Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing


A brief overview of the industry and the publishing process

The American commercial publishing industry is made up of a patchwork of presses – from PRH, the largest, which publishes more than 15,000 titles in print per year, to micro-presses which only publish a few a year. Commercial publishers acquire, edit, produce, and distribute works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and journalism. Trade books, the largest publishing category, are intended for a general audience and are typically sold in bookstores and through other retail booksellers. Other publishing categories include academic, professional and specialist publications. Although children’s and young adult books may have different conventions, they are often considered part of the commercial publishing industry.

The Big Five commercial publishers were known as the Big Six until 2013 when Penguin and Random House merged. In 2020, PRH announced plans to buy Simon & Schuster for over $2 billion; the Justice Department sued to stop the merger, citing antitrust concerns. If the merger goes through, the nickname will become the Big Four. The industry’s center of gravity is in New York, where all the Big Five and many other publishers are based.

The Big Five account for around 80% or more of the national trade book market, with PRH books alone accounting for around 37%. Within the Big Five, each conglomerate operates numerous “footprints,” literary brands that make relatively independent book acquisition decisions. PRH, for example, has around 275 publishers, including Riverhead, Vintage, Viking, One World, Doubleday and Pantheon, each with its own editorial staff and sensibilities. Hachette Book Group owns Basic Books, Grand Central Publishing, BoldType, Little Brown, etc. Amistad, an imprint known for focusing on the work of black writers, is an imprint of HarperCollins, as is Ecco. Simon & Schuster publishers include Atria, Scribner and Avid Reader Press, while Macmillan includes Flatiron Books, Henry Holt and Farrar Straus and Giroux. In all, the Big Five have about 500 footprints, many of which were once stand-alone corporations. Agents can submit a manuscript for review to multiple publishers within a publishing house, and publishers can bid against each other as long as a different publisher is also in the running.

Unlike the Big Five, independent publishers are not part of a large conglomerate. They tend to be much smaller and include Grove Atlantic, Graywolf, Beacon, New Press, Akashic, Feminist Press, and Catapult. With fewer resources, smaller, independent presses offer lower advances and smaller marketing and advertising budgets. They are seen within the industry as taking greater creative risks and being less profit-driven, with some adopting a not-for-profit model. Although independent publishers and the Big Five often act as competitors, they also have a collaborative relationship, as the big publishers frequently operate as distributors for each other and for books published by their independent counterparts.

Although each publisher has its own processes, most houses have editorial, marketing, publicity, sales, and production departments. Other departments include Art and Design, Contracts and Legal, Digital Production, Finance and Subsidiary Rights.

The publishing process

The first stage of the process takes place outside of publishing houses: when a writer with a manuscript or book proposal interviews an agent, or an agent interviews a writer they hope to represent. Once they have signed a representation agreement, the agent, who has developed relationships with publishers from different houses, presents the book project to the publishers.

If a publisher wishes to acquire a book, they create, often with the sales manager, a profit and loss projection which may include information such as production and manufacturing costs, royalty rate, formats, expected price and, perhaps most importantly, expected sales. This sales projection is usually based on comparative titles (“comps”), previously published books that are similar to the proposed project and likely to appeal to the same book-buying audience. The final acquisition decision is usually made by a committee that includes editorial, advertising, marketing, sales, and sometimes other departments, depending on the house.

The advance is the amount the author is paid to write the book (with the agent taking a share, usually 15%). It’s based in part on sales projections, which in turn are based on comp titles. As the word suggests, an advance is not just a lump sum payment. This is a preliminary payment of the author’s expected future income, i.e. royalties from sales, share of any licensing agreement and any other profit the author is expected to make on the book. Advances are usually paid in three or four instalments: the first payment when the contract is signed, the second payment when the complete manuscript is delivered, and subsequent payments when the book is published (including publication in different formats, that is i.e. bound and paperback). A writer only begins to receive royalties from copies sold once they have “won”, meaning they have sold enough copies for their total royalties (and other income) to exceed their advance .

The marketing and publicity departments work together to ensure the book finds an audience. Generally, marketing works on positioning a book: What genre is it? What social media campaigns should they launch? What type of advertising will the publisher serve and on which platforms? How should the book be described and tagged for search engines? Publicists are responsible for soliciting “earned” media coverage (as opposed to publicity) for a book. They make sure the book is reviewed and the author is interviewed or featured in the press or on radio, podcast or TV. Publicists also plan and execute book tours, readings, and other events.

Along with the marketing department, salespeople are often responsible for managing direct relationships with bookstores and booksellers. The sales representatives are a direct link with the buyers (bookstores, other businesses, libraries, schools) and are responsible for selling the book to these buyers.

For each editorial “season” – often spring, summer and fall – a house organizes an internal “launch” of its new books, during which the publishers present them to the marketing and advertising teams and national sales representatives, with the aim of exciting them. . promote the latest titles. Internal book launches take place about a year before publication. Post-launch, publishers host sales conferences, where marketing and advertising present a selection of the biggest upcoming titles, along with related highlights and tactics, to all sales reps in the field.

Marketing and advertising budgets are set in meetings that take place shortly after the launch presentations. Editorial, marketing and publicity staff are likely to be present. Also present at these deliberations would be business managers who work with booksellers (representing, for example, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Costco and independent distributors). They consider how many copies have been purchased from distributors in the past for similar books and discuss sales projections, which leads to decisions about how much to spend pushing a particular book to market.

The number of copies the publisher plans to release – known as the announced first print run (AFP) or announced market distribution (AMD) – is a key indicator of the size the house expects of the book, and therefore the amount of an investment he makes in marketing. If a book receives good early buzz, AFP may increase and associated marketing and advertising budgets may increase. The size of the budget is also related to the size of the author’s advance – a higher advance generally requires a higher budget to recoup that money.

Distribution is broadly split between the print and e-book branches. Typically, larger publishers have in-house distribution departments with their own sales reps and warehouses. Most small and medium-sized publishers enter into a contract with a book distributor, who agrees to put their books on the market (bookstores, book chains, online booksellers and book wholesalers) in exchange for a percentage of sales.

One of the main roles of the distributor is to manage the advance sales of a book to bookstores and libraries before it is published. Distributors also typically provide services such as marketing, sales, logistics, shipping, order fulfillment, warehousing, and returns. Traditionally, when a book comes off the printer, it is sent to an established book distributor who stores the book before it is sold to various book trade stores or a wholesaler (such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor or Greenleaf), which can also fulfill book orders from bookstores and libraries. There are several companies that function solely as book distributors. Three of them – the Independent Publishers Group, Ingram Publishers Service and National Book Network – collectively represent 900 small publishers. But smaller publishers frequently work with one of the Big Five publishers to distribute and sometimes market their titles to bookstores and other sellers.


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