We’ve all heard the middle of a manuscript referred to as “the muddle in the middle”—a nod to the challenge in sustaining momentum between the opening hook and the exciting conclusion. What you don't hear as often is that the “muddle in the middle” applies just as aptly to the publishing process itself.
For the past year I’ve been sharing my journey as WD-editor-turned-debut-novelist, with my upmarket book club title Almost Missed You forthcoming in the spring from St. Martin’s Press. In the spirit of knowledge being power and writers helping writers, I’ve talked about How I Got My (Second) Agent, 10 Lessons Learned Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal, What Every Writer Should Know About Book Covers and 5 Steps to Surviving Your Copy Edit.
As I look back on those posts as well as ahead to my March 28, 2017 release date, I find it’s been awhile since I posted—not because things aren’t progressing, but because they do so in smaller steps at this stage.
During this time you’ll be working on your next book (and/or other writing projects) and fending off questions from friends and family (ranging from “When does it come out again?” to “Wait, it’s still not out yet?” to “What the flippity flip is taking so long?”) while still riding herd on your soon-to-be debut.
The checkpoints here are some of the least discussed of the publishing process, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. When you’re in that muddle, it’s easy to feel out of the loop or lost even if you’re right on track, so knowing what to expect can be more helpful than ever.
Here are 3 of the highlights that punctuate the wait.
- Your Author Questionnaire
Once you’ve met all your publisher’s revision requests and turned your manuscript over to the production team, you’ll likely be asked to complete a questionnaire outlining any affiliations or connections you have that could be relevant to your book’s marketing. This is not a small document that can be completed in a single evening; mine, when finished, was about eight single-spaced pages long, and that’s with a lot of fields that I, like many debut authors, I had no choice but to leave blank or mark “N/A.”
It's a great paradox in the writer’s life that your author questionnaire will make you think, Gee, I guess I should have spent less time writing and more time participating in community organizations!
Not all questionnaires are created equal, but I imagine most, like the one I received, start with softballs (educational background, places you've lived, past bylines or blog contributions, social media handles, personal contacts with booksellers, travel plans …) and get a little intimidating (Do you know any Kardashians who might be interested in posting Instagram photos with your book? Exactly how many of them do you know?).
Take your time, ask around to see if anyone in your immediate circle can help you complete any of the iffier fields, and be as thorough as possible, even if you feel silly writing “Our church lady used to babysit me and will totally let me sign books at bingo night!” because both you and your publicist/marketing team will refer to this document a lot in the months ahead. (And also, hey, every bingo night counts!)
- Endorsement Blurbs
Usually while your manuscript is being copy edited and/or typeset, you'll also be asked to start seeking endorsement blurbs—quotes from established authors singing its praises that can be featured on your cover, in your book's descriptions on online retailers, and in promotional materials (press releases, ads, etc.).
This process varies by author and experience level, of course, but for newer authors, you, your agent and your editor will likely collaborate to create and then divide-and-conquer a list of authors who might be willing to read and blurb your book, focusing on 1) those you have an existing connection to, however loose (authors you’ve met at conferences or taken a class from, fellow clients of your agent’s, fellow authors at your publisher), 2) those whose titles are comparable to yours and 3) those you sincerely admire. While the latter might sound far-fetched, I'm in an online community of fellow 2017 debut novelists, and quite a few of them have shared encouraging stories of landing a solid blurb from a cold request simply by being sincere and polite.
Remember: You’re looking for authors in your genre, or a similar/related one; if a sci-fi author is endorsing your romance novel, your audience probably isn’t going to know who he is, so his name, even attached to a nice quote on your cover, won’t mean much.
This is a humbling part of the process that can leave you disappointed when no response comes but put you on cloud nine when another writer’s generosity blows you away. You’ll likely experience a bit of both, and that’s OK. You’re going to keep building connections, and this will never again be as hard as it can be with your first book, so keep the faith.
- Page Proofs
You’ll review your copy editor’s marks and comments either on hard copy or in Word document form (I was given a choice of my preferred format, though all publishers are different), and then the text will be flowed in to your book’s page template. The next pages you’ll see will be clean pages marked “First Page Proofs.”
I know of authors who have seen two or three rounds of page proofs; at St. Martin’s Press, the author typically sees only the first round, with an assurance that the pages will also go through professional proofreaders. With great trust in and gratitude for the editorial process, that was more than fine with me; you’re no longer effective, anyway, when you get so familiar with the text that you can hardly register what you read.
This can be hard, but at some point, you have to let go. Also, once you’re working on your next book, it’s a bit disruptive to have to keep stopping to review your first book again, especially if you also have a full-time job and a family to care for.
Still, being told this is your LAST CHANCE to review pages will shake you to attention. Here’s where you’ll supply or refine your Dedication and Acknowledgments pages (warning: fear of forgetting someone crucial may keep you up a few nights, even if you’ve been dreaming of the need to create these pages for years!), and see what fonts have been chosen and how any special formatting is going to appear.
You will be discouraged from making major changes at this point so as not to disrupt text flow or circumnavigate the parts of the editorial process that are already completed. What struck me most in proofing my own text one last time was that repeated words and other redundancies had a way of leaping off the page once the text was stacked the way it would actually appear. I appreciated the opportunity to refine on a line-to-line basis. (You can see what my pages looked like when they were done above—with ice cream, which I also recommend.)
This should go without saying, but meet your deadline, be professional and polite with any final tweaks you request (following whatever instructions you're given on how to submit them; I was asked to return only pages with changes), and take the time to celebrate every milestone, no matter how small.
You're making it through the muddle just fine. And the exciting conclusion is yet to come.