Manuscript to pub date — how long?

I received this query from a reader:

 “How long does it take from a finished draft to publishing?  Let’s say the author has found a publishing house already… how long does it take to edit, print, and deliver to booksellers, to do whatever is necessary for the book to go on sale?”

Good question.  The answer is:  it varies.

My very first novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGH (1987, from Harlequin), was in bookstores about seven months after it was accepted.  I thought at the time that that was a pretty short turnaround.

Since then, I’ve come to realize it wasn’t all that unusual.

Ideally, as an author, you want it to take longer, and I’ll tell you why.  It takes time to put a book into production.  There are line edits (where the editor guides you through substantive revisions), there are copyedits (where a different editor makes certain everything is grammatically and factually correct), and there are galley edits (where you check for typos.)  Then publicity needs time to get the galleys out for reviews.  It takes time to develop in-house enthusiasm.  It takes time to get the galley to what are called “big mouths” — influential voices who can help build buzz for the book.  In an ideal world, you’d get at least a year to get through all those steps.  If you’re a new author, you want at least a year, because that’s what you need to generate advance praise and word of mouth.

But that’s an ideal world.  In the real world of publishing, you often get a lot less.

I’ve discovered that publishers don’t always take that time.  Some books are accepted and shoved out the door in as little as two months.  You heard me right.  The manuscript comes in, and two months later, the finished books are shipped out to the stores.  If you have only two months, you get little time for advance reviews or word of mouth.  You have what’s known as an instantaneous book.  This happens most frequently when it’s a nonfiction, current event book that is time sensitive.  Say, a book about a true crime or celebrity who’s now in the news.  I’ve heard that it’s possible to get a book out in even less time than two months — only a few weeks.

But even in fiction, it happens.  And when it does, you can bet the author is an already established bestselling author, what’s called a “payroll author” whose book is certain to earn back big bucks and help the publisher balance its budget for the year.  I’ve heard of famous authors under deadline who have to fax in their latest pages, which then go straight from editorial and into production.  Within weeks of the final pages coming in, the book is printed and shipped.  This is called “crashing” a book — getting it whipped into shape and into stores in no time flat.  It means everyone’s under pressure, from the author to the editor to the copy editor to the production team.  It means there’s no time for real marketing efforts.  It means there’s scarcely any chance to stir pre-pub excitement.  Why on earth would a publisher do this?

Because the author is already considered a reliable bestseller, and pre-pub pushes don’t matter. 

I’ve had the experience of having my book “crashed.”  I’d prefer a good year of pre-pub.  I like having the time for in-house enthusiasm to grow, for marketing efforts to mature.  That takes time.  But in business, time is money, and when a publisher delays the publication of a book, it means a year goes by when they see no return from that author. 

Publishing is a business. We writers think we’re artists, but we’re creating a product much like toothpaste or laundry soap.  We want loving attention bestowed on our books,  but sometimes we — and our publishers – don’t have that luxury.


4 replies
  1. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Yes, but sometimes there’s books (as a reader) you’re looking forward to SO much that when everything is handled properly (what with buzz and word of mouth and publicity), the WAIT for the on-sale date OF that much anticipated book can be absolute torture! (grin)

  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Hi Tess,

    thanks for your post, that was really interesting (as always).

    What I find most frustrating is, when you send your finished manuscript to the editor 6 month before publishing date, giving him time enough to do whatever is needed to make it a success. But nothing happens. It just lies there, waiting for attention, dust gathers. Then, two months before publication date, someone thinks, ‘gee, we have to do something’. It gets an edit and than it gets send back to the author to correct 574 pages of bad, bad, bad edits and you have to put your baby back together in 10 days max.
    By this time, it’s 1,5 months to publication date and you can calculate that it will take another two weeks to polish the corrections and then it has to go to the printer. No time for any marketing.

    It’s frustrating. It’s sad. It’s hell.


  3. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    What I’d suggest is that it always helps to have some test readers set up. Now when you get them put together you’ll get honest feedback, with the problems sorted (you can send it out as a word document and go from there) and they’ll tell you some of the errors that you can fix whilst you wait. Also if its done whilst writing it also allows you the chance to fix a lot of the problems before the editors get back to you.

    I understand the frustration about having to wait and I also understand that it gets a bit silly when they get it six months before publication date and dont bother letting you know until a couple of months before hand.

    Incidently if you need test readers Tess, let me know, Im available (and I think Im articulate. LOL) and hopefully this will help put a number of fears to one side.

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