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:

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 or two 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 read and which you ultimately feel is a success – is a more complex process than many people realise.

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-print (from editing to layout) and printing. Let’s consider a simple 30,000-word black-and-white softcover book.

If you can deliver a near-perfect manuscript (NB: virtually impossible) that requires the barest of edits, it may be possible to lay out (typeset), copy edit and proof the book, and design a simple but workable cover, for around R10,000-R15,000. You could then digitally print one reasonable trade-quality copy for R100-R200 or so, or 100 copies for perhaps R4,000. For larger non-digital (litho) print runs, usually offering slightly better quality, you’d be looking at R30,000 for 2,000 copies.

Those figures are for a very clean – and thus very rare – manuscript. Usually there is a reasonable amount of line-editing required, at upwards of R350 an hour (freelance rates). Major structural edits and rewrites can substantially elevate editorial costs. For a viable trade title, publishers would ideally want to spend more on quality cover images and design, while interior images (whether black and white, full colour or colour inserts) also add cost. 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.

Beyond the basics, there are many ways to increase costs: from customised print specs to employing a ghost writer, illustrator, photographer or publicist, for instance, all of which may be critical on certain titles.

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 the recommended retail price (RRP). But in the digital age, the line between author and publisher is becoming ever more blurred. The binary world of the past – either you got a publishing deal or you didn’t – is now a spectrum. 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 manuscript, at a potentially significant cost.

A critical question for potential authors to ask is: what is the best publishing solution for my book? That is, where on the publishing spectrum do I sit? The answer is dependent on finances, timelines and the need for control and credibility, among other things.

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.

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 through the trade (bookstores) at an RRP of R200, the author would likely make around R20,000. Local books that sell 20,000 copies are considered extremely successful, while the very occasional outlier, such as The President’s Keepers, may sell more than 200,000 copies.

Authors who sell their books directly to their audience stand to make around 5-8 times more per copy– which makes a material difference for authors with readily accessible direct markets.

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.

No. But we’ll look at most if they’re vaguely related to what we do.

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. In fact, it may be beneficial not to, unless you have a particularly clear vision of what your manuscript should be. You do, however, need a draft chapter outline and a good amount of sample writing – several thousand words, at least.

We try to have short reviews completed within three 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 all proposals within two days, unless they are of notably substandard quality.

Because reading loads of poorly written or generic proposals is 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.)

At Burnet Media, we try our best 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 like 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. We will consider revising a self-published book for trade publication. This may require considerable work or relatively simple design and layout tweaks.

It takes about nine months to a year and a half for a book to run through the traditional publication process, from conception/acceptance to appearing on the shelves. However, at Burnet Media we are more flexible and can turn around customised jobs in as little as three months, depending on the project specs and our schedule.

We will be in touch and arrange a face-to-face or video meeting. We believe that individual authors need to find their best possible publishing solution (as mentioned above), which may or may not be through Burnet Media. We’ll discuss things, tell you more about the book industry and publishing process – there is far more information than offered on this FAQs page – and try to get a sense of exactly what you need.

Friends and family are biased. First, they’re your friends and family; it’s their job. And second, 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 R200 or R300 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…

It’s a good idea to visit bookstores and look for books that are similar to yours or in the same genre. Who publishes the good ones? Also take a look online to see who’s out there; in the age of digital publishing, there are many options.

(When visiting stores, also take note of cover designs and book layouts you like the look of.)

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 as a 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 cash flow 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 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 the third reason. This is all assuming you get a rejection letter, though – many publishers don’t even bother.