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What does a publisher actually do?

Updated on February 26, 2014
What does a publisher do?
What does a publisher do? | Source

Some of the tasks you should consider

  • Editorial
  • Book Design
  • How are eBooks different?
  • Printing pitfalls
  • Getting an ISBN
  • Distribution
  • Cataloging
  • e.Book edition
  • Marketing
  • Finance and Banking

Editorial | Source


No matter what your friends say, every manuscript needs editing. This is a job that you cannot do yourself, although if you engage a professional editor you will no doubt have some say on what they do for you. Even if your work is quite simple non-fiction, there are excellent improvements that an editor will find for you. An editor will also know the style tricks that make a book easier to typeset later on. Here I am talking about consistency of style and continuity; aspects such as a tomcat that later in the MS suddenly becomes a queen, and a Johnny that is later spelled Johnnie, that sort of thing.

There are also technical rules to be followed such as: no use of tabs or space bar at the beginning of a paragraph, no drop caps, no double spacing and consistency of spacing for subheadings etc.. Here is one place where you can get editorial help.

Book designs
Book designs | Source

Book Design

It seems to be very easy to put off a potential buyer with an ill considered design. Readers don’t often know what it is that makes them put the book down, but put it down they do! The faults can range from margins that do not follow style rules, to inappropriate fonts or leading (line spacing). We have over the years seen books with the spine margin or even the fore edge margin too narrow, so that the reader has to pull the book open really wide to be able to read easily. Fore edge margins have to be big enough to be able to place at least half your thumb without covering the print.

There are sites where you can get a choice of design templates.

Choosing the page size is also important. There are a range of standard sizes (different for Europe and the USA). America is perversely still measuring in inches. Your aim should be to get a reasonably sized spine, so if you have quite a short book (say 50, 000 words or so) then it would be better to go for the smallest page size. in the USA the three most popular sizes are 5" x 8", 5.5" x 8.5" or 6" x 9". In Europe a book would usually be A5 (210 x 148 mm).

The design of the book will also change (slightly bigger font, more line spacing, filler images, illustrations etc.) so as to bulk up the spine as much as you can. The reason for this is that the spine is usually the only real estate that you have got on a bookshelf, so if the book has a big page size and tiny spine, the buyer will not be able to read the wording, so they will miss the book entirely.


How are e-Books different?

E-books are designed a bit differently since there is no spine to worry about, but they have other challenges such as dealing with full page text boxes with a border. In this case if the reader happens to be reading on a smartphone the image will be shrunk to fit the page and thus become illegible.

It is also important to have active hyperlinks and the Table of contents chapters should link directly to the correct page to make for easy searching.

Printing issues

Paper is a natural product and has a grain direction which will make it floppier on the long grain and stiffer on the short grain. If a book is printed short grain the pages will be stiff (ish) and come across unprofessional. As publishers we have had disasters through engaging printers who claim to be book printers, but do not know this aspect. We have learned to contract with specialist printers who will not make this mistake.

Choosing the right paper will also make a big difference. Book paper (book wove or similar) tends to have a high bulk factor for its weight.


Obtaining an ISBN

Unless you book will be for private sale it is essential to have an ISBN (international Standard Book Number). You will need one because no bookshop can sell one without a barcode and you cannot get one of these without an ISBN.

Each country issues their own ISBNs so if you are in the UK you will have to get your number/s from their authority. The costs vary a lot between countries. In the UK for instance the issuing authority will only issue batches of 10 numbers for which one would have to pay £135.00 (very expensive if you only want one number). This seems to be a trick of theirs to make life more difficult for self-published authors.

You also have to send what are known as Legal Deposit Copies; physical copies of the new book) to at least one central depository (In the USA the Library of Congress). In South Africa there are five different addresses.



This is always the ‘Biggie’ and something that self-published authors have a real problem with. This is because most distributors will not take on just one title, preferring to take on a list of at least ten titles. However, I have known of exceptions, particularly if your book is well branded, so if you chose to self-publish do not give up hope just yet. Established publishers have generally established good relationships with distributors built up over years, so it might be hard to break that barrier of trust. Consignment stock placed in your local bookshop is usually easy to set up, but does need management.


Cataloging your book

If you have managed to get a distributor for your own country or even more than one country it is important to register your book on the central database of titles so that bookshops are able to look up your title in response to a customer query. There are two systems in operation, but Nielsen has become the register of choice because they offer what they call Rich Data (in other words images and descriptions) and this is very helpful especially for online bookshops who also use this information. Of course there is a cost for this service.


eBook editions

This is a growing trend and becoming essential, but it should not be seen as a major source of income. Readers have a perception that they ought to get it for free or close to free “because the publisher incurs no costs”. A moment’s thought will tell you that this is not true. Yes, there are no printing and delivery costs, but every publisher will have spent sometimes quite a large sum on editing, design, and typesetting, plus the inevitable overheads. And of course the author would like to be paid royalties!

The access to this technology has become easier in recent years leading to a virtual flood of new titles. As an aside Kobo Books now claim to offer over two million free books. With that choice why would you ever want to pay for a book again? Howevert, that said, your eBook can become a useful marketing tool.



Publishers will usually make a real effort to market their books, and this can include traditional methods like trade fairs, advertising in catalogs and book reviews as well as more modern activities like social media. Co-operating with other authors published by the same publisher helps with your exposure. Social media sites have taken over from newsletters these days.

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Finance and Banking

There are always costs to getting your book into print and one also has to take into account give away and promotional copies. How many books would you have to sell in order to recover your investment? At a guess it would be around 500 copies. What are the chances of achieving this?

One would also need to look at the best way of collecting the money from all those sales. If you are not in America how would you be paid? Would you need a bank account to handle this or would you be happy for them to send you cheques?



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    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      6 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Great hub Robin. Very informative. I had not seen it yet but the images look great! Voted useful.

    • Roger Nichols profile image

      Roger Nichols 

      6 years ago from Mandurah, Western Australia

      thanks Robin its good to see one of your articles again they are always so interesting and informative. To those who are looking for a publisher I can strongly recommend Robin and Nadine the work they have carried out on our behalf has been truly inspirational and they are a dynamic team.

    • Robin Beck profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Cape Town South Africa

      The choice should be determined by your expectations. It is the old story of 'horses for courses'. We have had some very disappointed authors come to us after they had published with Trafford, mainly because they couldn't get distribution here in SA where they live. Trafford still happy to take the money though!

    • Robin Beck profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Cape Town South Africa

      Thanks Billy, much appreciated. Over the years some very sad self-published authors have passed through our offices. My aim is to try to avoid that happening again. We can often help them, but sometimes it is too late.

    • slowpokevoyager profile image

      Roger Decker 

      6 years ago from Braggs, Oklahoma

      I like the thought of an experienced publisher giving their insights. But is there any way you can tell which self publisher is the best to go with? Or is it basically what you want your book to do for you that determines which to go with? Dorrance publishing is a well known publishing house, but Xilbris does basically the same thing for the third of the cost. Also Trafford publishing has a lot of great value. Are you just paying for the name and not the service? Is it like buying a Chevrolet over a Corvette? Which would be the preferred choice? These are the type of things I'd like to know. And experience in the industry is what everyone needs to make it as a writer.

      Thank you for your time

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good, basic information that every writer needs to know, written by the voice of experience. Well done! Thanks for your perspective.


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