Inside the publishing process

Are you a writer and wanting to understand how the publishing process works? 

Our publishing team recently hosted a webinar, unpacking the book publishing process. Here, Andrea Nattrass, Katlego Tapala and Sandile Nkosi give an overview of the publishing industry and answers questions covering various topics from manuscript review to contracts, distribution and promotion. Including answers related to children's publishing.

For unsolicited submissions: would you recommend working with an editor before you submit your manuscripts?
Where possible, yes. A publisher doesn’t expect to receive a perfect manuscript, but there should be some effort – even if by the writer themselves – to read through the first draft, make revisions where necessary, and to reduce as many spelling and grammatical mistakes as possible.

Besides what Katlego mentioned, what other factors matter in considering publishing a manuscript? Does the popularity of the would-be author matter? Do you publish books written in multiple languages eg both isiZulu and English?
The popularity of a would-be author can be a factor, but it should not be seen as the most important one. It may help in terms of marketing the book, but all the other factors mentioned during the webinar still come into consideration when making a call on whether a manuscript is worth publishing or not. When we receive a great manuscript and decide to publish, even by an unknown/debut author, it will be given as much attention and effort by the team as we would for a popular or established author.
With very few exceptions – children’s books being one area – Pan Macmillan doesn’t generally publish books in languages other than English. There are local publishers that do publish in different languages.

What do publishers look for in a manuscript?
There are a few things we look for in a manuscript, mainly:

  • The quality of the writing. Writing is a skill, too. Whether a writer has formal training, or natural talent, honing your craft requires dedication and time. Reading widely helps; to learn by ‘watching’ and absorbing what you read. All three of these factors – dedication, time and reading – are apparent to us (in your writing) when we assess a manuscript.
  • If it is fiction, does the story have a unique plot, well-developed characters, great (writing) style? If non-fiction, is the subject matter interesting, is the story worth telling, and is it told well?
  • How clear and accessible is the writing? (which informs the next point)
  • How broad is the book’s appeal likely to be; who are the potential or intended readers (who is the market)?
  • If the manuscript has potential, is there room for improvement and is the author willing to put in the work once they are given feedback?

What is the best avenue one can take to become a freelance editor/proofreader for a publisher like Pan Macmillan?
Editing is a skill like any other. There are certain aspects that may come naturally or with experience, like being able to spot the potential of a good manuscript from the first chapter, being able to recognise a certain flair or great style or a unique voice. However, there are also technical aspects to editing that you must learn formally and there are several short courses available from different institutions. With that qualification in hand, write to different publishers, big and small, to start gaining experience. Often, there will be a competency test, and depending on how well you do, you might start out with manuscript assessments and/or proofreading.

Is it true that self-published books are less in demand in the retail book market and that generally bookshop buyers shun away from them? If so, why do you think this is the case?
Several of the established book retail chains prefer to deal only with publishers and they have a procurement process that requires registration and paperwork to be completed, which isn’t straightforward. And in addition, they operate on a ‘sale or return’ basis, so the books that the store doesn’t sell can be returned to the publisher after a certain period (usually around four months). This is tricky for a self-published author to work around. Fortunately, we have many thriving independent book stores that self-published authors can sell their books through, and we also have book distributors, such as Protea Boekehuis, which can be contracted by a self-published author to distribute their book. A self-published author often has their own platform and thus their own sales channels can be highly successful.

When is the open submission period?
We are not sure when next Pan Macmillan will be in a position to hold an open submission period. Our local adult publishing team is very small – with only three fulltime employees – and our focus has to be on publishing the books that we are contracted to publish.

How much publishing in comics/graphic novels does Pan do?
Pan doesn’t at this stage publish any comics or graphic novels. It is a highly specialised area of publishing and it needs a publisher with experience and expertise in these areas, and we currently have neither.

Is it typical of publishers to try to get the book published overseas?
Our experience is that it is not easy to find an international publisher for many of our local titles. Where we have World rights, Pan Macmillan will make the ebook available internationally as well as possibly a print book, via the Lightning Source platform, if we think the title has international potential.

What is included and what isn’t in a publishing deal?
Every publishing deal is tailored to the particular project and author, and different publishing houses each have their own approach. These are important things that I think need to be included in a publishing deal:

  • agreement over copyright (under most circumstances, the author should retain the copyright over their own work);
  • an advance, even if it is a small amount (it signals the commitment of the publisher to a project);
  • fair royalties for an author (these can vary quite widely depending on a project and on the author);
  • details of when royalties will be paid by the publisher;
  • a clear outline of what is expected from an author in terms of the marketing and publicity of their book; and
  • details of the author’s responsibilities and the publisher’s responsibilities.

How is Pan Macmillan assisting with the book marketing and distribution after publishing? What is covered/what isn’t?
Pan Macmillan has a publicity team that meets with an author and agrees on a plan for the book ahead of it being published. It is a collaborative effort and it draws on the author’s own networks and contacts as well as the publisher’s channels for publicity. Each plan is different; some of the things it can include are: review coverage; print, TV and radio coverage; in-person and virtual launch suggestions; advertising opportunities; and bookclub events. In terms of distribution, bookstores place orders with Pan Macmillan and we undertake to get the books from our warehouse to the individual stores.

Is it true that a bestseller in South Africa is considered as 3 000 copies for fiction and 10 000 copies for non-fiction?
This is Pan Macmillan’s experience on local commercial fiction and local non-fiction titles. Obviously – and thankfully – there are titles that exceed these expectations and sell more copies, but in terms of juggling our planning and commissioning, these are the sales figures that we keep in mind.

In answering this question, I am specifically speaking to local commercial fiction and not literary fiction. In general, the South African market is much smaller than international markets, but when it comes to literary fiction the market can be small around the globe. It depends on the author’s profile and platform and if the book is longlisted or shortlisted for any literary awards. As a recent example in terms of literary fiction, An Island by Karen Jennings was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Award. The international publisher of this title – Holland House – had a first print run of only 500 copies for the novel. When it was longlisted for the award, they were able to undertake a significant reprint. And the sales of Karavan Press, Karen’s local publisher, hopefully also benefitted from the longlisting of the novel.

How do I go about self-publishing?
If you would like to publish your book yourself, you may consider self-publishing if you are sure you can fulfil all the roles of a publisher without sacrificing quality. Alternatively, you can use self-publishing services to publish your book. There are many companies that offer professional self-publishing services. These companies offer all the services that a traditional publisher offers, but you as the author cover the costs for those services. You will need to do some research on self-publishing if you are considering it as an option for you as you will need to consider the kind of book you want to publish and the reach you would like to have.

What is the software to use for writing and formatting your book if you are thinking of self-publishing?
Any processor such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs or Apple Pages will be sufficient for writing and formatting your manuscript. For the design and layout, you would need to typeset your book using the appropriate typesetting software, such as Adobe InDesign. We strongly recommend you to turn to a professional typesetter in order to create the best possible product. There are companies that offer self-publishing services, including in formatting, layout and design.

What is DRM?
Digital rights management (DRM) is the use of technology to control and manage access to copyrighted material such as a book. DRM may include measures such as encryption to set usage permissions, though it may also limit device compatibility.

On average, how much does it cost to get a manuscript through the production process excluding the printing of copies?
The costs of producing a book differ and are dependent on the kind of book you would like to produce. You will need to consider costs of editing, layout, proofreading and cover design. There are other costs such as permission fees if you will be using third-party material in the book as well as illustration and photograph fees if you will have illustrations or photographs.

As not all publishers publish all types of books, I am looking for one that publishes recipe/ recipe and craft tutorial books. Not sure whom to approach. What is your advice?
You need to do some research to find an appropriate publisher for the kind of book you want to publish – this advice applies to any genre and to anyone who is looking for a publisher for their work. The Publishers’ Association of South Africa ( has a comprehensive list of all member publishers in South Africa and these have also been categorised by the genres they publish in. In addition, you should spend time researching literary agents and publishers internationally.

Watch our publishing team Andrea Nattrass, Katlego Tapala and Sandile Nkosi, for a guide to navigating the publishing process and an overview of the publishing industry. 

Questions related to children’s publishing

What is the scope for children’s literature in South Africa?
We have a lot of work to do to encourage and promote reading in this country. Current estimates are that below 20% of the population read regularly and below 10% buy books. But there are some avid reading families who keep the local children's book industry alive and sales to schools and libraries also contribute a great deal to being able to publish local children's books.

If you have a picture book idea, can you submit it without having any illustrations?
Yes, you can definitely submit a manuscript – fiction or non-fiction – without illustrations. The illustrator will be appointed by the publisher. You can send in your thoughts and ideas about the illustrative material and the publisher will take that into consideration.

How do you choose an illustrator for an author?
If you have a lot of experience in both the reading and publishing of children's books, you can visualise the style of illustration that will fit the text, and then you try to find an illustrator (or contact one that you already know) whose style is closest to what you envisage.

Is it more difficult to publish books for children?
There is a saying: ‘You should write for children in the same way that you write for adults, only better.’ Writing children’s books may seem simple, but in some ways it is more challenging than writing for adults. This is both in terms of the restricted word count and the reading ability of the target group as well as the challenge of placing yourself in the mind and body of the child or teenage characters who you are writing about. My philosophy is that the best children’s books writers are the ones who can remember best what it felt like being a child.

Would Pan Macmillan publish books written by teen authors?
It takes time to become an author. It is a craft that needs to be practised by writing and by reading as well as by living. It has happened – I remember three cases where teenage authors were published by mainstream South African publishers in the last few decades – but the examples are few and far between. I have not yet come across a manuscript by a child or teenage author whose work was ready to be published.

When is Pan Macmillan opening for unsolicited manuscript submissions of children's books?
Unfortunately, not in the foreseeable future as our children’s publishing programme is still getting established. There are many other publishers of children’s books in South Africa.