The internal organs of the publishing industry.

7 02 2008

There are a lot of reasons why Publishing is a slow beast. Sparked by Nobby’s comment to this post, here’s some insight as to why. I don’t promise that anything you read here will make you feel any better about waiting eighteen months for a rejection slip, but perhaps it’ll bring understanding, if not sympathy.

We’ll start off with some helpful facts:

  • Lots of people want to be published writers. Lots. Hundreds of thousands of people.
  • A great many of those hundreds of thousands want to be paid.
  • Books don’t sell as well as films or TV programmes.

Next, let’s look at these facts in more detail:

  • Hundreds of thousands of people want to be published writers.

There are a million reasons why. Some are seeking a form of immortality, wishing for their name to be known to strangers after they themselves are long gone. Others want the kind of money and fame that J. K. Rowling have come to attain. Still more would like a legacy to leave their families. Plenty just want approval from strangers. Many write because they simply cannot exist without doing so. Lots want to tell stories or relate truths that entertain or educate others. It’s really unnecessary to understand why these hundreds of thousands of people write; merely accept that they do.

  • Many of them want to be paid.

Again, there are plenty of reasons for this. Lots of writers want to write professionally, which means getting paid to do the job. Many believe they aren’t writers unless they’ve been given their first advance. Some actually have to put bread on the table. Others honestly think that all writers are as rich as Rowling. What’s important to understand here is that when there are hundreds of thousands of writers who want paying, they will naturally target publishers who pay. Preferably publishers who’ve already made an author ludicrously wealthy.

  • Books do not sell well.

That is to say they do not sell as many single units as other entertainment media. A top-seller in the UK is a book that shifts over 400,000 copies, but if only 400,000 people turned out to see a new film the film would be a flop and the studio would likely go bust. That’s just a simple response to modern life: a relatively small percentage of the world is willing to set aside the time it takes to read a book, when a film can tell them a story in ninety minutes. You can find more information about actual book sales figures here, and before you get excited about the millions of pounds, realise that number is distributed between the 115,522 new books published in 2006 and all previous books still in circulation. Notice also here that a very small proportion of newly published books are fiction. Non-fiction and specialist non-fiction carry higher price-tags than fiction due to the narrower circulation. While a nice book with pretty photographs of Tigers might cost you £25, a nice book on the latest cardiac surgery techniques could set you back £200.

So that’s all the good news out of the way. Let’s start assembling it into the bad news. I’ll start small, using the Hub and Pantechnicon slush piles as an example. As previously mentioned, Hub’s sluch pile is quite large. By contrast, Pantechnicon’s is not. Why?

Hub pays.

Now I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores. The simple fact is that a paying publisher naturally attracts more submissions than a non-paying one. A hell of a lot more. Pantechnicon puts out a quarterly PDF and never struggles to fill its pages, but I only have to turn away approximately 55% of submissions as unsuitable. The general quality of submissions is high even before editorial input. The slush pile is more of a neatly-kept slush folder with four or five new submissions a month. Perfect, as far as I’m concerned. I have time to read every submission as well as edit the ones I’ve already accepted and lay out the issue that’s about to be released. I have time to keep in touch with contributors, source artwork, look for interviewees, and install new features on the website.

But Hub’s slush pile is a nightmare. We receive approximately twenty submissions a month (and that’s after being closed to regular-length stories and only accepting Flash fiction), with a far lower success rate. We have to turn away over 85% of submissions, either due to poor quality, lack of suitability for Hub (i.e. non-SF/F/H stories) or sheer averageness. That’s time we’re losing. Time we could be spending sourcing interviewees, fixing up the website, seeking a wider audience, making the PDF look prettier and such. And even with three of us, it’s a fight to keep on top of the slush pile.

Now imagine Bloomsbury or Random House. Imagine an agency who happens to have a famous client. Imagine their slush piles. And they’re not receiving Flash fiction or short stories. They’re receiving synopses and sample chapters of novels. They could be receiving 30,000 words per submission.

This is where book sales come into play, because while it’s easy to say “Well, they should hire more people to clear the piles,” they cannot afford to, because sales are not high enough. What’s worse is that because of their love of books, readers and editors are taking their work home with them every day. There is no 9-5 in Publishing. There’s not even a five-day week. These people will take manuscripts home and read them all evening, then wake up in the morning and read them at breakfast. They’ll read them over the weekend, when they should be out with their families having fun. They will slog their guts out, and their slush piles will never get smaller.

When someone finally finds a submission that really grabs them, then request the rest of the book. There’s always the chance that the other 120,000 words just don’t live up to the promise of the first 30,000. That’s more wasted time. And if they do, they have to be picked over laboriously, edited into publishable shape. It may take a customer two days to read a 200,000-word novel, but an editor can’t be so speedy. They’ll have to read it through once to get the feel for it. Then they’ll have to go through word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. This could be a breeze, or it could take a month. And all the while that’s time taken away from the submissions that are piling up.

Then an editor sends the edited manuscript back to the author. They have a breather while they wait for the second draft. Do they spend it on the slush pile? Or on a second draft that came back in? Or on a first draft that they really love that still needs edits? Or meeting with Marketing or Directors to beg for them to accept another novel that they found in the slush pile that they adore and desperately want to get published?

Marketing and Directors are not the evils of the world, either. Ultimately they are in business, and business requires saleable product. If they fail to sell, the whole business is at risk. If the publishing house goes under, they won’t be publishing anything else, ever. So, ultimately, they may be acting in their own interests (keeping a job, paying a mortgage), but they’re acting in the interests of future writers, too, because writers are what keeps the business afloat.

In short one could say that the problem truly afflicting the publishing industry is the lack of avid readers in the world, versus the sheer quantity of writers. Motives aside, it all boils down to numbers.




5 responses

7 02 2008

I’d like to state straight away that I disagree with some, or all, or many, of the points raised above. Sorry. It’s too easy to blame the writer and the reading public.

Everything about big slush piles, too many writers, too few editors..etc..etc…is, I’m afraid, a total red herring.

A publishing house is a business.

We need to think about this because it’s how this business is run that is the real reason that it can take two years for a writer to see his/her manuscript in print. By which point, the agreement with the retailers has run out, the marketing budget has been spent, and no matter the quality of the work, it’s destined for the remainder bin.

Why don’t books sell well? Because other forms of media have supplanted them runs the argument.

But it’s Bollocks. It’s all relative. Books are selling, today, in greater volume than they have EVER done.

And it costs bugger all to produce a book. Or, at least, it should.

The reason that publishers can’t get a book in print in under 6 months is not the VOLUME of sales, its’ the piss-poor PROFIT MARGIN they make.

And that is, absolutely, 100%, squarely, their own fault. And this is where it all stems from.

In my experience, the operational overheads which directly impact the bottom line in a publishing house, are ludicrous. Archaic, ponderous and impractical processes; poor relationships with key suppliers (printers, wholesale, retail…etc..); an archaic mode of marketing (bookfair anyone?); an inability to form adequate supply chain relationships; extended and multi-layered management teams; expensive legacy agreements with suppliers; inability/unwillingness to apply technology; I could go on………

Why does a publisher require a thumping wad of paper as opposed to email?
Why do publishers not reject immediately 90% of the shitest submissions and only concentrate on 10%.
Why don’t publishers _outsource_ their submissions department (in fact, you could consider ‘agents’ nowadays to be the outsourcer)

“Because we’ve never done it like that.” – I’ve heard this _so_ many times in this industry. Ooh it makes me mad.

To be honest, 95% of publishing houses don’t even have the excuse that they’ve got mountainous slush piles anymore, ‘cos they’ve neatly pushed that problem back on to the agents by insisting on ‘no unagented manuscripts’. And yet, despite this, I don’t see any improvement in lead times?

You see, I don’t want anyone to think I’m attacking the people of the industry. ‘Cos I’m not. To a man (or woman) all editors are lovely, nice people as Trudi has pointed out many times. Maybe that’s the problem.

(In anticipation of the backlash)

7 02 2008
Trudi Topham

There’s absolutely no reason to apologise. Healthy debate is a good thing 😀

And if anyone picks on Nobby, I’ll kneecap ’em 😉

7 02 2008
Ian Alexander Martin

As the Commissioning and Editing Director (North American and the Antipodes) for a Small Press publishing concern in the UK whose motto is ‘publishing… but differently’, I tend to agree with Nobby… to a degree.


I think it’s important that this generalisation we see up there in his comment is one of the Large Publishing Monolith. You know: Knopf, Faber & Faber & Faber (and associates), BMG, and on and on.

The large houses have such a structure of long-lasting existence that to change even a small aspect of it would take such a monumental effort to accomplish that it’s not worth the attempt of change for the end benefit.

Is that good? No, not at all.

But it’s the way you have to be prepared to operate if — and this is the clincher — you want to be paid. If you want to deal with people who are willing to read your pdf, then be prepared to get only a bit of money for your writing, if that.

8 02 2008

Great site! I added to you to my blogroll. You should give Bookmooch a try. Yeah, I hate getting rid of books too, but I love getting free ones even more!

8 02 2008

I agree with Ian, in that I am a thing of generalisations, and thus, am entirely worthless. This is my problem, and I intend one day to deal with it.

It is entirely true that the smaller presses are, to some extent, much more agile than the larger houses.


Ian also makes the point that within the larger houses, the process of change is slow and expensive. Business Process change, when it boils down to it, is predicated on a business case, in which the value of the change is measured on the payback period, or net present value, or whatever other metric is in vogue today. This, for a large and established business (not just publishing) is usually measured in the long term – years – before value is realised. Hence an MD looking at major change within his/her publishing house, looking at the bottom line for _this year_ would be disinclined to make that investment.

I think Ian’s point above, “it’s not worth the attempt of change for the end benefit” isn’t entirely true. The end benefit is there, and has the potential to be huge, but won’t be realised for 3/5 years. (This dilemma is, of course, not just limited to a publishing house and applies to any business.) To rephrase Ian’s statement: “It’s not worth the attempt of change, because said change won’t positively impact this years’s bottom line, and, given that my bonus is based on this years profit, I’m buggered if I’m going to take the hit.” is more accurate.

Again, this is all generalised stuff. But it’s an illustration. The myth must be dispelled that any blame for the poor state of the industry should lie at the feet of the very people who are creating the product it sells, and the fact that there are a lot of them. This is not the case.

The large houses are, unfortunately, the market makers – they set trends – they have the power of lobby over the retailers, they have the ecomonies of scale to command the loyalty of printers, they ultimately control and direct the business. And, frankly, they don’t do this very well.

While smaller presses are inherently much more agile; they are, unfortunately, constrained within the world created by the industry and thus are subject to the very same supply chain inefficiencies caused by the big boys.

And unfortunately, I think this is, to some extent……deliberate. (Cue dramatic music)

The big boys have it sown up. They can quite happily have a 2 year lead time for a project, soak up the inefficiencies of the industry, deliver a product at very low margin. Because they have the VOLUME. Try doing that if you’re a smaller house. Try growing into a big house in that industry. The capital constraints on growth, or entry into this world are huge. We’re talking 1 to 2 YEARS before a new business sees a return on investment in a particular product (a book), and then, because of the way the industry is, that product is released into a low margin world.

Let’s all go electronic. Vive la revolution. Writers of the world unite. Realise your power.

(Who enjoys a good conspiracy theory.)

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