Half Baked: A Publishing Recipe

Is most of your writing only half-baked? It’s easy to get distracted with all the wonderful topics to write about, and many of us have manuscripts that are still rising on shelves in the garage. That being said, it’s sometimes nice to go through the steps of what happens when a book does in fact make it all the way to publication. Here is a basic recipe detailing the steps that are required in creating a fully baked book:

For a first time author, a book usually starts with a completed, edited manuscript for fiction, or a proposal and sample content for non-fiction. Published authors can sometimes sell novels on proposal, but not usually. Best practices suggest that unpublished authors should try and find a literary agent, once their manuscript is ready for submission. Few publishers accept work directly from authors sans representation, and a good agent can greatly aid a manuscript’s success rate.

After a literary agent has taken on a manuscript, they then send it to editors at different publishing houses. The literary agent targets the submissions to the publishing houses that they feel are most appropriate for the book. The editors take a look at the project, and if it’s something they are interested in they will share it with their colleagues to determine the level of interest. If the editor receives word that they can move forward with the manuscript, they will send an offer to the literary agent.

The submission process can take anywhere from weeks to months (or even years), depending on how long it takes to find an interested editor. An offer may include advances and / or royalties. Sometimes the offer may even be a contract for several books. If more than one editor is interested, there may even be a bidding war situation to determine which publisher can create the best offer. When the terms have been agreed upon and the author accepts an offer, the publisher will send a contract to the literary agent. The literary agency may have a contracts expert review the fine print and negotiation points. Once the contract has been signed, it’s time for the author to get writing (if the book was only sold on a proposal).
Little Chefs

Once the manuscript is completed (non-fiction), or after the contract is signed (fiction), the editor will usually send a letter recommending changes to the manuscript. These changes are more or less negotiable, but authors usually follow the recommendations of editors. After all of the recommended changes have been made and the manuscript is deemed ready to go, it is copy edited. Spelling and grammatical errors are corrected. The pages are laid out to show what the book will look like. The author reviews the different versions of the completed manuscripts. The publisher works on the design of the book (including cover, trim size, font, paper type, and other details).

The editor manages the process of having marketing experts write copy for the publisher’s catalog, come up with the cover details, create buzz, and launch marketing plans. Several months before the book’s publication, sales specialists will coordinate with their bookstore partners and take book orders. This part of the process helps determine how many copies of the book will be printed. The agent might oversee this process to verify everything is on track. It usually takes a year or more for the publication process to go from finished manuscript to book for purchase. It can be fast tracked if it is an especially hot project, but the process usually requires quite a bit of lead time. When the publication date arrives, the book goes on sale. The book is now available to customers, and the customers often take it from there. Positive feedback, great reviews, and word of mouth are still some of the best forms of marketing. After that, the author is launched into instant literary stardom (or not). The author then writes a second book and the process repeats.

Hopefully this recipe for completing a half-baked book has been helpful – and now, I’d better get back in the kitchen.

The Tough Critique

My best friend of more than 30 years was one of the first people to read a draft of my manuscript. I packaged all 299 pages in an envelope, mailed them 1,500 miles to her home and then chewed my nails ragged while I waited for her response.

I stalled for what I considered the proper amount of time. And then finally I couldn’t bear it any longer. I picked up the phone and dialed her number.

“Soooo…what did you think?” I blurted when she answered. I tried not to sound desperate and sweaty. “Do you like the book? Have you finished it? What do you think so far? Seriously, you can tell me the truth. I mean it!”

I waited.

Silence lay heavy, like a suffocating blanket suddenly strewn over the vast plains between us .

“Well…” She hesitated. A dull ache began to gnaw in the pit of my stomach.

“Well…to be honest, I, um, I put it down, and I’m having trouble picking it back up again,” she offered quietly.

“What? What?! Are you kidding me? You’re having trouble picking it back up again? What does that mean? Are you saying my book is boring or something?! What, like Reader’s Digest boring? Like Henry James boring? Like iphone manual boring?!”

I didn’t actually say those things aloud, of course. My actual response went more like this:

“Okay.”

 Deep, shaky exhale.

“Okay, so tell me more. What exactly is the problem? Can you be more specific? Which part is bogging you down? Does it go awry at any particular point, or is the whole thing giving you trouble?”

During that difficult conversation I learned that Andrea had enjoyed a lot of the manuscript, especially the anecdotes, which comprised the meat of the memoir. But when she got to the sections that delved into Biblical instruction, she lost interest.

I give her credit for her honesty and courage. Although Andrea knew exactly how important this writing endeavor was to me and exactly how insecure and fearful I was, she told the hard truth because she knew in the long run that it was important that I hear it. (Granted, she could have phrased it a bit more delicately. Then again, I did hound her like a salivating Saint Bernard). 

But I admit, it was a hard truth to swallow. And even though we had a fruitful and constructive conversation, and she didn’t deem the whole book an abysmal failure, when I got off the phone that afternoon I felt a weight on my chest like a stack of crumbling bricks. What’s more, I didn’t take her advice – I made none of the changes she suggested.

The funny thing was, in the end, she was right.

A year later, when I paid a professional editor to review my manuscript, guess what he advised? That’s right: he suggested I cut all the instructional sections woven into the book because they “interrupted the flow of the story.” And later, when Rachelle Gardner accepted me as  client, she admitted that the book wouldn’t have appealed to her, had it included all the Biblical analysis and instruction.

Andrea had been spot-on in her observations, and she had been honest, courageous and diplomatic in her critique. The real problem was that I simply hadn’t been ready to listen.

Let’s chat:  How do you decide who critiques early drafts of your writing? Have you ever received a negative critique from a friend? How do you balance a critiquer’s opinion with your own ideas? How do you know when you are ready to have your writing critiqued?