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  • Niall Kishtainy

Do you know how a book is made?

The process of making a non-fiction book doesn't end when the author completes the manuscript. That's just the beginning! Whether you're looking to self-publish or to find a publisher to work with, it's helpful to know what the different stages are between finishing writing and holding a copy in your hands -- and how long they might take. The stages will vary according to what kind of book you're producing, and how it's being published (I'll be focusing on the traditional publishing process here), but the basic milestones are pretty similar.

First there's the editorial stage. In traditional publishing, this usually comes in a few stages, starting with basic structural feedback (sometimes called a structural or development edit). This is broad-brush feedback, which might include suggestions for what else you need to cover, what needs more explanation, what needs cutting. It might be a more general steer on the whether the style is appropriate for your target readership (less jargon, too basic, and so on). Once you've received the feedback, you'll revise the manuscript accordingly. If you're not working with a traditional publisher, you should still consider seeking feedback of this type from an industry professional, as it will definitely help you deliver what your audience wants, and result in a better book.

Once you've made any revisions, it will go to a copy editor. They'll refine your sentences, ensure they are accurate and gramatically correct, improve clarity, remove any repetition, and query any facts that may need checking. This is also called a line edit, and will likely result in some more queries for you to attend to. Again, it's a process that self-published books also need to go through.

If you're working with a traditional publisher, it's around this time that they'll brief a designer and start thinking about the cover. A designer shapes how the book should look, including things like how the pages are arranged, what typefaces will be used and how any illustrations (if there are any) will be used. They'll also design the cover and consider things like size, type of paper, binding and the other physical aspects of the book. If necessary, an illustrator or photographer will be commissioned to produce images, or a picture researcher may be enlisted to seek permissions for any existing pictures that will be included. In self-publishing, you'll likely either work with a freelance designer or use a self-publishing platform that includes design templates that you can use yourself. It's worth keeping in mind that this can be a time-consuming process that generally produces less sophisticated results.

The copy-edited text is sent to the designer (or typesetter, in the case of text-only books), who usually works with desktop publishing software such as InDesign to arrange the text on the pages, along with any images. Once the book has been fully designed (or 'laid out'), with all elements in place, it will be proofread, and you'll make your final checks. If they're needed, any additional bits and pieces like a copyright page (which includes all the legal stuff like ISBN, copyright assignment, credits and printer and publisher details), index, acknowledgements, glossary will be added. In the meantime, any images will be going through their own process of checks by the production department to make sure they are of good enough quality, and will be edited for colour, exposure, sharpness or any other tweaks that are needed to improve them.

The proofreader checks for any typos or inaccuracies, including in elements like spacing and page numbering; they won't suggest improvements to the text. Finally, when the layouts are complete, they'll go through final checks by the publisher. They'll then be handed to the production department, who will convert the files into a print-ready pdf and send them to the printer.

How long all this takes is variable. The average amount of time it takes a traditional publisher to get a book from manuscript stage to being ready to print can be anything from a few months to a year or more. Typically, it's about nine months. Self-publishing can be quicker, if you are able to put the hours in. The printing itself tends to be quicker on self-publishing platforms too, but there'll likely be less choice over things like design, size and paper quality.

The printer then runs a test print called a laser or plotter proof, which the publisher checks to make sure everything is set up correctly. Books are usually printed on large paper sheets. Each sheet is photographed and converted into a negative, which is then exposed (or 'burned') onto an aluminium plate. For books printed in colour, there is one plate layer each for black, cyan, magenta and yellow (CMYK). The sheets are then folded and cut into 16 or 32-page sections called signatures. These are stitched together and then glued into the spine, and the binding is added. Finally, the books are packed and sent to the publisher's warehouse. Sometimes, advance copies are sent by air and the bulk is shipped (often from China, in the case of illustrated books). So a fair bit of time can elapse between receiving advance copies and your book landing in bookshops.

Then it's time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour! Here's a summary of how the process usually runs for an illustrated book such as a cookbook (text-only books are similar, but have fewer stages).

Manuscript sent to publisher ➝

Publisher reviews it and requests revisions ➝

Manuscript re-submitted ➝

Designer and illustrator/photographer commissioned (if relevant) ➝

Design concept shown to author ➝

Manuscript copy-edited, queries sent to author to resolve ➝

Photography and design takes place (if relevant) ➝

Completed layouts shown to author to review ➝

Repro work done (the production stage when the illustrations are corrected) ➝

Final author read-through, proofreading, indexing ➝

Pdf to printer ➝

Proofs checked ➝

Books printed (this can take weeks or months) ➝

Advance copies sent to author ➝

Marketing activity ➝


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