What Is a Publisher’s Job?
In a letter dated 18 September 1919 to Maxwell Perkins, editor-in-chief at Charles Scribner’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald asked if it might be possible to publish his new novel, This Side of Paradise, “before Xmas or, say, by February?” As we see in Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins,Perkins replied on 23 September 1919:
Dear Mr. Fitzgerald:
I was very glad to get your letter of the 18th and to know that everything was ready with regard to This Side of Paradise; and we are now making an estimate upon the book preliminary to putting it in hand, which we shall do within a short time if the printers’ strike does not make it impossible to put anything in hand.
It is this way about publishing before Christmas: there are two book seasons in the year and the preparations for each one are begun long before the season opens. The publishers’ travelers go out in July and August over the country with trunks filled with dummies and samples of the Fall books, which are to have their greatest sale in the Christmas season. The Advertising Department and the Circularizing Department get up their material in August and early September to make these books known considerably before publication and at the very time of publication. The advertising that is done from the first of September on is supposed to have its great effect in December, although the book may have appeared in August or September or October and may have sold considerably then. Now, if a book is accepted after all this preliminary work is done and comes out in November, as yours would have to do at the earliest, it must make its own way altogether: it will get no preliminary advertising; it will not be presented to the trade by salesmen on the basis of a dummy; and it will come to the bookseller, who is already nearly mad with the number of new books and had already invested all the money he can in them, as a most unwelcome and troublesome thing and will suffer accordingly. Even if it is a book by an author who has been selling well for years, it will be very considerably injured by this.
The next book publishing season is the Spring season. The moment the Christmas rush is ended the travelers go out once more and see all the booksellers, equipped with samples, etc. The bookseller has made his money out of the previous season and is ready to begin afresh and to stock up on new books. The Advertising and Circularizing departments have prepared their work on it, and their accounts of the author, etc., and have advertised it in the trade magazines to reinforce the salesmen’s selling argument. Then, when the book does appear in February, March, or April, the trade is ready for it and knows about it and it can be competently advertised because the publicity force of the house has become familiar with it.
These are the reasons why there is no question but it would damage your book exceedingly to try to rush it out before Christmas. Whether or not it can be printed in February we cannot yet say, but it certainly can be published in that month or March and we shall remember that you want it to be as early as possible
What Is a “Direct” Publisher’s Job?
In 2010 764,000 books were “self-published.” The figures in the table below postulate a year in which an independent self-publishing contractor — who possesses the means of production and distribution of the books — has 10 percent of such a market, sells all his titles at $6.99, with each author earning a 70 percent royalty.
When 4th Estate Ltd, London, published my novel Safe Sex in 1997, I was assigned a copy editor as well as a content editor, and a graphic designer who laid out the book and the cover. The book was reviewed in about a dozen periodicals, including the Times of London, the foremost newspaper in the English-speaking world. I also did two interviews, one online and one in a magazine, via email. My advance came to £4,000, or, at that time, something in the neighborhood of $6,000.
Publishing with our hypothetical “self-publishing” contractor gets each author a choice from among an assortment of “template” covers, each the epitome of the generic, and all copyrighted by the contractor. Each author gets to proof the ebook file, which is created by converting her word processing file to the format of the contractor’s reading device.
There is no design involved in the book, beyond, say, a compulsory table of contents providing a link to every chapter. The word processing file is simply converted to the reader’s format and a cursory overview is made of the result.
Sometimes, the reader file has justified left and right margins. But curiously, no words in the text are hyphenated. This results in a righthand margin that is sometimes oddly ragged. I do not know why this case occurs, but I do know that hyphenation is, compared to a quick-and-dirty file conversion, a considerably more complex piece of programming to implement. That is, hyphenation costs the contractor money. This cost may or may not be the reason for the absence of hyphenation in the converted file, and the consequent rather amateurish job of what used to be call “typesetting.”
Of course, no advances are made against the publisher’s expectation of initial sales, and our 76,400 authors have to contact the Times themselves. Of course, each of these authors gets that generous 70 percent royalty on every copy she sells. Seventy percent sounds pretty impressive compared to the 15 percent that I settled for from 4th Estate.
Odds are that each self-published author will sell at least one copy — to his or her mother, if no one else — which grosses our Contractor just over $160,000 — and nets each author $4.89 apiece.
Should we hit a self-publishing jackpot, i.e., each of our authors sells 10 copies, then the writers earn not quite $49 apiece, and our entrepreneurial Contractor, the capitalist risk-taker and job-creator in this hypothetical business venture, grosses right at $1.6 million.
Blogs and similar marketing advice devoted to self-publishing — media content aimed at aspiring authors — all pretty much agree that The Author will do better in the marketplace if she hires
• a professional editor
• a professional proofreader
• and a professional graphic designer
and, of course, if she hosts her own website and devotes enough time to it — theoretically every day — to create a meaningful (or “professional”) marketing effort.
All of this work is summarized in the business preliminaries Perkins described to Scott Fitzgerald way back in 1919.
To accomplish all this endeavor — as opposed to having 4th Estate or Scribner’s do it — our author receives that additional 55 percent of her royalty. That is, to hire the labor of all these other professionals and pay for the promotion of her work, her generous royalty allows her — indeed, requires her — to spend as much as $4 for every book that she sells. This amount comes out of her $4.89, of course, leaving her a profit of $0.89, that is, 15 percent.
But, just as Scribner’s and 4th Estate had to do, our author must make that $4-per-book investment up front — before she sells even a single copy of Raskolnikov in the House of the Dead.
Our Contractor is, of course, not a contractor. He is a capitalist. On the other hand, the “traditional” publisher — also working in a capitalist economy — did contract with our author for her work. Scribner’s end of the contract, like 4th Estate’s, covered things like . . . editing, proofing, graphics, and marketing. And Scribner’s paid its authors something up front for having written the books in the first place — a percentage of what they, as entrepreneurs, gambled that they could make on a press run of, say, 5,000 copies. Our Contractor pays his authors their 70 percent after they have not only written the books, but marketed and sold them as well.
On the Nature of Our Progress
We have a lot of technology that Maxwell Perkins lacked, and it would be good if we had a new model for publishing. We could have such a new model, but the table above does not illustrate it. Our table is not a model for publishing, but, rather, a model for the transfer of capital from the many to the few, in exchange for the not-much — a sterling example of the “new economy.”
The difference between the old economy and the new consists in the very real and meaningful work done by Charles Scribner’s, and by 4th Estate, which went on to be acquired — eaten up — by HarperCollins. The end-result of Scribner’s effort, This Side of Paradise, was a also a cut or so above the average ebook or, for that matter, the hardcovers typically reviewed every day in the Times. What’s new in this model is that the capitalist does much less than he used to do, while grossing roughly the same percentage.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Only things don’t stay the same. Book publishing was once regarded as a profession; now it is an industry. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, to profess meant “to take a vow,” originally a religious vow. Industry, on the other hand, means “cleverness.”
As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “How’s that working out for you? Being clever.”
Clever is working pretty well for our Contractor. The writers are still getting screwed.