The Process of Publishing: An Exercise

When I teach my editing class, I always like to begin early with an exercise. The entire class becomes a publishing company, and we walk a manuscript through the process. Since I teach my students about content editing, copyediting, and proofreading, I want them to understand where those steps fall in the process of a book going from the author to the shelves.

I usually have about 15 students in my class and I print different jobs onto index cards. They each draw a card, and we then move all the desks and sit in a circle.

First order of business, we decide on a name for our company. We usually end up with something like “Sleepy Sloth Publishing” or “Little Turtles Publishing”–for some reason the name often has an animal theme.

Then we talk through each step, and the person holding the card is to play that role and ask the questions he/she thinks would be asked in this part of the book process.

(1) Author–Whoever gets this card needs to determine what his or her book is about and give it a title. One time I had “The History of the Orange”–a nonfiction book about . . . oranges. That’s what we’ll go with for the purposes of this post. A young man gets the author card and wants to write about oranges.




(2) Acquisitions Editor–As luck would have it, this author went to a writers conference where an AE (hold up your card) was looking for nonfiction books about fruit. She is thrilled that this author has come with this book proposal about the history of oranges. What does the AE ask? My AE with the card thinks a little bit–maybe an AE wants to know who the target audience is (men? women? age range?), the book’s tone (humor? tongue in cheek? reference?), and approximately how long it is (word count helps the AE consider placement and cost calculation). Let’s say this is a book targeted to adults that will be about 128 pages with a humorous tone. The AE wants to know why this author is such an expert and has such interest in oranges. The author explains that he grew up in an orange grove and has been making OJ all his life. (Sometimes an agent is in this role–I put that person at the end of my exercise, but he/she could very well be right at the start.)

I explain that all of this information is important for the AE to take back to the publishing house. Just because the AE likes it only means the book has passed the first hurdle. The AE now needs to sell the idea to the pub board (publishing board).

(3) CEO (as part of pub board)–In many houses (especially smaller ones), the CEO may be on the pub board as the keeper of the ethos of the publishing house. Does the book fit with the mission statement? Does it fit into the kind of books they do? (In Christian publishing, theological bent matters heavily when considering manuscripts.)

(4) CFO (as part of pub board)–Numbers guy. What does he ask? Will the book need any special treatments (is it going to have color pictures throughout–that will affect the cost of the printing and paper). What is the advance to the author? How many books will be in the first print run? What should be the selling price? A pro forma helps to then determine if and how the book can make money for the publishing house.

(5) Salesman (as part of pub board)–There actually may be several–the Amazon person, the big box store person, the independent bookstore person. But they all have the same question–especially with unknown authors. What kind of platform does the author have? (Author answers that he has 10,000 followers on Twitter and a blog and newsletter all about oranges with 20,000 subscribers.) The salespeople are impressed since they know that this author can get the word out about his book and get a following.

So I tell the group to assume that the book has passed this hurdle and is cleared to be published. Next will come the AE calling the author, the author rejoicing (little dance), the arrival of the contract and hopefully the advance check. Next, the author must finish the book by a particular due date.


(6) Editorial director–Once the manuscript arrives, an editorial director will set the schedule for all of the following steps in order to keep the project moving through the system in order to meet the to-printer date. (In large houses, there may be several different people doing these roles with varying titles. In small houses, there might be one person who then uses several freelancers.)

(7) Designer–The editorial director will get the designer started on interior and cover designs. These take time (and the designer has other projects as well), so getting him started now is important. What does the designer need to know? My student with the “Designer” card wonders about how big the book is (trim size and page count), whether or not there are photos and are they black/white or color, and the target audience and tone. The designer creates a template (often in InDesign) into which the typesetter will flow the Word document manuscript.

(8) Content editor–This person looks at the big picture and helps to shape the book (perhaps the author’s chapter 3 should really be chapter 1 as it is a better beginning). I discuss more about the three different types of editing in this post. After back and forth with the author, the manuscript is finalized and sent on to …

(9) Copyeditor–Again, I discuss what this means in above linked post. The copyeditor fact checks, reads for clarity, queries as needed, makes the manuscript follow house style guidelines, and generally tries to make the manuscript readable and clean.

(10) Editorial assistant–This may even be an intern–or this person may not exist at all in a small house. But the copyeditor needs someone to help with taking the copyedited manuscript and creating the front matter (title page, copyright page, Table of Contents, dedication page, etc.) and making sure the back matter pieces are in place (appendix, index, endnotes).

(11) Typesetter/Compositor–The typesetter receives the manuscript from editorial and the book’s design template from the designer and puts them together. What does he need to know? He needs to know the page count, whether all of the chapters have to start on recto (right) pages or if they can also start verso (left), what is to be in the running heads, does the book start at page 1 or are there roman numerals in the front matter? If there are photos, he’ll need to have those (in separate files such as gif or bmp) and know where to place them. He lays out the pages to avoid widows and orphans (single words or short lines standing alone at the top or bottom of a page).

(12) Proofreader–Again, I discuss this further here. The proofreader takes the pdf of the typeset pages–meaning this is exactly how the book will appear. My proofreader checks the Table of Contents and adds page numbers as they appear in the book, and then he reads every word carefully.

(13) Printer–The final completed pdf is uploaded to the printer. Hopefully the date it arrives is the same date the editorial director put on the calendar months earlier. The printer sets press time for each book, and that’s why it is so important to never be late. The printer is given the poundage of the paper (for instance, much higher weight if this book is full of color photos so the pages can handle the ink, as opposed to a straight text book).

(14) Bookstore owner–This person needs to know why she should purchase the book to sell in her store. Fortunately, she loves this publishing company, the salesman has made a compelling case, and so she orders several to sell.

(15) Agent–Because the book has become a best-seller, this agent comes knocking hoping to represent the author in his next great work–and the cycle begins again.

My students come away from this little exercise with more understanding of how what they learn to do as editors fits in to the entire process of creating a book.


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Linda Taylor

About Linda Taylor

Linda Taylor has been working in publishing and doing editing for the last three decades. She’s been editorial director for a book packager (Livingstone) where her company worked with dozens of publishers helping create products—from concept to completion and every step in between. She continues to freelance for them and other companies; she especially enjoys copyediting, proofreading, and writing short things! She also loves teaching writing, editing, and publishing at writers conferences and at Taylor University where she is an instructor in the professional writing department. Editing, writing, publishing, and literary citizenship are hot topics of interest.

  • nurse1976

    Thanks, Linda. I, for one, would love to see more articles like this on the site. I’m a beginning writer, and I often need advice about the publishing process. Thanks again. Great article.

  • Linda Chaffee Taylor

    I’m so glad you found it helpful. It really is fascinating how much work goes into every book and how many hands touch it, trying to make it the best it can be.