May 23, 2023

What no one wants to tell you about working with a publisher

Traditional Publishing
Book Publishing
publishing contract

Recently, style and beauty influencer Hilary Rushford shared in a three-part podcast series (episode 1, 2, 3) that she had been working on a book—and, unfortunately, had just about the worst possible experience you could ever imagine.

In her podcast, she tells a story of heartache and misunderstanding, disappointed expectations and unprofessional behavior. It’s the absolute worst case scenario of what can go wrong in a publishing partnership.

As far as we know, Hilary did everything right. She hired a book coach. She signed with reputable, experienced literary agents. She interviewed the publishing team before signing the agreement. They interviewed her. And yet, despite what I can only imagine were dozens of meetings and conversations, no one gave her realistic expectations, informed her of publishing norms, or ran through the what-if scenarios with her. 

As a book coach, but especially as a former acquisitions editor, I know what publishing houses can be like. And I spend a large amount of my time helping people get traditional book deals. And yet, I don’t think I’ve told my authors about some of the truths that evidently caught Hilary off guard. Am I setting them up for failure? 

Reader, I want to make sure that you have realistic expectations going into any publishing deal and that you’re not as surprised by some of the norms and realities of the publishing industry.


  • I’m not sharing this to make you scared. I’ve known these truths for a long time, and yet I myself still want to be traditionally published. I think traditional publishing offers a legitimate good to society, and I am proud to be a part of it. 
  • I’m also not saying that the following truths are ethically or morally right; they’re just the reality. Authors should know what their publishing partners will view as normal when you make a business deal with them, because you’re not going to change a century of institutional habits and mindsets.
  • I’m also not saying that all editors, publishers, agents, or anyone else in the industry is bad, evil, rude, or unprofessional. Publishers are people like you and me who love books.

Truth #1: Publishing is slow as molasses.

To self-publish a book on Amazon or Ingram can take just a matter of days or weeks—and often less. So why can’t publishers do it that quickly as well?

Unfortunately, it legitimately takes a lot of work and coordination between many different people to publish a high-quality book. After you turn in the final draft of your book, you can expect to wait another 6-12 months for it to actually be printed and published. Often that time consists of:

  • Copyediting (1-2 months)
  • Typesetting (1-2 months)
  • Proofreading (1-2 months)
  • Printing (1 month)
  • Shipping/quality assurance checks (1 month)

At the publisher I worked for, Corwin, our timeline was 6 months, but our incredible production team was sometimes able to speed that up to 4-5 months. Still, authors were often flabbergasted that it would take so long. 

Then I started working with other publishers, and I learned that Corwin was extraordinarily fast. Other publishers can and do take up to a full year to publish your book after they receive the final draft.

Truth #2: You don’t work for your publisher.

On LinkedIn I got a notification: “[AUTHOR] started a new job at Corwin Press.”

Huh? I thought. I mean, we just signed a contract, but we didn’t hire him…

I’ve been surprised at how many authors believe (and even put on LinkedIn!) that when they sign a contract with a publisher, they are now employed by that publisher. But authors are definitely not W2 employees, nor are they independent contractors. The book isn’t even a “Work Made for Hire” because authors retain rights to the intellectual property. 

No, this is a business partnership. When you sign a contract, you agree to do your part (write/create and market the book) and the publisher agrees to do their part (manufacture/print/distribute the book). 

Publishers expect you to take responsibility for your part of the deal. For example,

  • If you want illustrations in your book, you have to hire the illustrator and get that taken care of.
  • You have to turn in a nearly perfect draft manuscript. If you’re not a great writer (and even if you are), you are expected to hire an editor or a ghostwriter/collaborator if you need to.

Truth #3: Yours is not your editor’s only book.

As an author, your book is precious. It’s probably the biggest creative project you have in your life. You pour hours upon hours into it, thinking deeply through every aspect of it. Therefore, it can be hard for authors to understand why their editors/editorial team doesn’t respond in a timely manner to inquiries that, to them, are EXTREMELY important and might even stall the work until they get an answer.

But for your editor or publisher, your email is just one of at least a dozen active, in-progress projects. And that is a VERY conservative estimate. Not only is your editor managing all of their active projects; your editor is also still the primary point person for their past projects as well. Let me give you a realistic glimpse of the average editor’s email inbox and the cascade of tasks embedded within. I know, because I lived it for 7+ years.

On any given day, when your editor opens her email in the morning, she will find herself fielding problems and inquiries such as:

  • Author from five years ago wants the rights to his book back. (Look up the old contract to read the terms governing the termination of rights, get approval from her boss/publisher, contact legal to have a new termination of rights agreement drawn up, negotiate with the author, do all the paperwork, communicate with production/manufacturing about what to do with the rest of the books, etc.)
  • Author whose book just published wants a report on current sales. (Look up sales numbers through dinosaur technology and figure out how to break the bad news to author.)
  • Author from 10 years ago is reaching out to see about doing a new edition of her book. (Look up sales numbers through dinosaur technology, assess the current market need for this idea, and figure out how to break the bad news to author.)
  • Prospective author wants to have a call to (once again) nitpick the finer details of the contract they’ve been negotiating for months. (Check relevant people’s schedules, email editorial director to ask again about adjusting some of the contract language, email legal, schedule call)
  • Marketing manager is sending the back cover copy for a book launching soon and it is atrocious. (Why didn’t the copywriter look at the language sent earlier?! Rewrite the entire copy.)
  • Cover designer is sending possible cover options for a forthcoming book. (Review designs, reject most of them, fall in love with one, and send to author, who will reject the one you love. Email cover designer asking them to try again.)
  • Literary agents have sent new proposals. (Look up authors, review proposals, decide no, and send polite rejection notes. If one looks good, send it to marketing manager for her thoughts, consult with editorial director on an offer, negotiate with editorial director so that you can later negotiate with agent, schedule call with literary agent/authors)

I could easily come up with a dozen more examples, but I think you get the point. And these are the more innocuous, everyday inquiries and tasks. Throw a plagiarism accusation or manufacturing error or an auction in there, and suddenly your editor’s entire day is scrapped and all of the above emails have to wait for next week while she handles fires. Editors are fielding A LOT of things that you, as the author, never get a glimpse of. If you ever think your editor looks a bit haggard, it’s probably because they’re exhausted.

Truth #4: You only get to communicate with your editor.

All communication that you have with your publishing team will go through the editor. I can’t really explain this one because I myself still don’t get it, but this is how it is at every publishing house. I was told often that editors have the “relationship” with an author, but that never held water with me. Authors don’t want a relationship with just their editor, and I think it's detrimental to everyone involved for all communication to be filtered through one person. Alas, no one asked me.

Do expect that all communication will need to go through your editor. (Hence, the barrage of emails they deal with.)

Truth #5: Editors don’t edit your draft manuscript.

This was another difference with Corwin: As an editor, I did actually edit many of my authors’ manuscripts. And we had another editor on our team whose sole job was editing manuscripts. I realize now what a luxury that was.

The truth is, most acquisitions editors don’t edit your draft. Their primary job is to evaluate proposals, manage author communication, and sign book deals. They simply don’t have time to do that and fix your manuscript. Therefore, it needs to be in near-perfect condition, only needing copy edits at that point (which will be done by a freelancer). 

That means that if you are a first time author and you don’t know what you’re doing, or your writing isn’t strong, you need to hire a book coach, freelance editor, or ghostwriter in order to fulfill your end of the deal.

Truth #6: Books can get orphaned.

When editors leave a publishing company—which happens often because publishing is an industry where people move around a lot, like many others—their books get “orphaned.” This is a big deal because the editor who acquired your book is always going to be your best advocate. That person has both an emotional and a financial stake in your book, as bonuses are usually paid out based on signings. (Contrary to what their email response rate might suggest,) They really do care about the books they’ve acquired, and they try to uphold the promises that they’ve made to their authors. But after they leave, the incoming editor has no such attachment to those books. As kind as they might be, they are less likely to advocate for your book the same way your previous editor would have.

I’ve been in this situation multiple times, both as an incoming editor and, two years ago, the outgoing editor. Ideally, the company would have a plan for a strong, smooth handover of projects and there would be a concerted effort by the higher ups on the editorial team to make sure that authors feel taken care of. However, every editor and publishing company will handle this a little differently and, depending on the circumstances of the editor’s departure, a smooth transition might not be possible. 

This happens at literary agencies, too—as seen recently in the abrupt turnover at New Leaf Literary.

Truth #7: Advances don’t get paid all at once.

Advances are paid out in installments; usually about one-third after you sign the contract, one-third when you turn in the draft, and one-third when the book publishes. Moreover, for the second installment, you won’t get that money until the manuscript is officially “accepted,” meaning if there are any debates or conflicts over the content, that installment will be delayed until those issues are resolved. 

If you’re planning on spending that money when you receive it, you need to plan for delays and have a contingency plan in place.

Truth #8: If you fail to deliver your manuscript, you’ll have to return the advance.

Your advance is not a grant. It’s an early payment of your royalties to help ease some of the financial pressures of having a massive creative project on your plate while life goes on as usual. The nice part about advances is that you don’t have to give them back if your book fails to earn out that money. However, you do have to give back the advance if you fail to uphold your end of the bargain: i.e. you fail to deliver a clean, well written manuscript. 

I can’t tell you what to do with the advance money you receive, but I can tell you to plan carefully and make sure you’ve thought about what you might do if you ever needed to return that money.

My sincere hope is that none of these industry realities ever poses a problem for you. In the best case scenarios—which I believe are more common than experiences like Hilary’s—authors and publishers are gracious, communicative, and able to peacefully resolve the inevitable issues and mistakes that do come up while working on a complex creative project together. As you consider the right publishing option or partner for your work, I hope that you’re able to use this knowledge to make a positive outcome more likely and to enjoy the fruits of your labor once the book is published.

For more about the publishing partnership and negotiating contracts, read this.

Photo by Pauline Loroy on Unsplash