How Does Book Publishing Work?

A pile of open books.

Writing and revising a manuscript is a huge accomplishment. However, it’s just the beginning when it comes to the process of publishing your book.

There are many ways for books to come into the world. Which is best for you will depend on your goals, budget, and several other factors. Understanding the steps it takes to get your work into readers’ hands is key if you’re going to succeed in becoming a published author.

In this post, I’ll explain the different types of publishing and the steps involved in them. Let’s dive on in!

The 3 Types of Book Publishing

In order to understand how book publishing works, you first need to learn the different publishing options that are available. You can loosely break them down into three categories:

A diagram of book publishing options.
  1. Self publishing. This process involves an author acting as the publisher of their own work. They must provide all the capital (i.e., money) required to create the book and handle distribution.
  2. Small or independent publishers. There are many small and independent presses around the country. Most of them specialize in niche works, and usually prefer to work with authors who are not represented by agents.
  3. Big 5 publishers. The “Big 5” publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan) are large publishing houses primarily based in New York City. They’re highly competitive, and it’s difficult to get your work picked up by one of them without an agent.

Working with a publisher, be they small or large, is considered “traditional” publishing, since you’re following the expected protocols for releasing your book. Self publishing is a somewhat newer process that has become increasingly easier due to access to technology and platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

How Does Book Publishing Work?

Regardless of which publishing route you take, there are a few key stages your manuscript will go through on its way to becoming a book. Every publishing experience is unique and yours may not perfectly align with the process I’ve laid out below. However, understanding the typical steps authors take can give you a general idea of what to expect and how to set yourself – and your book – up for success.

1. Acquisition

The acquisition process is basically you selling your book to a publisher. It’s also referred to colloquially as “getting a book deal”.

If you’re following a traditional publishing route, the first thing you’ll need to do after you’ve revised your manuscript to the best of your ability is decide if you want to query agents. A literary agent is a professional who helps authors broker book deals with editors and publishers.

Like most industries, publishing often requires a lot of networking and connections. An agent will have existing contacts and can help put you in touch with the right people for your book. They also know the ins and outs of book contracts and can help make sure you get a fair deal for your work.

To find an agent, you’ll need to:

  1. Do research to find agents who specialize in books similar to yours.
  2. Send formal query letters to multiple agents asking if they’re interested in representing your work.
  3. Meet potential agents and interview with them to determine if they’re a good fit for your book.
  4. Sign a contract with your agent.

If you’re hoping to land a book deal with one of the Big 5 publishing houses, you’ll almost definitely need an agent to get your work noticed. However, many authors publish without agents. You can send query letters directly to editors at smaller publishing houses and see if they’re interested in working on your book with you.

Self publishing circumvents traditional publishing channels and puts all the decision-making power in the hands of the author – you. There is no acquisition process in this case because you retain ownership of your book. This gives you complete control of your work, but also puts all the responsibility of publishing it on you.

2. Editing

Once your book has been acquired by a publisher, it will enter the editing process. There are three levels of editing that most books undergo:

  • Developmental editing: Editing that is concerned with refining plot, character, setting, and other overriding elements of your book.
  • Line editing: Suggestions to help improve word choice, sentence structure, and other craft-related writing concerns.
  • Proofreading: A thorough grammar check.

Working with an editor is an extremely valuable opportunity for collaboration. Many authors who follow traditional publishing routes benefit greatly from this experience.

If you’re self publishing your book, it’s up to you to find and hire one or more freelance editors to go through your manuscript. You can pursue all three levels of editing, or pick and choose which ones you feel are necessary. Although you can forgo editing entirely, it’s always smart to seek out feedback on your work.

3. Assembling Your Book

The editing process can take months to complete. There will probably be a fair amount of back and forth between you and your editor as you work on revisions. Once your manuscript is finalized, it’s time to start physically putting your book together and getting it ready to ship out to bookstores.

If you’re following a traditional publishing route, your publisher will take care of all of this for you. In some cases you may have a small say in certain aspects of your book’s physical form, but not always.

On the other hand, self published authors have complete control over this process. However, they’re also fully responsible for making sure every step is complete, as well as for funding the creation of their books.

Here are a few key steps in the assembly process to consider.

Cover Design

Most book lovers will tell you never to judge the contents by the cover. However, for better or worse, cover design is a highly important part of the publishing process. A well-designed jacket can certainly play a role in getting readers’ attention and driving book sales.

Most authors who follow a traditional publishing route have very little say in the cover design for their books. You may be able to discuss any ideas you have with your editor, but there’s no real guarantee that your opinions will be taken into consideration.

Understandably, this rubs some people the wrong way. You may feel like your book is now out of your hands and doesn’t belong to you any more.

The reality is, when a publishing house acquires your book, they make a significant investment in it. Publishers need books to perform well and sell lots of copies in order to keep their companies afloat. Since cover design can influence readers’ buying decisions, publishers want to have the final say when it comes to your book’s appearance.

If you self publish your book, you’ll have complete creative control over the cover design. However, you’ll also be in charge of bringing that design to life. You won’t have the benefit of a publishing house’s design team to back you up. Unless you happen to be a digital artist yourself, you may consider investing in help from a freelance designer.


Your book will also have to be formatted for publication. When following traditional publishing methods, you won’t have to worry about this process much. Your publisher will take care of making sure your manuscript is reformatted for printing. Depending on the terms of your contract, you book may also be formatted for electronic publication.

If you’re self publishing your book, formatting can become a bit more difficult. First, you’ll have to determine whether you will publish a print version of your book or not. Because printing is often fairly expensive, some self published authors only release e-books versions of their work.

Regardless of whether you pursue print publishing, e-book publishing, or both, as a self published author you’ll need to handle the typesetting yourself. Some self publishing platforms may help you with this process.

Assigning an ISBN

Every book needs an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) before it can be sold. An ISBN is:

…a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.

Your publisher will acquire your book’s ISBN. However, if you’re self publishing, that means you’ll need to handle this process on your own. There are a few different ways to do so.

4. Distribution

Once your book comes off the press, it’s time to get it on the shelves. If you’re going through a traditional publisher, they’ll handle the distribution process for you. However, it’s still helpful to know the most popular channels bookstores use to stock their shelves.

Once your book is printed, your publisher will ensure copies get to a distributor such as Ingram Content Group or Independent Publishers Group. That company then sends copies to bookstores, which sell them to readers.

The money from those sales then filters its ways back to the author (you), with the bookstore, distributor, publisher, and agent taking their cuts of the revenue along the way. The amount that’s left over and actually goes to the writer is called a “royalty”, and is usually a pretty small sum.

Self published authors can work directly with distributors that specialize in self published books, such as IngramSpark or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. These companies will also require a financial investment. However, since you’ve cut out a publisher and agent from the process, you’ll receive much more money in royalties than traditionally published authors.

When it comes to marketing, both traditionally published and self published authors are often on their own. Publishers usually invest very little in promoting new books unless they think they’re going to sell exceptionally well. Many first time authors end up paying for their own book tours and/or working with freelance PR specialists to drum up excitement for their releases.


The book publishing process is not exactly a linear one. There are certain steps most authors take to get their work into bookstores, but there are several ways they can accomplish those steps. Which route is best for you will depend on your goals, budget, and other resources.

No matter which route you take, there are four steps involved in the publishing process:

  1. Acquisition. The author decides which publishing route to take and “sells” their book accordingly. This involves either querying agents to find someone to help broker your book deal, querying publishers and editors directly, or choosing to pursue self publishing.
  2. Editing. The book undergoes high level developmental editing, detail-oriented line editing, and extensive proofreading for grammar errors.
  3. Assembling your book. This process is generally handled almost exclusively by the publisher of the book. Cover design, formatting, and acquiring an ISBN are all part of this stage.
  4. Distribution. The process of getting your book into physical and online stores.

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Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.

Molly Tyler

Molly received her B.A. in English in 2016, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2019. She now works full time as a digital content marketer.

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