publishing · writing

How the editorial process works

So you’ve reached the amazing stage where someone wants to publish your book. You’re excited, you’re nervous, you’ve finally been able to tell your friends and family without panicking that you’ll somehow jinx it and your publisher will call you to tell you that actually, sorry, this whole thing has been a strangely elaborate joke. You’ve signed your contract, and you’re raring to go.

But now what happens?

I think a lot of writers still don’t know what does happen next, after you’ve jumped through the hoops and reached the actual publishing deal. There isn’t a huge amount of information out there about this and every publishing house and editor will work slightly differently, but I thought it’d be helpful to explain the basics and tell you what I do after I sign an author, to try to help prepare new authors for what to expect. All of this information relates to a traditional publishing contract, rather than self-publishing, as I don’t at the moment have the necessary experience of that to be able to explain it.

So firstly, once the deal is done, and the contracts are signed and back with author, agent and publisher (which can take a while, actually) the real work begins. The first thing a lot of authors will wonder about is the publication date – the day your book will actually hit the shelves/be available online/both. The first thing to note is that the publication date is actually often a bit of a moveable feast. Publishers bring out a lot of books per year, and so what will happen is the editor or publisher will sit down and take a long, hard look at the schedule, taking into account what other books are publishing in the year, what slots will be available at retailers, and the time of year itself, and then choose the best day to publish your book. It will usually be a Thursday for a paperback; ebooks are more flexible. Christmas is a very busy, crowded time of year; just before summer is good for books that will have universal appeal and might be good for beach reading. January is a quieter time, so your book might benefit from having more space if you’re publishing then. Whatever the case, your publisher will have thought very strategically about this, and their decision will always be the one that is the best for your book – remember, authors and publishers actually have the same goal, which is essentially for the book to do well and beat the competition.

Sometimes, and quite often actually, publication dates change. I know that many authors can see this as a negative thing and a source of anxiety, but it isn’t – it will be a strategic decision designed to give your book the best chance of success possible. For example, we might find out that a large supermarket chain has given Dan Brown or [insert famous author here] its prime slot for October, and suddenly, there’s no room for that debut they were raving about a while back. They do, however, have room for the debut in November. Result: the publisher moves the debut publication date to November, the supermarket puts it in their stores, the book sells more copies than if the publisher had stuck to the original date. That’s just one example, but the thing to remember with moving pub dates is that it will always be for the good of the book – no publisher will ever sabotage one of their own titles, so from an author’s perspective, this really isn’t something to worry about.

In terms of what happens editorially, when I sign a new author to my list, I usually like to meet them or at least have a phone call if meeting isn’t geographically possible. I will usually arrange a lunch meeting where the author can come in, and we can get to know each other a bit – it’s always nice to put faces to names. After that, or possibly before depending on timings, I will send the author an editorial schedule for us both to stick to. Schedules do sometimes slip, and authors or editors need more time than they’d thought to finish a stage of the process, but you should always have something to stick to as best you can, as it means you know when to expect edits and you can therefore manage your diary and your time – so many authors have other jobs or families which of course need to be taken into account, so schedules help make life easier.

When the editorial schedule is agreed, the first thing I will provide the author with is my structural notes. Structural notes look at ‘big picture’ stuff – whether the plotline is working, whether a character needs to be cut, whether the ending makes sense and is as impactful as possible. I look at how the book as a whole hangs together, whether it does what the genre expects if it’s commercial fiction, and whether it will resonate for the current book market. I try my best to read the book with fresh eyes (even though I’ll already have read it on submission) and when I’m done, I will send the author a few pages of notes explaining my thoughts, offering suggestions, and asking for clarification over points where I might have been confused by the manuscript.

I will usually give the author around 3-4 weeks to complete a structural edit – sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the publication date and what we have agreed. After the structural edit, the author sends in a revised manuscript, either taking in my suggestions, addressing my comments or telling me I am wrong and they want to do it their way (fine too!) An editor’s job is always to help make the book the best it can be, and I try to work collaboratively with my authors in order to do that – and if we disagree, points are always open for discussion and never set in stone.

I will then do what’s known as a ‘line edit’ on the novel, going through very carefully and using tracked changes to mark up the manuscript. This is more detailed than the structural edit, and the point at which I will address smaller concerns. Depending on the manuscript, I might do another structural edit before this line edit – each case really is different.

The whole edited manuscript will then go back to the author. Often, we will have a few telephone conversations between edits, clarifying things or talking through suggestions. The author will generally speaking have another few weeks to complete their line edit, after which it comes back to me again (a bit like ping-pong, only I’m terrible at ping-pong).

Once myself and the author are happy with the book, I send it off to a copy-editor who will usually be freelance. The copy-editor’s job is to check everything through again – they’re a fresh pair of eyes – looking for inconsistencies (e.g. your character was having dinner on a Wednesday evening and now it’s Saturday morning with no explanation, or, your character was on the phone but she’d just said there was no signal), formatting the manuscript properly if it isn’t already, double-checking facts (e.g. you say she got the Jubilee line to King’s Cross but it doesn’t go to King’s Cross) and adding their own additional comments to make sure everything about the manuscript flows as smoothly as possible. Often there will be queries for the author at this stage, so once the copy-editor has sent it back to me, I’ll look through and forward anything necessary on to the author – usually giving them roughly two weeks to make changes.

After this, the copy-edited manuscript goes ‘into production’ which means it goes to be typeset by the external repro house. The author then has the opportunity to check the page proofs – and should really only make essential changes here – and the pages are also proofread by a qualified proofreader, who should catch any typos, grammatical errors, etc.

When that’s done, the proofs are sent back to the printer – and your book is printed! I went to see this happening once and it was fascinating; I’d really recommend it if your publisher ever invites you to go or you get the opportunity some other way. With ebooks, they are uploaded onto the system and ‘pushed’ – making them available to buy on your agreed publication day. (I don’t know the technical ins and outs of that, as is undoubtedly apparent now!) But don’t worry. It’ll definitely happen and your publisher will do that for you.

So that’s basically it – those are the key editorial stages of a book. As mentioned, it will differ house to house and editor to editor, but it’ll be along these lines. The key thing to remember as an author is that your editor should be working with you, helping you make your book the best it can be, and their advice will always be taking into account their knowledge of the market (which can be harder to do as an author). You are allowed to disagree with your editor, and the book is yours – but always take their comments into consideration and have a nice polite discussion if you disagree! The author-editor relationship is really important and can be extremely rewarding, if done right. I’m incredibly proud of all of my authors and on the other side of it, I love working with my editor at HQ for my own book. That’s how it should be, really.

The other quick thing to note is – if you’re unsure about any stage of the process, just ask! I never mind when authors ask sensible questions, and as a debut writer you are not expected to even know what a structural edit means and you aren’t expected to be au fait with all the technical publishing jargon that is thrown around. So don’t worry – just speak up and ask for clarification where you need it, and that way, the editorial process should be smooth, enjoyable and rewarding.

If you enjoyed reading this article, my debut novel is only 99p here if you wanted to check it out and make me a happy writer 🙂 Thank you for visiting my blog.

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