Article of The Month

The Publishing Journey– Mass-Market Fiction

Copyright 1999 by Alicia Rasley

So what exactly does "publication" mean in the mass-market fiction arena?

Here's my experience with four different publishers, three major NY publishers (the ones who publish most of the paperbacks in the bookstore) and one small press you never heard of.

The Steps on Your Journey to Publication:

PART ONE– The Sale

1. You send in a proposal or manuscript to the editor you want to sell to. If you have an agent, you send it to the agent and the agent sends it to the editor with a cover letter saying how terrific the book is.

2. Somewhere between a week and a year later, the editor decides she wants to buy it. (That's if you've been kissed by the gods. Otherwise she sends it back with a polite rejection.) Depending on her level of authority, she can either make you an offer, or she'll have to take it higher up, maybe to an "acquisition meeting". Sometimes a senior editor will have to read the book and say yes too.

3. If it's still a "yes", then she'll probably call you (or your agent, if you have one). You scream silently, jump up and down, then calmly (right!) ask for the terms, the prospective release date, the amount of advance. You write all this down and say, "Thank you-- I'll get back with you tomorrow." If you have an agent, the agent will be the one who calls and will explain the contract offer to you. Then you call ALL your friends and tell them. Then your spouse takes you out for an expensive dinner and you split a bottle of champagne.

4. If you don't have an agent to help you understand the contract, you call a very savvy friend and tell her what the terms offered are.
She'll probably tell you if the advance (generally the term we consider the most important-- the $) is more or less standard for a first book with that publisher. She'll also probably know if the royalty is standard (should be 6-8% of the cover price for a print edition, but a couple major pubs offer only 4%, though they can sometimes be bumped up to 6%; any lower than that and they're trying to take advantage of your newbie status).

The advance is the upfront money that they pay to you BEFORE the book is released.

Usually you will get half of this amount on "signing", that is, when you sign the contract (actually, it's on the order of a couple months after you sign the contract for some publishers; they like to pretend it takes that long to issue a check, and here you have already got the Visa bill for that expensive celebration dinner and that bottle of Dom Perignon!).

You get the other half when you "deliver the manuscript", that is, when you make any requested changes and the manuscript is judged acceptable by the editor. I have heard of the advance broken into thirds-- 1/3rd on signing, 1/3rd on manuscript acceptance, and 1/3rd at publication, but that's obviously not as writer-friendly, so try to get the halves.

5. So... back to the editor and phone call. You call the editor back. (If you have an agent, the agent will do this-- it's not quite kosher for you to deal with the editor before signing the contract, if the agent is doing her job.) You might try to negotiate the advance up a bit.

You try to get the best contract terms as you can, like a narrow option clause (the option clause lets them have "first refusal" on your next book, so you want to make that only on your next "55,000 word traditional cozy mystery" instead of the self-help book you're writing on the side, the cookbook you're co-authoring, and the travel guide you're already submitting to another house. You will likely do this negotiation with the editor, but sometimes it's with a contracts person. While most publisher contracts favor the publisher, the most onerous clauses can often be modified. But that's another article.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. You get something sort of like a decent contract, or what passes as a decent contract in publishing, but makes people in other businesses choke, and you sign it and send it in. The important person there-- the editor or contract person-- will sign for the publisher and send you a copy back. Keep this copy. (It becomes important seven years later when you want to get back the rights to the book to resell.) Then within a few weeks, hopefully, they issue the first half of the advance. You pay off that Visa bill. :)

They'll usually give you a firm publication date now. It will usually be about a year from contract signing.

PART TWO– The Revision

6. Rather soon you will get The Revision Letter. This is what your editor (now called the Main Editor to distinguish from the copy editor or line editor still to come) will send you along with the manuscript when she's read it closely again.

If you're lucky, you get a letter that says, "Love the book-- could you fix the sentence frag on page 20?"
But usually she'll have several suggestions for revisions, some big, some small... and, uh, "suggestions" is a polite euphemism for "fix this or else." This might be anguishing. Sometimes the revisions make the book worse; more often they make it better, but the author (I know from personal experience!) probably won't recognize that for a year or so.

I have to tell you that authors who refuse to revise books at the editor's request seldom become successful. The publisher can drop the book entirely if you refuse to produce "an acceptable manuscript" (that is, do the revisions). Then you'd forfeit the rest of the advance. Theoretically, they could sue to get the first half back, but that seldom happens. You'll also likely get a reputation for being difficult to work with. And to tell you the truth, the sort of inflexibility that says "I won't change a word" is going to make it hard to work in what has become a collaborative process between you and the publisher. So if you're thinking that these revisions are insane and you won't do them, take some time here. Let a friend read the book and the revision letter. If the editor makes suggestions that you think are wrong, see if you can fix the problem she sees in some way that works for you. There's more than this book at stake– it's your whole prospective career on the line.

It's also possible that the revisions don't satisfy the editor. This sometimes happens if the editor who bought it moved on, and you suddenly hear from someone you've never heard of before, telling you she doesn't like your book and can't imagine why it was purchased. In that case, often they let you keep the whole advance but don't publish the book, but in the worst-case scenario (remember the Joan Collins case?), they sue to recover the advance-- a very ugly situation, and fortunately very rare.

But usually you get the letter and do the revisions, perhaps talking through it in a phone call with the editor. Now something that's important to ME here is-- the editor should let the author do the revisions. The editor can point out the problems and make suggestions, but the author does the work. The book should remain yours. An editor who wants to make the revisions herself.. well, she's interfering more than she should in YOUR writing. Insist on making the changes yourself. If she makes changes you don't like, change them to what answers her complaints but is still YOURS.

7. Then the manuscript is accepted and goes into "Production"-- it gets a concrete release date, and the artist starts working on a cover, and the editor or publicist or "blurb writer" gets going on the jacket and promotion copy (so that these can get into the publisher's catalog, which comes out six months or so ahead of the release month).

Once you've turned the manuscript back in, it goes to the copy editor. Copy editors range from terrific to terrible, and every house seems to employ a number of each variety.

So make sure you get the copy-edited manuscript back... not just the "galleys" or "proofs" (which is the typeset book AFTER the copy edits are inserted). You want to see what the copy editor did right there on your own pages. (It's always a good idea to try to get this as a contract clause -- "Author will see copy-edited manuscript before typesetting" because once it's set and you get the galleys, it costs a lot to make substantial changes.) You have to let the copy editor do his job, but watch out for when he tries to do YOURS, like add paragraphs, or insert dialogue. The copy editor should be concerned with fixing grammar mistakes and querying any fact problems, like "Are you sure that John Lennon needs to be in this scene? He died in 1980." (The historically savvy copy editor can be invaluable with historical novels, and if you have a historical, you might ask the main editor specifically for a "historical copy editor".)

Sometimes the copy editor will rewrite a line or two to make it clearer. But I draw the line at more than that-- if a paragraph is muddy, I want to be the one to make it better. Now, you don't pay for this editing-- that's the publisher's responsibility.

8. When you get the copy-edited manuscript back, you check and see what horrors the copy editor has committed (like the one who put "neurotic" into the mouth of my 1812 hero), or what blessings she has bestowed. If you don't like some of the changes, you can call the main editor and argue through it-- it often helps to have an alternative "fix". Copy editors are always taking out my commas, and I generally manage to put them back, but the main editor usually has to approve. Then you send the copy-edited manuscript back. (This manuscript is getting VERY dogeared. You might make a copy of it so that all those changes aren't lost if something happens in transit.)

PART THREE– Production

9. If you're lucky, the editor might call you to ask about the cover. Or you might be sent an "art sheet" where you note down the hero and heroine's hair color, eye color. I find it sometimes helps to provide a picture if the hero is a soldier (I am a STICKLER for proper uniforms for Regency military officers-- no red-coated Hussars for me!), but usually you're lucky if they get the hair more or less right. I remember one book where the heroine was a brunette in the book, a blonde on the cover, and "flame-haired" on the jacket copy... not mine, fortunately.

The editor will send you a copy of the cover proof when the artist is done. You will probably then call your friends and weep loudly about the simpy heroine and the hero who looks like Frankenstein's monster. Alas, there is little that we mere authors can do about a bad cover, but you might register a complaint about that red-coated Hussar. The editor won't be able to do much, but at least she'll know that the art director screwed up again.

10. Next to come is the jacket copy-- that blurb that goes on the back cover. Again, be sure and register any errors. Often you CAN get those changed. I mean real errors, like the hero having the wrong name and the heroine being an accountant when in the book she's a beautician. Also be wary of blurbs that tell too much about the plot secrets. (My illegitimate hero was "outed" as a bastard in the jacket copy... and it was supposed to be a secret.) Plain old lousy copy probably is there for good, but often the editor will go to bat if the blurb-writer made a for-real mistake.

You might, somewhere in here, be asked to supply a dedication for the dedication page, but usually only if they have room for it in the book. You should also have a short bio and maybe a photo ready, as they often put that on the inside of the cover. If you want to get fan mail, put your email address in the bio. (You might, for safety and convenience, set up a separate email account just for this purpose.)

11. Galleys come next-- those are the typeset pages. You're just supposed to proofread these for typoes. But you can usually also fix all those little mistakes you've found after further research (ha! you had a red-coated Hussar, did you?) as long as they don't add up to very much. They supposedly charge you if you make changes to over 10% of the copy, but I've never actually heard of anyone doing that. Then the galleys (also called proofs) go back to the editor.

12. About a month or so before the book comes out, you should get a box of books-- the free author's copies. If you don't, call and insist on them. Your mother wants one, remember. Be sure and save 10 copies for any contests you might want to enter, and another dozen or so for posterity-- mass-market paperbacks tend to disappear, and if you don't keep a few, the book will vanish from the earth except for some inaccessible Keeper Shelves. You can usually get 25-50 free, and buy more at 40% off.

Then, when you least expect it, someone will email you and tell you she SAW YOUR BOOK AT WALDENS!!!!!

That's the basic voyage. I didn't deal with promotion, but that's enough for today. What's important is... the money goes only ONE WAY: From publisher to YOU. You never pay anything. Even if you are told to fed ex the galleys back, the publisher is supposed to reimburse you for the expense. (Don't hold your breath.)

Go to previous articles:

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook:

The Story Within Writing Series

The Story Within Guidebook

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