So here goes. The basics of how a book gets published.
Please note that this refers to mainstream publishing and not self-publishing, which is something else entirely. But most of the books you see in bookstores happened this way:
How a Book Gets Published
For a first time author, a book generally starts with a completely finished and polished manuscript for fiction and memoirs, and a proposal and sample pages for nonfiction. Yes, novelists: you have to write the whole thing. Published authors can sometimes sell novels on proposal. Lucky them!
It’s then generally advisable for an unpublished author to find a literary agent, who helps shepherd an author through the publishing process in exchange for 15% of the proceeds from the book for domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales. If the book doesn’t sell to a publisher, the agent doesn’t receive any money from the author other than recouping incidental fees like photocopying.
Very few publishers accept submissions from un-agented authors, so this is a nearly essential step to be published by one of the major publishers. Plus, a good agent can give a project a better chance at succeeding and will usually be able to negotiate a better deal than the author would be able to achieve on their own.
(For a complete overview of what agents do, see this post).
Submission to Publishers
Once an agent has taken on a project they then send it to one or more editors at different publishing houses. The agent will specifically target the submission to the editors that they feel are most appropriate for the book. The editors take a look at the project, and if it’s something they are interested in they will share it with their colleagues and boss(es) to gauge the enthusiasm. Once the editor has the go-ahead to move forward with the project they will send the agent an offer.
The submission process can take anywhere from a week to a year or more depending on when/if the agent finds a match for the project.
Offer and Negotiations
The terms of the offer usually include an advance, royalties, which countries the publisher can sell into, and other specific terms (please see my publishing glossary for definitions).
An advance is a payment to the author, usually divided into installments, which is theirs to keep regardless of how many copies the book sells, assuming the author fulfills all the terms of the agreement.
Royalties are a percentage of every copy sold, either on the list price of the book or on a publisher’s net profits. These go first toward paying down the advance (but again, the author doesn’t have to pay back the advance if they don’t sell enough copies). After the advance is covered by royalties, which is called “earning out,” the royalties go to the author.
For example, if an author receives a $50,000 advance with hardcover royalties of 10% of list price on a $25 book, they need to sell 20,000 copies to “earn out” ($2.50 per copy x 20,000 copies = $50,000 advance). Afterward, the author receives $2.50 per additional copy sold. The agent receives 15% of the $50,000 advance as well as 15% of the royalties if the book earns out.
Sometimes the offer will be for one book or sometimes it will be for multiple books. If more than one editor is interested in the project an agent may ask all the editors for their best offers, or the agent may hold an auction to determine which publisher will bid the highest.
When the deal points have been agreed upon and the author accepts an offer the publisher will send a contract, which the agent or the agency’s contracts director will negotiate.
Editing and Production
After the contract has been signed, if the project was sold on proposal it’s then time for the author to write the book.
Once the manuscript is completed (nonfiction) or after the contract is signed (fiction) the editor will usually send an editorial letter suggesting content changes that the author will then make. These changes are somewhat negotiable, but for the most part authors will follow their editor’s suggestions.
When the changes have been made and the manuscript is deemed editorially acceptable it moves to copyediting, where typos and other errors are corrected, and designed as it will look on the page. The author has to review the different versions of the completed manuscript to catch typos. The publisher is also working during this time on the design of the book, including the cover, trim size, paper type, and other design-y considerations.
Meanwhile, the editor is coordinating with their marketing and sales teams to write copy for the publisher’s seasonal catalog, write the jacket copy, to (hopefully) generate enthusiasm among the sales team for the project, and to help shape marketing plans. Several months before the book’s publication the sales team will be coordinating with bookstore buyers and other “accounts” as they place their orders, which helps determine how many copies of the book the publisher prints. The agent usually keeps tabs on this process to make sure everything is happening according to plan.
The publication process from finished manuscript to in-bookstore books usually takes a year or more. It can occasionally be compressed if it is an especially timely project, but the process usually requires quite a bit of lead time.
When publication date arrives the book goes on sale and the author is rich and famous behind their wildest dreams. Sometimes. Not usually.
The author then gets cracking on their next book (or rather, they should already have been cracking), and the process repeats.
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
UPDATED: April 13, 2017
Art: Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster by Daniel Maclise