How the Publishing Industry Works

(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)

Keynote speakers tend to be Big Names, and Saturday 8/13/16 at the Writer’s Digest Conference the Big Name was David Baldacci.  He has written almost 40 novels, many of them very successful.*  He was a funny speaker, very lively and polished, and the one takeaway from his talk that I wrote down was, “Don’t write what you know.  Write what you would like to know about.”  He suggested doing lots of research (and told some very entertaining stories of hands-on research he has done for his novels) and then leaving it all out so that your book doesn’t become a “flipbook” that readers will skim through.**

On Sunday morning, my first session was a presentation by Phil Sexton, the publisher of Writer’s Digest.  It was a very interesting talk and very thorough.  The caveat is, of course, that as a publisher of non-fiction books, even though his publication is aimed partly at fiction writers, his day-to-day expertise is in non-fiction.+
  • You are your own best advocate.  Your agent doesn’t have the day-to-day contact to keep on top of things.  Ask questions.  You have the right to get answers, and the right not to like the answer.

What publishers don’t want you to know:  They are overworked, and have no time.  They have to edit books, create presentations, write jacket copy, do editorial marketing, style tags to manuscripts, and manage content.  (And, probably, go to innumerable meetings, correspond with writers and agents, and keep their jobs).  Don’t be too grateful to them, but also don’t antagonize them.  Strive for a partnership, not work-for hire.  Ask specific questions, such as:  Is there co-op money for placement?  What’s the position on the list?  The metadata (ISBN, title, description, cover, in online database)? ++

  • What to say on sales calls with bookstore buyers.

Does Barnes & Noble commit to the book?  The sales rep makes an appointment with the buyer six months before publication, and there are different buyers at the stores for different categories.  The rep has 15 minutes for 5 books (15 to sell, 5 for chit-chat, 5 for lead title, 1 minute per title; you might get 30 seconds), and if there are fewer than 5 books there’s no meeting.  So is there a face-to-face sales meeting?

  • What questions you should ask your publisher.

Your agent is the best person for contract questions.  You want your relationship with your editor to be positive.  Let your agent be the bad guy.

That said, you can ask where your book ranks.  (Meaning, what treatment is it going to get?)  Is it an A title?  How much space will it get in the catalogue (1 page to a 1/4 page).  Is the cover finished?  Am I filling a hole in the list?  How big is the list?  Barnes & Noble requires title cards, while other bookstores buy through the publisher’s catalogue, 2 times a year or so.  Ask to see catalogue and jacket copy.   Ask if there is a marketing plan, though that’s rare.  Ask, “How big is the list for the season?  How many books in my genre are on that list?”  That determines buyer time. How many sales people does the publisher have?  What is the coverage relative to Baker & Taylor?

After the contract is signed, ask how they handle your specialty market.  Research your publisher and the BISAC/category codes (metadata) where your book fits.  In a brick-and-mortar store, you’ll have one code, while online you can have multiple codes.  The BISAC codes are at  What this means in practice is that your book should be shelved in the category where buyers are going to look for it.  It can be the kiss of death if Barnes and Noble puts your book in the wrong place, and it happens sometimes.  Therefore, before it is sold, confirm what section it will be sold to, and afterwards, where it was sold. Ask which bookstore buyer the publisher is selling it to. Ask how many copies Barnes and Noble took.  They have 670 bookstores, so an order of 200 is nothing.  A good salesperson will push.  If you get a bad buy, say, “Let’s come up with something.”  Your royalty statement tells you how many books were shipped.+++  If you have an author page on Amazon, you have access to Nielson Bookscan, but a publisher wants to control everything they can.  Nielson Bookscan is updated on Wednesdays.  Order a copy of the publisher’s catalogue.

After publication, offer to take yourself on a regional tour.^  Ask for promotional offer platform.  Work with your market to promote that market.  Know how in touch your editor is with your sales people.

  • Questions about title and design.

Titles in fiction are less important.  They merely reflect the book’s tone and category.  Don’t get too attached to them, and don’t worry if your title is the same as some other books.  Nonfiction must be titled transparently (it shouldn’t have to be translated), and the subtitle needs to clarify.  However, on the spine, the subtitle doesn’t show.  Exceptions happen sometimes, such as DIYMFA by Gabriela Perreira, which came with an already-existing community that knew what it meant.

Ask to see the back panel or jacket copy  If you can’t get cover approval, get consultation or review.^^  Ask for the spine (it’s valuable real estate).  Check the front and the back, because lack of design integrity can kill a book.  Beware of script, ornate, or classic fonts, and metallic ink.  Anything that is hard to read vertically or horizontally will mess up your sales.  Large publishers can afford to take chances.

He recommended Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel and Spider, Spin Me a Web:  A Handbook for Fiction Writers.  ^^^

Tourism notes:  I didn’t do much, because New York is a kind of distant back yard for me, about an hour and a half away.  I went to college there for a couple of years, I have fenced there, and I frequently pop up on the train or drive to visit museums or go to a play or a performance.  I have stayed at the Hilton before, and it is a very New York hotel.  I honeymooned in New York in a similar hotel many decades ago, and was impressed then as now by the small size of the room, its darkness, and a view of a street that reminds one of how very crowded and crazy the city is.  One note, though:  I ran out of ink in my fountain pen part way through the conference, so I went down to Bryant Park and visited Kunokuniya, which is a wonderful bookstore with Japanese books, gifts, pens, and all kinds of sparkly little tchotchkes like folding bags, bookmarks, tiny creatures, manga, and cheap fountain pens.***  Also, Bryant Park has a merry-go-round.

*  The only one I have read was Memory Man.  I wanted to like it.  I made it all the way through.  But I didn’t like it.  Others have told me they liked some of his books but not others.
** I spent much of the talk looking at his hair because I couldn’t figure out if it was his his own or not.  It is very bushy with a sharp hairline.  Also, when you do a search for images of him, the first twenty or so, at least, are professional portraits.  That takes impressive management of your profile.
*** I love fountain pens.  I have a tattoo on my shoulder of a winged dragon holding a fountain pen, which I designed myself.  There is no good excuse for my love of fountain pens.  I’m sure it’s something Freudian if Freudian symbolism was not a reductive self-referential philosophy that justified itself by reference to Freudianism.
+ And it was essentially identical to an article he had written for the February 2016 Writer’s Digest, which I had read, highlighted, and summarized earlier in the year.  I suspect the online seminar he offers is also identical.  He was a very nice man and had a lot of good things to say, and it was not time wasted.
++ Clearly I need a glossary for this talk.  Metadata, Co-op money, etc.  No, I’m not going to write a glossary.  I’m in over my head here.
+++ My royalty statements came some time in the following year, but things may have become electronic.  I had no idea how many books I had sold, and they didn’t tell me when they translated them into French or Japanese until I got copies of the translations in the mail.
^ And may God have mercy on your soul.  In my experience, that usually involves sitting in bookstores all by yourself at a table behind a sign, with no one in the audience except for relatives and people who want you to read their book, which book is invariably bad.  At my school, we had YA authors come talk to us, and that was a heck of an audience (usually two assemblies, one for the Lower School and one for the Middle School); the local children’s bookstore did all the arranging and promotion, and supplied books.  But that kind of tour is something publishers do for authors they think are going to hit the bestseller list.  I bet most of the keynote speakers at the WD2016 conference were acquired that way.  God, what an incestuous business.  But then, all business is incestuous.
^^ I had nothing whatsoever to do with my covers, which meant people kept assuming they were YA.  I was not happy with either cover.  And when I was teaching English, I told my students that the author had nothing to do with the covers or the blurbs.  Librarians keep teaching kids to preview a book by looking at the front and back covers.  I wish they wouldn’t.  The covers only tell you how the publisher wants to market the book and what kind of budget they had to work with.  If you want to see if you’ll like a book, read the first few pages.  Read a few reviews, especially the negative ones, because you should be suspicious of the positive ones on Amazon and Goodreads.  I often find much better information in the negative reviews about books I’d like to read, because I know what kinds of things I don’t have to worry about.
^^^ I haven’t even been able to finish the one book I bought at the conference, though in all fairness I’m reading it closely and taking lots of notes, and I’m supposed to be writing in between summarizing my notes, reading other fiction, losing weight, worrying about money, helping friends, training, and going to doctor’s appointments.  Wednesday I’m going to Germany to compete for the umpteenth time in the World Over-50 fencing championships, and once that’s over I’m going to be SUPER ORGANIZED RIGHT SURE.  Agh.

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