The wonders of how books are made, how they end up in the library and how they end up on a best-sellers list have long been a mystery for most. The industry has drastically changed in the past 10 years. There are more books, more media and more options for authors (and potential authors) than ever before. We’ve dug through conversations we’ve had over the last few years and come up with a list of our most frequently asked questions, hoping to provide some answers on the book publishing industry.
What is traditional publishing?
Traditional book publishing is when a publisher offers an author a contract and, in turn, prints, publishes and sells the book through booksellers and retailers. The publisher essentially buys the right to publish the manuscript, including many components of licensing, and pays the author royalties from the sales.
The odds of being published traditionally range anywhere from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 depending on the experience of the writer, the topic of the manuscript and the publishing house.
How does an author get published?
Most authors need to find an agent before they find a publisher. Agents typically specialize in a specific genre, and to find the right agent, one must do a little research. Once the genre and agent have been identified, one must submit the appropriate proposal and query letter.
This is essentially the method used to sell the concept of the book, a chapter summary, the audience and market for the concept, and a description of the author. The proposal and query letter can be different for different genres.
For nonfiction, one needs to submit a book proposal with three sample chapters and a synopsis of every chapter. If writing fiction, one must submit the complete manuscript. The agent then uses these tools to pitch book ideas to publishers. All told, finding an agent, then a publisher, is an arduous process, which helps explain the low odds of being traditionally published.
What is self-publishing?
Self-publishing is the publication of any book, album or other media by an author without the involvement of an established publisher. Unlike traditional publishing, the author controls the entire process and assumes the risk, costs and work. But that means he or she enjoys all of the earnings.
Authors can do all of these activities by themselves or they may outsource these tasks — often to friends and family who may have some of the skills needed to produce a product. Self-publishing is not limited to physical books. It includes pamphlets and brochures, as well as digital media, such as e-books and websites.
In traditional publishing, the process takes time and the publisher bears the costs, such as editing, marketing and paying advances. In turn, the publisher reaps a substantial share of the profits. In contrast, self-publishing can be done quickly and the author remains in control of his or her work and the profits. There are many online self-publishing services available with a wide variety of costs and levels of service.
Hybrid publishing is a combination of both processes. A hybrid publisher is an experienced, professional entity providing personal guidance, advocacy and expertise in services like editing, design and layout. Hybrid publishing takes the quality service and production of traditional publishers and combines those with the ease and ownership of self-publishing.
Hybrid publishers frequently capitalize on the benefits of on-demand printing, avoiding the high costs of a large press run and inventory management. Hybrid publishers typically only charge for the services provided, allowing the author to retain the copyrights, licensing and royalties from the sale of the book.
What is a manuscript?
A manuscript (MS) is essentially the earliest draft of a book. It is the raw, unpublished version of an author’s work. Authors, agents and editors often refer to books in manuscript form, noting that the book is in the earliest stages of preparation. A book in manuscript form will be edited, and oftentimes reworked, edited and proofed again before it is formatted for publication.
I need help writing my manuscript; where can I find help?
Join a writing group! Find a group of peers you respect and trust. There are many organizations whose purpose is to help writers become better, more successful authors. Here’s one in the Des Moines community: www.desmoineswritersworkshop.com/local-community/
There are many professional services you can hire to help you write or develop a manuscript as well. There are coaches, ghost writers, other authors and editors, just to name a few. Publishers often have resources you can hire to help, too.
What is an ISBN? Do I need one?
In short, the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products published internationally. It is tied to the barcode on the back cover of the book and identifies the title, publisher and price.
The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.
The details regarding ISBNs can get a little complicated. More information can be found at the United States ISBN Agency website: www.isbn.org/
What is an LCCN?
A Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is a numbering system used to catalog records in the Library of Congress. To get an LCCN, you have to apply for one before your book is published. Once you receive your LCCN, that number is printed with the copyright information.
The Library of Congress?
The mission of Library of Congress is, “To develop qualitatively the Library’s universal collections, which document the history and further the creativity of the American people and which record and contribute to the advancement of civilization and knowledge throughout the world, and to acquire, organize, provide access to, maintain, secure and preserve these collections.”
Once your book’s been published, you’ll have to send one copy of the best edition to the Library of Congress. The best edition is a paperback or hardcover — e-books are ineligible for an LCCN, even if their print version has one.
What are royalties, and how are they determined?
A Royalty is a payment to an author or composer for each copy of a work sold or to an inventor for each item sold under a patent.
Traditional publishers pay authors royalties based on a certain percentage of the profits per book sold, which ranges between 10 percent and 25 percent.
The formula is essentially: Profit = Retail Price – The Cost of Production. If the retail price of the book is $20, and the book costs $5 to print and ship, then the profit is $15. There are many variables that go into determining the profit like pricing (wholesale vs retail), the variables in the cost of the book (more than just printing and shipping), and so on.
Using the example from above at the 10 percent rate, the author would receive $1.50 and the publishers would receive $13.50, thus retaining a majority of the profits and earning their investment in the production of the book faster.
Hybrid publishers and Self-publishing offer a different formula. The profit essentially becomes the royalties. Since the author has invested in the production of the book upfront, using the example above, the author would retain the entire $15 profit.
I’ve heard of authors being paid before a book is published. How does that work?
What publishers and authors typically refer to as a “book advance” is an often actually an “advance against royalties.” Most traditional publishers will provide the author an advance (a monetary payment) to finish the manuscript.
Once the book is published, they deduct that advance from the author’s royalty percentage until it has been paid back. That is, they “advance” the author an amount of money based on what they think the book will earn.
I have my MS finished, now what?
The first step is deciding what is wanted from a published book. Many of the drivers for writing an MS are also drivers for deciding which publishing strategy is best.
- Traditional publishing is tough. But if the dream is to be a national best-seller, try to find an agent to represent you. Have patience and don’t give up.
- Self-publishing can be quick and easy. If the motivation is to see your work completed, simply as a personal project, give this method a try. You can always use it to find a traditional publisher if the motivation changes.
- Hybrid publishing is usually the best of both worlds. If the motivation is to have a high-quality book to accurately represent your brand, company or idea, then this could be the way to go. Hybrid projects are books typically used for a business, to promote an idea, establish thought leadership or document history.