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What’s in a (Book) Package? A Guest Article

Most writers have heard of book packagers, but few have actually worked with them and seen first-hand what they do. Today, the classic roles in book publishing are changing almost as fast as publishing technology itself.

For example:

  • Booksellers are often so large, that they act more like super book distributors.

  • Distributors have practically become the channel itself and, more than publishers, determine what books will get published.

  • Publishers are often just access points into the distribution system.

  • Authors can publish and publishers often create content in-house.

  • E-books are sold direct from the publisher (or even the author) to the buyer.

Some agents are more like syndication services and book packagers are often super agents. 

It’s all quite confusing.

Book packaging used to be…

In the old days, a book packager was someone with knowledge of both publishing and another, fairly specific field. They created books in their specialty field for a publisher, usually non-fiction books that were too specialized, too complex or too expensive for the publisher to produce.  

Highly illustrated photo books were often packaged outside of publishing houses, for example. Other examples include legal libraries, medical libraries, and certain textbooks. The packager had a contract with a publisher to produce certain books and would then go out and find the writers, editors, and illustrators to deliver those books. What they delivered was usually finished pages, ready to be printed by the publisher, known as camera-ready copy, or mechanicals.  

Book packagers are diverse

But with all these old-school definitions fading away, packagers today are as diverse as publishers themselves and offer a number of different combinations of services. For instance: 

  • One common packaging model is the packager-agent, which is an agent who gets involved in the content of a book and perhaps even leads the project instead of the writer.

  • Another breed is the packager-coach, which is someone who helps writers develop their own projects, but gets involved in co-creating the proposal or sometimes the book itself.

Simply put, packagers are people with skills in some area of the writing or publishing process (still usually non-fiction) who hire-out those skills on an independent basis—either to the publisher or to the author. On one end of the scale is the coach. This is the person who helps writers with their ideas. The project, the concept, and the control are completely in the hands of the writer. On the other end of the scale is the classic packager, who has a contract with a publisher for specific books and is likely to be looking for work-for-hire writers to fulfill specific parts. The control, the concept, and the money are all in the hands of the packager. Now imagine that everything in-between is possible.  

Perhaps you are a great writer with an excellent project, but you lack proposal skills and don’t know how to begin finding an agent or publisher. There are packagers who can fill these specific holes. I have also seen published, agented authors seek out packagers to assist with specific concepts that need help with direction and presentation. Subject matter experts who are not necessarily writers often work with packagers to help produce their books from concept to finished manuscripts. These experts may be individuals, or they may be companies that use packagers to help them produce lines of books for their customers.  

So how do packagers get paid? Compensation models are as diverse as the packagers themselves. Some get paid outright for their “services” while others split royalties with the author and still others pay writers for their contributions. It all depends on the mix.  

In my own case, for example, I work principally as a packager-coach and get paid by writers for my assistance on every phase of the publishing process. The author retains complete control of the process. But it’s not set in stone; I occasionally get involved as a collaborator and share all the risks and responsibilities with the other contributors.

The playing field of writing and publishing has expanded geometrically in the past 20 years and while that creates a whole new set of challenges for writers, it also creates many new needs, which require inventiveness and creativity to satisfy.

Christopher Van Buren is author of Moon Handbooks Brazil (Avalon Travel Publishing, 2006) and many other books. He also offers coaching and packaging services for writers. His site is at www.myplanet.net/vanburen

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