Manuscript to Book: A Short Guide to the Book Publishing Process

A lot of my freelance book publishing work is copy-editing and proofreading. People often ask me what the difference is and so I thought it might be useful to guide you through the basic steps of a book journeying from manuscript to a published book. Of course, nowadays, your ‘manuscript’ will most likely be a ‘typescript’ – not many authors write by hand still! And mostly it’s typed on a computer and so you may automatically think of sending it as an email attachment to a potential publisher or agent. But it’s always wise to check out the requirements of different publishers and some will want an actual paper submission sent through the post. I’m going to write more about ‘submissions’ another time but for now, I’ll outline the basic steps.

Manuscript (or Typescript)

You’ve finished your work and it’s all ready for you to now find a publisher. It’s often easier to find an agent to act for you, but more of how to submit your work another time. So let’s move on to the point when your book is accepted by a publisher. This basic copy forms of the foundation of what will become a book. First of all, it will be read by the editor who commissioned or bought it. ‘Commission’ means they approached you to write it; ‘bought’ means it was sent to them by you direct or an agent.

Structural Editing

It’s most often – though not always – the commissioning editor who will read the manuscript first to decide whether any major changes or improvements are needed. ‘Structural’ is just what it says: does the structure of your book, the storyline, or maybe in a non-fiction book the way the information is put together, work well. The editor will identify things like a particular character needing more or less work – an important character who perhaps needs more depth and to be more strongly described; but perhaps you’ve given too much time to a minor character who then detracts from the main storyline and characters. An editor will perhaps get you to expand certain parts of the story but maybe suggests cuts for parts that are too long and affect the flow of the story, losing the reader’s attention. Once all the book is in good shape and you and the editor are happy, it will be passed to a copy-editor.

Copy-Editing

The copy-editor is concerned with correct and consistent spellings and good grammar. They will also look at the flow of the book, whether it reads well and may make basic rewriting suggestions – perhaps switching the order of words, adding or taking away odd words or sentences, expanding or rewriting something that isn’t clear or makes easy sense. They will check for consistency, and this includes things like keeping a track of time: e.g. if a character is, say, 20 at the beginning of the book and the story moves on 10 years, their age should be given as 30. Likewise relationships between characters: that an ‘uncle’ is always an uncle and not sometimes a ‘great uncle’. The copy-editor will check for repetition – whether you’ve already said something or described or explained something. They make sure any ‘facts’ are correct – historical dates, spellings of real people or places.

Once books were copy-edited by hand: paper copy with the changes marked in pencil. But now I always copy-edit on-screen – the book is sent by email and I edit it with track changes and comments for my queries, and it’s returned by email. At the end of the copy-editing process, the book should be in good order to go to the printer. The author (and commissioning editor) will get the chance to check through any changes though and answer any queries the copy-editor has had before the book goes for printing.

Design

The copy-edited book will now go to the Production Department for design. This can be a fairly simple process for perhaps a novel – what font and font size to be used; the general layout of the page, whether a new chapter always begins on the right-hand page, and ultimately the cover design. For a more complex or non-fiction title, the design will require a lot more creative thought.

Typesetting and Printing

The next step is to typeset the book – arrange the words on the pages; decide on the layout of special things like quotes of verse, letters or other text that is often indented or in italics. The book needs to be ‘set’ in just the way it will appear in the finished book. This is sometimes done at the printers or by a separate typesetter. Once the book is typeset then the printer will print off ‘page proofs’ or email them to the publisher.

Proofreading

I still receive proofs as paper copy, i.e. printed out on paper. Occasionally a quick job or short job, particularly on an e-book (one to only be published that way) may come via email and I proofread on-screen, but by far the majority of my proofreading work comes via the post as a large parcel of paper! I then proofread it with a red pen, blue pen and pencil to hand. Red pen is to mark printer’s errors – things that haven’t been printed exactly as they are on the copy-edited typescript (I will always have a copy of that to check against); blue pen marks errors missed by the copy-editor (there are invariably a few, though rarely many); pencil is for any queries I might have – sense, an unusual word  or spelling. Once I’ve finished, I will parcel it up and return to the publisher. Usually the author will receive a set of proofs too so they can check as well; an important or ‘big’ commercial title by a bestselling author may be proofread by more than one professional.

The Finished Book

The next thing of course is for the printer to print the book – print the pages and bind the book, either as a hardback or paperback. But publication isn’t just about the arrival of finished books at the publishers, it’s about marketing and PR, it’s about distribution to bookshops, etc. And often now an author will be expected (and want) to be involved in the PR with book signings, talks, etc.

This is a basic guide but hopefully helpful to you. Do let me know if you have any questions!

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