Publishing

“Trad publishing is about sales. If we’re lucky, those books are also good.”

I’ve learned a lot about publishing since I started my book writing journey in 2011. And one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve learned is that I had a very romantic idea of what publishing is. The reality of course, couldn’t be farther from romantic.

When I came across this series of tweets by Hannah Fergesen, a literary agent, I knew I had to share it with my small circle of readers and author friends.

Below you will find her tweets, word for word as she tweeted them, only edited for formatting. When you’ve finished reading, let me know your thoughts in the comment section at the very bottom of the page!


Long, Lunchtime Trad Pub: Many of you know everything I’m going to put here from your own experience, and that’s just fine. But many of you who are querying or just starting to dip their toes into this biz do not, and this thread is for you.

It is easy to look at agents/editors and think that the publishing buck stops with us. That we make the rules, that our decisions are informed by our own whims, that we reject people because we’re fickle and mean. I’d like to give you some insights into why we do what we do. So here goes.

Imo, one of the biggest disconnects is this: You think this industry starts with the art. But no: it actually starts with sales. “Sales?!” You gasp. “Certainly not! It’s about making the people *feel* something!” No. Trad publishing is about sales. “How’s that?” you ask. “I thought acquiring a book was about, well, bringing good books to the masses.” Nope! Sorry. It’s about bringing books we can *sell* to the masses. If we’re lucky, those books are also good.

So how is this done? I’m glad you asked.

When an editor wants to acquire a book, they are very rarely empowered to just…acquire that book. They have to put together something which projects Profits and Losses for that title. This is a doc based on sales of “similar” books and other stats to show their team how sellable that book might be. (The convo about whether P&L is a thing we *should* be using to buy books is an argument to have another day. Right now, this what they use, period.)

Next step is presenting the book at their imprint’s weekly or monthly Acquisitions Meeting. They give their spiel, show the P&L, and try to convince not only the other editors, but the sales team, marketing, publicity, and the publisher that this book is a profitable bet. This team is looking at a dozen other books in this meeting from other editors who want to buy books. They have to look at their pub calendar. Is there room for these books? Do they have one too many magical cooking competition rom coms coming up in the same season? Etc etc. At the end of that meeting, the editor either gets to make an offer on the book – with the amount of money they’re authorized by the team to offer – or they don’t. This happens every time there is a book an editor wants to acquire, whether you’ve published 0 books or twenty.

Very few authors are auto-buys (the # of Stephen Kings and Neil Gaimans in this industry is quite small). For this reason, it is folly to look at publishing as a ladder. There is no guaranteed “upward mobility” as a writer. This isn’t a lottery. You are selling products.

And no, I don’t care to quibble with you about this. I’m not going to respond to “well, actually”‘s. At its most essential, this is what publishing is – it’s a business in which a company licenses the right to sell a product – that product is your book.

This is the process agents and editors have to keep in mind with every book we consider. We have to make educated guesses about whether a book will be both profitable and exciting to publish. We all want our books to get the best attention from a pub and the reading public. So when an agent passes on a book that is arguably great, this plays a major part. When they say they aren’t confident in their vision for bringing your book to market, it means they’re not sure they’ve got a clear idea about how to get your book to the acquisitions table.

It’s always a gamble for us, same as it is for you. It’s a gamble for pubs, too! And it doesn’t always pay off. So, don’t @ me with angry responses about how unfair editorial and publishing “rules” are, blah blah blah. These are not hypotheticals. Even if it’s not always (ever?) fair, this IS how it works, (though we are lucky there are many folks working hard to change things!). And as ridiculous as it might seem, given the givens, most of us are still in this for the love of books. Just…try to remember that.

You can find the original tweets here: https://twitter.com/HannahFergesen/status/1491498049356500994


Hannah Fergesen is a literary agent at KT Literary and author of THE INFINITE MILES (Spring 2023).

Before settling in New York City, Hannah worked and went to school in Denver, where she obtained her degree in Writing for Film and Television. Opportunities in New York presented themselves before she could run off to LA, and she course corrected her career toward publishing, a dream of hers since childhood. After stints as a remote intern for a well-known agent, a bookseller at the famous Books of Wonder, an intern at Soho Press, a literary assistant at Trident Media Group, and a freelance editor working with well-known authors, Hannah joined kt literary in 2016. Hannah is a proud geek and TV junkie, with an all-consuming love for Doctor Who. With her background in film and television, she is attracted to stories with strong visuals and sharp dialogue, whether presented in edgy speculative or contemporary YA and MG fiction, or dark and lyrical speculative adult fiction.
Twitter: @HannahFergesen

6 Comments

  • Prue Batten

    It would be a foolish person who didn’t realise that mainstream publishing is first and foremost a business and like any business, has a bottom line. Returns for investment are always the bottom line. You can’t blame editors who argue around a table the best they can for a book they have hopes for.
    All I can say, is thank heaven for the freedom and independence of the indie market. Mind you, these days navigating through THAT makes mainstream publishing look like a picnic.

    • Stephanie

      Naive, most definitely. But sadly, I think most new authors enter the field very starry-eyed, assuming books are published based on merit, as if that is what guaranteed their marketability. That was definitely me when I first started. Quality = Trad Published is an equation very tightly linked in the minds of the general public and probably will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

  • H.R. Kemp

    Thank you for your candor. I must admit I have done my share of ranting at the unfairness of publishing. It’s hard when you first start to send out your ‘baby’ and then hear nothing – in Australia, they don’t respond, sometimes even when they’ve asked people to submit. Even a standard reply would have been appreciated.
    I eventually got feedback telling me my book was well-written and had a great plot, but didn’t neatly fit the genre and would be difficult to market. At least getting the feedback gave me the impetus to self-publish.
    I’ve done OK. The publishers were right, they’d never have made much profit on my book (although their help in marketing might have pushed it up higher). I’m still working at identifying similar titles. I’m happy I self-published, it’s working for me and my next book hasn’t even been offered to publishers.
    It’s good to know how things work, and would have saved me a few wasted years if I’d understood this earlier.

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