Reading Page Proofs

What are page proofs? And what should an author do with them? In this quick and easy video, I’ll show what I did with mine when they arrived last week. You’ll learn what they’re for, why I read them out loud, and why I back them up to a master document.

TRANSCRIPT: Hello folks. I’m Mark Stay. I’m an author and a screenwriter. And in the run up to the publication of my new book, The Crow Folk, which is coming February 2021, I’m gonna be posting regular updates here. There’s stuff about the book and the story, but also behind the scenes stuff about the process of publication and particularly all the fun stuff that happens in the run up to the big publication day.

And just recently, I got my page proofs from my publisher. So I’m going to talk about what I do with those and how I review them for my publisher. We’re a little over three months away from the publication of The Crow Folk and the proof pages were sent to me as a PDF. This is how the printed book will look on the page. They used to come as a big wodge of paper, but now, for various reasons – economical, environmental – they’re sent as a PDF. I did look into getting them printed locally, but for a 352 page document, it would’ve cost about 35 to 50 quid, depending if I wanted it one-sided or or two-sided.

Now the proof pages are an author’s last opportunity to really spot any errors and make any changes. Not big changes, either. This is not an edit. The edit is done. This is not the time to decide to move that pivotal scene in Act two into Act One No, no, no… What you’re looking for are typos, formatting errors, clunky sentences. And that’s about it. I read them out loud. Why? Well, when I was at Orion — I worked for the Orion Publishing Group for many, many years — the audio director, Pandora White, said she wished all authors would read their proof pages out loud. And the reason is that by the time they came round to recording the audio book, the proof pages had been done and sent off to the printers. So if they ever spotted any errors — and they often did — it was too late to do anything about it. So y’know, that’s why I read it out loud. I know authors who use speech software to have their computer read it back to them, which is a good way to spot typos and clunky sentences, but you miss homonyms. So y’know there are at least two I can recall from this book: draft and draught, and hole and whole. You miss fomatting errors. You can’t hear when the formatting is wrong, y’know. So I had a question mark slip off the end of the line and end up at the beginning of the next line on this ones, so I was able to pick that, so to catch that. So I read out loud. I make the words as big as possible on the screen, because I’m one of those people who tends to speed, read and skip ahead, and that’s how you miss stuff.That’s how you miss the little tiny details, and you can’t make that mistake when the words are so huge. When I read, I do so in a soft voice and try not to make it too dynamic or dramatic. You know this process can take as long as a week, and I need to save my voice. There’s a fine line between a soft voice and monosyllabic.

I mark-up the pdf as I go. I read for about an hour a time, and then I usually take a break, do a little bit of housework or something just to get the circulation going again. I generally find I can only read in the mornings. I’m just too drowsy in the afternoon and I miss stuff.

At the end of each session, I go back to my original document, which is a Scrivener document. You may use Word or similar, and I go and make those changes. All those mark-ups that I’ve made. I go and make them in my original document. And I did that for the edit, and the copy edit: any changes go back into a master document so that I have a master doc with all the updated changes. You’d be amazed how few authors do this and that’s not unreasonable. Why should I do this? The publisher is making those changes and putting it out there. But at some point in the future, you may need that document. You may part company with your publisher, you know, authors get the rights back to their books, and I may want to self publish it in 20/30 years’ time or whatever. And the last thing I want to do is have to go through this process all over again. And also, you know, you can’t just ask the publisher for those files. They’ll charge you for them. They spent money creating them, and they will charge you. Sometimes it’s hundreds of pounds, and if you got a whole series that can really, really add up so, you know, create an archive, back it up, get into the habit of creating an archive. So that’s it. That’s reading page proofs.

Author Advances, Earning Out and Royalties explained…

There’s been all kinds of scuttlebutt online regarding a blog piece by the author Heather Demetrious on how she burned through book advances of several hundred thousand dollars and ended up back working in a day job. I’m simplifying her story massively here, so do give it a read.

It’s a fascinating and honest piece, for which she has received all kinds of sneering abuse online, most surprisingly from other authors. At the root of this is an assumption that she should have known what an advance was, how royalties work, and have an understanding of publishing practices that, frankly, are a bit weird and arcane.

Publishing is an industry that has been slow to progress in many ways. It’s still very white and middle/upper class, and the people you work with will assume you’ve been to the same private schools and universities and that we all read the trade magazines and publishing news feeds.

And, like me and Heather, if you come from a working class background you can throw in a feeling of imposter syndrome when you mix with publishing types. And that can mean you’re afraid to ask even the most basic questions. Here’s the thing…

NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK A STUPID QUESTION

Also…

DON’T STOP ASKING STUPID QUESTIONS UNTIL YOU GET ANSWERS THAT MAKES SENSE

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Einstein

Here for you, dear reader, is a quick rundown of some of the terminology associated with publishing advances…

An Advance

This is a sum of money paid to an author in advance of the publication of the book. It is usually paid in three stages: on signing the contract, on delivery of the manuscript, and on publication.

It is NOT a salary.

Payment will come through your agent (if you have one) and they will deduct their commission, which can be from 10-20%.

Then, like all income, you will have to pay tax on what remains. If, like me, you’re baffled by taxes I would advise getting financial advice to help with your tax return.

Here’s the big thing to bear in mind… You will not receive any further money from the publisher until your advance has been “earned out”. So what the hell does that mean?

Earning Out

Think of your advance as a debt to the publisher. If they’ve given you ten thousand pounds in advance, you need to pay that ten grand back before they give you any more in royalties (we’ll come to those in a minute).

How do you do that? Simple. Sell enough books to cover the advance. Ideally, you should do that in the first twelve months after publication.

This is harder than you might think. If books are going to sell they need to be marketed and promoted and that will mean heavy discounting. If your eBook is selling for 99p in Kindle promotions it will take longer to earn out that advance. If your eBook is on sale for £9.99 and not being promoted then the chances are it’s not selling that many copies at all.

You see the problem here.

Very few books earn out in the first twelve months after publication.

But let’s say you do – woohoo! – now it’s time to earn some…

Royalties

These are the payments you earn from book sales once you have earned out your advance. They are usually paid twice a year.

Yes.

Twice a year.

Not monthly, like a salary.

Twice a bloody year.

And the payment will be accompanied by the most baffling document in written history: The Royalty Statement.

Ask your agent (or, if you don’t have an agent, contact the Society of Authors) to explain what it all means, and make sure they check it because it will almost certainly be wrong. My agent discovered an error in my last statement with VAT payments on eBooks and got me an additional £300.

Twice a year.

Bastards.

THE CURSE OF THE BIG ADVANCE

Advances are changing. It used to be a spectrum based on predicted sales, now it’s all or nothing: huge advances or piddly little ones. Publishers used to be a bit rubbish at predicting sales, because it was usually done solely by the editor based on little more than their enthusiasm for the book. While this was all very admirable, it wasn’t terribly scientific and led to huge advances for authors who had no bloody chance of earning out. For example…

Case Study 1: Debut author of a literary fiction masterpiece gets half a million quid for world rights in advance for a book that the editor is head-over-heels in love with. The book gets some buzz, but ultimately fails to sell more than a few thousand copies. That author now has a ton of red ink in their profit and loss statement. The author still has the advance (yay!), but the publisher now sees them as an expensive loss and writes them off. The next book is either rejected, or the advance is tiny in comparison to book one. The author’s career never recovers.

These days the advances are calculated by an unholy cabal of sales, editorial, rights, production and marketing and they’ve become a lot better at using data to predict sales. And their predictions err on the cautious.

But… this does mean that if they’re willing to give you a big advance that they’re far more more confident that it will earn out. For example…

Case Study 2: Debut author of a commercial thriller gets half a million quid for world rights in advance for a book that the editor is head-over-heels in love with. Because the sales, rights and marketing departments were involved in calculating the advance they are more engaged when they sell it in. The buzz is great, and the rights are sold all over the world, including the movie rights. A miracle! This means the book has earned out its advance before it’s even published! Every book sold will earn the author a royalty and for the next deal they will be able to to negotiate a higher advance. Hurrah!

The above is an unusual outcome, but it does happen. Publishers need a handful of these every year, otherwise they would go out of business.

However, here’s what most deals are like these days…

Case Study 3: Debut author of a genre book gets a few grand for world rights in advance for a book that the editor is head-over-heels in love with. Because the sales, rights and marketing departments were involved in calculating the advance they are more engaged when they sell it in, but… they also have that commercial thriller with the big advance at the top of their priority list, so they give less attention to the genre book with the small advance. The author has to work harder to get publicity and marketing, they pay out of their own pocket to go to festivals, and have to write the second book while holding down a day job and bringing up a family. The rights are sold to France and Germany for a small amount. No one buys the film rights. But… after twelve months the book earns out and over five to ten years the author slowly builds a profitable and credible career.

No one said this would be easy, and you should not give up on your dream of becoming a full-time author, but the odds are it will be a long journey with all kinds of ups and downs. My advice is to keep writing and never, ever be afraid to ask for advice. Speaking of which…

Need advice?

I’ve worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty-five years and I offer all kinds of bespoke services for writers, from reader reports to full edits. Drop me a line here for a free consultation.

The End of Magic edit update

Over lunch today I finished the latest phase of the edit. I’ve been picking away at my editor Simon Spanton’s notes (over 350 suggested changes and comments) for a little over three weeks now.

I started with the easy stuff, namely all the extraneous crap marked ‘Delete’ by Simon. Suggestions to re-word awkwardly phrased sentences, clarity where there was confusion, repetitions…

… and a whole section where I had a character eating stew from a plate instead of a bowl (d’oh!). I find this is a nice warm up before the main event, and a good way to reacquaint yourself with a book that you might not have looked at for weeks or even months.

There was a whole debate about rats on a ship, how fast a ship would sink, and how many lashes with a cat ‘o nine tails would kill a man (Simon is an extremely genial and friendly chap, but knows an awful lot about naval punishment).

We went back and forth on the size of armies, weaponry, lethal farm tools (who knew that the cutting edge of a scythe blade was on the inside of the curve? Simon did, thankfully), dog bites, poisons, rats, crops, injuries, the efficiency of messenger pigeons, the physiology of merpeople…

… putting a saddle on the back of a wyvern, and the mental and physical cost of using magic.

There were a few moments where my characters rushed into action without much thought of the consequences and it was great to have the opportunity to dig a little deeper and think about why they made those impetuous decisions.

It’s been fun if hard and intense work, but there’s no question that it’s improved the book. And it’s not over yet! I’m sure Simon will have a few more notes for me, and then we’ll move onto the copy edit where it gets really forensic.

I’m hoping to have a revised version of the opening chapter that I can share with you soon, in the meantime thanks to everyone who has supported the book so far, and if you’ve not yet pre-ordered you can do so here.

Cosmic Cosmo Podcast

This week’s podcast is a bit different in that we were visited by Catriona Innes, Senior Editor at Cosmopolitan UK. When I was a teen, Cosmo was the mag that you read to learn about sex when you were sure no girls were looking! But it’s evolved into something very different now and it was terrific to hear from Catriona how she’s gone undercover to expose all sorts of shady shenanigans. Cosmo is now doing what 21st century magazines do best with long form articles, thoroughly researched with a sense of perspective and objectivity.

There were also some top tips from Catriona on interview techniques that any writer could use in their work. Check it out here.

We also released another deep dive episode for our Patreon subscribers. It’s all about how to tackle second drafts, and you can listen to a wee snippet here. If you want more, do please pledge your support over on our Patreon page.

 

And speaking of pledging… have you signed-up to join me on the epic adventure that is The End of Magic yet?

Want to be part of an epic fantasy adventure…?

Hello – I’m very excited to announce that my new book, a fantasy novel called The End of Magic will be coming soon from Unbound Publishing!

Watch this clip of me being all windswept and David Starkey to discover more…

Unbound are amazing. It’s essentially a Kickstarter model, and YOU – yes YOU! – can be a part of the book’s publication. Simply pledge and get your name in the book as a patron, or go really crazy and make yourself a character in the book (you could die a glorious death!), or get feedback from me on your novel or screenplay, or even take a trip to the coast and talk toot the whole day!

This book is a big passion project for me. It’s a combination of the kind of fantasy I loved when growing up, combined with the sort of grimdark I enjoy today. I’m calling it GrimFun (you’re welcome) and I really hope you can join me on the adventure.

And here’s the cool bit –

You can get a 10% discount on your pledge using the discount code bestsellerxp

Do please SHARE with anyone you know who loves a great read, in the meantime enjoy the book’s awesome theme tune composed by Dominic Currie…