Stephen Power has been a book editor for more than twenty years. He is currently a senior editor at Amacom, where he edited my book The Healthy Workplace. Since our first meeting in New York City a year ago I have always been impressed by his knowledge of editing and writing. Now he’s also a novelist. His first book, a fantasy novel called The Dragon Round, launched this month–literally the same week as mine!–so I figured now was the perfect time to drill him on how publishing works and his best advice for authors.
LS: Stephen, if you are at a dinner party, what do you tell people you do?
SSP: I always say I’m a book editor. I don’t really identify myself as an author yet. I actually wrote poetry for 15 years and never told anyone about it because I thought they’d just look at me funny. I published 70 or so poems, in very reputable journals, but I didn’t walk around saying, “I’m a poet,” because then I’d have to wear poet clothes with pointy shoes and ruffled shirts. When I started writing a novel, I didn’t really tell anyone about that either because… what if I failed? If I couldn’t sell my novel then I’d be worse than a novelist, I’d be a failed novelist. So, until I sold it, I didn’t tell anyone, including my parents.
LS: What do people say when you tell them you are a book editor?
SSP: They think it’s pretty interesting. I edit business books, including some really popular ones. Probably the best-selling book I ever edited is called The Greatest Joke Book Ever when I worked at Avon Books. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has all of my favorite jokes in it. I edited the paperback version of The Legend of Bagger Vance, which is amazing. At Wiley I edited two books by Keith Olbermann, a book by Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots, one by Don Felder, the guitarist of the Eagles, a book by Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, and Kee Malesky who was an NPR librarian, as well as golf books by Hank Haney, who was Tiger Woods’ golf teacher, and Jim McLean.
LS: Wow! Did you get to meet these people or was all of your interaction with them virtual?
SSP: You know, most of my work is by email because most questions that authors ask are very transactional. But what struck me becoming a business book publisher was how important it is for business people to meet people they work with. One author flew to New York City to have breakfast with me. Another wanted to Skype from Germany. They’ve made me more conscious about making a personal connection with others.
LS: How do you go about finding business authors?
SSP: Books come to me from three sources: directly from the authors themselves (what the industry calls “slush”), from agents, or sometimes I will commission titles. I just did a book with Joel Peterson who is the chairman of JetBlue and one of the most trusted business leaders. I saw he was writing a series of articles on trust for LinkedIn and it was getting tens of thousands of views and shares. I called him and we put a book together called The 10 Laws of Trust that expanded his articles. He has got a lot of publicity for it and the book is starting to sell nicely.
LS: Do any of the authors you work with write full-time?
SSP: Not really. Most are business people who are writing a book to spread their ideas, show their authority on a subject, or use the book as part of their businesses platform. Very few are full time writers and if they are, they’re full time writers in the business press or they’re academics who are writing about a subject they know well. That is important for nonfiction business publishing because Barnes and Noble and other retailers want to see that you know something about the topic you are writing about. You need credibility in your field to make it to the business book shelf.
LS: Why does it take so darned long to get a book published?
SSP: Here’s the thing: Many people think you can publish a book in a day. That you can write it and, without having it edited, copyedited or even proofread, hit “publish” and it’s for sale. But the process of publishing a book involves different levels of craft. It’s more than just putting it out there.
LS: Take us through the process.
SSP: Let’s say you hand me a draft manuscript. Here are the steps it goes through:
- Editing. This can take several months. First I’ll do a global edit of a manuscript, then, once the author revises it, I’ll do a more painstaking line edit. Then we may tweak it some more. Some authors write very clean, and one round of editing does the job. Other manuscripts are more problematic. I’ve had a few go through five rounds to get them right. Once the manuscript is final, then it goes to production—and I request the author’s delivery and acceptance check.
- Copy editing. A copy editor spends maybe four weeks reviewing the manuscript word by word, letter by letter, comma by comma to make sure everything is grammatically and mechanically correct, that the writing make sense, that there are no inconsistencies, that what you are saying is actually what you want to say. The author gets a couple weeks to review the copyeditors, then the copy editors takes more time to make sure everything’s fixed.
- Design. While the manuscript is being copy edited, the page designer creates the look of the book’s interior, often working from a model book or two suggested by the editor. Sample pages are marked by the editor and others at the publisher, then the pages are revised until everyone agrees on the look. Then, once copyediting is completed, the manuscript is set into galley pages.
- Galley pages. Now the manuscript is starting to look like a book. The author gets a week to review the first pass of the pages to make sure no mistakes were introduced, to see that all their corrections to the copyedited manuscript were made, and to make any last changes. Production also looks through the pages too. From the first pass pages bound galleys for reviewers are made, which is why they are always marked “uncorrected.” After they are corrected, production goes through the second pass pages. When these are approved, the “final files” are sent to the printer.
- Printing. The printer has its own steps to make sure the book looks right: blues, then the F&Gs (folded and gathered pages). Publishers used to see these, but we don’t anymore. Printing can take four to six weeks.
- Shipping. After printing, your book comes off press and then that has to be shipped to stores. The publication comes from us adding three or four weeks to the ship date because we have to make sure the book gets from the printer to our warehouse,, from the warehouse to the independent stores and distribution centers for the major retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and from the boxes in the store’s back rooms to the shelves out front.
- Ebooks. When the final files are sent to the printer, they are also sent to the ebook converter. This process can take another week or two depending on the complexity of the design, and production reviews the ebooks to make sure the book looks as good on the screen as it does on the page. Critics often complain that ebooks should be cheaper because their marginal cost is, supposedly zero. What these people fail to appreciate is that the price of the ebook has to take into account the productions costs of the project in general, as well as those associated with ebook conversion. These costs aren’t nothing just because the ebook isn’t printed and shipped.
In a nutshell, book publication is a very long process because there are a significant number of steps that go into creating a thoughtfully crafted, error-free piece of work. Yes, the length of the production process can be shortened—the 9/11 commission report was published a few days after it was released—but that can cost a ton of money.
LS: That is a great explanation, thanks. I hope it puts publishing in perspective for people and gives everyone more of an appreciation for what goes into making the books they buy! So, to pivot a bit, you’re now on the other side of the table as a writer, what’s that been like?
SSP: It is daunting because writing is very hard. If I hadn’t come up with system for writing progressively longer and more detailed outlines, I don’t know if I could have written The Dragon Round. You can read about it here. Editing and revising, though, that I find more fun. I just wrote a whole article on editing which might be helpful to your readers. When you’re editing, you have to put the book outside yourself. You can no longer think of it as a piece of you or something you created. You have to imagine that some dude with words on a page handed you this, and now you have to make it better. This makes it easier because there is no ego involved.
LS: I agree you need a system and a real discipline for writing a book. And sometimes you need to know when to abandon what you’ve written altogether!
SSP: You have to know when to stop and to say “this isn’t worth it.” For non-fiction works in particular, I gave a presentation at the first Business Writers Conference called “The Why of the Buy,” which is about how to create a business model for your book before you even write it. My advice is, don’t write a book that no one wants to buy, however much you want to write it. So think of yourself not as an author, but as an entrepreneur with a product, and what does an entrepreneur do before developing a product? They create a business model to see if it’s worth making the effort. Is there an audience? Who is the audience? Can I reach that audience? Fiction is a little different. You have to study trends and the fiction market place to see what people are going to want. For example, many publishers don’t want to buy vampire or zombie books right now – they have already saturated the market. You’ve got to ask yourself, what’s next? That said, don’t write a book you don’t want to write because there’s a market for it. You’ll have no fun, and that will show up in the book, making it lousy.
LS: Where do you go to research that kind of thing?
SSP: I recommend to every author that they get a subscription to Publishers Marketplace which shows recent book deals made by publishers. You can see two years into the future of what will be hitting bookshelves.
LS: So tell us about The Dragon Round!
SSP: It’s The Count of Monte Cristo with a dragon. The main character is a ship captain, there is a mutiny on the ship, and he is set adrift with the ship’s apothecary, who won’t be a party to the crime by staying. They wash up on a desert island, find a dragon egg and realize it could be their ticket off the island. The captain also realizes it could be the ticket to his taking revenge on his mutinous mates—something the poth will also not be a party too. I’m working on the sequel, The Dragon Tower, now.
So there you have it, the 411 on publishing and writing, straight from my editor’s mouth! If you want to connect with Stephen, pitch him your business book idea, or find out what he’s writing next, connect with him here:
On email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
On Twitter: @stephenspower
On LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-s-power-a0a7243
On his website: http://stephenspower.com/