How A Book Gets Published, These Days

My mum is visiting from Australia at the moment. She’s super patient with me, as I’ve got work pouring in from all angles. So she sits in the recliner next to me and reads (my books!), while I work.

Only, yesterday, she put her finger in between her current pages, and looked at me. “How, exactly, do you publish a book?”

It occurs to me that you might not know how that happens, these days, either. So I thought I’d do a brief potted history of how a novel gets published.

In the beginning…

Just kidding!

But really, up until around 2007, there was only one way for authors to get their novels published. They had to write their story to match a publisher’s submission requirements. Then, depending upon who they wanted to publish with, they had to find a literary agent, which could take months or years.

Once they had an agent interested in representing them, the agent would then submit their manuscript to the publisher. Or, they could submit their novel directly.

Then (especially at the start of this century) wait for a year or more to get a response.

Once a publisher said yes (which happened about once every few thousand book submissions), a contract was signed between author and publisher, and the publisher’s editor would edit the book, then it was laid out for printing. This printing layout can be printed on normal office paper, which becomes an Advanced Review Copy — which is sent to trade reviewers.

The layout is sent to the printing plant, and the book is printed.

I used to work as a project coordinator for the biggest printing company in North America. I well remember watching magazines and books being printed and it was an awe-inspiring view. Commerical printing presses are huge, taking up entire warehouses.

Once all the forms of a book (batches of pages) have been printed, the book is taken to the binding area, where the forms are put together in the right order, and the spine is glued. The cover is wrapped around the spine.

At this point the book looks nothing like the finished product. The edges of the pages are jagged, and many of them are folds. The cover hangs off the edges. There’s no nice smooth edge on three sides.

The book then goes through “trimming” — the three edges of the book are put through the equivalent of an industrial stretch guillotine. Then the edges are ground down a little, to give them a uniform and smooth appearance and feel. The books are then packed into shipping cartons and shipped to their destination, which is usually a warehouse controlled by the pubisher, where the cartons or individual copies are then sent to bookstores who order them.

Each stage is checked for quality, and wonky copies tossed. But sometimes, quality assurance misses duds, which is why you might occasionally receive a print edition that looks strange, or crooked, or has jagged edges.

Most print runs these days are only a few thousand copies. In their hey days, for their bestselling authors, publishers would print hundreds of thousands of copies or even millions of copies (and that would be a public announcement, too.) It could take up to a month to produce that many copies, too!

Where are ebooks in all this?

Up until the mid-oughts, publishers didn’t bother with ebooks. They wanted (and still want) readers to buy print books, preferably from bookstores, not online.

They only reluctantly sell ebooks these days, simply because readers demand them. If your ebook from a traditional publisher is missing a cover image or has formatting issues, this is why. Ebooks are given scant attention; they’re a secondary product, and an annoyance to the big publishers.

The publishing process for traditionally published authors hasn’t significantly changed since the last century. But response times and release periods have hugely increased. All authors are waiting years for responses, these days.

The birth of ebooks

You might be surprised to learn that Amazon did not invent ebooks. Nor were they the first retail platform to sell ebooks.

I actually got into ebooks from my very first professional novel sale. In 1999, I sold Eyes of a Stranger to Hardshell Word Factory, who sold ebooks only. They sold them on cute 3.5″ floppy disks (remember those?), or by direct download from their website.

There were a small handful of ebook retailers around, but sales were slow because most readers wanted print.

One of my favourites was FictionWise, which had an amazing reward points program that let you earn free books — and I bought and bought to get my freebies (nothing was free, back then). I loved FictionWise and the reward program so much, that when I opened my own store on Stories Rule Press, I bought a plug-in that would let me offer the exact same reward points program. 🙂

Then in 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle reading device, and opened their doors to authors to upload their books directly. This galvanized the popularity of ebooks, and launched the indie publishing industry.

How Indie Authors Publish Books

For every step that traditional publishers follow to produce a print book and release it, there is an equivalent step that indie authors must take to release their ebook, except that they have no need of literary agents for the publication of ebooks, nor do they have to submit to a publisher for approval. They can publish what they want.

Often, the indie author is doing everything. More usually, an indie author will hire a cover artist and an editor, at the bare minimum. This is what I used to do. These days I have a bit more help, although it’s all family who is helping me, except for my cover artist, Dar Dixon.

First, I plot and then write the first draft of the manuscript, and then put it aside to “chill” for a bit (if I can afford the time). It is at this point, I request a cover from Dar, as she needs time to build it.

Then I go through the manuscript three or four times, cleaning up my prose, fixing scenes, killing typos wherever I spot them, and cleaning up the basic formatting of the book. I do this in Microsoft Word. Other indie authors might use Scrivener, or other writing-specific text editors and programs. Word works for me, as all the other programs I use to produce a book need a Word file to import the text. So I start where I will end up.

Once I have cleaned up the book as much as possible, and straightened up the formatting, it goes off to the editor. Getting the formatting right at this stage is important, because all the styles are imported into the applications used in the next stages — if the formatting is screwy, it makes for a disaster at the next stage, and a lot of work to fix everything.

While the book is being edited, I use the clean, unedited version of the manuscript to create a “master file” — this is another Word file that contains everything you see inside an ebooks — title pages, content pages, descriptions, about the author, acknowledgements and dedications, lists of other books by the author, and, most important!, a link to the next book in the series (if there is one yet).

This is where the formatting (heading fonts, sizes, alignments, justification, etc.) are all finalized to what should appear in the book.

The Master file is then put through a formatting application (I use Jutoh. There are others.) The app produces ePubs and Mobis. And the cleaner the master file, the less troublesome is the compiling to ebooks.

The ebooks, along with high definition covers, and the book description, are uploaded everywhere I sell ebooks — Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Draft2Digital (who in turn distribute to a dozen other bookstores, including Smashwords, Hoopla, etc), Google Play Books, Kobo (who distribute to Overdrive for libraries, and also put the books into their subscription program, Kobo Plus). And finally, I upload copies to BookFunnel, who provide those copies to anyone who buys books directly from me.

Once the original Word file has been edited, I go through the edits and accept or reject them (the editor is not always right!), and make any extended changes that might be necessary, or that the editor has suggested that I think would make a better book.

This usually happens several weeks after the book has gone up for pre-order.

Once I have a “final” edited Word file of the book, the text is inserted into the Master file, replacing the unedited version. The Master file is again put through the formatting application to produce final ebooks, which are once more uploaded to all retailers.

And now that there is a final, edited master file, the print edition can be laid out.

I do this myself, because I’ve been trained for it, but many indie authors hire print formatters to do it for them. Many also use programs like Vellum that will automatically make print PDFs. But I’m a touch rebellious and like my print editions the way I like them (blame my print coordinator experience), so I use a desktop publishing program to lay out print editions by hand, where I can control all aspects of the layout.

Once the interior of the book is laid out to everyone’s satisfaction, a print PDF is created. And because we now know how many pages will be in the interior, the cover wrap can have its spine adjusted to exactly match the width of the page count, and is put into a print quality PDF, too.

These two files (cover PDF and interior PDF) are both uploaded to the dashboards of retailers who print books “on demand”. That is, they don’t print in batches. They print a copy when someone buys it. They print just one copy, which is possible only because of electronics and smart technology.

These POD printing presses are at least half the size of the traditional presses I used to work with. Some are even smaller than that (although they’re slower at producing a book, too). I’ve seen a POD press that fitted inside an average room! It was cute as hell to my giant-press-trained eyes!

At the moment, the POD presses/retailers we use are Amazon, Barnes & Noble and a printing company called BookVault, who print and send you the books you buy directly from us on Stories Rule Press. There are other POD companies; you might have heard of Ingram Spark, and there is one called Lulu Press that is also reputable.

All this postproduction work (that is, everything that happens after I write ‘the end’ in my first draft) has to be scheduled to take place at least a few weeks before the official release day so that the retailers don’t get stroppy, and so the street team have time to read their copies in order to leave a review on release day.

Postproduction happens while I’m writing the next book.

I don’t stop writing new stories just to get the last book published. Postproduction all happens while I’m writing the next book. I chop up my day into sections, or buckets. One bucket of time I use to write the first draft of the next book. And another bucket of time is devoted to all postproduction activities. Another is for marketing.

I might have four or five books in different stages of postproduction at any one time. And while a book is in postproduction, the earliest marketing tasks take place, too.

I sometimes think it was fate that let me get the job as a print coordinator, and a job before that as an magazine advertising coordinator, and a job after that as a magazine editor…all the day jobs I’ve ever had have given me skills and experience to be able to produce my own books, while other indies must hire experts to do the work for them.

But that is how a book is published, these days.

Does the process match what you thought it would be like?

17 thoughts on “How A Book Gets Published, These Days”

  1. Oof! What a tremendous amount of time and careful attention! This was a fascinating entry. Thanks and enjoy your mum’s visit.

  2. Wow! Thank you for taking the time explaining how books are published (both digital and paper). My father worked as a pressman at a newspaper and on occasion there would be an open house where families could come and see how information and stories were printed etc….. The presses were huge!!!

    1. Hi Susan,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Yeah, the big, traditional presses are staggering. Especially newspaper presses — the newsheet would run for kilometers, through the press, the folder, the trimmer….!

      t.

      1. right? the presses my husband and I have worked at are so large some even have their own train stops for paper and/or boxboard deliveries. I had to look up some of the adorably tiny POD presses just to satisfy my curiosity.

  3. Thank you so much for the information on publishing a book/ebook. I knew a little bit of the process from things a few authors have said over the past few years. Amazing (and convenient!) for you that your former jobs dovetailed into your writing career so perfectly! I am a reader, though not of ebooks until I was given a tablet in 2012. I love ebooks! Storage is so simplified. I have read & enjoyed your books for years as well! Thank you so much for writing!

  4. As someone who has had physical books printed, I’m familiar with that particular process. I have no experience at all with e-books (other than reading them by the boatload), so that was a really interesting walk through the various steps necessary to produce a good e-book. I think it’s good for those of us who love to read to better understand the hard work that goes into producing a book. It’s not just the writing of the book, which is what most of us think about. though that’s plenty of work on its own. There is a tremendous amount of work, both pre-production and post-production, that is essential to a good product. This was interesting!

    If you are interested in seeing a video of the book-printing process, check out “The Life of a Book,” from Lulu Press. It’s less than four minutes long and it’s very cool to see a book go from a writer’s laptop to being delivered at the doorstep. You can see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdqofKwxq50

  5. Ah, Fictionwise, how I miss you and your rewards system, and all the myriad books I used to get there… B&N messed up a good thing. (Sad Kitty Face). Quite an interesting look behind the scenes, Tracy. Thanks letting us peek behind the curtain!

  6. June Amatavivadhana

    Thank you for this as it is really interesting. I live in the Far East so getting a particular print book is sometimes
    challenging – thats why Kindle really sort-of changed my life and I am devoted to ebooks.
    Enjoy the time with your mother.

      1. Me also PNG highlands. The swaps and holidays was where we stocked up for at least 6 months if there was room in the suitcase.

  7. What a lot of work the author (you) do to give us the pleasure of reading an e-book. It was a very interesting read.
    Your mum (Aussie) certainly asked the correct question. I did not realise the publisher preferred print books. As an avid reader and traveler for work I took to ebooks before they were available in Aus and had to download through various means. Mostly when I was o/seas. Thank you I loved the info. Good one mum!

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