The Publishing Funnel: Decoding the Editorial Decision-Making Process
by Roy M Carlisle
I had to downshift my old Volvo to make it up the hill into the parking lot at San Francisco City College where the lecture hall was located. My nerves were all a-tingle because I had decided (with trepidation) to follow my intuitive process for lecturing or preaching. I had not prepared an outline or written a script; I would be spontaneous and respond in the moment to the students’ needs.
A couple of weeks earlier, Professor Louis Brindamour of Strawberry Hill Press had invited me to lecture in his class “Working as an Editor in the Book Business” in the Certificate in Publishing program sponsored by U.C.–Berkeley’s School of Extension. He wanted me to talk about how I decided which books to sponsor for publication in my role as a senior editor at HarperCollins.
After his gracious introduction, I went up to the blackboard in front of about 50 students and began to draw the diagram that you see here. This graphic had emerged almost fully formed in my brain as I was waiting to start my presentation. It was one of those rare times when I felt I was channeling ideas that had been percolating for years in my unconscious.
It has now been more than 25 years since I realized that good editorial decisions are the result of information moving through a funnel, and I am even more convinced that this model is accurate. But judging by my experience with independent publishing companies as well as large houses, I think most editors follow the logic of the funnel process intuitively rather than as a conscious choice.
My penultimate goal in presenting the funnel diagram here is helping all us editors be more conscious about what we do, and my ultimate goal is helping editors and publishers help writers understand how the publishing business actually works so that the writers can participate more proactively and not perceive us as adversaries. The diagram can show writers that what we’re doing is trying to find their readers, as it depicts the way we do just that.
Tracing the Route
To talk about the funnel, we need to define some terms.
Immediate Media I means media that provide information almost instantaneously, such as radio, TV, daily newspapers, and the Internet.
Immediate Media II means media that filter information for a few more days, including weekly newsmagazines, some newspaper stories and blog posts, and “specials” on TV/radio that aim to deliver content that will still seem important even after the avalanche of daily information that bombards all of us.
The particular time period for Immediate Media II is less important than whether the filter is working. In other words, the question is: Are the stories and information that made it to this next stage in the filtering process actually more important than other news? Note the fateful events of May 1, 2011 (May 2 in the Mideast), the day U.S. Seal Team Six killed Osama Bin Laden. It was news that completely dominated the Immediate Media at both levels I and II, although the only information that can be gathered in close proximity to an event is that something happened and how it happened.
No one—no writers, editors, pundits, thinkers—had time to consider why it happened, despite some off-the-cuff conjecturing in the early post-event days. Does anyone doubt that this Bin Laden event will have ramifications for media further down the funnel? I don’t, and I predict that books will come out at the end of the funnel within a certain period of months (a biography already published was in the works before the event). In contrast, the event that is filling the media as I write involves a politician and a sex scandal. Do you think that will make it all the way through the funnel? I don’t.
Intermediate Media have to do with the monthly stage. Staff at monthly magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic have asked themselves: Does what has happened warrant investment of time, money, and effort to produce a story or commentary? Will anyone care about this event and its ramifications several weeks from now?
As you can see, the move to each new level requires narrowing the choices of what’s worthy of further coverage, further research, and further reflection. Even the Bin Laden story involved deciding which aspects were worth following. Would people continue to care about the actions of the Seal Team, or want to know how his death will affect the terrorist networks? Questions of this sort continue to arise as the filtering or funneling process ultimately forces media to focus on very specific subjects.
The Book as End Product
I think this filtering process is about discerning what is important in a culture and what is not. And when I say culture, I have in mind the definition that Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn use in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions—culture is “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.” So I am using the word to mean both the “place” within which the funneling process proceeds and also the agent, working as a collective, that is causing the filtering.
You can complete my diagram by inserting the word book at the bottom of the funnel. Why do I think the book is the end product of the funnel?
The book is the next logical, necessary stage in the media filtering process. It contains analysis and reflection on a topic of importance to the culture. The topic of a book can be serious or frivolous, of course, but the act of writing a book demands so much effort that “importance” is a necessary ingredient. We can certainly disagree on how to define “importance,” but I am defining it in an almost utilitarian way.
The culture defines what is important through its filtering process, with the media playing a secondary role. I do not subscribe to the idea that editors are “gatekeepers.” After many years of observation, I believe that the dynamics of a living culture are more powerful than the media that observe and chronicle in determining what ideas and stories will work all the way through to the bottom of the funnel.
The flow of information and ideas through the funnel at least implies that a defined group of people cared enough about a certain subject so that media continued to produce material about it. The filtering process helps build a market by deepening readers’ curiosity about a topic they have been following, and the process benefits all involved when that group of readers is large enough to sustain the financial and intellectual effort invested.
If a book is not the result of the filtering process, then there will be no market for that book. DIY and e-book publishing do not change this equation in any substantial way. They may make it more possible to do books for smaller markets, but they still require capital and intellectual and artistic investment if they are to be distributed and sold to any audience wider than family members.
Of course, even when we as editors discern rightly that our book is a true product of the funnel, we can fail as publishers. Markets are not predictable, as everyone in every level of publishing knows all too well. Gambling is not too strong a word to describe what book editors (and other editors) do every day of their professional lives.
Adding the Shadow Side
What about the shadow media I’ve depicted in my funnel diagram? I believe that many books are the result of ideas and events that flow through a funnel not covered by mainstream media. Two years after I first drew this diagram, this shadow aspect of the publishing business flashed through my brain. (I have come to count on these brain flashes, but I wish they were more regular.)
Some subjects or topics are seen as taboo by society at large, and mainstream media are uncomfortable with talking about them, or unprepared to do so. But sometimes those stories can’t be contained, and so they come out of the shadows, burst into the media at different levels, and then retreat into the shadows again.
Whole publishing worlds exist in the shadows. Those of us who have participated in shadow publishing (for me, it was books about religion and books about abuse and trauma) are always hoping that our shadow books will hit the mainstream and thus educate larger groups of people and sell more copies. It does happen, but not often.
The publishing funnel works in a more complicated way with its shadow side. No one can predict when a taboo subject will burst forth or how long it will stay visible in the mainstream media. But if you don’t acknowledge the shadow side of publishing, you can never understand the whole of the enterprise.
Roy M Carlisle, the acquisitions director at The Independent Institute, is a member of the IBPA board of directors.