April 22, 2007

The Process: Part I—Submission

How is it that a writer goes from putting their ideas to paper to holding their published book in their hands?

The first part of this lengthy (often multi-year) process is submitting a manuscript for consideration to an agent or publisher. (The pre-first part is writing and polishing up a full novel manuscript, or—in the case of nonfiction—creating a solid book proposal and establishing a decent platform with which to sell yourself/your idea.)

Many writers wonder whether it is better to query an agent first or go straight to a publisher. The lengthy reply can be saved for another day, but the short-ish answer is: you can do either. Agents are really handy to have on your and your book's side (and in almost every negotiation they can secure more for you than you might alone), but they do take a percentage of your profits. And of course, even if an agent is willing to represent you, there is no guarantee they will sell your novel—nor will you be the primary decider as to which publishers the agent sends your manuscript. If you decide against seeking an agent first, you can approach a publisher directly, but beware that often the large publishing houses require an agent or referral and do not accept unsolicited queries. If you don't end up with an agent by the time you are signing a contract with a publisher, you really must have a lawyer who specializes in book contracts give yours a look so you fully understand the terms and details (a benefit of having an agent, as they can fill this role).

So let's say you are a writer who has been welcomed with open arms and a book deal with a mid-sized publisher. If you have finished a novel, you will have already completed your manuscript upon acceptance. Given the likelihood that it isn't in perfect condition, you will probably spend a few weeks to several months working with a developmental (content) or line ("big picture") editor to rewrite and revise. You will work out the kinks and ensure that the book fits the publisher's expectations and appeals to the target audience.

With nonfiction, your book could be in any number of stages at the contract signing. Many times a couple chapters and a loose outline are all that exist this early in the process (for those of you wondering why, it's because writing nonfiction can involve extensive research and compilation of data; it's less common that a nonfiction writer will put in the effort upfront to write the full manuscript if he/she isn't sure if anyone is even interested in the concept). This means that a nonfiction contract is usually signed with a transmittal deadline written in. (And although the publisher can legally act on a late manuscript, usually they just want it period and won't dissolve the contract due to tardiness.) Depending on the timeliness of the subject matter, the availability of the writer, and a number of other factors, the agreed-upon manuscript submission date can be anywhere from one to eighteen months (or longer) from the signing date.

As with a novel, usually there are draft chapters sent along the way to an in-house editor (usually the acquisitions editor who purchased the project) who can help shape the content as needed and keep the manuscript on track. When the manuscript is in roughly final form, the writer transmits the file for the publisher to officially "accept." Barring any major issues (such as significantly low/high word count, incomplete information, unsatisfactory story resolution, etc.), the publisher will adopt responsibility and guide the finished manuscript through the rest of the publishing process. The writer gives up their baby for a month or so before seeing it again after the first round of official edits.

Next on the agenda: copyediting...

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