Burning Questions About Book Publishing: From start to finish, how does a book end up on a bookstore shelf?

By Ruta Rimas

As a publishing professional, I’m often asked about the process of book-making, how a Word document is transformed into a beautiful, typeset, bound, physical object that one can purchase.

The answer seems obvious —  write, send off the files to the printer et voilà! Book! — but many are surprised by how complicated and time-consuming the creation of a book can be. The general process outlined below can take between one to two years, though it can vary depending on the needs of the book and what is selling in the marketplace (e.g., a publisher will “crash” a book and speed up this process if they think a book needs to hit the shelves sooner).

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How does a book go from your brain to Binnacle?

Many different people have a hand in book creation; once the book is written, it’s touched by agents, acquiring editors, assistants, managing editors, production editors, designers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, warehouse staff, and more. Writing is solitary but book creation is a team effort.

How a Book Is Made

  1. Manuscript is written. This step is the most obvious. There is no book without words strung together by a writer.
  2. Agent offers to represent writer. Posts 1 and 2 address agents.
  3. Editor acquires book Check out post 3 for an overview of that process.
  4. Editor edits. Working as a one-on-one creative writing workshop, the acquiring editor will often send a letter and notes on the manuscript to the author, making revision suggestion on aspects like plot, characters, arcs, continuity issues.
  5. Manuscript is finished. After a few rounds of revision, the manuscript is sent into managing editorial and the managing editor begins copyediting and proofreading. At the same time, the Book cover is designed. The book cover is generated fairly early in the process as it is the first material that the sales teams shares with their accounts, like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Independent Book Stores, etc.
  6. Author addresses copyeditors questions. Working from a master Word file created from the copyeditor, the author will go through the pages and address any outstanding issues, including grammar. Most publishers use the track changes function in Word for this step.
  7. Manuscript is sent to design. This step is a fun one: the interiors of the book, the galley pages, are laid out.
  8. Advance Readers Copies are created. These are early bound galleys, sometimes referred to as ARCs, and they look like paperback books. Publicity, marketing, and the author are able to send ARCs to reviewers and to others to generate early buzz. Generally, these are available 6-8 months before a book is on sale.
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    This is an ARC of a book that publishes as a hardcover in December 2018. Note that the back has a section dedicated to list the marketing campaign.
  9. The production editor schedules the book at the printer. Working closely with editorial, design, and managing editorial, contacts the printer to set up the printing schedule for ARCs, jacket proofs, and final books. Many publishers work with international printers, usually in China or India. Some books are printed domestically, depending on how quickly they are needed. This scheduling can become complicated during certain times of year, like Chinese New Year, when overseas printers close for a few weeks.
  10. The books ship from the printer and are warehoused. The printer will place books on ocean liners to arrive at US ports. Trucks will pick up the boxes and drive them to publisher warehouses. From the warehouse, the books ship to booksellers, distribution centers, and other facilities.
  11. Books are delivered to the store, shelved by staff, and ready to buy!

This list addresses the physical production of the book but it doesn’t outline everything that is happening simultaneously with nearly every step: Sales meetings! Marketing and publicity discussions! Licensing opportunities! That will be the subject of a future post in the Burning Questions about Book Publishing series.

If you have any additional questions about book publishing, please ask in the comments and those questions may become the topic of another post in this series, too.

Let’s Get Political

by Kristen Holt Browning

Politics and writing: do they mix? Up until recently, I would have said “no.” I thought works of fiction and poetry that overtly articulated political opinions or worldviews were artless and heavy handed. 

But it’s 2018, and regardless of whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, politics is everywhere. A very smart teacher recently told me, “All poets are contemporary. You write in the present you live in.” Her point was that your work has to speak, both formally and linguistically, to your era. If it doesn’t, it isn’t honest, or relevant. And if we live in an era saturated by politics, how can our writing not absorb and reflect that reality?

On the face of it, the new novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s presented as the memoir of Jack Sheppard, famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker, who served as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera’s Mack the Knife (or, maybe you know him from the Bobby Darin song).

Jack is raised as a girl, although, upon reaching adolescence, he (his preferred pronoun) takes to wearing male clothing and taping down his breasts. Bess, his lover, is a prostitute of South Asian descent. This is a multicultural, polyglot world, where people decry, undercut, and push against the social, economic, racial, and gender constraints and categories put upon them—something that is happening as urgently as ever in the twenty-first century. Confessions of the Fox is a propulsive story that encompasses grand themes of identity and individual self-determination, and that also happens to couch its plea for a rethinking of our ideas about gender and diversity in gorgeously inventive language.

Good poetry pushes language as far as it can bend without breaking it completely. It’s the opposite of bland and simplistic political sloganeering. In Morgan Parker’s collection There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, pop culture intertwines with urgent political rage to present a wide-ranging overview of black womanhood in contemporary America, as in the opening of “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”:

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped

Like your body I wish was mine but as dark

As something in my mind telling me

I’m not woman enough for these days

Parker offers a wide historical range of black female experience, as when she writes a poem on the Hottentot Venus that manages to take in slavery, capitalism, and white domination of black bodies:

No one worries about me

because I am getting paid.

I am here to show you

who you are, to cradle

your large skulls

and remind you

you are perfect. Mother America,

unleash your sons.

Everything beautiful, you own.

Rosenberg and Parker are both expanding the inclusive limits of writing. Their work is political in its topics and obsessions, in the stories it chooses to honor and represent. This, I think, is how politics is best embedded in writing: by incorporating the entirely of one’s world, insisting on the necessity of one’s desires and concerns, and thereby expanding the worlds of others.

A Unique Burden: Interview with Writer Leland Cheuk

by Julie Chibbaro

Some writers, even though they’re so different from you, make you want to be just like them. I think of Leland Cheuk, whom I met over fifteen years ago at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, as one of those writers—despite our differences, I admire him so much.

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At Squaw Valley, Leland and I were at the same place in our careers: unpublished, with stars in our eyes. We stayed in touch and shared our work, trying to help one another. As I’ve read his stories over the years, I’ve found myself consistently impressed by his wry, biting humor, the (seeming) ease with which he deals with his difficult family, the way he straddles literary fiction and social commentary. He has also come through the tremendous experience of surviving leukemia, which he has written about for Salon. I’ve invited him to come talk to us at Get Lit Beacon in November, which he has graciously agreed to do. Before his visit, I grabbed him for a few questions about his formation as a writer:

GLB: A fierce awareness of identity comes through in so much of your work (sometimes satirically). Where does this awareness come from?

LC: If I could choose to be unaware of the questions of identity, I would! But it’s a unique burden artists of color carry. When I was doing standup comedy, I quickly found out that my first joke had to address the audience’s first impression, which was that I was of Asian descent. If I didn’t address it, the audience would be distracted, wondering why I didn’t address it. A white comic can just walk on the stage and the first thing people see is gender and age. It’s sadly the same thing for writers. That’s why I find all the back and forth about cultural appropriation amusing. When authors like Lionel Shriver bridle against being limited as an artist, I feel like shouting: try being an author of color for a day!

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If I didn’t have to write about identity to feed the expectations of readers, I wouldn’t. I’d just write weird George Saunders-inspired stories satirizing capitalism and social media all day. In some ways we’ve progressed, and in others we haven’t. Given these unfortunate limitations for authors of color, I just try to find original ways to approach identity issues.

GLB: You’ve started your own indie press. What inspired that?

LC: A little over four years ago, I had cancer and needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant. I’d been trying for almost two decades to publish my first book, and I was thinking: man, if this transplant doesn’t go well, I’ve really wasted my life. On the day the transplant engrafted (July 13), I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my first novel. Two years later on the same date, I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my story collection. If it wasn’t for the help of strangers like my donor and these indie press-runners, I wouldn’t be alive and I wouldn’t be an author. So I felt compelled to give back and start my own press: 7.13 Books, which publishes only first books of fiction.

GLB: You’ve had some heath issues in recent years. How did you manage to keep focused on writing, even while dealing with such intense pain and recovery?

LC: At first it was difficult. I had trouble sitting in front of a screen for more than thirty minutes without getting tired. But over time, it’s become a blessing. I’m lucky. I have a very supportive wife. Having a serious illness helps you focus on what’s important to your day. I kind of liken it to an aging athlete having to do all these extra things to prepare their body to play the game longer. I have to do all these things to make me feel good physically so I can focus and play the game of writing for a few hours each day.

Leland’s bio: A MacDowell Colony fellow, Leland Cheuk authored THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP, 2015), a novel, and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog, 2016), stories. His next book, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, a novel, is forthcoming in 2019 from C&R Press. His work has been covered in VICE, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and appears or is forthcoming in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and reach him at leland.cheuk at gmail.com.

I Used to be a Writer

By Flora Stadler

I’m a writer. That’s what I tell myself when I’m explaining a poem to my son or just editing copy at work. And when I’m buying groceries or cleaning the litterbox or reading Facebook on my phone, I think, “I’m not this, I’m a writer.”

I’ve been telling myself this for 30 years, but it’s never been less true than now.

I spent this summer not writing, which is the exact opposite of what I intended to do. In the meantime, I thought a lot about Kristen Holt-Browning’s spot-on post, Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing, and about the idea that “Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life.” I wonder when writing stopped being my life, and why.

As my children got older and a bit more independent, I told myself that soon there would be more space for writing. So why have I filled that space with so many other things?

There was a time about two years ago when writing took up a lot more space in my life. I felt flooded with inspiration, fearless about the outcome, something close to a state of grace. I could pick at the details of a day and pull meaningful patterns from everywhere, I could find lyricism in everything. It didn’t even matter to me (much) if it was good—it felt good and made sense. I was just starting a novel then, flush with love for the first draft. But then it got hard.

If I’m honest, I think the uphill part of the job—editing and pulling all the pieces I’d made into a cohesive story arc—is what stopped me. After all, the first round of writing can be breathless fun. It’s the discipline of a polished draft that’s the real work, and I wonder if I have the stomach for it. Am I a writer because that’s how I see myself?

Am I not a writer because I’m lazy?

Even if you love it, writing is work. You have to want to be dragged out and exhausted by that work. I did at one time, but I’ve lost the plot. I often don’t feel smart enough to finish the story I’ve started. But I miss being a writer. And it’s not about wanting to tell myself that I’m one. I want that feeling of making the world new on the page.

I’m about 175 pages into a science fiction novel that I’ve built page by page, with characters I’ve come to love. I imagine them stuck mid-gesture, waiting for me to give them something to do. The thought fills me with dread.

Have you been here? What did you do? What’s the one thing that can start the gears, especially when those gears are rusty? What’s the one thing that brings you back, fires you up, fills you with that state of grace where creation comes without fear?

Logging Books, Logging Memories

by Kristen Holt Browning

I love historical fiction, and I love to learn about the ancient, classical world. So when I recently heard of David Malouf’s novella An Imaginary Life, which depicts the poet Ovid’s exile to Tomis (in present-day Romania), I rushed, as I so often do, to the online catalog of the local library, and was thrilled to see it in stock (yes, I get that excited over in-stock books at the library).

Settled at home with the slightly worn library copy (the book was first published in 1978), I eagerly dug into Ovid’s struggles to adapt to banishment, living among people with whom he shares nothing: not culture, not habits or interests, not even a common language.

But a few chapters in, a too-familiar feeling set in: an odd mixture of recognition, embarrassment, and a touch of despair. I’ve read this book before! How on earth did I forget? I liked it a lot the first time I read it, and I’m enjoying it now. How could I completely forget that I read this book??

Aside from my job, I read about a book a week for pleasure. So, that’s fifty books a year. That means that, in my adult life, I’ve probably read about 1200 books. Seeing that hefty number, it seems much more reasonable that at least a few of them—even ones I enjoyed—would slip my mind.

Soon after this slip-up, I had coffee with an old, dear friend who reads even more books than me. She mentioned that she keeps a book journal: a log of all the books she’s read. That, I realized, is just what I need. So, I picked up a Muji notebook (my favorite), and for the last three months, I’ve been dutifully writing down every book I read. I just write the month and year at the top of the page, then log each book as I finish it. 

But how does this benefit me as a writer? Although it’s early days for my book-logging enterprise, my hope is that this will prove to be a handy repository of useful examples and models for my own writing. A case in point: I’ve recently been writing short pieces (are they essays? prose poems? honestly, I’m not sure yet) on various ancient women—classical, historical, and mythological. Malouf’s novella centers on a real person from the ancient world, and offers a gorgeous example of how a historical fact of a single life (here, Ovid’s exile) can be broadened  into a full narrative. So perhaps I, too, can take settled fact and play with it, hold it up to the light, and make it into something entirely new.

As I glance at my book log, I notice another recent read that offers an inspiring example of this kind of work: Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine. Crace begins with Jesus’ forty days in the desert (another kind of exile), but his story centers on the small group of fellow seekers who have taken up temporary residence in the desert as well—especially Miri, a young pregnant woman tethered to a lout of a husband. Quarantine takes the bones of a well-known story, and builds from them something original and alive.

I started keeping a diary when I was twelve years old (by the time I was in high school, I preferred the far more mature term “journal”). I occasionally flip through entries I wrote as a teenager or a twenty-something, marveling at how familiar and utterly strange this person is. I wonder if I’ll do the same thing with my book log. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a pile of these, just lists and lists of titles and dates, and I’ll dip into them occasionally to see what I was reading during various writing projects—or during those fallow times when no writing came. Will I be inspired? Will I remember loved books fondly?

 At the very least, I’ll be able to avoid accidentally reading the same book twice.