Thursday 10 January 2019

What is a book packager and what’s it like to work for them? Moira Butterfield

Recently I met some young picture book authors who had never heard of publishing packagers. Hence this blog, to introduce them. You can find a list of UK children’s book packagers in the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook or similar sources.

What is a publishing packager? A packager is a company that a publisher subcontracts to commission writers, artists and designers, and deliver a book or other related material for printing. In some cases packagers also print and ship the books, carrying the publisher’s branding.

Type of work:   Packagers may generate new ideas that they then sell on to publishers, or they may take on projects that publishers hand over to them.Generally packagers work on highly-illustrated books, though there are series fiction packagers, too. Licensed character work is often handed on to packagers because it is high-volume and often has pressurized deadlines to catch a popularity wave.

Why? The publisher may not have the in-house resources to complete something, or may see a money-making opportunity from a packager’s new ideas.

Big, small and tiny: Packagers can be very small concerns or have quite a few staff doing the same editorial, design and sales roles as you would find in publishing companies.

Money: Packagers inevitably offer fee-only writing work, and the writer is some way down the line as the money pie is cut between publisher and packager, so fees offered can be too low to accept. But they can be fair and provide a good extra income stream.  Packagers may well ask you for new ideas, but be aware you will be giving these away for a fee so think twice before accepting that particular bait.

Names: You may wish to work using a pseudonym, or you may want your name out in the marketplace associated with something that you think will look good. Up to you. If you have an agent they may be fine with you doing this, but you’d need to check.  If you work on licensed character material (Marvel or Star Wars, say) your name won’t be on it anyway.

Sounds easy? No. If you decide to contact packagers you must be aware of the following:

Hot deadlines: Deadlines are inevitably very tight, and you can’t mess them about. In fact, publishers sometimes hand projects on to packagers precisely because they are an obvious problem in terms of getting things turned around quickly.

Re-briefing: Some publishing sales departments notoriously have a tendency to change their minds about briefs halfway through and hand on the problem to their editors, who had it on to a hapless packager. The packager will pass on the changes to you so you must – at the outset – agree that they will pay you more fee after one fair round of editing. Re-briefing means more money. End of. Never let anyone pressurize you out of that mantra.

Ronseal the brief and keep the evidence: You are getting a brief down a line and the confusion rule of Chinese Whispers can apply, so you must keep all evidence of the brief you get and make absolutely sure things are absolutely clear between you and the packager at the beginning.

Low fee = high stress: Here’s an equation that inevitably holds true for a variety of negative reasons to do with clients down the line. Trust me on this.  The lower the fee offered, the more messing around you’re likely to get.  So you must factor this in and say no if the fee is too skinny.

Payment terms: Rules of payment – Strictly 30 days – apply. You must put it on your invoice. Never let a packager delay paying you. They must take the risk of a publisher paying them tardily, not you.

Licensed character work: If you work on licensed character material you must follow the world of the characters very tightly. There is no going off on any kind of tangent that won’t be accepted by the licensors, who own the characters and must sign everything off. It sounds mechanical but it can be fun to do if you are suited to it.

Hands-on creativity: On the plus side, you’ll be working directly with creative people in a fast and fun hands-on situation. That may suit you, but if not then don’t go there. 

So now you know, and you can stride onwards into 2019 with even more knowledge, mes amis! 

Moira Butterfield
Moira’s non-fiction picture book Welcome To Our World is published by Nosy Crow. In addition to her picture book and non-fiction work, Moira has worked on packager briefs for many years, both as an editor and author, and is sometimes to be found writing licensed character material.

Twitter: @moiraworld
Instagram: @moirabutterfieldauthor


A. Colleen Jones said...

Thanks for this, Moira! I've heard of packagers but didn't know anything about them.

Moira Butterfield said...

They're basically publishing sub-contractors.

Penny Dolan said...

An excellent and essential article for new and other writers! Publishing is indeed a wide and strange world where it's easy to get excited and interested without knowing as much as one should. Thank you for all this, Moira.

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

This post sums up working for book packagers very neatly. I enjoy working to a brief and have worked for several book packagers. I always favour book packagers as I think writing to a brief is easier but I have become aware over the years that this is a skill some writers do not have. So I am now aware writing for book packagers is a talent. :)