I know that the publishing process is often opaque, and many authors—especially first-time authors—don’t know what to expect. Knowing a bit more about what your publisher likely will and won’t do for you will hopefully empower you as you go through the process.
Let me start by saying: publishing is a partnership.
It is no secret that publishers rely heavily on author platform and author networks to promote books. If you’ve even dipped your toe in the water of writing a book proposal, you’ve heard that platform is super important. And it is! But you can, and should, expect a certain level of support from your publisher—it’s not all on you to promote and sell your book.
WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WILL DO
(I should that I’m commenting from my experience in a mid-sized publishing house. Smaller publishing houses will have smaller budgets and function differently because of that. And larger publishing houses will have much larger budgets and function differently because of that.)
Your publisher will buy your book with an advance. Typically, this is an “advance on royalties”: almost a down payment on your royalties. The larger your advance, the more committed the publisher will be to making the book succeed, but the longer it will take you to earn out and start receiving royalties. Remember that not every publisher is working with the same budget for advances, and that advance size is far from the only factor to consider when choosing a publisher.
Your publisher will pay you royalties, which are a percentage of the net sales of your book.
Your publisher will bankroll the book production, including costs associated with cover and interior design, copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, and manufacturing. These costs often add up to tens of thousands of dollars and are one of the primary reasons you might choose to publish your book traditionally rather than self-publish.
Your publisher will market and publicize your book. Marketing is paid coverage for the book, and includes things like print ads, digital ads, paid social media ads, and search engine optimization. A marketer will put together an ad campaign catered to the audience for your book. Publicity is free coverage, and includes reviews, interviews, excerpts, and other media coverage. A publicist will send review copies of your book to a variety of media contacts with whom they’ve cultivated a strong relationship. Well-supported marketing and well-connected publicity are another reason why you might choose to publish your book traditionally rather than self-publish.
Lastly, your publisher will sell your book. The first step is sell-in: getting the book stocked in stores. Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of books published each year never make it on to the shelves at Barnes and Noble or other independent bookstores. It takes a strong sales team to get bookstore buyers to stock your book. Marketing and publicity efforts will bring customers to the store, but first a sales team needs to get the book stocked. Of course, online retailers like Amazon have changed the landscape significantly, and in some cases offered more opportunities for books to succeed.
WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON’T DO
Your publisher likely won’t let you design your book cover. The cover is really the first marketing tool for your book. While cover design can be very personal, you’ll want to rely on the expertise of your publisher, who knows the market well and has lots of experience creating covers that will appeal to your precise audience.
Your publisher likely won’t use the title you proposed. The title is just as important as cover design for marketing. Again, you’ll want to rely on your publisher’s expertise on what kinds of titles will appeal to the audience of your book.
Now, it isn’t in your publisher’s best interest to go to market with a cover the author hates. So be sure to advocate for yourself if you don’t feel the cover or title accurately reflect the content of your book. If you do want to push back about the cover or title, focus on content in your feedback, not about your personal response, and especially not about the personal responses of your spouse, friends, etc.
Your publisher likely won’t release the book on your preferred publication date. Finding the right publication date is key to the success of your book.Some topics do better at certain times of year (self-improvement books tend to do better at the start of the new year, for example, while gift books tend to do better in the fall leading up to the holidays). Some books need to be timed to important events (such as elections, important conferences, or anniversaries). Your own schedule should be taken into account as well—especially if you have travel or family obligations during certain periods which would make promoting the book difficult.
Your publisher likely won’t fully fund your book tour or launch party. Publishers prioritize costs that will lead to the most sales, and a launch party doesn’t always function as a good sales venue for the book. Support for events and travel varies widely from publisher to publisher, so it’s good to ask!
Your publisher likely won’t pay for expensive permissions. To quote over 250 words of prose or a single line of poetry from another source, you’ll need permission. Sometimes those permissions are prohibitively expensive. You may have to cut that poetic epigraph you love.
I say “likely” for each of the above, because much of this is subject to negotiation. Be sure to advocate for the elements that are most important to you during your contract negotiations. And remember that publishers need authors just as much as authors need publishers!