The Publishing Question
The longer I’m in this business the more I become convinced nearly every decision in the long process of publishing a book can be reduced to one single question: “who is this for?”
It’s a simple question but one that’s far reaching in its consequences and nuanced in its interpretation. I think it can be clarifying to interrogate the roots that underlie the decisions we make throughout the process, even if the connection can be attenuated at times.
Back when I interviewed for an editorial job at a big five (big six at the time) house, the publisher of the imprint kept asking me this question that I couldn’t understand at the time. We circled around and around this single question and I could tell not only was I not getting what he was asking me, but I also didn’t know how to think in a way that could lead me to the answer. The very simple question he was asking me was: “what’s a book that was published well?”
The question I kept answering was “what’s a book I like?” or sometimes “what’s a book that had a good cover?” or sometimes “what’s a book that people like to talk about?” I didn’t know what publishing meant in this case. What is the act of publishing? What does publishing mean as a verb? I could see the parts of the system, the steps of the process, but I couldn’t see the concepts that bound it all together. The central question at the heart of turning a manuscript into an product.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand a decade after that conversation: Publishing is about intention. To publish well is to deliver a book to readers with a plan, with coordination, collaboration, and focus. It’s having a strategy and it’s viewing all aspects of a book holistically. I think the holistic component is really important: it’s not just coming up with a marketing plan or putting a good cover on it, you have to consider how these things interact.
So often, I’ll see a playbook developed for a bestseller haphazardly applied to a debut and the disconnect throws off the whole process. The story itself can be well-written and on-trend, but without a coherent strategy, I see wonderful books get lost in the churn of the release cycle week in and week out.
All of this strategy talk boils down to a simple question: Who is this for? At every stage in the process of thinking about a book, I ask myself this question. When editing, choosing a title, soliciting editors, reviewing covers, looking at marketing plans, all of it. Who are we trying to reach? Will this help us reach them? Does any aspect of the plan undermine any other part? Does the publisher agree with our vision? I constantly go back to the big picture and look at the packaging, the publicity, the brand, all of it and try and think about it in terms of that one central question.
Many of the steps in the process of publishing a book feel like tiny inconsequential decisions that en masse add up to something significant. It’s easy to lose sight of what matters though and returning to this central question acts as a touchstone for me as I navigate the dark maze between signing a client and book release day.
Think on what matters to you and how you want to reach your reader. Think about how to build a coherent vision for your book. And whatever you end up doing, do it on purpose.