editorial process

The Editorial Process

Writing the book and finding someone to publish it sometimes seems like the easy part. Just when you think it’s time to sit back and take a big deep breath … you find yourself submerged in ‘The Editorial Process’.

Publishers rarely (ever?) let a book go to the presses without it undergoing some form of editorial revision. What form that revision takes, and how extensive it is, depends on the publisher, the type of book, the personal preferences of the editor and the quality of the manuscript delivered to the publisher in the first place. The following description of the editorial process has been written from the twin perspective of an author (both of academic books and popular fiction) and an editor (of academic essays, articles and books), slanted more towards the popular fiction process.

First, the publisher generally likes to have the manuscript in their hands about eight months before publication – it will easily take some six months of going through various publishing processes before it emerges in print form. Having accepted the manuscript, an editor within the publishing house will read it and decide what work needs to be done on it. Often this process itself is shared by several editors, perhaps one or two freelance editors outside the publishing house. Whatever, once all the ideas and suggestions have been collated from the various readers, then one editor will sit down and begin the serious work of editing the manuscript.

Editing literally means going through the manuscript word by word, working out what works and what doesn’t. Usually the author is the last person to be aware of this as they are so submerged in their work they can’t view it objectively. An editor can ask an author to revise a character, even cut a character, or change names (I’ve lost count of the number of names I’ve changed and characters I’ve reformatted). They can ask the author to rewrite scenes, cut scenes, add new scenes (generally the day before you’ve got to send the damn thing back!) or write a scene from the perspective of a different character. The editor will generally cut the manuscript back, but can sometimes ask that the text be ‘plumped out’.

Once the editor has finished his or her work, the author receives the manuscript back for revision. Depending on the editor, you may receive a manuscript that is covered in thick pencilled suggestions, notations, and (almost always in my case) heavy lines scored through unwanted text, or the pages may be almost free of pencilled marks and covered only by a brief letter asking that a few minor points be addressed (and thankfully I’ve received manuscripts back like that, too). In this age of electronic communication and the wonders of the Internet, all of this may be accomplished via email. Two of the books I’ve authored have been edited largely via email – one with a Dutch publishing house (think of the time and postage we saved), the other with Hodder Headline here in Australia.

One of the hardest things I find as an author is to sit down and read what someone else thinks of my work. When you’ve spent months and a great deal of emotional investment in a book, staring at someone else’s vision of what works and what doesn’t can be devastating … especially when you see all those cut bits of text! But editors generally do a great job. They have a keen and, more importantly, an outsider’s eye, and they can spot far easier than you what works and what doesn’t. All my books have come out the better for the editorial process.

So, the author then has to sit down and revise. You don’t always agree with what the editor has suggested, and generally no editor is going to force you to change something if you violently disagree (unless you’re being utterly unreasonable … and in that case you’ll probably never publish with that firm again). In my experience, it’s a question of give and take … of negotiation. I’ll generally accede to editorial wishes (generally because the editor is completely right in his or her suggestions), but occasionally I’ll dig my toes in over something and win my case. What percentage of changes do I agree with and change? Probably between 70 – 80%. If I disagree with something, then I can always make added changes elsewhere. With Enchanter, where one third of the book had to be cut (always be suspicious of the editor who rings up and says cheerfully, “there’s not much we’ll have to do”), there were large portions of the text towards the end of the book I wanted to keep but that the editor wanted to lose simply to make up the required number of words we had to cut. So I cut portions elsewhere and kept the sections I wanted.

Having made the editorial changes (and they can sometimes take weeks), you print out the manuscript (or leave it on disk) and send it back to the editor. Depending on the editor, book or publishing house, it may then go through a further editorial revision (sometimes with a different editor) that will come back to the author for the okay.

Once everyone’s agreed that the manuscript has been finished, and hoping that no lives have been lost in the process, the manuscript is then typeset. That shouldn’t take too long, and then the author (who is often so heartily sick of the book by this stage they wish it would just go away and leave them in peace) gets the proofs back to read and correct. But at about this time the author finally realise that the book is nearing reality and a little germ of excitement can flower again.

During the entire editorial process the editor will have been consulting with you about the cover, and marketing strategies and so forth. Authors are generally listened to about the cover, but contracts will often state that it is the publishing house who’ll have the final word. Marketing departments and book reps (those unsung heroes who actually sell the book to the bookshops) have been busy and have, hopefully, managed to get advance sales that will make everyone smile.

The author will get copies of the book well before it’s released. You sit and admire it for ten breathless minutes … then open it at random and find a mistake on the first page you read!

The Great Day. Release Day. Believe me, if it’s a first book you’ll be rushing from book store to book store admiring the displays. There’s almost nothing as exciting as seeing your first novel in the stands (I’ve hung around book stores like you would not believe, but I’ve never actually seen anyone buy one!). Then you can go back day after day and watch the piles diminish. I’ve never quite got so low I’ve counted the books remaining in displays from day to day … not quite …

Waiting for the first royalties statement can also be nervewracking. Royalties are only divvied out every six months, ending in June and December, and it’s generally around September and April before the author actually sees them.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises