How a Book Becomes a Book

by Erin Brown

Ever wonder how a little ol’ manuscript by a little ol’ debut author goes from a pile of paper that keeps getting jammed in the damn printer to a beautifully bound book on the shelves of your local bookstore? Well, even if you haven’t, I’m going to tell you anyway. I think it’s a fascinating (if exhausting) process that I love sharing with others. Most people I encounter honestly have no idea what’s involved from acquisition to press. So to start the new year off right, I’m going to let you peek behind the curtain of the much-revered and reviled publishing houses. Pop the champagne and make a resolution to keep on moving towards your dream so that one day, you too can complain about that damn art director who won’t design the book jacket so that the velvet painting of your main character that you painstakingly created is prominently featured. Or that damn editor who keeps asking if you can add more vampire sex to your novel because, you know, that sells.

Step One: An editor receives a gazillion manuscripts from agents, many of whom the editor has cultivated a relationship with, usually over a pricey, expense-account lunch. These relationships over food and/or many drinks often move an agent’s submissions to the top of the editor’s tottering manuscript submission pile. So you better make damn well sure that your agent knows how to make small talk over lunch and never orders the most expensive thing on the menu. Tacky. Kidding. But really, it’s tacky. (I hope that the woman I will call “Special Agent Who Takes Advantage of an Editor’s Expense Account” is reading this! Lobster and filet mignon? Who does that except on a date? Kidding. But not really. Dating in New York is tough.)

Step Two: An editor reads a manuscript from an agent who consistently sends good material and finds something that he/she falls in love with and must have or else he/she will have to quit publishing forever. Yes, editors are this extreme and devoted when they enter into a love affair with a manuscript. If the head honcho agrees that the manuscript has legs, an editor runs it by marketing, publicity, and sales to get their opinion. Only when there’s positive feedback from all parties involved is a future book given the green light.

Step Three: Editors put together sales sheets (or fact sheets) with a summary of the book, selling points, an author bio, competitive titles, and past titles and sales by the author. Marketing weighs in with their ideas, which you include on the sales sheet. The sales department then gives an estimate on the number of books to produce based on past sales of similar books, or if it’s a returning author, their backlist sales.

Step Four: Launch. The most dreaded, yet most exciting days in an editor’s life. Book publishing is divided up by season. Everything revolves around the Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer lists. For each season, there is a launch meeting in which everyone, and I mean everyone, from the company sits in a giant conference room while each editor presents their lists for that season. The editor gets grilled in the process by publicity, marketing, sales. Even the president of the company sits quietly by, waiting to pounce. Okay, okay, maybe it’s not as bad as the Spanish Inquisition, but it comes a close second and can be quite a harrowing experience. An editor essentially has to sell their book to their own company, or the book risks being buried in the pile of “we don’t care so we’ll put a dollar’s worth of marketing and publicity into the project.” Not cool and not fair. But it’s reality. It’s up to the editor to sell a book to the rest of the house, presenting it as the most amazing book in the entire world to get everyone excited. The real job is making everyone believe you. I’d say that it works a large percentage of the time. Bribes also help.

Step Five: After launch, the author submits the completed manuscript and the actual content editing begins. After several, often hair-pulling rounds of revisions, the manuscript is sent out to a freelance copyeditor. Once the author reviews the copyedited manuscript, it is returned to the editor. Then, that version is totally thrown out and a new one that the editor likes better is published in its place. Kidding. I only did that once, drunk with power.

Step Six: Sales, publicity, and marketing get on board and begin planning their strategies. The art department begins sketching and presenting various alternative covers to present to editors, the publisher, and finally, the author. The design department creates the page layout. The publicist orders galleys (soft bound books that are not yet final proofs) and sends them out to major publications for reviews. The editor sends out the galleys to authors and other luminaries who might be willing to read the book and give a few glowing words of praise, which will be featured prominently on the back cover of the book. I say words of praise because editors usually choose not to print endorsements along the lines of “This sucks.” Just a good business idea.

Step Seven: The book is printed and on the shelves, marketing and publicity take over, the editor is promoted, the book either makes a splash with strong (or decent) sales and low returns or it’s never heard from again. Kidding. No, I’m not. Such is the life of a book. But behind the chaos and uncertainty is the group of people at a publishing house who live and die by the printed word. They devote weekends and nights, blood, sweat, and tears to books that they believe in, and most of the time, they live to tell about it…at least until the next launch meeting.  


Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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