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Inside the Ivory Tower: A Peek into the World of Publishing

Publishing is one of those jobs that a lot of people glorify. It’s not like your mechanic. You know what he does; he fixes cars and gets grease stuck under his fingernails. A lot of people don’t even need the mechanic because they can do most of the work themselves. (That’s not to say that mechanics aren’t vital contributors to society; I’d be willing to bet over 50% of the population don’t know where to begin looking if you asked them to find the starter.) But cars just aren’t a great secret anymore.

And yet stories are.

More people on a day to day basis engage with narrative in some form or fashion than they do with the intimate workings of their vehicle. But, for some reason, the creation and proliferation of stories and their vessels (in this case, books), is one of the worlds greatest mysteries to the average person.

A lot of publishers like this secrecy and mystery. It makes us feel like Shakespeare, James Bond, Jay Gatsby and God, all at the same time. And who wouldn’t want to feel like that? But what a lot of publishers don’t realize is that while they’re playing at divine creation, the story creators (without whom we would be lost) are trying to navigate the murky moat we’ve surrounded ourselves with and are inadvertently soiling the marble anteroom with their too long query letters and unedited manuscripts because they don’t understand what we are doing for them behind closed doors. They don’t know why it takes us six months to reply to a query and two years to turn their beautiful words into the printed book they’re dying to sign their name inside and display proudly on every shelf in their house. So, while I’m not going to give away all our secrets (for fear that the Publishing SS would be after me, and I kind of like my job), I will try to dispel some myths and give you a brief rundown of how things work so you can meet your publisher armed with both knowledge and empathy.

1) So you just read all day, right? False. A lot of unsolicited (and solicited) manuscript reviews happen on lunch breaks, during commutes and in the evening over a cup of tea. We have other responsibilities while we’re at work. Publishing is one of those jobs that is a labour of love and there’s no such thing as overtime. So it may take us 6 months to get back to you and it’s not because we’re lazy or scatterbrained, it’s because we look at your work during our spare (read: family or home) time. It’s not surprising that editors don’t appreciate incessant follow ups on manuscripts.

2) But the salary makes it worthwhile, doesn’t it? False again. On average, someone working in publishing makes between $30 000 and $40 000 per year. Of course you have your big CEOs that make more but publishing is not a lucrative business.

3) I just got my first contract. They’re only offering me a $5 000 advance. What happened to the mint I was supposed to make? Only a very small number of authors make the large advances and this is because they are established and they regularly sell over 100 000 copies. What a lot of people don’t realize is just what an advance is. It is NOT someone buying your book. They are merely acquiring the rights to print and market your book and they advance you some of the money they believe your book will make so that you have something to live off of while the book is in production. As the author you make a royalty off the sale of the book (usually $1-2 per copy sold). Publishing is a cash poor business (with retailers only paying for the books they actually sell). Fees come in quarterly if you’re lucky and biannually if you are not. Publishers realize that authors need to live however, and advance you a portion of what they believe the book will make to help sustain you until the royalties start to come in. You also only begin to make money after you have ‘paid back’ your advance. So don’t ever become a writer (or a publisher for that matter) for the money because, chances are, you probably won’t make very much.

4) Bet you didn’t know before that a Publisher does not buy your book, they only invest in it. As a writer, you need to think of yourself as an entrepreneur. You have a great idea for something or a prototype for a product that is going to be the next iPhone because it’s just so brilliant. You then pitch your idea, prototype, manuscript to an investor. The publisher is your investor. They provide the capital and resources to make your idea successful. They are not buying it from you, they are merely investing in what they see as a good financial risk. The advance is reflective of how many books they believe you are likely to sell. Anything that sells more than 5000 copies is considered a success these days. Oftentimes breaking 100 copies sold is an accomplishment.

5) I’m confused, how does publishing work? Basically, in a nutshell, author pitches book to publisher, publisher acquires right to publish book in a defined area and language in return for a portion of the sales (known as a royalty), publisher edits, lays out, prints, distributes and markets the title and distributes the author’s return on sales to them quarterly or biannually. Publishers will also acquire other kinds of rights from authors (such as film and foreign language rights) in hopes of selling them on and generating a profit for both the author and publisher.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot more to publishing than meets the eye. It’s not just a bunch of people sitting around discussing books over fancy coffee in the morning and champagne and hors d’oeuvres in the evening. It’s a lot of long, gruelling hours both in the office and at home for a pay cheque that doesn’t necessarily reflect the hours you put in. That’s not to say that writers don’t have it tough too, but hopefully little blog posts, such as this, from helpful, author focused publishers, like River Ram Press, will help you to understand the world that lies within the walls you hope to breach.

As always, River Ram Press welcomes your questions and would be thrilled to answer any that this article may have inspired.

Best wishes,

River Ram Press

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