That editor has had the manuscript of your novel for three months and you haven't heard a word. There's no excuse. Or is there?
Most writers have only a vague idea of how a publishing company works. That knowledge can be very helpful to your career as a writer, however, and the sooner you understand how the process works, the better. These few insights will give you a more realistic picture and a better appreciation of the other side of the desk.
Here's how the big publishers whose names you'd love to see printed on the spine of your hardcover book operate. Smaller publishing houses follow scaled-down versions that fit their size and staff.
When an editor likes your novel, she (it could as easily be "he", of course) must present the book at the weekly editorial meeting. Editors, possibly the publisher, and representatives from the art and sales departments attend the meeting.
Your editor has about two minutes to "pitch" the book she is recommending. Like the plot statement or log line you develop to answer an agent or editor's question, "What's your book about?", her pitch is aimed at rousing excitement in those at the meeting so they agree the company should publish the book.
Everyone at the meeting has a vote. If there are objections, such as "Not another serial killer" from the sales department, or "We've done enough swastika covers to start World War III" from the art department, she does her best to refute them. She may have persuaded another editor to read the manuscript and support her at the meeting. If she makes the book sound like a winner and refutes any objections, others may want to read the book before a final decision is made. The decision includes how much to offer the writer as an advance, and other terms of the contract.
Now the editor writes the letter that has you jumping for joy, or she calls your agent and discusses it with him, and he calls you. You, of course, accept.
The advance offered for a first novel by an unknown author is usually $10-15,000. Not a lot for the many months you labored over the book, granted. But look at what the publishing company has already invested on your behalf: personnel time (mailroom, editors and other employees who took part in the decision process), plus the advance they are now offering you. Sure, you and your novel are worth much more, but from here on, you need to prove it.
Now the editing process begins. Once the contract is signed and counter-signed, a slot is determined for the book to go to press. Unless there's a special reason the book should be ready to sell quickly, the release date is usually a year to 18 months from the date the contract is signed, so the editing and various other departments can fit it into their schedules.
Your editor reads it again for content and marks anything she has a question about. A copy editor corrects mistakes in grammar, spelling, repetitions, changes in earlier facts (someone's blue eyes turning brown) and other discrepancies. She may answer some of the editor's questions or attach notes asking you to clarify or cite sources for information. She creates a style sheet to keep track of characters' names and how you spell them, their physical traits such as eye and hair color, specific locations, etc.
You get this "corrected manuscript" next. You read it and pay attention to the corrections so you can become familiar with the proof marks and use them. Any marks you make on the corrected manuscript must be done in a different color ink than the editors' marks. If questions are attached, you answer them, either by making the change on the manuscript or attaching your reply to the editor's note. You do not remove notes that come with the package, since the editor needs them for reference.
For example, I once got a note from a copy editor saying she had consulted a professor of Spanish to verify a line of Spanish dialogue I had my detective say to his wife. The professor suggested a rewrite in grammatically perfect Spanish. I sent a reply to the editor saying my LA cop was a Mexican-American street cop who had worked his way up through the ranks and would not talk to his wife of ten years in perfect Spanish when she woke him up early to respond to a homicide call. They would communicate in an easy, natural way as they had for more than ten years. I added that I had asked a Mexican-American friend to translate the English version of what I wanted my detective to say into everyday Spanish, and my own Spanish was good enough to know he hadn't changed the meaning. The editor left the line as I had written it.
Since your book is now in production, you must return the corrected manuscript within the time limit set, usually two to four weeks. The book goes back to the editing department and is corrected to include the changes. Today, all publishing houses are computerized. The document is corrected on the computer and proofread carefully, since it becomes the source of all future copies. An ISBN, Library of Congress number and other identifying information are added to the back of the title page. The author's dedication and other introductory material are put in place to complete the package. The printer runs the entire book off for a final proofreading.
You receive a copy of the new print-out or "galley proof". The pages are now book-size and set up exactly the way they will appear in the finished book. They are usually folded in "signatures" for easy handling. You proofread the galleys one last time. You are not allowed to make story or arbitrary changes at this point. You can, however, note typos that were missed earlier by the proofreader, changes that weren't picked up from the first edit, or errors that may have been introduced when the last edits were made. Your book is now in the hands of the printer, not the editors. Most houses have a strict limit on changes that are introduced by the author (i.e., not the typesetter's fault), and you may be charged for any beyond a certain amount.
[Editor's Note: Today, galley proofs are likely to be delivered electronically. You will be asked to make your changes to the electronic file, and/or accept or correct changes that have been inserted by the editor or copy-editor.]
While all this is going on, the art department is creating the cover art. This is shown at editorial meetings, but you don't get to see it or have any input.
The sales department has also been at work. Your book is listed in the monthly new releases brochure. The lead book for the month, the one getting promo money, is on the front cover, the second lead on the back cover. The rest, and some earlier releases, are inside. There may be a small picture of the cover along with the ISBN, retail price, and a brief paragraph about the storyline. An order form is included in the catalogue. These are sent to bookstores, wholesalers, distributors, etc. for ordering purposes. Company sales reps also carry them so they can discuss books with buyers.
When the scheduled print run date of your book arrives, the presses roll. Boxes of your finished book are stacked on pallets, ready for shipment.
Books are shipped before the announced launch date so stores have them on the shelves, ready to sell, when the book is announced. If you've ever wondered how popular authors hit #1 on the bestsellers list the moment their books are in the stores, the answer is the big national lists are based on the number of books shipped, not those already sold to consumers.
Chains place initial orders for all their stores. The size of the store as well as the expected popularity of the title determines the number of books ordered. Barnes & Noble, for example, has three categories, A, B and C. "A" stores are the largest, "C" the smallest. Initial shipments are based on category.
Your advance is exactly that, an advance. The company is betting your book will sell enough copies for them to earn that money, and more, back. It's an advance against the royalties you will earn, which means you do not get another payment until it earns back the $10-15,000 for the company and thensome.
Some writers mistakenly assume that the publishing company gets the 90% of the selling price left over after your royalty is paid. Not quite. Matter of fact, not by a long shot.
In addition to office, printing and warehouse expenses, several other people take their cuts off the top, which in this case is the selling price. The publisher ships books to the distributor, who "sells" them (with return privileges) to the wholesaler (at another discount), who sells them to bookstores and shops with return privileges, and the bookstores and shops sell them to customers at the cover price. The stores make only the percent of difference in price between what they paid the wholesaler or distributor, and the amount they got for the book.
Don't even try to do the math on that; it's mind boggling and means your book can sell for a lot of different prices depending on who buys where. Just as the publisher's profit on each sale is based on the actual amount they receive for the sale, so does your royalty. Instead of 10% of the $20 printed on the cover, your royalty may be whittled down to less than a dollar per book. Yes, that's right. Royalties are paid on the selling price the publisher receives. [Editor's note: In some cases you may be able to negotiate a royalty rate on "selling price" rather than on "net." The percentage will usually be lower, but the actual return may be higher.]
You generally won't get your first royalty statement until the book has been out for 18 months. Even then, the publisher may hold back as much as 40% against returns since a large number of books may still be in the payment or return grace period extended by the wholesaler or distributor.
If paperback rights have sold, the mass-market edition usually comes out about this time. You also should have your second book finished and be ready to start the process all over again.
If you participated in marketing and promoting the first book, and it sold well, the same house and editor will probably accept and publish your second one. But never forget that publishing is a business. If a book doesn't sell through (pay back its advance), you will have a harder time selling the house your next one.
Hard as all this seems, it's worth it. Being published by a major house means prestige for you and the book. It can be a big step forward in your career. It isn't an easy way, however, to break into the ranks of published authors.
Come to think of it, there is no easy way. You just have to keep learning and writing, and be willing to work your way up by selling to smaller markets first, if necessary, while growing into the big time.
If you dream about seeing your book in the #1 spot on those bestseller lists, knowing as much as possible about the publishing business will help you learn how to market and promote your book successfully and build your career.