“You signed the contract for The RagTime Traveler in October, but the book won’t be out until June? What the heck is taking so long?”
Those of you who aren’t familiar with the publishing industry may be surprised to hear that half a year from contract to publication is actually amazingly fast. Even in the modern world where nobody but a few artists set type by hand, it can still take a year or more.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on during that time.
Even though the author considers the book finished when he submits it to a publisher, “finished” is a flexible term. The editor will find something that needs to be addressed: a plot hole, a question of characterization, a confusing character name. As an author, you hope the issues will be minor, but whether they are or not, you can count on doing at least one rewrite.
Once everyone is satisfied with the text, it needs to be typeset, probably multiple times (hardback, paperback, e-book, large print edition, etc.) That’s faster and easier than it was in days of old. When manuscripts were written longhand, type was set by hand, one character at a time. The rise of the typewriter sped the process up, but the typesetter still had to retype the entire manuscript. Today, typesetting software can import the author’s word-processing document, but if you’ve ever tried to open, say, a Word document in Google Docs, you know that no conversion is perfect. There’s still cleanup to be done–more on that later–in addition to the actual work of doing the various layouts.
The book needs a cover. Those don’t just magically appear. Nor does the artist just jump in and start working. Somebody–typically the editor or a designer–will need to establish a style and mood. It may need to fit with the publisher’s overall look-and-feel, or a style established by earlier books in the same series.
Reviews are critical to a book’s success. I’ve mentioned this before in the context of individual reviews, and it bears repeating: the most important thing you can do to help your favorite authors (after buying their books, naturally) is to get the word of mouth train rolling. Write reviews. Tell your friends, your enemies, and random strangers about the books. Ask your local library to buy copies.
Bookstores and libraries often have to decide if they’re going to carry a book long before it’s published. Customer requests are important, but so are professional reviews. Reviewers get Advance Review Copies (ARCs) of the book. These are typeset, but often don’t yet have the cover art, and they haven’t been proofread. Yeah, despite all of those revisions, editorial reviews, and everything else that’s already happened, there are going to be errors*. As I said a couple of paragraphs ago, there’s cleanup to be done.
* Software has the same problem. It’s a truism for developers and QA that there’s no such thing as bug-free code. The best you can ever hope for is that you’ll find and fix the important ones before your customers see them. What are the important bugs? That’s a whole different post.
So, yes, the author gets to do yet another revision post-ARC. This one is typically limited to finding the bugs–typesetting and printing errors–in the manuscript, as making substantial changes would require redoing significant chunks of the typesetting. Again, that’s easier than it used to be, but it still takes time, and there isn’t much of that left: those typesetting files need to get to the printer if the book is going to get to the stores by the publication date.
There’s more. Publicity plans. Art design. Shipping. But most of what I’ve omitted doesn’t have anything to do with the actual production of the book, or happens as part of (and in parallel with) the production.
See why I say half a year is fast?
Oh, by the way: you know what else is important information for bookstores and libraries in deciding whether to get a book? Pre-orders!
Yes, that’s a hint.
Or support a local independent bookstore. Call your local store and ask them to pre-order you a copy. If you’re in a benighted area of the world that lacks a bookstore, Seattle Mystery Bookshop will be happy to serve.