How to publish a book: Planning

I’m a publisher at Cambridge University Press. As the oldest publishing house in the world (in operation since 1534), Cambridge knows how to make a book. And a lot of people want to write and publish a book. I often get asked about the steps involved, so here goes. The process remains roughly the same if you are publishing a bible, a textbook or a poetry collection, but I will use examples from educational book publishing. This would be considered a traditional publishing process. Even if you are self-publishing your work, you’d generally need to complete the same steps, although with the help of online services some of these tasks can be automated or consolidated.

I’ve split this blog post into three parts – planning, designing and developing.

Planning a book

The more work you do upfront in planning your book, the easier the process is later down the line. One of the first decisions that get made is around the format, presentation and the number of pages. Most people know paper sizes based around the pages of the office printer, the standard A4 (doubling to A3 and halving to A5) or US-letter. There are, however, a lot of other options such as truncated A4 and Narrow Crown, which we use in publishing. The decision on paper size (or trim size in publishing parlance) directly relates to printing costs. Specific formats can be printed more efficiently and more economically. At the same time, the type of book you are publishing influences the size of the page. Think about a textbook and its diagrams and boxes in the margin vs a book of poems – different paper sizes for various purposes. There is a whole lot more that goes into printing, but from a publisher’s point of view, you need to know what size you are developing a book for as this affects how much space per page you have for content.

The second choice to be made is around the presentation of your book. Whether your book is black and white or in colour and what it will look like to the reader. Again this has cost-implications for printing your book. But this decision is led by the purpose of your book. Think again about the textbook and the poetry collection and which type of book would benefit from full-colour. While you may not have a design for your book yet, you should be able to estimate the font-size and font-type based on your target audience. For example, a reading book for a primary school learner will have a much larger font in comparison to a training manual for a professional in the workplace. Decisions around presentation will directly influence your estimated number of pages.

Lastly, decide how many pages you want your book to be. Publishers, so fond of acronyms and jargon, call this the extent of the book. Generally, we try to get this number as close as possible to 16-page sections, i.e. divide your total extent by 16, and if you get a whole number, you are good to go. This is the most economical way to print a book due to the size of the paper used by commercial printers. I’ll write more on this at a later point, and also touch on paper weight, binding, printable extents and other intricacies of commercial printing. If your book is only going to be available digitally then this doesn’t concern you – full-colour and reflowable to screen size will be standard for most e-books.

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