Sell Your Manuscript? Great! Now What Happens to It? (Part I)

By: Lisa Silverman

For most authors, the inner workings of a book publishing house are like the inner workings of the computer on which they wrote their manuscript: a big mystery. But if you’re lucky enough to sign a contract with a publisher, it’s in your best interest to understand the process of turning a manuscript into a published book.

The people you’ll deal with at your book’s publishing house will most likely be only your acquiring editor, their editorial assistant, and perhaps someone assigned to promote your book in the marketing department. If you have a literary agent, he/she will deal with the people responsible for drawing up your publishing contract. But many more people work behind the scenes to make a book happen, including those such as me in the copyediting department.

These days, for most books about a year passes between the contract and the publication date. The time frame varies widely based on the type of book, however--political books are often rushed to publication in months to make it onto shelves before election day, but nonfiction books sold on the basis of just a proposal may take up to two years if you still need to write the book.

Why does the book publishing process take so long? Why can’t they just draw a cover and print it? I’ll tell you about one reason: the need for copyediting. I don’t care if you and your best friend have proofread your manuscript 800 times. I don’t care if you’ve employed a good freelance editor. No manuscript I’ve ever seen didn’t need copyediting.

A copyeditor is trained to look for things neither you nor your acquiring editor look for. Your editor is focused on broader content issues: character, plot, themes, structure. The copyeditor knows every little rule of grammar and punctuation in "The Chicago Manual of Style" (our Bible) and how to apply them. If they’re good, they also know when to forget those rules and when to leave your writing alone in order to preserve your unique authorial voice.

They’ll insert commas to make a sentence clearer. They’ll ask “What do you mean by this?" or “Is this the same ‘Joe’ you mentioned back on page 23?" They’ll notice if you repeat a sentence from page 3 on page 452. They’re the first real reader who is approaching your novel or nonfiction with a fresh, unbiased eye, and it’s a keen eye, so pay attention.

It takes about a month to copyedit most manuscripts, after which you will have a few weeks to review the copyeditor’s work and answer any queries. Remember that your name will be on the cover, so ultimately all decisions are yours; but also remember that copyeditors are highly skilled professionals and, yes, they may know more than you do about certain aspects of writing. Respect their work. It helps turn your manuscript into a clean, professional bound book.

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