How a manuscript becomes a book by Robert Batten is a refresh of one originally posted on robertbatten.net late last year.
September marks the beginning of Spring in my home state, and the arrival of the Tasmanian Writers’ Festival. Last year, I was lucky enough to score a place in a masterclass on publishing for authors, run by Bradley Trevor Greive. If you don’t know the name, he’s the world’s best-selling humorist, having published 24 books and sold more than 30m copies in over 115 territories. That’s a lot of books — if anyone could help me understand the publishing industry better (and how to get my books into the world) it’s him. So I turned to him to clarify for myself, exactly how a manuscript becomes a book.
The session did not disappoint. My debut novel has been picked up by a publisher, but it got there through a fairly non-standard path, leaving me clueless about the traditional process. I still have a huge amount to learn, but I know a lot more than I did before the session.
The great news is BTG is a wonderful person who gave me permission to share his most useful tips on my blog, so here we are. Absolutely all credit goes to Mr. Greive, who not only shared this content, but was generous to donate his time at the festival so the proceeds could go towards the local writing community.
Note: the following has been written by me from the notes I took during the session, it isn’t an exact reproduction of BTG’s words (nor the entire course). I feel the need to point this out so you understand: a) any genius here is all his; and b) anything that doesn’t make sense, or is plain wrong, is my error.
Further note: if you ever get the opportunity to attend a masterclass with BTG — I strongly recommend doing so.
Yet another note: this post is entirely concerned with understanding the traditional publishing process. It doesn’t look at self-publishing or any other model, but that isn’t a judgment on non-traditional publishing.
Without further prevarication, I give you the most important tips and takeaways from the session (according to me).
Be a pack
“There is no such thing as a lone wolf.” I’m paraphrasing BTG here as I can’t remember the exact words, but the message is important (and mirrors my experience); making a book is a team effort. Even if you write a perfect manuscript, there are a myriad of tasks that must be done to make it a successful book. Self-published authors take on many of the activities usually handled by a publisher, but even there, the most successful usually rely on others for at least part of the process. So, if you accept you need to work with a team, it behooves you to know who they are…
When I started this process, I had little idea how the publishing process worked, nor how publishing houses were structured. Here are the basic departments:
- Editorial: your editor, editor’s assistant/reader, publisher, etc. all live here.
- Design: responsible for the visual design work. The level of exposure and author will have to this department depends on the nature of the work. A novel will typically be mainly about the cover whereas a children’s picture book will be much more involved.
- Production: these are the people who actually print the book.
- Distribution: gets your book to warehouses and retailers.
- Marketing / Publicity: self-explanatory.
- Legal: handle your contracts, ensure you stick to it, and protect it in different regions.
- Finance: handle and pay royalties.
There are a range of publishers out there, both large and small. Don’t be surprised if smaller publishers, in particular, outsource some of the above.
Publishers are people, not companies
This is important, and will be mentioned again later. There are two parts to this:
- Terminology: a Publisher is a company that publishes books. However, a Publisher is also the title of a senior member of the editorial department.
- Strategy: people decide who they want to publish. You need to win over an editor and a publisher (the person) before you get near the publishing board. Every single one has their own tastes and personalities. Within a single publishing house, one editor may dislike your work whilst another loves it. Always remember you are working with people.
Know the steps
This was an eye-opener for me. The process from submission to book publishing in a traditional publisher is likely longer than you thought. Here’s what the process may look like:
- You send in your submission.
- Submission goes to a reader. This may be an assistant editor, the reception staff, or a volunteer. If the reader likes your submission, they pass it to an editor.
- If the editor also likes it they’ll make contact and probably ask for more.
- If the editor still likes it, they take the book to their publisher (the person).
- If the publisher likes it, they may choose to take it to the publishing board. Note the “may” here — the publishing board is competitive, so if the publisher has multiple “good” manuscripts from their editors, they may only take the one they think has the best chance of succeeding at the time.
- The publishing board is made up of the publishers (7-10), plus advisors from other departments (marketing, finance, legal). Each publisher competes against the others, arguing why their book is the one that should be published using the limited funds available in the budget.
- If the publishing board decides to go ahead with your book, you receive an offer which you / your agent / your lawyer negotiate and accept.
- Editing happens. You forget what the outside world is like, rewriting over and over again, until finally…
- 3-18 months later your book is published.
How long each step of the process takes can vary greatly, but here are some rough guides to set expectations:
- Submission: 4-8 weeks.
- Offer: Up to 12 weeks.
- Contract Process: 2-4 months.
- Editing / Rewrites: 3 months – 2 years.
- Production: 3 – 9 months.
- Publication: 9 months – 2 years. Note: there’s usually a clause in the contract which provides a window of time the publisher has to release the book before you can keep the advance and go elsewhere.
There’s a heap to unpack here — people have written numerous books on this alone, so again, these are only the top tips I came away with. First up, your overarching strategy:
- Understand your motivation. Know what’s important to you.
- Understand the process (above).
- Know who you are speaking to (the reader, the editor, the publisher, the publisher’s board). You need to keep each of those people in mind when crafting your submission.
- Give them what they need to succeed. Understand the process and write your proposal to support each step. Make it as easy as possible for the publisher to prepare their argument for the publishing board (i.e. write it for them).
- Don’t waste their time. Include everything they need, nothing they don’t. Your submission is one of thousands, if yours is too hard they’ll move on to the next.
Be a sniper
Sending out your manuscript to every publishing house you can find like the wild spray of a machine gun is considered unprofessional and can burn bridges. If you want to go down the traditional publishing route, you are looking to build long-term relationships. Do your research, select your target, hunt them down, one by one. No simultaneous submissions.
Remember, publishers are people, not companies. Finding the right editor/publisher is much more important than the imprint they work for, so do your research, build a hit list of editors you would love to work with, and approach them specifically — regardless of which imprint they work for, even if some work at the same publisher.
How do you identify the editors you want to work with? Research your favorite contemporary books from a relevant genre. Who were the editors? Often, the author thanks them in the acknowledgments, so check there first, but the internet is a vast and beautiful resource. Build up your list, identifying the publishing house they’re currently at (for contact details, and to ensure you obey the submission guidelines). When you submit your proposal to them, don’t forget to include why you want to work with them.
As an author, your relationship with your editor (and agent) is the most important professional relationship you will have. Pick these people carefully and treat them with respect. Which brings us to a very important rule: “Never sign on with an agent/ editor/publisher whom you wouldn’t invite home to dinner.”
Hold on to your rights
The big publishers have broad capabilities across multiple regions, but in many cases, your offers will come from publishers who operate in a specific country (or a small number of countries). They may ask you for global publishing rights, but you should be hesitant to grant this. Generally (rule of thumb here), you are better to only sell the rights to publish your book in the regions they operate. Why?
- Capability: a US publisher is equipped to produce and sell your book in the USA. But if they have no presence or network in Australia, how can they push your book? An Australian publisher will be better equipped to get your book on shelves in Australia.
- Distribution: the publisher will typically have distribution channels optimized for their region. Take the previous example once more: your US publisher may work with major distributors such as Baker and Taylor or Ingram, who distribute to Australian bookstores, so there’s no barrier to Australian bookstores ordering your book. Or is there? Bookstores have arrangements with distributors that if they can’ sell all the books they order, they can return the unsold copies. This allows bookstores to take a chance on new authors. Basically, all Australian bookstores will have accounts with US distributors like Ingrams, but the hidden catch is they can’t / won’t return unsold stock due to the shipping costs. This means they’ll be much more conservative about ordering copies of these books compared to a book with an Australian distributor.
- Income: sell your manuscript to a single publisher and give them global rights and you get one advance. However, if you sell to a US publisher and only grant them the US rights, you’re free to then sell it to a UK publisher and get a second advance, then to an Australian publisher for a third advance, and so on.
That’s it for now. The session covered a lot more, including detailed tips and guidance on how to structure and write a proposal and what to watch for in publishing contracts. Again, I want to acknowledge and thank Bradley Trevor Greive for donating his time to the Tasmanian Writers’ Festival, and for giving me permission to share my takeaways. Buy his books, and if you get a chance take one of his master classes