The Publishing Process

27th July 2012
12 min read
20th January 2021

To someone who has never worked in publishing, seeing a manuscript transformed into a book can seem almost magical.

Bill Swainson

In reality the process is fairly straightforward, but there is real magic in the way that different departments work together to give each book the best possible chance of success. Bill Swainson, former Senior Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury and now editor-at large for non-fiction at Oneworld explains the process.

Let’s imagine a medium-sized publishing house that’s big enough to have a fairly clear division of roles, and I’ll talk you through the different stages of a book’s journey as it metamorphoses from a typescript or digital file into a brand-new book on a bookshop’s shelves and or an e-book in an etailer’s catalogue.

Acquiring a book

Every publishing company acquires its books from similar sources, such as literary agents, publishers in other countries, direct commissions from editors to authors and, very occasionally, from unsolicited proposals taken from what is known unceremoniously as the ‘slush pile’.

The in-house selection process goes something like this:

  • The commissioning editor finds a book from among his or her regular weekly reading and makes a case for taking on a book at an ‘acquisitions meeting’, which is attended by all the other departments directly involved in publishing the book, including sales, marketing, publicity and rights.
  • Lively discussions follow and final decisions are determined from a mixture of commercial good sense (estimated sales figures, likely production costs and author’s track record) and taste – and every company’s and every editor’s preferences are different.

Getting the word out

Shortly after a book has been acquired, the commissioning editor will draft an ‘advance information’ sheet. This is the earliest attempt to harness the excitement that led to the book being signed, and it contains all the basic information needed by the rest of the company, including the title, ISBN, format, extent (number of pages), price, rights holder, sales points, quotes about previous books, short blurb and biographical note. It is the first of many pieces of ‘copy’ that will be written about the book, and will be used as the template for all the others, such as a catalogue entry, jacket blurb or press release.

A structural edit

As soon as the text arrives in the editorial department, it receives a ‘structural edit’. In the case of a novel, this involves the commissioning editor looking at everything from the book’s structure and narrative pacing to characterisation and general style; in the case of non-fiction, it also means considering whether illustrations, appendices, bibliography, notes and an index may be needed.


Next comes the copy editing. This is designed to catch all the errors and inconsistencies in the text, from spelling and punctuation to facts, figures and tics of style. In some publishing houses this work is increasingly done on-screen, but a significant proportion of editors prefer to work direct on the typescript because they and their authors find it is easier to spot changes on paper, and see where decisions have been made along the way.

Once the copy-edit is finished, the author will be asked to answer any queries that may have arisen. When the commissioning editor, copy-editor and author are happy that the marked-up typescript is in the best possible shape, it is sent to the production department for design and typesetting.

Design & Typesetting

Long before they receive the typescript, designers will have got to work on the book’s cover or jacket. It’s crucial to get this right, if only because most (if not all) buying decisions are made before the book is printed. Up until that time, the cover is the book – it influences the trade buyers and, ultimately, it’s one of the most important factors in encouraging customers to pick up the book and pay for it at the till.

When the production department is sent the final typescript, it will draft a brief known as a ‘type specification’ or ‘spec’. The spec may be created specifically for an individual book or a series spec will be used to give the latest volume the same look and feel as its predecessors.

The typescript is then usually despatched to an out-of-house typesetter to be turned into page proofs. Meanwhile, the production manager (working with the commissioning editor and the designer) will choose the binding materials and any embellishments, such as headband, coloured or printed endpapers, or marker ribbon. He or she will also decide the print run (based on advance sales and track record) and place an order with the printer.

Ironing out the glitches

When the book has been typeset, the proofs normally shuttle back and forth in three stages.

  • First proofs are read by the author and a proofreader. This is the last chance an author gets to make amendments.
  • Second proofs, or ‘revises’, are checked against the collated first proofs and any last-minute queries are attended to. If an index is needed, it is compiled at this stage.
  • The changes to the ‘revises’ result in third proofs which, in a perfect world, are checked against the second proofs and passed for press. Once in a while this actually happens!
  • eBooks benefit from all these processes, but then need their own special ones because electronic text that can be reflowed in different fonts and sizes according to the reader’s preference and the capability of their eReader, mean that slightly different rules apply. The process is known in-house as ‘qa’ (quality assurance) and it involves checking the electronic file against the print version for any errors that may have crept in during the conversion process.

Going to press

Most publishing companies use only a few printers, with whom they are used to negotiating. A key role of the production department is to buy print at a rate that allows each tightly-budgeted book to make money and – just as importantly – to manage the supply of reprints so that the publisher’s warehouse is never short of stock. In the case of the eBook, distribution to various eTailers is the equivalent.


‘Selling in’ in the home market (Britain and Ireland) is increasingly done by key account managers working with the chain buyers, as well as by a team of sales representatives. The reps visit bookshops in their designated area and try to achieve the sales targets set for each book. The number of copies sold pre-publication is known as the subscription sale, or ‘sub’.

Selling books effectively to bookshops, supermarkets, other retailers and Internet stores takes time and careful planning. The British and Irish book trade has developed in such a way that the sales cycle has extended to cover the best part of a year.

Many sales are also made in-house by phone, email and fax and the World Wide Web. Most publishers have their own websites and provide customers with the opportunity to buy their books either directly, or from another bookselling website.

Export sales are achieved using teams of international agents and reps run from in-house by the export sales department. Here format, discount, royalty rates, shipping, and exchange rates are the key components. The margins are much tighter and it requires a lot of skill and chutzpah to generate significant sales and then to maintain a successful international presence.

Just like print sales, eBook sales come through a mixture of marketing, publicity, word of mouth and on-line promotion.


The marketing department is arguably the engine room of the sales department. It’s responsible for originating all the sales material, which is normally produced by in-house designers. This includes catalogues, order forms, ‘blads’ (literally ‘book layout and design’ – illustrated sales material), ‘samplers’ (booklets containing tantalising extracts), posters, book proofs (bound reading proofs) and advertisements. Much of this work is now done through websites and social media, and takes the form of blogs, viral publicity and tweets, whether a book is being published in print or electronically or both.

The marketing team works alongside the sales department when dealing directly with the big bookshops on special promotions and selections that are now a common feature of the larger chains (‘Book of the Month’, ‘Buy one get one half price’, etc) and with eBook promotions via Amazon, Applestore, Kobo and others.

The department also prepares the advertising for the trade, such as the post-publication press advertising that, along with reviews and other publicity, entices customers into the shops to buy a particular book. It also organises the company sales conferences at which the new season’s publishing is presented for the first time to the sales reps and overseas agents. The run-up to the sales conference and the event itself is an exciting time and stimulates many of the best ideas on how to sell the new books.


The publicity department works with the author and the media on ‘free’ publicity with the emphasis on the ‘sell through’. This covers reviews, features, author interviews, bookshop readings and signings, festival appearances, book tours and radio and television interviews and so on.

For each author and their book, the publicity department devises a campaign that will play to the book’s or the author’s strengths. For instance, best use will be made of written features or radio interviews for authors who are shy in public, just as full advantage will be made of public appearances for those authors who thrive on the thrill of showmanship.

In short, the publicist’s careful work (which like much of publishing is a mixture of inspiration, enthusiasm, efficient planning and flexibility) is designed to get the best results for each individual author and title.

The Rights Department

It is the aim of this department to make the best use of all the rights that were acquired when the contract was first negotiated between publisher and author or the author’s agent.

While literary agents are understandably keen to handle foreign and serial rights, many publishing houses have well-developed rights departments with good contacts and are also well placed to sell the rights of a book. Selling rights is very varied and includes anything from dealing with requests for film or television rights, the sale of translation rights to other countries, or serial rights to a newspaper, to smaller permission requests to reprint a poem or an extract. All are opportunities to promote the book and earn additional income for author and publisher, and at the time of first publication the rights, sales, marketing and publicity departments all work closely together.

Book fairs are key venues for the sale of foreign rights. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October and at the London Book Fair in April, publishers and agents from all participating countries meet to form a rights ‘bazaar’. Here, editors have the opportunity to hear about and buy new books from publishing houses all over the world.


Paperbacks are published approximately a year after the original publication. Paperback publishing is a key part of publishing today, and efforts are made to identify and broaden the likely market (readership) for a book, making sure that the cover and presentation will appeal to a wide audience. It’s important to be creative and position an author’s books in the marketplace where they can be best seen, bought and read.


Every successful business needs a good finance department. Most publishing houses split the work into two areas – purchase ledger and royalties. Purchase ledger deals with all incoming invoices associated with the company’s business. The royalties department deals exclusively with author advances (payable on acquisition, and on delivery or publication of a book) and with keeping account of the different royalty percentages payable on book sales, serial deals, film rights, permissions, etc. This is done so that both author and agent can see that an accurate record has been kept against the day when the book earns back its advance (the point at which the royalties earned equal the advance paid) and the author starts earning additional income.

A special business

Publishing is a business, and commercial considerations will be apparent in every department; but it is a very special kind of business that frequently breaks many of the accepted rules and often seems to make no sense at all – just think of the hundreds of different lines, formats, price points and discounts! At times it shouldn’t work – but somehow, miraculously, it does.

Writing stage