I want to be clear that I'm asking about this both for the present time, where nearly everyone does everything digitally, and for "back in the day", such as the 1970s or 1950s or 1920s or longer ago. I'm equally interested in both perspectives, and I suspect that they are quite different.

Let's say that Mr. Author has been sitting for a few years in his comfortable chair at home, with thousands of "post-it" notes and seemingly disorganized pieces of papers full of notes to himself. He has a classic mechanical typewriter in front of him. He has just "finalized" the "script" for his book, after going through it many times and finally feels content with the story and exactly how every word is put. He takes out the last page from the typewriter, puts it on his stack of already typed-out pages, sorts them in the right order, clams or tapes them together, waits for another week and comes back to it a final time to read through it as if he were a reader.

When he turns the last page, he smiles. The book is perfect! Now, as far as I understand this world, he either physically delivers this "final script" to an office somewhere nearby, or sends it in the mail to this company if it's far away. Then, they will receive it, read through it, and then have somebody whose entire profession consists of turning such a script into actual book pages, according to countless typographical rules, possibly even changing the formatting of the script, and possibly even fixing typos?

Is this how it works? The author never actually delivers the "actual final book", as in, formatted exactly as he wants it to be printed? If I were to write a book myself, I would be furious if they changed my quoting style to "dash quotes" (even if a particular market expects that style), or "fix" typos, which I may have intended, or which are words I made up myself. I would want 100% control of my book, but perhaps that's just me. Perhaps the publisher would refuse to publish my book if I insisted on this?

It strikes me that, maybe, publishers do allow the author to have full control, but if so, they will charge more, or take a bigger cut of the profits?

What confuses me is that some books have been published by numerous different companies/people from different countries and times. Some may even be "public domain". But how do those companies get hold of the "original script"? Do they just pick up an existing book and OCR it into a computer and then re-format it slightly? Or just photocopy the actual pages directly?

Nowadays, it seems feasible that an author could directly deliver a PDF-format book "script" file which is printed as-is, but I wonder how many authors actually have the skills to make a properly "set" book which will be attractive and pleasant to read...

4 Answers 4


I have written somewhere between a dozen and a score non-fiction books, going back to the 90s, for several different publishers and imprints. All of these involved a contract before writing started. The process was:

  • write the text, in Word with particular styles applied that the publisher uses. Eg for a chapter title, or a picture caption.
  • prepare the illustrations, generally screenshots.
  • send these electronic files. I have uploaded to BBSes, emailed, FTPed, and Dropboxed.
  • in the past I would also courier a hardcopy of each chapter, both the printed out text and the illustrations with hand written cropping instructions on them.
  • some time later (weeks or months) I would get the chapter back in electronic form as Author Review with markup from at least 3 kinds of editors
    • the technical editor, one of my peers who would double check everything: is the button really Ok, or is it Apply? Is that how this system works? Is that list complete?
    • the copy editor, who would fuss about which and this, or rearrange sentences from time to time, and leave queries like "please clarify whether A or B" if they wanted me to rewrite a sentence.
    • an overall series editor who would leave queries like "this is too many paragraphs in a row, can you put in a diagram or a bulleted list", as well as re-styling certain things to be pull quotes or sidebars or other things the series used a lot of. This editor would also say things like "this chapter is supposed to be 40 pages and you have only submitted 8" (I had a co-author do this and it was a Big Deal) or "the outline said this would include XYZ but there's no sign of it" and ask for major changes like that.
  • I would respond to all these queries (generally by doing as I was asked, sometimes declining.)
  • someone would clear away all the revisions and queries and produce final PDFs in which you would see page breaks etc and send them to me.
  • I would have a VERY short time to review these and only major issues could be reported at that time (like the highly-regarded publisher that put hyphens and line breaks into code, as well as capitalizing i in code, AFTER our final Author Review was complete. Grr.) This often included reviewing the index as well.
  • the book would go to print.
  • a box of books (the author copies agreed on in the contract) would arrive at my house.

If you were writing fiction, there would be less "I think you need a bulleted list or sidebar here" and you might not have a technical editor, but there would still be someone making sure your which/this were ok (and various other often-imaginary rules copyeditors like to enforce) and that the book is readable. This would no doubt depend on whether this was part of a series (like young adult fiction or western romance and so on) and whether the publisher had rules about swearing, sex, violence and similar things being depicted. You might get a chance to roll back some of these changes and you generally get a chance to see the final PDFs before it's all put to paper.

In any case, the publisher should explain all this to you before you sign the contract. You're not going to put your only copy of the typewritten manuscript into an envelope, mail it to a stranger, and wait for the money and accolades to come rolling in. Even if you think the book is finished when you contact the publisher, there will still be plenty of work left to do.


Let us first of all note that this scenario assumes a writer who has a contract for the book. For that, the answer is, yes, the publisher can edit to the book to its standards, and generally does. This is not only formatting, from the font onwards, but can be other alterations to the book. (And nowadays, the publisher expects it in electronic format.)

Alternatively, the writer can self-publish. Then, if he goes for a reputable self-publisher (as opposed to a vanity press), he can control a lot more. However, that will require specialized formatting skills.

When dealing with bringing into a print a public domain book, there's a lot of things a publisher can do. For instance, using OCR on a copy and then cleaning up the mistakes and formatting it to the standard they want. Photocopying would be unwise because of blurring and needing it to get the right page size and all that, except when offering a facsimile edition.


The author's rights and responsibilities are spelled out in the contract they sign with the publisher, whether standard, vanity, or otherwise. These contracts also spell out who owns the rights to publication as well as copyright protection. For example, a publisher contracts with an author for a book that the publisher wants to distribute nationally as well as overseas. The contract would state that the publisher has foreign publishing rights. This means that the author cannot now sell their work to an overseas publisher since the first publisher owns those rights. Some contracts allow for the copyright or other rights to revert back to the author after a certain period of time, while others do not.

Also note that the author's manuscript, abbreviated "ms" in the publishing industry (not "script"), is almost never the final form of the book, as editing, typesetting and proofreading all have yet to take place. These activities are not seen by most as an infringement on the author's rights or creative expression, but necessary parts of the publishing process.


Sorry, Amori L; 1970s or 1950s or 1920s or longer ago perspectives are in no useful way different, for the simple reason that the technology is relevant to printing, not to publishing.

It simply doesn't work the way you suggest (and crucially, where did you get those ideas?)

There are three roles involved: author, publisher and printer… they could be only two entities, or a single person.

I happen to have experience or knowledge or both of today’s and all your 1970s or 1950s or 1920s methods and I notice you seem to be confusing “printing” - exclusively about technique - with “publishing” - dealing with everything else.

Since the 1920s printing has changed greatly; publishing, hardly at all.

Let's not bother to say anything, ever, about how Mr Author got a type- or manuscript to a publisher. Who thinks that could matter, speak up!

You missed out all that matters after (someone) receives the work, most obviously that if there is really one person turning a script into pages that’s a rare co-incidence; not at all industry custom or practice. There will usually be several; often many people involved.

Hoping you follow the differences among author, publisher and printer, long before and far above the purely technical processes you imagine, author and publisher will negotiate what authority either has to make changes, and why.

That has nothing to do with typographical rules and impacts the fixing of typos only in the event that the author insists no changes be made; possible, yet highly unlikely.

“… changing the formatting of the script” means what, please?

To re-iterate, no; your idea is not at all how it works.

The one difference technology makes between 1920s’ and today’s methods is that yes, Mr Author today can deliver “the actual final book", formatted as he wants it to be printed.

If you were to write a book yourself, it would be up to you to negotiate a contract stipulating all that mattered to you, including whether the quoting style used "dash quotes”, never mind what a particular market expected.

The same applies to "fixing” what you may have intended, or words made up yourself, and precisely how the proof-readers tell the difference.

Most publishers would refuse to handle your book if you insisted on 100% control; the more so if you presented what you Posted here as justification.

Many printers would print what they were given, legalities excepted.

Whether you do it yourself or use an ordinary publisher broadly, four things count: editing; printing; distribution; marketing.

Editing, you negotiate…

Printing should be a done deal; basically, a matter of copying…

Distribution and marketing are quite separate.

Distribution is highly unlikely to be anything an author would take an interest in, beyond "The more the merrier"…

Marketing might well be something over which the author wanted complete control. Artistically, that’s wholly reliant on the content. Technically, they’re hardly connected.

Of course publishers allowing the author more control will charge more, or take a bigger cut of the profits. Is it not ever thus?

How is it confusing that some books are published by different companies/people from different countries and times? Would you expect all books to be published by the same companies/people in the same countries at the same time?

“Public domain" is basically "out of copyright," which broadly means either the work is too old to qualify for copyright in a particular jurisdiction or the copyright owner - often but by no means necessarily the author - has relinquished all rights.

If you have a special definition of “the original script" please explain it. Otherwise yes, people do just photocopy the actual pages directly. I have a good dozen such books on my shelves.

More expensively yes, they OCR existing books…

If the books are dated, fine. Otherwise to re-format “slightly” would be no protection against copyright infringement. To the extent the original work was recognisable through your re-formatting, you’d be liable.

Far more than feasible, it’s commonplace for today’s authors to deliver PDF files to be printed. What you seem to be missing is that no special skill is involved.

Anyway, why do you Ask?

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