I have given behind-the-scenes looks at book endorsements and conference speaking and thought I’d wrap up this little series with a look at publishing. I’m familiar only with Christian books so will keep my comments focused on that small corner of a much larger industry. From my perspective, here’s a look at how Christian publishing works.
Most authors are represented by a literary agent. This is an individual who represents authors to publishers in return for a percentage of the profits (typically around 15%). Authors will usually sign an exclusive contract with a particular agent for a set period of time. This contract means they can only write books for which that agent has represented them. Some publishers prefer not to work with agents (typically smaller ones) while others will only work with agents (typically larger ones). At their best, agents add a lot of value to the publishing industry by matching authors with the best publishers for their books and by helping authors get the best terms from the publishers. They also suggest ideas and topics to authors, help shape proposals, provide advice on contracts, and may even be involved in suggesting strategies for marketing, and so on.
There are a lot of good and credible agents and agencies. Unfortunately there are some poor ones as well who will take advantage of prospective authors. Authors should do their homework and, if approached by an agent, ask for references. (Please don’t ask me to refer you to an agent as I cannot and will not do that!)
Many publishers will accept proposals from authors who are not represented by agents, but typically this process takes longer and has a lower chance of success. The exception, of course, is when the author has a personal relationship with someone within the publishing company. As always, a lot comes down to who you know.
Some Christian publishers are businesses and some are ministries. But in either case, they need to at least break even. This means there are almost always financial terms involved with the publication of a book. There are generally two major negotiable financial components to a contract. The first is the royalty and the second is the advance.
The royalty is the percentage of the book’s sale price that the author will receive. This is based on the wholesale rather than the retail price, so usually around half of what you might pay in the store. Often there are gradations so that royalties on the first X copies are fairly low, but then they increase as more copies sell. (X might be 10,000 for a small book or 100,000 for a major book.) An average royalty on a softcover or hardcover book might be 20% or so. When you consider that most Christian books sell fewer than 10,000 copies, yet take months to write, you can see that very few people can make a living as a Christian author.
The advance is the amount the author will be paid before the publication of the book—often one part of the advance when the contract is signed and the remaining portion when the manuscript is complete and accepted by the publisher. It is important to note that this is actually an advance against royalties which means that the author will receive no royalty payments until he has “paid back” the advance through royalties the book has earned. A first-time Christian author might get an advance of $5,000, though some publishers do not offer them at all. A major Christian author might get many multiples of that.
Of course there can be a host of other factors that are written into contracts—film rights for works of fiction, different rates for audiobooks depending on whether the author reads it or turns it over to a hired professional, foreign translation rates, future paperback editions, and so on.
One way to understand publishing is to see at it as a balancing of risk, with two parties each wanting the other to accept the higher risk. Authors have to invest a lot of effort in writing a book that may not earn back their investment in time, effort, and expertise. Publishers have to invest a lot of effort in acquiring, editing, and printing a book that may not earn back their financial investment. Hence authors will push for a high advance and high royalty while publishers will push low.
Some authors write books on behalf of their ministries and have the proceeds absorbed by them. Others write books personally and keep the proceeds as income.
Most publishers send royalty reports (and potentially royalty payments) either semi-annually or quarterly. The reports are generally long, printed statements that include how many books have been sold in all the various formats and at all the various price breaks. These are notoriously difficult to decipher and, even after all these years, I still struggle to make sense of them.
There was a time when publishers would be heavily invested in helping authors grow their “platform”—their reach to the people who might be interested in reading their book. Today, though, publishers tend to expect authors to already have a significant platform, often measured in social media followers, conference appearances, church attendees, or other metrics. This reduces the risk for publishers as they integrate authors. However, it makes it more difficult for lesser-known authors to get a proposal accepted. It’s far easier for a poor writer with a large platform to get a contract than for a great writer with a small one. That is unfortunate on the one hand, but also perhaps not surprising since publishers are (generally) not charities.
There are quite a number of Christian publishers and each tends to have their niche, though there is a fair bit of overlap between them.
Some are independent while others are owned by massive mainstream publishing houses. Some will only publish authors who write from a particular theological perspective while others will publish authors who write from nearly any theological perspective. Some have large marketing and publicity departments while others have none at all. Wise authors and agents get to know the options so they can know where their books may fit the best.
There was a time when self-publishing was considered vain—a way to get your name on the cover of a book without going through the accepted process of publication. I don’t think there is the same stigma today, especially after so many books in both the mainstream and Christian markets were initially rejected by publishers, were then self-published, and went on to be bestsellers. That said, the standard process does add a lot of value and many authors will struggle to make their self-published books reach the same levels of quality in editing, design, layout, marketing, and so on. The advantage of self-publishing, of course, is that the author can move as quickly as he likes, avoid all the gatekeepers, and make a higher percentage of profit per copy sold. Companies like Amazon make it easier than ever to self-publish and to have books available for purchase through the world’s largest marketplace. The entire industry has changed a lot in the past couple of decades and there is undoubtedly much more change to come.
The process of publishing a nonfiction Christian book will usually go something like this.
An author will present an idea to an agent and they will begin to co-create a proposal. The proposal will usually include a thorough description of the book, a table of contents, and a chapter or two of writing. Most publishers prefer not to receive a complete manuscript as they like to help shape the book from its formative stages.
When that proposal is in good shape, the agent will send it to acquisitions editors at the publishers he deems to be the best fit for the project. The acquisitions editors will read the proposal and either reject it immediately or take it to an internal committee that makes decisions together. If they are interested in publishing the book, they will send a proposal to the agent who will in turn present it to the author. That proposal will usually include financial terms as well as a description of how the book will be published (e.g. hardcover or softcover, page count, quality of paper, and so on). Publishers will sometimes ask authors to sign contracts for multiple books at once and will generally offer them better terms if they do so.
Once the contract has been agreed upon and signed, the author will have a set period of time to submit the manuscript. That will often be about a year. In that time he will have access to the acquisitions editor to share ideas, receive feedback, and so on. That said, writing is a solitary and often lonely process that mostly sees the author sitting alone staring at a screen while desperately searching for reasons to procrastinate.
When the author is finished with the manuscript, he will send it to the acquisitions editor who will do a thorough edit, focusing on the ideas, the flow, and the wording. He will then send back a Word document with hundreds or even thousands of suggested changes, some of which may be minor and some of which may take weeks of work. The author will often have a month or so to respond to those changes. When that has been done, the acquisitions editor will send it to a second-level editor who will continue the work of shaping it. It will then often go to a third person who will look carefully for typos, errors in punctuation, and consistency with the appropriate style guide. Some books will also receive a theological edit by a trusted theologian. At this point it will be sent to potential endorsers so they can read it and write their blurbs.
When all that is done and the manuscript is considered complete, the book will enter into a design phase during which the text will be laid out in book form, the fonts will be chosen, and the page layout will be finalized. The title and cover will usually be finalized somewhere in this timeframe and added to catalogs and other advance marketing material. Eventually it will all be sent to a printer (often overseas) who will print the book and ship it to the warehouse from where it will be distributed.
Finally, perhaps a year after the author submits the manuscript to the editor, the book will be formally released. The author will usually assign a publicist to the book and his job is to arrange interviews, media appearances, and perhaps conference speaking. There will often be a lot of these immediately before and after the release date, and they will then slowly tail off.
The process generally moves quite slowly and very methodically. But it is proven and effective and results in the books you have come to know and love.