Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Plover and the Crocodile

What’s the most important thing a publisher can do for an author?

From Jim

Milliners make hats. They don’t fly airplanes or sell insurance. Writers write books or stories. They’re not responsible for editing their work. They don’t design the covers for their books, and they don’t distribute them to bookstores. And they sure as hell don’t act as a marketing department for their work.

Oh, wait... Yes, they do. Never mind. Let’s start over.

What is the most important thing publishers do? There are many steps, tasks, and responsibilities involved in the production of a book. Consider the process of making a meal. You must assemble the necessary ingredients, prepare them, and cook them. Which step is most important? The cooking? Sure, but what if there’s nothing to cook? Conversely, how will your chicken Kiev turn out if you serve it raw? No, no task is the most important. They’re all essential to a successful product. 

Publishers don’t write the books they produce. That’s the author’s job. The compact between author and publisher—much like the one between the plover bird and the crocodile—requires a division of labor and responsibilities that results in a mutually beneficial outcome. The plover agrees to pick the croc’s teeth clean, thereby promoting better dental hygiene and—one can only assume—the croc’s positive self-image. The croc, in turn, agrees not to eat the plover, a concession that much improves the bird’s quality of life. It’s a symbiotic collaboration not unlike the partnership between authors and publishers.

So what are the essential tasks that publishers must perform in order to fulfill their end of the bargain? Everything the author is ill-equipped or unprepared to do, including editing, design, distribution, and promotion.

Never try to publish a book or story without a good editor. You’ll almost certainly regret it. And so will your readers. Think of an editor as a hairdresser. You grow the hair, she cuts and styles it. Even if you have a good eye and are adept at performing exacting, dexterous tasks while looking at things reversed in a mirror, you still can’t see the back of your head. That’s where your readers will find the errors slipped through the cracks: the equivalent of the back of your head. You know your own work too well. The human mind is built to anticipate what comes next. That’s why missing words such as “a,” “the”, “his,” etc. sometimes slip past us. Misspellings, too, not to mention plot holes, anachronisms, and logic errors in your stories. It’s the publisher’s job to provide that second set of eyes. A third set, too, if possible. If your publisher isn’t performing this task for you, it may be time to find a new publisher.

This includes layout, fonts, paper stock, and cover art. Most authors aren’t graphic artists and can’t produce a decent-looking cover any more than a cat can lay an egg. Publishers hire artists to create compelling covers that should inspire readers to buy. High-quality printing and professional artwork make all the difference where covers are concerned. If your publisher’s nephew is handling the book’s design, it may be time to find a new publisher.

There’s an entire industry that handles the logistics of getting books into readers’ hands at bookstores, online portals, and libraries. Physical and virtual locations across the country and around the world. I wouldn’t know where to begin. A full tank of gas, I suppose. And lots of room in the trunk of my car. You’d need Santa’s sleigh and his magical supply chain to do it on your own. This is the publisher’s job, and if they’re not doing it, it may be time to find a new publisher.

You can’t sell your book if no one knows it’s for sale. Publishers typically make sure reviewers get advance reader copies. They also place adds in magazines, newspapers, and with online booksellers and bloggers.  They broker deals with bookstores, organize giveaways, contests, and carpet bomb social media. They sometimes even foot the bill for signing tours, all in attempts to create a buzz around their books. These are all activities the author can help with, of course, but publishers have the staff and contacts necessary to reach a broader audience. If your publisher isn’t willing or able to publicize your book, it may be time to find a new publisher.

Finally, I believe publishers should work as true partners with their authors. They should understand that both parties will benefit, financially and critically, from the nurturing of the author’s career. It fosters better writing from the author and, as a result, better sales of past and future books. 

If your publisher doesn’t do these things for you, the author, you’re better off publishing for yourself. After all, you’ve already written the book. That’s your biggest job in the process, and the most important one. Publishers do the rest. For that, they take the lion’s share of the revenues generated by your sales. They should earn that share. And if they don’t, it may be time to find a new publisher. 

1 comment:

RJ Harlick said...

Couldn't agree more with your list, Jim. Good post. Enjoy Vancouver and LCC.