The ten stages of book production

By   Hannah Bickerton 9 min read

Lottie Fyfe has seven years’ experience at various imprints within trade publishing, most recently as a Project Editor at 4th Estate and William Collins. She has worked on a range of fiction, non-fiction and illustrated titles, with authors including David Mitchell, Melvyn Bragg, Adam Nicolson, Simon Callow, Penny Junor, Laline Paull, Nigel Slater and Cathy Newman. She is currently freelance.

You’ve finished your final draft and delivered your manuscript, but the hard work isn’t over yet. So what happens next? Publishing is a highly collaborative endeavour: it takes a lot of input from different corners to turn the Word document on your computer into the finished article in your hands (or on your digital device). Whether you’ve penned a novel, a glossy coffee-table tome or a gardening manual, a team of people will be waiting in the wings, ready to be deployed at each stage to ensure that the book that comes off the press is the best possible package it can be.

1. The initial edit

If you’ve been signed by a traditional publishing house you’re likely to spend a number of weeks working with the editor who commissioned the project to ensure the text is in the best shape to fit their – and your – vision for the publication. The level of editing required will depend entirely upon the text, but generally speaking a structural edit will look at big-picture issues like plot, characterisation and voice (for fiction) or content, argument and organisation (for non-fiction), while a line edit might focus on finer points of language, style and meaning.

2. Project management

Once everyone is happy with the edited manuscript, the commissioning editor will hand it over to the person responsible for managing the editorial production process, sometimes called a project editor. (Many publishing houses have a dedicated department solely responsible for shepherding authors and manuscripts through these stages, though not all: sometimes the work will be handled by another member of the commissioning team.) At this stage, the fundamental details of the book package such as format, binding and, crucially, publication date should have been discussed and agreed upon, so that the project editor knows the parameters they are working within and what the end result should look like.

3. The copyedit

Nowadays most publishers have a pool of freelance copyeditors with a range of specialisms and expertise, and a project editor’s first step is to commission and brief a copyeditor in advance of receiving the edited manuscript. Where the structural edit focused on the macro, the copyedit drills into the detail of the text, and a good copyeditor will pick up on errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and style, any lingering plot or timeline inconsistencies, and phrases or passages that jump out as being awkward or anachronistic. (They may also perform some fact-checking tasks if required, but this varies from publisher to publisher so it’s worth checking if it’s not clear what services are on offer.) The copyeditor can have a real impact on the shape of the manuscript, but their job is to enhance the existing text, not to be unnecessarily interventionist or interfere with the authorial voice, and the author should always have the opportunity to see – and contest, if necessary – any changes that are made or suggested. As with the structural edit, there can be several rounds of communication as queries and responses go back and forth between copyeditor and author. It’s also an opportunity to make final amendments to the manuscript before it becomes more difficult to do so, as we’ll see later on.

4. Page design

Meanwhile, the interior book design will be taking shape behind the scenes. A designer will be briefed to produce a bespoke template for typesetting the manuscript based on the book’s content, length and desired style (a book on business management will have a very different design to a novel, an academic journal or an art publication). The project editor and designer take into account how text- or image-led the book will be and whether it will contain any integrated illustrations, maps or diagrams. Other elements to consider include typefaces, number of lines per page, margin size, displayed text (such as lists or verse), chapter- and sub-headings, running heads and page numbers. All of this affects how the text is set on the page and the length of the book – so it’s important that these details are thrashed out and set in stone early on in the process to avoid substantial changes later on, which can be time-consuming and costly. The text design should be completely finalised before the book is ready to be typeset.

5. Typesetting

Now that the manuscript is copyedited and the book has a text design, things can start to come together. The design specifications and manuscript are sent to a typesetter, who will run the text through a specialist typesetting programme such as InDesign. If there are any images to be integrated onto the page rather than printed separately in an insert, they should be supplied now to avoid having to disrupt the text later (though if they’re not yet available, placeholders will do just as well for now). The InDesign files are then converted to PDFs to produce the first page proofs. Typesetting can take anything from a week to a month, and as it is almost always undertaken by an external party with their own schedules to consider, the project editor needs to stay on top of timings, coordinating with colleagues who might be chomping at the bit for typeset pages to use for marketing purposes. It’s an exciting moment when the first proofs arrive, as it’s now that things really begin to take shape and gather momentum, and what used to be a humble Word document finally starts to look like a real book.

6. Proofreading

This is your chance to check that your proofs look as you expected, and that the text is as error-free as possible. Making changes gets a little more complex now: from this point on, all editorial work is done on the page, with corrections marked up directly on a hard copy (or on screen using Adobe’s editing tools), or listed with page and line references. The crucial point is that they must correspond to the PDF rather than any previous word-processing versions. Substantial changes can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the text by causing it to reflow, so strictly speaking the proofreading stage is for correcting errors and making smaller changes, rather than adding or removing large chunks of text. The proofs are also sent out to a professional proofreader who reads them over thoroughly for inconsistencies, residual errors and typesetting no-nos such as bad word breaks, widows and orphans, tight or loose lines and unintentional blank space. The project editor will then collate your changes with the proofreader’s, and a master set of marked-up proofs goes back to the typesetter for taking in. When the revised proofs arrive with the editor, they’ll check each correction has been made, reading around it to ensure no new typesetting errors have been introduced. Any further corrections go back and forth between typesetter and editor in this way until the proofs are completely clean.

7. Images

While all this work is happening on the text, we also need to consider the picture situation. You’ll probably have an idea of what illustrative material (if any) you want to include, and you should be guided by your publisher as to what will best fit your style of publication. Will there be photographs, artists’ illustrations, maps or diagrams? Will they be integrated or printed as separate inserts (plate sections)? Whatever is decided, the images will need to be researched, high resolution files sourced, and any copyright permissions cleared (and it’s a good idea to check whose responsibility it is to cover this work, as this can vary). Some publishers use freelance picture researchers for hard-to-source images, and a project editor will often be very involved at this stage, working with you on image selection, briefing designers and typesetters on the order and size of the images and engaging a reprographic house to ensure that image quality and colour is retained when the book is printed.

8. Indexing

Not all books call for an index, but if yours does, then this is usually the final piece of the jigsaw. The text needs to be almost-final before it’s indexed: if a last-minute change affects the book’s line or page flow, whole sections of the index can suddenly be thrown off as entries no longer match their listings – this is difficult to fix and therefore to be avoided at all costs! Indexing is a highly specialist skill and, again, most publishers have a pool of experienced indexers on their books. You should get the chance to check your index when it’s delivered if you wish to, although your project editor will also read it carefully both before and after typesetting for spelling and accuracy, and to ensure that entries are appropriate and lines are correctly indented.

9. Final checks

The end is now in sight: the index and any last-minute corrections have been added and checked, high-res images are in place with captions added and proofread, copyright permissions are all accounted for and the text is final and proofs clean. Your editor will then triple-check the final proofs for text and image placement, cropping and colour. They’ll also have been working with the design team throughout the cover design process (which runs parallel to the book’s interior production process). When the time comes to press ‘print’, the final cover will be extra thoroughly proofread by several people, including your editor, to make sure there are no glaring errors, the copy is accurate, and that small but crucial information like the price, ISBN and publisher logos are present and correct. Final checks are one of the most crucial parts of the whole process – it’s tempting to think the job’s finished, but it has been known for heinous errors to be missed right up until the last moment. Far better to catch them now than after several hundreds or even thousands of copies have been printed!

10. E-book conversion

Congratulations – your book is on press! In the agonising wait before copies arrive, your project editor will be performing the last task in the editorial production process: turning it into an e-book. For text-led books this is a simple case of converting the final PDF files into whichever e-book format is required by your publisher or sales platform. For illustrated books things can sometimes get a little scrambled in the conversion process, and careful briefing is required to make sure illustrations appear alongside the text to which they correspond (especially important for the likes of cookbooks or travel guides). Some design features of the physical book might also be lost, but while things like special fonts and decorations can be retained by converting them into fixed images, this isn’t actually all that desirable, as it renders useless the built-in features that make e-books more accessible to print-impaired readers, such as adjustable display and text-to-speech software. So don’t be alarmed if your e-book looks quite different to the printed version: by its nature the format makes it an altogether different product.

You can find out more about Lottie and her work by visiting her Twitter page and blog.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.