How a book goes from acquisitions to bookstore shelves

From Nathan Bransford:

[Let’s discuss] the journey from the contract to bookstore shelves.

It’s a longer journey than you might think! One common misconception about publishing is how fast books come to market or go on-sale. People are often surprised that this process typically takes a year or more. (There are exceptions for books that may be newsworthy and have to be rushed out, which is called a “crash” schedule.) 

Why does it take so much time? Well, a lot is happening behind the scenes over the course of many months to set up the book to give it its best shot to attract a readership. 

The editor’s job is to oversee and coordinate all the facets of that process. In this post, I’ll walk through those steps: 

  • Determining the publication date
  • Editing
  • Launch meeting
  • Production
  • Marketing, publicity and sales
  • Book promotions and publication

For ease, let’s give the book that’s winding its way to readers’ hands a title. How about HOT NEW BOOK?  

Determining the publication date

As soon as HOT NEW BOOK is under contract, one of the first things the editor and his/her colleagues must do is to determine the optimal time to publish it. (Fun fact: all books go on sale on Tuesdays). 

Publishers work in spans or seasons, typically three of them: Summer (books that go on-sale between May and August), Fall (books that go on sale between September and December) and Spring (books that go on sale between January and April.) 

So the editor looks into the future and decides the right season/timing for the book. Different types of books come out at different times. For example, in the Fall, you often have your big franchise writers like John Grisham, or big new cookbooks–offerings that might be good for the holiday gift giving season. In the Spring, you might have prescriptive books that go along with our desire to be better, thinner, more productive people at the start of every year (with mixed results. Just me?). Summer you have your beach reads or escapist thrills. 

There are always exceptions, but that’s a rough idea of how publishers think about the publishing calendar and then look very far ahead to slot books in. Right now (late summer 2021), publishers are gearing up to start planning for books being published next summer (2022). 

Let’s say HOT NEW BOOK is an exciting debut, commercial suspense. A lot of those books have been coming out in Spring, so the editor might tentatively schedule the book for Spring 2023.


First priority, of course, is making sure HOT NEW BOOK is the best book it can be. This may involve months of editorial work. The editor will do a very, very close and comprehensive read of the manuscript and offer detailed edits on the page: line edits of individual sentences and also bigger picture suggestions about characters, plot points, scenes, etc. that will be outlined in an editorial letter. 

The author of HOT NEW BOOK will digest that feedback (after lots of deep breaths and maybe a stiff drink) and then embark on a revision. The editor will read that revision, offer more notes and suggestions to the author, who will revise again and so on until both the author and the editor are happy that the book has reached its fullest possible potential.

Here’s another related question I get a lot: Do editors *really* edit?  The answer is an unequivocal: depends!  

It’s true that some editors are less “on the page” than others. Because of their workload, they might not find it feasible to do rounds and rounds of intensive edits. But the majority of editors do want to have a strong hand in shaping a book. 

. . . .

Launch meeting

And now the work to set up the book begins. First up: publishers have a launch meeting. These happen three times a year to correspond with the seasons.  

At this meeting, the editor gives a presentation about HOT NEW BOOK to the whole publishing team (sales, marketing, publicity, etc.)–what it’s about, what’s special about it, about the author, and why it’s guaranteed to be a success. 

The editor’s job here is to get people in the company excited about that book and eager to read it.  After the meeting, the teams responsible for producing and marketing  need some time to read HOT NEW BOOK (along with all the other books being published by the imprint–another reason it takes time).

. . . .


The art department designs an arresting jacket for HOT NEW BOOK. The first step here is for the editor and art designer to brainstorm about the vision for the cover. The editor will supply examples of comparative jackets that he/she and the author like and then the designer goes off to create.  

The designer will create about 8-12 different options and the whole team (publisher, associate publisher, department heads, editor, etc) will gather in a cover/jacket meeting (usually held weekly) to discuss reactions. Sometimes there’s a clear winner, sometimes none of the options work. Most often some people like some jackets, some people hate some jackets and that’s where it gets fraught. Because everyone has strong opinions about jacket designs/visuals and it’s so subjective. 

After some discussions, usually the team will agree on 1-2 options to show the author.  Whatever the editor’s feelings about the jacket that emerges as the “winner” from this meeting, his/her job is to “sell” it to the author. The message: this is the jacket that the publisher loves, so you should love it too. Alas, that persuasion doesn’t always work and the author and agent may not like the jacket, in which case the whole process starts again.

. . . .

And yet, the jacket is so important to get right, with the whole judging a book by its cover thing!  So it’s worth taking the time. And the deep breaths. 

While that’s happening, the hard-working (and too often unsung) production department is seeing the manuscript through the nitty gritty of copy-editing, proofreading (the book will be proofed about three times), and designing what the interior of the book (the font and page layouts).  

Here’s another fun fact.  Did you know that all books have a page count that is a multiple of 16, 304, 320, etc.? It’s because of the way they cut, bind and print paper at the printer. 

Publicity, marketing, and sales

The publicity team starts strategizing about how to drum up excitement in the media and with events. This involves pitching the book to talk shows, magazines, podcasts and reviewers to get them to cover HOT NEW BOOK. That’s how readers are going to know it even exists!  One of the tools they use is called an ARC (Advance Readers Copy) or galley. These are early versions of the book that look like paperbacks. Months before the hardcover is printed, these are shared with media folks and others to drum up excitement.  

Meanwhile, the marketing team is at work, too. Their job is to promote the book on social media, via advertising, and to drum up excitement with booksellers and librarians. (There is a whole team dedicated to academic marketing too targeting schools, libraries, etc.). Marketing people also send out ARCs/galleys and sometimes they send along little gifts to help HOT NEW BOOK stand out. So if the novel is about a murder at a winery, they might send a mini bottle of wine or a fancy corkscrew along with the galleys. Yes, bribery.  

And now, enter the all important Sales team. There are individuals assigned to work with each of the major retail accounts, i.e. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Target, Hudson, etc. These reps go to these accounts and tell them all about the books the publisher has forthcoming, like HOT NEW BOOK, and urges the retailers to buy a lot of copies (called stock) because the book is sure to be a hit with their customers. The goal for publishers here is to drive up the print run, that’s the initial amount of copies that will be printed and shipped to stores across the country. The higher that number, the more money the publisher makes. 

These accounts buy stock months ahead of time, which requires planning far ahead. And remember bookstores have finite space, so it can be competitive to get them to buy a book and then promote it.

Book promotions and publication

What does promoting mean? That means putting HOT NEW BOOK in front of stores, or featuring it in a newsletter blast, or singling it out as special (remember Borders Discover Picks?  RIP Borders sigh.) All of those promos help customers find HOT NEW BOOK, so the publisher is very keen to get retailers on board. 

The publisher might send the author of HOT NEW BOOK on a tour too, though publishers have become more conservative about book tours.

. . . .

It doesn’t make sense to fly an author from New York to LA, and put him or her up in a hotel only to have four people show up to hear the author read. So publishers are strategic about what events will get a good turnout, via the store’s or the author’s own personal network.  

Of course, most events have been virtual since the pandemic began, which is a very cost effective and convenient way to have events, and will likely continue into the future for that reason.

The goal is that people fall in love with HOT NEW BOOK every step of the way so word of mouth and excitement spreads, with the editor cheering the loudest of all.  

All of this involves an enormous amount of manpower and resources. There are so many books being published and it takes ingenuity, passion, relationships (and a little luck doesn’t hurt) to break through the clutter.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

And then they load cases of HOT NEW BOOK in boxcars and a steam engine takes them to the end of the rail line where they’re taken out of the boxcars and put on wagons pulled by oxen for delivery to the bookstores, hopefully before the winter snows close all the wagon trails.

PG didn’t notice much of anything 21st century about the process described in the OP. It was industrial-age from one end to the other, little changed from the way that Ernie Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald’s books were produced and launched.

In earlier lives, PG was involved in the creation, promotion and release of commercial software and electronic products delivered online. (PG notes that ebooks are pure software products and POD books can be printed at a variety of locations, including locations close to where they will be sold.)

If PG had ever proposed a product launch structured in the manner described in the OP, he would have justifiably been fired on the spot.

22 thoughts on “How a book goes from acquisitions to bookstore shelves”

  1. A proper mid-21st product launch (most widgets, not just pbooks) will most likely be manufactured regionally in or close to where it will sell.
    Late 20th global supply chains are already being phased out for many products and most others will go that way in tbeir own time. That business model was mortally wounded by tbe CCP and given tbe coup d’grace by the pandemic. The grave will be filled in by rising transport costs.

    For a couple decades populists have been crying for “build where you sell”. They’re about to get it.
    They will not enjoy it.

    For pbooks this will mean smaller print runs, more POD, and higher prices. Already starting.
    This *might* lead to a shorter pipeline but not as short as it could be; no matter how efficient the production/distribution gets, the front end will see no change. (The first three post acceptance stages. Plus the pre-acceptance stages.) You simply don’t get a bureaucracy overseeing 10k-plus titles a year to act fast. Gigantism is a handicap all its own and you don’t undo 50 years of consolidation easily, if at all.

    • She’s too busy murdering everyone in Cabot Cove. And then covering it up. (Jessica Fletcher is the greatest serial killer of the 20th century, and she managed to find one or more patsies for every one of her dastardly deeds.)

      Ironically, the local library just (today) added half a dozen mystery e-books by Jessica Fletcher. I suspect they evaded the process described by Mr Bransford, which hasn’t been an accurate description since the 1960s, if only for one very simple and obvious reason: Nobody at a commercial publisher is ever working on only a single book at once, despite the implications of his piece that everything is very direct and personal and clinically obsessive. Not even in the academic division of a commercial press on its flagship book for the year (not just season). And that description of “seasons” goes out the window once one gets outside of “trade”… which is well under 40% of the commercial-publishing market.

      <supercilious-professorial-smirk> Mr Branford, this isn’t even a complete first draft. It may be very early in the term, but your grade will suffer should I see such superficiality in anything submitted as a final paper. </supercilious-professorial-smirk>

      • He does know this. After all, in a previous life he was a superstar literary agent, a writer of some successful YA novels as well as a book on writing. Not sure if he still hosts his own writer’s forum or not, though. He’s more of an insider than anything else.

    • Ms Fletcher can only dream of tbe personalized attention HALLMARK movie author characters get. Things must be very hands on in Canada: one editor per author. 😉

      (As for Cabot Cove, does anybody still live there? Smart folks woukd’ve moved away after the second year of regular murders. More seriosly, that rate of murders may be common in NYC or LA, to say nothing of Chicago, but a small coastal town? If nothing else, the FBI should’ve been called in after the third one.)

  2. Part of the weirdness, for me, is that I’ve read/heard variations on this theme for close on half a century now. Whole new industries have sprung up (and/or faded away) during that time. Yet this is like watching a 1970s TV show – I can appreciate the artistry, sure, and commiserate with the technological/budget constraints, but I wouldn’t get excited about the amazing opportunities on offer…

  3. The only thing that is more annoying than someone presenting the unlikely worst-case scenario as the norm is when someone presents an even unlikelier best-case scenario as the norm.

    The likelihood of someone getting this kind of treatment who isn’t already famous or well-connected is basically nil, and Mr. Bransford should be ashamed of himself for pitching it as the norm.

  4. I’m in the process of preparing for publication a trunk book by a (in his specialty genre) famous writer who can’t get his current publishers interested. (And he has several more ready to go…) We talked about our editing back-and-forth, and I asked him what his edit experience was like with the various well-known publishers that brought out some of his other books.

    The question cracked him up. He used to have regular lunches with some of his industry contacts in NYC, and they told him “reading is the hardest thing you can get an editor to do. For manuscript acceptance, they’ll skim just enough to get an impression and to see if there are triggers (today, that would be wokerei issues) to be aware of. For the real editing work once accepted, they’d rather do anything else (meetings are their favorite activity, where they can preen). Many don’t even pretend to do a line-by-line edit, or even an actual read-through.”

    … which would explain the masses of typos and elementary errors that we all expect editors to catch that make it to market.

    • This isn’t criticism of either Ms Myers or her author/friend/client. It’s an example of the tunnel vision imposed by people thinking that “author” means “trade/usually category fiction.”

      Nothing in Ms Myers’ description matches how even general trade nonfiction is handled by commercial publishers with more than one or two books per year. Not celebrity memoirs, not hot-trend shallowness, not fad-article-expanded-to-book-length-with-dubious-examples, not self-help. And it’s vastly more a committee/team effort than that for almost all of nonfiction.

      Even fiction from major publishers doesn’t resemble what was stated there (for either Mr Bransford’s piece or the unnamed author). It hasn’t since the rise of media-conglomerate ownership, either; authors just don’t see the other stuff, similar to the way that for fine dining a customer might see the maitre d’, waiter, and perhaps sommelier… but none of the kitchen staff, maintenance folk, furniture designers, etc., let alone one farther step back to the fishmonger and greengrocer that the restaurant (“imprint”) depends upon.

      I need a lot more caffeine and patience to express my opinion of false universality about anything in the entertainment industry without descending into language and criticism that would have shocked seasoned NCOs on the flightline as I tore into an aircraft mechanic for sloppy procedures. (Which I’ve done more than once, back during my misspent youth and not-quite-youth.) I’m not going to turn my ire at false universality into something that will be misinterpreted as a personal attack… at least not on someone else’s forum at o-dark-thirty after an overnight power outage. I will, however, award Mr Bransford a nuclear wedgie for that piece of… arrogant, tunnel-visioned, self-serving drivel.

      • Not taking it personally.

        But the only evidence I myself have is the recounting by an author (of mostly trade fiction but a good bit of trade non-fiction, too) of his 30-40 years being published (or not published) and how his contacts within publishers described the internal experience. The man is still current as a contributor of articles to several well-known publications.

        He’s a professional, and has lots of contacts in the industry. Doesn’t mean his experience is necessarily widespread or current or universal.

        But this is a genuine example. For my own musing on a topic, any datum is better than bare opinion. With more data, I create better-informed opinions, but you have to start somewhere. 🙂

        • Also,his case, and experience, are on-topic with the OP’s segment of the publishing world and of value to site visitors.

          To be honest, knowing how other sectors operate is as useful to Indies as knowing how doctors extract tonsils these days. Useful general knowledge tbat might serve in a story (or not) but not personably actionable.

          After all, at least successful indies do on occasion receive offers to join tbe Indie-adjecent tradpub world and knowing what they’d be in for is relevant and useful.

  5. Self-publishers often critique the length of time it takes to get a book published through traditional channels. This is fair enough. But a lot of the time lag is simply the price of dealing with other people. It is just like putting in a back deck on the house. If I decide to do it myself, I can run down to the home improvement store on my own schedule and make completing the project the top priority in my life. If I hire a contractor to do it, when it gets done depends on his schedule, and he presumably has other things going. But hiring a contractor means not having to learn the necessary skills, to say nothing of the tools, and if I choose the contractor well the final result will be better than I could have produced myself. It is a tradeoff.

    I am currently working on a book for a university press. This adds a whole new layer of delay, as they will send the manuscript out to readers to judge whether or not it is crap. The prospect does not fill me with joy, but coming out the back end of the process, the university imprint will serve to add credibility. This is something you can’t do yourself.

    • I feel for you but there is no alternative when dealing with big operations but to comply or walk away. The bigger the organization, the bigger the bureaucracy. Some operations get so big, with so many sign offs on the critical path, they can hardly get anything new done.

      A classic example was the old mainframe era IBM: to get the original IBM PC out senior managers set up a separate independent operation under Don Estridge. They were able to do it because none of the big power groups cared about personal computing.

      That changed by 1984 and when Estridge died in an accident in 1985, the corporate power centers took over and overrode all the “renegade” things the PC group did tbat made the platform dominant and tried to make their microcomputers proprietary extensions of their mainframe and minicomputer empires.
      That drove all “indie” vendors of PC clones to codify an open evolution of tbe PC architecture. That led to a split between IBM and Microsoft, an Operating System war between windows and OS/2 and eventually IBM had to exit the PC business because their processes couldn’t keep up with the “internet time” pace of PC evolution, where a design grew “obsolete” and marketability (and price) dropped significantly in six months. Faced with a need to change tbeir internal processes or lose a market, they chose their processes.

      That is the most common outcome when the external environment changes enough to demand changes in a big, complex bureaucratic operation. This is true of businesses and governments.

      Organizational inertia rules.
      Good luck.

        • It was actually John Opel, the CEO of IBM, who set up the shop in Boca Raton and sent Estridge there. He wanted a product on the market in 12 months, and knew the only way of accomplishing that was to shut the entire existing IBM bureaucracy out of the loop.

          The most amusing sentence, for my money, in the article Mr. Torres linked:

          The design process was kept under a policy of strict secrecy, with none of the other IBM divisions knowing what was going on.

          A very wise decision. Once the mainframe people got their hand in, they induced Boca Raton to develop the 3270 PC, which was an unbridled monstrosity and an expensive white elephant. It was a heavily modified PC (all the expansion slots were taken up with the mods) designed to imperfectly emulate an IBM 3270 mainframe terminal, while also being able to function as a not-quite-compatible PC. A reasonably complete system would have set you back $8,000 in 1983 dollars; or you could buy an equivalently equipped IBM PC, a 3279 terminal, and two desks for less money.

          • They also produced the PC370 which was horribly expensive and exteremly useful in the right context. It was also roughly as fast as a timeshared 370 Mainframe.


            DEC, DATA GENERAL, and most of the minicomputer players of the time tried tbe same terminal/PC hybrid. And DEC was bidding PCS running VT120 emulation software on corporate RFPs into the 90’s.

            (And the Mr. part isn’t needed. I’m not *that* respectable.)

            In some other parallel universe IBM took ATARI up on their offer and the computer business took an entirely different path. No clones, for starters. And since ATARI was in the “six camp”, Intel probably died an early death. We’d probably be running XENIX computers today. And Microsoft would still be top boss in desktops. 😉

      • The PC revolution makes for great metaphors and is fascinating in its own right. Here are a fairly recent (in the past decade) tech bio and a second edition on the subject. And a freebie.

        Open by Rod Canion, about his early years at Compaq up to the rollout of the EISA bus. Although the EISA bus primarily ended up in servers, the coalition Compaq put together stopped IBM and the MCA bus in its tracks.

        Showstopper! by G. Pascal Zachary, about how Dave Cutler (along with most of his DEC Prism team) developed Windows NT at a breakneck speed, in what turned into a headlong battle between Microsoft and IBM’s OS/2.

        My (online) account about the rise and fall of OS/2.

        • Ah, EISA.
          The great rebellion.
          Funny thing, the alliance only created it because Apple wouldn’t license NUBUS. Or the MacOS, which Gates offered to front (for a modest cut, natch) because he already had the connections and distribution systems in place. (And he was fed up with IBM.)

          The roads not taken!

          Ditto with OS/2Warp. A fine OS killed by mismarketing. “Better Dos than Dos, a better windows than windows”? Great for outfits looking backwards for a software integration system but not so hot for software developers looking forward to reaching new-to-the market consumers. At the height of tbe IT productivity explosion. Plus reliant on (artificially) expensive system memory. The NT story is amazing unto itself but by the time it came out the OS/2 story was over. It was Win3.11 and Win95 that killed it. NT just finished filling in the grave.

          I’ve come to tbe conclusion that whenever a tech player ends up with a market dominating position, it is more due to their foes’ misteps than their execution, which only needs to be adequate. Microsoft in productivity computing, Amazon in online retail, Kindle in eink readers (Amazon did nothing that hadn’t been done before. Just better. And Sony kept zigging when the market was zagging. They were first and had the name and 80% of the necessities. Yet they kept shooting themselves in the foot refusing to give tge market what it wanted.)

          Even as we speak, the story is repeating in two more areas; one enormous (cars), the other smaller but with even more long term impact (deep space).

          Recently the Japan automakers association reported that by 2030 they expected 80% of the cars they produce would be Internal combustion or hybrids and less than 20% battery electric. This, despite the givernment planning to ban ICE cars by 2030 like most of europe and California. (2035 in tbe US.)

          Rear guard actions, even reasoned ones, rarely prevail.
          Japan makes some of the best engineered mass market cars around but the way the winds are blowing you have to wonder what the manufacturers are thinking.

          Elsewhere, even Korea, everybody is rushing to follow the clear leader, now moving close to a million EVs a year and growing at a 40% annual clip, despite the pandemic and despite still being a year away from a true $25k car. (Which with governent incentives could go as low as $18K.) And while GM and everybody else frets about making the best electric motors they can, Tesla is working at making the *cheapest* good batteries they can. Hmm, I wonder how tbat is going to turn out.

          • As far as Windows vs alternatives (OS/2, maybe Linux), there was also a little matter of contracts along the line of: if you want OEM pricing on Windows, you can ONLY pre-load Windows, not anything else. Windows probably would have won in the end [because of more software], but MS did everything it could, fair or not, to tip the balance.

            Electric cars, well, we’ll see – just look at California, which hasn’t been able to keep the lights on reliably for over 20 years, and still isn’t working on improve power distribution and generation.

            • There is a time for every tech, when the enabling structure exists to suport it. Staying with PCs, the history of (attempted) personal use computers predates 1977 and the Altair. It was only after the (cheap) microprocessor (developed for a cancelled calculator) hit the open market and relatively cheap RAM chips and drives, all developed for other products, other markets, that what became the personal computer became a viable market.

              Battery Electric cars are no different: the idea is over a hundred tears old and has been tried repeatedly but the combination of support structure and need didn’t exist until tbis century. Cheap lithium ion batteries, abundant rare earth magnetic materials, advanced control software, and the right cultural environment. Take any one away and it fails. But that tipping point is now in tbe past. BEVs aren’t just about Tesla or the many small startups like ARRIVAL anymore. The big boys are jumping in full tilt; Volkswagen, GM, Ford (they’re betting the company), most of China, inc. These are not side bets.


              One thing to keep in mind about projections: the CHARGER infrastructure exists in the US and China and it is rapdly speading in western Europe. When you see that 60% of future car sales will be ICE, those are outside the top three regions. Just like there is talk of a digital divide there is a bigger charger divide between countries. And given the pressure over carbon emissions will only get bigger, things will get…testy.

              A third example from rocketry: the idea of reusable rockets landing “on a tail of fire” goes back to the earliest days. It was actually done successfully in the 90’s with the DC-X. But not reliably enough for the “old space” goverment funding model. Fast forward a couple decades and not only is the throttlable engine tech and control system tech advanced enough to do it repeatedly, the economic incentive incentive of private for profit launchers enabled it. SpaceX has succesfully landed nearly 100 boosters with over 70 flights on reused boosters. Even the bastions of old space, NASA and DOE are flying refurbs.

              Telling the difference between “Popular Science” aspirational concepts and viable disruptions lies in the surrounding environment.

              Worth knowing for near term world building.

  6. By the way, PG—

    And then they load cases of HOT NEW BOOK in boxcars and a steam engine takes them to the end of the rail line where they’re taken out of the boxcars and put on wagons pulled by oxen for delivery to the bookstores, hopefully before the winter snows close all the wagon trails.

    I beg to differ: the Wells Fargo wagon was pulled by a horse. Publishing people do not do business with oxen, though they are quite familiar with bull.

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