What are page proofs and what should I look out for?

Page proofs (sometimes called first proofs or galleys or uncorrected proofs) are the last stage of an author’s engagement with a text before it goes to print. You will have created your own many drafts, then submitted a manuscript. The manuscript then goes through various rounds of edits before heading off to design to be laid out. Once it is laid out, you have a final chance to check through the manuscript before it goes off to be made into a real book. You will get a chance to see the final proofs, typically, but you really shouldn’t make any changes then!

Typically, you will get very strict instructions not to make a lot of changes even at the page proofs stage, as it is much slower and harder to change things once it is laid out, and major changes to the text can have flow-on consequences to the whole layout. I have sometimes been told that significant changes at the proofs stage can lead to a loss of royalties or other penalties. However, it is important to recognise that these limitations only pertain to author-led changes: not to any errors or inconsistencies that the publisher has introduced. It’s also helpful to know what ‘significant changes’ means: it’s okay to decide you don’t like a word you previously used, or a major new book has been published and you need to fit in a reference to it somewhere; it is not okay to do extensive rewriting, cut four major paragraphs or insert a new graph!

Use the page proofs stage to check that the changes you requested at the copy editing stage have been implemented. You are also expected to check that errors have not been introduced in laying out the text (less common now that it is all digital, but it does happen!).

This is your first (and only) chance to give feedback on the design of the book. You typically won’t have a lot of choices about the design… if you hate the font, that’s probably not up for debate. However, you can give feedback about consistency: are the headings for ‘notes’ and ‘options’ always the same? Check for rogue italicisation, inconsistent font sizes in the notes, or something that hasn’t been formatted in the right heading style.

You will never have seen the images and tables set out before either. You may want to adjust the crop of the images so they sit better on the page. If you have diagrams, you might want the background to be transparent, or opaque. Tables are surprisingly difficult to do well in a book, and they will never look the way you want them to in the first proofs. I have not yet worked out how to explain what I want the table to look like so it is right the first time, but I have successfully managed to explain how to change them to look right. Sometimes I have drawn a picture, or given extensive written feedback, and layout teams have always got there in the end, even for quite complex tables. (If anyone knows a resource for explaining how to lay out a table, please direct me to it!)

My books often include call-out boxes as well, and I always prefer for the whole box to be on one page, where possible. Make sure you scroll down for a few pages and see if requesting the whole box be on one page will have flow-on impacts. If moving the box will disrupt 10 other boxes, figures and tables… maybe let it go this time.

It can be a challenging aspect of modern publishing that the author is often getting paid the smallest amount of anyone in the production team, but you have to do so much work and bring so much expertise to the whole publishing process. You can’t just be a content-matter expert and then hand your work over to the publishing professionals. You have to be the quality assurance for the copy editors and layout teams, and sometimes you have to tell them how to do their jobs. Outsourcing, tight budgets and tight timelines mean that you need to pick up more of the work.

But also, it’s your name on the cover. No-one will ever know which hapless freelancer or harassed staff member muddled up the references in chapter 2. Everyone will know that you didn’t catch it and fix it. So it’s your credibility and prestige on the line, and it’s ultimately down to you to make sure you are proud of the work.

While there is a lot to do at this stage, it’s important to keep to your deadline. A day or two (if requested in advance) will probably not cause major disasters, but if you hold your proofs for weeks and weeks, agonising over commas, you will mess up the whole printing schedule. On the other hand, be careful about getting your book in too early, or they might slot it in to the spare week before Christmas, and then your publication date and the official publication year won’t match. Ask me how I know. (Three different books. You’d think I’d learn!)

The biggest bottleneck for your book’s publication date are the printing and binding machines. Your book will have days it is scheduled to actually be on the presses, when ink goes onto paper and glue goes on the spine. So exciting! But make sure you don’t lose your place in the queue, or you can really delay your publication date.

By the time you get to the page proofs, you will have seen the book so many times. But it’s important to stop, sit down, and tackle this one last review.

  • Do a big picture sweep (do all the ‘notes’ sections look the same?).
  • Do a close read through (did any lines disappear?).
  • Do a picture walk (do the figures and tables look right?).
  • And finally, do a random spot check of individual pages (if you don’t find any other errors, you have done enough; if you keep finding lots of errors, you know you haven’t done a close-enough review).

The proofs stage is both the most joyful stage (your book! it looks like a real book!) and the most annoying (why are there still so many little things to fix!). So give yourself lots of leeway to have big feelings.

Recognise just how far you and your book has come. Once upon a time it was an idea and a rough sketch. It has been a proposal, a first draft, it has been edited, line edited, final edits, submitted, it’s had multiple rounds of feedback that you have incorporated or rejected, it’s been copy edited, it’s been laid out.

It’s not a book yet, yet, yet it is getting closer with every cycle. Keep going. Stay strong. Be kind to yourself. It’s nearly there, and then we get to read it. We can’t wait either.

Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash


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