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A Peak into the Publishing Process


July 25, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

Since this week WAS to be release week for NEVER LET GO (until COVID-19 pushed things back by six months), I thought I’d stray away from historical bits for the next few days and share about the writing and publishing processes.

For me, the entire process begins with topic selection. This may result from pulling something out of my idea file (notes and clippings collected over the years), be inspired by chance (such as researching my prior book), or by purposeful (sought out to suit a theme I want to pursue or a market trend). Writers who wish to contract with publishers in lieu of self-publishing must also pay attention to what publishers are looking for. The story must be fresh or told in a fresh way. In historical women’s fiction, it’s important to select a well-known woman or someone related to a well-known man, a well-known event, or an event in which a woman made changes to the course of history. Publishers advise readers want “stories about extraordinary women doing extraordinary things.”

Then comes the research. Since I typically dig very deep (and love doing research), it’s important for me to determine my purpose and create research questions. This helps focus me. Because research helps with character development, I follow leads that will help me learn more about WHO the women in my stories are, beneath the facts of history. Vital records (such as census and land ownership), local histories, diaries, letters, newspapers, archival items, books, maps, etc. are typical sources for me. Visits to the place where the events occurred are also important. If there are surviving family members, interviews might lead to new bits of information. Sometimes, in the middle of writing, I have to research something that comes up (such as the type of wagon Laura Duley traveled in or the route she took to come West).

A writer must also develop plot and character. Some do this as they write but I do it before I start. With historical fiction that follows real events, the spine of the plot is determined by history. But the writer must create scenes to fit into the plotline that advance the characters through the events. Characters need motivations and goals to drive their actions. Their actions will meet conflict and force them to react emotionally and take another course of action. Throughout, they will grow and they will discover something about themselves (their character arc). The end of the story has to satisfy the story question created at the beginning and resolve conflicts.

Once the story is written, it must be edited. Some writers do this as they go along while others wait until the end. Critique partners can help identify issues and may read and offer guidance chapter by chapter, in chunks, or in review of the complete manuscript. Beta readers may also look at the near-final manuscript in its entirety to catch big issues (such as a problem with motivation or believability). Then the author does a final edit.

My own process is to write and have critique partners comment in small batches. If the comments indicate I need to make major shifts, I do so. Otherwise, I file comments and save for the edit phase. When I first began writing, I edited as I went but have discovered it’s an extra layer of work since a final edit is always needed anyway and it slows the process. Once I do my first complete edit, I send the entire manuscript to a handful of trusted readers. Some are other writers and will catch craft issues and each has a particular strong point. I also like to include at least one non-writer to provide a reader perspective. Then, I complete a final edit based on feedback. During the time my readers are doing their job, I begin exploring ideas for the next book.

Upon completion of the manuscript, the writer must decide if he/she wishes to self-publish or submit to a publisher. The self-publishing process involves editing, formatting for e-books, cover design, marketing, and other tasks that would be handled by publishers, all done by the writer. If a writer doesn’t have a publisher yet, he/she will need to query agents (who act as middlemen to solicit publishers) and editors (who work for publishers) to hook them into asking to read the manuscript and evaluate whether they wish to contract with the author. This can take months or years to accomplish since the writer is dependent upon others’ response timelines. Usually, there is a partial submission of three chapters before the request for the full manuscript. If a particular publisher had formatting requirements, the manuscript must be converted to fit those guidelines before being submitted.

Because I have published all my books with Five Star Publishing/Cengage, I can query them with a note to the editor and if my story idea is intriguing, I can submit my manuscript in its entirety rather than just the first three chapters. Submissions are usually read in the order submitted so this phase depends on how many other manuscripts are being evaluated. Once my manuscript is reviewed, I am either offered a contract or asked to address critical story issues. A direct contract offer is ALWAYS best.

The contract process may take a little as a week or as long as several weeks. The acquiring editor makes the offer and extends a standard contract. If I negotiate any points, there is a back-and-forth with the acquiring editor needing to work with the legal department and her superiors on any proposed changes. Once all details are worked out, the legal department prepares the final contract and sends it for my signature. When the signed contract is returned, the manuscript is put into the developmental editor’s project queue.

As the manuscript gets to the front of the developmental edit queue, it’s read and edited. The developmental editor’s main focus is one making the STORY work and the sentences flow well. These editors will catch big picture issues as well as sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, issues with names, motivation, lack of clarity, over-used and misused works and phrases, etc. Then, the author gets the file with all suggested changes. The author will review and accept/reject changes or offer counter-suggestions as well as addressing questions raised by the editor. Then the file goes back to the editor for another review. This process usually involves several back-and-forth exchanges and can take anywhere from days to weeks depending on how much rewriting the editor requests. If the author has done his/her job well before submission, the process is shorter. Once all edits in this phase are complete, the file moves on to the copy editor. At this time, the author will receive a final copy of the developmentally edited manuscript.

The copy editor focuses on spelling, typos, punctuation, and errors with names/places/etc. Then, the file goes back to the author again for acceptance of changes or counter suggestions. Once all changes are made, the manuscript will be formatted for printing.

Usually, there will be several months before the author again sees the project. During this time, the author will collect cover quotes from other authors, submit items that need special permissions (such as photos and maps) and will work with the art department on cover design.

Cover design is another back-and-forth process. When the book is contracted, the author completes a form that includes notes about permissions (for later follow up by legal department) and includes author concepts for the cover (descriptions of main characters, story, setting, and ideas). The cover artist will review this form and the synopsis submitted. Some cover artists read the manuscript. The artist will offer cover concepts which will be conveyed to the author. An established author will have a bit more room to negotiate or request new concepts. Colors, artwork, fonts, and other design elements will be considered. There will be a back-and-forth process here, too, until a design is agreed upon.

Publishers generally allow several months for all this to occur. About three to four months prior to the release date, Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) will be produced. These are bound, soft-cover copies of the manuscript which are not intended for sale since there is a final round of edits yet to be done. The publisher will send out ARCs to a list of reviewers (reviewers need this amount of time to read them, write their reviews, and put the reviews into their own production schedules). The publisher will send to national review magazines such as Publishers Weekly, specialty magazines, and large newspapers such as New York Times. The author will receive a limited number of copies to send to local reviewers or to libraries/bookstores to tempt them to purchase the book for their inventories. It is up to the author to use the limited number of copies to his/her best advantage. This is the time when authors will seek to set up signing events and schedule speaking engagements. (Best-selling authors with larger publishing houses will have this done for them by the publisher or by a professional publicist.) The author will also complete a final review of the ARC to look for errors not caught in prior edits or formatting problems. Usually, edits are limited at this phase.

Then, the author waits. He/she makes final arrangements for events and works on publicity efforts. This is the stage I was at when the COVID fall-out delay hit for me. Because Five Star Publishing makes the bulk of its sales to libraries and libraries were closed due to COVID, the entire publishing schedule was pushed back six months. Hopefully, libraries will be open again by late fall and purchasing inventory again. If the pandemic is still raging, there may be another delay.

I remain hopeful that my release will occur in 2021 and I still plan to visit Minnesota once that occurs with exact dates dependent on when the release happens and weather conditions (a speaking tour in winter may not be feasible). I so want to meet Minnesota readers and share more with them. In the meantime, I will continue to post on my author page and website.

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As I count down to my January 2021 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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