I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how important it is for an author to understand the culture of a publishing house or the culture of a literary agency. What do I mean by publishing culture?
I’m not talking about Beethoven or a fine wine. I’m talking about what distinguishes one publisher from another or one literary agency from another. It’s not that entity’s business plan or even its employees that form the culture. It’s who that company is as an entity. Often that environment is a reflection of the top executives. What do they value? How do they define success?
People who happily work at one publishing house would languish in a pool of despond at another. Agents who function as a unit in one agency would be odd man out in a different agency. The culture of a company is what makes the difference.
Publishing House Culture
As I think about various publishing houses I’ve worked with both as an employee and as an agent, I can identify their culture even though it never has been explained to me. One publisher has a culture of indifference to authors. Phone calls aren’t returned, authors languish in need of attention, contracted manuscripts aren’t read on a timely basis, employees are dismissive of authors’ opinions on titles and covers. What makes this a culture isn’t that one or two employees behave this way, but almost every employee does. And they enjoy working in the environment that publisher has created; it works for them.
Another publisher has a culture that I would describe as seeing the authors as family members. Once you’re published by this publisher, the employees feel a significant responsibility to see your material sell well. If it doesn’t, the employees contemplate what they could do differently to make the material work–recover the project, retitle it, let it rest for a season and then come back at selling it again. As is true for the other publisher, the employees here tend to stay for many years, happy in their jobs and the expectations the publisher has of them.
Literary Agency Culture
Literary agencies have cultures as well. One agency might label itself as the “premiere” agency, basing its identity on the number of best-sellers it has represented. Its culture is to sell each project for the highest dollar and then to move on to another publisher if those significant advances aren’t earned back. The idea is to make as much money for the author and for the agency on each project without thought to the long-term affect.
Another agency might concentrate on the long haul for each client and be more invested in building a career by working toward increased advances that both the publisher and the author believe are likely to earn out. That results in the author staying at the same publishing house for a long time and earning both advances and royalties rather than just advances.
Where Does the Author Fit in Publishing Culture?
What does that mean for you as a writer? Should you have the opportunity to choose between publishing house offers and agents, ask yourself what kind of culture you want to be a part of. There is no one right answer. Some writers long to be with an agency that brings in as much money as possible with each offer, but will move you from house to house. Others want to be in an agency that takes a longer view of a writer’s career and hopefully allowing you to sink deep into relationships while you stay a long while at one publishing house.
How Do You Know What the Publishing Culture is?
Over the years of working at various publishers, I learned what type of culture suited me and what type imprisoned me. When I went to job interviews, I figured out what kinds of questions to ask that helped me to understand that employer’s culture. I didn’t always read the signs correctly, but I learned from my mistakes as well as from the choices that put me in happy places.
Here are some of the questions I asked (altered slighted to apply to writers) that could help you to determine the culture of a publishing house or an agency:
- Do you see your workplace as hierarchical, collegial, or highly individualistic?
- When the staff have meetings, what form do those meetings take–give-and-take; dispensing information from key sources; or reporting on results?
- How do you involve authors in decisions on their projects such as titles, covers and marketing? How many cover options do you show an author? What if the publishing staff and the author disagree on which is the best cover?
- In what ways do you plan with authors to help them to grow their careers?
- When an author publishes with you, do you view the contract as we’ll-see-how-this-goes, or do you look for authors you think could publish with you long-term?
You’ve probably had some culture shock experiences of your own. If so, what did you learn to look for in future relationships?
If you’re looking to form those publishing relationships, what questions have you found insightful to ask?
What publishing culture suits you best as a writer? Click to tweet.
Publishing houses and literary agencies all have their own culture. What’s the best fit for you? Click to tweet.