I'll include a special chapter called "So I Married an Axe Murderer" which is all about finding the right agent and making that relationship work.

Even though we want to encourage you to learn more about publishing, we accept the idea that, as a freelance writer, editor, or author, you may not particularly care about these issues. Maybe the process of publishing doesn't interest you; and that's okay. Publishing houses will still run without your understanding of how they operate. But if you love publishing and if you love books then you will want to know how you can be a part of the solution from the outside in.

Remember, everyone has a story to tell. Whatever your role is in the telling of the story let it be with a greater understanding and respect for the big picture of book publishing.

NEXT! SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER...The good, the bad, and the ugly about book agents.

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