How Publishing Really Works: Step-by-Step
Here’s a little fact that most people (even those who fancy themselves writers) don’t seem to know: It takes, on average, about 18 months—that’s right, a full year and a half—for even a fully staffed traditional publishing house to produce ONE book.
Sure, a publisher will occasionally rush out a book if they can make a quick buck on a timely celebrity scandal or something else that’s hot in the news. But to make a single, good, fully edited book, it normally takes about 18 months from the time the writer turns in the first draft to the official publication date.
For small presses with tiny staffs (and tinier budgets) like we have here at Blydyn Square Books, that publishing schedule can be a lot longer—up to three years (or even more, depending on how much work a book needs).
So, you might be wondering: What the hell is the publisher doing in all that time? Good question. Here’s the short(ish) answer.
Every book needs to go through several basic steps before it’s ready to be launched to the reading market (and if your book isn’t going through all of them, you need a new publisher—especially if YOU are that publisher). Let’s start with the editorial side of the process.
- Delivery of the first draft
The author delivers the first draft of the book to the publisher. Now, back in the dark ages, this step meant a nice bulky envelope with a pristinely typed manuscript inside would arrive at the publisher’s doorstep. It would then be photocopied about 5 times by some overworked, lowly assistant and distributed to key personnel. (Yeah, we killed a lot of trees back then.) These days, delivery of a new manuscript almost certainly means a Word document or even a Google Doc gets emailed to an editor. But same difference. The book is now officially “in house.”
- First in-house read
The first in-house read can mean different things to different publishers. In my experience, an editorial assistant is often the first person to lay eyes on a new manuscript, making notes on the overall structure, flow, whether there are holes in the plot—basically, the big-picture stuff. This isn’t the time to look for typos or missing commas. A first read is for assessing exactly how much work it’s going to take to whip this book into publication shape.
Usually, the book’s official editor (again, this varies) does a thorough content/developmental edit at this stage. Depending on the book (and how well it’s written), this process can take days, weeks, or months, and can involve anywhere from one to, oh, a dozen or so different editors. Hell, I’ve had books that need years of editing before they were ready to move on to the next stage.
- Sending the manuscript either to experts (for nonfiction or things like historical fiction, where the basic premise and facts need to be assessed) or back to the author for revisions
If the book goes out to experts, add at least a month to the schedule (because, no offense to you academics out there, but y’all are slow!). If the manuscript goes straight to the author for rewrites, we usually allow anywhere from four to eight weeks to do the work (more or less, depending on how much needs to be done).
- Revised manuscript returns from the author and the editor(s) review it again
This time, we’re checking to make sure the author followed our instructions and made the necessary changes on the first draft. If not, the book quickly goes back for even more rewrites. But if the revisions are generally acceptable and the book is deemed worthy of remaining on the publisher’s schedule, we declare the book “accepted.”
- Revised, accepted manuscript goes for additional editing
At this stage, the manuscript usually needs a copy edit as well as a thorough fact check (for nonfiction, mostly).
You might ask what the difference is between the content/developmental editing we talked about above and copy editing. Basically, content editing is looking for big-picture stuff, like I said: plot holes, underdeveloped characters, whether the story makes sense, whether anybody will actually want to read the damn thing. Copy editing (sometimes also called line editing), on the other hand, is about the nitty-gritty stuff: fixing the spelling errors, making sure the text flows well and uses the right words, being sure the punctuation is correct.
- Back from the fact checker/copy editor
When the manuscript returns from the copyeditor (and/or fact checker), which usually takes about a month, the in-house editor reviews the changes, decides whether they’re good, and determines whether the author needs to do any additional revisions. The more eyes, the better. Often, a copy editor will often find issues with plot holes or other problems that the in-house editors missed. If so, back to the author the book goes, for even more rewrites.
- The “revised revision” arrives back on the editor’s desk
At this point, we do yet another thorough read, to make sure the book is now as good as we think it can be. If you haven’t been counting, by now, at least three or four in-house members of staff (such as the acquisitions editor, editorial assistant[s], content editor, editor in chief, and publisher), if not more, will have read and critiqued the manuscript, in addition to at least one outside copy editor and maybe a fact checker. Oh, and don’t forget that many of these people have reviewed the manuscript at least three times so far, so the book has been through approximately 18 to 24 edits. Sound like a lot? It is. And we’re nowhere near finished yet.
- Out for a proofread
Once the book has been deemed “finished” by its primary editor, it goes out to a proofreader—another set of fresh eyes to check for any lingering typos or other issues (there are always at least a handful even after the proofreader is done with it). That takes at least a few weeks, maybe longer.
And that, in essence, is the editorial process.
After all the long and laborious steps of the editorial process are finally done, the book-to-be enters “production.” There are several steps here, too.
- Finalize the manuscript and submit to layout
The editor finalizes the proofread manuscript and gets the book ready to go to the production department for layout. These days, this process usually just means emailing the file to a graphic designer, but depending on what the book contains (photos, illustrations, other graphic elements, special features like sidebar boxes, etc.), this step can be pretty intricate. But once it’s done, the manuscript (finally) leaves the editorial department and is officially “in production.”
Depending on the publisher, the various stages of layout—that is, turning a boring old Word document into a fancy, designed file with chapters and running heads and page numbers—can take anywhere from a week to several months.
Oh, and during this same time, production also designs the cover, which can be a particularly grueling affair, since cover design is a key part of making a book look professional (just check out most self-published books online and you’ll know exactly what I mean—you can tell at a glance whether professionals were involved in the cover design).
- Additional edits
During the production process, the manuscript goes through an additional reading/edit at each draft (and there are usually at least three to four drafts per book, read by not only the editor, but an assistant, perhaps an outside proofreader, and, of course, at some point, the author). What are we up to now? About thirty edits total so far? Yeah, that’s thirty edits. For ONE book.
- Beta readers
Oh, and I almost forgot one other thing. This is a relatively new development, and not all publishers do it, but many send the “almost done but not quite” manuscript out to a variety of so-called beta readers for a critique. At Blydyn Square, we usually try to send a new book out to anywhere between two and ten beta readers. These people don’t generally do a full edit; rather, they read the book as if it were already published and make suggestions and criticisms based on what they like and what they don’t. The editor and author can then decide whether to make any changes based on the feedback.
- Galleys and reviews
Once the book is (finally) declared finished, production creates either galley or printer files, depending on the publisher. Galleys are technically a draft of the book that’s still in production and may get yet another edit (or more). Some publishers have these galleys bound like regular books and then send them out to reviewers. Some smaller houses (like us here at Blydyn Square Books) skip the extra expense of bound galleys and simply send out some of our early printed copies to the reviewers. These are called advance review or reading copies (or ARCs).
After sending out the advance copies (which reviewers demand at least three to four months ahead of the publication date), you wait and hope for reviews until the book officially launches.
That, in a nutshell, is why it takes so long for a book to come out. It may seem like overkill, but the fact is, even when you do every step meticulously like we do here at Blydyn Square Books, it’s almost inevitable that there will still be a handful of little errors left in a book. Imagine how many there are in the books produced by publishers who take shortcuts (or by many self-publishers, who skip all the steps entirely).
Consider this your summer food for thought. 😊
Blydyn Square Book Club
Join us on August 18 at 5:45 p.m. (ET) for the next meeting of the Blydyn Square Book Club. This time, we’ll be discussing Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Empire Falls. Hope to see you there! The Zoom link is: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/87669381923
Blydyn Square Happy Hour
Don’t forget to join us for our next Happy Hour on September 15 at 5:00 p.m. (ET), for Happy Hour. We’ll chat about books, writing, working with a small press, and whatever else comes up. Join us on Zoom: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/87332906563
Quote of the Month
“The journey of a lifetime starts with the turning of a page.”
Brain Teaser of the Month
Congratulations to Mark Cofta, who won an Amazon gift card. The question was:
What is the full moon in July called?
The answer: Full Buck Moon
Now answer this:
In August 79 c.e., what volcano erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii?
Send us your answer (email@example.com) and you’ll be entered into our prize drawing.
That’s it for this month. See you next time!
Editor in Chief
Blydyn Square Books