From Submission to Release Day – What goes on at a publishing house
I went through this whole process blind with no idea what was coming next. Much of the time I was like a deer caught in headlights. I sent real emails to my editor saying, ‘What’s a structural edit?’ and ‘what do you mean there’s a second edit? I thought we were done!’ and ‘what’s Goodreads?’ I even thanked my publisher for being my editor in the acknowledgements of my book because I didn’t know the difference and now that’s a mistake I’ll be living with forever :). So that’s why I’ve written this piece. Hopefully after you read it, you’ll be a tad more switched on than I was and you’ll make much less of a fool of yourself than I did. I hope you find this worth the read…
STEP ONE: MANUSCRIPT IS READ BY A PUBLISHER
When a manuscript is submitted to a publishing house it goes into a publisher’s reading pile. Each publisher reads specific genres so it’s a good idea to contact the publishing house beforehand and make sure you’re not submitting your paranormal novel to the publisher who looks at cookbook submissions!
If you have a literary agent representing you, then your agent will be submitting to publishers on your behalf (which is what happened with me).
On a quick aside here before we go any further, I’m a huge advocate for trying to sign with a literary agent before you submit to publishers. This is because your manuscript will absolutely be read by the relevant publisher if it’s submitted by an agent. However if it’s an unsolicited submission made by you, it may take months or even years (no I’m not exaggerating) before your manuscript reaches the top of that publisher’s ‘slush pile’. The reason for this is quite simply that agents are fussy so if they put their name behind an author, it gives that author instant credibility which makes them more desirable to a publisher. To show you just how much influence an agent has, when my literary agent Jacinta di Mase submitted my debut novel Love at First Flight to the ‘big five’ publishing houses it was read by all of five publishers within the first six weeks after submission.
You can find my article on how to submit to a literary agent here:
STEP TWO: ACQUISITIONS MEETING
If the publisher loves your manuscript (hooray!), they’ll put it up for review at an acquisitions meeting.
Acquisitions is a team meeting in the publishing house where it’s decided which manuscripts to acquire, how much to pay the authors (if anything) as an advance, what format/s the book will take (hardcover, eBook, audiobook), what rights the publishing house wishes to acquire (e.g. movie rights, world print rights) and when the book will be released (this depends on how much work needs to be done to get the manuscript up to an acceptable standard for release and it also depends on how well the title fits in with the other books slated for release that year and when it the team estimate it would sell the strongest, such as a book about Christmas hitting the shops late in the year.)
Also at acquisitions, it will be decided whether to keep your working title or whether the team think it isn’t strong enough. They may then present you with a new title for your approval or send you back to the drawing board to come up with one yourself.
With my second book, Beautiful Messy Love we went back and forth for over a week (my publisher, agent and I) before everyone was happy with the title. A title is a hugely important selling point, it can make or break the success of a book - so if they tell you your title sucks, it probably does! Don’t get too attached to your title before submitting your manuscript. Out of the hundreds of authors I know, maybe half at most get to keep their working titles. So far I’ve been allowed to keep one out of three.
Before the acquisitions meeting, the other people attending the meeting will also read your manuscript. For your book to pass through acquisitions, it's not just the publisher but the publishing team as well who must be on board and think your book is worth taking a gamble on.
I’ve been in the situation with a big five publishing house where the publisher lapped up my manuscript in one sitting. She adored it, raved about it even, and got it scheduled for acquisitions. I counted down the days to the meeting but it was rejected because the rest of the team wasn't on board. The publisher wrote to my agent telling her she was shattered because she desperately wanted to publish my book. So be warned, a publisher loving your manuscript and taking it to an acquisitions meeting isn’t a guarantee that it will be accepted.
STEP THREE: CONTRACT IS SIGNED
Hooray, you’ve been offered a publishing deal! But before you pop the champagne you need that piece of paper signed in indelible ink. And let me tell you, publishing contracts are long and complicated. It can take a month or longer of to-ing and fro-ing before a contract is signed.
If you have a literary agent, they will negotiate the terms of your contract with the publishing house to make it as favourable as they can for you. But if you don’t have an agent, I strongly, strongly, strongly, recommend paying a publishing contract expert, (usually these are literary agents) to consult for you on the contract.
This doesn’t mean the agent then represents you. All it is, is you paying the agent to read your contract and give you advice on parts that should be changed or clarified before you sign.
Some of the many areas an expert will help you navigate are – your royalties, national rights versus world rights, movie rights, audiobook rights, how your royalties are affected if your book has a special and is discounted, how long the contract lasts and in what situation and what time frame you can request for the rights to be returned to you, how much input you’ll be allowed to have on the cover, whether it’s released in digital or print versions or both, how often you’ll be paid, whether it’s a one, two or three book deal. And that’s just a few of the places where you’ll benefit from the advice of an expert, because let’s be honest, what the hell do we know?
So although your instinct when you’re presented with a contract may be to sign it immediately (with your own blood if you have to), try and stay cool and hand the contract over for a thorough assessment by somebody more qualified to do that.
STEP FOUR: THE IN-HOUSE EDITOR TAKES OVER
Your in-house editor is the person who will manage all aspects of your book and consult with the whole team. Basically this person becomes your book’s manager with the publisher being the boss. Your in-house editor may in fact be your publisher or it may be a job given to another editor at the publishing house. Your in-house editor and your publisher will work alongside each other to make sure your whole book comes together beautifully, with your publisher being the one with the final say on things.
STEP FIVE: STRUCTURAL EDIT
Now that the contract is signed it’s time to get serious!
Sometimes the structural editor is the publisher who signs you or it might be your in-house editor. But more often than not, the structural edit is contracted out to a freelance editor.
Going through the structural edit is the biggest and most time consuming job for you as an author once you’re signed. This edit looks at ‘big issue’ problems with your book – are characters behaving in line with the way you have drawn them, are there plot holes, are there discrepancies, is there a satisfactory ending, does the story lag anywhere, is the dialogue smooth, is the narrative traction sufficient…these are just some of the issues that structural editor will bring up with you.
Your in-house editor will then look at the structural edit before passing it onto you.
You’ll then go through all the suggested changes and decide which ones to keep and which ones to ignore. If you reject changes that your structural editor suggests, it’s expected that you explain your reasoning.
You’ll then send the structural edit back to your in-house editor for approval.
STEP SIX: COPY EDIT
This job can also be contracted out to a freelance editor or it can be done by your in-house editor.
Whereas the structural edit looks at broader issues with the storyline, theme, setting, point of view, characters etc, the copy edit is like taking a magnifying glass to the book. The copy editor knows the big issues have been dealt with so their job is to zoom in on every scene, on every line. Is every sentence perfect? Is every scene fleshed out enough? Are some scenes dragging on and needing to be cut back? Could there be a better alternative to replace certain words? These are some of the things your copy editor will look for.
Once the copy editor has made their changes, just like with the structural edit, if it isn’t your in-house editor who did this job, then they will have a good look at all the changes and then you’ll then be given the book to review it and decide which changes to make.
You’ll then send the copy edit back to your in-house editor for approval.
STEP SEVEN: THE COVER
Such an exciting part of the process! Some publishing houses seek author involvement with the cover and others present the covers to the authors with no author input at all.
At HarperCollins, I met with the head of the design team to discuss the cover of Love at First Flight and I gave him my vision for it (which they then did an amazing job of bringing to life).
The process for creating covers varies greatly with each publishing house. At HarperCollins, the design team are briefed and then they come up with three or four concepts. These concept designs are then done as a mock up and tried and tested to see which one looks best as a poster size all the way down to a thumbnail so that the same cover looks just as great blown up in shown windows as it does on an online store that’s viewed on a phone screen. The cover also has to look great and stand out on a shelf among loads of other books so they literally put the different mock ups on shelves and see which one is the most eye-catching when surrounded by books.
Depending on the contract you sign and which publishing house you’re with, your publisher or in-house editor will either present you with the cover as a ‘fait accomplit’ (and if you don’t like it too bad, too sad) or you’ll be asked for your opinion of the cover and if you have any suggested changes to make.
My agent made sure we had a say on the cover so it was sent to both of us to accept or reject and she did end up suggesting some changes for the back cover which the design team followed through with.
STEP EIGHT: THE TYPESET
The manuscript is then given to the publishing house’s typesetter and it gets typed up as an actual book.
STEP NINE: READER'S COPIES ARE SENT OUT
Once the typeset pages are done you have a 'reader's copy' known as an RC of the book. A small number of these RC books will be printed to be sent out to key media and bloggers so that some early reviews can come in to boost interest in the book and so that media outlets and bloggers can schedule interviews with you around release time. Most major magazines for example need proof copies six months before release date in order to schedule interviews and for reviews to be up around release.
These advance reader's copies still have mistakes in them as they haven’t been proofread and your book may need a mock up cover because your cover isn’t ready yet.
STEP TEN: THE PROOF READ
While the reader's copies are being read by reviewers, the typeset pages are being simultaneously read by a proof reader (this is usually outsourced to a freelance editor) for a final thorough going over. Every little misplaced comma or typo is picked up here as well as a very detailed look at timing and consistency in the plot. It’s amazing what a proof reader picks up and how sharp their eye is!
Your in-house editor will then go over the proofread pages and see if there’s anything else they pick up. Those pages are then sent (in a hard copy) back to the author and guess what? You get the joy of reading your book again!
You then send the proofread pages back to your in-house editor.
Your in-house editor will give the book one final read through to look for any last mistakes and will send you a PDF of what they consider to be the very final version of your book and surprise, surprise - guess who has to read the book again? You! Once you give this PDF the all clear, it’s time to pop the champagne as the words on those pages are now permanent.
STEP ELEVEN: MARKETING AND PROMOTIONS
This bit is HUGE, MASSIVE and ENORMOUS because it takes a village to get a book noticed.
Publicist – this is your go-to person and the one who manages everything to do with getting your book the attention it deserves. Your publicist will send out your proof copies, liaise with bloggers and media outlets to schedule in events, interviews, photo shoots, signings – your publicist is your diary/your PA/your manager all at once. Anyone who wants a piece of you goes through your publicist.
Your publicist will also organise your press release, which announces the details of your book and release date to all major press and media and closer to release date they also send out finished copies to media personalities and bloggers – basically to anyone who could shout about your book and have people listen to them.
Your publicist will also chase up everyone they gave advance and finished copies to, and anyone who was sent the press release trying to find opportunities for you to be the centre of attention. They may also contact libraries to see if there is any interest in them holding events for you and they will be the one who organises a bookseller to be present at all your events.
To give you an idea of how involved your publicist is, I’m currently three weeks away from release and for the last three months my publicist, Alice, and I have exchanged at least ten emails a week. This week and last week, as it gets to crunch time, it’s been more like upwards of ten emails a day.
Marketing and Promotions manager – this person will be in charge of how your book gets marketed. They will decide which promotions will best suit your genre and will also organise things such as making up posters and other props for book shop displays.
They’ll also liaise with booksellers to see how they can best promote your book – for example my promotions manager has organised a competition with all franchise and independent bookstores in Western Australia (where the book is set) that is being advertised with drop posters that will hang from the ceilings of those shops and bookmarks left at the front counters with the book cover on the front and competition details on the back. The prize is an overnight stay in the luxurious five star beachfront hotel featured in the book. Also because my book’s characters meet on a flight, my marketing and promotions manager spent a chunk of the budget marketing to airport newsagencies and provided all of those franchise managers with a complimentary copy of the book. Every book has a different marketing strategy but that’s just to show you what the role can involve.
Sales team – these people are the backbone of the operation. The number of people in your sales team will depend on how big your publishing house is. For my book, my sales team is led by a sales director at HarperCollins who’s based at Head Office in Sydney and he oversees everything that happens in this area.
Under the guidance of the sales director are a whole crew of other sales people who deal with the big national account holders like Booktopia, Big W, Kmart, Target, Dymocks etc.
Then there’s the team of field sales managers who are spread out in every State and Territory and are led by a national manager who is in charge of all field sales. Each field sales manager has the job of making sure your book will be featured in as many franchised and independent bookshops in their State as possible and they do this by literally getting in their cars and going around and convincing booksellers to order your book!
The number of orders that come in from key account holders (like Big W etc) as well as the number of book orders that come in from independent bookshops in each State will determine how big the initial print run of your book is. An initial print run for a commercial adult fiction novel getting a national release could be anywhere between two thousand to ten thousand copies depending on its popularity.
Digital Marketing Team – this team is responsible for everything to do with digital sales of your book, so they’ll be the ones communicating with iBooks, Amazon, Google Play, Barnes and Noble etc to ensure your book is listed prominently and marketed well. They’ll provide sample material for the online stores too. This team will also market on your behalf on the publishing house’s social media pages (Facebook, Twitter etc) and on their website to create buzz about your book and they will also be the ones who set up your Goodreads profile for the book.
Design Team – they’ll work in conjunction with all the other people listed above to do things like design posters and other bookshop display materials like flyers and postcards. They’ll design shareables for digital use and also design your cover images for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And they’ll design other odds and ends like launch and event invitations and bookmarks for you.
STEP TWELVE: THE PRINT RUN
Off to the printers we go! This happens about two months to six weeks before your book is released and the print run depends on how many copies the sales team has managed to convince booksellers to order. Once the initial print run is done, if more orders start to flood in or once the book hits the shelves and starts selling fast, a second print run will be ordered.
STEP THIRTEEN: DISTRIBUTION
Hooray! Your book is loaded into boxes and sent to all the bookshops, department stores and online retailers who ordered it. And in the majority of contracts a small box of your book babies will be sent straight to you as a gift!
This entire process takes at least nine months and but usually it’s more like a year to complete.
The people on your publishing team who you’ll have direct contact with are:
- In-house editor (who may also be your structural editor and/or your copy editor)
- Marketing and Promotions manager
- Sales Manager for your State (if you have one)
- Head of design team (if you’re having input into the cover)
- Digital marketing manager
I had one day where I woke up to an email from five of these seven people about different issues – the process can get quite full on, so strap on your seatbelts!
When you think about the in-house staff and freelance contractor wages alone involved in getting a book out and then add to that the cost of marketing and promotion materials, the cost of actually printing books and the cost of distribution, it makes you realise the incredible leap of faith a publisher must take when they first pitch your book at acquisitions and are prepared to put their name and reputation behind your book. So when you submit your book to a publishing house and you hear back from a publisher that they like your book enough to take it to acquisitions – send them chocolates to say thank you!