Friday, January 29, 2010

Writing Journey: Why Does It Take So Long?

I'm not talking about the eight years of writing, submissions, and rejections I went through before landing my first novel contract, although that did take forever.

(Granted, I was publishing articles during those eight years, so I wasn't a complete failure . . . I just felt like one.)

Today's topic is a reader question I got from Chas Hathaway some time ago:

Why is it exactly that it takes so long (2 yrs I've heard is average) for a book to get from submission to publication? Is it editing? Do they just have a lot of books to work with at the same time?

The really short answer is this: There are a lot of steps in the publishing pipeline, and each just takes time.

Now for the long answer . . . and this is assuming that a writer either already has a literary agent (getting one takes its own good time and has its own challenges) or doesn't need one, such as with the LDS market, which is so small that they don't use agents. (A literary agent would starve if trying to make a living in this market. It just isn't big enough for that, because all the money agents ever get is commissions on author royalties.)

We'll start with submission and then go into the actual pipeline:

Jane Writer (or her agent) submits to a publisher. This is usually not a full manuscript, but a query letter (which has the purpose of piquing the editor's interest) and some sample chapters.

The editor gets dozens of these submission packages on a regular basis and reads them when there are breaks between other publishing deadlines for books that are already under contract. Jane's submission might not even be looked at for a couple of weeks. Or months.

Eventually, the editor gets to the submission and if he or she decides the submission shows promise, contacts Jane Writer and requests either a partial (often the first 50 pages) or a full (the entire manuscript).

Again with the waiting game. With my publisher, if you reach this stage (having a full requested), two or three copies of the manuscript are made and given out to evaluators, along with a massive (seriously, like 15-page) form for them to fill out analyzing all kind of areas of the work.

When all of the evaluations are returned (so you're waiting on other people and whenever they decide to get to it), the editor reviews them. By this point, you can easily have seen three or more months pass since the original submission.

If you're one of the publisher's regular writers, your submission jumps to the front of the line and gets read first (which can still mean 3 months), but if you're new, you go to the back of the line and have to wait longer (I used to wait 8 or 9 months).

If the evaluations are positive enough, the editor reads the manuscript and decides whether to champion the book based on evals, the quality of the writing AND (here's the rub) on the overall marketability of the work.

That last one is the area that took me 8 years to figure out. I got really awesome rejection letters and even a phone call once from a managing editor with things like, "Your work is a cut above what we usually see" and, "We debated long and hard on this book, even with the president of the company," and the like, but the bottom line was that the stories weren't marketable enough for the audience I was writing for.

This is a business, and no matter how much they LOVE a piece, if they don't think they can sell enough copies to make a profit, they usually pass.

If the editor deems the manuscript worthy, it moves on to the committee: all the big wig decision-makers. This includes the company's head honchos, the marketing department, the managing editor, and more. My publisher's committee has a marathon meeting once a week. (You don't want to know what day it is for Covenant. It's a nightmare knowing it's committee day when you're waiting for an answer.)

Before my acceptance, I made it to committee many, many times, but didn't make it past that because of the marketability thing until an editor contacted me and basically said she knew I had the chops and that I'd be "an asset to the company" if we could just knock me over the line. She clued me in to the market, and my next submission was picked up. Yay!

Back to time lines: Jane Writer's book is accepted. She may have already spent 6-9 months, but she's still got a lot ahead of her:

1) First she does any rewrites needed based on the evaluations, the editor's feelings, etc.

2) Then there's the content edit, where plot holes get sewn up, character motivations are fixed, the plot arc is smoothed out. Basically, any big-picture issues are fixed. This can take 2-3 months. Or less. Or more.

3) Next is the actual line edit. This is where an editor takes a red pen and goes through the whole thing word by word, line by line. The point is to polish and clean up anything that might be clunky. Fix any incorrect punctuation or grammar. Smooth out awkward dialogue and sentences. Basically, make the writer shine. This can take several weeks or an entire month.

4) The author goes over the edit and approves or rejects every mark made. This normally takes at least a couple of weeks.

5) The editor reviews the author's changes. If needed, they discuss and talk about anything they disagree with to work out compromises. Depending on schedules, factor in a good week or two.

6) Corrections are then inputted into the file. Mark down a week or so, possibly more, depending on what else is in the pipeline and what other books get precedence.

7) Sometimes a second line edit is done, time permitting. I've even had a third done before. Repeat all the steps (and time) the other one(s) required.

8) Proofers go over the book to look for mistakes. They look for the obvious (spelling and punctuation) but also elements like plot consistency. (Did David's eyes change color? Oops, the author accidentally created an 8-day week. Wait, wasn't it raining a second ago? Now it's sunny.) Add a few of weeks for the proofers to do their job.

9) The author proofs the file. Often at this stage, I find mistakes that someone along the line has INSERTED into the text accidentally. I usually get a week or so to proof.

10) Changes are inputted into the file. (Days, a week, or more, depending on how many other files the worker has to get done.)

11) The file is set to the typesetter, where the book is formatted to look as it will in an actual book, instead of the way it does in a Word document (headers, page numbers, text the size of the book, chapter headings, title page, etc.). Typesetting can take half a month easily, and that's assuming there are no other books in the queue.

12) Proofers go through the typeset book, because typesetting can introduce NEW problems (like several lines of hyphenated words in a row which looks stupid, or a single word on a page, or whatever). Depending on how many proofers get it, add a couple of weeks.

13) The author gets to proof the final typeset version (commonly called the galleys). If you're lucky, you'll get more than a week to do this. At this stage, I'm always amazed that we still catch typos and other errors, no matter how many eyeballs have already been over it.

14) The final changes are inputted into the file. Again, this can take a week, depending on the schedule over at the publisher and how busy the disk-changer is.

15) During this time, the design department has been working on the cover, and you'll get to see it soon.

16) The marketing and PR departments have been working on ad placement, etc.

17) When the cover and the galleys are corrected and complete, the book is (yay!) sent to the printer. The printer is usually in another country, so this isn't like going to Kinko's where you get your order back overnight. Instead, books are often printed in Canada or China and then shipped back.

If your books are being printed in China like many picture books are, you may have to wait for the books to be shipped back by boat. I had a friend who published a picture book that was printed in China, and on the way back, the BOAT SANK. You never know what will delay your book's release!

Bottom line: the printing process alone can take a couple of months.

18) When the books are printed, they're sent to the warehouse. From there, orders to bookstores are filled and shipped. Depending on how close the bookstore is to the warehouse, this could take days to weeks.

Add all those numbers up (rough estimates, since you never know exactly how much ping-ponging is going to happen and how many edits you'll get):

Submission to acceptance: 3+ months
Revisions: 2+ months
Content Editing: 1-2 months
Line Editing: 1-2 months
First Round of Proofs: 1-2 months
Typesetting: 1-2 weeks
Final Proofing: 2 weeks
Printing: 2+ months
Warehousing & Shipping: 1 month

Those numbers add up to about 15 months. And that's assuming you get to move smoothly from one step to another. Sometimes you don't, because the pipelines gets bogged down with other projects being bumped up or having a crisis, so you were supposed to get your edit next week but don't for three weeks . . .

Plus, keep in mind that they're publishing maybe three dozen books a year, keeping that many balls in the air, all at different stages of development.

So does the one-or two-year schedule make a little more sense now? I've been lucky in that most of my books have had a turnaround of slightly under a year, but my last two were more like a year and a half.

One reason for the longer delay on my more recent books is that the month a book is released is a big decision. A lot of things factor into it. The publisher looks months and months into the future, filling slots in here and there with care. They make every decision carefully.

Spires of Stone, for example, came out September 2007. Covenant had four historical novels they wanted to release around the same time. But putting them all out the same month would have been shooting all of us in the foot: if historical fans are going to buy ONE book in a month, they'd have to pick between four of us, and three would lose. (And so would Covenant.)

The best thing to do would be to spread us out just a bit, in a way that would minimize competition and maximize potential sales.

If memory serves, they ended up doing two of those books in September and two in October, and they purposely pitted books against one another that they felt were as different from each other as possible.

As a result, Spires was released the same month as H. B. Moore's Land of Inheritance. My book had a more female, romancey audience, and hers had more readers that enjoyed grand, epic-type books. Plus, she had more male readers. We also have very different tones and styles, not to mention totally different time periods.

But (again, if memory serves), Jennie Hansen had a historical coming out too. They released it in October, because, like mine, her book was set in the 1800s. Had we shared a release date, we would have been in direct competition with one another, so they separated us. Wise move, methinks.

Other issues can help determine a release date, such as whether a book might be a good gift book for Mother's Day, in which case you might get an April or May release.

And if they think a particular book will get a lot of Christmas gift sales, it'll likely come out in September or October.

(Cough**cough** chocolate cookbook **cough**cough.)


Kristina P. said...

Holy crap! I would have given up at the title.

Sarah M Eden said...

Do you ever think that this industry we're part of is, when it boils down to it, kinda insane?!

Amanda said...

I'm with you, Kristina P. However, I'm really grateful you authors stick it out because I love reading :)

Happy Mom said...

Interesting. Thank you for taking the time to help us understand the process. It was all new to me.

Stephanie Black said...

It always seems to surprise people when I tell them how long it will be before an accepted manuscript is on bookstore shelves!

Melissa Cunningham said...

Great post! You hit the nail on the head. I just finished the first set of edits and it took about 3 months. Waiting for the next set of edits. I have to admit, though. It sure is fun!

Melanie Jacobson said...

This makes me feel tons better. If I count how long it's going to be from my official acceptance to my first release, it's going to be two years and I've been trying not to be sad about that. AND, they're releasing my second book first in March and then my first book in the fall. It's actually a pretty smart move so I'm excited about that but I've been trying to figure out why so many other writers seem to be getting through the process faster. Also, since I haven't even gotten to content revisions, it was really cool to get a preview of what to expect. Thanks!

Cheri Chesley said...

The boat SANK?! Dang--sorry, still stuck on that.

My doctor just asked me this question. Thanks, now I know where to direct him.

Krista said...

It is great to see it all mapped out like that. Thank you... I seem to be on schedule. Very, very nice to know.
I would think the wait makes that box arriving at your house with copies of your novel a little euphoric. I mean gobs and gobs of euphoria. GOBS.

Annette Lyon said...

Sarah, It IS insane. But then, so are we writers. :D

Krista, For some reason, the stores always get their books before I get my box, so I often haunt them just to see my "baby," even if it's through a locked door after the store has closed. I've even gone to BUY one of my own books just to hold it before I got my own copies!

Annette Lyon said...

Another note--along with what Stephanie and Melanie and others were saying--whenever I have a book actually hit shelves, people are stunned to hear that I have another book in the works "already."

What they don't realize is that of course I've been writing something else in the last year and a half since I submitted the book that's brand new to THEM!It's old news to ME,and I've been working on something else for a LONG time.

Unknown said...

Gosh, that seems to be a bit...overwhelming. I really need some M&Ms.

Rebecca Blevins said...

Wow. At least now I know what to look forward to when I get something done that will be published. (Notice the optimism? It's a goal, though I don't know how far away!)

I have missed reading your blog, especially WNW. It's going to take a while to catch up, but I'm looking forward to it!

Anonymous said...

I'll just say thanks and how great you are and WHEN DO I GET THE CHOCOLATE COOK BOOK? I mean, er...WOW! You're so awesome and thank you and...yes, I still want the cookbook. I tried but it's on the brain, people.

(*Seriously, thank you for this post. I know it takes a lot of time and your collective wisdom is a huge asset in so many ways. I'm very grateful.*)

Mel Chesley said...

Writers have to be insane to do this job. We're sort of like the guys who go in to disarm the bombs. XD

Love your post and love your "There, Their, They're" book. My sister-in-law gave me a copy!

Heffalump said...

Ah...This makes me tired.

Chas Hathaway said...

Wow! That certainly explains why it takes so long! What a process!

Thanks for the detailed answer. There has always seemed to be so much mystery behind the scenes in book publishing, and this answers a lot of questions.



Rebecca Irvine said...

Great summary! Although with my two non-fiction books I was able to skip a number of these steps. I submitted my entire book from the get go, so I never had requests for additional chapters. Also, I never had an editor go through and do a line-by-line proof--with either of my books. I did it with the proof (and had several reliable friends look as well).

I also think the step 16 (first one, not second 16 on your list) is more and more rare these days. Maybe it is just the economy, but marketing done by the publisher for a book is mainly put on the shoulders of the author (at least in the LDS market).

Annette Lyon said...

Gotta love misnumbering--hereby fixed. :)

Rebecca, you're absolutely right that the authors has to do most of the promotion. That's always been that case and is more so with each year. But there's still a marketing/PR department, and they do work on promotion, even though they can't do nearly as much as we'd like and most of the job is on our shoulders.

* said...

Thanks for the step-by-step publishing info.

I worked at a publishing company (nonfiction) years ago, but as their corporate librarian doing more behind the scenes research for their books. The time lines that the editors, proofers, etc, worked through were not on my radar. This is a very interesting post.

Pass the chocolate!

Amanda D said...

What an interesting post. Thanks!

Tristi Pinkston said...

Awesome explanation, Annette!

Bantercurry Tells said...

I haven't seen the publishing timeframe broken down like this in the writer's magazines which I have purchased. I would much rather be educated by "free" posts like yours and then spend my money on books! Thank you!

Josi said...

Fascinating summerization, Annette. You present things with such clarity--which is really saying something with a topic like this that can be so murky.

Rachelle Christensen said...

Now that's in-depth explaining. Great job on this post. I'm going to remember to send people here later to find the answer to the "publishing timeline" question. :)

Luisa Perkins said...

Excellent post!

Can't WAIT for the chocolate cookbook! It will be given to MANY people on my Christmas list, I assure you.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this - what a great chunk of insight for the struggling writer!

Melissa Cunningham said...

Hello, Beautiful! I gave you The Lovely Blog Award! Come by to pick it up.


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