The Stages of Publishing: After the Book DealJun 05, 2022
As a writer, it can be easy to amalgamate all the stages of publishing a novel into one (sometimes distant!) process. But it’s actually much more complex than that. There are lots of steps between a book being bought by an editor at a publishing company, and it reaching a reader.
Lily Lindon, Editor at The Novelry, has experienced the publishing process from both sides: as a publisher at Penguin Random House publishing house, and now as a debut author herself (Double Booked is publishing on 9th June). She writes about how to stay sane – and celebratory – during the long road that is the publication process.
The publishing process: what writers don’t know
Understandably, many writers spend a lot of time worrying about getting a book deal, but don’t know about all the stages of publishing that come after selling their book.
I want to demystify the process, both as an editor who knows how opaque the publishing world is, but also because I’m experiencing it as a debut author right now. The release date for my book is coming very soon, and I am… all over the place. Frankly, I also need to give myself some advice.
So here’s what I’ve learnt from seeing the stages of the publishing process from both sides – plus some wisdom from other experienced authors at The Novelry. (Please note that this article is based around traditional trade publishing processes, not self-publishing. If you do want to learn more about self-publishing versus working with traditional publishing houses, take a look at Jack Jordan’s blog post on the subject!)
Understandably, many writers spend a lot of time worrying about getting a book deal, but don’t know about all the stages of publishing that come after selling their book.
After the book deal comes a year of preparation
Congratulations! You’ve got your book deal!
You’ve worked so hard for this. You’ve jumped over an astonishingly competitive amount of hurdles, and finally it’s not just the commissioning editor who’s excited to get your book on the shelves. You’ve now got a whole team of professionals who wants to help bring your story to the world in print version. From making the final manuscript shine to putting together a marketing plan, there’s much to look forward to.
… So what on earth happens next?
The first stages of publishing bring more edits!
If you thought your book was finished when your agent sent it to editors… Good one! Now you have a professional editor, you get to edit all over again – with bells on.
Generally, your book will be scheduled to publish around one year after it is acquired. This seems like ages, but trust me, you and your editor will be busy that whole time.
So what can you expect from the professional editorial process? It breaks down into four stages, which at many publishing houses, take roughly six months. (Though, of course, every book is different):
The first stage of publishing: developmental editing
In the very first step in all the stages of the publishing process, the editorial department focuses on improving the big picture of your story.
Also referred to as structural edits, this part is generally very collaborative. It’s when you and your editor can talk about any major or foundational changes that could improve your book before its publication date.
Proposed changes will naturally be different for every book.
There are, though, broad questions that most writers tackle at this stage of publishing. Generally, they all aim to determine whether the final draft of your book fulfils its promise for readers of the genre.
Is the opening the most intriguing it can be?
Is the ending satisfying?
Are there any missing or extraneous scenes?
Are there plot holes to fix?
And so on.
You can expect two or three ‘rounds’ of structural edits during this stage of publishing. In other words, your editor will give you three rounds of notes, and you’ll send back three updated manuscripts.
This stage of publishing can take anywhere from one to four months.
The second stage of publishing: line edits
Once the bigger picture is all in place, the editor will zoom in for sentence-by-sentence improvements.
Are there words you use too much? Are there metaphors that don’t quite work? Jokes that don’t land? Your editor will make expert suggestions to polish every page until you’re both happy it’s the best it can be.
Structural edits and line edits are not binary. Often you and your editor will naturally look at some sentence-level details while you’re still at the structural stage.
Are there words you use too much? Are there metaphors that don’t quite work? Jokes that don’t land?
Depending on how detailed you were in your structural edits, you can expect one or two rounds of line edits. Usually, your editor will expect your revisions back in around a month.
The third stage of publishing: copy editing
This third stage of publishing really drills down into the nitty-gritty. It largely revolves around fact-checking and sense-checking your writing.
Remember that fact-checking is not just for non-fiction. A good copy editor checks that each detail of your plot – even seemingly throwaway comments – makes sense. If your characters are driving on the left-hand side of the road in the USA, for example, or paying with Euros in Cambodia, they’ll suggest you revise (unless these are conscious choices for your plot!).
Remember that fact-checking is not just for non-fiction. A good copy editor checks that each detail of your plot – even seemingly throwaway comments – makes sense.
This stage of publishing also involves checking for internal consistency – like whether you’ve spelled the name of a fairy tale village in a different way in one chapter compared to another. Your copy editor also formats the typed manuscript with instructions for the typesetter.
The fourth stage of publishing: proofreading
Proofreaders, unsurprisingly, proofread your revised proofs. They will check for spelling or grammar mistakes, including typos. At the same time, proofreaders also look for any typesetting errors, making sure the final printed version doesn’t have any dodgy line breaks or errors.
Copy editing and proofreading are both intricate specialties, and the work typically takes quite a long time. Most publishers have freelancers or separate in-house teams that carry out these fiddly bits, rather than it being the publishing editor you’ve been working with.
Copy editing and proofreading are both intricate specialties, and the work typically takes quite a long time. Most publishers have freelancers or separate in-house teams that carry out these fiddly bits.
If there are any questions, doubts or proposed revisions, you’ll be consulted and have final approval. At this stage, you’ll review their notes (typically clicking ‘yes’ to their suggestions on a Microsoft Word document with the tracked changes feature). Usually, writers are expected to approve or reject these suggestions within two or three weeks.
Now (around 3-10 drafts later) your manuscript is finally ready to be printed!
When will you get to hold your book?
If you’re on book social media, you will likely see book bloggers waving around printed copies of a physical book months before its release date, often with a quirky eye-catching cover design or some book-related swag.
In the UK these are called ‘proofs’, and in the US they’re known as ARCs (advanced reader copies) or galleys. These are typically printed between the copy-edit and proofreading stages of publishing, so not quite the final text. They are not for resale but are there to get reviews and early interest in the book.
Your book will be finalised and officially printed around 1-2 months prior to publication to allow it to get to bookshops and any early events.
5 tips for the editorial stages of publishing:
Don’t panic if there are a lot of changes! Remember that the commissioning editor bought your book because it’s already great and they saw its potential to be even better.
This can be a moment of real doubt in a lot of writers, because you’re making developments to a manuscript you have already worked on for a long time and it can feel stuck. Remember that your story has to go through lots of skin shedding and metamorphosis to become its best self.
Try not to be overwhelmed if you feel you’re back asking yourself ‘basic’ questions about story. It’s completely natural to go back and forth from bigger picture to more detail. If you can’t see the way out of a story problem, remember that you have an agent and editor to help you now!
Enjoy the creative collaboration. It’s likely your editor will be the only person other than you who reads your book in-depth, multiple times. Revel in their brain. I was so lucky to have brilliant editors to work with on Double Booked, whose thoughtful feedback made it a much, much better story. You get to talk to other people about the actions of characters who you invented! Surreal!
The visual stage of publishing: your book cover
The most exciting – and terrifying – part for a lot of authors is getting to see their book’s final cover art for the first time.
Your editor will have briefed your designer – who is sometimes an internal designer, sometimes a freelancer. They will usually give the brief by giving some ‘comparison titles’. That just means books that are aiming for a similar readership to yours. If you’re writing a thriller similar to Lee Child for example, you’d better believe that your cover will be briefed to look ‘like Lee Child in [X] way, but different in [Y] way’.
My cover design, for example, went through about three rounds of concept drafts from the very talented cover designer until we ended up at what would become the final cover.
At any publisher worth their salt, the author must give their approval before the cover is signed off. It’s a conversation, not a conscription.
The process is very variable, but you can expect to have seen the first draft of your book cover a couple of months after your deal is made, and the final by six months before publication (so that it can be revealed online and to bookshops etc). As one example: Double Booked’s official ‘cover reveal’ happened in September 2021 for a book publishing in June 2022 (9 months prior).
Remember: you are part of this process too! At any publisher worth their salt, the author must give their approval before the cover is signed off. It’s a conversation, not a conscription. If you have any feedback or ideas, talk to your agent first – they can advise you.
At the same time, remember that you are working with a team of professionals, and that your publisher’s sales and marketing teams will have given their experienced input into the final design. It’s likely they have good reason for advising it looks this way. Everyone has your book’s best interests at heart.
The final stage of publishing: selling your book
The good news if you’re being traditionally published is you have a whole team of professionals working on getting your book to the readers who will love it.
Your sales, publicity, marketing and rights teams will be working behind the scenes throughout all the stages of publishing, and well after the release date. It’s only a few months prior to publication that you’ll start to get involved…
Publicity and marketing
Most books do not have a large campaign budget (a lot of books do not have any campaign budget at all).
The publishing industry is increasingly weighted towards heavy-hitters of celebrity or brand-name authors. But again, remember that the publisher believes in your book or they wouldn’t have given you a book deal!
This refers to free promotion: interviews, reviews or articles published through media outlets. A lot of the project management here will be down to your publicist, who will collaborate with you on pitch ideas, and on your availability for suitable events.
Events are incredibly oversubscribed, so as ever, don’t feel it’s an indication of your book’s worth if you don’t have an international tour or a launch at Wembley.
The Society of Authors has been campaigning for authors to be paid an attendance fee when they talk at events, but note that many events don’t offer a participation fee (though if it’s a significant event or organised by your publisher, then you can expect them to at least cover your travel costs).
Marketing, on the other hand, is paid promotion: for example, ads on social media or even billboards.
You’ll hear a lot of talk about ‘audiences’. This just refers to the target readership: the kind of person who’s likely to be really excited to buy your book.
If you’re writing weighty non-fiction, it’s probably not important for you to make TikToks. If you’re writing a young adult romance novel, you’re unlikely to gain much from book reviewers publishing in the LRB. It would be a waste of everyone’s time, money and energy to try to promote the book to the wrong media.
Whether your book has a glitzy campaign budget or not, it’s likely that a significant amount of the promotion will come from you as an individual.
If a book is going to be any kind of ‘bestseller’ it’s likely to happen in its first few weeks of publication. Typically any publicity and marketing will therefore cluster around publication week/month. That gives the book the best chance of cut-through in the oversaturated market.
Whether your book has a glitzy campaign budget or not, it’s likely that a significant amount of the promotion will come from you as an individual. You’re ultimately the person responsible for deciding how much time and money you want to dedicate to promoting your book.
Of course, it also depends on your circumstances and skills. Communicate with your agent so that they can help you to create a plan for your independent promotion and/or keep your boundaries.
Want to learn more about publishing?
Our partners at the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency are running a six-month Mentorship Program, offering six spaces to writers from underrepresented backgrounds.
The program features a series of online insight sessions given by editors, agents, international rights, film & TV, as well as bestselling authors. Each mentee will be partnered with an MMLA literary agent mentor and will receive personalised editorial feedback on their manuscript. Each mentee will also receive guaranteed representation. Open internationally, applications close on July 31st – find out more.
7 tips to stay sane through all the stages of publication:
1. It’s an emotional marathon
Understand that life doesn’t just flick a switch to being perfect after you get a book deal. Everyone will go through different highs and lows, about both their own relationship with their writing and tokens of public success. There are many phases.
It’s normal for it to feel very different from one minute to the next. You might have a day where you swing from crying at a mediocre review on Goodreads to someone emailing you to offer television rights. That’s why resilience really is crucial for writers.
2. Avoid shifting your goalposts
It’s simply unfair to expect your story to become Hollywood’s next blockbuster or sell a billion copies in a thousand countries. That’s just not how the book trade works. It’s natural to get caught up in the chain of ambition, to compare yourself to other authors (or, at least, to their curated public façade). It doesn’t make you a bad person if you’re disappointed that something you envisaged for the book’s campaign didn’t happen, but learning to cope with failure is vital.
And remember, it’s no indication of you or your book’s value. Lovely things will happen as a result of your book being out in the world that you cannot predict or expect – don’t do them a disservice by longing for things you can’t control. (And if fame is what you’re after, maybe a career path as an author isn’t the savviest choice…) What would it be like if you felt whatever happens is enough (so Zen)?
3. At the end of the day, it’s just a book!
Yes, it’s also your precious baby, and yes, of course we’re all people who think books are incredibly important. But remember that literally hundreds of books are published every week – and that’s not to mention the millions that already exist.
And, you know, apparently there are also other ways people can spend their time apart from reading (who knew?). It can’t be all about you. And you know what? That’s actually great news. You can chill out, knowing no one else cares as much as you do. Ah, it’s almost as good as the relief of knowing your own cosmic insignificance!
4. Keep to your own values and priorities
The best way to stay in control is to stay true to what’s important to you.
Why is it you want(ed) to be published in the first place? Is it to see your name on the shelves of a bookshop? To have a reader contact you saying they connected with your writing?
It can be powerful to write a note to yourself about what your real ambition is as a writer. Do it now! Then you can return, always, to how you felt before your book deal. Remember how much past-you wanted to be present-you.
5. Decide your relationship with reviews
This is both practical and emotional. You might be someone who wants to know everything – in which case, you can set up Google alerts, ask your team to forward you any updates, and make yourself available to be tagged in reviews on social media.
However, know that no matter how brilliant your book is, you will get bad reviews. You will also, perhaps more offensively, get mediocre or downright incomprehensible ones.
Personally, my skin is way too thin, and my overthinking means that just seeing one randomer’s opinion can send me into a spiral for days – so I try to avoid all reviews unless they come via my editor or a close friend. You can’t please everyone, so my aim is to only know about those I did please.
Ahead of my debut coming out, a novelist friend of mine advised me to adopt a sanguine attitude towards reviews... but for all my best intentions, there were a few Goodreads reviews that really bothered me (The Book of Summers being suggested as a cure for insomnia sticks in the mind, while another reader wanted to, er, punch my hero in the face...!). I remember, at the time, sitting at my laptop feeling properly crushed. Now, several novels and a decade on, I can read back over such things with good humour and pretty much a rhino-hide skin; I’d say that attitude has developed gradually, becoming a little more robust with every novel I’ve published. I’d love to have got there sooner. I now know that you simply can’t please everyone – and why would you wish to anyway? It’s a reader’s prerogative to hold any opinion they want about a book; if they wish to express that opinion in fairly brutal terms, well, that’s their call. The fact is, once you publish a novel, it stops being yours in a lot of ways. That’s all part of the deal. Just don’t let anyone, for even a second, steal your joy or dent your pride in having written an entire book; the book you wanted to write. However if you’ve the nerve for it, I do recommend checking back in on critical reviews, once you’ve got a bit of emotional distance (weeks, months, years, whatever!), as there might well be food for thought in there. I think the happiest writers are those who cultivate resilience and maintain an open attitude to learning. But in that regard, we’re probably all a work-in-progress, right?
6. Look after yourself
This is making it sound as if publication is one of the worst things that can happen to you, isn’t it? It isn’t! Reach out to other writers, talk to friends, and remember to do non-book-related things too! Like, you know, sleeping.
7. Use your community
You’re part of a community now, not a competition. Lift other writers up. Say hello at events, message when you loved their book, give blurbs generously. Karma is a lovely thing.
If you are excited about reading someone else’s book, you know that pre-ordering is the best gift you can give them (and yourself!).
If you’re looking for somewhere to get a head start… You can order your copy of Double Booked here.
Described by Laura Kay as ‘the queer romcom I’ve been waiting for – a fresh and fun take on finding yourself stuck between two worlds,’ Lily Lindon’s debut novel Double Booked was published by Head of Zeus on June 9th, 2022. Order your copy now.
Editor at The Novelry
Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie. Lily is also the author of debut novel Double Booked. Edit your novel with Lily at The Novelry.