Why Does it Take Sooooooo Long for a Book to Come Out?

There are two questions I get most often from well-intentioned family and friends.

The first is “You must be so rich now that your book is out. When does your husband quit his job?” After I stop doing this

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I send them off to read this. The second is “Why does it take YEARS for your books to come out? Didn’t you finish writing that one forever ago?” Those less subtle family members *cough* my sister *cough* phrase it more along the lines of “Geez, I could have two actual babies in the time it takes you to birth a book.”

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She’s not wrong. If you look at industry deal reports, most books being acquired today are being scheduled for Summer 2016 or beyond (sometimes far beyond–I’ve already seen a Fall 2017 reported). Sure, you may see some faster timelines, but it’s also entirely possible that those books were acquired months and months ago and are only just now being announced (or they might be digital releases, which is a different beast I’ll mention below). I would say, on average, though, most books come out around eighteen months after they are acquired.

But WHY SO LONG (and let me tell you, when you’re waiting for your book to come out, time slows to a crawl.) Here are just a few reasons:

Completed Manuscript Versus Book Proposal
Publishing houses set their lists by season and they try to have a good mix of titles on each season’s list, so that they don’t find themselves in competition with themselves on a bookstore shelf. Book with similar themes or tones might be separated to appear in two different seasons. Authors who are established with particular houses may stake claims on a future list spots early on, as they are probably selling their books on proposal (meaning, on the basis of an outline and sample chapters, versus the whole manuscript). Therefore, time needs to be built in for them to write the book. Holes on the lists get filled with acquisitions of completed manuscripts or with work-for-hire books the house commissions (though this still doesn’t mean those always get fast-tracked to publication.)

Lead Title Versus Midlist Title
Each house has several books on a season’s list that are considered “lead titles.” These books are higher profile and more marketing dollars will be allocated to promote them. Often these are the latest books by bestselling authors, but sometimes they are splashy debut titles bought in high-stakes auctions. Once a house has invested so much money in a book advance, it makes sense for them to appoint “lead titles” status to these books. Since there are only a handful of lead titles each season, that author may be pushed back a few seasons to the first available “lead title” slot, versus coming out on an earlier list. But he or she is probably okay settling in for the wait at that point!!

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Overloaded Editors
Editors are incredibly busy and have a lot of authors in their stable. As it is, they’re doing most of their manuscript reading and editing at home, on their own time, so that work hours can be spent coordinating book production details, attending marketing meetings and acquisition meetings, and doing recon missions to spy on the tweens camped outside their Rockefeller Center offices for a Today Show concert on behalf of their author who’s writing a book on boy band fans (oh, is that just my amazing up-for-anything editor?). Understandably, it takes editors some time to do the multiple thoughtful reads that lead to an edit letter of revision recommendations. Once the author has had time to complete those revisions (anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, or more), it comes back to the editor for another round of edits. This process may repeat if there are further issues after round #1 revisions, or the book might go from here to line edits (where editors go line by line through the manuscript and make micro-edits versus the big-picture recommendation in the content edits.)

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Copyedits and Proofreading
Once the content edits and the line edits are implemented into the manuscript by the author and signed off on by the editor, the book goes to a copyeditor. He or she will look for grammar issues, typos, continuity edits (the main character has blue eyes on page 20 and green eyes on page 220, or has now been going to school for nine consecutive days because the author forgot to write in a weekend). In At Your Service, I forgot to add in New York sales tax when my character got change after buying a ticket to the Empire State Building and every instance that mentioned how much money she had left from that point on had to be adjusted. Oh, the math! God bless copyeditors.

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Book Design
Up until now, the book looks pretty much like your average double-spaced 8.5 X 11 school report (though one or two pages longer), but once copyedits are complete (though sometimes at the same time copyedits are occurring), book designers will typeset the book so that it looks like an actual, well, book. The font is chosen, the chapter headers are created, and the pages are laid out in the size and format of the final book. A print-out of these (called first pass pages) will go to the author and editor for one final check.

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ARCs
Once copyedits are done (but before a team of proofreaders has read and reread the book) an advance reader copy (ARC) is created. Typically, this happens about eight months before a book release.

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And then, well, it’s done. Pretty much. There will be some typos discovered and addressed, but the average book doesn’t change much, if at all, from this point on. So, WHY the eight-month (or more) wait from here? Well, this one is on the bookstores.

Store Buy-In
You know how fashion shows in spring are showing clothes for the following winter? Books are the no different. Bookstores buy inventory months and months in advance, so at this point those ARCs will be sent their way for review, so buyers can decide (usually with encouragement from a local sales rep) whether to stock a title and in what quantity. These ARCs are also sent to review publications like Kirkus, who allot time for their reviewers to read and post reviews months in advance of publication dates (in order to aid those stores, schools, and libraries ordering early). This pre-pub time also allows marketing to begin building a buzz on the title, pitching publications for author interviews, setting up blog tours, or arranging for signings at industry conferences and conventions. While it may seem like the book is just hanging out in limbo, this is actually a time when a lot of behind-the-scenes work is happening to ensure a book’s success.

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*Some exceptions. Picture books can take considerably longer because once a text is in place, there has to be sufficient time for an artist to complete all the wonderful illustrations that will accompany the words. Digital releases, by contrast, can be on a much more compressed timeline because they won’t be stocked on physical bookshelves and don’t need that extra time for the store buy-ins.

Hopefully understanding the process helps make the wait for book three in your favorite series a little more tolerable!

Just for fun, I’m including the timeline for my next middle grade book, You’re Invited, which is co-written by the lovely Gail Nall.

March 20, 2014: Sold to Simon & Schuster/Aladdin Mix on proposal as a two-book series titled PLEASE RSVP (it didn’t take long for someone to point out the redundancy of that title and it changed to RSVP).

May 1, 2014: Although our deadline to turn the first draft in to our editor (she’d previously seen first 50 pages and full synopsis before acquiring) was July first, we drafted faster than anticipated.

June 6, 2014: Receive edit letter from editor.

July 8, 2014: Turn in revisions.

July 30, 2014: Content edits accepted, receive line edits.

August, 1, 2014: Turn in completed manuscript with line edits incorporated. (This was a super fast turnaround–not typical–though two weeks would not be abnormal.) Book goes off to copyedits.

September 5, 2014: Receive copyedits. Editor has already reviewed these, and now we have two weeks to check comments from copyeditor and accept or decline suggested changes. We had tough decisions to make. For instance, were we aware that the made-up band in You’re Invited shares the same name as a band in an obscure 80’s mockumentary whose hit song was “Kiss Me With Tongue”? (We were not. But we found it ridiculously awesome and the band name stayed.)

October 9, 2014: Title change! Even though a cover had already been designed and ARCs were headed to the printer, we made the case for a title change after talking to a ton of kids who didn’t recognize the letters RSVP as meaning, well, anything. (We credit this to birthday party invitations coming via evite to parents’ emails nowadays.) This change necessitated design changes that held up ARC production a bit.

October 17, 2014: Receive first pass pages. Two week turnaround to return.

November 26, 2014: ARCS received! The book is done! It’s ready to go. Now we just have to wait SIX MONTHS for it to hit shelves. Um…

May 19, 2015: You’re Invited publishes! By this point, we should be holding ARCs for You’re Invited Too (the next book in the series) and the countdown begins again.

25 comments

    1. Yup- timeline for You’re Invited was quicker because we already had a relationship with the house and they knew we could deliver on tighter deadlines. I’d say add another 3-5 months to land at “typical”.

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  1. Thanks for doing this! Now all of us in the waiting stage can print this out and hand to relatives. In your face, Grandma!

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  2. Though I knew this (Princess of Publishing will probably be my subtitle on my grave), I really liked the breakdown. Definitely going to send this to family and friends who constantly ask about the process.

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  3. Thank you for this amazing post! So much information. While I knew a lot of it, there were some things I had no idea about. Thank you for going into the details! And congrats on your new book in MAY!

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