Writing Wednesday: Manuscript Stages

Yesterday, as I went to drop off the marked up proofs of The Ashford Affair at the UPS store down the block, it occurred to me that there might be some interest in the stages a manuscript goes through as it makes its way towards book form.

You know that bit where you type in THE END on the manuscript and shout “Done!”? That’s only the beginning.

When my first book was acquired back in 2003, I had no idea what came next, or why it was going to take over a year to get that book from manuscript to shelf. This post is the “why”.

Stage One: The Manuscript

This is the shouting “Done!” bit, where I email off the completed manuscript to my editor, usually with many exclamation marks in the Subject line of the email– and then send another, follow-up email five minutes later with apologies and an updated version of the manuscript, since I invariably forget to hit the magic double-space button before I send it the first time. (I work in single space.)

Not every author does it this way. I know many who share chunks of their manuscripts with their editors and get continuous feedback along the way. In the course of my short career, I’ve had five different editors (I swear, I don’t do anything to them! There’s just high turnover in publishing houses). With my second editor, I would send her the book about two-thirds of the way through, get feedback, revise, finish it, and then send it off to her again. With all my other editors, I’ve worked on a “you’ll see it when it’s done” basis.

Time frame: let’s, for argument’s sake, say I’m handing this book in circa January, just to give you an idea of how long these stages take.

Stage Two: Revisions

About a month after I send off that manuscript, the revision requests come in. In the case of our imaginary January manuscript, it’s now probably about mid-February. Again, these take different forms with different editors. One editor liked to send one page formal letters with very broad ideas for change (i.e. ramp up the tension in the second half, have you thought about changing so and so’s secret identity, etc.); another sent very detailed five page emails with page numbers (i.e. “I don’t understand what the heroine’s motivation is on page 72.”); on the far end of the process, another did page by page line edits, returning the entire marked-up manuscript; while another preferred to relay her revision requests by phone, so we could talk it out along the way. No matter how the revision requests are relayed, the bottom line is the same: there’s some re-writing that goes on here. Sometimes, there’s a lot of rewriting that goes on here. Once the manuscript has been revised (occasionally, there’ll be a second, or even a third round of revisions), the manuscript goes back to my editor– with even more exclamation marks in the Subject line.

Time frame: if I got the revisions requests in mid-February, I’d probably have the manuscript turned back around by early March. If there’s a second or a third round of revisions, that could stretch out into April.

Stage Three: Copyedits

Once the revised manuscript is turned in, my editor sends it off to a freelance copyeditor to be marked up. Again, there’s some variation here: some still do it the old way, with marks in green pencil on the original manuscript. Others now do it electronically, with all the copyeditor’s marks and queries in track changes. Usually about two months after I’ve turned in my revised manuscript, the copyedited manuscript gets pinged back to me for review. At this point, there’s generally a reasonably tight time frame on turnaround– usually somewhere in the vicinity of two weeks– to go through the copyedits, make any corrections or changes, and get it back to them.

Copyedits are, hands down, my least favorite part of the process. As any author will tell you, there’s nothing more maddening than going through page by page, trying to find all the places where someone has “improved” your grammar or turned your British-isms back into American-isms. (I suspect it isn’t much fun for the copyeditor either.)

Time frame: At this point, based on an imaginary January manuscript, it’s probably mid-May.

Stage Four: Interior Layouts

At this point, you’re not going to see the whole manuscript, but you will be sent (once upon a time by mail, now probably electronically) a few pages to give you an idea of the type of type they’re using and any internal flourishes and doodads. There’s not much for the author to do here other than squeal, “Oooh! Pretty!”, although, from time to time, you do get asked for real input at this stage. With Pink I, the original plan was to have different type for the modern and historical sections, with a very ornate, old fashioned type for the historical and a very angular, modern type for the Eloise chapters. Everyone agreed, though, that it was annoying to read, and the plan was scrapped.

Time frame: early June.

Stage Five: First Pass Pages

This baffled me as a first time author. We’d already been through the manuscript umpteen times. How was this a first pass? The first pass is really the last pass (at least from the author’s point of view). It’s your last chance to go through the manuscript and make changes before the whole thing is set in stone. At this point, it’s already been all laid out for printing and the manuscript arrives with the typeface and the spacing and so forth in which it will appear in the book, with a draconian cover letter informing you that you are meant to be looking for mistakes and typos ONLY and if you change more than a certain percentage (I’ve seen 30%, I’ve seen 10%, and also the more vague term “extensive”) of the text, you do so at your own expense, as changes in layout will be charged to the author’s account.

Time frame: mid-July. At last, we have the final, final manuscript– more than six months and multiple major manuscript overhauls away from the moment when the author first shouted “Done!”. It does make you reconsider that “done”, doesn’t it?

Stage Six: ARCs

While the manuscript is being put through its paces, an earlier version of the manuscript is being printed up into Advance Review Copies, or ARCs. Often, these ARCs are made up off a fairly early stage of the final manuscript, post-revision but pre-copyedits. Sometimes, depending on how much time you have in the schedule, the post-copyedit version will be used. Even so, you’re still missing whatever changes and corrections were made during the First Pass (see above), which is why all ARCs contain the stern admonition that anyone wanting to quote from it should refer back to the publisher for the final version. My ARCs drive my mother crazy, because even though I always warn her that they’re the uncorrected version, she still can’t resist reading them with a pencil in hand, marking out typos.

ARCs are designed as a way to get the book into the hands of reviewers before the actual book comes out. Generally, they look a lot like a trade paperback, with glossy covers and lots of warnings about not being for sale. They’re a large part of the reason the whole process is so front-loaded. The sooner ARCs get into the hands of reviewers, the more reviews you (theoretically) get, and the more buzz is generated.

Time frame: for our imaginary January manuscript, ARCs will probably be sent out around September or October, more than nine months after the initial manuscript was turned in.

Stage Seven: Publication!

Are you still with me? It’s been a long haul. One year– and change– and multiple manuscript stages later, the book is finally in book form. Copies are usually shipped to the author about a month or so before publication and to the publisher a little earlier than that. Sometimes they come in boxes with stern warnings in red lettering on white tape, warning the bookseller not to set them out sooner than the on-sale date.

As you may have guessed, this imaginary January manuscript wasn’t so imaginary: this was roughly the timeline of the manuscript for The Ashford Affair, which is coming out in April.

It holds true, however, to my experience with my previous books.

To take a random Pink book as an alternative example, I turned in the manuscript of The Garden Intrigue at the end of October 2010. I had my revision requests by early December 2010 and turned in my revisions in early January 2011. Copy edits arrived at the end of March, interior layouts at the end of April and the first pass pages by the end of May. ARCs showed up on my doorstep in early September 2011. The book itself came out, as some of you may recall, right around Valentine’s Day 2012.

There are also some other little bits and pieces that I’ve left out above: the cover, catalog copy (aka the official book blurb), the Readers Guide (if there is one). All of these tend to happen somewhere between copy edits and first pass pages.

This is what is going on in the background during those long gaps between books. And this is just the author side of it! There are all sorts of things going on internally at the publishing house– internal review of the manuscript, cover creation, marketing and publicity discussions– about which the author has only the faintest inkling.

From the author’s point of view, it means that you’re always juggling multiple books in various stages of production. Copy edits invariably arrive just as you’re really getting going on the next book. Then you wonder who those bizarre people in the last book were and why you wrote them and how the monkey managed to gain access to your keyboard– but I digress.

So when you hear an author say a book is done… the truth is that it’s probably in one of these intermediate stages of done-ness. But who wants to announce First Pass Pages on Facebook?


  1. Sheila on July 18, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Very interesting process, Lauren. Does this mean we can look forward to an ARC contst in November/December ? Hope so !!

  2. Yvette on July 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Very interesting! Thanks for the insight.

  3. alyssa on July 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    This is great! So interesting,I can’t believe the manuscript for “The Garden Intrigue” was turned in all the way back in 2010! I definitely could never have the patience.

  4. Céline on July 18, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    I can’t believe how much time elapses between those two magic words “The End” and the moment when the reader actually gets to read the book…
    It’s very interesting though, to know what happens inbetween! It must be very hard for the nerves, all this waiting and correcting, and reading things so many times, all the while looking for anything that needs correcting…
    I’m all the more impressed by all the hard work you put into your books!!

  5. HJ on July 20, 2012 at 4:58 am

    This is fascinating. Thank you! But I don’t understand why so much time elapses between Stage Five, First Pass in mid-July, and Stage Seven, Publication in April. It seems to me that Stage Six, ARCs, is something which run in parallel with other stages rather than being something which is a true step which could delay publication. OK, the blurbs from reviewers of ARCs have to be obtained and put onto the cover and maybe on the front pages, but what else can be going on to take seven or eight months from mid-July when you “have the final, final manuscript”?

    I’m thinking that technology now is such that moving from that final manuscript to printing is not such a big deal these days, and that much of what goes on in-house such as cover, blurb, Readers’ Guide, marketing decisions etc. could start well before the manuscript is “final, final”.

  6. Shannon M. Howell on July 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    I knew some of this happened, but hearing the details and time-frame in such detail is both neat, frightening, and useful (all that in one blog post!).

    I was wondering if you would tell us if it worked the same for your first book or if it was different (say, adding in pitching the book or finding an editor/publisher/agent). I’m sure many of us would-be authors would LOVE to hear about the “first time.”

    Oh, and I plan on reblogging this on my site. Hope you don’t mind 🙂

  7. Lauren on July 23, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Shannon, that’s a tough question– since every author only has one first book, it’s hard to get a sense of how typical or atypical the experience was. Also, my first book was long enough ago to have been on the far side of all the massive changes that have taken place in the industry over the past five years, so I’m not sure how much a first book sold within the past two years would vary from my experience back in 2003.

    All disclaimers having been disclaimed, I’d say that the main difference was that the first book took even longer. The agent who’d acquired Pink I went through a few back and forth revision rounds with me, cutting it down from about 600 pages to a more manageable 450. So onto the process above, add an agent revision stage before it even gets sold to your eventual editor.

    I was lucky– it took him only about a month to sell the manuscript. Once sold, the process was pretty much as I described above. My new editor sent me revision notes; I revised; and it started going through the paces.

    I will hazard, based on my own and friends’ experiences, that first books tend to take longer because the publishing house needs more time to send it around, build buzz and get feedback than they do with more established authors.

  8. Lauren on July 23, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    HJ, I’m just guessing on this bit, since I don’t really know what goes on internally, but there are some other considerations at play. Publishing houses have a whole list of authors to deal with, so they’re always juggling multiple books and authors at once.

    They also tend to be very strategic about when they release books, based on the type of book and the other books they know to be coming out around the same time, so it’s not a pure case of “the book is ready– print– go!” I have one friend whose book was held back nearly a year after the manuscript was finalized because they wanted to position the release just right for maximum impact. So in that sense, it’s less a question of technology, and more a larger issue of timing and placement.

    From the author point of view, the delays between manuscript and publication give us that crucial time to get the next book done!

  9. Melissa on September 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm


    Thank you so much for taking the time to outline a typical publishing process – this is helpful information that is very hard to come by for aspiring authors. Advice on writing seems to be abundant, but explanations on the ‘after’ bit are more scarce!

    I’ve just come across the ‘Writing Wednesday’ section of your website (although I’ve been a loyal Pink reader for years), but will look forward to future posts.

    Kind regards –

  10. Erika on October 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Hi Lauren – I have a “first book” related question:
    Did you hire a professional editor to do proofreading/line-editing before you went about finding an agent?
    If so, is it advisable to pay a freelance editor to review an entire manuscript? Or should a first timer with a bloated manuscript limit his/her investment to the first 50 pages (i.e. only pay for professional editing on the “partial” that a prospective agent would see)?
    Any recommendations/names of good freelance editors would be greatly appreciated!

  11. Lauren on October 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Hi, Erika!

    I didn’t hire an editor– this was back in 2003 and there was a general sense that freelance editors were dodgy and that there were a lot of scams out there. Instead, my college roommate and my little sister both went through the first fifty pages with a fine-toothed comb and, when the novel was picked up by an agent, he did a substantial edit with me.

    The world has changed since then. What with the internet and self-publishing and layoffs in publishing, a lot of reputable editors and writers are now freelancing on the side.

    I’m still instinctively skeptical about hiring anyone pre agent. The first port of call is giving the first fifty pages of the manuscript to friends whose taste you trust and having them give you an honest critique (emphasize to them that you want honest). If it’s mostly proofreading you want, they’ll catch those errors for you.

    If you do want to hire someone, I have two writer friends who freelance on the side: Tracy Grant (http://tracygrant.wordpress.com/editorial-and-marketing-support-services/) and Alison Pace (http://www.pacetopp.com/).

    But my suggestion would be to go with the free home version first before seeking out outside help.

  12. Erika on November 2, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Lauren – Thank you for the quick response! This is useful and valuable information – appreciate it.

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