Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Inside a publishing house: Blechta’s view

Okay, as promised last week, we’re going to look at those behind-the-scenes people who make the publishing industry work — or do they?

As the electronic age marches forward, new technology, mostly in the computer department has completely changed the way publishers do (or possibly do) business. Following are a few illustrations.

My dad ran a photo engraving company. Printing plates used to be made of metal. They were expensive, then they became plastic and now they’re made of paper and they output a whole signature directly to the plate. No negatives. Once upon a time, type had to be set by hand, then it was done on a linotype, now you just fire up the old computer and do it there. Specialized knowledge is often not needed as much anymore. Jobs that existed for many years have completed disappeared.

Meanwhile back in head office, it’s business as usual. Except...do they really need all those employees, people who have to be kept busy, even when there isn’t much for them to do?

Want to save money? Take them all off salary and then offer those who are worth keeping contracts so that you use them only when and where you need them. Editors? Hire the best for the sort of book they’ll be editing. Not everyone can edit crime fiction well. You have to know the genre well. You can’t drop in a ‘literary’ editor and expect them to know that a particular plot device has been used in 5 major books recently. How about book design? Hire the best cover people for each type of book. Again you have to know the crime genre to know what works with customers and which cover concepts are hackneyed. (Pssst. Stay away from drips of blood.)

I think you’re beginning to get the idea. Almost everything can be farmed out, and the publishing industry might run even better. Why? Because people can get more done. You’d be hired because someone believes you can do the job well, and if you don’t, you won’t get another call. Anyone who’s smart will try harder in those circumstances. Plus, no more commuting to work. Because of computers you can do most book-related work at home. No more overhead from having huge offices.

I only have experience with small and mid-range publishers, but here’s something radical. It’s my belief that a smallish publishing house (say 25-30 books per year) could run with only 3 full-time employees: The boss (who would also be the editor-in-chief), an executive assistant to the boss (who would have to know the publishing industry inside out and also act as the production manager), and a secretary (who would keep track of all correspondence/contact, lists of suppliers and overseeing some of those suppliers when the production manager is swamped).

A list of things that can successfully be farmed out to experts in their fields: hard editing, copy editing, fact-checking (if any publisher does this anymore), book design, cover design, sales copy, ad design, publicity, bookkeeping (including tracking of royalties), warehousing and fulfillment.

Some of this is already being done, but the umbilical cord has yet to be severed completely. But I bet things would get done better and faster because the hired guns would want to get more work in the future.

All it needs is for someone to take the plunge. If you have or you work for a publisher who has, I’d love to hear from you. What are the downsides of this publishing model that I haven’t thought of? I’m sure there are a few past the obvious one of contract employees don’t necessarily get any benefits.


Dana King said...

Not criticizing, just wondering: who screens the manuscripts and decides what gets published? Who handles the accounting?

Anonymous said...

hi rick
i am an editor at a publishing company. a giant publishing company. although i do have to say that my days are numbered.

you see, my job has been 'farmed out'. i edit legal books. American legal books. and nearly all of the day-to-day work that we do has been outsourced to India or the Philipines, including editing. the people that are left are simply project managers who will not have nearly enough time to devote the necessary attention to their publications.
besides the huge cultural differences we have run into, there is also a serious lack of understanding when it comes to american legal concepts. to say that quality will be lacking on future books would be an understatement.

so, yes the company will be saving boatloads of money. but they are not necessarily giving the work to those who can do it best.

Rick Blechta said...


Simple: hire readers (many do already) and hire an accounting firm -- a good one. The editor-in-chief would be the one to keep an eye on both these things.

Thanks for weighing in.


Rick Blechta said...


While your employer is obviously thinking in the same direction my blog entry was going today, they obviously are being stupid about it.

What surprises me is that someone actually thinks this sort of work could be done by someone who is not VERY familiar with the American legal system. As you imply, that's pretty well got to be an American expert.

Your employer is hiring cheap, NOT smart. That's the difference. My proposal is based on hiring the right people for the job. You can sometimes get good people cheaply, but not often. Where the savings lie is that you use them only when you need them.

An example: your cover design has time on his/her hands, so they're given an ad to design. Cover design and ad design are two very different things. And that's why you
often see some pretty poor book ads. My big bugbear is having editors write the sell-copy for a book. There's nothing stupider. Writing sell-copy is a very difficult thing and you need special knowledge to do it well. That's why copywriters get paid so much money. Why don't publishers use them? Are they afraid they might sell more books? ;)

What you're saying brings to mind the Monty Python sketch about the Polish to English dictionary. I can imagine the disorder in the courts when some of these books become commonplace.

Many thanks for commenting. Great to hear from someone on the inside.


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