Mod R is still out on a short vacation, so we are all unsupervised. Luckily, I’ve been given a list of your questions. Let’s get to it.
I really love your industry and writing-related posts, so it would be awesome if you could share what happens during the editing process (developmental editing, copy editing, proofreading, etc). I’m really curious about that!
(related) I would love to hear about all the steps/timeline a book goes through from the writer finishing the first draft to it being in our hands. What steps are the same for traditional publishing vs self published?
I’ve talked about this topic before, but the post must’ve gotten archived, because we get repeated questions about it. This is a typical outline of how things go. Your adventure will vary.
This will be a 2 part post, because it’s kind of long. Today we will cover completing and shopping the manuscript and the next part will be editing and publication.
Journey to Becoming a Book
Completing the Manuscript
A new writer finishes a manuscript and makes the decision to query
- an agent
- a publisher
Or, if the author is established and already has an agent, they send their new work to the agent.
Or if the author is really established, they send a proposal to their agent, meaning a summary and some 50-100 pages. At a certain point of successful writer’s career, manuscripts are not longer written out completely. Instead the author writes enough to showcase the idea and then the agent shops it. The author must have a track record of finishing manuscripts on time, so publishers know they will deliver.
Writing manuscripts out completely instead of submitting proposals is called “on spec,” meaning on speculation. Markets that request on-spec submissions are called on-spec markets. A lot of the magazines and newspapers are on-spec. You write out an article and then try to sell it instead of them giving you a topic.
As a debut author, you must complete the manuscript prior to submitting. Publishing has its own weird math. If you are working on knitting a blanket and it’s 90% done, you have a short blanket which is still usable in a pinch. If you are working on a manuscript and it’s 90% done, you have nothing. Zip. It doesn’t exist until it’s finished.
Sometimes established writers make a deliberate decision to write on-spec, because that removes the writing deadline. The manuscript is complete, and there is no need to figure out when it should be turned in. It’s ready to be sold and edited. If it’s purchased, there will still be editorial deadlines but they are easier to keep.
This decision is influenced by how much pressure the writer wants to endure, whether or not they have enough money to work on the manuscript for several months, and how confident they are in their idea and execution. After all, you could work on a manuscript for a year and then find out that nobody wants it.
If an agent is involved, at this stage they may make editorial suggestions to make the story more commercial or to bring the writer’s vision of the work into better focus. They are the first professional looking at the manuscript. A good agent can greatly improve the book; a bad agent can ruin it or kill the author’s desire to proceed with the project altogether. Online places that cater to writers are full of accounts where manuscripts are being shopped in spite of the agent who refused the project for some reason or another.
Querying an agent or a publisher can take very long time, sometimes over a year, due to volume of submissions.
Shopping the Manuscript
Shopping the manuscript means identifying editors who might be interested and contacting them. Publishing houses employ several types of editors, and the one we want for this process is the content editor, someone who has the power to select content for publication. If they like the manuscript, they may either bring it to the attention of the publisher or senior editor and suggest that this manuscript should be bought, or, if they are senior enough, make the decision to purchase it.
This is where having an agent really comes in handy, because a lot of publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions. We’ve covered the topic of queries recently, which is available in this blog post. When a writer or agent queries a publisher, they are asking if the editor would like to see the manuscript. If the editor accepts, that submission is solicited. If the writer lobs the full manuscript at the publishing house without prior arrangements that submission is unsolicited.
Most traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions. When we were young and ignorant, we sent the first version of Magic Bites to Ace. It came back unopened with a stamp that said, “We do not accept unsolicited submissions.” This was the best thing ever, actually, because the next version of the manuscript was a lot better. Rejection hurts, and it makes you improve or makes you give up.
Some publishers do accept unsolicited submissions. For example, Baen.
The drawback of unsolicited submissions is that it takes forever for them to be seen. Baen’s website states response times of 9-12 months. A good agent can get your work in front of the right content editor a lot faster.
Simultaneous submissions are a way to hedge your bets against these very long waiting times. A simultaneous submission means the manuscript was sent to multiple editors at the same time. Whoever bites first, wins. Publishers hate it, but writers also hate to wait over a year. Time is money, and not many of us can afford that kind of limbo.
When an agent chooses to send a submission to multiple editors, sometimes more than one editor bites, and the manuscript goes to auction. The interested publishing houses bid against each other. So if you see “sold at auction” in the description, it means the manuscript had multiple offers and there was a bidding war.
There are also open calls. Here is Nightfire, Tor’s imprint, doing an open call 2 years ago. Manuscripts submitted in response to an open call are considered to be solicited. When we rewrote Magic Bites, we submitted it to Tor in response to an open call. 18 months later, we got an agent, and he made the decision to withdraw the manuscript due to lack of response and submit it to Ace instead.
The content editor is the writer’s primary contact with the publishing house. They are the ones who advocated for the book to be purchased by the publishing house and they are in charge of shaping it. Everything goes through this editor, and their feedback has the greatest impact on the manuscript. Their name is usually in the acknowledgments. For example for us, you will see Anne Sowards for Ace publications and Erika Tsang for Avon.
And this concludes the first part of this publishing breakdown. In Part 2, we will tackle editing and publicity.