How Your Manuscript Is Transformed into a Book

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Not too long ago, your manuscript could only take one path to becoming a book: print production. eBooks have revolutionized publishing, not to mention apps as a new way to deliver your message. But certain things in the production process remain constant.

Manuscript Due Date

Your contract will state a manuscript due date. Talk this over with your agent before signing the contract. She may need to negotiate a new due date. Because you don’t want to miss it. If this is your first book, it’s best to have your manuscript (especially a novel) complete when the proposal is submitted. The publisher, whether for print or ebook, will remember if an author missed a manuscript due date, and it will be harder to obtain a contract for your next book.

Production Schedule

A product manager will determine a schedule for each element in the production process: editorial, design, typesetting (or formatting an ebook), and finally the printer date. It’s more involved for print books because the print buyer has to order the right paper in quantity for other books as well yours, to get the best price. The mere mention of paper cost brings to mind the angst over the current royalty percentage for ebooks, but that’s a topic for another day. Hopefully, there will be good news to report by then.

For several reasons the publisher may decide to change the publication date. This recently happened to a client even before the contract was signed. You deserve a full explanation for this. Inform your agent as soon as you are told, and don’t hesitate to get her involved in the discussion. Publishers are protecting their own interests; you need to have someone in the discussion protecting yours. A change in the release date could be disastrous for an author who has another book releasing from another publisher. Or the new release date might not be in the optimum season for your book. For instance, you wouldn’t want your devotional for moms to be bumped from an April release to a July release—after Mother’s Day. In the case of the client I mentioned, the release date was moved out an entire year to coincide with a particular holiday. But her contract stated that that book would be her next published book. I had to do some quick negotiation with the contract manager to change that wording so my client could earn money as we wait for her book to release. The point is, always inform your agent when dates change.

Editorial Process

Meet all your due dates when reviewing galleys and first pages. This is true for print books or ebooks. Because ebooks are on a fast track, the turnaround time usually is shorter. This is the time to build a positive working relationship with your editor. Cooperate with his edits as much as possible and don’t take things personally. Remind yourself he wants your book to be the best it can be, just as you do. If you have a strong objection, bring in your agent to try to resolve the dispute before the schedule is affected. Go over the galleys and page proofs carefully. Catching a mistake late in the process that should have been caught early on can be expensive and also can cause a ripple affect on the schedule.

What if the editor or sales department decides the title needs to change? Bring in your agent right away. This is another instance when you deserve a full explanation. In most cases their reasoning is sound, but not always.

Design

The designer began work on the cover and interior layout of your book as soon as your manuscript was received. He was given an overview of your book’s subject and genre in initial meetings with acquisitions and the editor, The designer will translate all the input into design proofs. He’ll present these in the next meeting with acquisitions, editorial, the marketing manager and a sales person until they narrow down to one or two choices. They might send you their final choice. We agents negotiate in the contract that you’ll be consulted on the final cover design. Covers sell books, and it’s important that you at least have the opportunity to consult, if not approve, it. A bad cover can doom your book.

This is a simple overview. There are too many details to include in one blog. You probably have lots of questions, so ask away. It’s really an interesting, intricate process, and it’s beneficial to you to be able to show an editor you have a working knowledge of the process.

43 Responses

Leave a Reply

  1. I love hearing stories of how the process works behind the “curtain”. Without you describing this, the publishing process occurs more so as a holy, sacred secret-like occurrence. Thank you.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You’re welcome, Rebecca. If you could see a product manager’s schedule for the back-and-forth production stages between acquisitions, editorial, typesetting, and design, you would be amazed.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Mary, this is an interesting post! I’m still learning all that goes on once the manuscript is sent in. What sorts of decisions does an author make independently of her agent?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, good question. The agent usually isn’t involved with your interaction with your editor or the marketing staff assigned to your book unless there is strong disagreement on an issue. At that point it is important to bring your agent into the mix to negotiate on your behalf so your relationship with these people isn’t bruised. For example, you may strongly disagree with your editor who wants to take a portion of your book in a direction you didn’t intend because he or she thinks it will make the book more marketable or compelling–whatever the reason. Your agent can listen to both sides and help work out a win-win compromise.

  3. Sue Harrison says:

    It’s always amazing to me how many ways an agent cushions the bumps that writers experience in the publishing process! Thank you for this interesting and informative post, Mary!

  4. Very interesting post, thankyou Mary. This reinforces the importance of learning the various stages of publication so as to stay ahead of the game. And learning who prefers dark over milk chocolate. I know, I know, I mention chocolate all the time, but it’s currency. 😀

  5. Mary Keeley says:

    Two good points, Jennifer. It’s good for an author to have a working knowledge of the book production side for a couple of reasons: to be prepared for the various stages and also confirm to the publisher she is a savvy professional.

    And good mention of chocolate . . . that’s a very important ingredient in the publishing cycle.

  6. Thanks for this. I have an agent for a memoir, am working on the proposal now so this is very interesting. And helpful.

  7. Rick Barry says:

    Mary, I believe you are spot-on that covers sell books and that a bad cover can doom a book.

    Perhaps the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was created by authors who contracted with publishers that didn’t allow author input? I’ve seen covers that stray far from the contents of the book. Some are simply wrong. Not all authors are artists, but the designer and publisher should welcome author input for the best possible presentation of the contents.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Ideally, the publisher should welcome author input on the cover. Yet publishers occasionally have the opinion they always know best what kind of cover will sell a particular book and don’t want the author’s input. This is especially true for newer authors. However, the publisher isn’t always right. I can think of several recent instances in which the publisher was way off track. This is why it is vital that you and your agent both see the final cover comp before it goes to the printer.

      • Mary, how much say do authors have now? Years ago I worked for a publisher: I remember an author having a lot of say–which the publisher didn’t like. My impression was they weren’t giving that out in contracts again. 🙂

        So if your client gets a bad cover or a decent cover but has suggestions on improving it, do most Christian publishers care, listen, and act on it?

      • Mary Keeley says:

        Sally, publishers’ original contract drafts usually don’t include language that allows the author to have input on the cover. That is why Books & Such agents work hard to get that wording inserted.

        Still, when the final cover is bad, your agent needs to step in right away. If you and your agent think the final cover is acceptable, you can feel confident the designer and acquisitions share your vision. You can offer further suggestions for improvement, but don’t expect a listening ear at that point. Remind yourself the designer is a professional and the publisher has the final say. You could be viewed as a difficult author to deal with, which is not what you want.

  8. Jenny Leo says:

    Thanks, Mary. Sometimes there’s an outdated misconception of gentlemen publishers of the old school, reading manuscripts while sipping tea in book-lined studies. Reality is a flourescent-lit hive of worker bees, fueled by deadlines and adrenaline and the occasional infusion of chocolate. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jenny, great word picture comparison! And there again the healing, calming, energy-boosting balm of chocolate.

      • I know someone who paid 7$ US for a Snickers bar. The entire mission team was calmed and healed by her purchase. Her husband asked her if 7$ was worth it and 18 people yelled “YES!” 😀

  9. All good reasons to have an agent, in my opinion! I wouldn’t want to try all of that negotiation on my own. I’d be lost! Thanks for an insider’s look, Mary.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You’re welcome, Lindsay. Yes, some negotiations can be tricky, delicate, and occasionally a complicated exercise in give and take in several areas in order to reach an agreeable resolution for the one sticky issue. It’s far better that an agent do this on your behalf so you can maintain your relationships with the publisher and concentrate on your manuscript work with your editor.

    • Kate says:

      Yes, indeed Lindsay. I agree.

  10. Tiana Smith says:

    It’s so nice to see the other side of the curtain. Thanks for explaining it, even if you couldn’t go too in depth 🙂

  11. Darby Kern says:

    I welcome that series of posts! Every day I’m learning so much that I’d never considered before. I’m glad to know that I have you and your team on my side.

    Thanks for the informative blogs.

    And i have some ideas about a cover…

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Darby, I’m glad this overview was helpful. I’ll plan a series for future posts.

      Cover ideas can always be offered, and occasionally are appreciated. But acquisitions and the designer will need to take the lead.

  12. Michelle Lim says:

    Thank you for the thoughts on a book cover! I so agree that it drives sales. Although as writer’s we don’t always get what we prefer, there are some things that really matter.

  13. Thank you for the insider’s scoop, yet another reason I hold great respect for the publishing world. As a reader, we hold a book in our hands and don’t comprehend how much work goes into the productions so that it’s smooth and seamless to read. As an author, I’m encouraged to know that once a publishing house is behind my work they will do all that they can to make it the best book possible.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, you certainly are right that your publisher wants great sales for your book as much as you do. However, from the publisher’s perspective, “…do all that they can to make it the best book possible,” has to be weighed against production costs. For instance, depending on factors such as the current price of paper, number of copies determined for the first printing, and page count, the designer might not be able to add the spiffy embossing on the cover.

  14. Thanks, Mary. This is one of the most informative blogs (plus Rachelle’s) I’ve found on publishing. It’s a real service to those of us working all alone at our desks, and I’ve gladly recommended it to others.

  15. Just wondering about that Advanced Reader Copy–is that one for the author to review/make changes in before the final edition? Or is it basically finished? At what stage in the game does that come out?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Heather, here’s a quick explanation of terms. The publisher’s promotions or marketing department produces advanced reader copies, or “ARCs” (use that industry term and an editor will be impressed). It is an unedited version of your manuscript that is bound as a normal paperback book. ARCs are distributed to various media outlets and magazines as soon as the cover is approved in hopes they will publish a review of the book, which equates to free promotion.

      The author reviews galleys, which are the first designed pages but without set margins. From these galleys margins and the final page count are determined. The author receives galleys to read and make changes or corrections in the text. First pages come next. Margins are apparent and changes noted on the galleys are incorporated in the text. First pages usually are the author’s last chance to make changes, so it’s important to review them closely.

      • Thanks so much for the info! I was wondering at what point the author reviews and makes changes. I can imagine it’s stressful, with human error being what it is, that mistakes can slip through even the tightest of editing processes!

  16. Kate says:

    Mary,

    What an amazing investment of time and money by publisher and agent. No wonder a manuscript is painstakingly evaluated and scrutinized before being contracted.

    Appreciate the inside view and tips when issues arise.

    Great comments also…

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good point, Kate. It is a big investment. This helps explain why an editor scrutinizes the first few pages of a proposal looking for any reason to quickly reject it. Writers have to work on their proposals until they are stellar before submitting them to an agent or editor. The competition is fierce and the stakes high. There was a mantra repeated at a conference last year: “Never submit a proposal before its time.”

  17. Excellent post, Mary. I never would have thought to get an agent involved if a date for the release changed. I always enjoy learning about what happens behind the scenes – publishing a book is a lot of hard work with multiple hands involved. Thanks for the run-down!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You’re welcome, Amanda. Part of an agent’s role is to monitor a client’s release date. A change could result in less opportune sales potential. You wouldn’t want the your book for moms release date to be moved from April 1st to June 1st and miss Mother’s Day sales opportunity. Here’s another example. A published author wouldn’t want one book’s release date to be moved close to a second book’s release from another publisher. The author’s books would compete with each other for sales. This is why the agent needs to be informed of a release date change. She may need to step in to negotiate.

  18. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    Thanks for this overview. I agree with some of the other comments–it’s definitely smart to have an agent on your side to help with these finer details.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks for your comment, Cindy. For the reasons talked about here today and because of the vastly changing tide in publishing, it definitely is wise to have an agent representing you.

  19. Yvette Carol says:

    Thanks Mary! That post was very helpful. I agree with the others who responded here, that it’s lifted some of the veil over what goes on after the acceptance. I feel so much better having this information. Being a pre-published author I don’t have an agent, so this has given me a lot of food for thought!
    Thanks again 🙂
    Yvette Carol

  20. Mary Keeley says:

    Yvette, I’m glad you found this beneficial. I agree it helps to understand the hows and whys of the details when you start with a big picture overview.

  21. nan kilmer says:

    with a completed manuscript (only took 12 years) and agents expressing interest based on my query, I am thinking…
    “Never judge a book by its cover”…
    Thanks for some important info.