Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Publishing by Committee

Libby normally posts on Wednesdays, but as I am going to Taiwan on Friday night for 11 days, I may be missing two of my Mondays, so you get to hear from me twice this week! Lucky you.

This conversations started during my Things I Hate post, and I thought I'd expand on it here, since it seems some questions have been raised.

We have many committees and meetings in my company to decide what and how our books get published. Editorial Meeting, Acquisitions Committee, Jacket Committee, Print & Bind Meeting (where the print run and price is set for each book, including reprints), Sales & Marketing Meeting, Portfolio Review (where the pub date and season of each book is confirmed/decided), Production Meeting, and prom committee.

Everyone laments about how big publishers are now publishing by committee, how everything is changed, how they long for the old days when editors had the power to decide what got published, and sure--part of me would love that. But part of me would also find that extremely stressful, because then the resulting sales or nonsales would be on my back. And sure, I'm still held somewhat accountable for the books I acquire, but I also know that it wouldn't have been signed up if the committee and/or the publisher did not support the project.

The truth is, publishing is a business, it doesn't happen in a vacuum, and it doesn't make business sense to allow one person to decide what does or does not get published. I rely on our acquisition committee, and even though sometimes I am distraught at the results, I know that it's better for the book to get published elsewhere if our team is not on board. Sure, I think this can possibly result in publishers taking less chances, but on the other hand, it also ensures that the chances that ARE taken (like Sound of Colors, for example) are executed well. And as I said below, it's not like these committees are comprised with cold unfeeling people who hate books. This is a publishing company. No matter what department you work in, it's likely that you came to publishing because you love books. Sales people could make more money working in another industry selling another product, but they didn't want to because they love books. So even if sometimes I blame the committee for things, for not allowing me to work on every project that I want to work on, I also respect the committee and all of the members on it.

And although my company has had an acquisitions committee meeting for as long as I've been there, our former publisher would sometimes just sign up books even if they had been turned down--that was his right as publisher. And he would also joke that each year, the lowest selling books were always his, and oftentimes often those books. Sure, at least those books were given a chance to see the light, but is that really fair to those books and those authors?

In the comments of that Things I Hate post below, I said, "I've seen the whole company get excited about a book, and it makes a huge difference in how it does." And Katherine asked:
"How can we, as authors and illustrators, help you, the editors, to create the excitement needed to push a book forward? Early character studies? Book dummies? Do you ever wish for something special to show around?"
If the manuscript is a picture book, and you are a first-time or relatively unknown author/illustrator, then I'll always ask for a complete book dummy, and may even ask for one finished piece. This is what I had for Hippo! No, Rhino, and I think it helped immensely in the acquisitions meeting to get people excited about it, help them see exactly what the final product would look like. It's my job to know what is best to show at this committee. So, if the editor is asking you to provide something, do it. She wants one finished piece? She wants you to finish the book or at least write 5 more chapters? Do it. She's asking for a reason, and it will only help the book down the line, even if you feel like you shouldn't need to do so much work before getting a contract.

After acquisition, it's in part up to the editor to build advanced interest and excitement for the book, but Sales and Marketing all read the manuscript for novels or see certain stages of the picture book along the way, sees the book at jacket committee. Excitement gathers on its own depending on the project. Also, sometimes we have an "art gallery" showing in-house, where we'll show a few pieces of the original art of picture books to the staff. But much of this happens naturally based on the nature of book itself, and it's not really in the editor's or the author or illustrator's control. I can't control how someone is going to react to a manuscript, if they're going to like it or not.

The best that an author, illustrator, or I can do after acquisition is to make sure that the book is the best that it can be, and hope that everyone, both in-house and out, loves and respects it.

Oh, and yeah, I was kidding about the prom committee. Although, hmmmm...

Also, I'd like to point out the heated (okay, not really heated, but interesting!) discussion going on in the comments section of Meghan's Art Critiques post below. Check it out and let us know your thoughts!


Anonymous said...

Finally, an informed and thoughtful presentation of the way in which a large house publishes. Nice one, Alvina.

Anna Alter said...

Thanks for breaking things down Alvina, its really refreshing to hear an insider's view of how it all happens.

I respect that this is a business and that the members of committees all have important opinions, and that they should help an editor shape their view of a book.

But I still tend to disagree with the notion that more opinions equals less chance a book will fail. Sure, having marketing/sales etc excited about a book is bound to make the book do better, and they may have insight that an editor does not. But committees approve books that do poorly, and before committees, editors published books that did fabulously.

I'm not saying that only the editor's opinion should count- in my imaginary world the acquisitions meetings would serve to give the editor information to consider, but would leave the power to acquire in the hands of the editor, who believes in an author's vision, and how that can lead to creating great selling, popular books.

I know this is a fantasy, and things are not likely to reverse. But I got my first book contracts before committees were the standard, because editors had saw something in my work. I think its really sad that now the relationship between an editor and author is limited by so many restrictions.

Sheila said...


I've just discovered this blog and am getting eye strain from reading so many interesting posts. I clicked on this topic, not realizing how long ago the entry was written. It's still relevant, but the publishing industry is really shifting and changing with the digital age.

For example -- A friend of mine has self-published three books as e-books (for adults) available from Amazon, where she is getting rave reviews, and the books are selling wildly. My husband just bought the Barnes & Noble new nook and showed me a picture book on it --wow! About a year ago, I wrote in answer to an interview question that soon kids would be reading under the covers but they would be using backlit devices and no flashlights. "Soon" is "now!"

And as far as the committee determining what's published? That might be changing too. Consider Stephen Roxburgh's new company, namelos, which is publishing a few books as print-on-demand. With the new technology, a publisher or editor isn't taking a huge chance on any one book because there's so little cost up front: no print run, no storage space needed, no office space to rent.

Just my thoughts -