Nov 26 2008 9:35am

Twists, Curves, Exciting Thrills: What Happens After the Book is Written

Thirteen Orphans is out. The second “Breaking the Wall” book, Nine Gates, is written. I’ve been told the copy-edited manuscript is on its way to me. Five Odd Honors (“Breaking the Wall” Three) is somewhere among my editor’s papers in New York.

Yeah. New novel out and, for me, that new novel the “old one.”

Nor in my career is this the first time I’ve had this happen. Back when I started with Tor, they had the first several Firekeeper novels in hand before Through Wolf’s Eyes was released.

My first publisher was Avon. They had three or four fully written novels in the queue before Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls came out—and they didn’t even have the excuse of wanting to assure “momentum” for a series. These were all stand-alone novels.

So when I go to a book event or do an interview for Thirteen Orphans, I need to be really careful not to let a spoiler slip. It’s odd to hear someone discussing a character who, in my mind, has changed radically since that novel. Maybe the character has gained confidence or fallen in love with someone new or an enemy has become an ally.

It’s odd. Sort of like living in a time warp.

How can such a lag happen? Well, one thing many readers don’t realize is that the process a book goes through after it leaves the writer’s hands is very complex.

First the editor reads and reviews the manuscript. Then the author and editor discuss possible changes. Time must be permitted not only for the author to make changes, but for the editor to review the new version.

Then the book goes off to be copy-edited. Copy editors are very important, and too rarely praised. A copy editor is responsible for more than merely proofreading. She (my current c/e is female) makes certain the book is in line with the “house” guidelines. In a series, the c/e also watches for continuity problems, not only within the volume, but within volumes in a series.

A good copy editor is purest gold. A bad one... Well, that’s a topic all of its own. (Let me know if you want the horror stories!)

Then the copy-edited manuscript gets mailed back to the author. The author reviews the comments, both those directly written on the page and those included in a side letter.

“Stet” is a useful term for authors. It means “leave it alone.” Usually, if my c/e and I seem completely out of sync, I try to write a letter to explain why I wrote “stet.” After all, the c/e deserves to understand why her suggestions just don’t work.

Back to the post office, because at this point there is one “real” manuscript, and we’re passing it back and forth.

When the manuscript gets back to the publisher, the next place it goes is to Production. These are the people who decide (often in consultation with the editor) on things like style of type, what numbers to use for chapter headings, and whether there will be any art at the start of chapters. (For example, Production is responsible for the cool zodiac wheels at the start of each chapter in Thirteen Orphans.) Production also designs “dingbats”—the little symbols that indicate a break in the action within a chapter.

When all these decisions are made, the book is formatted. Then it is produced as “page proofs.” These are the pages of the book, just as they will appear, but still unbound. Page proofs are sent off to the author for review as well.

For me, this is a much more onerous process than reviewing a copy edit, since there are no scribbled comments to guide me. However, I never ever skip this stage. I’ve found entire paragraphs dropped, sentences missing, words mysteriously misspelled or altered. Page proofs are also my last chance to change anything in the text (although there are contractual limits as to how much I can change without paying for the entire book to be reset).

Oddly, although I usually find going through a copy-edited manuscript a faster job, I’m often given fewer days to review page proofs, so it’s a time of panic. The only good thing is that I can send in only those pages with changes, so if there aren’t a lot, this may not mean another trip to the post office. Honestly, though, it usually does.

Then the book goes back to Production. My changes are made ( or as I sometimes as I find to my frustration, when I look at the book after publication, mysteriously ignored). I’ve never figured out why when I corrected the capitalization of Eagle’s Nest in Through Wolf’s Eyes they kept changing it...


This work on the manuscript isn’t all that goes on in creating the finished novel. There’s cover art and jacket copy to be dealt with. There have been times I’ve seen neither of these until the book is in my hands...

Somewhere in there, the novel must be slotted into the schedule, another point at which massive delays can happen. (Thirteen Orphans’ release date was shifted two or three times).

Anyhow, that’s why it takes a novel so long to come out. Even after the text is written, there are a tremendous number of stages along the way to the finished book. If a publisher cares about the finished product, none of them will be omitted.

Nathaniel Holzmann
1. erewhon01
Thanks for the great, insightful summary of how books are born!
Melissa Ann Singer
2. masinger
Just popping in to add a couple of things . . . .

Jane’s done a great job of outlining the basics of the editorial process, the writing, editing, rewriting, and copyediting and other steps in production.

But there are other things going on at the same time which also contribute to the length of the publishing path.

The two most important are the selling cycle and the review cycle.

Let me give you a snapshot of this moment in time, late November 2008. Our sales reps have just about finished selling the books that we will publish in the first four months of 2009.

Sales conference, where the reps will learn, in detail, about the books we’ll be publishing in the middle four months of 2009, will take place in December of 2008, after which they will hit the road again, to sell those books to their accounts.

Meanwhile, we editors are working on the first versions of catalog copy for the books we’ll be publishing in the last four months of 2009. We’re working with the art department on covers, and in some cases, we’re still working on the manuscripts for those books.

So the selling cycle starts a full year or more before publication (more if, for instance, an editor sends manuscripts to other authors for pre-publication comments), with the writing of that first bit of copy.

The review cycle is shorter than the selling cycle and the production process . . . but it’s grown in the 30 years I’ve been in the business.

Major industry publications, like Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, receive copies of books far in advance of publication. So do all kinds of general-interest magazines, like Entertainment Weekly, People, and Vanity Fair. They’re not getting actual books, of course, but bound galleys, which look like trade paperbacks. Most of the time bound galleys have simple, all type covers, but some bound galleys or Advance Reading Copies have full-color covers, with the same art that will later appear on the finished book.

Over the last few decades, magazines’ lead time has increased. They want review material almost seven months ahead of publication. This gives the magazine staff enough time to decide if the book will be reviewed and assign it to a reviewer; gives the reviewer time to read the book (reviewers often have other work to do as well) and write the review; and gives the book review editor time to edit the review and place it into the magazine’s production stream . . . and, hopefully, gets the review published in the issue of the magazine closest to the time when readers will be able to find the book in stores.

The review cycle dictates, to an extent, when the production process starts. In order to have bound galleys by roughly seven months ahead of publication, manuscripts must go into production about ten months ahead of publication. That’s why, within the next few weeks, I expect to receive final manuscripts on most of my Fall 2009 books and why I’ll shortly be giving Jane Lindskold editorial notes on her next book—the third in the Breaking the Wall series, which we will likely publish in mid 2010. So that we can be a little bit ahead of the game, for once.
Estara Swanberg
3. Estara
Thanks to Jane Lindskold and masinger for this utterly fascinating look at the detail work.
Jeff Shreve
4. flotsamjeffsam
Ditto above! Great, very useful overview of a publisher's schedule and frame of (collective) mind.
Matthew Brown
5. morven
Definitely helps when waiting (im)patiently for a book, that all this stuff has to happen 'twixt writing and reading.
rick gregory
6. rickg
interesting. A question:

She (my current c/e is female) makes certain the book is in line with the “house” guidelines.

Can you explain a bit about house guidelines?

And it fascinates me, as someone who's worked for Aldus and Adobe on DTP tool and who is very much wedded to technology, how much of the process is still paper and pencil and mailing physical things back and forth.
Melissa Ann Singer
7. masinger
House guidelines, which vary from house to house, start with which dictionaries copyeditors use to check spelling; which style books copyeditors use to check style/punctuation; do we prefer serial comma (we do); in books by British authors, do we Americanize spelling and/or punctuation (sometimes); are ellipses that end sentences three dots or four; etc.

See Teresa Nielsen Hayden's "On Copyediting" in her book, Making Book (, for an in-the-trenches view of copyediting (and house style). Making Book is worth a read for many other reasons as well.
rick gregory
8. rickg
Ah, ok. Thanks for the explanation. Much appreciated.
Lee Wind
9. Lee Wind
This was really interesting - thanks for sharing your process, both of you!
Lee Wind
10. Dick Margulis

It may be that some houses and some authors still prefer to ship marked up paper back and forth (and I hope everyone keeps a copy of the markup before entrusting the original to the postal system). Many people have moved to electronic editing, though, particularly in nonfiction.

With respect to your Aldus/Adobe experience, that all comes later in the process. In an electronic editing regime, the author and editor work entirely in Microsoft Word (accept no substitutes), either using the Track Changes feature or using sophisticated templates with inline commenting styles.

Once the author and various editors* are satisfied, the Word file is sucked into InDesign (usually), based on an approved page design. Proofreaders, editors, and authors may review on hardcopy, but increasingly they use Adobe Reader markup tools for page correx.

Book design is often fixed for a series or an imprint. But other times, it is one-off and the author has input. Whether the author has anything to say about the book's title, interior design, or cover design is a contractual matter. Often she doesn't.


* Different houses have different breakdowns of responsibility according to job title, but here are the various "editing" stages a book goes through:

Acquisition (where the big bucks and the glory are)
Development editing (structure, plot, characters)
Line editing (back and forth with the author over sentence structure, word choice, continuity, factual accuracy)
Fact checking as a separate operation, but only for certain books
Copy editing (spelling, punctuation, house style)
Proofreading (checking pages against ms. and catching residual copyediting misses)
Indexing (where appropriate)--still done manually by most professional indexers, rather than using built-in Word or InDesign features (don't ask)
Jane Lindskold
11. janelindskold
Dick Margulis:

I'm glad you can work all on-screen.

I can't. For certain stages -- especially fiddly ones like copy edit -- I need hard copy.
Melissa Ann Singer
12. masinger
Dick Margulis @10:

So far, I've done only one electronic line-edit. For me, personally, it took longer and was more time-consuming than an on-paper line edit. The reasons are simple: I work full-time, have a child in middle-school, and live an hour from work.

For years, I've done the majority of my line-edits in hour-long increments on the subway, during my commute. When I'm doing an electronic line-edit, I can't use my commute--I'm not going to whip out my laptop on the train during rush hour. Which means I have to do the line-edit on my own time, at home. Doing it in the office is not an option; there's entirely too much other work to do there.

By the time I've finished making dinner, supervising homework, and trying to have a little quality family time with my kid, most nights it's already 9 PM, and the last thing I want to do is sit down and spend an hour or two on a line-edit. Many nights I go to bed by 10 or fall asleep on the couch between 10 and 11.

So I prefer paper at the moment in terms of actually doing the line-edit.

In terms of reviewing the author's changes, the electronic method works great--I can skim through the document and slow down when I see features marked by Track Changes; I can read the author's comments in response to mine. It's wonderful, I completely agree. When there's technology that allows me to do the line-edit during my commute, I'll do more of them electronically. I know it's coming but it's not here yet.

As for the editing stages you cite (nice breakdown), at Tor/Forge, the first three are generally performed by the same editor. And fact-checking and indexing are done primarily on nonfiction, of which we publish very little.

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