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The Publishing Process Explained For First Time Authors

Leave the terror and confusion behind. This article unveils the mysteries of the publishing process.

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1. Forming a Contract

A contract is what will regulate and determine your involvement, your rights, and your compensation. Contracts can be formed verbally, and through a trail of written evidence and communication. The deal becomes official once headline terms such as advances and royalties are agreed, unless the author’s response is marked as ‘subject to contract.’

Once initial negotiations have started, a publisher will send out a ‘boilerplate’ contract. It is a standard document that contains every clause the company would like included. Though naturally skewed in the publisher’s favor, it includes many inessential terms that can be struck out or amended so as to make both parties feel as though they are compromising.

Agents are best suited to negotiating these terms and often have their own author-friendly counter-contract ready. Agents have experience recognizing which terms are up for discussion, and which clauses are essential and non-negotiable.

While most authors are simply happy to be offered a contract, if they don't have an agent they should contact the Society of Authors who, though not acting on behalf of the author as an agent or lawyer would, are able to provide contract advice.

2. Important Clauses

Author's Grant: The author usually grants an exclusive licence to publish the book (the 'Work') in volume form (print and/or electronic) in the languages and territories for a specific or full term of copyright.

Author's Warranty: The author warrants that the work is original and solely theirs to grant; that it does not contain libelous, unlawful, or defamatory matter; and that they will indemnify the publisher for any loss or damages.

Typescript: Where the length of the manuscript (typically in words not pages), the delivery date, and the form (usually an electronic double spaced Word document) are decided. It also covers what the author's responsibilities are regarding illustrations, indexes, and obtaining and paying for third-party copyright material. The publisher reserves the right not to publish if the manuscript is unsatisfactory, overdue, or does not conform to the standards set out here.

Corrections: Considering the time and cost contraints of printing, this clause reigns the author in from making extensive corrections and charges the author if they go above a specified percentage of the typesetting costs. This section also details how long the author is given to return proofs (usually 2-3 weeks).

Publication: This gives the publisher sole control over publication including all its elements: production, publicity, design, price, and sale. While author's therefore have no publication control, in practice authors have some consultation on cover design. The author is usually specified a number of free copies (usually 6) and a discount if they would like to purchase more.

Payments to Author: Lays out the royalties owed to author per form (hardback, paperback, digital), per territory (home market, export markets), and per period (scale royalties can be arranged around either time passed or quantities sold).

Subsidiary Rights: Establishes what rights are being granted to the publisher that they may license to other firms, as well as the percentage owed to the author upon net receipt of those sales. These rights include territory rights to sell to other markets, as well as other rights such as translation, audiobook, dramatization (film, stage, TV, radio), and digital rights.

Reversion: Sets out upon what conditions the rights may revert to the author. For example, if the publisher fails to keep the book in print. The invention of the e-book slightly complicates the 'kept-in-print' determination so some agents ensure there is a level of sale at which, if the books sold less, the rights can be reverted.

Option: The author may grant the publisher rights to first refusal on their next work.

Advance: Sets out what, or if, an advance is paid at which point it is set against the author's future royalties. Usually staged in separate payments on signature of contract, on delivery of satisfactory work, and on publication.

Most publishers will refuse to remove these clauses: grants of rights and territories, author's warranties and indemnities, exclusivity, and their right to publication/formatting/marketing decisions.

3. Copyright/Copywrong

The basis of the contract is the action of the author in granting the publisher the right to commercially exploit their copyright. An exclusive licence leases this copyright to the publisher, where an assignment transfers it to them.

With assignment, the copyright line becomes © [The Publisher] and the author is paid a fee instead of an advance. It is usually only used when the author is a ghost writer or specifically commissioned by the house to write something.

Term of copyright is the life of the author + 70 years, though of course the license granted to the publisher can be shorter.

If you are using song lyrics, images, or other copyrighted material in your work you need to get permission and pay each holder of the copyright. Whatever you do, be honest about this - you don't want copyright holders coming out of the woodwork. If they never respond to your attempts to get permission, keep a written trail of evidence as it will help your case.

However, if the publishing house has their own commissioned images, it is by far the simplest and least incriminating way forward.

4. Rights - You Have Them

With an original manuscript comes a family of rights, some already mentioned above. These include territory rights which determine the right to sell in different markets (English language market, US market, Japan market etc.); digital rights; format rights; dramatization rights, etc. These all have to be balanced and strategically sold.

Publishers will often want to include all of these rights in the original contract so they are free to do as they like and to sell the rights they aren't exploiting themselves. While authors and agents will receive a percentage of these sales, agents believe that it is more lucrative to keep as many rights as they can so they can sell them separately.

Whatever you choose, be sure that the territories you sell to won't compete with your main market (be sure to synchronize book release etc.); and be very conscious of what rights are being included in the contract, and what are left out.

5. Advances - Your Bank Account's Best Friend

An advance is a specific sum paid to the author that is set against the author's future royalties. It is often delivered in 3 stages (on contract, on delivery, and on publication). The advance has to be earned out before the author receives any further payments.

An advance is an investment from the publisher in the author's work. It is meant to support the author while they dedicate their time to finishing the book. Unfortunately, publishing is not an extremely lucrative business and so advances tend to be either small or non-existent (up to 10,000 pounds for a two-book deal by a first-time novelist).

This is especially true for first time authors as big name authors provide the profits that let publishing houses take risks on new authors in the first place.

On the bright side, it is guaranteed money. Even if you never earn it out in book sales, you don't have to return it.

6. Royalties

Royalties are only accessible to the author once the advance is fully paid out. If the book is successful enough, the author could earn money from both the advance and the royalties. When negotiating the author has to balance how much they wish to rely on one form of compensation over the other.

Royalties can either be calculated as a percentage in reference to the edition's recommended published price on all copies sold (RRP royalties are usually 5 - 15%), or as a percentage of the publisher's net receipts (the sum of money the publisher receives after discounts).

A royalty by net sales is more often offered, and reasonably so. Most trade distribution channels - Tesco, Waterstones, Asda, especially Amazon - require a substantial discount in exchange for agreeing to stock the book. The costs add up as these distributors usually also stipulate being allowed to return unsold stock (at which point it is either sold again, the author may buy it, it is remaindered, or it is pulped).

Royalty rates are determined for each format (paperback, hardback), and territory (export royalty rates may be lower due to higher discounts involved). Royalty rates on e-books are usually significantly higher however because of lower production costs (the industry average is 20-25%). You won't get extremely high royalty rates on e-books because even though the printing is not a factor, the editing, marketing, metadata, and discounts for online distributors are.

A scale of royalties is also possible, whereby the royalty rates rise 2 - 2.5% when certain quantities are sold. However, if the author has reached a higher rate on the scale and a new edition is produced, the royalty reverts to the base rate.

Because royalties kick in when the advance is earned out, they are entirely dependent on success. It's rare to reach the Queen Bey level of royalty.

The publisher takes the product and makes it commercially viable. They invest in the work and by contributing editing, marketing, sales, distribution, printing, and rights help, the book can become not only a reality, but a profitable one.

The commissioning editor is the closest spokesperson of the publisher to the author. They keep the author and agent informed of the manuscript's progress and transformation. They also work with the author on editing the manuscript and making it suitable for publication.

The agent is the middle person. They secure the book deal for the author and often acts as matchmaker between author and publisher.

The agent also mediates between the author and editor. Because the forces of the author and publisher are so differently motivated - creative vs commercial - they may conflict. The agent steps in to foster the relationship, though their ultimate duty is to protect the author.

Ultimately, the agent and editor are there to support the work and the author. They are there for what ends up being a lot of personal support. Putting a book through publication is a trying time for authors, as they watch their manuscript transform and go out into the big wide world, and everyone involved respects this.

8. Marketing: Expectations vs Reality

As mentioned above, publishing isn't a terribly lucrative business and as such marketing budgets tend to be quite small, if they even exist (especially when you factor in how expensive advertising has become). Not every author can get the Don Draper treatment.

Your marketing help will more likely err on the side of Chandler Bing. If your work is assigned a marketing team they will probably be working with a small budget and will therefore aim to use it as creatively and frugally as possible.

With or without a team dedicated solely to your work, the publishing house will support the your personal marketing effort. They work to secure author appearances and signings as well as offering social media help. Authors are expected to help promote themselves, and those that sign on to do so, and demonstrate enthusiasm or expertise in that area, are all the more favorably looked upon.

The publisher is just as invested in the product's success as the author, but reality constrains their marketing budget and as such, success can heavily depend on the author's publicity contributions. First time authors are especially reliant on social media to build their personal brand and to promote themselves and the book.

9. Time Management

It is important that you respect the deadlines given to you and. Everything is reliant upon the timeline mapped out from the beginning. Print dates, marketing plans, distribution - it all needs to be pushed back if the author does not deliver on time.

This is especially important if the material is time sensitive or seasonal.

Be sure to keep up regular communication and to rely on the support given to you by both your agent and editor.

Should you still find yourself unable to make the deadline, communicate as clearly and as early as possible with the publisher.

Though the contract specifies the publisher has the right to cancel publication of the work if the author misses the deadline, they will often opt for postponing it. With large amounts of time and money invested in the work they are reluctant to completely write it off.

10. Pitfalls of Self-Publishing

Where finding an agent and publisher can be hard, and the reality of costs vs profit / control vs support disillusioning, self-publishing is an independent avenue accessible to all.

However, most authors don't know where or how to begin self-publishing. It is a copiously time-consuming and complicated process and more often than not the rewards do not outweigh the effort.

In committing to self-publishing, you are foregoing all the support a traditional publishing house entails and you might not necessarily have the skills that a company aggregates in their team (Management, Marketing, Metadata, Design, Editing etc.).

Even if you manage to successfully self-publish, your work will lack the commercial ‘badge of worth’ which is hard enough for some publishers with influence to achieve.

And because there are no quality barriers your work will may be lost in a sea of rejected manuscripts and vanity publishing.

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