What Happens Inside a Publisher, After I Sign the Contract?

by W. Terry Whalin


What happens inside the publishing house after I receive my contract and sign it?


I've been asked this question many times--and unless you have personally worked inside a publishing house, it's very difficult to answer it satisfactorily. The short answer is that a lot of activity is happening inside the publishing house after your contract is signed. While you as the author may not see it, things are moving on your book. It's important for you to not email your editor or call your editor constantly--we have a few of those authors (even if we hear from them once a week) and they are labeled "high maintenance." You don't want to be in this category--especially if you want to do more than one book with the publishing house. You do not want the editor to groan when they receive an email from you, "Oh, no. Not ________ again." And editors do have this reaction. There is a delicate dance between authors and publishers--so that as an author you are proactive but not high maintenance.

When your book is contracted at a publisher, it sets off a chain of events--especially the design of your book cover and the title of your book (each of these steps have internal meetings attached--cover meetings and title meetings). This process happens months before the book is released. Normally the publisher is working 12 to 16 months out on the book covers for their next catalog. For example if it is currently January 2004, then the book designers are completing the design of book covers for the releases of May or June 2006. These book covers are used for sales sheets and marketing efforts. The cover may get changed in the process but something has to be used for sales and marketing--and it happens early.

When I was acquiring manuscripts inside a publishing house, our rule of them was to contract a manuscript to arrive inside the publishing house a full year before the release date. Then we could make sure each book is thoroughly edited and the marketing materials for the book generated at the right time, etc. One of the lessons I've learned the hard way from my years in publishing is that haste makes waste--over and over I've seen it. When you rush something to press, some part of the many steps of a publishing process are left out and neglected. This neglect affects the overall results of the book--i.e. the sales.

Authors are notoriously late in turning in your manuscripts. I hope you aren't in that category--because if you are--listen up. When you are late, you throw off the entire schedule for your book (the time scheduled when you will talk and work with marketing, when the sales guys will be selling your book into the stores and special channels, etc.). I envision the publishing process like a train roaring down a track toward a finished, printed book. If you don't complete your manuscript on schedule (ahead is always appreciated but extremely rare--and will put you in a unique place in the editor's heart--a good place), then you miss getting on the train. Then months down the road when your book doesn't receive the proper push from the publishing house--it may have something to do with your own situation. Think back to that phone call when you begged the editor for one more week or one more month or whatever time you needed to finish the project. Then step back and see if the extra time was worth the cost to your project. I doubt it.

We also have had a number of authors come through the office before their book is published. It's not a bad idea--to meet the sales and marketing people in particular face to face. Then our authors speak in our chapel and we get a chance to see them in a speaking context. If you have such an opportunity, put a lot of energy and preparation into this time in front of the publishing house. You don't have to feel like you are on stage--but you are so don't prepare at the last minute. Editorial assistants and secretaries talk with their vice president bosses--even if the VPs themselves don't attend the particular presentation. Often these vice-presidents and other leaders of the publishing house are sitting in the audience as well. You can make a deep positive or negative impression through your speaking. I recall one case in particular where the author ignored my counsel to put a lot of energy into the presentation. This Vice President was so offended from the author's persona and presentation that when his book finally did release, this executive couldn't bring himself to read the book. It's not the sort of result any author wants to have from their interaction with the leaders of a publishing house and will have lasting impact on the possibility of this author getting another book contract from this particular publisher.

Also at some stage after you sign the contract, you will want to work with the marketing/ publicity people in your publishing house. What's their plan for your book? What key contacts do you bring to the table from your experience and connections to help promote and add to their plans?

From working with different major CBA and ABA houses, I've learned that each place is different in their process and how they work with authors. I had a major book contract a few years ago and couldn't connect with my editor on the phone. He changed his voice mail daily but never returned a single call to my many voice mails. Yet when I tried sending an email, this editor replied within the hour. Learn how your editor likes to work and communicate. It will be important to your success in working with a publishing house.

There are many things that happen behind the scenes for a pile of manuscript paper to become a book. Be aware and sensitive to the fact that a publisher has a lot in motion--besides your book. It's the delicate dance between the squeaky wheel and the high maintenance author.


WW. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and a writer. He worked as an editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer's Digest and Christianity Today. Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and one of his latest is Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Write Now Publications). See more about Terry at:www.right-writing.com/whalin.html. For more than 12 years Terry has been an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as CBA Marketplace and BookPage. He is the former Fiction Acquisitions Editor for Howard Books and creator of www.right-writing.com. Sign up for Terry's free newsletter, Right Writing News.

© 2008 W. Terry Whalin

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