At Bookmobile, we have been working with literary, university press, independent, and trade publishers for over thirty years. We have also helped hundreds of authors self-publish. So we’ve witnessed firsthand the making of thousands of books. Like the making of sausage and legislation, the making of books happens out of sight; but unlike those other processes, it is comprised of noble activities. Those activities transform the potential of a raw manuscript into a book and launch it into the world. In 99 percent of the cases in our experience, the publishing process makes the manuscript better in ways that would certainly be recognizable to readers were they to see the before and after. Drawing on our experience, I’ve put together a partial list of ways publishers add value to books.

The black-and-white print room at Bookmobile. Our four Océ 6320s are in the middle of the picture.

Don Leeper

#1. Curation

There is only so much time in the day available to read, unfortunately, and more books are written in a year than anyone could read in a lifetime. Therefore, I, for one, want somebody to help me select books worthy of my time, to curate the vast list of possibilities. The publisher is the first of a series of curators, followed by sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, etc. Unlike these other parties, however, the publisher has a stake in the book unrivaled by all but the author herself. The publisher invests thousands of dollars in every new title with very uncertain prospects for financial return or accolades. Publishers are, in fact, active investors who not only put their money where their mouths are, but coordinate the people that perform the down and dirty beautiful work of gestating and birthing the book. Cavilers may quibble, saying that curation doesn’t add value because it is only the process of selection. Not so: publishing curation, rightly considered, is the selection of a manuscript in which to invest, with the belief that the publisher can add value and find an audience for the finished book. This is significant not only for the audience, but for the author. But curation is only the first step!

#2. Substantive Editing

The best editors I know work actively with authors to help them shape their books, and often their careers. The author is to some extent lost in a forest of his own planting: a good editor can help him see beyond the trees, which it often turns out are a little patchy and neglected in some spots and overgrown in others. The result: a better book, which benefits both author and reader.

#3. Copyediting

Before copyeditors worked on screen, they worked with colored pencils on the author’s paper manuscript. Typesetters like the composition crew at Bookmobile (myself included) interpreted the editor’s arcane marks and made the requisite changes to the text in the electronic file, or in the old old days, keyed the manuscript in themselves. We were thus witnesses to the work of the copyeditor. We saw the copyeditor fix countless embarrassing misspellings, instances of unfortunate grammar, and random punctuation. To an author, the first page proofs provide a new look at her own book. “It’s looks so different when it is set in type!” authors often say. Hmm, yes it does. Copyediting, like substantive editing, benefits both the author and the reader.

#4. Cover Design

Besides being a functional container for the author’s work, books can be beautiful or intriguing objects of design in themselves, providing a separate kind of value to the reader. (Some books are more beautiful, indeed, than the text within them: colorful eggs with suspect yolks.) A good publisher cultivates talented cover designers who are willing to work on a publisher’s skimpy budget because they know that designing books is a worthy métier in itself.

#5. Typography

Typography, as best practiced, is one of those invisible arts. Unless you are one of the cognoscenti, the only time you notice it is when it is bad. Bad typography not only affects a book’s legibility, but also its whole aesthetic package. I was once told by the CEO of a big self-publishing outfit that they had reduced the cost of typesetting the interior of their books to $13.00. Needless to say, it showed: no dedicated eye scanned each page for grace or the lack thereof. Now in the land of the Kindle, the one-eyed man is king: even when one squints, the best of e-reader typography is but a pathetic striving cousin of the real thing, committing clanking faux pas he is not even aware of. In print, typography lives, supported by publishers who know that a typographer on their team contributes to the book and to their brand. Good typography improves the book as an aesthetic object and as a functional vessel for the author’s work, thus benefiting both author and reader.

#6. eBook Quality Control

The previous item notwithstanding, there is such a thing as quality in eBook production, relating to elements that are considered the minimum basis for quality on the printed page: line breaks, font changes, paragraph spacing, character sets, etc. Early on, publishers let certain eBook retailers convert their eBooks for them. The result was comment after comment from readers wondering why they should pay money for an eBook when it was full of horrendous line breaks, missing text, bad fonts, bad character mapping, and on and on. Even new releases from big name authors were full of errors! (I know this because I read about 100 eBooks in the first year after the Kindle was released.) Nowadays, the attainment of eBook quality is a recognized practice, thanks to discerning publishers and outfits like our pioneering eBook crew at Bookmobile and Ebook Architects. Publishers recognize now that eBook quality is as important as print quality in delivering value to the reader.

#7. Metadata

Good metadata is not just accurate: in its descriptive nodes, it attempts to sum up the essence of the book to position it in buyers’ minds. The aim is that the book’s hoped-for audience will recognize that they have found a book that will add to their lives in one way or another: entertainment, information, aesthetic ecstasy, solace, or guidance. Selecting BISAC and other subject categories requires a realistic understanding of how readers find books. This work benefits from the meta publishing worldview of the publisher. In a world oversupplied with books, it is a critical piece of publishing. This benefits the reader by connecting them to a book they will find of value, and thus benefits the author.

#8. Publicity and Marketing

Yes, authors must promote their books if they want them to be read. And yes, not every book gets the marketing support it deserves (though one could argue that some get attention they don’t deserve). That doesn’t mean that publishers’ efforts are negligible. Publishers specialize; even within big publishers, imprints specialize. A big part of this specialization is developing networks of publicity contacts and booksellers interested in one way or another with the area of specialization, whether it is poetry or engine rebuilding. A publisher with a track record can reach out to this universe in a way that is almost impossible for an author. This truly adds value for the author, and, when it successfully connects readers with a book that fits their interests, adds value for them as well.

#9. Rights Sales

Publishers who have been in the game for a while usually develop the sales of foreign and other rights. These sales can be a big benefit for authors, especially those without agent representation.

#10. Project Management

In addition to the value-adding functions listed above, there are others performed by publishers that are more mundane yet critical: managing the first printing, reprints, and new editions; accounting; dealing with legal issues; managing schedules; etc. Specialized service providers like editors, indexers, picture editors, eBook converters, and printers must all be coordinated and paid. Because of the seasonal cycle of traditional publishing–which is still how authors reach the most readers–orchestrating all these moving parts on a title-by-title basis is critical. While invisible, this project management function is of huge value, as any self-publisher who has had to engage the book trade on his own can attest.

Of course, some would argue that the value-adding processes I have described do not require a traditional publisher, that self-publishers can do the same thing themselves. Well, in some cases they can approximate what a publisher does. But that is highly contingent on the author’s skill set, creative contacts, publicity contacts, business acumen, design acumen, organizational skills, and the category of her book. Perhaps that is a discussion for a future post.