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Publishing Uncovered: Big Publisher vs Small Publisher

A big publishing house equals more clout, more marketing, more sales… right? I thought so, until I moved jobs from a small indie publisher to a publishing giant. Turns out, the answer is more nuanced than I thought. Here’s what I figured out:

A bigger publisher does not mean bigger sales.

My friend, a fellow editor who sat opposite me at our decorated desks, handed me an innocent piece of paper.

‘Depressing’ she said.

She’d just received the standard, weekly sales sheet. This was my first one, as I’d just joined Random House from a then-indie publisher called Quercus (now part of Hachette). I scanned the sheet — author names on the left, number of books sold that week on the right. We all had to sign it to show that we’d read it.

Not good. Only a few stand-out authors had sold books in the thousands, but they were the outliers. Some newly launched authors had sold well below a thousand copies, some sub-100, some weren’t even on the chart. On weeks where a new John Boyne or Jacqueline Wilson launched, obviously the sheet would look different, but that only happened a few times a year.

If you plotted all the sales on a graph it would be a hockey stick for the big hitters and a long tail for everyone else.

These figures didn’t look that different from the sales I had seen at Quercus. Back when I started there, there were just three of us, setting up a brand new children’s list for a startup publisher. And our Sales Director was snooty about children’s books. Yet the sales figures at Quercus were only mildly lower than what I saw at RH. (Maybe we just punched above our weight at Quercus.)

Publicity is down to the tenacity of the publicist.

I had the privilege of watching Nicci Praca at Quercus lead the campaign to get an unknown Scandinavian writer in front of reviewers, bloggers and journalists. The author was doing well in his home country but the UK was (back then) notoriously uninterested in translated fiction. But Nicci’s obsession for Steig Larsson was infectious, and spread to the point where I was having a competition with the marketing director about who could read the unpublished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest first. We were all talking about this great series we were publishing, and soon the obsession was too big for just our company; it spilled out everywhere. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hit the bestseller charts worldwide, won awards and was made into a film with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. I make it sound simple, though obviously it wasn’t.

At the smaller publishing house, Quercus, the Publishing Director questioned me about the publicity plan for every book. At Quercus, I worked with Nicci to push hard for every single book on our children’s list. I called TV networks and radio stations; I befriended bloggers and threw them parties. I even tried to hire a wolf for a party for a paranormal book about werewolves–a ridiculous stunt but there was nothing I wouldn’t try.

At the larger publishing house, I was only ever questioned on the big-name authors. It was easy for the mid- to lower-list books to get lost and de-prioritised.

At the larger publishing house, I fought with time-deprived publicists to help my authors spread the word of their upcoming books. Sometimes we managed to get traction, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we were allocated zero budget to publicise a book, ZERO! Just because my authors were published by one of the largest publishers didn’t guarantee them anything other than the basics.

Marketing is a multiplier effect.

My friend Suzanne Riley, an ex-Head of Marketing at Penguin Random House, recently told me I was one of the few editors who took her out for coffee. I did it because I liked her, but also because I cared about my authors and wanted her to remember them and put them high on her list. It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did, and I got a good friend in the process too.

I remember her telling me in one of our first meetings that it made more business sense to put the big spend behind authors who were already big. ‘Think about it’ she said, ‘If I spend 50k on advertising and get 20% more sales on someone who normally sells 1,000 copies or 100,000 copies, who should I choose?’

Publishing is a business, and what she said made sense. I couldn’t tell the mid-list authors that at the time.

At Quercus, I faced similar challenges trying to convince the marketing department to put money on our titles. But though they had smaller budgets, they also took bigger risks on debut authors.

Bigger Publishing Houses have deeper pockets.

Everyone has a budget–the editor, the marketeer, the publicist. And they are all tight, whether they are the largest or the smallest publisher. For example, I spent the same amount on a book cover both at Quercus and Random House (circa £1000-£2000). But at the end of the day, the larger publisher can– if they decide it’s right –dig deep into their pockets for more.

One of the series I worked on was The Ranger’s Apprentice, a fantasy book by an Australian writer. I got word from the boss’s boss’s boss (now Dame Rebuck) that I was to drop everything and repackage the entire series (10 books). She stuck a rocket up our proverbial. Why? Because the 10th book had been released in Australia only and had somehow hit the Top 50 books in UK — clearly there was incredible potential for the books in the UK. In the next month, the marketing team organised cinema ads and events; and we put new covers and bonus material in the books. It took focused time and money, but we could move fast, as we were large enough. The book rose up the charts.

Bigger Publishing Houses have a greater pool of resources.

The first cover I ever briefed for a book was a joke — if I manage to find it, I’II dig it up and show you just how bad we got it. I heard rumours it was used for dart practice at an literary agency. Problem was we were using our in-house designer who was brilliant at adult books but not children’s design.

We fixed the problem; we found freelance designers, and our covers were good. But when I moved to a larger publisher, my experience was that:

For me, the real answer lies with what ranking or importance you’re given at the publishing house, how dedicated and enthusiastic your editor is, and whether you have champions in the marketing and publicity department. The more people on your side, the better your chances for getting the best help you can in getting your book out there.

What about you? What experiences have you had at a larger or smaller publishing house?

About Parul Bavishi [1]

Parul Bavishi [2] has been an editor at Random House, Quercus and Cornerstones, and a Literary Scout. For an editor’s view on indie-publishing and a look at publishing uncovered, follow her on Twitter @paruledits [3] or visit her site, Publishing Uncovered [2].