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Weekly Writers: Traditional Publishing
Types Of Publishing
There are two main ways for a book to reach bookshops and online stores, and many options within those paths. The central decision is whether to licence rights to an intermediary or not. The key thing is that the system chosen is a good fit for the author and their work. We’ll begin with traditional publishing.
When you write a book, you own all the rights to it. Unless you give someone else permission, then they aren’t allowed to take your work and sell it. That’s because copyright law states that the copyright owner (you) has exclusive rights to publish, profit from, or perform the work, though you can license those rights to others if you so wish. Copyright is one type of intellectual property (IP). Note that the actual laws vary by country, and over time. For example, in the UK and US, copyright in a work lasts for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years.
Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. So I can have copyright on my novel Turner (an expression of my ideas). But I can’t copyright the idea of people trying to survive a murderous outbreak on a Welsh island.
Something to note is that a traditional publisher (often called a trade publisher) did not write the books they publish. Instead they are a service provider who acts as an intermediary between the author and the tasks I described here. You sign a contract with the publisher, giving them permission to publish and distribute your book; in exchange, they agree to give you a certain percentage of the money they make back as royalties (after they take their own cut). In some cases they may also give an advance, which is a lump sum of cash based on how popular they think the book will be. Note that an advance isn’t extra money, it is just an advance payment of royalties. So if the publisher gives you two thousand pounds as an advance, you won’t receive any more royalties until the book has earned over two thousand pounds. Up until then, they also keep your share of the royalties. Once that amount of the advance is reached, they will start to pay you royalties on every copy sold after that.
This is what people usually mean when they talk about “getting published”. It is uttered in reverent tones as if it’s a mystical rite of passage, but in reality it is just the author licensing exclusive publishing rights to a service provider (publisher) and hoping that the publisher will continue to promote the work for the duration of the contract.
The contract will determine how much the royalties will be, how often they will pay, what the advance (if any) is, what other rights the publisher has (such as negotiating TV, film, game or translation rights), and the conditions upon which the contract ends and all rights revert back to the author (you!) There may also be unwelcome elements, such as non-compete clauses or non-disclosure agreements (gagging clauses).
The publisher will undertake many of the tasks to get the book to market, such as editing, cover design and distribution. They pay upfront for that, and in return they keep a share of the profit on every copy of the book sold. So you can see that a publisher is most interested in books that they think will sell a lot of copies, which in turn often translates into mass-market appeal. In some cases they may publish a book that they don’t think will sell so well, but which may be the kind to win literary awards and boost their reputation.
The point is, they are not giving you anything for free. They get paid for the work they do in publishing the book, but their payment comes from their cut of every copy sold. If they spend two thousand pounds publishing the book, and it is a hit that sells enough copies to make two hundred thousand pounds in profit, then you can see how the economics of it works from their point of view.
There used to be a lot of big publishers. Due to corporate consolidation that number has dropped over the years, so that now we talk about the Big Five.
Next week I’ll discuss who the Big Five are.