After yesterday's post, it occurred to me that a lot of new authors probably don't know what happens to a manuscript once they send it to a traditional publisher. I can't speak for all publishers, but here's how the process went at one publisher I worked for. 

Note: This publisher is quite small, so my boss (the executive editor) and I were the only editors. We also published only nonfiction books.

  1. An author would send us a proposal for a book and a sample chapter or two (sometimes a complete manuscript).

  2. My boss and/or I would review the submission.  * If the submission was worth pursuing, my boss would send it out in an email to the rest of the team (about a dozen people) for them to review. * Otherwise, my boss or I sent a templated rejection letter.

  3. About once a month, we'd have an acquisitions meeting as a whole team. We'd briefly review each proposal, express anything we liked or any concerns we had about it, and decide whether to accept it, accept it with changes, or reject it. * If we rejected the proposal, my boss informed the author. * If we accepted the proposal, my boss would notify the author about any needed changes, and they'd work out a date for the author to send us the complete manuscript (usually several months down the road).

  4. Once the manuscript arrived (via email), my boss would assign either herself or me to be the lead editor. 

  5. The lead editor would perform the developmental edit. For me, this involved reading the manuscript and constructing an outline of it so I could see what structure it already had. Then I could analyze it further and decide what topics needed fleshing out or clarification, what material should be cut, and if the structure needed any changes (such as changing the order of chapters). This step usually took about a month. * If the author had any charts, diagrams, photos, or anything like that in the manuscript, I'd make sure the author secured any necessary permissions to use those elements.  * I also typically had to track down publication information for sources. Citations are tricky, especially since we handled them differently than most of our authors were used to.

  6. Somewhere in all this, our designers would create several options for the cover and interior design of the book. My boss, the designers, the production manager, and I would review the designs in a meeting and choose one. Sometimes we'd have the designer tweak a few things, and then we'd send the designs to the author.

  7. I'd type up my general notes about the manuscript in a separate document and leave more-specific comments within the manuscript using Track Changes.

  8. I'd get on the phone with the author and go through my notes with them. We'd talk through anything we didn't understand or agree on, and we'd set a date for the author to send me their revisions (typically about two weeks).

  9. In rare cases, I'd have to repeat steps 5-7.

  10. I'd review the author's changes and resolve any major questions with the author.

  11. I'd hire a freelance copyeditor to fix punctuation, spelling, capitalization, etc. This person usually had about a week to do the copyedit and send it back to me.

  12. I'd review the copyeditor's changes. Sadly, a lot of freelancers turned out to be not up to snuff, so occasionally I had to effectively do a second copyedit.

  13. I'd do a cleanup of the manuscript, check on any major changes with the author, and then send it to the designer. 

  14. The designer would put the text into the interior layout of the book.

  15. I'd hire a freelance proofreader to make sure that the book's interior formatting was correct and that none of the text or images had been left out. (This is different from a traditional proofread, which looks for lingering mistakes.) Again, this person would have about a week to do the proofread and send it back to me.

  16. I'd review the proofreader's changes and send them to the designer.

  17. The designer would make the changes and send them back to me.

  18. Either my boss or I would make sure the changes were implemented. If any new problems jumped out and bit us on the nose, we'd mark those. Then we'd send the pages back to the designer either with our approval or with any lingering fixes.

  19. Sometimes we'd have to repeat steps 17-18, but we tried not to, to preserve our designers' sanity.

  20. Once the pages were pretty much finalized, I'd hire a freelance indexer to create (you guessed it) the book's index. This usually took about a week.

  21. At the same time, I'd send the files to the author so they could see pretty much what the final version of their book was going to look like.

  22. I'd review the index, make any needed changes, and send it to the designer.

  23. The designer would add the index to the rest of the book and send it back to me.

  24. I'd review the index and send it back to the designer either with my approval or with any needed fixes.

  25. Once everything was fixed and had my approval, we'd send the book to the printer!

  26. We always released the print book and the ebook at the same time, so somewhere in all this, the designer would create the ebook version.

Yes, that's a lot. It typically took around nine months from the time we got an actual manuscript to the time the finished book came off the press. 

If you've ever wondered why freelance editors charge so much, this is why. When someone publishes with a traditional publisher, the publisher pays all the costs of editing, designing, printing, and marketing the book and often gives the author an advance on their royalties. For this press, the costs involved salaries and benefits for at least four peoplewhich I'd guess, based on my salary as the most junior employee, could easily add up to $20,000 per monthplus whatever they spent to market and print the book. Multiply that by the nine months needed to take a book from manuscript to finished product, and you'd easily be looking at $180,000 or more that the author doesn't have to pay. 

But that's if a traditional publisher accepts your manuscript. Especially these days, that's a big if. Some publishers get thousands of submissions every year. And no matter how good a manuscript is, a publisher will only accept it if they believe it can make them money. Considering the thousands of dollars they invest in each book, that's understandable.

With self-publishing, the author has to take on all the editorial, design, printing (unless you publish only in electronic formats), and marketing costs. But I don't think you need $180,000 to do it. 

While I can't speak for design and marketing costs, consider this about editing:

  • I always do a sample edit at no cost to you before I quote you a price. I hate it when someone gives me one quote at first and then raises the price on me later, so I don't want to do that to you. This step also protects us both by ensuring that we work well together and that we both know what we're getting into before any money changes hands.

  • To make sure I give my clients the best possible service, I only do up to two levels of editing (developmental editing and substantive editing or substantive editing and copyediting) on each manuscript. If I do more than two levels on the same manuscript, I get oversaturated with it and start to make mistakes.

  • Even in a worst-case editing scenario (e.g., a 120,000-word/480-page manuscript that needs heavy developmental editing), your cost to do that edit with me would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $13,500. But I don't think I've ever encountered a manuscript that was both this long and in need of this much help—knock on wood. Therefore, your costs would likely be much less. 

  • Investing in a developmental edit can actually save you a lot of money down the road. * A developmental edit often reduces your manuscript's word count. Word count plays a huge part in how long any edit takes—and, in turn, the price of that edit. Shorter manuscripts typically take less time to edit, so they usually cost less. In other words, this step can lower the cost of any subsequent editing you decide to have done. * A developmental edit can reduce or even eliminate the need for substantive editing. Because substantive editing can cost the same amount as developmental editing, this would be like saving yourself up to 25 percent on editing costs!

  • Many freelancers have contacts who are designers or marketers. Working with one freelancer could help you find other freelancers to handle other tasks—and some designers or marketers might charge less for clients referred by editors.

That's a lot to absorb, I know. But your book is worth it. If you're ready to take the plunge, click here to book a consultation call with me so we can get started!

Write on,


(Thanks to Mike C. S. for sharing their work on Unsplash.)