Where do books come from? The most casual answer is that they come from the bookstore. Whereas in fact they are the product of the work of countless people that first create the content and then give it the required shape. So, what happens to a book before it lands on a shelf in a bookstore?
It would be much easier to answer this question if the book publishing process were the same for all the titles. Which is why we must emphasize that this article is full of simplifications. The publishing process looks slightly different depending on the publishing house, and it is simply not possible to discuss all the different options and variants.
Who does it start with?
It seems natural that the book creation process starts with the author. At the end of the day, it is the writer that produces the content, puts his thoughts to paper. However, it often happens that there is someone else before the author: the commissioning editor. This is the person that makes the author start writing at all. By monitoring the publishing market, they gain a deep understanding of what books are in demand at the given time. The commissioning editor looks for topics and finds writers that could take them on. They are the first point of contact at the publishing house for those wishing to publish a book. And their work is done at the moment the finished manuscript arrives at the publishing house. At the same, it is often the case that authors initiate contact with the publishing house by sending in a few chapters of what they have written.
How many editors do you need to publish a book?
There may be several editors involved. We have already mentioned the commissioning editor. Then there is the substantive editor responsible for presenting the content to readers in a clear and comprehensible way. The copy editor is the person in charge of ensuring the manuscript is ready for typesetting. And then everything is overseen by the managing editor, which is someone not unlike a project manager. They oversee all the individual stages of the book production process. At smaller publishing houses, managing editors do the job of all the other editors and are involved in the process from idea to implementation.
Editing and proofreading
The moment that is the most difficult for the author in the entire publishing process arrives: editing and proofreading. And this is more than just about commas being placed in the right places and correcting style errors. Something that may look like a logical and coherent whole, may not necessarily work for the reader. For instance, a term is used on page 5, but it is never explained until page 40. Certain issues require an additional clarification or a comment. Which is why we need someone to look at the book’s content with an objective eye. Enter the editor. An author will spend a lot of time writing a book, pouring their heart into it. And then their treasured work is subjected to merciless criticism. We must remember that the book will eventually make its way into the hands of readers who will have no qualms whatsoever pointing out errors and inaccuracies. It will be too late to introduce any changes then.
Books are never printed from a text processor. The easiest way to see why is to run an experiment: open a file only a few pages long, for instance a Microsoft Word document, on several different computers. It will probably look slightly different on each of them. And there are quite a few things that could go wrong: the font, page formatting, positioning of the images. There is no room for accidents in printing; the file has to look exactly the way it is designed. Which is why files are sent to the publishing house in a PDF format (more on preparing files for printing here).
The person responsible for typesetting gives the content of the book the right shape. They choose the font, line spacing, thus making the reader’s eye glide smoothly over the letters. It is often the case that a second edit and proofreading is done once the book is typeset.
What about the cover?
The book’s cover is a slightly different story. Sometimes the person responsible for the page makeup is also in charge of designing the cover. However, it is usually done by two different people. The look of the cover is not something the graphic designer makes up on a whim. The final look of the cover is decided on by the publishing house (in particular those there responsible for the book’s marketing), the distributor, and, to a certain extent, the author. Whether we like it or not, the cover plays a great role when it comes to making purchasing decisions. Again, there is no room for accidents. The cover is something that gives the reader an idea what to expect from the book itself.
It is down to the publishing house to market the book. You can write the world’s greatest book, but so what when no one knows it exists? The publishing house can do so much more in terms of promoting the book than the author.
Is there a quicker way?
The stages of the book creation process discussed above are not the only option. It happens that the author and the graphic designer that prepares the files for printing are the only two people that get to see the files before they make their way to the printing house. How is that possible? Let us assume that the author of a popular blog wants to self-publish his book. He knows what to write and on what subject, thus there is no need to involve a commissioning editor. He knows what final look he wants to achieve for the book and is careful to correct any errors. As a result, no editing or proofreading services are needed (although it is obviously possible to have it done even when publishing a book without a publishing house). The blogger can then go straight to someone that will prepare the files for printing and submit the files to a printing house. The plan gets implemented, nonetheless all the work and responsibility for the venture’s success lies with the author. As much as promoting the book will not be particularly challenging for a blogger that has a group of loyal followers, distributing it may prove to be a slightly daunting task. It often means that a new platform has to be launched, e.g. an online store.
Remember, if the book is to be sold, an ISBN number has to be allocated to it, which will have to be done by the author himself. Additionally, the print run has to be stored somewhere, and then packaged and shipped. A good idea here would be doing a pre-sale and printing only as many books as ordered by those willing to pay for the book before it is actually printed. Otherwise, the author might get stuck with a palette full of books that cost him money and no one wants to buy.
There is no denying the fact that choosing the self-publishing option with no experience may be like going straight for the deep end.
It is clear even now that there is a lot of hard work to be done by a lot of people before we can hold a book in our hands. And it still has to go through the printing house before making it to the bookstore. But that is a different story altogether…