Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my non-writer friends that go something like this:
Me: How’s work going?
Them: Oh, okay. I’ve been working really long hours, but I got a nice bonus. How about you?
Me: Pretty good. I turned in my first pass pages for my first book, and ARCs are coming soon. I’m waiting for an edit letter on book 2, and book 3 is out with my betas.
Them: *totally blank stare*
For a while, I thought people just weren’t interested in what I was doing. But then I realized nobody understood any of the words I was saying.
Publishing terminology is weird and complicated. Two years ago, I didn’t know what most of this stuff meant either, and I was actively trying to break into the industry. So I’m going to spell it all out for you. Here, for your reading and understanding pleasure, is a step-by-step guide to all the the things I personally have to do to take a book from idea to finished product. (The publisher goes through many more steps that I’m not involved in, like designing the cover and doing all the marketing stuff. I won’t talk about those.)
DISCLAIMER: Every book is different. Every writer is different. Every publishing house is different. My process is not exactly the same as all my other writer friends’ processes. I only have experience with my specific books, my specific agent, and Delacorte Press. But most of these steps are similar for everyone at a major publishing house.
STEP ONE: Write the damn book.
From idea to finished first draft, this process can take me six to nine months. (I know people who do it MUCH faster… some take less than two months.) I always outline, and I tend to write all the scenes in order. I edit as I go—I like to start my writing days by polishing what I wrote yesterday and the day before—so I never really end up with a true first draft. By the time I write the last chapter for the first time, the first chapter might be in its third or fourth form. Nobody sees my first drafts. NOBODY, ever.
STEP TWO: Send the book to my beta readers.
Beta readers are the first people to read and critique a manuscript. (I’ve never really understood why they’re not called alpha readers…) This isn’t true for everyone, but my beta readers and my critique partners are the same people—I tend to show my work only to other writers in its early stages. (My sister is the exception. She gets special privileges even though she’s an engineer.) These lovely, smart people rip my drafts to shreds (in the best possible way) and tell me what’s confusing, what’s boring, and what just doesn’t work. It is so, so helpful.
STEP THREE: Revise.
I am lucky enough to have a fair number of beta readers, so I generally split them into two groups. After the first group gives me notes, I do all the restructuring and tweaking they’ve suggested, then send the book to the second group—it’s important to get fresh eyes on every draft, I think.
STEP FOUR: Send the manuscript to my agent.
My agent, Holly Root, is a very smart lady, and she generally has ideas about how to make the book even better. So I revise again.
STEP FIVE: Go on submission.
When Holly feels the draft is ready for the critical eyes of editors, it’s time to go out on submission. This is when Holly sends my manuscript to a bunch of editors she thinks might want to buy it, and then we sit there with our fingers crossed for a really long time. This is, in my opinion, the worst part, since it involves a LOT of waiting, a lot of rejection, and I have absolutely no control over what’s going on. Control Freak Alison does NOT appreciate this. My friends may remember this as the period of time when I didn’t eat much and developed a Pavlovian panic response to the email alert sound on my phone.
STEP SIX: Sell the book!
HOORAY! CELEBRATE! My first two books sold to Wendy Loggia at Delacorte Press, which is an imprint of Random House. (An imprint is basically a smaller subset of a larger publishing house.) I write stand-alone books—i.e., not part of a series—so my two-book deal meant Delacorte bought the book Holly sent them and whatever I wanted to write next, provided it was also young adult.
STEP SEVEN: Sign the contract, receive an advance.
I received my advance in three parts—one third upon signing the contract, one third when I turned in my final edits, and one third on publication day, for each book. That means I still don’t have the last third of the advance for my first book or the last two thirds of the advance for my second book. When the books come out, I won’t start receiving royalties until Delacorte earns back as much money from my sales as they’ve already paid me.
STEP EIGHT: Receive an edit letter.
This is when my editor pinpoints all the problems with my manuscript and compiles everything I have to fix into a letter—basically, exactly what a good beta reader does, except more professional. (I was going to say that edit letters are also more intense than notes from beta readers, but I have some REALLY intense beta readers.) I have friends who got two-page edit letters, and I have friends who got 25-page edit letters. Mine was five, but some of the notes were massive things like, “This plot line needs to change.”
STEP NINE: Complete content edits.
I had five and a half weeks to make all the changes my editor suggested for RED. My friends may remember this as the period of time when I used up all my vacation days at my day job, shut myself up in my apartment, and didn’t talk to anyone. These are the really big revisions—changing character arcs, rewriting the entire last third of the book, deleting plot lines. They are FREAKING HARD. Many of my friends did more than one round of content edits.
STEP TEN: Complete line edits.
Once my big edits were done and my editor was happy with them, she sent me another marked up manuscript addressing smaller issues—paragraphs that didn’t make sense, wording that was unclear. I didn’t change any big content stuff once I got to this stage. These edits also take much less time. I had three days to do them.
STEP ELEVEN: Complete copyedits.
My main editor didn’t do my copyedits—at this point, my manuscript was passed off to someone else who’s an expert in the nitpicky stuff like whether “coatrack” is one word or two (it’s one, apparently) and where hyphens go. My friends may remember this as the period of time when I went completely insane because EVERY WORD STARTED TO LOOK WRONG. My copyeditors were brilliant—they caught all kinds of little things I can’t believe I missed. (For example, RED is set in Iowa, and I included a radio station called WRED, not realizing that Iowa radio stations actually start with K.) These took longer than copyedits—a little more than a week, I think.
STEP TWELVE: Complete first pass pages.
People also refer to these as “pass pages” and “galleys,” but they’re all the same thing. Basically, once my manuscript was in its final(ish) form, the designers at Delacorte laid it out in the proper font and with the proper spacing, just like it’s going to look in the finished book. Then a different proofreader went over it again (and thank god she did, cause there was some pretty important stuff we’d missed. Somehow, nobody had caught that I’d put the days of the week IN THE WRONG ORDER in the middle of the book.) Then those laid-out, proofread pages came to me, and I did one last read-through to make sure everything was as it was supposed to be. I had a little more than a week for this step, too.
STEP THIRTEEN: Receive advance reading copies!
For the author, this is the final step before publication, and it’s the one I’m waiting for now. (The publisher does second- and third-pass pages, but the author usually doesn’t see those.) Advance reading copies (usually called ARCs) are those paperback books that say UNCORRECTED PROOF—NOT FOR SALE on the front. They usually come out several months before a book’s publication. They’re sent to reviewers and book bloggers, and they’re also used to market the book to libraries and bookstores and generate buzz at conferences. ARCs still contain all the mistakes that were in the uncorrected first pass pages, so bookstores across the country will get to see that I don’t know the days of the week. Yippee…
STEP FOURTEEN: Wait a whooooole lot of months while sales and marketing does their job. I will also do online promotional stuff during this time.
STEP FIFTEEN: PUBLICATION DAY! LAUNCH PARTY!
I can’t wait.