Prospective authors often want to know when they should sign a publishing contract and officially start working with their publisher. Whether they have a completed manuscript, a partial draft, a single chapter, or notes on a napkin, the answer is the same:

“As early as possible.”

That’s because the sooner a publisher gets involved, the more time they can spend helping to shape the story. Ultimately, the book will be better for it.

Depending on the writing process and production schedule, that could mean you start working with a publisher a year or more before publication. And that’s a good thing. The earlier a publisher’s editors, designers, and marketers get their hands on a manuscript, the more work they can contribute to it. If that guidance happens before the author writes a single word, all the better. When a publisher is involved from inception, they have the opportunity to provide input on everything from word count to outline, from cover design to the launch strategy. These services can be invaluable, especially to a first-time author.

One of the simplest value-adds your editing staff will bring to the table while you, the author, pine away over the keyboard, sweating and bleeding out those pages one graf, sentence, and word at a time, is accountability. Your publisher should not only keep you on task but should put together a formal writing plan for you to do so.

Acquisitions editors help authors model and diagram their manuscripts as soon as they’re on board. They create a writing schedule with word count goals and help the author stick to it while reading pages in real time and providing feedback and direction. To many authors, having that oversight is worth its weight in gold. Suddenly, “me” just became “we.” It’s now a joint effort, and that feeling of being part of a team, all pulling in the same direction with the goal of writing the best manuscript possible, becomes palpable. As the author, you’re the face of the project; now you have a talented crew in the background helping you keep that mug attractive.

Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. The publisher knows that. Their job is to help you know it too. You know?

Iffy on word count? How many chapters should it be? Should the story be told chronologically? Past tense? First person? Who is my audience? Do I need to create a table of contents? When do I do that? What’s the proper format? There are dozens of questions many authors don’t know to ask. Good publishers and editors should not only ask them—they should also answer them.

Every manuscript needs a series of beta reads. Your mom, your kids, a respected coworker, probably not your dog (unless you have a real smart dog) are more than happy to provide advice as you craft your story. But be careful—opinions are like, um, armpits. Everyone has one. (Actually, everyone has two.) Don’t discount the value of a professional’s notes while you’re still crafting your manuscript. That’s what you’re paying for when you hire an editor. A good publisher will match you with a skilled editor to provide real-time feedback as you write, helping you zig when you may have zagged, suggesting additional details, or maybe axing a redundant line that doesn’t move the story along. And not to discount Rover’s two cents, but historically, professional editors provide better notes than most dogs and family members.

While all this is going on—the writing, editing, and feedback—plenty of things can and should be happening in the background in preparation for publication and a successful book launch. Generating metadata, soliciting blurbs and testimonials, designing the cover, developing a marketing plan, creating an email list, designing a book-specific website, pitching the distribution sales team, and much more—all this can take place while you are fine-tuning the manuscript. In fact, those things should be happening simultaneously, so when your final draft is proofed, laid out, and ready for print, an existing marketing plan kicks off with a cover already approved. Because once books are back from print, it’s too late to start selling a book. That train needs to have long ago left the station. Your publisher should already have revved up the engines and started shoveling coal (I highly doubt trains run on coal anymore, but it’s a nice mental picture) well before “The End” is joyfully and proudly typed.

For these reasons and more, my advice to any author serious about a successful publishing journey is to lean on the experts you plan to work with early and often, allowing your attention to remain where it’s most effective, valuable, and productive: on the writing of an amazing manuscript. Your publisher, if given enough time, should be able to handle the rest.

Still have questions? Contact us to talk with a Ballast Books publishing professional.

Andy Symonds is the founder, president, and publisher of Ballast Books and Blue Balloon Books. He is the author of My Father’s Son and Enemy in the Wire; the co-author of Deliberate Discomfort and The Man in the Arena; and ghostwriter to several other titles, all of which were reviewed by his dog before being published.

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