Traditionally, the term refers to the collecting of printed works such as books (the "book trade") and newspapers. With the advent of digital information systems and the Internet, the scope of publishing has expanded to include electronic resources, such as the electronic versions of books and periodicals, as well as websites, blogs, games and the like.
Publishing includes: the stages of the development, acquisition, copyediting, graphic design, production – printing (and its electronic equivalents), and marketing and distribution of newspapers, magazines, books, literary works, musical works, software and other works dealing with information, including the electronic media.
Publication is also important as a legal concept: (1) as the process of giving formal notice to the world of a significant intention, for example, to marry or enter bankruptcy; (2) as the essential precondition of being able to claim defamation; that is, the alleged libel must have been published, and (3) for copyright purposes, where there is a difference in the protection of published and unpublished works.
Book and magazine publishers spend no time at all buying or commissioning copy. At a small press, it is possible to survive by relying entirely on commissioned material. But as activity increases, the need for works may outstrip the publisher's established circle of writers.
Writers often first submit a query letter or proposal. The majority of unsolicited submissions come from previously unpublished authors. When such manuscripts are unsolicited, they must go through the slush pile, in which acquisitions editors sift through to identify manuscripts of sufficient quality or revenue potential to be referred to the editorial staff. Established authors are often represented by a literary agent to market their work to publishers and negotiate contracts.
The authors of traditional printed materials sell exclusive territorial intellectual property rights that match the list of countries in which distribution is proposed (i.e. the rights match the legal systems under which copyright protections can be enforced). In the case of books, the publisher and writer must also agree on the intended formats of publication -— mass-market paperback, "trade" paperback and hardback are the most common options.
The situation is slightly more complex if electronic formatting is to be used. Where distribution is to be by CD-ROM or other physical media, there is no reason to treat this form differently from a paper format, and a national copyright is an acceptable approach. But the possibility of Internet download without the ability to restrict physical distribution within national boundaries presents legal problems that are usually solved by selling language or translation rights rather than national rights. Thus, Internet access across the European Union is relatively open because of the laws forbidding discrimination based on nationality, but the fact of publication in, say, France, limits the target market to those who read French.
Having agreed on the scope of the publication and the formats, the parties in a book agreement must then agree on royalty rates, the percentage of the gross retail price that will be paid to the author, and the advance payment. This is difficult because the publisher must estimate the potential sales in each market and balance projected revenue against production costs. Royalties usually range between 10-12% of recommended retail price. An advance is usually 1/3 of first print run total royalties. For example, if a book has a print run of 5000 copies and will be sold at $14.95 and the author receives 10% royalties, the total sum payable to the author if all copies are sold is $7475 (10% x $14.95 x 5000). The advance in this instance would roughly be $2490. Advances vary greatly between books, with established authors commanding large advances.
The activities of typesetting, page layout, the production of negatives, plates from the negatives and, for hardbacks, the preparation of brasses for the spine legend and imprint are now all computerized. Prepress computerization evolved mainly in about the last twenty years of the 20th century. If the work is to be distributed electronically, the final files are saved as formats appropriate to the target operating systems of the hardware used for reading. These may include PDF files.
The publisher usually controls the advertising and other marketing tasks, but may subcontract various aspects of the process to specialist publisher marketing agencies. In many companies, editing, proofreading, layout, design and other aspects of the production process are done by freelancers.
Dedicated in-house salespeople are sometimes replaced by companies who specialize in sales to bookshops, wholesalers and chain stores for a fee. This trend is accelerating as retail book chains and supermarkets have centralized their buying.
If the entire process up to the stage of printing is handled by an outside company or individuals, and then sold to the publishing company, it is known as book packaging. This is a common strategy between smaller publishers in different territorial markets where the company that first buys the intellectual property rights then sells a package to other publishers and gains an immediate return on capital invested. Indeed, the first publisher will often print sufficient copies for all markets and thereby get the maximum quantity efficiency on the print run for all.
Some businesses maximize their profit margins through vertical integration; book publishing is not one of them. Although newspaper and magazine companies still often own printing presses and binderies, book publishers rarely do. Similarly, the trade usually sells the finished products through a distributor who stores and distributes the publisher's wares for a percentage fee or sells on a sale or return basis.
The advent of the Internet has therefore posed an interesting question that challenges publishers, distributors and retailers. In 2005, Amazon.com announced its purchase of Booksurge and selfsanepublishing, a major print on demand operation. This is probably intended as a preliminary move towards establishing an Amazon imprint. One of the largest bookseller chains, Barnes & Noble, already runs its own successful imprint with both new titles and classics — hardback editions of out-of-print former best sellers. Similarly, Ingram Industries, parent company of Ingram Book Group (a leading US book wholesaler), now includes its own print-on-demand division called Lightning Source. Among publishers, Simon & Schuster recently announced that it will start selling its backlist titles directly to consumers through its website.
Book clubs are almost entirely direct-to-retail, and niche publishers pursue a mixed strategy to sell through all available outlets — their output is insignificant to the major booksellers, so lost revenue poses no threat to the traditional symbiotic relationships between the four activities of printing, publishing, distribution and retail.
To understand the scale of the problem, consider that approximately two centuries ago the number of scientific papers published annually was doubling every fifteen years. Today, the number of published papers doubles about every ten years. Modern academics now try to run electronic journals and distribute academic materials without the need for publishers.
One of the key functions that academic publishers provide is to manage the process of peer review. Their role is to facilitate the impartial assessment of research and this vital role is not one that has yet been usurped, even with the advent of social networking and online document sharing.
Today, publishing academic journals and textbooks is a large part of an international industry. Critics claim that standardised accounting and profit-oriented policies have displaced the publishing ideal of providing access to all. In contrast to the commercial model, there is non-profit publishing, where the publishing organization is either organised specifically for the purpose of publishing, such as a university press, or is one of the functions of an organisation such as a medical charity, founded to achieve specific practical goals. An alternative approach to the corporate model is open access, the online distribution of individual articles and academic journals without charge to readers and libraries. The pioneers of Open Access journals are BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science(PLoS).
A somewhat related development is open source publishing, which is participatory group editing, as exemplified by various wiki projects, such as Wikiprofessional, Wikipedia, Wikiversity, and Citizendium.
Technically, radio, television, cinemas, VCDs and DVDs, music systems, games, computer hardware and mobile telephony publish information to their audiences. Indeed, the marketing of a major film often includes a novelization, a graphic novel or comic version, the soundtrack album, a game, model, toys and endless promotional publications.
Some of the major publishers have entire divisions devoted to a single franchise, e.g. Ballantine Del Rey Lucasbooks has the exclusive rights to Star Wars in the United States; Random House UK (Bertelsmann)/Century LucasBooks holds the same rights in the United Kingdom. The game industry self-publishes through BL Publishing/Black Library (Warhammer) and Wizards of the Coast (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, etc). The BBC has its own publishing division which does very well with long-running series such as Doctor Who. These multimedia works are cross-marketed aggressively and sales frequently outperform the average stand-alone published work, making them a focus of corporate interest.
Writers in a specialized field or with a narrower appeal have found smaller alternatives to the mass market in the form of small presses and self-publishing. More recently, these options include print on demand and ebook format. These publishing alternatives provide an avenue for authors who believe that mainstream publishing will not meet their needs or who are in a position to make more money from direct sales than they could from bookstore sales, such as popular speakers who sell books after speeches. Authors are more readily published by this means due to the much lower costs involved.
The ability to quickly and cost effectively Print on Demand has meant that publishers no longer have to store books at warehouses if the book is in low or unknown demand. This is a huge advantage to small publishers who can now operate without large overheads and large publishers who can now cost effectively sell their backlisted items. Market leaders in P.O.D. are Amazon's BookSurge and Ingram Book Group's LightningSource.
Accessible publishing uses the digitization of books to mark up books into XML and then produces multiple formats from this to sell to consumers, often targetting those with difficulty reading. Formats include a variety larger print sizes, specialized print formats for dyslexia, eye tracking problems and macular degeneration, as well as Braille, DAISY, Audiobooks and e-books. The current market leader is ReadHowYouWant.
Publishing on specific contexts: