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.
So, Nightfire accepts submissions through open call for one week a year. That’s a smallish target. Thanks for this insight, interesting as always.
“So, Nightfire accepts submissions through open call for one week a year.”
No, they don’t. 😀 The date on that post is 2021. We don’t know if this is a one-time thing or an annual thing. Nothing in that post suggests that this is a recurring event. You would think it was, right? But no.
This is how writers get into trouble. 🙂 We have to find the current submission guidelines and read them, because they keep changing.
“Every year Nightfire, an imprint of Tor, opens to submissions for a limited window of time.” That’s the first line of the post, which led to my observation. However it’s entirely possible that in other years the window is even more limited, or that it has since been eliminated entirely due to staffing shortages or whatever.
Robyn A. says
Thanks for more info on this proxess!
Interesting to see the variety of editors and the process of getting seen. Thank you for a clear and insightful explanation!
Always interesting! Thanks!
Megan H says
With all that authors go through to get their books published, I am just thankful that so many good ones persist. I wonder how many fantastic stories are unpublished because the author has given up. So happy you didn’t give up!
I bet more have published now by going the self-publishing route. Which isn’t always a good thing. I got — fooled isn’t quite the right word because I’m not entirely positive they were trying to trick someone — but I pre-ordered an ebook that I thought was from one of my favorite authors. Book downloaded and I started reading it and the tone was different, it was written by someone in Europe as opposed to the U.S. (favourite instead of favorite), and they had some grammar problems and typos which really surprised me. Go back to read the online description and comments and a comment pointed out that it was by this established author but by someone else with a similar name. This author had a middle name inserted and their first and last name matched the known author.
Long story (not) short… I don’t think that new author had an editor review it. I stopped reading it because of the problems, which is when I looked back at the purchase. So more authors might get books out their by self-publishing, but they should still find someone to edit the book before sending it out there.
I appreciate Ilona’s warning that the rules for publishing change over time. The answer to this question five years from now would probably be somewhat different. The insights into the business of writing and how things have evolved are always interesting. I’m glad you asked and grateful that Ilona thought the question was worthy of being answered.
Just imagine how the industry has changed over time. First hard copy from a typewriter then hard copy printed from a computer then email attachments and now to online forms instead of attachments. Who knows what it’ll be like next year or 2 years or 5 years.
House DeMille says
Love these process posts 🙂
You can always search on the blog, including by tag. This post was tagged “Business of Writing”, so you can find all the posts she’s tagged with the same label.
Hoopla’s latest email newsletter highlighted Sweep Of The Heart as a popular title, which I thought was exciting ????
So glad I’m a reader not a writer! Also very glad that so many writers I have enjoyed persevered through the process to get their books printed and into my hands. I admire their drive to write and improve their craft and am very appreciative of those who use an actual editor because it really does make a difference especially in ebooks from new writers. Your information always reminds me that a well written book is a gift to readers and your many hours of work is worthy of compensation and appreciation. If we readers don’t know the publication process we can’t really appreciate the effort involved in that gift.
Is there a way to convey my compliments to Anne Sowards? I have noticed her name in the acknowledgements of a LOT of my favorite books.
Moderator R says
I follow her on Twitter for a lot of industry updates and more ???? https://mobile.twitter.com/AnneSowards
Welcome back, ModR! Bring us any t-shirts? 😉
I see Erika Tsang mentioned in a lot of the books I like to read, too, along with Anne.
Moderator R says
Erika Tsang works for Avon HarperCollins ????, and was main editor for Hidden Legacy, the way Anne Soward was for the first Kate series. If you read a lot of romance, she will be familiar ????
Aminah Cherry says
this was brilliant. I love these posts. Fascinating- all this work and we wolf it down in 3 days
Thanks for taking the time to answer questions, even if they were asked before. Your experience with industry must have changed over time so maybe the answers have changed as well. ????
Donna A says
I seem to recall way back when I was at uni that there was a (quite thick) book for writers with all of this type of info plus publishers details and submission guides and agents and everything in the UK that came out yearly. (Before I was fully turned to the dark of Philosophy I stood briefly in the light of Literature ????)
Donna A says
It’s called The Writers and Artists Yearbook 2023 (or whichever year, current edition obvs is 2023 though), it comes out annually in July and has all this very helpful information for writers getting into British publishing, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, magazines, small press and major houses, agents names etc.
ready to read says
There is so much business involved with writing than the imagination required to supply a wonderful written soap opera of a different life or circumstance.
Makes me even more appreciative of the books I get to read for enjoyment of an epic well told.
Thank you for all the hard work and years of great reads.
I realized the other day as I have crossed into the “older generation”… some of my favorite authors I have read since I was in High School. Good grief my brain froze in the OMG zone because dang it they may quit writing because even authors get to retire. Totally freaked me out for a bit. haha
I reasoned that I will always being able to re-read all the books that are in existence and savor them all over again.
Thanks for the info about the work of writing.
Ona Jo-Ellan Bass says
Well said. No new info for me, unfortunately. But good information, nonetheless.
I had to laugh at the unsupervised part because when my daughter was about 5, I made a comment about her father being unsupervised when folding laundry (and therefore doing it incorrectly), and she ran out into the living room yelling, “Unsupervised Dada on the loose!” It’s since turned into our family joke 🙂
Kat in NJ says
It always amazes me how long and complicated this whole process is, and I appreciate the end product you give us even more. ????????
I really enjoyed this article. I don’t know much about writing and publishing. It was very interesting. Thank you
So Tor missed out on the Kate Daniels series and related spinoffs. Ouch. Oh well….things have a way of working out for the best. I guess Ace was meant to have the series.
Thank you so much for this info! Sharing with friends!
Thank you!! Very informative!!