Your manuscript has finally been accepted for publication, so now you simply sit back and relax, right? Ah… if only.
I had been told that transforming my raw manuscript into a final product would entail a huge amount of work. The trouble with phrases such as “a huge amount of work” is that they’re abstract facts, a bit like knowing how far the Moon is from Earth. I had little appreciation of what was to come.
For the first few days, nothing happened. I signed my contract and the publisher promptly disappeared. I continued working on my second novel, which was then in its third draft. From time to time, I glanced at the publishing contract to make sure it was real. Then, the woman who had bought the rights to my novel, the Acquisitions Editor at the publishing house, contacted me. She is a key person, my point of contact, “my editor” as it were.
We began with a long and detailed questionnaire. (They seem to like questionnaires; I’ve already filled in more than one). The form asked all sorts of things, from basic facts to nightmarish questions. “Describe your novel in one sentence.” I groaned. How do you do summarise a multi-cultural, multi-layered work set in British Malaya that weaves in history, mythology and cuisine as it grapples with identity through the lens of a strong female character with ten children? I suppose I’ve just done it there, but the sentence is convoluted. I spent a weekend coming up with a better version. The marketing geniuses at the publishing house had their own ideas. You will see, once the book appears, whether we succeeded.
The questionnaire held out exciting prospects. There was mention of the book’s cover. A cover! The mere thought of my book having a cover brought a frisson.
However, first things first; what followed next was more mundane, an activity we writers are used to: editing. My publisher asked for a “developmental edit”. Developmental editing usually happens early on, when the outline and structure of a story are shaped and altered.
In the case of my manuscript, the changes the publisher wanted were minimal. Nonetheless, a person called a Developmental Editor, or Dev Editor, was tasked to work with me. In case you’re confused, this is not the same as the Acquisitions Editor. There seem to be many people in publishing whose job titles include the word “editor”. The Dev Editor’s role was to clarify anything in the arc of my story which she felt to be unclear.
Of course, I had to be persuaded that aspects of what I had called the Final Manuscript were actually unclear. Really? After looking through the Dev Editor’s questions, I put my objections aside. She was clearly a professional, and if she found something confusing, who was I to argue?
There I sat, hunched before a computer screen, scrutinising pages I had read hundreds of times before. I even explained the intricacies of Nyonya kueh to the Dev Editor. Can you describe what ondeh-ondeh look like, she asked. Given our tight deadline, I wondered whether such queries were necessary. There were times when I’m sure the Dev Editor herself would have preferred eating to reading. ‘Your manuscript makes me hungry,’ she declared, a confession I found gratifying. And yet, with her fresh eyes, she spotted an error in the narrative detail! The error was small, but given how many people had already read the manuscript, you would have thought one of us would have caught it before. This is an excellent illustration of why there can never be too many readings before a book is released.
At the moment, my manuscript is being examined by another type of editor, a “copy editor”. I had not understood what this meant: I thought the copy editor’s remit would be limited to correcting sentences and punctuation, but apparently s/he is also checking facts. This is fascinating. My novel is a history-rich, epic family drama – there’s rather a lot to check. I wonder whether the copy editor and the fact checker are the same person. Is this a Westerner or an Asian, possibly even a Malaysian? I imagine someone in a room somewhere, poring over an old map of Ipoh to look at the streets on which my characters walk. Is s/he making rough measurements to ascertain distances and at the same time sampling copious amounts of food to check my descriptions?
On the one hand, it’s incredibly reassuring to know that what I wrote is being verified in this way; on the other hand, waiting to see what is uncovered is nerve-wracking. I think I did a good job with my facts, but heaven only knows. Better to find errors now though, rather than later. Books have had to be withdrawn due to mistakes not being found in time. Even large publishing houses are not immune, as the case of Jonathan Franzen’s novel showed. (There, the wrong set of proofs was sent to the printers.)
As if the above weren’t enough, work is also commencing on an audio version of my book! I had no clue how an audio book was made, and the team helpfully explained the steps.
In recent years publishers have been vilified. Everyone knows that they act as gate-keepers. Because they hold the keys to distribution, they also keep the lion’s share of revenues. But now that I can see what the book creation process involves, how many strands of work there are and how large the team is, I know I could not do this on my own.
My Acquisitions Editor, who is American, was in town for the London Book Fair. We went to Sedap, the only London restaurant with Nyonya kueh on the menu, so that she could sample a little of what she had read so much about. We talked about the book, of course. If there is such a thing as pure excitement, I felt it then, as I thought of my novel being created. Alongside the thrill came anxiety too. A book is not like a business project report or a presentation: so much of yourself is invested in the writing of it. At the same time, it’s one of the easiest things to criticise. What that lunch helped me realise was that I was no longer alone on this journey. My editor and her team are as emotionally involved as I am. We all share a sense of anticipation, hope and nervousness. At the end of the day, it is the readers who will decide. The greatest test of all.