Five Insider Secrets of Publishers That You're Not Supposed to Know

I am BK's Editorial Director, and I have five secrets to spill about the world of publishing. Brace yourself!

1. Are You There, Amazon? It’s Me, Publisher. Amazon’s customer service is so great that you may find the next sentence to be shocking: You, the customer, have a better chance of getting someone from Amazon.com on the phone than we, the publisher, do. This is no criticism (really, Jeff Bezos, you’re the best!), but most of Amazon’s buying and marketing procedures are so automated that they’ve cut out human contact points. Publishers who sell hundreds of millions of dollars with Amazon spend way more time talking over books with the buyer at your corner bookstore who sold ten books last year.

2. Come Hither to My Book. Author photos are important for editors when they consider first novels—and lots of other kinds of books, too. My first job as editorial assistant at a top-five New York house gave me a shock. I still remember my surprise when I saw 8 x 10 glossy photos of the authors attached to manuscripts and proposals. Basically, your chances doubled or tripled if you had a steamy head shot. 

3. We’re Printing 20,000 Copies—No, Make that 50,000! Publishers are usually lying when they announce print runs or sales numbers. Publishers don’t mean to lie, but there is a chicken-and-egg conundrum in building a big book. If I don’t brag about how many I’ll print or how many I sold, you the bookseller won’t take a risk and order more copies. If the booksellers don’t order the book despite my hyperbole, however, I would be silly to print the first number I threw out. So the final print run is based more on the orders that come in, not on some aspirational idea cooked up in the publicity department. (BK does not announce print runs for this reason, although we’re sorely tempted at times.) The irony is that most people in the book business know how to break the code. For example, an “announced run” of “25,000” probably means around “15,000.” I will say this: all publishers WISH their announced print runs were true—that’s something, isn’t it?

4. What if You Had a Bestseller and Nobody Came? Anyone can have a bestseller if his/her pockets are deep enough. (Read the Wall Street Journal Story from February 21, 2013: “The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike.”)  Many bestsellers started out as manufactured bestsellers with multiple orders channeled through marketing companies. The companies can game the system by sending copies through accounts that they know report to the Times or other bestseller lists. There is an amazing amount of manipulation going on, but some of it is just capitalism at work and not completely unethical. (For example, if an author’s client really wants to buy 1,000 books, is it wrong to split that number up among several key stores in order to hit the bestseller list? A sale is a sale, no?)

5. I Am A Book Publisher and I Approve this Message. Your bookstore displays copies in prime spots because the publisher paid them to do that—they’re not making a personal recommendation.  Chain bookstores operate on a “co-op” system similar to that used in supermarkets—books that are face out, on higher shelves, ends of shelves, or front tables probably had to pay for the privilege. (Good store managers go rogue and slip their own favorites into the mix anyway. Also, independent bookstores rely far less on this type of payola.) One of Borders’ final co-op programs (called “Make”) required publishers to pay for one-on-one verbal recommendations by staff to customers. You can’t make stuff like that up.

The Insight at the Heart of Berrett-Koehler

The dominant view in book publishing has long been that when an author signs a publication agreement with a publisher, the publisher now owns the book and the rights pertaining to the book.  The publisher “acquires” the book and it belongs to the publisher.

In 1991, as I was reflecting on my nearly fourteen years of experience in book publishing, the insight came to me that there was a better way to structure the relationship between publishers and authors: they could be equal partners, with shared rights and responsibilities, instead of publishers owning authors’ work.

This insight has influenced all I have done in publishing since then and it has had great impact on the design and operation of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

One initial consequence of this insight was the BK publication agreement.  Our objective, as I wrote, was “to create a more balanced and fair agreement – one that is more of an equal partnership – between the author and publisher,” whereas “most publishing agreements today are grossly one-sided: the author has few rights and many obligations, while the publisher has many rights and few obligations.”  Accordingly, the original BK publication agreement created nearly 22 years ago contained many provisions – all of which are still in our agreement today – to give authors rights that they often desire (such as partnering with the publisher in deciding many publishing details) and to strike from the agreement common provisions (such as the publisher having the right to the author’s next book) that smack of the publisher owning the book.

The most radical and unique provision is that the author is given the right to terminate the publication agreement after the book is published “if, for any reason, the Author is not satisfied, in the Author's sole judgment, with any aspect of the relationship with the Publisher or with the Publisher's performance in any aspect of publishing and selling the Work.”  This turns on its head the normal publisher-author relationship – wherein authors sign away their rights for life – and gives BK a powerful incentive to be responsive, collaborative, and high performing in all aspects of the publishing relationship.

This partnership insight has also led to a host of other distinctive BK practices, including:

- A “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors.”

- Viewing authors as insiders within BK who can interact whenever they wish with any and all BK staff rather than being expected to interact with just one “gate keeper” who tries to keep them from being a “nuisance.”

- Supporting the creation of an independent organization, the “BK Authors Cooperative,” that is owned and managed by BK authors to represent their interests and to aid each other.

- Launching each new book with an Author Day that connects the author to the whole BK staff, gets everyone excited about the book, and creates close collaboration between the author and publisher on all aspects of making books successful.

Because of these and other partnering practices Berrett-Koehler is viewed by many authors as one of the most “author-friendly publishers.”  As a result, even without our having any contractual obligations for authors to give BK first option on their next books, authors keep coming back to Berrett-Koehler.  Over 100 BK authors have already published multiple books with Berrett-Koehler, including 22 of our top 25 bestselling authors.

This partnership relationship with authors is clearly one of the secrets of Berrett-Koehler’s success.



Five Lessons from Five Colleagues

The great advantage of this job is the ability to learn so much from some of the brightest authors in the nation and the world. But some of the most important lessons have come not from our books or authors but from my colleagues. Here are five lessons I have learned from my five main editorial coworkers:

1. Steve Piersanti (President and Publisher):  
"We are all sinners and saints." 

I once spoke with Steve about one of our authors who actively  supported organizations with ideals that were in opposition to the values BK espouses and about how working with this author made me feel uneasy. Steve responded by giving me the "saints and sinners" talk. We are all sinners and saints in the sense that every human has qualities that are admirable and others that are less desirable. No one (ourselves included) can be considered "ideal" in any way because to be human is to be flawed. So no one has the moral high ground to judge another. Instead, we should aim to embrace that which is good and positive in others and spare as little energy as possible on the negatives.

2. David Marshall (VP for Editorial and Digital): 
"There is a mostly subconscious passive-aggressiveness in all of our social interactions with almost anyone at all levels."

I was at a loss to explain a particular author's seemingly hostile behavior toward me and was discussing the incident with David when he suggested that the author could have simply manifested deep-seated (but different type of) passive-aggressive behavior. This type involves being upset at someone about one issue, but instead of confronting it directly, being difficult or unresponsive on a totally different issue (or even a different person). It's subtle but can cut deep. Such passive-aggressive behavior remains very common within groups, organizations, friends, and even couples, but that most of it goes unnoticed because it's part of how we function and interact with each other. We notice passive-aggressive behavior only when it is egregious and therefore obvious, and this awareness gives the illusion that the root cause of such behavior is always evident. Whenever you are at a loss to explain a particular reaction or behavior, consider whether a passive-aggressive strain runs through the interactions. You'll be surprised at how often such strains represent the underlying factor in many scenarios.

3. Neal Maillet (Editorial Director):
"Being a good editor means that sometimes I need to edit and work with books and authors whose ideas I don't necessarily support."

Neal and I were debating a particular title with a controversial message when I asked him point-blank how he could support an argument that he did not entirely believe in. Neal pointed out that his role as an editor is not to help present to the world only those messages that he approved of. His role is to disseminate a wider range of philosophies to help people understand how studying multiple points of view -- whether they agreed with what they were studying or not -- made them better informed global citizens. In other words, Neal wants to furnish people with as much information as possible so that they can reach their own conclusions rather than tell them what to think. His selflessness sickens me at times, but he's right.

4. Charlotte Ashlock (Digital Producer and Editor):
"I am a strong environmentalist, and I am also not a vegetarian or vegan. Why should one predicate the other?"

I remember being surprised when I first heard Charlotte order a meat dish when we went out to eat. I had assumed that all ardent environmentalists were also vegans or at least vegetarians. (If you know many environmentalists, you know this assumption isn't a completely ignorant one.) Charlotte explained how one choice does not equate another, but more importantly, she showed me that we often assume certain characteristics about a person based on just a few factors. And we often try to fit certain molds ourselves. Can someone be a liberal and still support gun ownership? Can someone be conservative and still support a woman's choice? Can someone be a libertarian and yet support social welfare? Yes, yes, and yes. We pigeonhole others, and we even force ourselves into convenient stereotypes because we can't or won't accept our own complexity. And labeling is just sad because it crushes true dialogue, debate, and personal choice.

5. Seth Adam Smith (Editorial Assistant):
" Faith is its own foundation and is not based on facts. Faith is making my mind believe that which I cannot through reason alone prove for certain."

Seth is a sharp young man and a practicing Mormon. The atheist in me can't help but challenge him on various ideas and concepts within the Mormon faith, but he has also wisely shown me the limitations of my own beliefs. I believe in facts, so when I find facts questionable, I find everything that those facts support to be equally questionable. Seth, however, has his faith in, well, faith. Whether the facts of certain events are valid or not is irrelevant because facts change. (The truth is rarely the truth, but rather only an interpretation.) Faith, however, is a constant and remains. It matters little to Seth if certain facts are questioned or even proven wrong because his faith is real and solid -- and more concrete than any facts could be.