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Inside a Publishing House

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Publishing Business

Movies and TV shows make it seem easy to get a publishing deal: a fairy godmother editor will magically come across your manuscript, you’ll get offered a whole bunch of money, you’ll land on Forbes’ highest-paid authors list with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, and all will be rosy and wonderful.

While I definitely like the idea of being a fairy godmother (and the idea of being on a Forbes list), the rest is…not so simple. The publishing industry has been around for a long time (like, hundreds and hundreds of years), but there are still some tricks of the trade that remain a secret to aspiring authors. Let’s take a look at 10 things you may not already know about the publishing business.


1. Most of the time, publishing moves slowly.

One of the greatest benefits of self-publishing is that you can get your book out into the world with the click of a button. With a traditional house, it’s more like 5,439,238,001 clicks. Of course, those clicks mean you’re getting attention from editorial, marketing, and sales, but they also mean a book takes an average of 12-18 months from acquisition to being on shelf. Some projects can move more quickly—as little as 8 weeks—whereas others can take two or three years.


2. Not everyone gets a huge advance.

Most folks say that the average advance for a debut author runs between $5,000 and $15,000. There are a million exceptions to this rule that are based on the quality of the manuscript, marketplace trends, the platform of the author, etc. Some people get $50,000 for their first book, and there have been a select few who have received seven figures. However, don’t plan on quitting your day job—you’re more likely to start small with book number one.


3. Publishers stalk authors online.

Okay, research might be a better word than stalk. But if we are considering an author’s manuscript, editors and marketers will take to the Internet. We’ll check social media accounts, websites, blogs, articles…you name it. We’re not job recruiters looking to see if you were at the bar on Saturday—we’re checking to see what kind of platform you have, how you are reaching readers, and if you have a built in market for your book. So be sure your online presence is in tip-top shape!


4. Authors need to be marketers.

Back in 2010, a Google algorithm estimated there had been 130 million books published in modern history, which you can only imagine has grown in the past 7 years. Authors need to make sure their voices are heard and that readers are listening! Gone are the days of recluse writers—today’s book marketing world relies heavily on authors to help sell their stories. While the marketing strategy for a book varies from project to project, almost every publisher will expect the author to be involved with the promotion of the book. This could mean speaking engagements, building a social media platform, using a blog or newsletter, attending book industry conventions…and the list goes on.


5. Past book sales matter—big time.

This may seem like a no-brainer: If you have strong sales of your previous books—self-published or traditionally published—you’re more likely to get a deal. But if your previous books haven’t done so well, you could be facing an uphill battle. Publishing professionals may be willing to take a chance on an author who hasn’t hit it big, but they aren’t the only ones who need convincing. Booksellers and librarians also have access to sales data for authors, and it can be a tough sell getting a buyer to pick up a book when that author hasn’t performed in the past. In some cases, it can be better to be a brand-new author than one with a so-so sales record.


6. Rough drafts aren’t okay.

If you have a longstanding relationship with an editor who is willing to accept a rough draft from you, that’s great. But in 99.99 percent of cases, you need to be turning in the most polished draft you possibly can. Editors put dozens and dozens of hours into editing a book, and it can be a big turn-off if we get a submission that needs more work simply because the author didn’t do their due diligence. Even a book that has a great concept can end up in the reject pile if the manuscript is riddled with typos, run-on sentences, or factual errors. Take the time to have your work read by a critique partner or freelancer before handing it in.


7. The author doesn’t always come up with the idea alone.

Many publishing houses have brainstorming sessions where they seek to come up with book ideas, whether those will be for intellectual property projects or to pitch to authors. When it comes to nonfiction especially, publishers often go a-courting with celebrities and experts to see if those people would want to write a book. I pitch book ideas almost as often as they are pitched to me!


8. Editors don’t get to decide everything.

While we all aspire to be fairy godmothers, editors aren’t always the ones driving the magic pumpkin to the ball. An editor may love your manuscript but be unable to acquire it because the project got shot down by the sales team, the marketing team, or the publisher. Similarly, things like on-sale dates, book covers, format, price, and more also need group approval, not a unilateral decision.


9. Most publishers only accept agented submissions.

Okay, maybe you know that one, but it’s true! Finding a literary agent is a huge step in your goal of getting published, not only because you’ll have a cheerleader and career manager, but because those agents open doors to publishing houses. Most of the large houses and a great many of the smaller houses only accept submissions from literary agents. (Learn more about getting an agent here!)


10. Editors don’t like writing rejection letters.

Contrary to popular belief, editors aren’t evil monsters with red pens looking to destroy your publishing dreams. (We’re fairy godmothers, remember?) We don’t like writing rejection letters because we love books and we love authors. It’s a bummer for us when a book isn’t a fit. So if/when you do get a rejection letter—even if it is a form email—keep in mind that the editor doesn’t mean for it to be personal. We’re all just looking for the types of books that speak to us. (Check out this post about how editing is subjective…and how that’s okay.)


Want to know more about the secrets of publishing? Check out the links in the sidebar, or ask your questions in the comments below!

Jillian Bergsma Manning is a contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She loves reading and writing but not arithmetic. Follow her on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at