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The Joys of Prepublication


Now that I have submitted my manuscript American Environmentalism to the publisher, I must endure the joys of the prepublication process. Many people think about the task of writing a book and the day when it is published, but they do not consider the steps in between. Yet a lot of important activities happen between writing a book and seeing it in print. I thought it would be instructive to discuss the process.

Please note that I am discussing my own experiences working with academic publishers. If a writer self-publishes or uses a commercial press, his or her experiences will be different. I can only speak about my own situation.

When the author submits the completed manuscript to his or her acquisitions editor, the editor reviews the submission to ensure that it meets the specifications in the book proposal. If the contract called for the book to be between 90,000 and 100,000 words, the editor expects the deliverable to conform to those terms. If the writer was supposed to cover subjects A, B, and C, the editor needs to see those topics discussed in the finished manuscript. Photographs and other illustrations, if applicable, must be of suitable quality. All permission letters must be in hand so the illustrations can be published. Assuming that no major deviations or problems exist, the acquisitions editor will pass the file over to an editorial review board.

The composition and duties of an editorial review board differ slightly from one academic publisher to another. The board can consist of a handful of in-house staffers or it can be a dozen reviewers, some of whom are consultants from outside the publishing company. The board’s job is to determine whether the manuscript is ready to move to the next stage of the prepublication process. At this point, the board may ask for rewrites, change the title of the book, veto a proposed chapter or photograph, or decide that the manuscript is unpublishable in its current form.

If the group is satisfied that the manuscript meets the terms and conditions of the original contract and is of sufficient quality to merit publication, board members authorize the acquisitions editor to continue with the prepublication process.

Some academic publishers send the manuscript to anywhere between one and six outside peer reviewers who are experts in the subject matter of the book. Sometimes the peer reviewers will have already seen the original book proposal; however, that is not always the case. In some instances, the peer reviewers will not see the manuscript until the author has submitted what he or she believes to be the finished, polished product.

After receiving written assessments from the peer reviewers, the acquisitions editor sends a report to the author with detailed information and directions on revising the manuscript. In their assessments, peer reviewers frequently recommend substantive changes. If the author is fortunate, the changes will be relatively minor and can be handled in a number of hours, days, or weeks. Occasionally, the peer reviewers offer a stinging rebuke. If they believe the author has not produced a high-quality manuscript, they can recommend that the press not publish the finished product. This regrettable situation occurred with my book Coming for to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow in 2010. One peer reviewer loved the manuscript and one hated it. The University Press of Florida chose to follow the advice of the peer reviewer who hated the manuscript. Therefore, the acquisitions editor withdrew her support. “I am sorry but I cannot proceed any further with this book,” she wrote. “Pursuant to clauses 5 and 18 of the agreement dated May 8, 2008, I am terminating the agreement. I wish you luck in finding a suitable publisher of this work. I am sorry it will not be us.” At the time, I was devastated. Fortunately, the story had a happy ending. I found a new publisher within months and the book, which originally was slated to be published in December 2011, appeared on schedule, albeit with a different publisher.

Such is life. Surviving peer review can be tough, but it is necessary. The good news is that a devastating peer review that causes the press to vitiate the contract is a rarity, at least in my experience.

After the treacherous peer review process is completed, the acquisitions editor typically sends the book to the production department. A production editor takes over from the acquisitions editor and assigns tasks to the appropriate staffers. The marketing department will establish a plan for publicizing the book. The art department will design a cover and interior graphics, as appropriate. A copy editor will comb through the manuscript searching out grammatical errors, mangled syntax, misspellings, missing citations, and other relatively minor errors. During this review, the copy editor may request additional information about missing citations or request that the author review suggested changes in grammar and syntax. The process can last anywhere from a few weeks to many months.

The production editor also establishes a schedule and produces page proofs, which typically consist of a .pdf file showing the pages as they will appear in the final manuscript. The author must now slog his or her way through the proofs. Because this is the final opportunity to catch factual and typographical errors, awkward, clunky sentences, and unclear or missing data, the author is well-advised to work slowly and methodically through the text. Unless the author has hired someone to prepare the index, he or she must begin this laborious process as well. I have prepared the index for most of my books, and invariably this is the most tedious, mind-numbingly dull part of the prepublication process. Nonetheless, proofreading and indexing are among the most important tasks in preparing a nonfiction book for publication. At a minimum, it takes two weeks to suffer through these chores. Ideally, a month is allowed.

After proofreading the pages and preparing the index, the author submits the final manuscript to the production editor. Typically, a copy editor or another professional reads the manuscript one final time. At this stage, the copy editor may come back with questions such as, “why did you cite Source A in endnote 27, but cite a different source for the same proposition in endnote 35?” After these final problems are resolved, the file is ready to be produced as the final book. It can take anywhere from one to four months before the book appears in print after the last review.

If the prepublication process sounds tortuous and maddening, that is because it is. In a best-case scenario, the process is completed within six months. Yet sometimes the process can extend beyond a year, especially if the acquisitions or production editor is reassigned or leaves the press during this time. On several occasions, I have been dismayed when a thoughtful, supportive, meticulous editor departed before my book appeared in print.

Multiple problems can and will develop along the journey. When I first began writing for publication during the 1990s, I naïvely assumed that researching and writing the manuscript would be the most difficult and challenging aspects of the process. While they remain sources of great frustration, researching and writing are only part of the process. At least in those endeavors, the author retains control of the important variables. After submitting the manuscript to the publisher, the author must await the verdict of the acquisitions editor, the editorial review board, assorted peer reviewers, the marketing department, the production editor, the copy editor, and the production department. Presumably, everyone involved shares a single goal, namely producing the best book possible. However, owing to divergent opinions, determining what constitutes the best book possible often becomes a source of great consternation.

The wonder of book publishing is that a thoughtful, well-researched, well-written book ever appears in the first place.

Writing and publishing a book are not for the faint of heart.


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