How Books Get Made and Packaged at Commercial Publishers

A Publishing Operations Director based in our London office takes you through the journey of a book project from bits of paper to bound book

So, you’ve sold your book, the money’s in the bank and you are champing at the bit to see the finished product in the shops. That is if you’ve finished writing it; however if the book has been sold on the basis of a proposal, then you will have been given a contract delivery date and your first task, obviously, is to meet it.

First-time writers who have never had to meet an externally imposed deadline might find this quite difficult. And some ignore it (though that is an affliction shared by many writers not just the debutants…). After all, surely a few weeks or months over won’t make any difference? Sometimes it doesn’t; after all a publishing schedule must by necessity include a certain amount of contingency. But a schedule is still a schedule and every stage of the sales, launch and cover process depends on the delivery date (for example, briefing a cover for a novel if you haven’t read the finished manuscript is pointless). And a late-deliverer, though often indulged for a while, will undermine their reputation very quickly if the deadline is constantly pushed back. For example, a sales team will usually be full of enthusiasm for the books it presents to its customers (the booksellers) the first time round. But if it moves once or twice, or several times, the sales team and the booksellers start to lose confidence that the book will ever appear. I’m not going to patronise a community of writers by telling them how to meet a deadline but if you can’t deliver on time, the next best thing is to make sure your editor is kept informed. Remember you’ve signed a contract and, hopefully, been paid an advance. Authors who disappear may find themselves with a letter from the company’s lawyers, requesting that the advance be repaid. In the current economic climate, no publisher can afford a non-deliverer.

Enough of the warnings. Obviously everyone on authonomy who is lucky enough to get a contract will, of course, deliver on time and be perfect authors. Let’s assume that anyway!


The first shock for many new writers, once the book has been delivered and the schedule is in place, is the time lapse between delivery and publication. Currently the books that we are buying are being scheduled for publication in either late 2010 or early 2011. Exceptions are topical and political books (for example before Christmas 2008 every one was debating books about Bush and Obama, ready to rush them out off for January). To give you a sense of why it takes so long, we’re just printing March now, we are producing titles up to June, and the books that are being sold to customers are scheduled for publication from July onwards. Which means that, if you sold your book to a publisher today, it might not see a non-virtual bookshelf until Spring 2010 at the earliest. Often it’s longer. So why does it take a year?

The sales cycle

The easiest way to explain the beginning is to start with the end, or rather what is perceived as the end: sales. Although externally it might seem like the sales process would happen after everything else, it in fact starts at the same time and the sales team are involved from acquisition onwards. And the requirements of sales and their customers (the booksellers), followed by the required production times, dictate the required publication dates. Most books are now sold via presentations to key accounts (such as Waterstone’s and Tesco’s); very few reps pound the steps of bookshops with their wares any more. And that sell-in process (sell-in means that the book is sold in to the bookshops; sell-out means that it’s sold by the bookshop to the consumer) starts very early and is done in seasons. In April of this year, our team will be selling in books published between Sept and Dec 2010. In order to do that they will need a mass of information on the book, the subject, the writer, the target market, planned marketing and publicity and, if possible, a finished and completed cover.

Since we allow six months for a cover to be briefed, designed and approved (which sounds like a lot but not once all the stages are factored in), the process can start up to 14 months ahead. Unless there is a reason to publish a book very quickly (because it ties in with an anniversary, a TV show or something equally timely) then it is always better to allow enough time for the book to be properly presented to customers. I don’t know anything about the bookselling cycle (perhaps one of you does?) but with limited floor space (whether in our warehouse or theirs) every shop must plan stock accordingly. And the better equipped the sales team (for example the manuscript has been delivered and read, the cover briefed and designed) the more chance a book has of being allocated some of that precious space. A book that is sold in late, keeps moving, or is sold in without material will often be at a disadvantage because sales slots in each month will have been decided. However, this isn’t to say that a book that arrives really early will be better off: the buzz and the stages need to happen at the right time not just any time.

So timing is everything: delivering the book on time, selling it in at the right time, getting it into the shops at the right time. And the rest of the stages work back from that, in order to make sure that the book reaches its audience and potential and that everyone internally and externally has enough space and resource to allow that to happen. This is a massive simplification but hopefully the author that grasps that the publishing process is a closely monitored timeline, and that the different stages are interlinked and interdependent, will be much better prepared for it.


The process of preparing packaging for books – covers – can be inordinately long…why? Because the cover – that is the combination of the artwork, font, cover copy and quotes if any – is the main selling tool for any book. Yes, books are judged by their covers and it is crucial for publishers to get them right. What is interesting is that whereas the text is, post acquisition and during the editing process, usually only read by a few people, the cover process is one which everyone gets involved in. Everyone, from editor to sales director, wants each book to reach as many consumers, and tills, as possible and, since Amazon and the internet are the main tills worldwide now, what a book looks like is even more important than ever. Here’s how it happens. (And, just to remind you, this is how it happens in one part of HarperCollins, not in the whole of publishing…different divisions here, and different companies have different processes, though the overall effect will be the same.)

After acquisitions, the book will be scheduled. This means that the team decide the best time to publish it, and then the book is put on the bibliographic ‘system’: to put it very simply this system is a database that feeds all of our consumer databases (e.g. Waterstone’s, Amazon), enabling them to order and sell our products. The schedule will depend on all sorts of factors (such as topicality, likely delivery, best ‘season’ for sales) but on average there are at least 12 months between the start of the process and the publication date. Once a book is scheduled, this triggers the book’s critical path to be set up: the list of key dates that need to be met in order for sales information, and obviously the book, to reach customers and the market at the right time. The first date on that critical path is the launch.

A book is ‘launched’ anywhere between 15 and 9 months ahead of publication, and usually in a meeting. It is the editor’s chance to remind all the sales, marketing, publicity and rights people why they bought the book (remember there may have been many years, and changes of personnel, between acquisition and launch) and the one occasion when the whole team discusses every element (price, format – the size and binding, hardback or paperback – and time of publication) and makes suggestions for changes or strategies. The meeting places the book on everyone’s radar for the year ahead so that they can participate in all of the discussions that ensue re cover and market and often it is where the cover will be briefed

Every acquiring editor, just like every writer, has an idea of how their books will look and a cover brief is a description of that vision: it will hint at the content but it will also reflect positioning and target market. For example, is it a commercial book that the supermarkets will want, or a more literary one, that only independent bookshops and Amazon are likely to stock? Should the cover reflect a well-established genre (like crime or romance) or break new ground? Should the font be big, bold and brash, all embossing and gold foil, so that the book will happily be seen as a ‘beach read’ or ‘airport novel’ or much more subtle and quiet, reflecting the literary readership to which it aspires? And who, if anyone, is the writer like and should the cover reference them? Publishing is notoriously copy-cat; when a book has made a fortune, the market is subsequently clogged with tons of other pretenders hoping for the same. All of these questions will be addressed by the launch/brief discussion and the information supporting that brief given to the designer. Sometimes none of these questions can really be answered and the designer will be given carte blanche, sometimes the brief will be very specific, even down to the use of a particular artist or picture, or sometimes only the direction will be chosen (typographic, illustrative, photographic).

Once started, the cover process, a bit like the acquisition process is an endless back and forth. The designer responds to the brief and the results come through, sometimes week after week, to a cover art meeting. If picture research is involved, the cover picture researchers will start looking for either a specific picture or a range of pictures or photos that match the brief (women’s legs have been very popular in recent years…). Those pictures will be shown and agreed with the editor, and then mocked up as a rough (as it sounds, a rough approach) for the cover art meeting. Otherwise an illustrator might have been briefed or initial approaches started, and the visuals will be taken to the meeting, first as artwork then mocked-up as covers (the artwork is layered with the title, author’s name and designed to the required format). The meeting (attended by the whole team) will then discuss the cover approaches, decide if one or more are working and then the designer will either revise or start again.

At any time during this process, but usually once an approach is chosen, the editor will send the cover roughs to the author for their opinions. Some publishers do this as a courtesy, but reserve the right to make the final choice, others give the author the final say. Hopefully, but not always, the author’s perspective coincides with those of everyone else in the building but the problems arise when they don’t…more of that later.

Once the author has approved the cover, it will circulate internally as a runout or dummy (which means the visuals and copy are put together for the first time) so that the final effect is agreed and signed off by the whole team. Hopefully, about six months after the start of the process, the cover is sent to be proofed. On the internal runout it is possible to see the layout and copy in situ but it is not possible to see how the cover will really look on the book once all the finishes have been added: a ‘finish’ is anything from a very simple gloss, the cheapest and most common effect, to the expensive processes of embossing (raised lettering) and foiling (those shiny airport novels are covered in foil…). So the printed cover is proofed to show how the cover will really look when ‘finished’. Proofs are starting to be used less and less, since they are very expensive and most sales teams present digitally but here as elsewhere the decision to proof will depend on the importance of the book and the complexity of the cover. Once, and if, printed, the proof is used by the sales team to sell the book in to bookshops.

Just before printing the book, about eight weeks before publication, the cover will be corrected again, often to add quotes or a revised price, and checked as an Epson proof (an industry-standard colour-matched proof). At this stage, when the sales numbers are in, and the production costs and print run are signed off, the finishes on the cover are one of the few things that it is still possible to change (since everything on the text and pictures will have been done and invoiced) so, if the numbers don’t work, some or all of the finishes may be removed. No one wants to do this but margins are so small in publishing, particularly in literary publishing, that even saving a few pence by removing a foil can make or break the profit line...

The author’s role

It is worth remembering, especially if you are a first-time writer, that the team behind the choice generally have a lot more experience than you. The vision in your head is the vision of one book that you are very close to and not as helpful as the experienced in-house awareness of a market full of books gagging for attention.

So although it may be hard to let go of that black and white photo you’ve been nursing in your mind for six years, the image that has kept you going as you pound out word after word in the middle of the night, if nobody in-house wants it, particularly if no one in sales wants it, then perhaps it’s not such a good idea. If you listen to the in-house opinions, and they contradict your own, don’t assume that they wish to sabotage your work. On the contrary, the editor and sales team want the book to sell as much as you do…their jobs depend on it. Just as you know when to cut a paragraph that’s not working, having read and reread your book ad nauseam, so the publishing team, who look at covers every day, week after week, month after month, know when a cover isn’t right.

The late J G Ballard once said to me, whilst discussing a paperback cover, that as long as we sold it he didn’t care what we put on it. He’d write the book; we just had to sell it. And, in my limited experience as an editor, the better the writer, the more they trust the opinions of the publisher...

The next six months: the text is typeset and made ready to print

So the cover is approved, has gone out to customers and to the printers if it’s being proofed. The next step, and the one that you will probably feel most involved with, is the editing of the text. This, you will be glad to know, is not quite so committee-led. Unlike the cover, only the editorial team, and probably only two editors (in-house and an external freelancer) will do this.

The first step for your manuscript production is to make sure you and your in-house editor are happy with the shape and main direction of your ‘final text’. On acquiring the script for publication, your editor will have expert views on how to improve and tighten the script to make it ideal for its audience, as well as deciding on selection and placement of any illustrations. This intimate, ‘structural edit’ improvement process, probably begun the very day your book is acquired, can take a week or can take months, and rather like the cover process, usually involves a lot of back and forth correspondence.

Once the text is ready, it will be sent to a copyeditor – sometimes these specialist staff work in-house at a publisher, but more often than not, the are freelancers who work full time on crafting and ‘line editing’ scripts. This is a labour-intensive job, often expensive, but absolutely essential for a professional-quality of script. The copyeditor will correct spellings, punctuation, facts, internal inconsistencies, picture captions, check footnote numbering and references – they are, if you will, a safety net for the sort of glaring errors it is all too easy to overlook when you have been working on so many elements of your own script at close hand. This is the point where you sign off the script from a writer’s perspective: from here, it’s more automated and speedy, and what you will be correcting, if anything, is now down to layout.

Your script is typeset, and what you hold in your hands in a mere number of weeks’ time is your galleys or ‘flat proofs’: the first time the book is laid out on the flat page ready for print in your publishing house’s style of design and fonts.

Sometimes we digitally print and bind these up at publishing houses in order to send early reading copies – mocked up books – out to potential bookstore buyers or reviewers. (Bound proofs of titles that go on to be classics can fetch a rare price at auctions and on the black market!) Authors do get a chance to final check these pages, though by now the time window for correction is narrowed and you will usually only have 2 weeks to go through your proofs to spot for errors. A freelance proofreader also has these proofs and does a thorough proofread, eliminating any spellings, errors, setting problems etc. She or he will mark in red ink any errors which are the typesetters’, and in blue ink any corrections which are fresh introductions. The main point is to keep blue corrections to a minimum, as these are costly to correct.

Revised or final proofs will arrive shortly afterwards – a perfect or near perfect set of galleys ready to place with the printer. It’s time to wave bon voyage to the book: the next time you see it, all elements of text, pictures, finishes (like endpapers and bookmarker ribbon) and cover will be combined to make a finished copy.

If all goes well, you can expect to hold a finished copy of your book about 4–6 weeks before publication date. It’s been a long journey, but there’s ever a chance to crack open the champagne it’s now.

And often it is at this point that the process collapses. If the projected sales numbers and the advance tally, that is to say the book looks like it might earn out the proposed advance and make a profit (i.e. in very simple terms if £10000 is paid, then the book must sell enough copies to make back at least that amount, plus costs), and everyone in the room agrees that it’s a good idea, the editor is given the go-ahead to make an offer. However, if an agent is looking for a particular sum, but the sales numbers suggest that the book won’t make it back and will be unprofitable, it is up to the editor to either fight for the advance required, arguing for getting a particular writer onto a list and talking up their future projects, or go back to the agent and argue for a smaller advance.