Six things I didn't know about publishing

It's now been 50 days since my book Media Unmade launched. Here's what I learned

Welcome to Unmade, the first (and perhaps last) time I’ll send an email on a Sunday. I doubt this will be the regular timing, but as you know, I’m still experimenting. Friday afternoon’s outing, in which I looked at journalists’ problematic relationship with Twitter had a slightly lower open rate (although it’s since had more than a thousand views), so I think we can safely rule that out of the regular routine. Still, it’s all data, so we’ll see.

There are 868 of us now, by the way.

As I said last week, as Unmade develops, most of the content of this newsletter will be focused around the evolution of the Australian media and marketing world.

Much of that thinking was honed by my work last year writing my book Media Unmade. So for the first few posts I’ll be looking backwards a little too.

This weekend, I hit 50 days since the launch of Media Unmade, so it seems a good moment to reflect upon how little I knew about the parallel world of book publishing going into the process. Unless you’re interested in that world, I fear this one may be a little indulgent. Feel free to stop reading at any time with no hard feelings. Next week I’ll be tightening my focus.

Here are six things I learned.

Back in November 2015, through a bit of a misunderstanding, I ended up as a keynote speaker at a book industry publishing conference in Beijing. It’s a long way to go, to discover you’re probably not meant to be there.

I came away with a couple of great anecdotes, and a selfie of myself wearing a facemask, which seemed quite the novelty at the time.

The invitation came about because the Chinese organisers of the Second World Digital Publishing Conference had asked the Australian Press Council to recommended a few speakers for their event, myself included. It seemed like an adventure, so I said yes.

The Fairfax journo didn’t show up for the Air China flight, leaving just myself and an executive from Yahoo7 as the Australian delegation.

It was only when we got there that it became clear that all the speakers from the rest of the world were from book publishing, because it was a digital book publishing conference. The type of publishing had not really come up in the conversation. They were now too polite to bump us from the schedule.

I had been hoping to get some stories for Mumbrella from the speakers but now that was out of course. Never mind, I thought, I’ll do my speech about the online trade press publishing model and otherwise hide in my room for most of the two days and catch up on work.

I’d needed to submit my presentation beforehand, ostensibly so that the translator could prepare. I’d not been entirely sure what it was okay to say about press freedom without creating some sort of drama, so asked about that beforehand. It would not be a problem, they cheerfully told me. I could say what I liked and the translator would take care of it. I’m sure they would…

Soon it became clear my plan to skulk in my room was not going to work. For starters, the Great Firewall of China meant that I wasn’t getting any of my emails. And then came the formal opening of the conference. Once the audience of a few hundred was in the room, the speakers were asked to line up outside, before being ceremonially paraded in to take our seats at the front. There was even a sign with my name on. Leaving an empty seat would be highly discourteous.

So I had to sit there for the two days while a random group of book publishers from around the world talked about the challenges they faced. By osmosis, I learned a fair bit about the parallel challenges and differences between the book industry and the news publishing world. In the book world, digital was far more of a positive force than it was for the news business.

I also came away far more interested in writing a book.

But until I got into it last year, I still didn’t really understand how it all worked.

Getting a contract

I look back now, and realise I was lucky just to get published, particularly by a reputable publishing house like Hardie Grant. Finding your way in is hard.

One thing I had going for me, a friend of mine who was a former book editor told me, was that there are fewer writers offering non-fiction. It also helped that I was already a journalist, so wrote for a living.

As the new owners of Mumbrella took management control at the beginning of 2020, I was still on staff, but no longer in the room for any of the business decisions. I struggled with the loss of relevance, but found that I now had room in my brain for something else. I began to think that there was a story to be written about the evolution of Australia’s media over the last decade.

I Googled “how to get a book deal”. The recommended answer was to get a literary agent.

So I Googled “how to get a literary agent”. The recommended answer was to have a brilliant synopsis.

So I Googled “How to write a brilliant book synopsis”. And I followed the advice to kick off with the selling points, spell out who might be interested in buying it, then offer a chapter breakdown.

The sell was four paragraphs:

“It was the decade that unmade Australian media.
”Boardroom plots, political deals and the disruptive rise of the global digital behemoths brought revolution to every one of Australia’s media players
”Australia’s three commercial TV networks each faced bankruptcy. Fairfax Media, Australia’s oldest publishing company vanished. The ABC faced an existential threat to its funding. And the mighty News Corp lost its way.
”Tim Burrowes, the award-winning founder of Australia’s leading media authority Mumbrella, covered it all as it unfolded. Spanning 2010 to 2020, the book offers a definitive account of how it all went down.”

I identified the potential audience as the 200,000 or so people employed in some way in the communications sector, along with those going through the 120 or so educational institutions offering some sort of media studies course. I’m not sure now where I came up with those numbers from.

Then I did some detective work. I looked through the acknowledgements section of some books by non-fiction Australian authors to identify which agents they thanked.

From that I identified a potential agent from a big literary agency who had represented an author I vaguely knew from the Australian media world. I did a bit more detective work and worked out her email address, name dropped the author, and asked whether the agent wanted to see my synopsis.

She was responded quickly. She was positive, but too busy. Instead she handed me to a colleague, who was also positive, but pessimistic about whether it would be commercial enough.

Was I willing to do it for only a very small advance, she asked? Yes I was.

She pitched it to a small Australian publishing house, who turned it down. She said she’d pitch it to another. And I never heard from her again.

As days became weeks, I began to let the idea of the book drop.

By then I was getting interested in doing a Substack newsletter anyway. The first iteration was Fifth Day, named for the fact we’d been stood down at work to four days per week because of the Covid crisis.

Luckily for me, Fifth Day got me my book deal. When I wrote in Mumbrella’s Best of the Week column about the plan for Fifth Day, Jane Willson, publishing director at Hardie Grant, dropped me a line to say she was enjoying my writing.

Funnily enough, I had a book synopsis to hand that I wondered if she’d be interested in looking at, I told her. I think I may have neglected to mention my first failed effort to get a publisher interested.

Jane became a believer and championed it internally. Hardie Grant offered me a contract.

How book contracts work

Luckily, my main motivation for doing the book were not about money. Unless you beat the odds spectacularly, books do not provide a financial return on the time put in.

An early negotiation between publisher and author is around the advance. As the word would suggest, that’s the fee paid to the author ahead of time. They’ll only see more money later if the royalties on book sales exceeds that advance. It seems impolite to say what the cut was in my contract, but most online articles put that price at 10% to 12% of the book price.

Unless there’s strong competition for the author’s signature, the advance won’t be a huge amount. In my case, it was rather less than my salary would have been worth for the five months or so I ended up taking as long service leave.

Another thing I hadn’t realised is that the advance comes in three stages - on first signing the contract, on delivering the manuscript, and when the book is finally published.

My suspicion is that for most authors that moment when royalties exceed the advance does not occur. On the plus side, if the book doesn’t sell, the author does not need to give the advance back.

Edit, edit, edit

Having come up through newspapers, I was already familiar with the stages of editing print journalists go through. Indeed, I wrote about some of the lost stages of that process in Media Unmade.

Book publishing takes it to another level. The quality assurance is insane.

The single biggest reason why books from reputable publishing houses deserve to be treated with more respect than self published works is because of those extra levels of quality control.

After I submitted my manuscript, I was assigned a freelance editor to work on the book. He would work through about a chapter a day. With 26 chapters, it took about a month. Each morning, an email would be waiting for me, full of small suggestions about how to express something better, diplomatic questions where I hadn’t made my argument well enough, or corrections of out-and-out errors. Although I write fairly cleanly, I was still shocked how many errors I’d made in the spelling of names that I was convinced I knew correctly so had not double checked. In a couple of places the word LEGAL appeared in capital letters, correctly flagging defamation risk. We ended up taking those paragraphs out.

The injustice for the editor is that by this stage the words have improved immeasurably, but the writer will still get the credit.

Then it went off to typesetting, and we were now into editing PDFs. It’s funny how at that stage, now it looked like a book, new errors jumped out at me. But with those taken in, I began to assume we were nearing the final version. Not so. I think we got to a tenth version of the PDF in the end.

By now, with the freelance editor’s work complete, a freelance proofreader was at work. She picked up more typos, and asked one or two more hard questions where dates had been muddled, or I’d not been clear. Off we went to yet another PDF, surely towards the end. Not so.

By now, an in-house editor at Hardie Grant was doing her own round of work. At first glance it felt like nothing had changed. But looking through the revisions, there were hundreds of tiny tweaks - a comma removed or added here, a confusing contraction remedied there. It was just that little bit tighter, and again, nobody would ever know.

The agony of endorsements

Apart from missing my original deadline, the part I found most stressful about the process was the need to get endorsements from well known people to put on the cover of the book.

As a reader, when I’d seen endorsements on a cover, I’d not given them much thought, but had, I suppose, assumed this was the second edition, and these were from reviews.

It’s a bit murkier than that.

With the book, including its cover, about to go to press, it’s the job of the author to rack their brains and think about what famous people they know who might provide a few words of endorsement.

You need to ask them whether they are willing to do you the time consuming favour of reading the manuscript and providing those words.

But it’s a numbers game. Most people are flattered and say yes. But fewer follow through. Busy people get beaten by time. So you ask a lot of people, just in case.

And then of course, there’s a whole new embarrassment when you get some brilliant endorsements and they don’t get used.

At the last moment the decision was taken to bump Joe Hildebrand’s: “Media Unmade is a white-knuckle ride through the newsrooms, backrooms and boardrooms that have been battered by the global storms of disruption. With a pantheon of big personalities making even bigger gambles, Tim Burrowes has brought to light the legendary tales and seismic moments of the last decade in a fearless, forensic and often funny way.”

He was squeezed out by the AFR’s Joe Aston: “Media Unmade is a ripping tale of Semtex, whiplash and tears. We were galvanised and digitised and right-sized and pulverised. I’m still traumatised. Tim Burrowes is canny narrator. He did not waste his front row seats on this insane ride.”

I must admit, I couldn’t face owning up to Joe H that he’d been bumped by Joe A.

Cover talk

And then of course, the cover. A friend of mine who wrote a memoir had the unpleasant experience of not being shown her cover until it had gone to press, and hating it.

I was more fortunate, but it’s an involved process. The publisher identifies a designer to come up with some ideas. There are relatively unappreciated specialists who will have created the covers of dozens of the most famous books you can think of.

Because of the timelines, the designer only had my first few chapters to inspire her. We went through idea after idea. It’s another hidden cost of book publishing. There were domino images and Jenga images, and even a giant Facebook-style thumbs down squishing somebody.

But we weren’t quite there. Because of the wide scope of Media Unmade, it was quite hard to find something to zoom in on. Eventually, the publisher made the call to bring in a second designer. And quite quickly, he got to the idea of the burning fuse with newsprint time bomb, all against the stark yellow background.

I can’t tell you the thrill of seeing it on a bookshop shelf about five months later.

Launch control

And finally, comes the launch.

For me, all the plans went out of the window. Having written the book in Tasmania, I relocated to Sydney for July, which was launch month. And 11 days before launch, we went into the Covid lockdown.

One of the most common comments I had been receiving from friends in the run up was “Can I come to the launch party?”

By then, I’d learned that launch parties don’t sell many books. They’re more a chance for the author to celebrate their hard work with friends.

And I must admit that when lockdown kicked in, I mainly felt relief that I would no longer have to organise a launch party. I was finding it quite stressful.

Rather than launch parties, what matters is publicity. In my case, I was assigned a freelance publicist. A fair bit of the book publishing model is outsourced now - in my case including the editor, the designer and the publicist.

I did a round of radio, a little television (via Skype because of the lockdown) and a lot of podcasts. But of course it’s almost impossible to quantify what actually sells books.

Indeed, in terms of data, book selling is almost the opposite of online publishing. With Mumbrella, I was able to look at Google Analytics and see in real time how many people were on my article at that moment. With the book, I still don’t know how many copies I’ve sold to date.

Instead the data was gleaned from hints. At launch, it shot to number one in the “media studies” and “communications industry” best seller list on Amazon. I guess all the preorders go through on the same day. Soon it began to slip down the list.

But then came proof that newspaper reviews still sell books.

Last weekend a review appeared in the Saturday book section of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Written by the former media editor of The Australian Stephen Brook, it was nearly a full page, and it was very positive. So positive there’s a framed version on my office wall.

I didn’t know the review was coming. The morning it came out, a friend texted me: This made me spill my coffee. It makes you sound like James Bond.”

The book shot back to the top of the Amazon best sellers in those media studies and communication industry sections.

Given that one of the interconnected stories of the book had been the importance to society of saving the Fairfax newspapers, it was reassuring that out there somewhere, people are still reading and acting upon them.

Having now come out the other side and knowing much more about what it takes, I’m still processing whether I’d do another book. It’s hard.

But one thing has changed. I’ll never complain about the cover price of a book again. For the work invested by the publisher and author, any book is a bargain for the buyer.

If you can think of a friend or colleague who might appreciate the Unmade newsletter, then please do suggest they subscribe. I know of supporters who’ve emailed their whole team. That’s very much the spirit.

Finding an audience is what will guarantee the longevity of Unmade.

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Have a great week.


Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade