There’s Publishing . . . and then, there’s publishing.

18 Mar

But still, over here . . . there’s even yet more publishing!

The other night I had a great in-person chat with a friend of many years (as opposed to an ‘old’ friend, which neither of us is. Yet.) Anyway, we met as sort of youthful authors in the late 80s, as members of the same chapter of RWA, which at that time was still new, too. She wrote a medieval historical romance, while I was trying for traditional Regency, but we were both writers, and still are.

I have kept at it, and have now published (or had published) five full-length novels, plus half-a-dozen or so novellas and a couple of novelettes, with more in the chute! My friend switched her allegiance (that’s allowed!) to science fiction, and then switched again – to journalistic non-fiction. She is now a highly-regarded, reliable, responsible free-lancer in our area, but has plans to retire this year and get back to the fiction world.

As we were chatting away, I realized that she is really not well-informed about the many changes in the book publishing world during the last twenty-five or so years. I was happily throwing out all these terms, not immediately realizing that her eyes were glazing over and most of my wonderful words were sailing right over her head.

It dawned on me then, that perhaps I’ve been doing the same to you, my loyal readers, so I need to back up a few steps and start over again. This will probably end up being another chapter in my forthcoming ‘How to Write a Book Book’ due out later this year. Not everyone will be happy with the same publisher or publishing style – and that’s a good thing. There is an abundance of variety in today’s publishing world, and while I’m not an expert on every aspect of it, I think I know enough to hold my own on this topic.

The word ‘Publishing’ refers to someone putting words out there for several someone else’s to read. That’s basically it. Kids can publish (and have, many times) a neighborhood newsletter. Maybe it had only a dozen copies, but that’s enough to count. Sometimes they even had the temerity to charge for their progeny. And as we grow up, we still do – and hope that someone will like it well enough to want to pay to read it. Writers are so optimistic!

These days, it could be words actually printed on paper, but more likely, it’ll be an e-book. Regardless of format, it’s still publishing. It used to be that ‘publishers’ meant the commercial houses in New York City or London, mainly. These were the companies that supplied us with ‘literary’ works and mass-market paperbacks, and in truth, these publishers were the Holy Grail for writers. They are known as ‘advance against royalty’ houses. What that means is – if an editor likes the submitted manuscript and wants to publish it, they’ll offer the writer an advance of so many dollars, to be paid back from the royalties earned on the sales. This latter feat happens perhaps once in every 25 or so books published. (Maybe more often now that not so many books are being published every month by these houses.)

The next category would be the ‘small press’ – a privately-owned small company that had a particular agenda for its books. Maybe only hard-boiled mysteries, for example; or maybe vampire novels or erotica. They pretty much stuck to their specific genre, which had a built-in audience. The advance (if any) would have been small, as were the royalties earned, but the prestige was great. The books were nicely done, and any author would be proud to show them off. Whereas the large publisher might put out 50-100 books a month (across all its various lines) the small press might only do half–a-dozen books a year.  But that small print run (maybe 1000 copies) would be exceptionally well done.

Then there were companies that would publish your book for you, as long as you did all the work, and brought them a camera-ready, edited and proof-read book and at least an idea for the cover. These companies were very above-board, and were able to do small print runs, such as for a family history perhaps. These would not be widely circulated, as they were intended only for a small, specific audience. Occasionally, one would find its way into a bookstore, but generally, they were sold – or more often, given away – by the author to the chosen recipients. This was self-publishing of the highest order.

At the bottom of the list was the Vanity Press. This was a type of publisher who never rejected any manuscript, unless, of course, the writer couldn’t – or wouldn’t – pay the sometimes exorbitant fees. They charged for everything they did – in some cases way more than the service should have cost, had the author gone looking for a better price – or service. Even though a fee was charged for editing and/or proof-reading, it was sometimes hard to see the proof of that statement. Sometimes, even the production of the book itself would be shoddy. Fortunately, there aren’t too many of these companies left out there any more.

The BIG change engine was the advent of Print-on-Demand. It was the logical child of the marriage between the computer and duplicating machinery. The best part of POD printed books is that the book isn’t printed until someone orders it – and pays for it, generally up-front. Nothing at all wrong with that, either, in my opinion. Sure beats paying out thousands of dollars for boxes and boxes of books, most of which will end up in the landfill!

This process has opened the door to individuals and small presses, alike, enabling them to have a book published without having to mortgage their home (or first-born kid) to pay for it all. Personally, I think it’s the best thing to happen to publishing in at least the last two hundred years!

Some commercial publishers of the advance against royalty type are even taking advantage of this process when the book is not going to be done in hard-cover. It’s still possible to do the innards that way and then put a hard-cover on it, but as that runs up the cost per book, it isn’t done all that often.

Since it’s so easy to produce a book by this process, it’s not unheard of for a publisher to do a first run in POD, and if the book looks like it’ll have legs, they can easily switch to the conventional method of production.

But hey! A book is a book is a book! Regardless of how it’s published, it’s still a book!

Next time we’ll talk about e-books. As always, if you have a question or a comment, please do write to me:


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