The book publishing business began in earnest in 1440 with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. You’ve probably heard of the Gutenberg Bible, which was the first book ever produced in large quantities. The few copies that remain today are exceptionally valuable, fetching well over $2 million in the rare instances where they’re auctioned off. It took hundreds of years for the book publishing business to come to represent what it is today, but the desire for books has only grown in the intervening centuries.
An author with a manuscript is the very first step in the process. Their greatest challenge is getting their book in front of someone at a publishing house so their dream of being published can be realized. This can be done through blind submissions sent to the publisher, through obtaining an agent, or, if they’re lucky, through a recommendation by someone associated with the publisher. Once the huge hurdle of getting a publisher to agree to publish the author’s book has been overcome it’s time to head to the editing department.
First time authors often make the mistake of believing they don’t need an editor, but in truth it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Having someone that’s been trained to make books better go over your writing, give you suggestions, and improve the quality of an author’s book can take it from good to great or great to legendary. Plus, no self-respecting publisher is going to print your book without an editor having gone through it with a fine tooth comb, so every author must have their book edited.
Once the author and editor agree that the book is ready for publishing it heads to the design department where elements such as the font and font size are decided on. A cover will have to be designed as well and the author is in on all of those meetings. Marketing comes next and can come in many forms. The author is often sent on a tour around the country to sign at bookstores, to read, and to do question and answer sessions. The publishing house will try to get reviews for the book in publications both large and small, and these days there’s a significant social media element to marketing a new book.
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In a traditional publishing setup the author receives a 15% royalty on all sales. Many assume that the publisher takes a hefty sum, but in truth they don’t. The retailer usually takes home close to half the sales price and the publisher is sitting at somewhere close to 30%, which needs to cover all their costs as well as help them turn a profit. One of the oft-misunderstood truths of the book publishing business is that most books lose money for the publishers. A fairly high sales volume needs to be achieved to actually make a great deal of money. Don’t cry for the publishers, of course, as they make boatloads of cash on something like the Harry Potter novels or on every James Patterson novel.
There are now five major book publishers that account for a huge percentage of all English language book sales in the world.
Penguin Random House is the result of a merger of two book publishers (Penguin and Random House) in 2013. They publish more than 15,000 titles and employ more than 10,000 people and are based out of New York City. Notable authors published by Penguin Random House include John Grisham, Lee Child, Arianna Huffington, Danielle Steel, and Dr. Seuss.
HarperCollins was built out of several companies, including Harper & Brothers, which was founded in 1817, and is currently a subsidiary of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s massive media empire. Notable authors published by HarperCollins include Patrick O’Brian, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, Clive Barker, and Michael Crichton.
Macmillan Publishers was founded in 1843 and continues to operate today under the ownership of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. It was founded in the UK and continues to operate in London publishing books, academic journals, and magazines for a worldwide audience in more than 70 countries. Notable authors include R.L. Stine, John Kelly, Ben Ratliff, and Susan J. Douglas.
Hachette Book Group is the smallest of the big five publishers with less than 1,500 books published each year. The company operates out of New York City and is a combination of several smaller publishers, starting with Little, Brown and Company, which was formed in 1837. The Time Warner Book Group is the latest addition to the collection. Notable authors published by the Hachette Book Group including Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell, Joel Osteen, and David Baldacci.
Simon & Schuster was founded in New York in 1924 and is now a subsidiary of the CBS Corporation. They publish more than 2,000 titles yearly and their popular authors include Stephen King, John Irving, Mary Higgins Clark, and Philippa Gregory.
We can’t talk about book publishing without discussing the huge changes brought about by the incredible popularity of Amazon. First it was their drive to lower prices, which enraged publishers around the world. More importantly, their self-publishing system has made it incredibly simple for authors to put their work out into the world and make genuinely good money off of it. If you keep your price between $2.99 and $9.99 Amazon gives the author a 70% royalty, which means you can sell far less copies that would traditionally be necessary and still make a great deal of money.See closer...
Many authors have begun their career self-publishing (E.L. James of Fifty Shades of Grey fame is in that class) and moved on to a major publishing house once they’ve generated sales and popularity. Kindles and e-readers of other varieties are growing in popularity, which means it’s a great time to be an author. As long as you have some talent and the will to work you’ll find an audience and can carve out a career as a successful, published writer with greater ease than ever before.