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).

BinnacleLogo
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.
    ARC image2
    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.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about book publishing. My two previous posts address the most common question – agents and what they do! (Post 1 here, Post 2 here)

The next question I was asked delves into the business of book publishing:

What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

(For the purposes of this post, assume that I am speaking about the big New York City houses that publish fiction and nonfiction, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.)

As readers, we know that a book is a wonderful and complex piece of art, cherished and held on high. Every person who works in book publishing feels this same way – it’s an industry of book nerds, basically.

Book nerds work at the above publishers.

Books tend to be held to different standards, and are oftentimes considered more dignified than other forms of art or entertainment. As writers, we need to remember that though this is a creative industry, publishing houses are also profit-driven entertainment businesses, and many are part of a larger media conglomerate. A book is also a product. It’s consumed. It’s for sale, a piece of merchandise created to generate money.

So, what are things that editors might consider? There’s a multitude of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The overall idea: Is this manuscript compelling and fresh? What comparative titles are out there already and how will yours stand out?
  • The type of writing and the publisher’s aesthetic: What is the writing quality? Is the writing literary, beautiful, contemplative, meandering? Is the writing more commercial, accessible, easy-to-digest? A pop-culture imprint may be great for a biography about Beyoncé, but not the place for your Civil War-era romance, for example.
  • The marketplace: Do we see this book as making a huge commercial splash, is this book an award-winner, is this book quiet and niche? Who are the readers, where do we see this shelved at our accounts? Is this book regionally focused? How are other books like this one selling? How can we use those book sales to our advantage?
  • Sales expectations: How many copies do we think we can sell in hardcover? In paperback? In ebook? Are there subsidiary rights that we think we can exploit, like a sale into the UK or other foreign territories?
  • The advance: How do we balance our market-expectations with what we think we can afford to pay the writer? If we overpay, that’s bad for us and very bad for the author – it can kill their career if their book doesn’t earn out its advance. Are multiple houses interested? If so, how can we be competitive with our offer?
  • Marketing and publicity: Will this book require a significant investment in marketing and publicity? Does the author have a pre-existing platform or network that we can leverage in this regard?

This list of factors is not all inclusive but will give you a good idea of what editors are thinking about when they want to buy your manuscript. At the end of the day, for the big publishers, the best type of book balances the beauty of words and ideas with commercial success and wide appeal. For a book to be both literary and commercial is an editor’s dream.

Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: Literary Agents, Part Two

by Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those who submitted questions for me to answer about book publishing at the Get Lit Salon on May 20th. There was one common theme  – agents!

In this post, I will tackle PART TWO of the agent-related questions. You can check out PART ONE here.

PART TWO:

How do I find the agent who is right for me?

There are many online resources to help you find the right agent for you, but you might want to start by picking up your favorite book – or a book similar to the one you are writing — and flipping to the acknowledgements, where many writers choose to thank their agents. Then, hop on the computer and dig deep. Who else does the agent represent and what type of books do they take on? Where have they sold books? When was their last sale? If they are active on social media, particularly Twitter, which is a hotbed of literary discourse, have a look at what they talk about as it pertains to books. Your best tool is knowledge.

This “Acknowledgements” page is included at the end of AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The research stage is hard work. Here are a couple of online resources that can help:

You may want to keep a running list of those agents and agencies who you are interested in querying, and then, when you are ready to submit, cull the list to a handful so that you take a targeted approach. Be professional, polite, and show that you’ve done your research when you send out your query. You shouldn’t, for instance, send a cookbook proposal to someone who represents mostly literary fiction. Be sure to follow the agent’s submission guidelines.

When should I submit my query to an agent?

You should begin researching and compiling names of those who you think might be a good fit when start to feel ready to sell your work! Once you are happy with your full manuscript, draft a query letter (here’s a great resource for that process). And once you draft your letter, have a trusted friend read it before you send it out. Then send out the letter, usually via email, to your curated agent list.

If you are a nonfiction writer, the timeline might be slightly different: many agents will accept a proposal and sample chapters for nonfiction.

ALWAYS check submission policies. Most are posted online. And, patience is going to be key. It’s hard to send out that query without falling into the trap of the over-eager. Be professional, patient, and kind in any communication you may have.

The next column in the Burning Questions about Book Publishing will address what happens when an editor wants to buy your book and takes the project to their acquisitions team. Stay tuned!

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: Literary Agents, Part One

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those who submitted questions for me to answer about book publishing at the Get Lit Salon on May 20th. There was one common theme – agents! At my day job, I regularly work with literary agents, so I’m excited to offer insight into the work that these publishing professionals do.

To keep this post short, I will break the column into two parts with the second part posting in late June.

PART ONE

Do I need an agent?
If you want to traditionally publish your book, it is in your best interest to find good representation. Many publishing houses are closed houses, which means that the acquiring editors are only able to evaluate projects submitted via an agent. Some smaller houses accept unsolicited (unagented) projects, though policies are shifting all the time. Thankfully, many publishers share their submission policies online.

This book is a great resource for learning more about agents.

What makes a good agent?
A good literary agent is a business partner. A good agent considers you a long-term client and will invest in your career. Some agents help you edit and refine your work, polishing it for submission. A good agent writes a great pitch for your project and then, using their network of editors, curates a list of editors to submit and who they think will be a good fit for your book. The commission an agent receives – generally 15% of the advance, royalties, and subsidiary rights deals – is well worth it.

A good agent tailors their strategy to your project’s needs. For example, a good agent will be able to evaluate which publishing house and what size house might best support your work. Not all houses publish every book the same way, and a good agent will help you navigate that terrain. Sometimes a regional publisher or small press is best for your work, and a good agent will know that.

A good agent negotiates the best terms for your (complicated) book contract including the basics: advance, royalties, territory, and subsidiary rights. The guest speaker for the Get Lit May salon, Diane Lapis, spoke about how her agent was able to push for better terms for her book, Cocktails Across America.

A good agent knows the ins-and-outs of the business of publishing, and advocates for you with your editor when it comes to things like marketing, publicity, distribution channels, and more. A good agent knows how to manage pie-in-the-sky dreams while being realistic with you about how your project fits into the overall literary landscape.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, which will address: How do I find an agent who is right for me? When should I submit a query to an agent?