What does a publisher do? Commission books

What does a publisher do? is a series of posts designed to answer that question, interpreted not in the sense of “What functions does a publisher seek to fulfil?” but rather “What operations does a publisher (well, this publisher at any rate) perform?” This is the twenty-first post in the series.

The second post (‘What does a publisher do? Manage stakeholders’) in this series set out a framework for subsequent posts – a framework based on the types of stakeholders a publisher needs to work with. Today’s post focuses on a publisher’s relationship with the suppliers in the form of originators of books (i.e., authors and volume editors). So:

Owners, investors Workforce State
Clients, customers

Previous have posts have dealt with these relationships directly (19 July and 6 Dec). Today’s post deals rather with the books that they originate.

As a publisher of books in the professional and academic sectors, I look for five factors in the books that I commission. We can summarise the factors in the following equation:

M1 + M2 + M3 + M4 + B = maximum likelihood of success.

Here is the key to the formula:

  • M1:  a clear statement of the prospective market. Who is going to buy this book?
  • M2: international market potential. Except in a very few territories (say USA and China) the home market is not usually bigger enough to make for profitable publishing on its own. Because of discounts, export sales and translation/co-publishing deals may not add very much to the top line  but their influence on the bottom line is usually greater.
  • M3: backlist market potential. Merely topical books are no use: I want books that will continue to sell in Year 2, Year 3, and so on. One of the attractions of monograph publishing is that one continues to make sales several years after publication – a trend that the development of patron-driven acquisition in the library market might heighten.
  • M4: channels to market. There may be a clearly defined and sizeable market; it may be international; it may persist over time: but how do I reach that market? Some markets are diffuse (the main reason for my aversion to trade publishing, especially fiction). Others are contiguous and/or well networked. This makes them easier to reach – for example, through deals with associations or societies.
  • B: benefits to the reader. How will the book help its readers? What benefits will it provide for them? This really is the $64,000 question: if a book proposal doesn’t explain this, I won’t commission the book.

None of the above guarantees success. For one thing, we’re making guesses about the future, which is always uncertain. But the above five factors do maximise the likelihood of success.


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