The Future of Book Publishing, Part 1: 10 Steps from Idea to Printed Book

As I wrap up the editing of the 3rd edition of my Expression Web book I figured it’s time to pipe in on the raging debate over the future of book publishing. Much has been written on the topic as of late and points both good and bad have been presented. In this three-part series I will present my views on the topic, part one focusing on how a book gets from idea to print and part two looking at distribution models, present and future and the problems with an all-digital publishing model.

From my mind to your hands in 10 steps – the complex world of book publishing

If you’ve ever waited for a book to be published – the last link in a fictional series, an updated version for a new generation of software, the latest work of your all-time-favourite author – you have surely wondered why it takes so long for books to hit the shelves in your local book store or on Amazon.com. I know I did. This is largely because the world of book publishing is shrouded in mystery – or rather lack of information. To be honest it’s not all that interesting so it’s no wonder the many steps of book publishing are not common knowledge. But understanding how a book gets from the author’s mind to a printed work in your hands will give you not only a new appreciation for the work that goes into publishing a book but also a good foundation for understanding the complexities of the current debate over the future of book publishing and publishing in general.

Any serious author knows that without editors their work is unfinished and unpublishable.

To give you a first-hand look at what it takes to get a book out of the author’s head and onto a printed page I’ll walk you through my own experience in publishing Sams Teach Yourself Microsoft Expression Web in 24 Hours.

Step 1: Author Acquisition (time unknown)

For a publisher to release a book it first needs an author. Self-evident for sure, but none the less important. The task of finding an author is usually done by an Acquisitions Editor. There are many ways of the publisher and the author to connect; the publisher can go out looking for an expert on a particular topic (which is what happened in my case); an author can approach the publisher with a book proposal; a literary agent can approach the publisher with a new author either looking for a project or with a project in hand. Once initial contact is made the publisher will do an extensive review and vetting of the author to ensure that a) she is actually an expert and knows what she is talking about and b) she knows how to communicate her knowledge in a good way and how to write good copy. This might mean reading past works, requesting sample work or interviewing the author.

Step 2: Project Approval (1 – 2 weeks)

Once the author has been thoroughly vetted and the Acquisitions Editor is satisfied the author will deliver, the process of actually getting a book project off the ground and a publishing agreement in place can begin. This is a multi-step process with checks and balances built in to ensure that the book proposed actually will make money.

In my case the first step was to fill out a basic form with a description of the proposed book, the topic matter, target audience, projected sales, competing published works and information about myself. This form was passed to a decision making body where the Acquisitions Editor presents the book and hopes for a thumbs up.

Step 3: Table Of Contents (TOC) (1 – 3 weeks)

Once the overall outline of the book has been approved, a Table Of Content (TOC) is written further specifying how the book will be organized and what it will cover. The TOC has chapter titles as well as bullet lists under each chapter describing in detail what will be covered.

The TOC is passed around internally in the publishing company to ensure it complies with their standards and, once approved, passed to other industry experts for questions, comments and suggestions. The commenter is asked questions like “Does the outline cover the relevant topics?”, “What is the target audience for the proposal?” and “Would you buy or recommend this book?”. Depending on the feedback the TOC might get passed back to the author to be reworked in which case the process starts over.

Step 4: Publishing Contract (1 – 2 weeks)

Once the TOC has been vetted and approved by all the right people it’s time to start talking contract. The publisher will propose a standard contract containing project scope, milestones, deadlines, estimated publishing date and royalties. This is a rather complicated process, especially for new authors, because milestones, deadlines and publishing dates have to be set and adhered to before the project is even started. Then there is the discussion of what kind of royalties should be paid out, how much of an advance the author wants and whether or not there should be a stipend attached to the project. This all depends on the projected success of the book and how famous and important the author is. And if there is a literary agent involved, the process can get even trickier because the agent will want her say as well.

Step 5: Writing the first draft (1 – 2 months)

With contracts signed and everything in order, the actual writing can start. At this point the author starts working on a very strict deadline. The publisher will expect percentages of the draft delivered at certain times. Depending on the type and length of book the deadline can span from a month to three months for 100%. More importantly there are strict milestones for 25%, 50%, 75% and 100%, usually with a monetary compensation at each point.

While writing, the author will at first feel like she is working in a complete vacuum. As she finishes her chapter and hands them in they are passed on to a series of editors (step 6) and while they are working the feedback is pretty much non-existent. In most cases the author will churn out 50% or more of the draft before the first edits start coming back.

Step 6: First Author Review (AR) (1 month – partially overlaps with step 5)

This is where things get serious. While working on the latter half of the first draft, edits will start coming back from the publisher with comments. There are at least three different editors involved at this point:

  • Tech editor – responsible for making sure everything is correct and all the examples make sense and work properly
  • Development editor – responsible for making sure the content is in accordance with guidelines for the book and or series
  • Language / Copy editor – responsible for making sure the language is publishable (ie the person that rewrites every sentence)

Each of these editors will make alterations to the text and leave comments and questions to each other and to the author. Each of these edits, comments and questions must be answered by the author to ensure the consistency of the book and that everything is still understandable. At the same time the author is expected to make her own edits to the text and move things around if need be. This process is extremely complicated because with so many different people editing the same document it can be hard to grasp what the finished text will look like. It is further complicated by the fact that the edits have a very tight deadline that falls within the deadline to finish the rest of the book. So while the author is writing the last part of the book she also has to start going through the first part with a fine toothed comb to make sure everything is correct. She may also have to do rewrites of paragraphs or even whole sections at this point so in effect she will be writing two separate parts of the book at the same time.

The first author review is the time to make major edits and changes to the text. Once the author review is completed the chapters are returned for more editing.

Step 7: Second Author Review (2 – 5 weeks)

3 – 4 weeks after the author review chapters were submitted, the second round of AR kicks in. This time the author receives PDF versions of the reviewed chapters with figures, headings and layouts included. These chapters will already have been passed through the same gauntlet of editors so they are again full of comments, questions and alterations that have to be answered by the author. This time around any edits should be minor as the book is being laid out and major changes will impact all the following pages. Edits here usually consist of font changes, typographical corrections and figure replacements.

Second author review is also where the Index and Front Matter (intro, acknowledgements etc) are introduced and must be edited.

This second author review might overlap with the first author review.

Step 8: Cover and publicity copy approval

In the midst of all this other stuff the author will receive two documents for approval: The cover and the publicity copy. These must be approved of by the author as well as the editors, all of which have to give them the go-ahead.

Step 9: Printing (6 – 8 weeks)

Once all the above steps are completed, the book is considered to be complete and is passed on to printing and distribution. This will usually take 6 – 8 weeks meaning if everything is done and wrapped up by the author in mid-August, the first run of books will hit shelves in mid-October.

When the book is printed the author will receive two shipments: Complimentary copies of the printed books and an unbound copy for future edits. The author now has a chance to make minute changes to the book in preparation for the second round of printing (if there is one) right in the pages of the unbound copy and send it back to the publisher.

Step 10: Digital and Online Publishing (varies)

By the time the book hits shelves it has in reality been done for 6 – 8 weeks. Meanwhile it could be published in digital format, either through an online subscription service like InformIT.com or through a 3rd party distributor like Amazon Kindle. Whether and when this happens is entirely up to the publisher. The digital and online versions of the book are usually identical to the printed version except they are in colour (the book may be printed in black and white only).

Time from inception to the reader’s hands: 6 months or thereabouts

This is of course assuming that the book was started from scratch and that the author took a full 2 months to complete it. Seasoned authors, or authors revising earlier works, tend to take a shorter time which would cut the time down by up to 5 weeks.

The necessity of complexity

Seeing this list, and realizing just how long it takes to get a book out there for people to read it’s easy to think this process is unnecessarily complex. And judging from the current debate it’s obvious a lot of people, including some prominent authors, are of the opinion that most of the steps above are unnecessary time sucks. They could not be more wrong.

The steps above are there for two reasons: To protect the investment of the publisher and to ensure that the reader gets a quality product. One could say the first one is irrelevant to the author and the reader but the reality is they go hand in hand: A bad book will not be read and as a result the publisher suffers economically. So it’s in the publisher’s best interest to publish top quality books. And that in turn benefits the reader. To abolish the steps in an effort to push the content out faster would likely increase production, but it would also result in a dramatic decline in quality.

The not often talked about reality of publishing, whether it be in the form of essays, scientific papers, newspaper articles or books is that what the author originally produces and what reaches the readers are two entirely different products. All the vetting, editing and re-editing steps are in place because no matter how good the author is, she will not ever produce a perfect work. And she is always the worst judge of her own material. Any serious author knows that without editors their work is unfinished and unpublishable.

Taking this into account there really is only one step from the 10 point list above that can be removed to make things more effective: Step 9: Printing. But this strategy has serious consequences both in how the material is distributed and how it is consumed. These issues will be the basis of the second half of this series, to be published shortly.

4 thoughts on “The Future of Book Publishing, Part 1: 10 Steps from Idea to Printed Book

  1. We’re going through this process right now, and I cannot concur more strongly that Editors are the key to an acceptable finished project.

    As a voracious (and somewhat obsessive) collector of printed books (especially tech and craft books), I don’t know what I’d do if I had to read everything digitally. I have a workflow which includes paper and pen and tablet and screen and if any of these are missing, my balance is off.

    As GIANT technology fans, its surprising my family are not more interested in digital reading, but alas, it’s books for us!

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