Because most of the readers of this column are either published authors or aspiring writers, Julie and I thought it would be a fun idea to do a piece on the bookmaking process. Writing a book is a grueling process, no doubt, but many writers don’t realize that finishing a manuscript is only the beginning. Once your manuscript has been accepted by a publisher, your work has only just begun.
Never forget when you sign your contract that your book has beaten the odds. The hardest work is ahead of you, but take comfort in the knowledge that your acquiring editor, who is often deluged with submissions, has gone to bat for you and your book. He or she believes in your idea enough to present it to senior editorial, sales, marketing, and publicity personnel.
Most book publishers have weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings called “pub board.” At this meeting, executives ask acquiring editors to show them the money in the form of projected sales and profit-and-loss margins. Forecasting sales numbers is the easy part—what makes pub board so grueling is the debate between departments over each proposal. Does the book fit the company’s brand profile? Is there a strong enough hook? Does the author have an established audience? Are similar titles selling well in the current market?
So when you’re feeling discouraged about copyeditor queries or agonizing over page proofs, remember that your book was strong enough to stand up to some pretty intense scrutiny from top-level executives. To paraphrase Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live, your book is good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like it.
The Editorial Process
Your contract will usually include a delivery schedule for manuscript materials. Often, there will be a delivery deadline to your editor and a contractual number of days to turn around each round of edits. In fiction publishing, the book is often already finished; however, in nonfiction publishing, the author has sometimes only submitted a proposal and still needs to complete the actual manuscript.
Where I work, authors deliver their manuscripts to their editors—either the acquiring editor or a developmental editor—and undergo anywhere from 1 to 3 rounds of editing before the manuscript goes to the copyediting stage. (Note: Editorial department structure can vary from publisher to publisher.)
The developmental edit is the most grueling part of the editorial process. Your editor will evaluate your book from a structural perspective and often request big-picture edits. This can sometimes necessitate extensive rewrites.
Once the developmental editing is complete, the managing editor (or associate/project editor, depending on the company) will review the manuscript. Then it goes to a copyeditor to clean up any lingering style or syntax issues. After copyediting, you’ll review the manuscript one last time to resolve any lingering queries. If your manuscript is in good shape, this is generally a much smoother round of edits than the ones you underwent with your editor. However, if there was a lot of back and forth between you and your editor, there may still be a lot of issues to address at the copyediting stage.
It’s usually at the copyediting stage that text design happens. You might look at a reading book and think that the format looks pretty basic, but a lot goes into even the most basic text designs. The designer must create a template (usually in Adobe InDesign) that will transform the Microsoft Word document into an InDesign file. That template contains all of the font styles, design elements (e.g., fonts, chapter headings, A-heads, extract text, etc.), and formatting (including margins, white space, spacing between elements, etc.).
Once the text design has been finalized and all queries in the manuscript have been resolved, your manuscript goes to the layout artist to make this transformation. The layout artist will use the design template to transform the book into its final page form. You’ll generally receive a PDF version of the page proofs, and this is your last change to make corrections before the book goes to the printer. The page proofs also go to a proofreader at this stage. At my job, the general rule of thumb is “error corrections only” for page proofs. This means fixing typos, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and lingering factual errors. This does not mean re-copyediting your copyedited book. Widespread changes can often necessitate repaging of the book, which will compromise your printer deadline. So, in short, first pages is the beginning of the “letting go” process. You may start to second-guess your writing at this point, but the time has long passed to do line-by-line editing.
After your corrections and the proofreader’s have been made in the InDesign file, your book goes through another page pass or two before the clean version goes to the printer. You often won’t see these final passes, which basically amount to quality control. Back in the day, printers used to send “blues” (i.e., final printer proofs) for review, but most printers skip this step now because the process has been digitized.
Summing It Up
Of course, this is only a skeletal outline of the process. I’ve left out marketing, publicity, and sales; those aren’t my areas of expertise, so I’ll let someone else tackle them. But these basics are pretty universal across the book publishing industry. It can get pretty intense, but it can only position your book to sell more copies and garner better reviews.