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Authors and Publishers: Finding a Common Ground

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Sheenu Srinivasan

The publishing industry should set guidelines to establish a standard practice that makes the overall experience more rewarding, efficient, productive, objective, professional, and pleasant for both author and publisher.

The book industry in the US generated a revenue of $28 billion in 2014, and the global revenue in the near future is projected to reach $113 billion. These are impressive numbers by any standard. One would think the entire spectrum of participants in this enterprise—from authors to publishers and everyone in between—should all enjoy such largesse proportionately.

Based on my experience as an author in dealing with five different publishers over a couple of decades, I can report that it is not always so. The predominant reason? The publisher invests money and takes a financial risk, and the author invests time and risks their reputation. These two investments are traditionally considered unequal. As a result, an author’s experience may be a mixed one, varying from somewhat satisfactory to totally disappointing. Although I do not claim that this is necessarily the experience of all authors, mine certainly was like that.

Perhaps authors have unrealistic expectations, but, more often than not, the problem I had was one of irregular and inconsistent communication and unmet assurances, as well as a painfully long wait to get the first royalty payment. This all can be rectified with a little better appreciation and understanding of the authors on the part of the publishers. The industry needs to look into this and set guidelines to establish a standard practice that makes the overall experience more rewarding, efficient, professional, and pleasant. A dialogue between the communities of authors and publishers may serve as a guide toward that process.

A common ground that emphasizes mutual interests and benefits may be based on:

  1. Profitability: Acceptance on the part of the publisher that most authors are not only interested in disseminating knowledge, but also in earning royalty. Publishers must treat authors as their partners—not vendors—in this regard.
  2. End Product: Publishers must realize that the author also wants a great end product.
  3. Contracts and Schedule: A contract that is not one-sided but is fair to the author is essential. A realistic schedule that spells out deadlines and penalties on the part of both is also essential. Discipline should be a two-way street.
  4. Marketing: Publishers need to develop affordable schemes to help authors who simply do not have time/talent/experience and needed resources to organize book tours, media appearances, deals with bookstores, and leveraging of social media.

Let us examine each of these essential features.


Next to marketing, profitability is perhaps the most complicated aspect of the business. The complications arise by virtue of the large number of variables involved in setting a royalty payment to the author, the legalese that seems to assure a profitable position biased toward the publisher. The publisher’s dilemma is the variety and dizzying combination of the variables that influence financial decisions: wholesale or retail pricing, gross or net revenue that sets the royalty, revenue from royalties received by the publisher on foreign rights sold, the use of production costs, etc. Most authors in this day and age need to earn a royalty. Publishers should truly appreciate the common goal here.

End Product

Here, again, the goal is identical for both parties. However, this feature needs to be spelled out in the contract so a publisher may not compromise on the quality they assured earlier if that anticipated quarterly profit did not materialize. With the DIY method, the benefits of careful editing by the publisher are lost, and I suspect most authors would prefer this valuable assistance and embrace the traditional approach to publishing.

Contract and Schedule

Look at a typical contract, and you will soon realize that it is one-sided. For example, dates are specified for the author to send chapters and final manuscript for editing purposes with clear statements pertaining to penalties should the author miss the dates. Rare indeed is the case where similar stipulation is found if the publisher misses the date to return the edited version for the author’s approval to stick to the promised date of publication. This can create tension between the parties. The David-Goliath relationship between an author and publisher puts an author at a disadvantage. An industry standard is urgently needed—a generic contract template will go a long way.


I believe the industry has no clue about marketing, which is the most critical aspect of publishing. The obvious exceptions are, of course, publishing companies who sign up with a Stephen-King-level author, in which case you see full-page advertisement of the book in major newspapers. Such authors do not need any such advertisement, but it serves the publishers’ need to show off their status in the industry. The less-known author gets much less support.

How often has a budding author heard the words of wisdom: “You are the best to market your book—seek book-signing opportunities, email all your contacts, place your own ads in relevant journals, etc.” In general, most authors depend on the publisher’s organization to sell books. A good step is to have the contract specify a marketing plan that includes the level of investment and schedule. The author’s role needs to be defined based on a realistic assessment of time, talent, and interest to be involved in this complex task.


Dissemination of knowledge through books is here to stay whatever the technological trends may be. It is a noble profession that demands creativity, ability to identify areas that catch the market’s interest, and skillful management of organization, editing, production, distribution, and marketing. It can be a rewarding experience all around, but it now needs a reality check on the part of all players in the industry. Specifically, the industry may attempt to develop templates for use in arriving at a fair contract and royalty, a glossary of terms used in these templates, and a realistic marketing strategy.

Sheenu Srinivasan, Ph.D., is an author whose recent books include The Bhagavad Gita: A Thread through the Eighteen Gems, Yaksha Prashna (which received a Silver Award from IBPA in November 2016), Hinduism for Dummies, and Vedic Wedding: Origins, Tradition and Practice.

From the author: “It is a pleasure to acknowledge the helpful comments received from my associates Brian Judd, executive director of APSS; and Paul Krantz, an author friend. My sincere thanks go to Alexa Schlosser, managing editor of IBPA Independent, for offering valuable perspectives and thoughtful edits.”

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