The book process–what are the major steps

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the major states in a book project

I am often asked by people about writing a book. It seems that because people learn how to read and to write in elementary school, they feel they have been writing all their life. Ok, but I played baseball for hours on end in the backyard with my brother. It does mean I am ready for a major league contract.

The thing is that most people have no idea what is involved in writing a book, neither the time commitment nor the steps from idea to publication. I have written 14 non-fiction books in the field of computer science. My books have appeared under most of the major imprints in that area of publishing. The process I describe here applies specifically to that narrow field. Keep in mind that fiction differs a bit, and I will talk about that at a later date.

The major steps going from idea to publication for a non-fiction book:

  1. Come up with a compelling idea
  2. Do market research to see competing titles
  3. Decide hour your book will be different than all the rest
  4. Develop a detailed outline – down to at least the level a b headings
  5. Decide how to group your material into sections – indicate sections in the outline
  6. Shop your outline around for peer review – ideally you should get feedback from at least three or four notables in the field
  7. Write up your proposal, and send it to your agent. Give your agent an idea as to who you think would like the book. If you do not have an agent, then submit it to the various publishers. In your proposal say why you are the person uniquely qualified to write this specific book. Including your previous publishing, blogging, and speaking credentials.
  8. One you sign the contract, begin writing. You will have a deadline, make sure you create a writing schedule to meet that deadline with at least two or three weeks “slop” in it. More is better, but with the field of non-fiction, timing is everything.
  9. Once you complete the first chapter, you will probably want to submit it to the acquisitions editor at the publisher. He or she will do a quick style check to see if everything is groovy. If it is not, he will send the chapter off to editorial for a developmental edit. They will go through it with a fine tooth comb, and it will come back to you with more red on it than the planet Jupiter in the spring. Once you get this, skim it, set it aside, and come back and look at it the next day after you have a chance to calm down. Remember, publishers want you to succeed. They also know their business. Follow their lead and it will be awesome. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from the best. Take all suggestions to heart, and your final edit will be much smoother and cleaner. Your contract will call for a clean, acceptable manuscript, and you must clear editorial before book heads to the publisher. So learn the ropes here.
  10. If you have been writing while waiting on the developmental edit (a good thing since you have a deadline) then you will need to go back over the stuff you wrote since the first submission. You can do it at night when you are really tired and not feeling like writing, because it is grunt work for the most part. Just part of the drudgery of being a professional writer.
  11. If you are smart, when you were getting peer review for your outline, you were also fishing around for someone to provide peer review for your book as well. If you were, you should begin sending the chapters out to your peers. Keep track and assign deadlines. People work best with deadlines, and you cannot hold up your writing schedule waiting on peer review. You should develop a pool of people willing to do this, also tell them that they do not have to do each chapter, but that they should get any feedback within a week.
  12. Collect peer review for your chapters, and then make the peer review changes as required. Once done, mark it off of your schedule. You finally have a chapter complete (sort of).
  13. Different publishers work differently, but I like the ones that allow me to send in a chapter when it is complete. They will slip stream these into editorial, so that when I complete writing, the book is nearly edited. Others want everything at once, and then they edit the book as a complete entity. This adds several weeks to the schedule, but may produce a more cohesive output. On the other hand, the edit work in progress publishers, can easily catch stuff in mid-stream, that were perhaps missed in the developmental edit, and so results in progressively cleaner chapters. Either which way, there are several edits:
    1. The line edit – this is grammar, clarity, and stuff like that.
    2. The style editor – this is specific to the publisher. Each publisher has their own style guide, that realistically is available to the writer, but no one expects you to become an expert on their own stylistic quirks. This is the style editor job to bring the language into their specific compliance. Also there are style committees, and the style guide is changed semi-annually.
    3. The technical editor – the subject matter expert hired by the publisher to ensure your book is not an embarrassment (to either you or to the publishing house). Of the three, I feel the most important one is the technical editor. The other two, I usually say, ok, whatever. I mean, if they want a comma at the end of a series, or not, what does it mean to me? But if the technical editor wants me to call a double-bamboozled-triple helix a Schwartzkolf knot, then he had better prove it to first with references. I may learn something. It may also be, and often is, the difference between standard academic naming convention and common industry standard naming conventions.
  14. Once each of the different edits are completed, it is time for the once and over. Now, here is the thing, we have peer review comments, we have at least three different editors, as well as my own edits, so the word document is getting pretty busy with all the corrections. I have quite often seen situations where the edits were confusing, and even ended up changing something that was clear and correct into something that was unclear and misleading. This is now the chance to review all of it before it is sent to be paged.
  15. Everything is sent off, and the book is now paged. In the old days, this involved literal setting of type. Now days, modern publishers convert the docs into XML, and feed that to the machines and boom … quickly you will start receiving PDF “page proofs”. This shows how all the figures will look, where the captions will be, how the pages will break, and so forth and so on. This is the last chance to make sure everything is groovy before the book goes to press. Do your work here well. Enlist friends to give it a quick once and over as well. In fact, dozens and dozens of people at the publishing house, the contract editors, the printer, everyone will be looking at this. When it is a go, then they hit print on the big machine, and they do an initial run.
  16. Cool I get my author copies. Each contract, sets forth a specific number of author copies. This has ranged from three copies to more than a dozen copies. Some publishers make it easy for you to get extra copies by buying them essential at cost, and others provide a decent discount. I always give my author copies away to my peer reviewers as a way of saying thanks. My mom and brother often get copies as well.
  17. You will be contacted by the marketing department from the publisher. This step actually varies from publisher to publisher. They will want to know who you know so they can provide review copies to bloggers, book reviewers, and other influential people who will fall in love with your book and add it to the essential references sets.
  18. Cool, now I have a review on Amazon. Bummer it was a bad review. Oh well, remember even Charles Dickens gets bad reviews on Amazon. Let it go. In fact, I seldom check Amazon for my books anymore. I like to look at it before I go to a conference or I speak somewhere, because if I recognize the name, it is really cool to say, thank you for a great review. But other than that, let it go.

So how long does all this take? You should plan on a year of doing nothing but eating / sleeping / working / writing. That is it. Once the author copies arrive, you can take a breather. What now? For me, I like to relax with a good book that is completely different than what I have been writing. Either that, or maybe go spend some time in the woodworking shop doing something different.

Then if you want, after a couple weeks, get back on the horse, and try it again. I hope you have a wonderful day.

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