A Guide to the Process of Book Publishing

By Karl Kaussen

Some time ago, a number of questions about literary contracts and book publishing were discussed on the NCTA Members e-mail list. Longtime member and former NCTA vice president Karl Kaussen addressed the topic in a detailled message. We thought his contribution was interesting enough to be published again here.-ed.

Working with an Acquisitions Editor

The acquisitions editor will orient you to the basic workings of the company you choose, help you get your manuscript in shape, handle all contractual questions, and, finally, help put your book on the production schedule.

The Contract

Most companies have an author contract that is relatively uncomplicated. It is important that all aspects of the signed contract be honored. It is a violation of the contract to submit a completed manuscript that doesn’t fit the original conception of the book. If your book begins to move in an unanticipated direction, get in touch with the acquisitions editor immediately to avoid any contractual complications.

The contract usually states that there will be an editorial review at the halfway point between the signing of the contract and the deadline for the completed manuscript. This clause is usually written to require the review of a substantial portion of the book, as well as a chapter-by-
chapter summary of the book. This developmental review will give you an opportunity to get feedback from an editor while your book is still a work in progress. This is to ensure that everyone involved in the project shares the same vision for the final draft of the book, and that your tone, organization, and style will fit with that vision.


An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) must be assigned to each book under a system established by the R.R. Bowker Company and the International Standards Organization (ISO). The ISBN uniquely identifies each book, for order fulfillment and computer tracking of inventory. It is the publisher’s responsibility to assign each book an ISBN.


A book in manuscript form is automatically covered by copyright law. The Copyright Act of 1989 does not require that published works carry a copyright notice in order to secure copyright protection, but most publishers continue to carry the notice. Most companies register for the copyright upon the first printing of their books. The usual notice consists of the symbol ©, the year the book is published, and the name of the copyright owner. Most publishers also include the phrase, “All rights reserved,” to ensure protection for the book under the Buenos Aires Convention, to which the United States and most Latin American countries belong. The author’s name appears on the copyright page, with the name and address of the publisher listed below. This indicates that the author holds the copyright, but the publisher has the right to publish the book. Subsequent editions (as distinct from reprintings) of a book are each copyrighted, and their dates should appear in the copyright notice. If the new edition has been extensively revised, so as to constitute a new publication, all previous copyright dates may be omitted. For more on this subject, consult The Chicago Manual of Style, Fourteenth Edition, which is our source for this information.


As an author, you are responsible for obtaining all permissions for your book. The following subsections outline how to determine what kind of material needs permission and how to go about obtaining it.

When Permission Is Needed

Permission is needed for the following:
– More than three hundred words of copyrighted prose from a single source. This includes a single quotation of three hundred words or more as well as scattered quotations that total more than three hundred words.
– As little as one line of poetry, of a play, or of song lyrics under copyright
– Newspaper and magazine articles used in significant proportion to their length
– Any material that is complete in itself-a short newspaper article, a picture, a graph, or a table
– A secondary source-that is, a prose quote or lyrics from another source under copyright within a selection you are reprinting by permission
– Unpublished material (protected by common law copyright)
– A recent translation. A translation constitutes a new work and may be copyrighted even though the original work is in the public domain.
– Photographs, tables, and graphs. Permission is necessary to (1) use a photograph under copyright, or a table or graph from a copyrighted source, or (2) adapt a table or graph from one that is under a copyright.

Under current U.S. copyright law, which covers works published after January 1, 1978, an edition of a work is protected for a period equaling the lifetime of the last surviving author plus
fifty years. Works published before this date are subject to the former term, which was twenty-eight years after publication, renewable once for an additional twenty-eight years. British copyright law protects a work for fifty years following the death of the author.

When Permission Is Not Needed

Under certain circumstances permission is not needed, primarily when a work is in the public domain, or when the borrowing occurs within the bounds of fair use.

Public Domain

A work in the public domain is not covered by copyright and may be used without permission. A work is in the public domain only if:
– Its copyright has expired. However, keep in mind that a recent translation is viewed as a new copyright.
– It has never been copyrighted. This category includes most U.S. government documents and publications, as well as public speeches made by officials of the U.S. government. However, many works published by the Government Printing Office are not in the public domain. If you are in doubt, write to the agency or organization that prepared the work, not to the GPO.

Fair Use

Unfortunately, copyright law provides no clear definition of fair use. It is considered fair use for writers to quote from another author’s copyrighted work as long as they do not quote out of context or quote so much material that “the value of the source” is diminished, and provided that proper credit is given to the author quoted. Your own work is not excepted if you do not hold copyright.

How To Obtain Permission

You must request permission in writing from the appropriate copyright holders of the works you are using. The copyright holder is identified on the copyright page of a book or a journal; if a book copyright is held by the author, you should begin with the publisher. In the case of a magazine or journal article, permission is usually needed from the author as well as the publisher. The publisher will advise you if such permission is needed and can usually supply the last known address of the author. Address all permission requests to the permissions department of the publisher, not to an editor, and include all requests for that publisher in the same mailing, if possible.

Publishers’ addresses can be found in the Literary Market Place, an annual book that is available in most libraries and many bookstores. The permissions process can take some time, so it is best to begin writing for permissions by the time you begin to prepare the final draft of your manuscript at the latest. If you have trouble locating a copyright owner, or if permission is refused, you will need to find substitute material and perhaps obtain permission for that. Some publishers will charge a fee for granting permission to reprint material. Be sure to check with the acquisitions editor before signing any agreements. Permission fees are either paid for by you or charged against your royalties, unless your contract states otherwise.

Eight Tips for Requesting Permissions

1. Request early-there will be delays!
2. You must seek permission if the work is not in the public domain or considered
fair use.
3. Request permission whether or not the works are in print; remember that “out-of-print” does not necessarily mean “in the public domain.”
4. Document all your efforts.
5. Be wary of additional copyright embedded in the material.
6. Ask if there are additional conditions for getting the copyright holder’s permission.
7. Direct your request to the publisher’s copyright/permissions department, not the author or the editorial department.

The Editorial Process

The editorial process happens in two steps. The first begins approximately halfway between the time you sign your contract and the time your final manuscript is due, when you’ll send in a partial rough draft of the book. Your contract will stipulate how much of the manuscript needs to be sent in at this point-typically, half of the manuscript and a complete annotated outline. Your manuscript will probably receive a developmental edit to ensure that you’re on target in terms of content, tone, and organization. Once the developmental editor has gone over the material, all suggestions, questions, and comments will be sent back to you with your manuscript. This preview of your material will also be used to begin matching you with a copyeditor.

The second step begins once you’ve completed your manuscript and sent a double-spaced hard copy and disk (along with bibliography, art, and any permissions you needed to secure) to the acquisitions editor to meet the deadline specified in your contract. This second part of the editorial process involves teamwork-you and your copyeditor work together toward a common goal of making your book the best it can be. The copyeditor receives our manuscript, along with any information she or he will need to gain further insight into the subject and purpose of your book. After the editor has reviewed the manuscript and contacted you to discuss deadlines and any scheduling problems or conflicting obligations you might have, editing begins.

In this pass, the editor checks everything -the manuscript is read for sense, clarity, consistency, spelling, grammar, and tone. Changes are made and queries are written as needed, and then sent to you. This pass is sometimes done in batches, which means the editor sends you a third to a half of the edited manuscript to work on while she or he is completing the other part(s). Your job, when you receive the edited manuscript, is to respond clearly to all queries and make sure that you agree with all of the changes the editor has made. This is also the point at which rewriting, adding, or deleting text is still an option. Everything should be read carefully; after this step, the text will be in page proofs and substantial changes cannot be made.

You and your editor will have agreed upon a time frame in which you must complete this pass in order to meet your next deadline. You’ll usually have two or three weeks to complete the task. After you send the manuscript back, your editor will go through every page incorporating your changes and preparing it for the next stage in the process: production. The duration of the second step of the editorial process depends on the length of your book and condition of your manuscript and can last anywhere from five weeks to two months.

The Production Process

The production process begins when your edited manuscript is turned over to typesetting, where it is word processed and typestyle design is established. The typeset pages along with the style sheet, design template, table of contents, and any other relevant information are sent to a proofreader. Any questions the proofreader has are either answered by the editor or left on query tags on the pages to be answered by you, the author.

You’ll receive these pages three to seven weeks after the book comes in to production, and will have one to two weeks to read this pass, answering all queries and making any necessary minor changes. Your corrections and changes are incorporated, and second proof pages are then sent to the proofreader. The proofreader reads the second proofs against the first proofs. This part of the process takes between two and four weeks. The proofreader then returns all copies of the book to the publisher, and at this point the final changes are inserted. The final corrections are proofed by a new proofreader, who also reads the book for any problems that might have been missed. A typesetter makes these corrections, checks them, and sends the book to the printer, all of which takes about two to three weeks. Once it’s been sent to the printer, you can expect to see your book in four to six weeks.

The Royalty Process

Author’s royalty statements are processed quarterly each year, in April (for January-March), July (for April-June), October (for July-September), and January (for October-December). Royalty statements, which are accountings of receipts from net sales and licensing of your work by the publisher, and payments are mailed out during the weeks following these quarters. The royalty statement does not report all sales for the quarter-only paid net sales.

For foreign edition sales, your author’s contract usually entitles you to receive half of all royalties received by the publisher. Foreign rights contracts typically include an advance sum, usually equal to royalties on the retail value of 50 percent of the edition’s total print run. (For example, if a book sells to a Spanish publisher who is printing 5,000 copies, and the book sells for $2 in Spain, and the royalty rate is 8 percent, then the advance amount would be $400, of which you would receive half. If an agent had been involved with the transaction, a 10 percent commission would also be deducted from the advance, making the advance amount $360.) Royalty rates for foreign editions typically range from 6 to 10 percent of the publisher’s sales.

This description of the publishing process is only an approximation. Particulars may vary, depending on which publisher you use for your book.