How does a book get published?

The steps to publication:

1. You have to finish the book (this is the hardest part for a beginning writer).

2. Depending on the genre, you have to find an agent. You find an agent by following the next few steps after number 3.

3. You study the market and pay attention to the books you read. If you like books from one publisher, then the chances are that’s the publisher you’re going to want to publish with.

4. You write what’s called a query letter (if you look it up online, you can find tons of examples). I’d post one of mine, but honestly I stink at writing them. It’s usually a one page letter that tells the editor/agent what you’ve written, how long it is, why you think they should publish/represent it, and list all the qualifications you have for writing the book. Then you send that letter or email off to them. You get their addresses from either a writer’s group or you look up their submission guidelines on their websites. Follow those instructions to the exact letter. Do not deviate. They will tell you what they want and how they want it. They’re not joking.

5. You wait and wait and wait and wait for them to get back to you. If they send a rejection, repeat the steps above until you get a yes.

It can take an editor months, even years, to get back to you. The reason is, they are swamped. In addition to your manuscript, they have books that they’re editing that are in various stages of completion and publication, which I’ll explain below.

If you don’t have an agent, your manuscript is put into a slush pile with all the other unknown writers. Most editors only read from the slush pile one day a month. They read as many as they can. Hopefully, they’ll get to yours, but most likely they won’t. If you’re agented, it still doesn’t mean they’ll get to you faster. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not.

Let’s say that they do get to yours and they love it. The editor may need to get another opinion on the book, which can take weeks. Either way, the editor then takes the book to marketing to see if they think it has potential. If marketing approves, they call you to make an offer.

6. While you wait, educate yourself on publishing law and contracts by reading publishing law and contract books. Even the best agent in the world will miss something from time to time, and no one will ever put as much into your career as you do. So you owe it to yourself to understand contracts as they will control the rest of your publishing life.

7. When they call with an offer, take down their contact information and the terms they’re offering. DO NOT SAY YES! You sill be so excited, you have no idea what they’re saying or how it will affect you. Tell them, Thank you. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Let me look over this and I’ll get back to you.” Memorize that until it’s rote.

Hang up and scream. Call your friends and family. Celebrate and then look over the terms once you’re calm.

8. That first offer can be for as little as $500 (that’s what I received for my first book) or, if you’re really lucky, as much as $10,000. On rare occasions it’s more. But before you run out to spend it, remember you won’t get it in one lump sum. It can be spread out over years. Not to mention, Uncle Sam can take as much as half of it and your agent will take 15-20%. Most advertising for that book will also come out of your pocket.

Most writers get paid in 3-5 payments. Payment 1 is due on signing the contract (which can take as long as two years to finalize- yes, it’s happened to me. Normally it’s 4-16 weeks). Payment 2 is due when they accept the manuscript. That means that the editor has read it, then given you his or her comments on how to improve it. You work on it and then resend it to them. They read it again and if they don’t send it back again, they accept it. This can take a few weeks, but more likely a few months and as much as two years, too. Payment 3 comes after the book is published- usually 3-4 weeks once the book is on the shelf. This is the quickest one. So a three payment contract, even if it’s $10,000 can take as long as three to four years to get. Not a lot of money. Most of the time it’s two years.

The money you receive up front is called an advance. You won’t get anymore money unless you earn that back in sales. Remember, you only make about fifty cents a book, so you have to sell approximately 20,000 books to make that back. Sounds easy, right?

If only. First time print runs are usually around 10,000-15,000 copies which is why first time advances tend to be low, and most writers sell half of the books sent to the store. So in reality, a first time book will only earn $2500-$3750 for a first time book and your agent and Uncle Sam will take a big cut of that. I don’t want to scare you off, but I want you to be prepared for the reality of publishing. This is the cold hard truth.

The way print runs are set is that the publisher sends out their sales force to take orders from bookstores and other accounts that carry books. Those orders are what determine your print run. The publisher will then print 2-5% more than what was ordered so that if an account needs more books they can send them right away.

But I digress. If you have a larger advance or you sell hardcover, then the additional payments usually are: Payment 4 when the paperback comes out (usually one year after the hardcover) and Payment 5 is six months later.

If you don’t earn back your advance, it’s often the end of your career. Sometimes publishers will try with another book. But they won’t keep you long if your numbers don’t grow. Like any business, they can’t take a financial loss and still function.

9. Once the contract is negotiated and signed, which takes a few weeks to a few months, your assigned editor (normally the one who bought you) will then read the manuscript and make notes on it. It will be sent to you with a letter, detailing the corrections and changes the editor wants. They will give you a couple of weeks or months to do them.

10. You hand the book in again.

11. The editor reads is again. Sometimes there are more corrections or changes. Usually there isn’t. If there’s not, the editor sends in a request for author payment. BTW, if you have an agent, that payment is sent to them and they have to process it and then send you your portion of it which is one of the reasons it can take awhile to get a check. No one rushes your check through the system. There’s a joke in the business that most writers can write a book before a publisher can write a check.

12. The editor then sends the book to a copy editor who reads it and looks for inconsistencies, and grammar mistakes that you and your editor have missed.

13. Your editor has meetings with Art, Sales and Marketing to discuss the cover and how best to advertise and sell the book. They decide on the title. You will most likely never get to name a book. Sometimes it happens, but it is rare. Titles are assigned by the editor and/or marketing. Covers are decided by the editor and/or art. You *might* be consulted about either or both. Maybe. Even if it’s in your contract that they consult you about the cover, it doesn’t mean they will.

The cover will be sent to you. If they want your opinion, they will ask for it. They might listen and change it, but most times they won’t. At least not until you’re much further along in your career.

The same is true of the write up on the back and the title.

14. Once the copy editor has finished, you will be sent their comments and you will have to answer each and every query they’ve made. Some you will agree with, others will send you off into a Hulk style rage.

Yes, there are some copy editors who are incredible. Barbara who does my Dark-Hunter novels is a godsend- those are rare. Most will make you insane. I’m not sure how publishers hire CE’s, but some really shouldn’t be editing. I’ve had them insert mistakes into my books such as one who removed all the hyphens out of Dark-Hunter. She even removed it from the website address One took my pass code 6-6-0-5-0-3-1 and wrote it out. So the computer says, “Password?” and the hero answers, “Six million, six hundred and five thousand and thirty one.” Huh? Who talks like that? And yes, in spite of my telling them I wanted it taken it, the book was printed with that and I now look like an idiot.

You have a 50-50 chance that your corrections will be taken. And you are the one who will have to bear the angry and indignant letters from readers who think you’re stupid or that you didn’t do your research.

Some CE’s will go off on you and give you lectures. Most of the time when they do, it will be because they are the ones in error and yet they think they’re experts. I once had a CE tell me I knew nothing about Atlanta. Kind of interesting since I grew up there and all of my family still lives there. My favorite was the one who told me the way I described the actual car I drove was wrong and that my car didn’t have the factory features my car had. I could go on all day.

What will really make you crazy is that they often lecture on inconsequential matters and then let something major slip through their fingers. My favorite of all time was a book where I had a shapeshifter fighting the entire scene as a wolf. Then in the next paragraph, I had the comment that it was a shame he couldn’t take wolf form to fight. Er? Still not sure where my head was and how I missed it in my edits. But I felt better since the CE had missed it, too. Had I not caught it in galley form, it would have gone to press that way. Scary, right?

15. Once you’ve had a stroke and vented, and finished answering every query, you’ll send it back in to the publisher. Your editor and the production manager will then review it and make the changes (they also review the CE’s comments before you see them).

16. They will then put it into production. This is where the manuscript is formatted and laid out like it’s a book.

17. You will next receive what’s called a galley. These are the actual pages that will be bound into a book. And this is your last chance to make changes. But, you can’t make too many. Only those that are absolutely necessary as each change costs the publisher a lot of money. Your corrections are made with a colored pencil. Your editor will also review a set of galleys. Many authors will photocopy these pages and send them out to reviewers for advance comments. Sometimes the publisher will bind them into what’s called Advance Reader’s Copies (ARCs) or Review Galleys, and send them off to reviewers.

Once you’re finished, the original galley set, along with the style sheet that lists how things are to be formatted in the book and the characters who appear in it, are returned.

Your editor and the production manager will then be given a final set to review. You will not see the book again until it’s published. If you’re lucky, your editor will send you a copy as soon as it’s off the presses. You will dance and shout, and hold your baby for the first time.

18. Behind the scenes, your book is being boxed and then shipped to stores and warehouses. The electronic files are being converted and formatted into e-books.

19. Congrats, you’re now a published author. And with luck, you’ll be writing your next novel (which you probably started the minute you handed the first one in).

20. Once you’re further along in your career, you’ll be sent on tours. Though those are getting rarer and rarer, and may cease altogether if e-books take over the market, and as more and more bookstores close.

And in a nutshell, that’s how it all basically works.