If “impatience is the bane of self publishing,” then well-crafted writing, careful editing and artful book design are its salvation. In this post, I outline the steps that transform a piece of writing into a publication. These are the steps required regardless of how the book is published: electronically, offset, or letterpress.
If you want to have a good product, you’ll start with developmental editing, which is a fancy term for readers who ask questions and make comments along the way.
Well-crafted writing is the result of practice and time, good research, excellent language, and most probably several drafts. Ideally, some of those drafts will benefit from developmental editing – an elegant name for feedback from at least one critical reader who can comment on the merit of the work and ask questions that will help the author revise and hone the book until it is truly polished.
This critical reader is not your mother, your best friend nor your spouse, but someone who cares more about your work than you, someone who reads for continuity, comprehension, and coherence, someone who will praise what is good and ask good questions about structure, characterization, and language. Because it can be difficult to find such a reader, it’s best to ask several dispassionate people to read and comment on your work between your first, fifth or fiftieth and final drafts.
Once a book is finished and the typescript prepared to the best of your ability, it needs copy-editing. A copy editor starts by correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation, makes sure that the language conforms to standard usage and is consistent. Copy-editing also includes checking facts and continuity.
Copy-editing is laborious, technical, and essential. It is also expensive – and worth every penny. A reader never notices when a book has been copy edited but always notices when it hasn’t. Books that aren’t copy edited are invariably filled with errors that mark them as the work of an amateur.
The copy editor returns the document to the author for corrections. Only then, does the text block (the words you wrote) get type set. This is more than simply justifying the margins; it includes a myriad of details that are critical to the reader’s experience of your work. There are industry standards that readers expect as well as subliminal design elements that can enhance a reader’s experience – elements such as typeface, margins, chapter headers, page numbers, breaks. If the book is well designed, a reader barely notices; if it’s not, a reader may deem the book unreadable. I’m not a book designer; if I ever self publish, I’ll hire one.
Once the text block is type set, what you have are galleys: unbound pages that look like the pages of a book. At last, your work is starting to look like something! – but there’s still more to be done. Galleys need to be proof-read – by a professional proofreader. A proofreader is a highly skilled technician who looks at both the meaning and the content of the type. Proofreaders don’t just check spelling; they correct the typesetting, marking where there are loose lines (too many spaces between letters), crashes (letters squished together); poorly-hyphenated words; widows and orphans (letters, words and lines that become separated from their words, sentences or paragraphs at a line break or at the end of a page).
Even after the galleys are proofed and corrected, there’s another step: the cold read. Someone who has never read the book before reads the corrected galleys. Once the galleys are approved, they can be put in their final format, be it paper or pixels. And there may need to be different designs for each.
When my publisher brought out Into the Wilderness, we went through all these stages. Despite professional copy-editing and professional proofreading, my cold reader found an instance of “waived” where it should have been “waved” (we changed it), but even he missed one place where I’d written “Ruth” (my daughter’s name) instead of “Rose” (the name of my character). Readers have found one other error – not bad for 100,000 words. Mostly, it was a beautiful edition that is now out of print (but still available electronically).
This covers most of the text block – but not all. There’s still the front matter and back pages to consider: Front matter includes: Half title, Full title, Copyright, Table of Contents, Introduction, Acknowledgments, and Dedication. Back matter follows the text block: Epilogue, Glossary, Endnotes, Index. (Some authors place their acknowledgments in back, as well as an “About the Author” page.) Every element of these pages has to be designed, set and proofed.
But even when the text block is complete, you’re not done: a book needs a cover – and a spine and a back cover. But this is well outside my bailiwick. I’m glad to write the books – and to leave the design elements to someone with the talent and know-how to make a beautiful edition.