In traditional publishing, the author completes his or her manuscript, writes a query letter or a proposal, and submits these documents to a publishing house (or has a literary agent do it for them). An editor reads it, considers whether it’s right for the house, and decides either to reject it (leaving the author free to offer it to another publisher) or to publish it.

If the publishing house decides to publish the book, the house buys the rights from the writer and pays him or her an advance on future royalties. The house puts up the money to design and package the book, prints as many copies of the book as it thinks will sell, markets the book, and finally distributes the finished book to the public.

The Traditional Publishing Route Can Take Years

CLICK ON THE BOXES in the chart to learn more about the steps in the Traditional Publishing Process.

The Traditional Publishing Route Can Take Years
Author submits manuscript to Publisher/AgentManuscript lands on Editor's deskEditor reads manuscriptPublisher decides if they really want to publish it (or not)Author signs a book contractEditor suggests structural changesAuthor rewrites manuscriptEditor copyedits the manuscriptMarketing Team creates the marketing planProduction Team starts work on the cover designBookstores pre-order the bookMarketing Team tells bookstores about the bookProduction Team turns manuscript into a galleyMarketing Team rewrites the cover blurbPublisher receives Advance Reader Copies (ARCs)Author helps promote the book online/eventsAuthor and Editor debate over changesBookstores receive booksEditor drafts the cover blurbProduction Team sends book out for printing

Author submits manuscript to Publisher/Agent

Most, if not all, large publishers don't accept unsolicited submissions. In other words, you have to go through an agent.

A literary agent may be valuable if you are a first-time author trying to break into publishing. If you submit your work to several agents and they choose not to represent you, it may be a good indication that your work is not yet strong enough to be considered for publication.

When choosing an agent, find someone who is familiar with your genre.

Manuscript lands on Editor's desk

Staff editors are greatly overworked and overwhelmed. They don’t have the time (or, if they are just starting out in the business, even the knowledge or experience) to edit a manuscript into publishable shape.

These days, quality editing is the author’s (or the agent’s) responsibility.

Editor reads manuscript

Your manuscript might be really good: timely subject, credible characters, lively dialogue, and a well-executed plot. Lots of editors might like it. Some might even love it!

BUT, the harsh reality is that your manuscript could still be rejected for any number of reasons.

Publisher decides if they really want to publish it (or not)

The harsh reality is that your manuscript may be good (really good) and still get rejected for any number of reasons:

  • Inventory: The publisher may already have too many books in your genre, so they're not buying anymore. Nothing personal, but it just doesn't fit their needs right now.
  • Profit & Loss (P&L): Publishers make a P&L projection for every book under consideration. The costs of publishing—printing, distributing, overhead, royalties, advertising, publicity and promo, cover art, and so on—are deducted from the projected income from book sales, subsidiary rights including audio, ebook, foreign, etc. If the bottom line doesn't look big enough, they won't publish your book.
  • Sales Predictions: The sales department or distributor may have just informed the editor that your genre isn't selling so well anymore. It's all in the timing.
  • Mood Swings and Irrational Bias: The editor may hate your manuscript for personal reasons. The title or subject might remind him of his ex-wife. Or, maybe he just read something similar and rejected it.
  • Negotiations Gone Sour: Maybe your agent crossed the line with the publisher. Maybe they asked for too much money. Many factors go into negotiating a deal.

This list goes on and on...

Author signs a book contract

When a publisher offers to publish a book and the author accepts, there are general deal points that are discussed and agreed to. These points are hashed out between the author's literary agent and usually include the amount of money that the publisher will pay the author as an advance against royalties and the delivery date of the completed manuscript.

Based on the agreed-upon terms of the book deal, the publisher submits a draft contract to the author's literary agent, who negotiates changes to the contract on behalf of the author.

Since contracts favor the publishing house, agents can be vital in the negotiation of the terms.

Editor suggests structural changes

Structural editing (also known as substantive editing) involves improvements to the flow and narrative logic of your manuscript. A structural edit will identify and remove unnecessary repetitions, contradictions, ambiguities, and redundancies from your story.

An good structural editor will read your manuscript and provide an in-depth report of its strengths and weaknesses, and offer specific suggestions for improvement. Comments may include edited passages from your work, plus comments on plot, characters, style, and format. The editor will identify problem areas in your manuscript and suggest possible solutions.

A structural editor might suggest quite significant changes to a manuscript, but won’t make any significant changes to the actual text. Those types of changes occur during the copy editing phase.

Author rewrites manuscript

Good writing requires rewriting, and revision is where the magic happens. For most writers, the best and most inspired ideas often appear during the rewrite.

Think of your manuscript like your hand, skimming the surface of a natural spring-fed lake. On the first pass, you might end up with some seaweed stuck between your fingers. This clumpy mess includes the everyday accumulation of clichés and phrases that we use without much thought.

Rewriting means diving deeper into that lake until you reach the pure, crystal clear water that's gushing up from the fissure at the bottom. That's where you'll discover the hidden grottos and colorful characters that make your story really come alive.

Every manuscript—even a polished one—has the potential to become something better.

Editor copyedits the manuscript

Once the author has resolved any structural problems, the manuscript is ready for copy editing. This involves a line-by-line read of the manuscript, pointing out any grammatical mistakes, punctuation or spelling errors, and offer suggestions to improve the clarity of the text, if necessary.

The copy editor will also read the text for continuity, consistency and repetition, looking for any logic, flow, cross-references, and style considerations.

Marketing Team creates the marketing plan

The marketing team works with the author to create a detailed marketing plan, which includes:

  • Your Target Market: What are the demographics of your ideal readers (age, gender, education, location, etc.)? What factors and emotions are likely to influence buying decisions within your target market? You'll want your marketing messages to appeal to those things.
  • Market Analysis: What are the critical issues facing you in reaching readers with your book? What distribution channels will you use?
  • Competitive Analysis: Who is your competition? How are top-selling competitors pricing similar books? How is the competition promoting and distributing their books?
  • Marketing Objectives: How many books do you want to sell (in your first month, 3 months, 6 months, a year, etc.)? How much do you have to earn to be profitable (cover your production and marketing expenses and the time invested)?
  • Marketing Strategy: How you plan to meet your marketing objectives? Cover the four Ps of Marketing: Product, Price, Promotion, and Placement.
  • Action Plan: What print tactics will you use (bookmarks, mailers, posters, etc.)? How will you use your website or blog to promote your book and build relationships with readers?
  • Financials and Measuring Results: What is your total marketing budget? How much during pre-launch? How much right around your launch date? How much in the first few months or a year?

Production Team starts work on the cover design

The cover of a book is the first thing a potential reader will see. It needs to attract immediate attention, stimulate interest, heighten the desire to learn more about the book´s content, and create a clear call to action.

Potential customers form an opinion about a book in less than 3 seconds. In fact, studies have shown that the average person makes a decision about a book in a matter of MILLISECONDS. That's a darn good reason why the BIG publishing companies pay graphic designers thousands of dollars to design their book covers. Because the cover design is REALLY important!

Publishing companies have sold millions of books across the globe and poured many millions of dollars into testing and tracking their strategies. They know what works, and what doesn’t work.

Bookstores pre-order the book

Early book sales are key. For those not yet fully indoctrinated into the publishing world, we’re talking online sales of a book before it’s officially released. We call them pre-orders. And they’re essential.

Pre-orders hold the magic. For media, publishers, retailers, and consumers, they represent your book’s potential. Those early sales numbers truly set the stage for how momentum will build and whether sales will skyrocket.

All pre-orders count toward first-week sales, and since bestseller list placement is based on a single week’s worth of sales, rolling all early sales into that first week offers authors their best chance of hitting a bestseller list.

When buyers for retailers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon see strong pre-order numbers far ahead of the release date, they’ll likely increase their initial order. Solid pre-order movement is a key sign of momentum to come, and it’s the best way to prove to a retailer that they should bring in lots of stock.

An author’s enemy is empty shelves (both online and offline shelves), and this is a real threat if retailers don’t buy a big order upfront. As an author, pre-orders are the best way to ensure their are enough printed books in stock. This is especially true for Amazon, where pre-orders give their system a good idea of how your book will sell. Pre-orders help you avoid the dreaded, “Out of stock, will ship in 2 to 3 weeks” message on a bookseller's website.

Marketing Team tells bookstores about the book

Booksellers and librarians discover new books to add to their inventory through trade catalogs they receive from publishers and distributors. A professional book buyer will sit down with these catalogs, bursting with blurbs and exciting new titles, and decide which titles will show up on their shelves next season.

As the world’s largest book distributor, Ingram issues its own series of catalogs to retailers and libraries—Ingram Advance Catalog (for adult fiction and nonfiction), Ingram Christian Advance Catalog (for books marketed to a primarily Christian audience), Ingram Children’s Advance Catalog (for kids and young adult titles), and Ingram E-Central E-Newsletter (for digital titles).

The publisher ensures that your book is included in the next installment of the applicable Ingram catalog, which is issued to retailers and librarians periodically throughout the year.

Production Team turns manuscript into a galley

Galleys are preliminary versions of a publication meant for review by the author, editors, and other people within the publishing house. Galley proofs (often simply called "galleys") may be unbound, uncut (where the pages have not been shaved down to a uniform surface), or electronic in this modern era of publishing.

The term galley proof comes from the days of hand-set typography where the metal trays used to tighten and set the type into place were called "galleys."

Marketing Team rewrites the cover blurb

The trick to writing a great blurb is to give away enough of what’s inside the book, without giving any plot spoilers (for fiction) or going so in-depth the reader doesn’t want to read on (for non-fiction).

Your reader has to be pulled in just far enough to care about your subject, but not too far, or they’ll have no reason to buy the book.

Blurbs don’t summarize the whole book or even the beginning of the book. It sounds logical that they might — after all a snippet of a blog post is often those first couple of paragraphs. Rather, your blurb should present only the faintest outline of the first few chapters. What you leave out is as important as what you put in.

The point is to entice the reader, not inform them. If you give away too much, the reader can easily get bored — like they’ve already read it!

Publisher receives Advance Reader Copies (ARCs)

ARCs, or Advance Reader Copies, are remarkable assets to authors because they get the books straight into the hands of book reviewers, peer reviewers, bloggers, and other people who may offer input, praise, or publicity for your book.

ARCs are different from galley proofs because they aren’t just for the author and editor’s perusal; they're sent to reviewers prior to the public release of the book, generally about three months in advance. ARCs also give you the chance to see what reviewers think about your material, allowing changes or edits before it’s released.

Obtaining book reviews in advance of publication will help establish your platform among readers, as well as add to word-of-mouth promotion of your book. Many authors cringe at the idea of self-promotion, but in reality, ARCs are an effective way of getting your book to influencers.

ARCs typically include:

  • A disclaimer on the cover stating its identity as an Advance Reader Copy (ARC).
  • A sentence or two explaining it’s an uncorrected proof whose price and publication dates are subject to change.
  • An informative list of the necessary facts about the book, including its ISBN, number of pages, price, and release date.

Author helps promote the book online/events

Authors need to promote their book through online resources, as well as face-to-face events. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media platforms help authors build their platform and get a following, but real-life contact is also very important.

Promoting an event isn’t just about making sales, but spreading your book’s message. A local book event that is promoted successfully can help get your name out there as you work to stand out among a sea of authors.

Author and Editor debate over changes

Copyediting can uncover a lot of topics for debate:

  • Do you really need a hyphen between those two words?
  • Should that word be capitalized?
  • How should that slang term be spelled?

Some Editors might tell you that they follow the Chicago Manual of Style, while others adhere to their own set of rules.

The bottom line is that the Author and Editor need to come to an agreement and move on, if the book is ever going to be published.

Bookstores receive books

Finished books are shipped from the printing warehouse to retail destinations, such as individual independent bookstores or national account distribution centers (e.g., Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com) where they are inventoried, unpacked, re-shipped (in the case of distribution centers) and shelved for consumer purchase in time for the on-sale date.

Editor drafts the cover blurb

In a nutshell, there are two kinds of blurbs: "blurb" and "back cover blurb." A "blurb" is a 1-2 line endorsement of a book by a celebrity or another author that sits on the book’s front cover. When you hear about authors being asked to ‘blurb’ a book, that's the endorsement they’ve been asked to provide.

The "back book cover blurb," on the other hand, consists of 200 or so words on the back cover that describes your book to the reader. These words, if written well, will hook the reader and convince them that they need to buy your book.

Production Team sends book out for printing

The electronic files are reviewed for any issues and prepped for manufacturing.

Copies of the final, clean files (including artwork) are simultaneously sent to the printer for printing and binding, and to a file converter (either in-house, or freelance) who preps the files for the e-book version.

It’s tempting to believe that this is a simple process, but there are a lot of details that need to be managed in order to get everything right.

While there are many variations of self-publishing, there’s one factor that differentiates it from traditional publishing: anyone can publish anything, as long as they have the money to do it. There’s no selection process, unlike traditional publishing houses.

When self-publishing, the author acts as a traditional publisher. That means YOU are responsible for every aspect of your work, from writing and editing to printing and marketing. You’re responsible for distributing your book, filling the orders, and running advertising campaigns. You can outsource some aspects of the process (just like traditional publishing houses do), but the bottom line is that it’s your responsibility to manage and pay for everything.

In return, you get to choose exactly what you want to publish and you keep all of the profits made from your books. The downside, though, is obvious. It’s a lot of hard work and you typically don’t have the business connections that the big publishing houses would leverage to make your book a bestseller. Having said that, though, there are many successful self-published authors (some of them bestselling) out there—and YOU can be one of them!