3 Tips for a Happy Author-Publisher Relationship

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Whatever route you take to publishing, traditional, Indy, or self-publishing, following a few tips can position you for a successful author-publisher relationship.

I’m going to use the author relationship with a traditional publisher as my case study today because it is still the first choice among most new and mid-list authors. Some of the following tips are also applicable if you publish with an Indy- or self-publisher.  publishing-team-author-support

1.  Understand your role and your publisher’s role. Reading your contract thoroughly will clarify your role for you. You, the author, are responsible for turning in a complete and clean manuscript by the due date in your contract. Only an extreme family emergency or natural disaster would be an acceptable reason for missing this date. Your signed contract means you agree to all of the contents, which is why your agent reviews every word and diligently negotiates in your best interest. Basically, your responsibility through the rest of the production process is to respond to your publishing team’s needs and requests and to pursue the best ways for you to market and promote your particular book.

Your publisher is responsible for pricing, editing, designing and packaging, timing the release, and distribution of your book. They know what they’re doing and want your book to succeed as much as you do. They will retain the final decision on your book’s cover design in your contract, but we agents always negotiate hard to include wording that grants you the opportunity to offer input. If you strongly disagree with the publisher’s direction, ask your agent to intervene. There are two reasons for this: (1) We are experienced negotiators and will work toward a win-win resolution, and (2) your agent knows how important it is for you to preserve your author relationship with the publisher.

2. Function professionally with your publishing team.

Reminding yourself that yours is one of many books your team members are working on simultaneously will help you to respect their time. Frequent or piecemeal communications will become an irritant. It’s enjoyable to have jovial interaction with your team, but always frame it a professional context. You are first and foremost partners in business. Genuine friendships that develop in the process are icing.

You, the author, have the primary responsibility to market and promote your book. Your marketing and publicity team members will schedule a conference call with you to present the publisher’s plan for marketing your book. Request that your agent be invited to the call too. This is an important meeting that we agents want to attend whenever possible. We look for ways you can synchronize your efforts with their plans to maximize results. Following that meeting, if you send a succinct monthly email to the marketing team highlighting your marketing progress, it will keep them enthusiastic about your book.

The production process is not a good time to take a vacation. If you arrange your schedule so you can be at the disposal of the publisher’s schedule, your editor will love working with you. When you make all your desired changes on the galleys–avoiding a request for changes at page proof stage–and return them by the assigned due date, you’ll confirm your professionalism and heighten your popularity.

3. Be a respecter of professional boundaries. Your publisher is the leader of your book project. The acquisitions editor isn’t responsible to report to you about their publication schedule or decisions in the areas of their responsibility. It’s okay to ask an occasional question about how a decision was made, but do it in a positive way. If the answer doesn’t satisfy your concerns, talk to you agent. If your agent agrees there is a problem, let her contact the publisher on your behalf.

In a climate of fierce competition for diminishing slots, the more you can do to generate sales, the more your team can rely on you to be a enjoyable team member, and the more you confirm your professionalism, the better you position yourself to be offered the next contract.

What didn’t you know about your author role? About your publishing team’s role? Do you have additional tips to add from your own publishing experience—traditional, Indy-, or self-publishing?


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When the author and publishing team work well together, the end product–the book–benefits. Click to Tweet.

54 Responses

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  1. Mary, I enjoyed every aspect of self-publishing my book. I’m so glad that I published with a company that could produce a print version. I love having that “real” book in my hands and one that I can give (and sell) to others.

    I knew that I would have to market the book myself, but didn’t know how costly that would be. Later, I read advice saying you should have about $3,000 set aside for marketing, and I think that’s good advice in retrospect. Any marketing an author does costs dollars. That’s why a traditional publisher would be so nice.

    I think treating every publishing team member with respect and realizing that they are on the side of your book (and you), goes a long way toward nurturing those relationships for the long term.

    Newbies (like me) who don’t know all the intricacies of the process and relationships,
    need some grace for getting through the process!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      So true, Angela. Authors earn good reputations by nurturing respectful relationships with their publishing team, and word spreads among editors across publishing houses. Authors who interact and respond promptly are more likely to receive extra grace through the process.

  2. You hit the key word – professionalism.

    Some thoughts –

    * It’s important to recognize that to the publisher, by virtue of your book, you’re an asset.

    * If you are professional and add value to the process through cooperation and a positive attitude, you’ll add worth to your status as an asset.

    * If you’re obstructive, inefficient, and careless with the publisher’s time and resources, you can make yourself a disposable asset.

    * Forming personal friendships with individuals on the editorial team is fine, but keep this in mind – it can put them into a difficult position if a negative decision has to be taken with your work or overall relationship with the publisher.

    * Confidentiality in your business relationship is something that absolutely has to be respected, because a publisher’s proprietary information can be key to their financial health, and their survival. If you break explicit OR implicit confidentiality agreements, it WILL become known, and you’ll face, at best, damage to your professional reputation. At worst, your name can become anathema within the industry – and you can be sued.

    It’s not a hard, cold world, and people want to be nice, but recognize that they need to make a living – just like you do.

    • You’re so right, Andrew! Learning as much as we can about how to conduct ourselves professionally within the publishing industry is of the utmost importance. Visiting this blog is a great help. And following our contracts to the letter (or not following them), as you mentioned, can have legal ramifications.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Right on all counts, Andrew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sadly, your 3rd and 5th bullet points can be career killers.

  3. This is great information, Mary. Thanks! I think I understand the author’s role pretty well. The author’s responsibility in marketing a book is intimidating to me. I wish I knew exactly what I’ll need to do. When I get to that point I’ll have to rely on my agent to guide me through.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Andrea, there are things you can be doing now to educate and prepare yourself for marketing your book. Search “books on book promotion” on Amazon for good resources.

      • I’ve read a few and tried to start working on building my “tribe”. It’s still intimidating to me, but it’s all part of the process. 🙂 I will have to keep researching. Thanks, Mary!

  4. Going into this adventure with eyes wide open is key to making it go more smoothly. As a pre-agented, pre-pubbed writer, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the publishing end of things.

    It’s good to remember what my role is and what the publisher’s role is. And it’s my job to work within their framework. Hence the importance of knowing my contract, and making sure I can agree to it with confidence.

    I need to remember that it’s a team effort to get a book published, in almost all cases. Treating others with courtesy goes a long ways in building solid relationships.

  5. I look forward to going through this process and working within a team to publish my stories. It will be a lot of work, and will have its challenges, but it’s also an exciting prospect. I work best with others and I long for the day an editor makes suggestions to improve my writing. I agree with Andrea, marketing my book sounds like a daunting job, but I’m confident I will have a solid support system and great guidance from my agent. 🙂

  6. One thing I might add … on cover design. I’ve heard writers can be hard to agree on cover. Maybe we’ve had it in our minds from the beginning how we want it … to open that attachment and suddenly to see it differently than we anticipated … can hurt. We must definitely be praying over the cover, as silly as that sounds. And with publishers having final say and amazing professionals working on our behalf … before disagreeing, give it a chance. You might find yourself loving it!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Praying over your cover is not silly, but rather very important, Shelli. Covers sell books.

      To breathe some insight into the author-publisher tension over covers, authors are knit to their books. It’s almost impossible not to envision your cover in the writing process, and by the time the book is finished, your minds-eye can have a definite view. The publisher, on the other hand, views it objectively from a marketability perspective: the images their research indicates will attract readers, colors, background, etc. This is why we agents work hard to negotiate input for our clients in their contracts. Occasionally, the designer and sales staff don’t have time to read your whole book and miss important elements. It benefits everyone to work together on the best compromise. Your agent always needs to be involved when there is a disagreement of this importance.

    • I do want to have my hero on the cover, but holy cow, if they put an eagle feather head dress on him?

    • Sounds sensible, not silly, to me. So often we pray as a last resort. How much better to pray into it early on!

      Dear God, some future day my book will need a cover. Pave the way, I pray, starting now. Amen.

  7. For years, I’ve tucked away marketing ideas regarding my stories set in the Ozarks. I look forward to working with a team of professionals who will add to and improve upon those ideas.

    I like to work with others who have a zest for life and Jesus. That’s the best thing about Christian publishing–we’re all working toward the mutual goal of sharing the love of Christ. I can’t imagine having to hide my light under a bushel. It’s just not me.

    I’m thankful for you, Mary! 🙂

  8. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this, because I haven’t had a publishing experience yet, but this is valuable info to tuck away for future reference.

    The idea of marketing somewhat scares me. For my whole life I’ve tried to stay off social media and now I get to put everything on the internet. I still don’t have Facebook or Twitter, but I’m getting there. Google+, Goodreads, and a blog I have. Just gotta muster up the courage to get the other two. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Crystal, no one can keep up with all of them well. Try them out for a while and decide on several that you are most comfortable with. Concentrate on maximizing your effectiveness on those. I suggest you try Pinterest also.

  9. Angela Mills says:

    In the fiction class at Mount Hermon, Deb Raney mentioned that she always had her deadlines in June so she could take her summers off with her kids.

    How much say does a new author have as to when deadlines are? At this point, I’m guessing I would plan my vacations around the publisher’s schedule and not the other way around., but I’m curious how this works.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Angela, your publisher may have a schedule for their releases of new authors with debut novels because you are an unproven asset. It’s a revenue stream issue for the publisher. For example, if the publisher were to release too many debut books in a selling season, it could result in a poor quarter for them financially. At this point in your career you need to be willing to acquiesce to the publisher’s schedule.

  10. Mary, I appreciate the great post chock-full of valuable information. I have the same concern as Angela regarding vacation time. My college professor husband’s vacation schedule is non-negotiable with his employer, and we love to travel. Tons of great story ideas await on the road! All the other weeks of the year I’m 100%. And it’s not that I wouldn’t brainstorm, make notes, draft scenes, keep up with social media, etc. while traveling. But I can see difficulty keeping up with marketing a new release while vacationing. I want to be an easy-to-work-with author, so I’m wondering about flexibility in schedules. Does the publisher work with the author on timing, or does the publisher decide unilaterally? Thanks for your wisdom.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, I’ll add to my response to Angela here. Your agent will try to negotiate a manuscript due date or a release date that accommodates your firm schedule. But if your publisher holds firm to a release date that is difficult for your schedule, as a debut author you need to find ways to make it work. I wish there were a gentler way to express the reality, but if it means foregoing a vacation one year to market your release, you need to be willing to make that investment for your writing career. A vigorous marketing effort at that important time affects sales, which in turn affects the possibility of getting the next contract.

  11. One thing I want, WANT to keep doing, and will endeavor to stay focused on, is listening. I do want to learn as much as I can, but I also don’t have a problem asking a polite question here or there.

    Although, I must confess, my poor agent, bless her to the big blue horizon and back again, has already been the recipient of a few “WAHHH What do I do?????” panic emails.
    So I know I am in great hands, and at least one of us is calm. And it ain’t moi.
    Because any of you actually needed me to clarify that?

  12. Once upon a future time, when my novel is published, I would love to visit the publisher that I’m contracted with and meet the team that is turning my dreams into reality.
    How often is this kind of field trip possible? It seems like face-to-face interaction with the team would be positive for everyone involved.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jenni, most publishers welcome visits from their authors. The in-person connection with your whole team is valuable for everyone. A good time for an arranged visit is during the sales conference for the season your book is scheduled to release. It’s beneficial for the sales reps to get to know you too.

  13. Jamie Chavez says:

    I had to laugh at your line about production not being a good time to take a vacation. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve send notes off to an author only to learn he or she has taken the family off on some long vacation! Now I’ve learned to ASK if they’re planning to be MIA during the time I’ll be working on the manuscript … and even sooo … 🙂

  14. Perhaps an overarching ‘truth’ to finding happiness in the author-publisher relationship is Trust.

    Here’s an analogy – God has chosen us, and when we accept Him, we become part of His family. he has a vested interest in us – we’re His children. He loves us.

    So we trust Him to do the right thing, even if it’s puzzling at times.

    And for us, salvation is not carte blanche to do as we please. We enter into a relationship, and we respect what that relationship calls us to do, even if we don’t understand it at the time. We play by the ultimate Big Boys’ Rules, and they govern our lives and choices.

    What’s writ large in Heaven is writ small on Earth, so here goes…

    The publisher has chosen ‘us’. They have a vested interest, in bringing a good product to the market, and turning a profit for their shareholders (and, in the case of a Christian house, the most important of all – glorifying God).

    We have to trust their professionalism, and give our weaknesses into the care of their strengths. They know their market better than we ever will. They know their customers. They know their mission.

    We may not understand why they ask something, or even agree with it, but as long as their credentials and mission are in order, we’d be wise to at least put great stock in their judgement.

    And having done all, stand, and let them carry the ball where we can’t. (Hope Paul doesn’t mind the paraphrase!)

    • Mary Keeley says:

      That perspective of trust will keep an author in good stead, Andrew. But let me add a footnote for balance. No earthling is infallible. Publishers can unwittingly make a mistake in judgment now and then. Trust with a watchful eye, rather than blind trust, is a wise approach. That way, if an author senses something of concern, you can discuss it with your agent right away.

  15. Michelle LIm says:

    Mary, this post is so helpful in helping me understand the process better! Especially the information regarding the monthly marketing email and phone meeting.

    I’m just glad I have you in my corner to help when that exciting moment comes!

  16. Leon says:

    I know very little of the publishing, agenting, and writing industry, but I undeniably hope to one day.

    What I can say, with fair certainty, is that I’m of the sort who would rather know how it all works, from the get-go, long before I finish, or even entertain the idea of forming my manuscript. I want to see the roller coaster before I pay for my ticket and get in line.

    Years ago, well technically it’s now decades ago, I graduated from college in an unrelated industry, and I was in love with what I was doing. It wasn’t long before I discovered how the business worked and who the key players were. I believed I was in fine company, and handed my ticket over to the man.

    But on the first ascent, I caught a glimpse of the spiral tracks and the gravitational and centripetal forces I’d have to endure to earn a living in that industry, and my car flew off the rails on the first free-fall.

    Knowing this information about the publishing/agenting/authoring industry helps me understand my position in the family unit.

    Grandma is the publisher, and she knows what’s best. The agent is mom, and she’s going take care of you, no matter what. If you’re patient and give her time, she’ll catapult you into the big leagues. And the author, well mom says, “Now that you’re done your homework, go on back out and pray––I mean play. Grandma and I will call you in when dinner’s ready.”

    Thank you Mary for these insightful tips that provide invaluable guidance for novice writers like myself. Which way to the ticket booth please?

  17. One thing I feel is getting lost in this discussion is
    we’re human and sometimes that means we don’t

    I take that seriously. But I do think

    I do take issue with the marketing stance lots before me in the comments are taking, not because it’s not true, but that’s not as simple as it’s put above. I just want people at all levels to understand “Can’t” and “Won’t” are just not the same.

    As much as the gritty, stubborn Type A folks hate the word “Can’t” it’s NOT ALWAYS CODE FOR TODDLER-BRAINED ARROGANCE! PERIOD. (Sigh)

    Sorry for the all caps, but I feel I need to say this for those who are in my situation, grateful they’ve made their first sale, but have to work with less than tthey’d like, but still take their work seriously.

    I simply don’t have 3 grand or MORE to spend, that doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing, and I try to see what I can do more than what I can’t, and some days I lose that fight, but I don’t quit. That’s all I can promise.

    Next to cover designs and (for indie authors) editing services authors are HOUNDED to have, marketing is the highest cost in the process, but some of us have to be thrifty in what we spend.

    Not because we’re “Cheap” and don’t want to invest in the work we believe in, but we limits in what we can financially invest, that’s just not the same as being cheap and thinking low of yourself.

    While a few thousand dollars may be “chump change” for some people, it’s NOT for me. Period.

    I say this not as an excuse to do nothing, but to be understanding that your definition of “Professional” isn’t possible for . Or that what you think is “Basic” others struggle with.

    That doesn’t mean they need it less, it’s just HARDER, and some of us are just trying to go from 0 to SOMETHING, yes we do it because we love, but we still
    see what we do as a business, but sadly that doesn’t mean can invest as much as we’d truly like to.

    Our wallet ALONE shouldn’t dictate how committed we are.

    I’m not complaining, I’m simply being honest, and I ask authors who can put more money up front to get their start to first be thankful you can, and be mindful that many of us have to work harder and longer to have that buffer money.

    I have sold my first middle grade novel, and I do trust my editor, I even changed publishers to work with this editor when my contract with my first publisher was not met for various reasons.

    It’s SO HARD to find editors who GET my genre, especially since I don’t write picture books where this is more universally accepted as either authors or readers.

    For me personally, it’s why I’ve resisted the notion
    of being either an indie only author or a hybrid author because lack of money would get in the way, and I just couldn’t sacrifice quality just to “Get in the Game” so the speak, especially when it’s so much harder to stand out in POSITIVE ways if you don’t look as professional as the best of what’s out there, indie or traditional, and despite the “E-Book Revolution” not all areas of publishing can take advantage yet, especially in the Children’s publishing field where outside YA, print books still matter, and why I continue to pursue the traditional market.

    First in foremost in my case, because I know i don’t have the money to invest, and you can’t “make the d**** investment” if you just don’t have it, and loans and family begging aren’t options.

    Last time I checked, wanting SOME MONEY isn’t the same as “I’ve got to make a living doing this.” Many people (especially parents) work 3+ jobs to keep lights on, mortgages or rent paid, and food on the table.

    I’m not a parent, or a student with a quarter million in student loan debt, that doesn’t mean what money I do get is all that greater (or freer) those with more on their shoulders.

    The day when only the rich can take chances and is when we’ll lose many a great writer. Sorry if I sound like a nutty loose cannon, but I say this because I care, and put what people said above in perspective for those of us who can only invest so much in money, but make the time and understand people in my situation aren’t rare, they’re just silent due to fear, but I’m tired of being afraid.

  18. EDIT: “One thing I feel is getting lost in this discussion is we’re human and sometimes that means we don’t always do or say the right things.

    We have to be willing forgive ourselves for time when we just don’t behave as civilly or professional as we’d like and need to be. As long as we learn to be and do better next time we’ll get through it.

    Sometimes I fear whenever authors in particular talk about “business” it’s in this very harsh, sotic manner, I feel we let the jerks and unprofessional exceptions de-humanize the struggles anyone can face, that’s not excusing the unprofessionalism on my part or others, just a reminder that we don’t want to become what we ourselves couldn’t bear no matter how strong we are.”