Secrets of Publishing – What makes book publishers publish?

Many authors, particularly academics, have only a limited understanding of the dynamics of commercial book publishing. They are often puzzled by publishers’ rejections or their simple procrastination over their proposed books. This editorial opinion is to assist these writers to better understand the publishing process. It applies in principle to almost any commercial publisher, large or small.

What will make a commercial publisher publish your book?

Why do publishers choose to publish some books over others? Why do publishers make the decision to publish? The natural answer would seem to be the intrinsic quality of a work, whether intellectual,scholarly or literary. However this is not the answer. Nor are originality, ground-breaking research, the public interest, or social value. Nor is the reason that it ‘fits the publishing list’ or that the author has a high professional standing or public profile.

The ultimate reason a commercial publisher decides to publish a book is financial, i.e. can it make money from this book? Any of the factors listed above may be related to the financial conclusion, but so too are many others. Often these other factors are as, or more important than the ones first listed. Here are a few examples:

  • Has this author written profitable, or unprofitable books before?
  • Does this author use a lot of any of our other books
  • Can we tell the author to change the book?
  • What institution is the academic author working at?
  • Is this a great idea but the wrong author?
  • What is the potential market size?
  • How much will it cost to produce?
  • What is the best retail price we could get for it?
  • How much will it cost to market the book?
  • How quickly can we sell the required print run? (traditional publishing)
  • Do we already have a book like this, and if so, did it do well?
  • What are our competitors doing? (do we copy them or not?)
  • Might it offend our principal customers or other business relations (e.g. oversees agencies)?

A strongly unfavorable  or even an indecisive answer to any of these questions may lead to rejection of your manuscript or procrastination in informing you about rejection.


At the end of the day, a decision to publish your book takes the form of a piece of paper with several columns of numbers on it. If the number at the bottom of the page is large enough in both absolute and percentage terms, chances are your book will be published -  if not by one company, then by another.The publishing process is the professional art of informed guesstimating those various numbers that make up the columns above the bottom line.

So when you call your would-be publisher, remember that his/her strongest skill is not the ability to read, but the ability to count.