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Dear Kelsey,

When I decided I wanted to work “in publishing,” I only ever considered working with fiction. I didn’t care what genre (as I said in all my grad school applications) so long as I worked with novels. Hilarious, right?

I think I still fall prey to the notion that academic publishing is like this overlooked stepchild to our glamorous fictional siblings. While I know this isn’t true systematically (in many of our interviews, candidates—unprompted—said they hardly read fiction, they love textbooks, they wouldn’t want to work in trade publishing for anything…??!), I felt it so strongly at one point that I’ve never been able to shake it.

After all, wouldn’t everyone rather hear about the latest NYT bestseller than the Revised and Updated Ninth Edition of Principals of Sociology: An Introduction?

BUT THEN! This morning, Brie sent me a link to a Reddit AMA request for “Someone who works in the textbook industry (publishing/management).” !!! People had actual questions and I could answer them! I know these things!

I had planned to post some surely-insightful-and-not-at-all-redundant thoughts about ebooks tonight (long story short: my e-reading device of choice died and I didn’t have anything to read on the bus home. Horrors. I’m sure you can imagine. It was a nightmare.) but instead, I spent several hours answering the Reddit questions. And then I figured: you know what. People do find this interesting. Some people, at least ; ) So, I am starting a Reddit AMA, going live tomorrow morning. Here are my first few answers. Feel free to read the ones you find interesting, ask more questions, or head over to Reddit to make me look popular ; )

Maggie Faber

How much does it actually cost to MAKE a textbook?

There are a lot of factors here—some high profile authors get advances, but even with standard books the costs vary based on the length of the book, the quality of the manuscript (whether there will be a lot of corrections/fact checking), and whether or not the book has an art program—and, if so, if it needs 4-color printing and high-gloss paper. The art, especially, makes a huge impact on the price.

For example: we print all of our textbooks in 1-2 colors (standard black ink is considered 1 color, while full color printing is 4), usually on fairly inexpensive paper. Our “average” budget for a standard-length book with no art (scare quotes because the average is wildly estimated) would be $4,500 to $6,000, where the costs for a book with a large art program would be $35,000 to over $40,000.

Then consider that most big text publishers always print in full color on the glossy paper with a lot of “free” ancillary materials (teacher’s manual, test banks…) that also need to be produced and printed and bound and…yikes.

How much does a bookstore profit from selling a textbook? Renting?

I can’t speak to textbook rentals, but publishers sell books to bookstores at a 20% to 50% discount, and we’re usually obligated to take returns on the product that doesn’t sell. The discount can vary, but a general rule for most publishers is 20% to university bookstores and 50% to trade stores like Barnes and Noble.* Bookstores set the price at their own stores, usually marking it up to full price, but occasionally selling at a small discount or—in cases where they don’t want to return the books, at a loss.

I only worked in a bookstore for a few months, but they have ridiculously small profit margins and make -very- little money. It’s an incredibly tough business.

*Not Barnes and Noble college stores, though

How much does the company take away from the sale of a textbook?

The bookselling business is pretty convoluted, so I can’t quite give a straight answer. The publisher pays all the upfront costs for the book: paper, printing, binding, as well as all the editing, typesetting, and production costs. We use a lot of freelancers, and pay them their hourly rate within 45 days of invoice. This is usually well before the book is an actual product. Once a book is printed, we fill bookstore orders, but don’t receive any money for the books until much later (to give the store time to actually sell copies), often 3-12 months. Once the store pays, the publisher gets all of it (at the set discount), but we still need to give some of the money to our distributor (our distribution invoices are $15,000 to $30,000 per month) and hold a % for author royalties. We also have to give credit to bookstores if they later send back any returns.

Many, many books are unprofitable, or barely cover their production costs.

How much would an author make from selling a book through your company?/How much does an author make on producing a textbook? All of my professors have written their own for class.

Our authors get between 8%-10% of each sale. Which is only 50%-80% of the retail price.

Textbook publishing is tricky, too, because many authors are asked to offset some of the publishing costs themselves—if they demand an expensive cover photo, for example, or we have to pay them an advance. We usually book these costs against their royalties rather than making them pay upfront. However, since most textbooks aren’t runaway bestsellers, many authors actually carry a negative balance. Of the authors that do earn money, our average royalty payments are probably between $150-$1,000 a year.

Admittedly, we are a very small company. An average print run for is probably 1000 copies and we all get pretty excited whenever we sell 50 copies to a course at once.

Regarding professors adopting their own books: some universities require that their professors not get any personal benefit from adopting a text. We have a few authors at such schools who do assign their own books, which means we have to subtract the amount earned from copies sold to their own students from their royalty payments (and while I support and admire the schools with these regulations…it’s an accounting nightmare). As to where their royalty money goes instead? A few of our authors have designated a preferred charity, but it depends more on the rules of their particular university how much control they have over it.

How long does it take to publish a textbook?

I’m going to answer this with probably far more detail than you intended. Brand new textbooks (all new nonfiction, usually) are contracted long before the book is written. Authors either write and submit a proposal or (more likely, with textbooks) publishers hound/beg well-known scholars to write a specific book. Either way, the book is contracted and the author(s) have between 6 months to 3 years to write it, depending on the material already available (we’ll often pick up textbooks from other publishers where the contract was cancelled after the book was written) and the availability of the author. Once a full manuscript is submitted, the editor will either go back and forth with the author for a few months trying to implement changes and revisions, send the book out for review, or, if it’s in good shape, send it off to production. In our company, it takes about 7 months to get from word files to a book. It goes through copyediting, proofreading/fact checking (this is how we caught a largely plagiarized book only a few weeks ago), typesetting, proofs, and printing. Several stages involve further approval from various author or editors. Most university presses also have a double-blind peer review process, which can add a lot of time on top of that.

New editions are supposed to be less involved, but in our company, that’s not quite how it works. We try to schedule new editions about 3 years apart from each other. This gives us time to sell the first edition, do some market research, surveys, &c with adopters to see whether a new edition would be valuable and what kinds of changes would be useful, and do some sales analysis and projection on our end. Then, with the authors, we come up with a proposal for changes to the book, bring on a coauthor if necessary, and sign a renewal contract. It doesn’t usually take more than a year to update the information, and then it’s another 7 month in production from that point.

Why do publishers come out with an unnecessary new edition every year?

A lot of this is market driven. The textbook market is incredibly competitive, and publishers produce a lot of free materials (test banks, instructor manuals, custom materials, power point slides, suggest readings…the list goes on and on) just to convince a professor to adopt their book. With such competition, most professors refuse to teach a book over 2 years old, even when the basic concepts are the same. And with the rising need to make the content trendier and more “relevant” to students, the fluff/flavor does date the books pretty quickly. Nobody is really going to want Lady Gaga on the cover of their textbooks in a few years.

Also, of course, the flood of used books on the market makes it impossible for the publisher to keep selling it. And since it usually takes two or more editions before a book finds a market…we have the constant, constant updating.