I’ve been doing a lot of freelancing lately, and I’ve noticed a fair bit of confusion over how books are actually created. Clients wanted to hire an editor or book designer at the wrong point in the process–a mistake that could end up costing them extra money and time.
How Books Are Made
1. Finish a first draft. While you could bring in outside help in the form of beta readers or editors before the manuscript is finished, I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s pretty much impossible to critique a work in progress, and you risk losing your creative momentum by sharing your work too soon. Hiring anyone at this stage is a waste of money, because your first editor should always be yourself.
2. Proofread and edit the draft. There are different approaches to self-editing–the one pass, the cyclical, etc. Do what works for you. A lot of writers recommend allowing the book to “rest” for a little while after finishing the first draft, but that’s up to you. Read for continuity, pacing, and character development. Fix major flaws, and restructure if necessary. Any glaring typos or mistakes should be corrected. The goal of this stage is to polish your draft and make it presentable for your beta readers.
3. Get a second opinion. While beta readers aren’t a required part of the publishing process, I do think they help. Two to three readers is a good number. Choose people who like the kinds of books you write and ask for their honest opinion. While they may fix a typo you missed, they aren’t proofreaders.
4. Revise. Use the (hopefully constructive) criticism from your critique partners to inform a final edit of your book. If all of them have the same issue with your book, then you should probably fix it. At the end of the day, however, it’s your book and you should go with your instincts.
At this point, the paths of the indie author and traditional publisher diverge. Let’s stick with the indie writer for now.
5a. Hire an editor. A good editor will make your book the best version of itself. You can find freelancers on sites like odesk and elance (or you could hire me!). Be aware that you will need to shell out some not-inconsiderable cash, but, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Ask for samples of previous work and request a trial edit of the first 3-5 pages of your book.
Note that there are really three types of editor. Acquisitions editors work for publishers or magazines. They decide what to buy for their imprints. This is not the type of editor you’re looking for. A developmental editor works with you in the early stages of planning a book or helps you untangle what seems like a hopeless mess of a novel. They are big-picture people. Line editors or copyeditors go through your work line-by-line, correcting grammar and syntax, commenting on word choice, and making notes about the overall structure and story elements. Make sure you are specific about what you need when hiring someone!
6a. Revise again. After you get your marked-up manuscript from your editor, you’ll want to go through it one more time to incorporate your editor’s suggestions and corrections. At this point, you could hire a proofreader to do a final cleanup and QC for your book. If you have the budget for it, I’d recommend doing it. A proofreader will only look for grammar and spelling errors, and they should cost less than an editor.
7a. Design the cover. Unless you are a professional graphic designer, don’t do this yourself. Humans are visual creatures, and book covers are your biggest marketing tool. When you hire an artist, make sure to give them an idea of what you want. Examples of other book covers you admire helps! Be prepared to pay between $50 and $250 for your cover depending on the complexity of the work. Licensing fees for stock photos are expensive; custom illustrations or graphics are even pricier.
8a. Format the book. You can’t just put a Word document up for sale on Amazon. eBook formatting isn’t too hard to learn, but it is time consuming. If you’d rather not do it yourself, you’ll need to hire someone. I’ve noticed a number of sites who charge outrageous fees just to convert your manuscript to an .epub or .mobi file; don’t pay these people. A formatter should create a linked table of contents and design a pleasing, easy-to-read style for your book. They may also convert your files into .pdf, .epub, and .mobi, although be aware that most publishing platforms like KDP and Nook Press do the conversion for you when you upload your book.
If you want to publish a print version as well as an eBook, please realize that those are two different jobs. Negotiate a package deal with your formatter to do both versions. Print formatting involves creating front matter (title pages, copyright pages, etc.), adding pagination, and resizing margins and gutters.
So what about writers who want to go the traditional route? The first four steps are identical–write a first draft, edit it yourself, send it to your beta readers, and revise it again. After that, things become radically different.
5b. Query agents or publishers. Send a one-page letter to an agent or publisher who specializes in your type of book. If they’re intrigued, they’ll ask for the first three chapter or possibly the entire manuscript. Do not query an unfinished fiction manuscript! You may have to repeat this process many, many times until someone says yes to your book.
6b. If working with an agent, she will shop your book to publishers. This is a passive step; your agent will be doing most of the work here. In a perfect world, your book will start a bidding war between major publishing houses. Your agent–whose paycheck is determined by the size of the book deal she scores for you–should be championing your book and negotiating the best contract possible.
7b. Accept an offer. If you receive an offer that you’re happy with, you’ll sign on the dotted line. Make sure that you’re getting a fair shake; your agent should be on your side, but you might want the contract reviewed by an intellectual property lawyer. You’ll receive your advance in increments (less your agent’s fee, of course): typically, the advance is broken up into halves, thirds, or quarters, paid at set milestones. You’ll receive a check on signing, and then, depending on your contract, another check when the book is delivered, printed in hardback, and sometimes when printed in paperback.
8b. Editing and proofing. An editor at your publishing house (or, more likely, a freelancer subcontracted by your publisher; few houses have the money to keep in-house, full-time editorial staff anymore) will look at your book for structural issues, pacing and plot problems, character development, word choice and narrative flow, etc. It’s ultimately up to you to accept or reject these changes, but editors usually know whereof they speak. After you’ve revised your manuscript, it goes to a copyeditor or a proofreader to catch typos. Once the final round of proofing is complete, your manuscript is ready to become a book.
9b. Layout, cover design, and marketing. You probably won’t have much say in what your book looks like. Although you have some input, ultimately the cover design is determined by the marketing department. They know what sells in your genre. While your book is being designed, the marketing department is busy convincing bookstores to order it. At the end of this process, you’ll receive a galley proof to review and sign off on.
10b. Publicity push. Depending on the budget for your book’s publicity, it is often offered as an ARC (Advanced Readering Copy) to reviewers. These days, digital ARCs are offered on sites like NetGalley, too.
11b. Printing and shipping. At this point, your books is finally (finally!) ready to hit the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. The entire process, from sale to shelf, usually take a year or more. Most of it is hands-off for the writer, so I hope you’ve been using your time wisely by writing another book. Right?
For a hilarious infographic version of the traditional book publishing process, check this out!