Niche of publishing
Publishing became possible with the invention of writing, and became more practical upon the introduction of printing. Prior to printing, distributed works were copied manually, by scribes. Due to printing, publishing progressed hand-in-hand with the development of books.
The Chinese inventor Bi Sheng made movable type of earthenware circa 1045, but there are no known surviving examples of his printing. Around 1450, in what is commonly regarded as an independent invention, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in Europe, along with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mould. This invention gradually made books less expensive to produce, and more widely available.
Early printed books, single sheets and images which were created before 1501 in Europe are known as incunables or incunabula. “A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330.”
Eventually, printing enabled other forms of publishing besides books. The history of modern newspaper publishing started in Germany in 1609, with publishing of magazines following in 1663.
Historically, publishing has been handled by publishers, with the history of self-publishing progressing slowly until the advent of computers brought us electronic publishing, which has been made evermore ubiquitous from the moment the world went online with the Internet. The establishment of the World Wide Web in 1989 soon propelled the website into a dominant medium of publishing, as websites are easily created by almost anyone with Internet access. The history of wikis started shortly thereafter, followed closely by the history of blogging. Commercial publishing also progressed, as previously printed forms developed into online forms of publishing, distributing online books, online newspapers, and online magazines.
Since its start, the World Wide Web has been facilitating the technological convergence of commercial and self-published content, as well as the convergence of publishing and producing into online production through the development of multimedia content.
The process of publishing
Book and magazine publishers spend a lot of their time buying or commissioning copy; newspaper publishers, by contrast, usually hire their staff to produce copy, although they may also employ freelance journalists, called stringers. At a small press, it is possible to survive by relying entirely on commissioned material. But as activity increases, the need for works may outstrip the publisher’s established circle of writers.
For works written independently of the publisher, writers often first submit a query letter or proposal directly to a literary agent or to a publisher. Submissions sent directly to a publisher are referred to as unsolicited submissions, and the majority come from previously unpublished authors. If the publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts, then the manuscript is placed in the slush pile, which publisher’s readers sift through to identify manuscripts of sufficient quality or revenue potential to be referred to acquisitions editors for review. The acquisitions editors send their choices to the editorial staff. The time and number of people involved in the process are dependent on the size of the publishing company, with larger companies having more degrees of assessment between unsolicited submission and publication. Unsolicited submissions have a very low rate of acceptance, with some sources estimating that publishers ultimately choose about three out of every ten thousand unsolicited manuscripts they receive.
Many book publishers around the world maintain a strict “no unsolicited submissions” policy and will only accept submissions via a literary agent. This policy shifts the burden of assessing and developing writers out of the publisher and onto the literary agents. At these publishers, unsolicited manuscripts are thrown out, or sometimes returned, if the author has provided pre-paid postage.
Established authors may be represented by a literary agent to market their work to publishers and negotiate contracts. Literary agents take a percentage of author earnings (varying between 10 and 15 percent) to pay for their services.
Some writers follow a non-standard route to publication. For example, this may include bloggers who have attracted large readerships producing a book based on their websites, books based on Internet memes, instant “celebrities” such as Joe the Plumber, retiring sports figures and in general anyone a publisher feels could produce a marketable book. Such books often employ the services of a ghostwriter.
For a submission to reach publication, it must be championed by an editor or publisher who must work to convince other staff of the need to publish a particular title. An editor who discovers or champions a book that subsequently becomes a best-seller may find their reputation enhanced as a result of their success.
Acceptance and negotiation
Once a work is accepted, commissioning editors negotiate the purchase of intellectual property rights and agree on royalty rates.
The authors of traditional printed materials typically sell exclusive territorial intellectual property rights that match the list of countries in which distribution is proposed (i.e. the rights match the legal systems under which copyright protections can be enforced). In the case of books, the publisher and writer must also agree on the intended formats of publication —mass-market paperback, “trade” paperback and hardback are the most common options.
The situation is slightly more complex if electronic formatting is to be used. Where distribution is to be by CD-ROM or other physical media, there is no reason to treat this form differently from a paper format, and national copyright is an acceptable approach. But the possibility of Internet download without the ability to restrict physical distribution within national boundaries presents legal problems that are usually solved by selling language or translation rights rather than national rights. Thus, Internet access across the European Union is relatively open because of the laws forbidding discrimination based on nationality, but the fact of publication in, say, France, limits the target market to those who read French.
Having agreed on the scope of the publication and the formats, the parties in a book agreement must then agree on royalty rates, the percentage of the gross retail price that will be paid to the author, and the advance payment. The publisher must estimate the potential sales in each market and balance projected revenue against production costs. Royalties usually range between 10–12% of recommended retail price. An advance is usually 1/3 of the first print run total royalties. For example, if a book has a print run of 5000 copies and will be sold at $14.95 and the author is to receive 10% royalties, the total sum payable to the author if all copies are sold is $7475 (10% x $14.95 x 5000). The advance in this instance would roughly be $2490. Advances vary greatly between books, with established authors commanding larger advances.