Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Takes So Long?

I’m going to try to answer a question that so many of my friends and family ask whenever we talk about my fourth novel. When I tell people, “It’s going to be released in July,” they look horrified and exclaim, “What takes so long?” They say this as if my publisher is somehow remiss or screwing me over and aren’t I suspicious? I appreciate my friends' good wishes for me, but it’s kind of complicated and not at all unusual for a novel to take some time to see publication.

To be honest, I would probably have wondered the same thing back before I got involved in this crazy (but wonderful) business. My first novel’s journey from contract to book-for-sale-on-the-the-shelf was a huge education for me.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that my publisher, HarperCollins, publishes hundreds of books a year. As flattering as the fantasy might be , there is no one at Harper just sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for me to finish my novel so that they can leap into action and rush it personally through the pipeline. Everyone at Harper (or any other publishing house) is at any given time handling several books at different stages of production. My book has to then get in line.

What are the stages of production? I’ll briefly describe some here. Keep in mind that there are probably several steps and nuances that even I don’t know about because I’m not directly involved in them.

From my perspective, the journey begins when an editor is interested in a manuscript. I have a great, kickass editor at Harper. She is the person who acquires the manuscript for the publishing house (HarperCollins), negotiating with my agent for a contract. Signing the contract marks the beginning of the journey.

The book is rarely “finished” upon signing the contract. Oh, there’s an ending written—that’s not what I mean. Rather the work of revision is not yet complete. Usually the book advance is divided in half—half is delivered upon signing, the other half delivered upon “acceptance of a final copy” (which may be a year away, depending on how extensive revisions are).

The editor then provides an editorial letter suggesting revisions. In my experience, the letter typically contains 8-10 suggested changes. These are big story revisions (not small things like word choices). Examples include things like “Characters X and Y perform the same function. Could they be combined to help control the cast?”, “This outcome is too obvious and the reader can predict it too early,” and “This passage is very preachy and makes the character less sympathetic.” I’ve been lucky to work with editors who have taught me a LOT. Sometimes people will ask me, “Arent’ you offended when they want to change your story?” Not at all. These are professionals in the business and they’re making the story better. I learn from them.

So...once we’ve discussed the suggestions (and they are suggestions—there are usually a couple that I don’t agree with), I settle into the rewrite. A deadline will be given for the rewrite, and a tentative publication date will be set pending the completion of the rewrite.

Here’s the thing: a book has to be in its almost-final form (more on that later)—with cover art, title, dedication, acknowledgments, flap copy (the description on the back and inside flaps of the book jacket), hopefully with some endorsements by other writers, SIX MONTHS before its release date.

Why? It takes about six months lead time to get a review in any major publication or newspaper. You obviously want reviews to be timed with the book’s release. Reviews before the book is available are useless, as are reviews too long after the book’s debut (a book gets a very brief time to “make a splash” on the scene. There’s a joke that a work of fiction has the “same shelf life as a gallon of milk.”)

Plus, the publishers send out catalogues to bookstores of their upcoming titles. At any given time, booksellers are going through these catalogues and talking to the publisher’s sales reps about books that are coming out half a year from that moment.

The reason I said the book has to be in its almost-final form is that usually “galleys” or “advanced reading copies” (ARCs) are sent out to booksellers and reviewers. A galley is a less-expensive, softbound version of the book, obviously cheaper for the publisher to print, but still as close to the “real deal” as possible.

During those months that ARCs are making the rounds, the production of the actual book begins. The number of books printed is dictated by the early orders of booksellers reading ARCs or getting inspired by the sales reps.

Again, I stress that Harper has hundreds of books in the pipeline at any time, so when a new contract is signed, that lucky author’s book has to “get in line” behind all the books already scheduled. A nonfiction work about something very timely might get bumped ahead in line, but this rarely happens for a work of fiction.

Publishing is a fascinating business...and it is a business. A business run by dedicated people genuinely passionate about and in love with books.

Since I have a book coming out this summer, I promise to blog about all the stages the book goes through on its way to being on sale in your favorite book store.

You do have a favorite book store, don’t you? In a month or so, the booksellers at your store will be reading about my new novel in the HarperCollins catalogue. Gives me goosebumps...


  1. That's... a lot of work. But, obviously your love for writing out shines the frustration from the publication process! This is why I stick to my statement... you're a bad ass when it comes to writing.

  2. So glad I found your blog through Brad Riddell. I really appreciate you sharing about the publishing process for your next novel. I started blogging about a year ago to focus more on writing. When you have some free time, please visit my blog at http://outsidethelane.blogspot.com/ I would love to hear some of your input.

  3. Thoughts for a small press publisher (for what they're worth):

    Thanks for the insight into the big-box process. As a small (very, very small) non-fiction publisher, my scale is a lot less vast. I accepted a book for publication this September, my author's final deadline is next week, and we are slated for publication in May. The difference is that I AM sitting around waiting for MY author's revisions to come back. I've been working closely with this author for over a year now on this book, and we're on about the seventh rewrite of the final chapter.

    Once I get the final draft next week, I'll do several quick read-through/revisions over a two week period while in close contact with my author. Then I will print manuscripts for a half dozen volunteer readers who will help me line-edit. I am also in the process of designing the cover, requesting quotes from my printer, making contact with the warehouses and the local and chain bookstores, and drawing up a marketing plan. I don't have to worry about a review in any national newspaper...although I do have to fight for coverage in the local papers that are relying more and more on book reviews lifted from the AP.

    After six weeks, the manuscripts will come back from my readers, and I'll have several weeks to prepare the manuscript for printing. This is the pickiest part of the process and involves managing itty-bity margin deviations, biting my nails over .jpg files that aren't the right size, and figuring how to get pallets of books delivered when I don't have a loading dock in my backyard. Eventually (and with a few more gray hairs), I ship the files off to the printer. About a month later, the books are delivered, and the never-ending process of marketing and distribution begins.

    I didn't mean to write a dissertation here, but I got a little carried away in my excitement about the variations in the two forms of getting a book to print. I guess maybe the biggest difference is that my authors don't expect to make a career off their books (not when print runs are barely in the four digits). Their books are very regional, geared toward a very specific audience, and, regardless of quality, they would never get picked up by anyone but a small press. But they fill a niche in this neck of the woods. And having a book allows my authors to take on a particular role in our local arts culture.

    And as I writer myself, I have to say that it is nice to be on the other side of the red pen now and then...