No, we’re not talking about those cardboard mailers in which books often arrive in your mailbox.

Packaging is a sort of partial publishing operation. Book publishing consists of several functions; most importantly financing the whole thing, but in more day-to-day terms, acquiring books to publish, editing and copyediting them, designing them, laying them out, getting them printed and bound and into the warehouse on time; and then the hard bit — publicizing them and getting them into the hands of customers willing to pay for them. A book packager is a publishing company with responsibility for everything up till the difficult stuff cuts in. As BookEnds puts it packagers “do everything a publisher does with a book except distribute, sell, market, and publicize.”

Big publishers — almost all publishers — always want to increase the number of books they publish so that they can report ever growing sales. Hiring more editors and other staff and producing more books for yourself is obviously expensive and rather long-term. Easier to contract with a supplier to generate books for you which your sales force can sell without any increase in staff. Sure, you’ll pay more per copy but, slam bang, here comes another book you can sell, adding to revenue without an increase in overhead costs. The unit cost will be a bit higher than your other books’, but it includes that part of your normal cost structure relating to prepress, and while each sale may look a bit less profitable, it’s profit is almost all “net”. Many packagers will settle for supplying a print-ready file to the “customer”, but most will try to get the work of printing and binding the books too: for which they will be able to charge a higher fee. I have had a job for a book packager arranging printing and binding of packaged books, and I have also, in other jobs, had responsibility for printing and binding from files provided by a packager.

Since the risk is lower, why doesn’t everyone want to become a book packager? Some publishing companies may well have started out packaging — but there are advantages to controlling your risk, negotiating a price with a big publisher which is guaranteed whether the book is a wild success or dismal failure. If you were to take on the sales and distribution part of the game your potential upside would be large, but bad judgements would be punished by a loss of money. The packager gets paid when the book (or the file for it) is delivered to the publisher. Less of a potential reward, but a more certain reward.

We tend to forget that the relationship between author and publisher has always taken a variety of forms. We assume that all books are the result of a contract with an author who goes off to their garret, types away, and brings back a manuscript to the admiring publisher. And it’s true that that’s the way the vast majority of books happen. But the wide availability of software for book creation has empowered self-publishing authors to prepare their books to final sellable form. The rise of the indie publishing business, and the possibility of selling a book without a sales force visiting bookstores, represents a parallel track to book packaging/book producing. Given that large publishers are bound to remain susceptible to the lure of increasing their output without increasing their costs, book packagers will remain an important, if hidden, element in book creation.

Hard to know just how many books are produced by packagers, but it’s probably more than you’d think. Packagers are represented by the American Book Producers Association, whose website sets out their operating philosophy.