Once you’re on the inside in the book publishing world, it can be easy to forget not everyone knows the ins and outs of book production. In fact, some professionals in the publishing world don’t know all the nuance of the process. For many, many people, both inside and outside the industry, making a book is something of a black box. You know a manuscript goes in and a book comes out.
How exactly does that process occur? It’s not magic, and it’s probably much simpler than you think.
Still, it can be overwhelming for the publishing novice or a newbie author. That’s why we put together this guide. With it, you’ll be able to review each stage of the publishing process. We review every step, as well as what happens and why it’s important, so you can guide your book through with ease.
A Brief History Lesson
Making a book used to be somewhat more complicated than it is now. The primary reason for that was because you’d have to start with a handwritten manuscript, then eventually shift it into type. Print books were created on a press, using metal letters that were set on plates in the correct order. The plates were then coated in ink and pressed onto paper.
There are a few more steps than that, but this was the gist of it. Everything was done manually, from writing out the initial manuscript to creating the typesetting plates.
With the invention of computers, and then the Internet and email, things became much simpler.
The First Step in the Book Publishing Process
The book-making process begins with the creation of a manuscript. Sometimes, this happens as the result of someone having an idea and sitting down to write it. Among professional writers, it’s often the case that the catalyst is a contract or a pitch. The idea is turned into a pitch and given to an editor or agent, who then signs it. With a contract in hand, the author goes to work creating a new manuscript. This will eventually become the book.
During the creation of the manuscript, developmental editing can occur. The developmental editor helps steer the creation of the manuscript. They guide the author through the content and format. They’ll direct the author’s attention, help the author develop characters, call attention to potential issues, and even deal with the presentation and chronology.
Editing Your Book
Some manuscripts arrive to a publishing house already completed. This usually occurs when the author has sat down and simply written their idea. These are often “unsolicited” manuscripts. The other manuscripts that arrive are those already under contract. They were pitched, signed, and then written or fleshed out. It can sometimes take a long time to get from this stage to final manuscript ready to enter book production.
The first true stage in book production is editing. This can be one of two types. If there has been a developmental edit during the manuscript preparation phase, then it’s likely the book will move directly to copy edit (or line editing).
If the manuscript was unsolicited or finished before it arrived in house, or if the developmental editor is still concerned there may be major issues, the book will often go to substantive or structural editing first.
At this stage, the editors work to iron out any lingering issues in the content or structure of the book. The copy editor and line editor also look to grammatical issues, spelling, use of punctuation, and even elements of style, such as word choice. They also look to impose some form of consistency on the manuscript.
Design and Typesetting Has Changed the Most
Now that the manuscript is edited, you’re ready to take it to the next step. This is the process of transforming the book from a boring old Word document into, well, a book. This goes by many different names: page design, layout, typesetting, compositing. (These terms do mean slightly different things, but unless you’re actually doing the work, it’s probably neither here nor there for you.)
Page design is the actual design process. What will you book look like as a book? How will it appear when it’s in print? This is the part that loses most people. We know books don’t look the same as our Word documents, but no matter how much formatting we do in Word, the documents rarely imitate the things we see in printed books.
This is partially limitations of our imaginations and partially program limitations. You can get a Word document to look close to a book, provided you know what you’re doing. If you do know what you’re doing, however, you’re probably not using Word for your design and typesetting work. You’re probably using a layout program, such as InDesign or another piece of software to create beautiful book layouts.
If you’re self-publishing and you’re not sure how to go about formatting your books, you can often buy a layout for use in a book. You can also invest in programs that have premade designs and layouts for your book, like Vellum.
Now comes the work of typesetting. Once the book is designed and you’re happy with how it looks on the page, the typesetter flows in the rest of the text. This creates page proofs, which will be used in the next stage.
Proofreading a Book
Once you have page proofs, you can finally proofread the book. (If you don’t have proofs, it’s very difficult to do any proofreading.)
Proofreading is somewhat different than editing, although it can be used to impose consistency and find any lingering errors in the book. In the past, the typesetter or compositor had to use the handwritten manuscript to create the plate for printing. In doing this, they often introduced errors. They might misread the manuscript and input the wrong word, or they might mix up letters. The proofreader’s job was to make sure everything was there and correct. They marked any corrections.
The other thing the proofreader did (and still does) is check the actual typography. Is everything in line? Is the right font used in the right places?
Proofreaders’ jobs have changed a little, because we no longer make up printer plates from a handwritten manuscript. Instead, it’s all digital, which means, in theory, the page proofs should only include errors still in them from earlier. It is possible for things to happen, such as text “disappearing” or being duplicated, so mistakes can still be introduced.
It used to be very expensive to correct page proof, since it was such a labour-intensive process. Printers and typesetters would charge per correction. Today, many still do, although this is starting to go away as digital proofs are much easier to correct. Nonetheless, the proofreader is encouraged to “do no harm” and to make as few marks as possible. The last thing a proofreader should do is introduce an error.
The Final Step in Book Publishing: Printing Your Book
Today’s printing processes are also much different than they were in the past. Today, the process is almost entirely digital, which has led to things like print-on-demand. Nonetheless, big offset printers still exist, and they’re still the most economical for printing large numbers of copies.
The proofs are finalized for print, then sent to the printer. The printer transforms them into their own digital proofs, preflighting them to make sure everything will print correctly. They’re often sent to the client for verification—are all the pages there? Is everything in the right order?
The printer then makes the plates, which are used to print the book. Once the block is printed, it’s bound and the covers are added.
The book is trimmed to size, boxed up, and shipped out. Clients sometimes receive inspection copies before the entire shipment is released.
The eBook process is a little different. You may not go to the trouble of making page proofs, unless you’re printing the book as well. Paralleling the process until it’s time to print or transform into a digital product is the smartest move.
Do all your editing and “proofreading” prior to creating the eBook file itself. The eBook is merely an HTML product. If you know code, you can mess around with it once it’s been generated. The first thing you’ll need to do, however, is export or transform the product into an eBook. You can use a number of different programs for this. Scrivener, for example, has an eBook export option. If you’re using it, InDesign can export eBooks. A program like Vellum is designed for those publishing eBooks, so it can be immensely useful.
You can also send your Word document to a service, such as Amazon’s KDP. They’ll convert the document to an eBook for you, and you can check the file over later. The service is free. Others may charge for the conversion.
If you do the conversion yourself, you’ll want a program to check it over in. You’ll need an editor in particular. Calibre is a great free eBook editor for Mac or PC. You can open up your eBook files and edit them. I usually use InDesign to export first, then do clean-up in Calibre.
Still Need Help with the Book Publishing Process?
Making a book doesn’t need to be difficult, although it can be labour-intensive. If you’re still not sure how to go about making your book, get in touch with the pros. They can help you with the steps or even create the book for you.