Inside the mind of a publisher (careful now…)

12 August 2013 by in Book publishing

‘As repressed sadists are supposed to become policemen or butchers so those with an irrational fear of life become publishers.’

Cyril Connolly

What prompts a publisher to choose one manuscript and reject another? How will he go about positioning a book in the market? And should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving publishing offers from several companies, how do you decide which one is right for you?

Most publishers specialise in subject areas or focus on particular channels. If you have written a book on the Peninsular War you would be much better off starting by approaching those companies that have strong military history lists rather than general trade publishers such as Random House or HarperCollins. Although these bigger publishing houses may well publish books similar to yours, you’ll notice that their authors are usually TV historians or celebrity academics.

This is books scramble. Many books to scatter under sky.One of the first questions any publisher will ask you (if you’re lucky enough to get through to one) will be about your ‘platform’. If she is satisfied that the book is good enough to stamp with the publisher’s imprint she needs to know that you are marketable. She’ll want to know about your radio and TV experience, if you are media savvy, what sort of endorsements you can gather for the book (they have to be from people potential buyers may have heard of, not your proud mum!), what your network is like, whether you have regular speaking engagements or other public gigs, organisations you consult to and so on. She needs to know that she can sell you and that you can sell your book. Some publishers have privileged access to a particular channel – gift book outlets for instance, or garden centres. A gift book publisher sells books mainly outside the traditional book trade but will publish a wide range of subjects provided they suit the gift book market. So there’s probably not much point approaching such a publisher with your Peninsular War proposal, but if you have written a book based on cute photographs of very hairy cats it may be that the gift book market is exactly where you can reach the widest audience.

Some publishers do market a wide range of subjects to the general book trade. They tend to be operating under large imprints, but there are plenty of smaller, more approachable publishers covering a range as well. Infinite Ideas for example, publishes across a broad range of subject areas, from allergies to adventure sports, business to back pain, cellulite to cookbooks. A smaller general publisher like Infinite Ideas is more likely to be flexible to the needs of the author, although it is likely to be as rigorous in its selection of new titles as any of the big players. Smaller publishers also tend to focus on the chemistry between the author and the publisher, and won’t touch a new project if the relationship doesn’t feel right. That relationship is usually key to any successful publication and when it goes wrong the disruption can be severe. Big publishers have infrastructures that can absorb such tensions; smaller publishers don’t, so you may be surprised at the time a company like Infinite Ideas takes to feel you out.

Here are some examples of how Infinite Ideas has worked with authors with quite different needs.

A book to be proud of
Mary is a wealthy American with a quite startling family story that she wanted to tell. She had never written a book before but she secured some professional editorial help and her manuscript was beautifully presented. Mary was more interested in having a sophisticated and elegantly produced book than in reaching a mass market audience so Infinite Ideas invested heavily in design and production. They used a luxurious cream paper for the text and a high-quality coated paper to carry full colour illustrations and endpapers, and they commissioned a stunning cover design. The result was a riveting story in an outstanding package that was sold to a high-end US publisher who secured a glowing feature for the book on publication in the New York Times.

The best marketing tool 
Philip approached Infinite Ideas a couple of years ago after successfully selling his speaker training business. He had time at last to write the book of the course he had been delivering for so many years and he wanted it to be published by a high-quality imprint so that he could use the book to launch his new business – funnily enough a speaker training business. He had looked at self-publishing but had decided that the production quality was so terrible that it wouldn’t be able to support his new brand values. So, like Mary, he wanted a professionally produced book but he was asking the publisher to do a different job. He wanted distribution in the right places. He wasn’t particularly interested in selling books to Waterstone’s in Lincoln. He wanted distribution in places where his market was – Schiphol, Heathrow, Changi, London Victoria. The reps worked hard to secure the right distribution and within one month of publication Philip had won a £200,000 contract as a direct consequence of someone having bought his book (at Gatwick actually). Philip isn’t interested in royalties. He sees the book as marketing collateral and knows the real value of his book to him is in increased fees from clients.

Raising the profile
Chitterlings are a specialist offal restaurant in the Crawley area. When the owners approached Infinite Ideas they had a reputation for quality and they were hoping for a Michelin star. There were plans to open three more outlets, all with a strong offal flavour, including one in Belgium, called Faggots. As part of this launch the owners wanted a beautiful, high-quality cookbook that would position them as the Ottolenghi of entrails. Infinite Ideas had plenty of experience in this area, having published The People’s Cookbook by Anthony Worrall Thompson and Paul Rankin a couple of years previously. With all the media contacts still warm from this highly successful TV tie-in Infinite Ideas was able to give Chitterlings exactly the product and press exposure they needed.

Your relationship with your publisher is very important. Find one you like if possible. It makes a big difference if the personal chemistry between you and your commissioning editor, particularly, is good. But you also need to work out what it is you want your book to do for you. If you think you really have a mass-market paperback bestseller in you (sadly unlikely by the way) you need a publisher with enormous book trade muscle – Transworld, Random House, Penguin. If your needs are a bit more focused than that, you need a publisher who has the same focus as you do, who shares your vision for the book and who has the capability to deliver what you need.