A Publisher's Conversation with Authors: Spec Sheets, Formatting, and More

(photo by Frank Perez)


It is Tuesday. Time to tall turkey. Monday's madness is over, and Wednesday will take us over the hump, so Tuesday it is--for some serious discussion with authors. Tuesday talks mean to address authors in waiting and self-published authors who would like to go a more traditional route or who would at least like to take their steps with a publisher by their side.

Today's topic is about formatting your book, before and for submission. Let's take a look at what happens to a pre-formatted book and what publisher expectations are.

Proposal stage. Formatting a book for a proposal. Some authors send out a fully formatted book, complete with a cover design, to acquisition editors, very likely hoping to impress them with their advanced skills in writing and potential publishing. How do these acquisition editors respond?

  • Many, if not most, vanity presses will accept these and publish them as is, warts and all. We have one such "published" book from a vanity press that I use as an example of before and after. The vanity press warts were all removed when we republished the book. (Note: we will not normally do this; however, it had been "published" by a high school classmate who thought he had reached a traditional publisher and had ended up with an inferior product though the writing was good.) 
  • Many, if not most, traditional publishers may be turned off by a ready-made product and turn it down, even if the contents are good. 
    • As noted in earlier conversations, publishing is a partnership, and if one partner (the author) has made all the decisions on the look-and-feel in advance, there may be concern that the author will be difficult to work with. Given that there are many authors out there with equally good content, acquisition editors will generally choose those who are easier to work with.
    • Most publishers have a look-and-feel associated with their books. Their covers and typesetting fall within specific parameters, and their contracts usually stipulate that the publisher has ultimate control over book design; if it appears that an author is wed to a different look-and-feel, there regardless of the quality of the content, many publishers will pass up the opportunity to take on the book for fear of getting into a tense relationship down the road. 
    • Nothing speaks to self-publishing as does a fully formatted, with cover, book. When I get these, especially if there is any indication of an ego of unwarranted size, I often suggest that the author may be happier self-publishing. (Some actually do then go that route.)
  • Authors who think that their published book will look like the final product from a publisher will be disillusioned quickly if a publisher does accept the book. Most authors do not understand professional typesetting or elements of professional cover design. They come across as amateurs. Equally important, they are likely to be disappointed by what is required when their favorite family photo does not meet print standards to include on a cover.

Submission stage. Once you have a contract in hand, either as part of the contract or as a separately document, the publisher will provide a list of specs. If you want your book to slide through the production process smoothly, it is important that you follow these specs. Typically, specs include all, most, or some of the following:

  • Writing standards. Not all publishers will list expectations other than good grammar, no dangling participles or unclear referents, clean and understandable prose--generally, what you would find in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. (Remember that from high school days? It works for publishers even now.) Sometimes, a publisher will send you to a grammar guide; style manuals, which a publisher will invoke for sure, often have grammar sections as well.) If you have really good content but writing is not really your forte, you may want to hire an editor before submitting your manuscript.
    • Active verbs. Passive voice and a lot of to be verbs make writing dull. One would-be author of what he claimed to be a very dramatic story took umbrage when I pointed out his overuse of the verb to be, writing that his book would "be" among the bestsellers, that any publisher would "be" lucky to "be" on his list of possible publishers, that he would "be" publishing with someone who "is" smart enough to "be" aware of how great his story "is," and that not publishing his book "is" a big mistake on my part, which I will "be" regretting for a long time. Nah, no regrets, and, if that book ever comes out, I fully expect to see it as a vanity publication--or rewritten.
    • Proper punctuation. It is amazing how many writers have no idea where commas go. Some think that a comma goes whenever you take a breathe, and, boy, some of them take a lot of breaths. There are rules; these are the ones that the style manuals include and copyeditors know. Strunk and White do a very good job about making them clear.
    • Sentence structure. Too much to be said about that to be able to include the whole discussion here. Check Strunk and White. They do a good job at pointing out the biggest mistakes that authors make, like dangling participles, strength of parallel structures, ensuring clear referents, and the like. Note: anyone who has studied a foreign language may have some foreign sentence structure follow them into English. It seems unavoidable. Have a friend who does not speak any languages you know other than English read your manuscript before submitting.
    • Grade level. Some publishers aim for a specific grade level. For example, we publish mainly for an erudite audience, either college-educated or simply well-read. Reader's Digest, on the other hand, aims its publications to a sixth grade level. Need to know what level your writing is? Use the grammar checker in Word. As a writer, my original drafts always come out around 18-20 (i.e. graduate school or doctoral level), and I struggle to lower the grade level, which I must in order to attract the reading public. For that reason, I give my manuscripts to friends and relatives to read before I finish them. I will always remember a comment from my sister-in-law about one of my manuscripts that was meant for K-12 teachers: "The underlined words I had to look up in the dictionary; the highlighted ones I found only in an unabridged dictionary." Her influence was necessary and powerful. That book has received good comments from K-12 teachers for 22 years -- and yes, it is still in use!
    • Error free. It should go without saying -- spell check your work, proofread your work, have someone else proofread your work, pay a copyeditor. Whatever it takes, send in error-free work.
  • Style guide. The two most common in use are the APA Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style. Publishers will have a preference. There are some other, lesser used style manuals that a publisher might ask you to use. Or, a publisher may have an in-house style guide; some of the bigger publishers, especially the academic publishers, do their own thing, so to speak. The style guide is very important for how you handle citations, footnotes, and references. It can be very time-consuming to convert from one to the author. If you find yourself in that position, it might be best to hire a copyeditor; they do these things every day and are good at it. Sometimes, publishers will be flexible, allowing you to use either APA of CoM as long as you are consistent.
  • Spacing. Publishers will specify, generally, what margins and font size they prefer, whether they want you to use tabs or the ruler for starting a new paragraph, whether or not they want you set page and section breaks, Most will say to use single spaces between sentences; two spaces harkens back to typewriter days. Some care more about these specifics; some care less. We fall in the middle, but we definitely do not want hard section breaks--those are hard to take out. We also do not want headers and footers. Some publishers do. So, check the specs!
  • Software. There is a range of approaches here that I have seen authors use. For that reason, in our contracts, we state that we want a Word document, attached to an e-note. 
    • Obviously, a publisher today is not going to take a typewritten manuscript. Interesting, we do get such submissions upon occasion from people who learned to use a typewriter in high school many decades ago. I am always amazed because I wonder where on earth they can even find a typewriter nowadays, but about 2% of those who submit manuscripts to us, which are immediately rejected, do possess one of those old tools.
    • On the opposite end of the modernity scale, I had one author turn in a document on Goggle docs in sharable form. We were kind enough to extrapolate when it turned out that he is elderly, did a pretty good job of using Google, but did not have the technical skills to give us the manuscript in the format we needed. Do not expect all publishers to be as kind or helpful.
    • If you have graphics, find out what format is wanted for those. Typically, most publishers will ask for .eps and to receive the graphics in a separate file, ensuring that they are at least 300 dpi at the size to be printed. Generally, if graphics are to be published in black and white but the originals are in color, the publisher will prefer to receive the color original and will do the conversion to grey scale in-house. Ask! 

Cover stage. So, what about the cover?

  • Authors and publishers are both very sensitive about covers.
    • Authors sometimes have their heart set on something, or they have a negative reaction to the cover proposed by the publisher. (Remember that even if the author does not like the cover, the publisher gets the final word.)
    • Publishers have a look-and-feel associated with their covers and will not stray far from that; it is part of their reputation. Most will, however, let authors make suggestions, or they will give authors a range of backgrounds to choose from.
  • If you want to propose a cover design for consideration, keep in mind the following things:
    • A photo or other graphic must leave room for title and author, so the most pleasingly constructed photo may not work because of lack of obvious space; at the same time, a less pleasing photo may actually look good on a cover because it does have room for title and author name.
    • Resolution of any graphic is important; 300 dpi at the size to be printed.
    • Proportion/shape of the graphic is important; for most books it must be vertical (unless the photo will be wrapped around and include front, spine, and back) and in the proportion to the book size (4x6, 5x8, 6x9, 7x10, etc.)
    • Cover design is tricky; professionals do it best; and, remember, control always belongs to your publisher.

The bottom line is that going to the effort to prepare a fully formatted and covered book is really a waste and time and counterproductive. On the other hand, not putting in the effort to meet a publisher's spec sheet and requirements is time that should have been spent; not spending it more often than not will result in the rejection of a manuscript or the requirement to resubmit.

Want more specific guidance on this topic? Here is a site that gives good suggestions: Scribe Media. Of course, where your potential publisher has different requests, modify to match the publisher.

Lesson for today's Tuesday talk: Don't do needless work; do do required work.

Do what the publisher asks. Guides for proposals can be found on publishers' websites. Follow them exactly, and you will have better luck than if you try to present a fully prepared book that nearly always will have a negative effect rather than make the positive impression that you think it will.




Read more posts about publishing HERE.


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