Frequently Asked Questions
As publishers, we find ourselves being asked the same questions rather frequently – whether about the book industry in general or our company in particular. For easy reference, here goes:
1. How easy is it to publish a book?
How long is a piece of string, really? In short, with the rise of digital publishing, it is considerably easier than it used to be a decade ago. Literally, anyone can do it if they want to. But to do it properly – that is, to produce a book that other people will want to actually buy – is a more complex process than many people realise.
2. How much does it cost to get a book made?
There are so many variables that it’s dangerous answering a question like this… But let’s give it a bash.
In any book, there are three primary processes (and costs) required to get to a finished product: compiling the information (doing the writing and sourcing the pictures), pre-production (from editing to layout) and printing. Let’s consider a simple 50,000-word black-and-white softcover book.
If you can deliver a near-perfect manuscript (NB: virtually impossible) that requires the barest of edits, it is possible to copy edit, proof and lay it out (typeset) and design a simple but workable cover for around R10,000. You could then digitally print one reasonable trade-quality copy for R100 or so, or 500 copies for perhaps R20,000. For larger non-digital (litho) print runs, usually offering slightly better quality, you’d be looking at R40,000 for 2,500 copies.
3. Is that all?
Those figures are for a very clean – and thus very rare – manuscript. Usually there is a reasonable amount of editing required, at upwards of R300 an hour (on freelance rates), which can push the pre-production costs right up. For a trade title, it’s also likely that a publisher will want to spend a little more on good cover images and design – and this is assuming there are no internal images (whether black and white, or in colour inserts). For a standard book, as above, most publishers would look at printing a bare minimum of 2,000 copies for it to become a viable project.
4. Who pays for what?
Traditionally, when a publisher accepts a manuscript for trade publication, the publisher covers all the costs involved in producing and selling the book. The author is then remunerated with a standard royalty of around 10 or 12% on net sales, which works out to about 5 or 6% of RRP. But in the digital age the line between author and publisher is becoming ever more blurred. For example, a non-writer with a good idea for a book may pay for his writing to be heavily edited or even ghost-written to get it to a standard that turns it into a commercially viable project. This cost varies hugely, depending on the workload. At Burnet Media we encourage a close relationship between author and publisher and are happy to look at customised financing options for projects that we take on.
5. What qualifies as a South African bestseller?
Usually 5,000 sales. No, it doesn’t sound like a lot – but it is. It’s not uncommon for local books (with high expectations from the publisher) to sell only a few hundred copies.
6. How much do South African authors earn?
Usually not very much… which is a sad and unfortunate truth given the effort required to write a book. Using the imaginary book above as an example, if we printed and sold 2,000 copies at an RRP of R150 the author would likely make less than R20,000. Of course, if you’re John van der Ruit and your first book sells 150,000+ copies then happy days.
7. What types of books does Burnet Media publish?
Pretty much anything that takes our fancy. We specialise in irreverent or edgy South African books for the book trade (i.e. selling through bookstores via our Two Dogs, Mercury and Two Pups imprints), and we can handle virtually any customised projects.
8. Will you review any proposals whatsoever?
No. But we’ll look at most if they’re vaguely related to what we do – bearing in mind that there really is no point in sending your proposal for a feminist reworking of Great Expectations to a publisher that specialises in contemporary warfare…
Genres that we really can’t help with include:
– Self-help books or any other spiritual wellness type guides
– Specialist fiction; e.g. romance, sci-fi, fantasy
Please note, we are no longer accepting fiction proposals for trade publication, though we do offer manuscript review services and advice for both fiction and non-fiction proposals.
Very. A complete manuscript proposal has, by definition, had more effort put into it and thus will likely receive more effort when a publisher receives it. It helps to attach it to a well thought-out email that directly addresses the publisher in question. Often an editor will simply delete a proposal that is badly written or a generic that has been mass mailed. It should go without saying that a complete proposal makes it easier for us to see whether or not your manuscript will be viable for publication and thus is more likely to be answered – but the number of incomplete or poorly compiled proposals doing the rounds would suggest that this is perhaps not as obvious as it sounds.
No, it is not necessary to have a complete manuscript before sending your proposal. You do, however, need a draft chapter outline and a good amount of sample writing, usually one or two chapters, at least.
We try to have reviews completed within two weeks but, depending on the time of the year and how busy we are, this process can take up to a month. We will endeavour to acknowledge receipt of the proposal within two days.
Because reading loads of poorly written or generic proposals is rather irritating and time consuming, to the point that many publishers write off proposals without a second thought unless they are instantly won over. (In the US, publishers generally don’t even accept proposals directly from writers; they have to go through agents.)
We try our best at Burnet Media to give all proposals a fair crack because a) we’ve been on the authors’ side of this equation, and b) you never know what hidden gems are waiting to be unearthed.
Do you spend money that you can’t recoup if your book isn’t published? It’s up to you. At Burnet Media, we actually prefer to have the option of guiding the edit in a certain direction, so usually like to see unedited material. Then again, if you’re desperate to get your book out there and want to make the best possible first impression, a good edit can’t hurt.
Yes. If you are looking for a publisher to re-publish a book that you have published yourself, you are welcome to send us a copy of the book or PDF along with your manuscript proposal.
Traditionally it takes about nine months to a year for a book to run through the publication process from conception/acceptance to appearing on the shelves. However, at Burnet Media we are more flexible and can turn around a small customised job in six weeks if necessary, and trade titles in three to six months, depending on our schedule.
16. What happens if my book is accepted for publication?
If your book is accepted for publication, we will be in touch and send you a complete author information pack to explain how we will go ahead. There is far more information than offered on this FAQs page…
Friends and family are biased, as simple as that. Firstly, they’re your friends and family; it’s their job. And secondly, they are involved in the specifics of your world; they are likely to understand your point of view, or “get” your writing, far more easily than the general reader out there – and the prospective publisher. If someone tells you “You should write a book”, ask them if they honestly would go out and spend R150 or R200 buying it. The bottom line is this: if your friends and family don’t think your writing’s great, then you know you don’t stand a chance.
18. How do I know which publisher is best suited for my book?
The best option is to visit your local bookstore and look for books that are similar to yours or in the same genre. Who publishes them? Also take a look online to see who’s out there; in the age of digital publishing, there are many options. See the Publishing Associations of South Africa’s website – www.publishsa.co.za – to find a good listing.
There are, generally speaking, three types of rejection approaches a publisher might use to fob you off. They are:
i/ The you’re-not-for-us letter
Straightforward enough: if you’ve sent your proposal for a book on crustaceans of the West Coast to an imprint that puts out children’s fiction, you can expect this response. This happens surprisingly often, by the way, probably the result of the misguided belief that mass-sending general-approach emails to every publisher in the book is a wise move. (It’s not; targeting a handful of publishers, mentioning the publishing manager by name, is the way to go.) You may also get this response if the tone and style of your writing is at odds with the imprint in question.
Bottom line: your idea and/or writing doesn’t fit their brand.
The good news: you might fit another brand.
The bad news: you’ve wasted your time and annoyed an editor.
ii/ The we-like-your-idea-but-it’s-too-risky letter
This is the standard – and understandable – rejection when the editor reading your proposal thinks your writing is lovely but your idea just won’t sell. Such a response might be couched in phrases like “we are unable to take risks in tough economic times” or “our schedule is secured for the foreseeable future”. This may be a conservative call, when an editor doesn’t know what to make of a proposal or if cashflow is a problem, and it may be made reluctantly. But it may also be a sound judgment call: most book ideas are risky and don’t work.
The bottom line: it’s tough getting published.
The good news: at least you aren’t rubbish; you may get some ideas to tighten up your proposal or to approach a specific publisher.
The bad news: this may actually be the you-are-rubbish letter in disguise.
iii/ The you-are-rubbish letter
As it sounds, you are rubbish. It can be exceptionally difficult to hear it after all the time and effort and expectation that’s gone into your proposal (and writing), but most proposals and manuscripts just aren’t good enough.
The bottom line: it’s tough getting published.
The good news: the Beatles, James Joyce and Stephen King were all repeatedly rejected because the experts thought they were rubbish.
The bad news: you’re probably not James Joyce.
If you are fobbed off without an explanation, it is likely to be third reason. This is all assuming you get a rejection letter, though – many publishers don’t even bother.