Commercial (“Royalty”) Publishers
A commercial publisher, sometimes called a royalty publisher, is the standard way to get published. These houses pay all costs of promotion and distribution. The author pays nothing. The publisher pays the author a royalty, and hopes to recover his money from sales to bookshops.
Before or After
Securing a Publishing Contract Before Writing
Some authors recommend securing a publishing contract before starting work on a manuscript. To do this, we write to various publishers with a book proposal. The publisher who accepts it gives us a contract that requires us to deliver a completed manuscript of publishable quality of, say, 30,000 words three years from now on a particular subject.
Advantages of Before
We know the manuscript will be published, and we have the publisher’s suggestions on what to include and exclude so it will sell well. The publisher knows his market a lot better than we do, so his suggestions are likely to be helpful.
Securing a publishing contract before starting work on the manuscript works well for established authors. A proven author with a proven ability to deliver a manuscript on time, with a proven body of readers who buy his books, will usually get an advance contract.
Disadvantages of Before
The contract is a binding commitment. The publisher schedules resources for us. If he gives us a contract to complete a book by, say, June 2012, he will reserve specific amounts of time in the schedules of an editor, a copy editor, a graphic designer for the cover, etc. If we can’t meet our deadline those people are idle. A small Catholic publisher can rarely afford to take that kind of hit, so he will usually press the author to give him whatever is already done and he will try to make a book out of it. Sometimes a tardy author is pushed to send in chapters that he has not completely verified for doctrinal purity, fact-checked, or polished; the result could be major embarrassment.
Securing a Publishing Contract After Writing
Advantages of After
Since the author has made no commitments, he maintains complete control over his manuscript. He can take as long as he wants, and polish it until every word gleams.
Securing a publishing contract after completing the manuscript works well for new authors. The publisher may not know who the author is, but he can see the finished manuscript, assess its quality and marketability, and knows that it will be available when he schedules his editor, copy editor, graphic designer, etc.
Disadvantages of After
There is always the risk that we will write a book with no market. We accept the risk that we will write to every publisher and that every last one will reject the manuscript. In that case, we may have to use a vanity publisher.
Finding a Catholic Publisher
The Query Letter
Finding an Acquisitions Editor Who Might be Interested
If we think the manuscript is commercially viable, the Marian Catechist Writers Apostolate will recommend you send it to each of the Catholic publishers. You can find a list of Catholic publishers at the Catholic Book Publishers Association. Their publisher list includes many who are faithful to the Magisterium and others that are not. Also be sure to subscribe to online Writers Market. Look at each publisher’s description and see which best fit your manuscript.
Some Catholic publishers are not members of the Association. The Marian Catechist Writers Apostolate suggests that an author who wants to find them print out a copy of the CBPA member list, put it in his pocket, go to a large Catholic bookshop, and browse to look for books similar to their own manuscript, or at minimum appeals to a similar audience, and see whether its publisher is on the list. If not, the author can jot down the publisher’s name, address, phone, e-mail, whatever’s in the book, then go back home and look for his web site or some other way to get his street address.
We start with a query letter. Before sending the query letter, authors should phone the publisher and ask for the name of the Acquisitions Editor. In a mom and pop publishing house, this person will also be the president, web site designer, financial manager, and everything else, but larger publishing houses have larger staffs, and we want to make sure the letter goes to the right person. Nothing screams "clumsy amateur" as loud as mis-addressing the query letter, mis-spelling the acquisitions editor’s name, or, if it’s a woman, getting the title wrong. Ask. The publisher person who answers the phone will understand and appreciate an author’s effort to get it completely right.
Content of the Query Letter
As concisely as possible, certainly in no more than two pages, the author writes to the aquisitions editor:
- What his manuscript is about. Try to fit into some some kind of familiar Catholic category.
- Approximate number of words. Microsoft Word will count the words for you, and so will any modern word processor.
- What similar books are already on the market and why this book offers a competitive advantage. This will take some research in a good Catholic bookshop, but is absolutely necessary. The publisher has to put food on his family’s table. If the author can’t convince an acquisitions editor that there’s at least a fair probability that the book will make a profit, he can’t request a meeting that will commit the time and effort of several professionals to make a more thorough evaluation.
- What hard evidence exists that this book will sell to the Catholic market. What similar books have already sold well? Has a well known Catholic written a foreword? Is the author’s name nationally known among serious Catholics? This too is absolutely necessary.
- The author’s credentials. Why would people pay attention to what this person writes? Does the author have a seminary education? Has he written articles that were published by a major Catholic magazine? Is he a member of a religious community? Has he taught the Catholic faith in some recognized Catholic institution? Note that putting up a web site has credibility only if the web site itself is well known and has credibility. Anyone can put up a web site; the key to credibility is convincing reputable Catholics such as magazine editors that a person has credibility.
- Tell the publisher that if he asks for a copy of the manuscript, it will be an exclusive submission.
Sending the Manuscript
Exclusive and Simultaneous Submission
There are two kinds of submission: exclusive and simultaneous.
An exclusive submission goes only to that publisher. At the time he receives the query letter and for maybe 30 days afterward, he knows that no other publisher is looking at it. Sending your manuscript as an exclusive submission is more attractive to a publisher because he knows that if he wants it he can have it. Every publisher has had the experience of falling in love with a "simultaneous submission" manuscript, carefully doing a marketing and cost analysis, and excitedly telling the author that he would like to publish it, only to find that the author signed with another publisher two days earlier. It takes longer with exclusive submissions, but it increases the probability that your manuscript will eventually be published. Also, with each exclusive submission we can see the publisher’s response and decide whether to fine-tune the query letter before sending it to the next publisher.
A simultaneous submission is sent to many publishers at once. The idea is that the author is shooting for a contract within the next 30 days or so. The author hopes that his manuscript is attractive enough to cause the publisher to quickly offer a contract before another publisher does. My sense is that the opposite occurs, that most publishers will be less interested in a simultaneous submission because they can go through the whole evaluation process, get all excited about the book, and then suddenly find that the author has signed with another publisher. Since they don’t want that to happen, and they have a big pile of other manuscripts waiting to be read, they will concentrate more on the exclusive submissions. Another disadvantage of simultaneous submissions is that all the publishers see our first query letter. We don’t get an opportunity to fine-tune it as we observe how each publisher responds.
Even after you have done your homework well, most of the publishers you query will not ask you send the manuscript. Every publisher is swamped with manuscripts. If these early responses suggest that the publisher misunderstood you, correct or fine-tune your query letter before sending it out to everyone else.
Eventually, a publisher will ask for the manuscript. If a publisher does want to see the manuscript, he will probably include in his request how he wants it sent. Does he prefer a Word file or some other format? Does he prefer it on a mailed CD-ROM or an e-mail attachment? Does he also want a printed copy? If so, with what margins? With any particular typeface or type size? Sometimes the publisher has his preferences posted on his web site. If not, we call up the acquisitions editor and ask.
Also, ask the publisher whether he prefers having the book as a single Word file, or as an aggregation of files, one file for the Preface, one for the other front matter, and one for each chapter.
We follow the publisher’s instructions to the letter. Publishers want to work with authors who are precise and responsive. If the publisher wants a printed copy, we print it on good paper stock with a high brightness rating. It doesn’t have to be super-expensive fancy stuff, but it should look sharp. We also enclose a CD-ROM or floppy disk with the complete manuscript on it as the publisher requests.
Microsoft Word, of course, is the standard. For an author who aspires to professional status, the current version of Microsoft Word is a necessary tool of trade. Virtually every publisher has a copy of Microsoft Word or can convert Word files to his preferred format. Many publishers like to work directly in a page layout program such as Quark Xpress, Adobe Indesign, Pagemaker, or Framemaker, or Corel Ventura. All can easily import Microsoft Word files. Some can also import WordPerfect or other files. Authors who are not using a recent version of Microsoft Word should check with the acquisitions editor to be sure the publisher’s page layout software is consistent with what they plan to send.
An Editor Reads the Manuscript
Some new authors ask whether they should pay to have a publisher read a manuscript. If a publisher is evaluating the manuscript for publication, the manuscript represents a business opportunity for the publisher. In ordinary circumstances, authors do not pay publishers for anything except the purchase of books.
However, an author who is an expert in his field but not a particularly skillful author will often pay someone who has real writing skills to edit his manuscript so that it becomes commercially viable. That is time-consuming and intensive work for the editor, who is usually paid in the range of a thousand dollars depending on length and how much work needs to be done.
Authors may contact prospective publishers and ask whether they can recommend an editor who would be willing to read their manuscript and fix it as necessary.
There are a few large Catholic publishers such as Our Sunday Visitor, Tan Books, and Ignatius. Catholic publishers, however, are more often mom and pop operations. Most of them publish books to serve Christ and eke out a frugal living, but they can only publish only books they are fairly confident they can sell. Sometimes a publisher will fall in love with a manuscript and sense that it is his responsibility as a servant of Christ to publish it and simply market it the best he can.
Most publishers evaluate a manuscript this way: an editor finds a manuscript that he loves and believes is marketable. He convenes a meeting with the owner, the marketing person and the production person. The marketing person estimates the number of copies he can sell and the price he can get for them. Say he expects to sell 5,000 copies at $20 each. That will generate $100,000 at retail, but with the usual 40 percent trade discount to bookshops the publisher will only see $60,000. The production person estimates that copy editing, printing, binding, shipping and storage would cost $55,000. The owner observes that they will be publishing only four books that year, and $5,000 from each book is not enough annual income to cover their four salaries. That one will probably be turned down, unless the publisher is passionately in love with the manuscript.
Costs of production can be estimated quite accurately. However, marketing estimates are rarely more than educated guesses. The publishing world has endless stories of books that people expected to sell well but crashed and burned, and others where low selling expectations were completely bowled over by terrific sales. A personal example: When the "For Dummies" books first came out I predicted a rapid death for them. Who would be willing in public to buy a bright yellow book "for dummies." Who would be willing to have on his bookshelf a bright yellow book "for dummies." Today the bright yellow books generate millions of dollars in salesl.
Publishers will only do a book if they expect to earn a profit on it. However, industrywide, five of every six books lose money. The sixth book generates enough revenue to carry the other five. Publishers never know which book will be the sixth, but they pray a lot.
The Publisher Replies
Most publishers reply in writing. If the letter with the publisher’s return address is thin, we probably have plenty of time to open it. However, if it has a more stuffed appearance, we drop everything else and open it right away; there may be a contract in it. Most publishers are open to at least some negotiation.