Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Does Publishing a Book Take So @$&% Long?

On the train home this evening, INTERN had a nice conversation with an older woman who, upon learning that INTERN was pseudo-employed in the publishing industry, asked the question that forms the title of this post.

It is a great question. In this age of Print-on-Demand, when you can bang out a novel over the weekend and load the back of your station wagon with boxes of objects more or less resembling books by Tuesday morning, the geologic time in which a traditional publisher cranks out a book must seem absurd. Psychotic, even. Assuming the contract is already signed and the manuscript delivered, how in hell does it take another ten months to (train-lady’s words again) just print the damn thing and stick it in stores?

For you then, dear train lady, here is a partial list of reasons publishing a book takes so effing long.

1. Publishers are working with a list, not just one title.

This is super-obvious, but easy to forget. If your publisher is putting out 20 books a season, that’s 19 other books besides yours that need wrangling. Sure, they have different release dates, but that’s a lot of projects for the production team to be working on simultaneously. Your book can only get so much attention each day/week.

2. You can’t just print the damn thing.

The damn thing needs to be formatted and coded and stuck into fancy expensive layout programs so some brilliant design person can make your words look good on the page.

3. The damn thing isn’t perfect yet.

It needs copyediting, and proofreading, and then another round of proofreading just to make sure. And after each round of editing and proofing, the manuscript needs to be FedExed to the author for checking-over, and then to the editor. Figure a couple weeks minimum for each player for each round—like playing chess with someone who takes *forever* to move.

4. The damn thing needs cover design.

Coming up with an awesome cover takes time. Rounding up permissions for photographs or artwork for covers that make use of these things also takes time. Having the proposed covers bounce around between the designer and the marketing people also takes time. Yes, using clip-art from Microsoft Word would be, like, a million times faster, but that’s just not how most publishers roll.

5. The damn thing needs endorsements and jacket copy.

Contacting fancy celebrities and imploring them to endorse your book takes time. Fancy celebrities are busy! And writing jacket and back cover copy that will make readers fling multiple copies of your book at the cashier is a task on par with painting the Sistine Chapel.

6. You can’t just “stick it in stores”.

Your publisher wasn’t born in a barn! Nothing's getting stuck anywhere, thank you very much. Someone at the publisher needs to make a beautiful and enticing catalogue featuring your book (and those nineteen other pesky books that are coming out in the same season) to woo buyers at bookstores to stock your book. Putting together a graceful and un-barnlike catalogue (and other sales-y materials) takes a lot of time.

7. Print runs are expensive.

If there’s an embarrassing typo, say if a key instance of the word “carp” shows up as “crap” in the book’s most emotionally charged scene, and you do a print run of 25,000 books, that’s 25,000 books that, if distributed, would make the publisher look very, very sloppy. Having to do a second, corrected print run would be extremely expensive and wasteful. Hence spending all sorts of time and expense making sure there are no embarrassing typos or grievous page number mix-ups before pulling the big red lever that says PRINT.

8. Publishing a book takes so $&@#@ long because everyone in publishing secretly spends all their time playing World of Warcraft and getting Swedish massages.

Oh yeah, there’s that too.

INTERN hasn't covered nearly everything that makes publishing a book take so long, but she needs to go out and find a vegan cookie, which she has been craving all day!


  1. If there’s an embarrassing typo, say if a key instance of the word “carp” shows up as “crap” in the book’s most emotionally charged scene…

    That would indeed suck. Imagine THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – at the end of his brutal battle with the shark, he pulls it in and says, “Carp, it’s a crap.”

    That’d just ruin it for me.

    But really, that’s a great overview of the whole process, big red lever and all.

  2. Oops, that was a marlin he caught - talk about rushing to print without proper copyediting.

  3. After that meaty post you go looking for vegan munchies??????

  4. Maine Character: You made me shoot red wine out my nose....

  5. I just knew World of Warcraft was behind it - it's already had that effect on cartoonists.

  6. Swedish massages. That's why it takes so long.

    Ten years from now when you're running for govenor, that typo will be what hits the news. "Crap" was in the book you published. Now if you had sex instead of crap, you're sure to win the election.

  7. This is a great post. But seriously, publishers need to get the lead out. Speed it up, folks. I'm going to go write a book this weekend and print 100 copies on LULU and sell it out of my car truck, like a grunge band Demo Tape.

    Just kidding.

    That actually sounds really awful-- I would hate to sell stuff out of my trunk.

  8. Awesome post! Thanks for the reminders!

  9. Funny and illuminating! Good luck with your internship – I’m sure you’ll learn a lot if you survive the experience. I did several internships at environmental organizations years ago. I lived off "free" cheddar and chutney sandwiches at Greenpeace UK while trying to convince people not to buy fish caught by whaling countries. I kept fantasizing about fish and chips. Thanks for sharing a taste of publishing.

  10. Or as my cousin kindly pointed out to me when she learned I was going to have a book published, "My friend published her own children's book, and it only took her like a week or so. Maybe you should try publishing it yourself."

  11. This is so JUST RIGHT, i've tweeted it (@mmSeason). Can't bear to think how a history of King Not Canute could turn out if you hurried it...

  12. Wow! Just stumbled across this blog from a Twitter link (don't you just love Twitter?) and love it! Thanks for the fun post... you're spot on. I work for an independent publisher that publishes 10-20 books/month (most are in series, but it still requires significant effort)... and people ask why they have to wait so long to see their recommendations become a book.

  13. I used to live in fear when I got final proofs that I would find a mistake that had no been fixed, and then they would have to pay out the whazoo to fix it.

  14. W-O-W. I knew it was the bane of publishing production!

  15. "8. Publishing a book takes so $&@#@ long because everyone in publishing secretly spends all their time playing World of Warcraft and getting Swedish massages."

    I spilled coffee, thanks for that!

  16. Great post, though I'm still stuck on what would be funnier: emotionally charged "carp" or emotionally charged "crap"

  17. Thank you for that.

    I get really annoyed with people who thumb their noses at commercial printing and run to a POD printer because they can have their books in print in a matter of weeks.

    I'd rather have the editor, the pro designer, the catalog placement (and shelf placement), and all those other things that Vennie McPulitzer can do that I can't on my own.

    And that way, the "crap" problem isn't my fault if it slips through, and I don't have to pay for the new copies of "carp". If Vennie prints crap, then it's their mess to clean up.


  18. I think I'm just going to photocopy this post and hand it out to all of my relatives :). Thanks, INTERN!

  19. This is really helpful, I've bookmarked it on my blog... All writers should understand this. AND more importantly the friends/family of writers who frequently demand to know the same thing, ha.

  20. This is why I don't tell anyone/very few people I'm trying to publish!
    Any good rec's on vegan cookies?

  21. Wow! You are amazing! I love your blog!

  22. Haha thanks for explaining this! i've often wondered this myself, I knew that iwas expensive and all the editing and designing must take awhile but I was incredibely naive about Swedish massages and World of Warcraft xD and the publishers working with a whole list, I forget about that too. Your blog is an excellent resource and I think all authors should point out this post to everyone who asks why their book isn't published yet!

  23. For in-depth insight into the conception process of a published book, Marshall Lee's (editor) _Bookmaking_ is definitive. Available through online booksellers and from most major libraries.

    I've got the second edition in a prominent position on my to-hand reference shelf and have frequent recourse to the third edition. The third edition covers contemporary publishing, after the advent of computers. There's some digital publication information in there, but it focuses on paper publication.

  24. Jille: Yesterday, INTERN ended up getting a very interesting "Alive and Radiant Raweo"...basically a bunch of mashed-up nuts with carob powder. INTERN is not a raw vegan, but it hit the spot!

    Sarah Laurence: Greenpeace has cheddar and chutney sandwiches? What kind of chutney are we talking?

    INTERN is clearly still hungry because she is replying to all these comments about food.

  25. Costco has very yummy normal cookies.

  26. Well, I still think some parts of publishing take way too long, but people just accept it because "that's how it works" and the publishing industry has a very rigid mindset that's slow and difficult to change.

    One of the benefits of a small publisher is that they can work quite efficiently. My non-fiction book was in stores about five weeks after I submitted the manuscript (published by a Finnish academic publisher). And yes, it was edited and all that. For marketing reasons it would have been a good idea to have more time, sure, but on the other hand the quick turnout had other clear benefits.

    With novels it usually doesn't matter so much, but that doesn't mean the process still couldn't (and shouldn't) be made more efficient. And with non-fiction books speed can be very important.

  27. The aged cheddar and chutney sandwiches at Pret are yummmalicious.

  28. I used to think it took a long time, but now I'm used to it.

  29. We have a spammer, and his name is beokontables.