Young musician: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Maestro: Practice, practice, practice.
Author: How do you produce an excellent book?
Editor: Process, process, process.
Yes, it’s an old joke, but it’s true. A quality book the author is proud to have his name on is the result of a rigorous process with many steps and hand offs. A book with errors of fact or grammar, or a disorganized book, or a poorly written book, or a book that doesn’t contain all the information it’s supposed to, or… is usually the result of a failure in one of these steps. Such a breakdown in the process is often due to a lack of time. Quality must be baked into the process from step 1.
This means it’s critical that the book’s production be planned to allow enough time for each step, and it’s also critical that each person complete their work on the book by the date on the timeline. If a deadline is missed upstream in the process, then every successive step happens under a time crunch, and quality can suffer. Furthermore, when a step isn’t executed well, a sloppier product is handed off to the next step—a step not designed to handle a product that messy. Thus, a cascading effect occurs, and even if everyone down the line does their best and more than their best, the end result is less than optimal.
A publisher slates a book for release on a certain date. It’s taking up a slot in the production process—that is, resources have been allocated to its production that aren’t being given to another book. Also, marketing begins and is centered on the launch date. Thus, the release date should only be pushed back in the direst of circumstances. There’s a self-publishing analog to this: the author needs the book to come out by a certain date, perhaps before a certain conference where he’s going to promote the book or in conjunction with the launch of a new business.
Here’s a chain of events I’ve seen. Maybe the author doesn’t complete the manuscript on time. This is often because writing a book takes a lot of hours and people who have enough to say to fill a book are generally very busy even before they add writing a book to their plate. Alternatively, Life with a capital L may have gotten in the way of writing. Or maybe the author submits the manuscript on time but the acquiring editor doesn’t look at it for a while—often the editor is buried in work and doing the best she can.
The manuscript needs more work, but there’s no time for that. To get the book back on track, someone proposes that “the copyeditor can fix it,” and the manuscript is forwarded to copyediting. Sometimes the copyeditor is also asked to turn around the edit quickly because the book is behind schedule. This editor does the best she can, but copyediting happens primarily on the paragraph and sentence level. Bigger issues will probably go unaddressed in the interests of making sure the grammar, spelling, punctuation, references, figure numbering, chapter cross-references, style tagging for layout, and a hundred other things are correct.
Something else can happen at this point that causes quality issues. Since the author turned in the manuscript, he’s had a chance to rethink the book, and as he’s reviewing the copyeditor’s work, he realizes he wants to say things differently or say different things. What comes back to the copyeditor isn’t a response to the copyedit but instead is a heavily rewritten manuscript. Either the time and money need to be invested to copyedit it again, or it’s given a light read and passed through to layout with the hope that “the proofreader can fix it.” Another thing that sometimes happens is that after the manuscript goes through copyedit, another in-house editor has a chance to review it, realizes it would benefit from a major rewrite, and requests this from the author. The rewritten manuscript is then never copyedited because there isn’t the time or the budget.
The book is laid out in pages, and now it’s the proofreader’s turn. At this point, changes should be minor because (a) changes are harder and more expensive to make in laid-out pages than in a word processing document and (b) larger changes disrupt page layout, which then needs to be fixed. Publishing houses have usually explained this clearly to authors, but self-publishing authors don’t always realize that the time for major changes is past unless they want to back up in the process, pay more money, and delay their publication date. However, if the copyedit was sloppy for whatever reason or if the book underwent revision after the copyedit, the proofreader has to give the pages a heavy markup. The proofreader may not have allotted time for this much work. Also, the compositor has to make all those changes, which then need to be reviewed, and maybe there isn’t time for the multiple rounds of review necessary for human eyes (to err is human after all) to catch every error. The book is right up against its deadline now!
Don’t let your book meet this fate. Make sure your editing team has a strong sense of process and that you understand the timeline for your book. Make sure you also understand the purpose of each step in the process so you’re not caught by surprise when an editor says, “It’s too late to make those changes.” Do your part to meet your deadlines. If your editors seem to be delayed, feel free to query the status of your book and whether it’s on schedule. By following a methodical process and staying on schedule, you and your editors will produce a book you’re all proud of.