Behind the Scenes of Traditional Publishing

What happens after you get an agent? Who's who in the world of publishing? What's the life cycle of a book? This condensed guide will dive into the process of traditional publishing.

Before I began working in publishing, all I knew about the process was this:

Editor edits your story > ???? > book is printed and sold in stores > profit $$$

Now that I’m three years into my position in the editorial department at a big 5, I’m happy to (attempt to) demystify the book making process as best as I can.

As someone on both sides of publishing—an agented writer and a cog in the machine—I’d like to try to offer my perspective of what happens to a book in traditional publishing.

Disclaimer: this is neither a criticism nor a commendation of traditional publishing. Processes may vary by house and imprint.

The Pitch

An agent will send the submission to an editor for consideration. Some imprints may choose to decide as a group whether or not the project should be acquired. As such, the work may need to impress more than just the pitched editor.

The Numbers

If the editor or editorial group agree to acquire the title, it’s time to run a profit and loss statement. Some factors that could be included in the costs are: page count, paper stock, print run, specs (embossing/UV spot gloss/foil), hired freelancers (illustrators/fact checkers/copyeditors/translators), printer location, and estimated royalties, advances, and miscellaneous fees.

The Acquisition

Once the estimated costs are calculated, the title will go to acquisitions. The editor will need to defend their choice to acquire the title against sales, marketing, and upper management. The title will either pass muster or die in acquisitions.

The Offer

If the title passes acquisitions, the editor and agent will work out the terms of the offer. This includes the advance, royalties, subsidiary rights, option clauses, author copies, future editions, etc.

The Contract

Hooray! A book deal has been made! Contracts will route for signatures and on-signing payments.

The Magic

The editor will write the cover/jacket copy and do any developmental editing with the author. They will then pass the manuscript over to managing editorial for copyediting, fact checking, and/or authenticity reads. After the bulk of editing is done, the manuscript is passed over to design for typesetting and layouts. Then the formatted “pass” (or most updated version of the project) is continually routed between editor, managing editor, and design (and sometimes author and illustrator) until there are no further changes to make.

The Intermission

While the project routes, there’s also behind-the-scenes work like presenting at sales conferences, ordering proof dummies (printed books with blank interiors to determine the accuracy of size and design) or other sales materials, optimizing metadata, paying contributors, writing sales copy, discussing cover concepts, registering the title with the Library of Congress, etc.

The Printing

Once all the changes are made, the files are sent out for final color-corrected proofs. This is the last chance to catch any mistakes. If all is approved, the book gets printed and sent to the warehouse before distribution.

The End

And that’s the condensed life cycle of a book. For an editor, you can multiply this process by ~15 books (depending on imprint) with each title at a different stage in the process. So on an average day, I could be negotiating a contract, preparing for a sales conference, finalizing a title for printing, editing a manuscript, developing IP projects, and reading submissions from agents.

The Departments

Editorial – Acquires and edits titles. Point person for the work.

Managing Editorial – The unsung heroes who manage the workflow of the projects and make sure they are on schedule. They are the liaison between design, editorial, and production departments. They copyedit and proofread manuscripts and passes, and ensure high quality reader experience.

Design – In charge of cover design, interior typesetting and layout, illustrator liaisons, and overall line look.

Production – The point person for manufacturing costs, print scheduling, purchase orders, printing, and overall physical manifestation of the book.

Marketing – Often in charge of paid advertising, such as print/digital ads and in-store promotions. Also manages social media, partnerships, and online marketing (metadata).

Publicity – Promotes the book and author via book tours, media outlets, events, and other forms of outreach.

Sales – In charge of placing books into retailers. Sells to buyers and provides feedback to the publisher on what worked and didn’t work for those outlets.

Subsidiary rights – in charge of licensing author’s rights to third parties (ie, for audiobooks, foreign editions, movies, book club editions, theme parks, and more).

(There are other departments like publishing operations, contracts, digital production, etc., but I don’t know much about them tbh)


Copyediting vs Proofreading – Copyediting is the correction of grammar, syntax, sense, and consistency in a text. Proofreading in publishing ensures that the changes from one pass is made in the next (ie, confirming that the text changes in a Word doc are implemented in the formatted layout) and that the pass is free of errors and is optimal for reader experience.

The Reader Experience – going into more detail about this because I have mad respect for man ed. Aside from making sure the text is consistent and coherent (and overall project management), man ed also fixes:

  • orphans (a single word that drops to the next line that is shorter than the indent)
  • widows (sentences that rollover on the following page that are shorter than a 3/4 of a line)
  • stacks (same words or letters at the end of 3 or more lines that “stack” on top of each other)
  • incorrect hyphenations (ie, breaking the word “people” at a line break as “peo-ple”)
  • headers and footers, tight or loose kerning, page count, and more

These are little details that many people might not think about until they read a book with bad typesetting and inconsistent style. Man ed catches these and optimizes the reader experience for each title, while also copyediting, proofreading, and managing projects between departments. Bless them.


The function of metadata is to make a title discoverable online and appealing to the consumer. Here are some basic metadata practices:

BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) codes – a method of categorizing books.

Be as specific as possible when selecting BISACs and rank them in order of relevance and importance. Subcategories will cover general categories, so avoid being broad and repetitive (e.g., Animals/General and Animals/Dogs & Cats. The latter will cover the former). Sites like NPD Bookscan can tell you a title’s BISAC codes and sales.

Keywords – relevant and useful terms that describe the content of the work.

Some examples include themes, genres, character types, setting, and age groups. Also consider alternate spellings and synonyms. Avoid keywords that are too specific or broad. Some web browser extensions like KDSpy can reveal keywords and sales information for comparative works.

Product Description – the descriptive copy for a title. Try to use relevant keywords in the first 100 words.

Start with a brief headline of any relevant awards, reviews, or quotes. Don’t make this too long as it will push down the descriptive copy, particularly on mobile. Follow up with a keynote that includes any significant information that will further compel the reader. Continue with the story description. Space out your paragraphs so it does not appear as a block of text on mobile.

Overall, write your metadata for the reader. Use reader-specific language as opposed to publishing jargon. 


There is so much more that goes into the process, but I’m over the word count now so I’ll end it here. Hope this was helpful! I’m happy to chat more and answer any questions. Thanks, all!



Editor edits your story > ??? > book is printed and sold in stores > profit $$$

Yeah, the old “underpants gnome” system of economics is just how I have described publishing of any kind:

Step 1: Write book
Step 2: …
Step 3: Profit!

It’s good to hear a little of the inside scoop on the ‘step 2’ part!

Sep-18 2023


It’s interesting that “Numbers” appears so early in the process, including page count.

Word count is a subject that comes up often in the forums, usually when a new author has written a long novel. Someone will express concern that it’s too long and that could lead to rejection, whereas others will argue, “If the novel is good, the publisher won’t care about the length”.

I’d be curious to know how much influence print costs have on the likelihood of acceptance.

Sep-18 2023


Thank you for sharing these insights.

Sep-18 2023


Thanks for offering your insights on the process. Seems there are many hoops to jump through.

Sep-18 2023



Sep-18 2023


Thanks so much for this. Very thorough and informative.

Sep-18 2023


Really useful. Thank you so much!!

Sep-18 2023


Very interesting. Thanks for sharing :smiley:

Sep-18 2023


Thanks for sharing this inside glimpse. Its hard to glean this kind of info being outside the inner sanctum…

Sep-19 2023


Thanks for the insights. I always wondered about the process. There are so many different opportunities for employment within the publishing industry that i never knew about. You’re in a fascinating industry!

Sep-19 2023


This was a really interesting piece. I generally don’t read these, but the topic was intriguing. Thank you so much for sharing.

Sep-19 2023


Sorry for the late reply. It’s sales conference week :melting_face:

It really depends on the format. For a picture book, for example, they can run from 32-48 pages with up to 1,000 words. Established authors get more leeway with the word count.

Longer books run on signatures of 8/16/32/48/64. So if a book has an awkward amount of text to the point where we’re wasting 10 blank pages, we’d have to ask the author to cut down or fill up the pages.

But yes, I have gotten feedback as a writer that publishers are trying to cut down on production costs, so page count/word count does matter.

Sep-20 2023


Thanks for the insight! Now back to my writing and not worrying about this because it might change one or two years from now when I might actually deal with it anyway.

Sep-20 2023


Thank you! Very interesting. Umm, what’s a “man ed.”

Sep-20 2023


Sorry, managing editorial. Man ed for short.


Edit: some houses have merged man ed with production, so sometimes they are called production editors.

Sep-20 2023


Thank you Luluo for the info. Very useful. Lots of moving parts.

Sep-22 2023


Unvarnished and simplified! A winning combo. Thank you.

Oct-09 2023
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