What writers need to know about the assessing, editing
and publishing process
Q: What length should my book be?
A: If you are a debut fiction author then keep your word count under 100,000 words. Between 80-90,000 words is the average length of a novel. A top literary novel can be 70,000 words. A debut novel of over 100,000 words needs to be of exceptional quality and originality and to have a high or exciting concept to be favourably accepted by a publisher. The longer the book, the greater the publisher’s cost of production – editing, typesetting, layout, proofing and printing. This will also apply if you decide to self-publish. In this tough publishing environment, particularly if you are a new author, you will struggle to get a publisher to read a novel of over 100,000 words.
Q: Do I need to write a synopsis?
A: Yes, you must write a synopsis. You will need to supply a short synopsis if your manuscript is submitted to a publisher. Aim for no more than one page in length. A synopsis is a summary or outline of what your book is about. It serves as a road map to help to crystallise your ideas about the focus of your novel. It shows the narrative arc of the story. It needs to be written in a way that is compelling. It will identify any changes in your main character and/or their circumstances through the progression of the novel.
Q: How do I select which publisher to approach?
A: Do your homework first. Spend time in bookshops becoming familiar with which publishers are producing books of the type you are writing. Research publishers’ websites and study their latest releases. Does your writing fit within their areas of specialty?
Q: How do I submit a manuscript to a publisher?
A: If you don’t have a literary agent, then carefully check each publisher’s website for their submission requirements. They are generally very specific and will vary a little from publisher to publisher. A short synopsis and a bio are usually mandatory. Spend time on crafting your cover note – not too long. Make sure that all three items are polished and proofed. A publisher is unlikely to be interested if they receive a cover note that is misspelt and ungrammatical in its construction. Some publishers may prefer to receive only the first three chapters, rather than a complete manuscript – ensure you check in advance.
Q: How do I decide to self-publish?
A: Authors generally only self-publish if they have not been successful in being accepted by a commercial publisher. A publisher bears the cost of the book’s production, marketing and distribution. If you are self-publishing you will bear the cost of copy editing, design, typesetting, proofing, printing and marketing. If you plan to produce an e-book rather than printing hard copies then you will still require professional editing and proofing and a dynamic cover design. Plus, you will need to market your book to your readers.
Q: What is the difference between a manuscript assessor and a copy editor?
A: A manuscript assessor will identify any issues that need further revising in characterisation and overall structure and provide an informed, impartial and professional opinion of an author’s work in a written report. This report will cover the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, and provide suggestions on how to improve and rework it towards a publishable standard. If the work is fiction, an assessment will include comments on specific points including characterisation, plot, structure, dialogue, setting, voice and style. An assessor should be an experienced reader of the genre in which the writer client is writing and have an appreciation of their target readership.
A copy editor will provide a line-by-line edit of the manuscript. This includes correcting any errors in grammar, spelling, usage and style, checking sentence and paragraph length and ensuring consistency in how words and phrases are used or not used throughout the manuscript. A copy editor will check the spelling of names, places and things. He or she may also identify any potential legal issues in a book, such as breach of copyright and defamation. A copy editor does not undertake research or seek permission to reproduce copyrighted material. These are the author’s responsibility.
Q: What is the difference between a copy editor and a proof reader?
A copy editor will provide a line-by-line edit of the manuscript as above. This includes correcting any errors in grammar, spelling, usage and style, checking sentence and paragraph length and ensuring consistency in how words and phrases are used or not used throughout the manuscript.
A proof reader will undertake a comprehensive read of the typeset pages prior to the book being printed. It needs to be someone who has never read the book previously and therefore has fresh eyes. This person will pick up any errors that have occurred during the typesetting process (particularly in the conversion from Word PC file to Mac InDesign file) or which may have been missed by the copy editor. This process is absolutely vital prior to printing a book.
Q: At what stage do the copy editing and proofreading take place?
A: The editing takes place after a manuscript assessment and after intensive revising on the part of the author. The proofreading takes place after the book has been edited, designed and typeset – immediately prior to the book being printed or converted into an e-book.
Q: Should the editor and the proofreader be two different people?
A: Definitely. They require two different skill sets. You’ll get the best result with proofreading if this person has never previously read your manuscript and can approach it with a fresh, objective set of eyes.
Q: Do I need a literary agent to represent me:
A: If you are a NZ writer submitting to a NZ publisher it is not essential to have an agent - although if you do secure a reputable agent this may get your manuscript reader sooner by a publisher. However, if you are a NZ writer submitting to international publishers then securing a literary agent to represent your work is absolutely essential.
Q: How do I find a literary agent?
A: One way is to look in the acknowledgements page of the books by authors writing in your genre. They will usually include mention of their agent. Otherwise, you’re left with trawling through literary agent sites on the internet. In New Zealand there are very few literary agents.
Q: Can I make multiple enquiries to literary agents?
A: Yes, as it may take considerable time to receive a response, if indeed you receive one. You’ll lose a lot of time if you submit one query at a time and then wait for responses. Beware if any overseas agent asks you for money. They should receive their income from a percentage of their published authors’ royalties for books they have contracted.
Q: Can I make multiple submissions to a publisher?
A: Yes, but it’s customary to tell all of them if you have done so. In NZ, where there are few publishing houses remaining, the main commercial publisher can take up to four months to respond after you have submitted your manuscript. You will need to develop patience and a thick skin.
Q: Will I make money if I self-publish my book?
A: There are no guarantees that you will sell more widely than your family and friends. Most self-published authors struggle to recoup the cost of production from their sales. You will need to include the cost of marketing in your production budget.
Q: Is it cheaper to produce an e-book than a printed hard-copy book?
A: Yes, but not totally. The main cost you will save by producing an e-book rather than hard copies is the cost of printing. To ensure that your e-book is of a quality publishing standard you will still need to commission an assessor, a copy editor, a cover designer and typesetter, a proof reader and a marketing person. Failure to enlist professional expertise in any of these areas will result in a sub-standard book.