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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

Seven inscrutable facts about the publishing industry that make no sense at all

If C S Lewis had written Alice's Adventures in Wonderland today, rather than 150 years ago, you could be forgiven for assuming he had been inspired by the publishing industry. One pill to make your schedule grow and another to make it shrink. But which one is which?

For those new to publishing it can feel as though you have crash landed in the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Nothing makes sense.

So come with me, Alice, as I lead you through the quagmire that it is the Wonderland of publishing and explain the unexplainable.

7. An editor isn’t always an editor

So your job title is Editor. That doesn’t mean you actually edit anything. Obviously.

No. What you actually do is project manage other people who edit things. You will still be explaining this to people you meet at weddings, funerals, and in fact your own family, when you’re eighty.

6. We don’t agree about how to spell. Or punctuate

You say copy-editor, I say copyeditor. You use the Oxford comma. I don’t.

Contrary to popular belief, we’re not actually the people who can tell you the right way to spell and punctuate. We’re just the people who bother to spend our time telling you our way to spell and punctuate.

Other methods are also valid.

5. When a page rate isn’t a page rate

When you’re being paid a page rate for development editing or copyediting. Because you’re not being paid for the actual number of pages you’ve edited in the manuscript. Of course not. That would make way too much sense.

You’re being paid for the projected number of pages in the proofs. (Duh.)

Edited 200 pages? You’re going to get paid for 160, because that’s the projected final page count.

4. Nobody is getting rich quick

Unless they’ve been paid one of those rarer-than-unicorns, massive advances. Even then, they won’t get rich that quickly.

The advance is often paid in four instalments. One on contract signing; one on manuscript submission; one on hardback publication; and finally one on paperback publication. That juicy advance now looks a little less exciting.

Add to that the fact that authors only get royalty payments every six months and the picture starts to look a little grim. They won’t get any royalties at all until the advance has earned out (i.e. royalty payments on the sales have equalled the sum of the advance).

Some authors might wait years for a royalty payment on a book. And that early advance has to last them all that time.

3. Errors are like ex-husbands

They stick around longer than you would like.

There’s an error in a book and we need to fix it, stat! Except the publisher can’t. At least, not straight away.

With so much going digital, it would make sense if we could make corrections at the click of a button. And for eBooks, that may be true.

But not for print books. The publisher has to wait for the printed stock to sell out so that they can reprint. When they reprint more books, they can send revised files to the printer. It’s only at that stage that they can correct any errors.

Unless they’re prepared to pulp all their stock (and consequently lose all the money spent on the printing), but that only happens in exceptional cases.

2. All books publish on Thursdays

I’ve worked in publishing for (whisper it) nearly 15 years. I’ve asked Production teams numerous times why books have to publish on Thursdays – why not Friday? Or Monday.

The answer is so impenetrable I can never remember it.

Whenever this topic comes up on social media, I watch with interest to find out the reason behind the practice. Some say it’s dictated by the supermarkets – their purchasing patterns, their bestseller lists. Others (ahem, me) just scratch their heads.

And anyway, only some publishers do this now. The whys and wherefores are all still cloaked in mystery.

1. When a sale is not a sale

The publishing industry works on a sale-or-return policy. This means that when a publisher sells a book to a bookseller, such as Waterstones, the bookseller has the option to return the book for a full refund if it doesn’t sell.

This makes it very difficult for publishers to report sales. In the first month, they might sell 2,000 copies of a book into bookshops. But they’ll have to wait six months to see whether those sales stick, or get returned.

This goes a little way to explaining point 4. Better to pay authors once sales are settled, than straight off when there could be large returns later.

And what didn't make the list

Those crazy long schedules. Permissions. (Why do they take so long? Why do we even need to request permission for tiny quotes??) And not to mention all the jargon.

There's just no explaining some of it. But at least we can say this industry has character. And I wouldn't have it any other way.


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