Wednesday 27 April 2011

How to speak publisher - B is for Book

'Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.
'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'
'Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter...

You might think 'book' is a rather basic term to include here. But not in publisher-speak. In fact, not in big-wide-world-speak, either.

If you tell someone you are writing a book, they will assume you mean a novel - and probably a novel for adults. That is not the definition of a book, but is a category of book. A book may also be intended for people of other ages, from babies to teenagers. It may be a bunch of lies (fiction) or all true (a non-fiction book). It may be a picture book, an academic text book, a school book, a book of jokes or puzzles or anecdotes, an anthology, a biography, an autobiography, a how-to book, a dictionary, a pop-up book, a coffee-table book, a colouring book.... there are lots of possibilities.

In publisher-speak a book may be any of these and, depending on the rights the publisher wishes to buy or grab, a CD, a Kindle book, a phone app, and the basis of a film, TV series, opera, theme park, set of merchandising or group of plushie toys. OK, the last don't count as the book, but you might find you've lost those when you thought you were selling a book.

The thing to look out for is the bit in the first paragraph where they define your book as 'the Work', thus making the IP (intellectual property) and the paperback or hardback book you are imagining one and the same thing.
What do you mean by book? The physical object or the content? The problem is that 'book' is used in both senses and rarely does anyone specify which they mean. B is for Book should go alongside A is for Ambiguity.


  1. This is where it helps to be a cynical writer in the first place. I don't write books. I have never written a book, and I don't know anyone who has, nor do I know how I would go about writing a book. I write stories. And the rights I currently own are the rights to my stories. Should someone come along and say they want to package up my story in a particular way they can tell me what way and I can sell them the right to do it (well actually, as a self-publisher I'd say thank you, let's talk, see if they'd take me out for lunch on their expense account and after they've picked up the bill say a polite no thanks, but you get my drift) - put like that it's not really like selling at all - it's more like licensing a particular usage. And any contract would have to make very clear what packaging and usage a publisher wanted so that if someone else wanted a different packaging and usage I could sell that one separately (or at least I could have a separate lunch on a separate expense account before saying a separate no thanks).

    It's worth publishers remembering the point as much as it's worth writers remembering it. We deal in two entirely separate commodities. Writers deal in stories; publishers deal in books. They are so different any contention of equivalence would be equivalent to a category error. But we can negotiate over whether I'll let them use one of my commodities in one of theirs. It's not licensing, but it would behove writers to think of it that way. If they do, they're much less likely to sign away things they didn't want to sign away

  2. 'Writers deal in stories; publishers deal in books.' Absolutely; all very sensible, for fiction - but not all books contain stories.

    I am a pretty cynical writer, but the two commodities are not *entirely* separate. I do want my work published as books because I want people to read it and I don't have the time or inclination to self-publish as doing a whole load of marketing and publicity is of absolutely no interest to me - I want to spend me time writing. So saying no to every publisher, whatever they offer, is not on the cards. (And I'd be surprised to keep lunches from people I said no to - but maybe that's just the UK!) I don't see publishers as the enemy - we collaborate to produce books that contain stories (or something else).

    And, of course, you don't need to know how to speak publisher if all you are going to say is no :-)

  3. yes, I think I was intending to agree with you :) I think even with non-fiction the writer brings something that's alive - knowledge, insight, opinion - and the publisher brings a format for delivering it. And absolutely it's a collaboration. Books are one format (with subformats), which is what I understood you to be saying - and when a writer enters into an agreement with a publisher it is prudent to ensure both are clear they are talking about collaborating to produce a specific merging of what they offer - in other words, make sure if you are working on an ebook you haven't also sold the rights to distribute paperbacks in translation - which is where thinking in licensing terms can help the writer to get things straight in their head.

    Publishers most definitely aren't the enemy. Just not for me. I know several, am very fond of them, and would happily buy whatever dinner I can afford for them. Self-publishing one needs to be just as aware as when one is writing to be published by someone else that one wears two hats and they come with two very different jobs.