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Book Publishers

Learn how book publishers publish books in different formats.

In the modern market, book publishers do more than make bound editions. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
In the modern market, book publishers do more than make bound editions.

When most people think of book publishers, the books that line the shelves of a library or bookstore often come to mind. Today, in addition to some 10,000 fiction titles that are published each year in the United States, book publishing includes the production and sale of e-books and audio books in addition to traditionally printed books.

Book Publishers Large and Small

There are about 50,000 book publishers in the United States, most of which publish fewer than 10 titles each year. The largest publishers are owned by multi-national corporations and include a number of imprints within each conglomerate. In between the major publishers and the small independents, there are the mid-sized publishers that produce 25 to 100 titles annually.

Books intended for the general public are referred to as "trade" books. These include fiction and non-fiction titles, as well as books intended for adults and the juvenile sector. Publishing also includes textbooks for elementary, high school and college students, as well as professional books aimed at specific industries and disciplines. University presses publish scholarly books. Other publishers specialize in religious books targeted to specific groups.

Book Publisher Specialties

Many book publishers specialize in specific topics. By specializing in a particular subject area, a publisher cultivates a keen sense of that specific market, develops a reputation in the field and maintains relationships with relevant contacts.

A visit to any bookstore illustrates how books are categorized by specialty. The Book Industry Systems Advisory Committee (BISAC) has developed a list of 47 categories, most of which are evident in the way a bookstore inventory is arranged.

Subsidy Presses and Self-Publishing

A subsidy press is a publishing company to which an author pays a fee for services, including editorial guidance. Also known as "vanity publishing," a subsidy press maintains the copyright to any book that it publishes. This type of publisher does nothing to promote or market the book, and because the process is not selective, it is rare that any of the books are reviewed. Most bookstores do not carry subsidy press titles.

An author may choose to self-publish, in which he or she undertakes all aspects of the process, including editing, printing, designing, marketing and distribution. The self-publisher essentially pays only for printing and binding services. With many self-publishing companies today offering editorial services, the distinction between vanity publishing and self-publishing has become less clear.

E-books and Audiobooks

An e-book is distributed in an electronic format, then read online or downloaded to a handheld computerized device. Because of the ease with which an e-book can be published, more and more titles are available in this format today, including textbooks and reference materials, popular fiction, how-to books and most other genres.

Audiobooks are recordings of an entire manuscript (unabridged) or an abbreviated form of a manuscript (abridged). Often, authors or celebrity readers record audiobooks. For the most part, audiobooks are offered as cassette tapes, CDs or MP3s, which may be downloaded much like a music file. While some publishers have internal departments that handle the production of audiobooks, there are a number of companies that publish only audiobooks. According to the Audio Publishers Association, 28 percent of Americans listened to audio books between October 2007 and September 2008.

How Conventional Publishing Works

It is estimated that larger U.S. publishers receive 4,000 to 5,000 manuscripts each year. The situation is similar in the United Kingdom and in Canada. As publishing is both a highly competitive and often relatively low-profit enterprise, publishers cannot afford sufficient staff to read every manuscript. Most book publishers will not read unsolicited material, and will either return it, if postage is provided, or send it to the shredder.

Book publishers will generally only review solicited material if it is professionally presented. Most of what remains will be rejected before the first page is completely read and still more will be rejected by the end of the first chapter. It is not uncommon for a publisher to whittle 5,000 manuscripts down to 30 to 50 that will get serious consideration. Of those, five to 10 might be published.

Agents and Publishers

Given the climate of publishing today, publishers rely on agents to correspond with authors. By dealing exclusively with agents, especially experienced agents, publishers can minimize and nearly eliminate time spent on manuscripts that are not worthy of publication. Subsequently, an agent must protect his reputation and present only worthwhile, appropriate material to book publishers.

Literary agents earn their income from the sale of manuscripts. Accordingly, an agent cannot afford to gamble time and reputation on a new author unless the finished manuscript shows exceptional promise. While some authors feel that an agent is an unnecessary expense, the truth is that a good agent is a "foot in the door" to a reputable publisher, which may result in a sale that, without the agent, may not have happened.

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