A Walk-through of the Book Publication Process

by Constance Renfrow
published in Community

Web Editor’s Note: I’m so excited to welcome Constance Renfrow as one of our regular columnists! Constance is an editor as well as a writer, and in her column will be shedding some light on what happens on the other side of the book deal. Please join me in welcoming her to DIY MFA team!

Greetings, writers! I’m also a writer. But I’m also also an editor, at the wonderful and fiercely independent Three Rooms Press, and I spend every day working with authors and books and manuscripts (. . . and publicity and marketing and social media. . .). I know there are a lot of misconceptions, myths, and great voids of the unknown when it comes to book publication, and so I’m here to take some of the mystery (and, regrettably, some of the romance) out of the equation. Welcome to the other side of the writing process!

Writers everywhere dream of getting their novels published, but I would wager that when you picture that most anticipated of events, you imagine getting that congratulatory email from your agent/editor and then fast-forward to the black tie launch party a la Richard Castle. The truth is even after the contract is signed, your work as author isn’t quite done yet. In the editorial department alone there are a number of steps between acquisition and publication, and unfortunately, almost all of them require something for the author to do. So let me take you through the process that turns a manuscript into a beautiful, shiny (or matte) new book.

Just note that of course, this varies—often widely—from press to press, editor to editor, book to book, but on the whole, I hope to give you a pretty good overview of what to expect.

Pre-Manuscript Stage

The “pre-manuscript stage,” as I’m very cleverly dubbing it, technically begins as soon as the contract is signed, and lasts until the manuscript delivery date the author and the publisher agreed upon. If you’ve been granted a contract to write Weird Al: Hero of a Generation, this is when you actually need to, you know . . . write it. Alternately, if Throne of Games is already complete, the editor may ask you to fix some larger concerns she noted when she was first considering your query—such as strengthening the ending or changing Isadora Hitler’s loaded, but completely irrelevant name. Or alternately alternately, this may just be the time for you to relax, stop emailing your editor swatches for the cover design, and wait until it’s time for the editorial team to start so much as thinking about your pub season. Oftentimes, a book’s pub date will be a year to two years after the author signed the contract.

The pre-manuscript stage also includes what editors affectionately refer to as “hell”: aka the gathering of “metadata.” This is material the sales team needs in order to begin selling the book—a synopsis, comparable titles, reasons why your book is unique, ideas for the cover, etc. You’ll almost assuredly be asked to contribute ideas for any and all of these. You’ll also get your official pub date, isbn, and not too long afterward, will be up on Amazon! You’ll find it when you Google yourself! (But please, for the love of Word, know that absolutely nothing is final and that you shouldn’t call up your editor now that she’s finally got a day off about a typo.)

The Manuscript Stage

This is the time when your manuscript is finalized and polished, and is usually accomplished over several months. As is true of just about everything I’m telling you, the manuscript stage varies from editor to editor and book to book; some of these steps will get lumped together in one draft and others might not be needed at all. But in general, these are the basic parts:

The Developmental Edit

Your editor will read over the latest draft of the manuscript; if she has the time, she’ll read it once as an innocent reader, just to get a feel for things. Then she’ll look it over for larger concerns: does the protagonist do something unbelievably out of character at the end? Does chapter six slow down the narrative too much? Why did this side plot disappear? Additionally she may suggest edits that pertain to the “real-world”; for example, your editor may suggest letting Isadora plunge the magical dagger into the wizard who murdered her family herself—instead of standing back while her male knight and lover does the killing. Not just because that makes a better story, but because there are not enough strong female characters in fantasy right now, and young women today need to see that they are just as capable as their male counterparts.

Your editor will make anywhere from a handful to a veritable boatload of notes using track changes and will send the MS back to you, often with an editorial letter. Don’t be surprised if she locks the document either, so that she can easily find your revisions. You’ll have anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to revise, and be aware that some stories will need more than one round of edits. Be patient and try not to take these critiques personally; your editor’s goal is the same as yours: to make your book as strong as possible.

The Content Edit

After you’ve made your revisions and your editor has okayed them, it’s time for the content edit. The editor basically checks for inconsistencies—matching character descriptions, “Where’s the turkey” moments—as well repetition of lines, incorrect “facts,” etc. There’s also a certain amount of fixing your own mistakes involved at this step. Whenever a novel has undergone a substantial amount of editing, continuity problems tend to emerge. New scenes might contradict old ones, or they introduce information that is then reintroduced where it was originally placed, or a deleted scene might have accidentally taken with it some key element of the story. You’ll most likely have only a few days to fix these issues.

The Copy Edit

The copy edit is all about honing grammar, paring sentences, making the author’s language beautiful. (Freelancer note: it’s a waste of time to copy edit a book before the more substantive edits). Some books really need a copy edit, and others not so much, depending on your approach to writing. Do you intricately craft each sentence, slaving over each comma to express your unique style? Then your book may only need a light touch—in fact, the editor might simply highlight an awkward sentence and tell you to fix it in whatever way you want. However, if you prefer to focus on story, leaving the language to deal with itself, your lines might need some thorough rewriting. Some editors do the copy editing themselves, while others may prefer to give it to an in-house or outside copy editor, depending on their schedule, funds, etc. Most editors will return the MS to you at this point, to make sure you agree with their changes and so you can make your own tweaks.

The Proofread

Finally, when you and the editor approve all the text, there comes an initial proofread. The book will usually be proofread a number of times before printing, by a number of different people. But in my experience, this is the time that the editor will give the MS a once-over for misspellings, typos, adherence to Chicago Manual of Style, etc. It’s easier to make changes on a Microsoft Word document than an Adobe InDesign file, so if the editor has the time, she’ll try to do most of the heavy lifting now. Usually the author won’t be bothered at this point, but if you are concerned about a character’s dialect or specific regional spellings, etc., you can certainly ask to receive the marked file and style sheet.

Front Matter/Acknowledgments/Index

Though you can absolutely worry about thanking people later, the end of the manuscript stage is usually the best time to submit your dedication, introduction, acknowledgments, and (if your book is nonfiction and it’s stipulated in your contract) your index terms. Ugh . . . indexes. The editor will then compile them in the Word Doc or otherwise get them to the production team. That way you don’t have to scramble to remember the names of everyone who helped you in your Camp NaNoWriMo cabin, and the production team doesn’t have to worry about printer signatures.

Got all of that? Congratulations, This Is How I Miss You: A Stormtrooper Romance is on its way to production and layout! Now stick that word doc in a folder on your computer and leave it there; you won’t be needing it anymore.

Join me next time for part II of this walk-through, where I’ll talk about production, ARCs, and how to make your novel super pretty!


IMG_1257Constance Renfrow is a New York-based writer and editor. She is the lead editor for Three Rooms Press and a freelance editor and writing coach atconstancerenfrow.com. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly, Denim Skin, Petrichor Machine, and she hosts a monthly open mic series at the Merchant’s House Museum. A lover of nineteenth-century literature, she’s currently completing a three-volume governess novel, her first full-length work. Lastly, she compiled the anthology of millennial fiction, Songs of My Selfie (Three Rooms Press, April 2016), now available for preorder!  Follow her on Twitter @MissConstance21 and/or @SongsOfMySelfie.

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