From the Editor: Taking You Behind the Scenes of the Publishing Industry

By: Rebekah Sack, Editor

85 tasks and 92 subtasks.

That’s how many steps it takes to publish a book.

Now, some of those tasks are really quick and simple, like documenting the date of an author’s writing contract or creating a location number for the back cover of the book.

But, not all of those tasks are easy to just check off the to-do list. For instance, editing “Stage 2” of the book, which means spending detailed time with about 10,000 words of text, or planning and executing an e-mail campaign to start getting pre-orders for a book — these are time consuming. There’s a lot that goes into publishing a book, and you don’t realize how complicated it is until you join the industry.

Now, not every publishing company out there has exactly 85 tasks with 92 subtasks sprinkled in. There are going to be companies with hundreds of tasks and companies with no tasks at all, because they just fly by the seat of their pants. None of that matters, though — the important thing to realize is how intricate the process is.

I might quickly add that some people may be put-off by the fact that there’s a list — how dare you put such organizational limits on what is supposed to be a creative process! I will gently remind you that, yes, the writing and editing portions of publishing can be highly creative, but like anything else, the publishing industry is still a business, so keeping things on track is super important.

That being said, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the things that we do when it comes to publishing a book. Whether you’re a prospective intern that wants to know what really goes on behind-the-scenes or a freelance writer that wants to know what exactly that nit-picky editor does all day, this will give you an idea of the grunt work that goes into that book sitting on your nightstand.

The First Few Steps

The first few steps are the easiest. I know this isn’t the case for everything in life, particularly blind dates and job interviews, but the first few steps of organizing a book are mildly to moderately simple.

You have to come up with a book title, assign that book title an ISBN (in our case, three ISBNS — paperback, e-book, and library edition), come up with a retail price, find three BISAC codes, and write two book copies (one that is 50 words or less and one that is 350 words or less).

I’m anticipating three possible questions from you at this point: what is an ISBN, what the heck are BISAC codes, and what’s this business about book copies? I am going to spare you the boring task of reading a standard definition here and offer you the low-down for dummies.

An ISBN is that number-thingy by the barcode on the back of your books. It’s a string of numbers tied to your book. Publishers have to buy them.

BISAC codes help to categorize your books by subject. Here’s an example of a BISAC code: YAN051020  YOUNG ADULT NONFICTION / Social Topics / Bullying.

Book copies are those catchy paragraphs on the back of your favorite books. They describe the book and get you so interested that you’re forced to take the book off the bookshelf and purchase it. Here’s an example of a book copy from a book we’re currently working on.

Title: The Young Adult’s Guide to Surviving Dorm Life: Skills & Strategies for Handling Roommates

Book Copy: Television shows like “New Girl,” “Friends,” and “The Big Bang Theory” make having a roommate seem like a blast. However, not everyone is lucky enough to have a roommate like Jessica Day or Rachel Green.

“Surviving Dorm Life” provides college students with an idea of what to expect before ever stepping foot into their new living space. This book is full of tips and tricks ranging from sleeping patterns to unwelcome guests.

Personality traits can also cause a lot of conflict. This book unravels how to deal with different types of roommates, such as neat freaks and slobs.

Fighting over who does the dishes may seem like biggest problem there will ever be — and this book does cover that — but if things get seriously bad, that’s covered, too. We take a look at how to deal with roommates that are depressed, have an eating disorder, or have a substance abuse problem.

This book is full of case studies garnered from hours of interviews with college students, both new and graduated. Your roommate is using your personal stuff, they’re staying up too late, they’re making too much noise, they’re being rude, and they’re neglecting to pay their share of the bills. If you are worried about any of these potential problems, by book’s end, you’ll know everything you need to know to put the issues to rest and survive dorm life.

Now that those questions are out the way, you might be wondering something else — how can these be the first steps? Wouldn’t writing the actual book be the first step to… publishing a book? I know, I know, I kind of wondered the same thing at first, but that’s where companies kind of start to veer in different directions.

When you think about books and summer reading, your first thought is probably fiction books, and most fiction books go through a very different publishing process. The publisher usually looks at already completed manuscripts and picks and chooses based on what they think people will buy.

When it comes to nonfiction publishing, it’s totally different (not always, but in our case, it’s a different ballgame). We come up with a popular topic and narrow it down to a title — we decide what books we are going to produce, and then we hire professionals to come in and write the book. That’s why we come up with all the book information first. Well, that, and because in order to start getting pre-orders for a book, you have to have all the book information out there.

Now that things are starting to come together, I imagine furrowed brows and a curious expression on your face — you’re telling me that you put a book out there for pre-orders before it’s even written yet? Well… yes. Yes, we do.

Another important part of organizing a new book is getting the cover done. We work with our Art Director to finalize a book cover, and once that’s done, you can put your infant book on different distribution sites for pre-orders. That way, we can publish books way faster than you’re probably expecting.

There’s all this talk about books going through years and years of steps and processes before it’s ever even on the market — well, when we structure the process this way, there’s no waiting time. Sometimes, companies will put the finalized book information out there to start getting pre-orders and to build the hype up, but that means that a finished book is just sitting on a desk somewhere — waiting. For us, there’s no wait time. While the book is being written, pre-orders are coming in, and once the book is done, it goes straight to press.

Blah, blah, blah, we get it. On to the next phase.

The Steps After the First Few Steps

Great title, I know. The next few steps overlap a bit with the first few, but they involve finding and hiring an author. This can be done several ways — there might be an author we’ve already worked with that has a background in the subject area, there might be a specific person we have in mind that’s an expert in the field, or we might just turn to the freelance writing market through avenues like Elance.com or JournalismJobs.com.

We also have a reserve list of writers who have applied for previous jobs — if they had a strong resume and writing sample and totally killed the editing and writing quiz I sent to them, I ask them if they’d like to be on a reserve list for future projects. Sometimes, they don’t. But, sometimes, they do, and we turn to them first when new projects open up.

The main goal is to find a writer that’s really good at writing (duh) and that also has a background in the subject at hand. For example, the book about surviving dorm life would be best written by someone who spent their entire college career living in a dorm with four roommates. A book about the Russian Revolution might be best written by a history professor. A book about joining the music industry would be best written by someone that has a music degree — the list goes on.

So, when you finally find the perfect fit, you create a contract, have them sign it, document it all, and order research materials for the author. We send them various books on the subject to give them an idea of what’s already out there — we don’t want to be producing stuff that’s already been said 100 times over. It’s also useful to be up-to-date on the latest stats and research — we’ll send that stuff, too.

In the background, we’re updating distribution sites through Bowker & Onix; we’re drafting up email campaigns for libraries, bookstores, and foreign rights agents; we’re creating a book folder on the server; we’re updating the book information on the website; and we’re working on finding associations or experts in the field to partner with us and/or contribute to the book.

Don’t tell me I lost you — let me catch you up here. Bowker is the exclusive go-to guy to get ISBNs from. You purchase them and then update the information tied to that ISBN. Let’s say I buy an ISBN for my new book about bugs. I would go onto Bowker to update my ISBN information. I’d put in the title: “Bug Life,” the author: “Yours Truly,” the book description: “This book is all about bugs,” and so on. From there, tons of people can get information about that book. It’s like the watering hole, but for libraries and bookstores and such.

Oh, and Onix? It pretty much does the same thing — you put all your book information into their program, and it lets people who buy books see it.

The whole thing is a lengthy, intricate process.

The Next Few Steps After the Steps That Were After The First Few Steps

As you can see, I’m the go-to person when it comes to coming up with titles.

So, now the book is out there, and the author is drafting away at the manuscript. They’re sending the work-in-process in four basic stages. For our young adult books, here’s what the stages look like:

Stage 1: The Outline

Stage 2: The First 10,000 Words

Stage 3: The Second 10,000 Words

Stage 4: The Final 10,000 Words

The author will send in this stuff as they go along. I, the editor, will review it, give some feedback in the margins, and I’ll edit the heck out of the manuscript. You’ll see structure changes, style comments, and basic copyedits (grammar and punctuation stuff).

If I have a few projects going on at once (at this very moment, I have seven), you can see where things start to get a little hectic. You’re getting 10,000 words over there, another 10,000 over here, an outline coming in from left field — you can see why many people comment on how busy editors are.

But, that’s not all. In the background, while the pros are hacking away at their Word docs, we’re securing foreword authors, case studies, we’re running plagiarism scans, we’re sending email blasts, we’re counting pre-orders, we’re checking permissions, we’re submitting CIP data, we’re making updates on Bowker, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Barnes & Noble, the website, Amazon…

I can feel you starting to back up. Do not be intimated or confused. To answer the looming question I can feel in the air — what the heck is CIP data — it’s that library information on the copyright page of books. CIP stands for “Cataloging-in-Publication” and it’s basically a neat little paragraph that has the author’s name, the title, the ISBN, some details about the book, and some more numbers. It helps libraries electronically catalog your book in their database.

Once the book is fully written and has been thoroughly edited, it goes off to the design team. They transfer the Word document into InDesign (an Adobe program that helps get a book ready for print), and in technical terms, they make it all pretty and stuff. It’s a lengthy process of designing and proofing and prepping, but once that’s done, the book goes to press.

The Final Steps

The final steps are all about making sure the book is a success. We’re sending out emails letting people know it’s available, we’re doing special ad campaigns, we’re preparing review copies, we’re writing press releases, we’re drafting up thank-you cards for book participants, we’re uploading the PDF to Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature and Google Books, we’re getting the e-book out there…

I hate to keep going, but there really is more. We’re registering the copyright and putting that in the safe, we’re updating inventory, we’re updating the website and all those other distribution sites, we’re pursuing reviews and adding them to all of our online sites… we’re really doing the most.

And that’s kind of what publishing is all about. It’s about producing great, necessary content, and making sure that it falls into the right hands. It’s a lengthy and sometimes complicated process, but it’s worth it. When you put a book out there that you know is helping someone, from a fairly straight-forward topic — like passing the real estate sales exam or nailing an interview — to more touchy, emotional subjects — like dealing with bullying or building up your confidence — you know you’re making a difference.

And that’s what the industry is all about, regardless of the amount of steps or the way you make those steps function for your company.

But there really are a lot of steps. For real.

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