What Does a Publisher Actually Do? - Raindance

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The internet has brought a great deal of democracy to publishing.

While self-publishing has always been an option, never has it been so cheap and ubiquitous as today. Self-publication is now so widespread that traditional publishing has been thrown into doubt; why part with profit and run the gauntlet of rejection to seal a now-antiquated deal? While certain elements of traditional publishing have become the province of the individual, their services can, nonetheless, prove invaluable if properly mustered. A publishing house can, more than simply distributing your book, aid in both its immediate and long-term success, as well as fundamentally improving the text itself. But what exactly does a publisher do?


1. Acquisition

The first port of call when it comes to any publishing house will be their acquisitions editor (also known as a commissions editor or sponsoring editor). These are the people who will browse submitted manuscripts and research the field; it is them who must first be impressed so that you project might be presented and approved for further development. The benefits of such gatekeeping make sense from the perspective of a publishing house: books that will make more money, books of higher quality, and books that support a certain house style or reputation can be filtered out from the rest. This same rationale works to the advantage of a (selected) author, too. Having your book acquired by a prestigious publisher acts as a royal nod, and suggests an inherent value in the work; democratic as self-publishing is, by the very dint of its democracy your text stands equally among thousands. A publisher acts as a spotlight – if they do nothing else, this is worthy.

But in order to best leverage this fact, publishers must be sought with some nous. A publisher of ill-repute will garner ill-repute for your text. More pressing than separating bad from good publishers is submitting to publishers that might have a specific interest in your book. A scholarly publisher will have little interest in your general reader’s guide to filmmaking, while a trade publisher (responsible for the majority of English-language books, and nearly all bestsellers) might well. Also keep in mind current competition in the field, and other books a specific publisher already carries. Any good acquisitions editor will do the same research, so it’s always good to be a step ahead and target your manuscript where it has the best chance of publication.


2. Development

Very rare is the publisher who will acquire a text and publish it as-is. Part of both the purpose and the quality of a publishing house is their refinement of a manuscript. Depending on the size and nature of a publishing house, and the sales potential of the work in question, the development of a text will vary. Copy editing, which ranges from style and grammar to significant structural rearrangements and rewriting, was traditionally in-house, but is increasingly under the purview of freelance editors. Texts of particular size, importance, or complexity might be offered a developmental editor – someone tasked with reorganising a book, or involved with legal permissions where applicable.

Other important products will be granted line editing, which is expensive but precise. Line editors will not only keep an eye on spelling and word use, but the rhythm and euphony of a text. Prestigious publishers will generally have a higher standard for published work – while this can make presenting your manuscript a hard sell, it also works to your benefit, as a publisher will endeavour to release the best possible edition of your work. Do keep in mind that regardless of how many editors have looked over your work, the final quality remains the author’s responsibility.


3. Marketing and Sales

After having narrowed down acquisitions to your particular work, and developed it to an appropriate standard, publishing houses will then work to market and sell your book. Marketing is almost all-encompassing in book production – the exact design, the number of pages, the prominence of an author’s name, and pricing are all chosen with a mind to better sell the text. Marketing is then further broken into advertising and publicity. Advertising specifically covers ads in newspapers and magazines, posters, and the newer trend of ‘trailers’ for books that are deemed worthy of an extra push. While the most popular texts benefit from advertising, its efficacy is sometimes questioned for more specialist works. Why? Because publicity does the heavy lifting. Publicity covers author tours, lectures, TV and radio appearances; even the elusive launch party.

The exact extent of advertising and publicity (and the probability you will get a party) vary depending on the perceived sales potential of your text, the likelihood of the text being reviewed in mainstream newspapers, and the name-value of its author. The risk inherent in publishing is that a publisher will have to decide on a marketing budget and spend the majority of it before receiving any sales money at all. This results in a reasonable reticence on their part to overspend, or take a punt on an uncertain text. Researching your particular area prior to writing – and so ensuring your text is either essential, or hitting on some kind of zeitgeist – can ensure higher spending on your book. This is one of the great assets of a publisher, particularly those with deeper pockets.

In addition to marketing the book, publishers also have a hand in selling it. They will distribute promotional catalogues to booksellers and libraries (and if appropriate schools and universities), getting your book directly onto shelves. While a self-published author is not unable to do this, the contacts and backdoor routes available to publishers streamline the process substantially. This extends to subsidiary rights – publishers will deal with reprints, translations, and photocopying rights on behalf of their author. Another important term that should be remembered is the ‘backlist’. The backlist means your book has been taken off the frontlist – books that are part of the current annual budget. But this is not necessarily a bad thing; publishers rely on a strong backlist – books that will continue to sell in modest numbers over a substantial period of time. Many a classic also shares that designation. The current state of the industry does prioritise high immediate sales, but know that a move to the backlist is not necessarily a sign of failure, but potentially longer term success.


For a pithy single-line takeaway, William Germano’s Getting it Published makes reference to ‘added value’, which is to an extent the exactitude of what a publisher is meant to do. But, like Germano adds, do not forget the value inherent in any good manuscript. A publisher can embellish a text, but it is you who has written it.




Filmmaker, critic, and erstwhile pilgrim, Milo is interested in Dutch angles, silent movies, and the secrets of the Holy Ghost. He is currently developing a comedic retelling of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (funds pending).