Behind the Scenes at a Publishing House: What Really Happens to Your Book?

The day has finally come: Your manuscript has been acquired by a publishing house! Congratulations. Whether you’re a first-time writer, self-publishing success, or veteran author, you may still have questions about what happens when the manuscript leaves your hands. How does a word document turn into the finished product? How much control will you have? How long will the process take? Every publishing house works differently, but I’ve broken down the basic steps that traditional publishers take to create a book. 

Step One: Acquisitions

You or your agent* have sent the manuscript/proposal to a publisher. (*Note that many publishing houses do not accept unagented manuscripts.) Depending on who you are, who your agent is, and what your book is about, an editor will decide whether or not to read the manuscript. Oftentimes they have an editorial assistant or intern do a first read and provide a reader report, which sums up the pros and cons of the book and provides a publishing recommendation (to publish or not to publish, that is the question).

If the editor reads and likes your work, they will prepare to take it into a acquisitions meeting. In the meeting, the editor will share the manuscript with other editors and the publisher of their imprint or company. Many editors will also prepare financial estimates, like a profit and loss statement, to show how they would expect the book to do, how much an advance would be, etc. If all goes well here, the editor will speak to the author/agent to acquire the book. Then come contacts, negotiations, and that fun stuff. (And this is when you really want an agent on your side! Check out this article to learn more about finding the perfect literary agent.)

For more information on the acquisitions process, click here.

Step Two: Editing

The acquiring editor will generally start by providing you with a first round of edits. (Alas, no manuscript is perfect.) You will be given a time frame of a few months to make those edits. Speaking for all publishing professionals, I cannot stress how important it is to be timely in your work! A one-week delay can derail an entire publishing schedule.

Your editor might want to make a few more rounds of changes until the manuscript is in top shape. Keep in mind that these edits will be made for content and development rather than grammar or word choice. Those fixes will come later down the road. Once your book is ready to go, it is passed along to a production editor.

Production editors are the unsung heroes of publishing (and yes, I might be saying that because I was one). They are the taskmasters, the organizers, the perfectionists, and above all, the schedule keepers. The production editor’s job starts with copyediting the manuscript. In some cases, this is done in house, but more often the work is outsourced to a freelance copyeditor. The production editor will then review the work that has been done and clean up any remaining errors.

Now, each house does this next bit differently, but nearly every book receives some sort of the following work: author review, proofreading, and/or indexing. Some houses allow multiple rounds of author review, some only give you one last shot to make changes. If you want to be more or less hands off, be sure to talk to your acquiring or production editor about common practices.

Design

At some point in the editing process, there will be a conversion from Microsoft Word to a PDF, an InDesign document, or some other format. The design or production department is key here: They will take your boring black and white, Times New Roman manuscript and make it looks like a real book. This includes doing work like creating design elements, adjusting pagination (did you know most books need to have a page count divisible by 16?), and preparing the book’s internals for the eventual printing process.

What About the Cover?

Not to worry—while all of the editing and internal preparations are going on, a cover team will also be working on your book. Nearly everyone judges a book by its cover, and even if they don’t, you’ll want an exceptional design. A good cover comes together from many parts of the publishing house: the back cover copy (or flap copy) usually comes from the editor, the design comes from the cover team, and the printing treatments come from the manufacturing department. This diverse group will help decide other things, such as the trim size of your book, whether it will be paperback or hardcover, and if it will be metallic, matte, glossy…the list goes on.

Authors are almost always involved in the cover process, but the level of involvement can be low. Unless the author has experience as a book cover designer, the publisher is likely to take the advice of the design team over the ideas of the author. Keep in this in mind, especially if you aren’t getting the cover of your dreams. Odds are, some intelligent, creative person made your cover a specific way for a reason. Trust them.

Marketing, PR, and Sales

The moment your book is acquired, the marketing, PR, and sales folks will start to think about what to do with your book. Many houses print ARCs (advance reading copies—also known as bound galleys) or blads to send to the media, librarians, booksellers, and special accounts. Your campaign can also include promotional materials such as bookmarks, tote bags, posters, and so forth to get attention from sales channels, readers, and media outlets. The PR department will work on the latter, and many publishers work to get reviews from big names—the New York Times, Kirkus, Booklist—as well as reviewers in your niche. And all the while, the sales team is working to sell your book into every store, website, and library that they can.

Manufacturing/Printing

Once the interiors and cover are complete and ready to go, they head to the manufacturing department. From here, the files are sent to a printer, who will put the book on press and make the physical copies. These are then sent to a warehouse before going out to the sales accounts. At long last, the finished product will be available to you and your readers.

To Sum Up…

As you can see, your book will go through an intensive process from start to finish. Most fiction books work on at least a one-year schedule from acquisition to publication. If a non-fiction book comes in as a proposal, tack on another six months to a year to research and write the book. Children’s picture books can take two years, especially if an artist needs to be found to do the artwork.

As I mentioned earlier, these schedules leave little room for delays. Most authors are thrilled to be published and are a joy to work with, but every once in a while you get an author who constantly misses deadlines, makes outrageous last minute requests, and is generally a pain in the you-know-where. All I can say there is don’t be that author. You’re better than that.

Oh, and did you think I forgot about ebooks? If you are publishing a print book, an ebook will generally be made at the same time or shortly after the print book is published. Most readers expect the book to be available in both formats upon publication, and publishers do their best to accommodate the demand. E-only projects go through nearly all of the same steps as print books, sans the manufacturing and printing stage.

No matter how large or how small your publisher, one thing you can count on is that they acquired your book for a reason. They will do they best they can to ensure your book is successful and that it is the book you always wanted it to be. So help out when you can, stick to your deadlines, and please include your publisher in your acknowledgments. It makes us all feel good.

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