Books Don’t Go From Author to Bookstore (as Explained by Diana Gabaldon)

I have to share these words from mega-successful author, Diana Gabaldon. As most of you would be aware, Diana is the hugely-talented acclaimed author of the Outlander series (among others). Her original classic Outlander novel was published thirty years, so I think it’s safe to say that Diana knows a thing or two or ten about the book publishing industry.

And as someone who is both a writer and bookseller, I wanted to share her words on how detailed (and time-consuming) the process is for a manuscript to go from author…to bookstore. I’ve chosen to share Diana’s words without any breaks in the bulk of her explanation, because that’s how I read it – barely taking a breath.

And here we go…

As my husband often remarks, “’FINISHED’ is a relative term to a writer.” This is true! I thought y’all might be interested in just what happens to a book after the writer is “finished” writing the manuscript: (NB: This is the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). When there’s a tight Production schedule—such as there was for MOBY and THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, Volume 2–a lot of these steps can be done concurrently, rather than sequentially, and a few repetitive steps may be skipped. But by and large, this is how it works.)

Books don’t go directly from the author to the bookstore. Books go from the author to the editor, who reads the manuscript, discusses the manuscript with the author, and suggests minor (we hope) revisions that may improve the bookB. The book goes back to the author, who re-reads the manuscript considers the editor’s comments, and makes whatever revisions, amendments, or clarifications seem right. The book goes back to the editor, who reads it again, asks any questions that seem necessary, and sends it to the copy-editor. This is a person whose thankless job is to read the manuscript one…word…at…a…time, find typos or errors in grammar, punctuation, or continuity (one heck of a job, considering the size not only of the individual books, but of the overall series), apply “house style” to things like numbers (e.g., do we write “two” or “2”?), and write queries to the author regarding anything questionable, whereupon the book comes back to the author—yes, again— who re-reads the manuscript answers the copy-editor’s queries, and alters anything that the copy-editor has changed that the author disagrees with, and adds things inspired by the copy-editor’s comments that seem like a good idea. After which, the author sends it back to the editor—yes, again!—who re-re-reads it, checks that all the copy-editor’s queries have been answered, and sends it to the typesetter (aka compositor, these days), who sets the manuscript in type, according to the format laid out by the book designer, who decides on the layout of the pages (margins, gutters, headers or footers, page number placement), chooses a suitable and attractive typeface, decides on the size of the font, leading and kerning, chooses or commissions any incidental artwork (endpapers, maps, dingbats—these are the little gizmos that divide chunks of text, but that aren’t chapter or section headings)—or, for something like the OC, a ton of miscellaneous illustrations, photographs, etc. that decorate or punctuate the text, designs chapter and section headings, with artwork, and consults with the (NB: people always want to know how many pages the book will be. This depends entirely on the book designer’s decisions, so there’s no telling ahead of time. The font, leading, kerning (leading and kerning are, respectively, the amount of space between lines and between letters) and page layout will all affect how many words fit on a page.) Then there’s the cover artist, who (reasonably enough) designs or draws or paints or Photoshops the cover art (this often happens earlier in the process, but I put it here for convenience), which is then sent to the printer, who prints the dust-jackets—which include not only the cover art and the author’s photograph and bio, but also “flap copy,” which may be written by either the editor or the author (I usually write my own), but is then usually messed about with by the marketing department, whose thankless task it is to try to figure out how best to sell a book that can’t reasonably be described in terms of any known genre, to which end, they try to provide seductive and appealing cover copy to the book (which the author normally approves. I usually insist on writing it myself), compose advertisements for the book (author usually sees and approves these—or at least I normally do), decide where such advertisements might be most effective (periodicals, newspapers, book-review sections, radio, TV, Facebook, Web), try to think up novel and entertaining means of promotion, such as having the author appear on a cooking show to demonstrate recipes for unusual foods mentioned in the book, kill a pigeon in Times Square and examine the entrails in order to determine the most advantageous publishing date for the book. OK. The manuscript itself comes back from the typesetter, is looked at (again) by the editor, and sent back to the author (again!), who anxiously proof-reads the galleys (these are the typeset sheets of the book; they look just like the printed book’s pages, but are not bound. (NB: of recent years, galleys are often provided in electronic form)), because this is the very last chance to change anything. Meanwhile (somewhere in here, recording begins on the audiobook, which is normally released at the same time as the hardcover. Ideally, the narrator is given a version of the manuscript that’s pretty close to the ultimate printed form, but they may get earlier or partial versions from which to prepare their performance (choosing accents and pacing for different characters, for instance).)) A number of copies of the galley-proofs are bound—in very cheap covers—and sent to (NB: This is SOP, but we haven’t been doing it for the last few books, owing to the fact that the book itself is coming out on the heels of production; there’s no time to distribute ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies).) (NB: These days, it’s often PDF’s, though paper ARCs are still used, too.)) The Reviewers, i.e., the bound galleys (or PDF’s) are sent (by the marketing people, the editor, and/or the author) to the book editors of all major newspapers and periodicals, blogs, website, and to any specialty publication to whom this book might possibly appeal, in hopes of getting preliminary reviews, from which cover quotes can be culled, and/or drumming up name recognition and excitement prior to publication. Frankly, they don’t always bother with this step with my books, because they are in a rush to get them into bookstores, and it takes several months’ lead-time to get reviews sufficiently prior to publication that they can be quoted on the cover. With luck, the author finds 99.99% of all errors in the galleys (you’re never going to find all of them; the process is asymptotic—vide the typo in the very last line of MOBY…), and returns the corrected manuscript (for the last time, [pant, puff, gasp, wheeze]) to the editor, who sends it to (the ebook coding happens somewhere in here) the printer, who prints lots of copies (“the print-run” means how many copies) of the “guts” of the book—the actual inside text—are printed. These are then shipped to the bindery, where the guts are bound into their covers, equipped with dust-jackets, and shipped to the distributors. There are a number of companies—Amazon is the largest, but there are a number of smaller ones, and the large publishing houses have their own warehouse facilities, too—whose business is shipping, distributing, and warehousing books. Arrangements are made in this phase for ebook distribution through retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, etc..) and bookstores, but bookstores can only house a limited number of books. Therefore, they draw on distributors’ warehouses to resupply a title that’s selling briskly, because it takes much longer to order directly from the publisher. And at this point, [sigh]…the book finally reaches you, the reader.

And we do hope you like it when you get it—because we’re sure God went to a lot of trouble to make it for you.

So there you have it. THAT’S why is takes sooo long for the next book in that series you’re hankering to read, to hit the bookshelves. Please don’t take it out on booksellers.

I think I’ll go lie down now.


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