Writer’s Insights: The Book Production Process

Writer’s Insights: The Book Production Process

You might have guessed by now that I’m an editor by trade. I’m a writer first and foremost—I always have been. I’m a reader too (but all writers are readers—it’s the first tenet of being a writer). Basically, I love books, and I love words. But being a writer is tough, and very often, it doesn’t pay the bills. So when I was very small, I decided I would do the next best thing: I’d edit books. If I couldn’t pay the bills being a writer, I’d pay them by working with authors to refine their writing. (It also helps that I know my way around a grammar guide or two.)  I do both, which actually helps me do the editing job better.

            But one of the things I get to do as an editor is actually make books. Specifically, I’m a production editor: I do book production. I steward a manuscript from its arrival in production, through copy edit, proofreading, and to the printer and into eBook format. It’s a pretty cool thing, actually. It involves a lot of people management and less get-your-hands-dirty editing than I’d like sometimes, but at the end of the day, I can hang on to a book that I had a hand in producing. That’s pretty neat.

A Lack of Knowledge

I’ve realized a lot of authors don’t have a clue about what goes on behind the scenes. Making books is like magic, a dark art performed by a publisher’s staff. In the past, that was fine. An author had no need to know what was going on. With the rise of print-on-demand and indie publishing, however, more and more authors are also wearing the hat of publisher, book designer, cover designer, proofreader, editor, and marketer. That means we actually need to know a bit more about the process—even if we don’t always follow along with the prescribed steps.
            Why do indie authors need to know? Simply put, so you don’t get rooked by CreateSpace or other services like them. Most places make it very simple to take a Word document and toss it up on Amazon as an eBook or to submit a Word document and get them to spit out a print book. They’ll even sell you on customization packages. I’m not saying every place is out to scam you, but that a solid understanding of the process can protect you from more unscrupulous types—and it can help you work with the people you do hire along the line, such as a graphic designer or the printer.
            Let’s get started.

Step 1: The Manuscript into Book Production

You’ve finally finished your manuscript; you’ve put the finishing touches on it. Now it’s ready to go to Amazon and be converted into a eBook, right? While technology has enabled this incredibly truncated form of book production, there are a few more steps in a more traditional process—which may be one you want to follow to create the best possible book.
            The first step of book production is editing. At this point, with a completed manuscript in hand, we’ll usually look for a copy editor. This person cleans up the manuscript, looking for inconsistency, spelling mistakes, misplaced punctuation, and poor grammar. They may offer more substantive comments on the structure or plot of your book or characters’ reactions, but often their edits are focused on the mechanics of good writing. Some people may refer to this as “line editing,” which is very tightly focused on the mechanics of good writing.
            How long does this take? It depends. I usually schedule seven weeks for an edit, and that includes time the editor and the author work together. However, it may take longer if you’re looking for a more in-depth review of your manuscript (although this quickly gets into “substantive” editing, which looks more at content than the grammar itself). If you have a very accelerated schedule, some editors may be able to complete a very strict mechanical edit in a short time. It also depends on how long your book is, and how strong your writing is. If you’re concerned your writing is weak or needs lots of clean-up, spend more time at this stage. And don’t be afraid of admitting your writing may need work; nobody gets the first draft perfect. Hell, we don’t even get the print book perfect most of the time. (Seriously, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cracked open the first bound copy of a book and not noticed an error.)

Step 2: Design and Typesetting

Today’s accelerated book production schedules encourage authors, editors, and publishers to skip this stage altogether. Amazon, after all, can take your Word document and turn it into an eBook. In fact, they even suggest this is preferable to submitting another format, such as a PDF. If you’re going strictly eBook, you might consider skipping the typesetting stage. While good design arguably has an important role to play in eBooks, they are, more often than not, bare-bones designs that display differently on each and every reader. User preferences and device limitations are likely to override your design. eBook design is less integral at this point in time.
            If you plan to issue a print book, typeset it. Why? Because this is the stage that makes your book look like a book! Honestly. Switch the font in Word, shrink the size down to 8 points, pull your margins in to 8 x 5.5” and print it out. Does that look or feel like a book to you? Chances are it doesn’t—even though that’s the basics of the design of a trade paperback.


A chapter-opening page from the print version of a Slapshot! novel.

A chapter-opening page from the print version of a Slapshot! novel.

  Typesetting in this day and age is much more about design—about making books feel and look unique. The design should enhance content. You may be able to pick a generic design from template options offered by a print-on-demand self-publishing operation like CreateSpace; it might be perfectly fine for your book. A custom design, used effectively, can enhance reader experience of your book. I’ve posted a sample of my design for the Slapshot! books. This does not translate to ePub very gracefully, but interactive PDFs and print copies of the book have this interior. It’s fun, it has a sports feel, and it reminds me a bit of hockey. It also allows me to play with colors—each book in the series can have a different color, making it easy for readers to pick out a favorite volume. It also ties the interior of the book to cover design. And good cover design is so, so important for marketing.

Don’t Forget: Cover Design

You should have your cover design settled by this stage. As mentioned, you probably want to tie the cover into the content of your book, and you may want to tie the interior design to the cover design in some way as well. Cover design is much more important, since the cover is an invaluable marketing tool; it will appear on print and eBooks, and you’ll likely use it to promote your book whether on social media; on posters and print ads; in a book trailer; or on marketing swag like magnets, bags, or bookmarks. If you can only afford to purchase one, fork for cover design every time. (Unless you’re a cover designer yourself. And even then, it might be nice to get someone else to design a cover.)

 Step 3: Proofreading

A page showing edits in red.

Proofing is usually a little lighter than this.

Always, always, always proofread your book! Even if you didn’t edit it, even if you did edit it. You’ll want to check some additional elements once the book has been typeset. If you have print production, you’ll have running heads or feet to check. You should also check page numbers. Do your chapter titles match on your table of contents and the chapter opening pages? Is all the text there, or did some of it go missing? Are there weird paragraph breaks that weren’t there before? In short, there’s a lot more to see here now that the book is appearing as it will in print—you’re no longer concerned with just the spelling and the grammar aspects (although those are still important!).
            Proofing is ideally a two- or three-round process. You’ll look at the proofs once, mark up your changes, and get them corrected. You’ll then see a “corrected” round of proofs, and you can check all the corrections were made properly. You may even find new ones. Lather, rinse, repeat. Keep in mind professional typesetters may include limited rounds of proofs or numbers of corrections in their initial billing or quotation; anything above and beyond  results in additional charges. Resist the urge to copy edit your book again at this point in the book production process; proofing is for essential changes only!

Step 4: Printing!

A stack of print books, topped with an eReader.

You’ll probably publish more eBooks than print books, especially if you go the indie route.

You bundle the book off to the printer or upload the ePub file. You may need to make some adjustments to meet the printer’s specifications (e.g., margins or gutters; your typesetter can help you!). Then you’ll see proofs from the printer. The book will be printed (or, if it’s a print-on-demand operation, simply go up for sale) once you’ve approved the proofs. eBooks will be offered for sale as well.
            Congratulations! You’ve completed the book production process and made a book. Now you can get to the hard work of marketing it.


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