Midpoint National, Inc. Distribution and fulfillment warehouse. Kansas City, Kansas
Midpoint National, Inc. Distribution and fulfillment warehouse.Kansas City, Kansas
Before the full-time writing and publishing I do today, I was once a VP doing traditional distribution for 250 indie publishers to the US trade market. I set up a BookExpo internship for 20 UCLA students to learn about publishing and then work the trade show floor in Los Angeles. This "Journey of a Book" overview was the interns' first lesson. The foundations of traditional publishing remain the same even now, and all our publishing interns still start here.
The Journey of a Book from Concept to Customer…
and the people it meets along the way.
by Nancy Freund
- Publishing consultant
- Production team
- Graphic designer
- Industry Media
- Related (non-industry) media
- Marketing team
- Sales team: trade book stores
- Sales team: special markets, including Internet
- Fulfillment House
- Customer: wholesaler
- Customer: retailer
- Customer: libraries and special markets
- Returns processor
- Remainders and Hurts dealer
The author writes the book. If it’s a work of fiction (a novel in any genre), poetry, or short story, the concept is usually the author’s. If it’s a work of non-fiction, the author may have conceived it. Or it may have been conceived by someone who isn’t a writer and has to hire one.
The book packager is a well-connected industry person who will either be approached by someone wanting to create a published product or will have a product he or she has conceived and now needs to pull together a team to create it. Packagers are often approached by private industry and pave the way for a joint venture with a publisher. Frequently the publisher has a stable of available writers for these projects. Sometimes, the packager will build in a certain writer when the “deal” is presented to the publisher.
Example: Time-Life Books was approached by a packager (Weldon Owens) who put the deal together when they started publishing the very popular Williams Sonoma cookbook titles.
A literary agent represents an author to prospective publishers. A typical agent will submit an author’s proposal (for a non-fiction book) or synopsis (for a novel) to larger publishing houses. By the time an agent contracts to work with a novel’s author, the manuscript is usually nearing completion. In fact, agents prefer to work with an author of multiple titles. That way, if the agent is successful in selling the rights to the first novel, there is a good likelihood that he can sell the next novel(s) as well. A common agent arrangement is that the agent will retain 15% of the author’s earnings from the publisher. (Some also retain an amount for “pass-through” such as postage, Xeroxing, etc.) Therefore, negotiating a better contract for the author is in the agent’s direct interest. There is another category of agent which charges a reading fee just for reviewing the manuscript. This fee might then be returned when (and IF) the manuscript is sold to a publisher. Publishing consultants or freelance editors can provide similar services, though they make it known from the outset that they will not be hunting for publishers on the author’s behalf.
The first ones to read a manuscript just in from an agent is the Acquisitions Editor. Once an editor is behind a title, he or she must sell the idea to the rest of the acquisitions team and ultimately the publisher. Then an editor is assigned to work with the author in “cleaning and tightening” the writing. Some manuscripts will require few alterations, just a few grammatical corrections, perhaps. Others might need completely different endings, the addition of a new character, or the removal of an entire scene in the story. In a non-fiction book, sometimes there is an editor involved in fact checking too.
This is the highest-ranking person publishing the book. Frequently, the titles of President and Publisher are held by the same person.
6. Publishing consultant
Sometimes the publisher needs some outside input in making the decision about whether or not to publish a certain title, and how to position the book if it is to be published. In a large New York publishing house, the consultants are usually in-house. Among independent publishers and small presses, there may not be enough work to justify hiring someone full-time for this role. These presses rely on free-lance consultants, many of whom have begun their own businesses after working in a large house. The consultant may be involved in any number of additional roles listed below.
7. Production team
These are the people involved in putting the actual book together. Once the editor and author have got the text perfected, the production team will begin to assemble plans for the book’s creation. A cover design will be brainstormed, pre-pub copies will go out to people for endorsements, and a decision will be made about whether the book should be hardcover, trade paperback, or mass-market paperback. Print bids will be gathered from printers in the U.S. and abroad. The publication date will be determined, so the publicity department can get started. Digital files will be created and sent out for pre-press, followed by the finished film, cover proof, and then the book. The creation of galley copies was once a first step, which preceded the printing of the book. Today’s technologies make it possible for galleys and “advance reader copies” to be printed at the same time the book is printed for the trade market.
This is the one office in the publishing house using Macs instead of PCs (usually!) There might be a couple of techno-geeks who keep the creative staff up and running. Covers are designed in Illustrator, or other softwares. The guts of the books might be created in Adobe PageMaker or Quark Xpress. Knowledge of Photoshop and scanning software, Corel Draw, and Freehand are all useful for a graphic designer. Often a publisher (or production team) will tell the designer what they have in mind, and the designer will then design two or three versions of covers, for the publisher to consider. Sometimes, the covers for a casebound (hardback) book will be designed a bit differently from the cover of a paperback.
The production team (or publishing consultant) will send out for print bids each time the publisher goes to press with a new title. Many times, though, a publishing company will work long-term with a dedicated team of people in a certain printing company, by contract. Depending on the equipment owned by the printer, and the availability of paper (and other resources) near the printshop, print bids can vary quite a bit project by project. Some printers specialize in long print runs (books being printed in quantities of 25,000 or more, perhaps). Others specialize in short runs. (A small press often starts with a print run of 3,000 copies). Some printers are digital printing houses, and are most cost effective for very short print runs, no more than a couple hundred copies. Often the best and most cost effective four-color printing comes from the Orient or Italy. Then, of course, the publisher needs a customs broker to take care of getting the books into the U.S. Some printers use binderies on a sub-contracted basis. However, most bindery work is handled under the same roof as the print work.
Along with the publisher and the author, the publicist might have the most long-term stake in the project, as the publicist will be the one to create and maintain the book’s visibility throughout the market and among consumers. Before the book is even produced, galley copies must be sent to pre-pub reviewers, like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. A favorable review in either one of these industry journals can guarantee at least a certain number of sales into bookstores and libraries. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times require pre-publication copies too. The timeline for this activity is at least 4 months in advance of the established pub date.
After the book’s pub date hits, and the book is released to the market, the publicist’s job is just hitting its stride. Getting non-publishing industry reviews (and mentions) is the publicist’s job as well, and this is what drives consumer traffic to the bookstores. Example: the publisher brings out Cindy Crawford’s Make-up Tips Book. Getting reviews in Cosmo and Glamour and Mademoiselle are vital. Getting the book mentioned in a How to Have Gorgeous Lashes article in any of these magazines is equally important. Reminding Cindy Crawford to talk about her book the next time she’s on Jay Leno is part of the publicist’s job too. Getting Cindy ready (with formal media training, if necessary) is also part of publicity.
This is the person who reads the book and prints up his or her opinion on it. A favorable review in certain venues can influence book buyers to place orders for the book, sight-unseen.12. Industry media
Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, ForeWord Magazine, Independent Publisher, Kirkus, and Booklist are all important industry publications. Also, consider the New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Village Voice, (and many other newspapers and magazine).
13. Related (non-industry) media
Radio, TV and print media publications might interview an author in direct response to a press release generated by the publicity department. Large New York publishing houses have in-house publicists, but more and more authors are hiring their own publicity firms (with their publisher’s blessings) to boost their PR. Certain producers may work more regularly with one specific publicist, and will be more likely to run a segment or an article because of their relationship with that publicist, assuming the subject of the author’s book is one the producer can use.
Large New York publishing houses will usually fold distribution into the spectrum of their own business. More and more independent publishers, however, will cut their over-head by hiring a distributor to handle sales, marketing and fulfillment, alongside the distribution of other independent publishers’ titles. Distributors will often act as publishing consultants from the early stages of a book’s development, providing the publisher with feedback from prospective buyers even before a book is printed. Distributors are usually paid a commission on their sales. They may have publicity departments, marketing, and other support people the publisher can hire as needed.
15. Marketing team
These people put together catalogs, tip sheets and promotional materials to go to the buyers. Sometimes these materials are mailed to booksellers and wholesale buyers; sometimes they are provided to the sales people for face-to-face visits. The marketing team works closely with the publicity department in trying to get the most visibility for the book. If advertising seems like a good idea, the marketing department will put together these plans, and work with an ad agency, if necessary. Perhaps there will be a display ad run in Publishers Weekly, for instance. Maybe a publisher will put up a billboard or fly a banner behind an airplane over the Super Bowl. Maybe the publisher will do a direct mail campaign to reach end-consumers. If the way the consumer found out about the book was from a notice (or ad) the publisher had to pay for, the Marketing Department was probably involved. Often the marketing team will pick up where the publicity department leaves off. For instance, if the publicists went after an award, which the book then won, the marketing team might create an ad to announce the award, and might have the remaining inventory stickered with a gold seal telling consumers about the award.
16. Sales team: trade book stores
These are the people who will bring book covers, sample chapters, and tip sheets to sales meetings, sometimes accompanied by catalogs and actual books. They will present the title to the buyers and try to write an appropriate order, based on what the consumer market might support. (Wholesalers and retail bookstores frequently buy merchandise fully returnable, so the sales team and buyer work together to keep the quantities they are placing in the market reasonable, thereby lowering future returns). In some publishing houses the sales team has been paid for its sales, without being held accountable for its returns, therefore leading to significant over-selling. Few houses can stay in business with this kind of sales model in place. Trade book stores include national chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble (superstores); Waldenbooks and Brentanos (mall stores), and regional chains (Books-A-Million in the South), and independent bookstores throughout the U.S. and Canada. The term “trade book store” refers to any store whose primary business is selling books. If Blockbuster has a display of books in the middle of all their videos, for instance, they’re not a trade book store.
17. Sales team: special markets, including Internet
Sometimes the sales people who call on retail bookstore or wholesaler accounts are not well suited to sell to the gift trade or to book clubs or to hardware stores or to warehouse clubs like Sam’s or Price-Costco. Special market sales are often handled by specialists in these markets. Some distributors have sales teams to cover many different markets. Others allow their contracted publishers to pursue special market sales on their own, with the assumption that the publisher will be the best advocate for his or her own titles.
18. Fulfillment House
Regardless of who the salesperson is, someone’s got to get the books to the customer. The fulfillment house “fulfills the orders.” Usually the fulfillment house will warehouse the books, process orders, (which includes picking, packing, and shipping the books), and then invoice the customer. Sometimes the customer will pay in advance (with a check or credit card). Still other customers will want 60 or 90-day terms during which to pay their invoices. The fulfillment house will collect the money when it’s due and report activity back to the publisher. The fulfillment house is also responsible for accepting returns, verifying that the books have been returned in good, clean condition, and then crediting the customer for the returned books. Returns are one of the biggest frustrations facing publishers today – some titles can expect as high as a 50% “backwash.” Industry standard, in fact, is 30%. A distributor whose sales teams have been successful at limiting returns (at the same time they report high sales) is an excellent partner for any publisher.
19. Customer: wholesaler
This is the middleman kind of customer sometimes erroneously referred to as a distributor, because of the similarity in the operations of a wholesaler and a distributor. They both warehouse the books and ship them to customers on behalf of the publisher. The key difference is that wholesalers purchase the books outright, and sell them on to customers who come to them in search of the books. Distributors, on the other hand, actively market and sell the same books to wholesalers and retailers alike. Distributors might actually create a demand for a book, as opposed to just providing the book for a customer who’s seeking it.
20. Customer: retailer
The retailer is the bricks-and-mortar bookstore, which will stock the books for consumers to come in and browse. Internet retailers like Amazon.com must stock the same books in warehouses, but do not have bricks-and-mortar store fronts for customers to come in and flip through the books. Because the two operate so differently, they really should be categorized separately.
21. Customer: libraries and special markets
Worthy of note, many special market sales are non-returnable. Although there may be additional lead-time (and work) involved in creating the sale, the fact that the books sold will “stay sold” is a wonderful incentive for the crew responsible for these sales.
22. Returns processor
Although discussed above, under the Fulfillment House heading, the returns processor deserves its own listing, as he or she might be the last person to see a book during its life in the market. Many returned books will be fed back to active stock and re-shipped to another customer in the future. Others will become too shop-worn or travel-worn to go out again, and they will be put to rest in a remainders bin.
23. Remainders and Hurts buyers
For the tired books that got returned too many times (known as “hurts”), and for the clean, new books that were over-printed (and therefore never sold), remainders buyers will purchase pallet-loads of books and offer them at very deep discounts to stores for “sidewalk sale” type displays.
This is the person who buys the book, takes it home, and loves it. (We hope!)