Making Books

There are some interesting publishing statistics over at Para Publishing for anyone interested.

But that’s not really what I want to post about today. I want to post about lead time.

My daytime job involves lead times of about one to two years for the larger components and I’m currently living in roundabout 2010-2012 as far as that’s concerned. Publishing is slightly better, but that’s probably because we don’t have to worry about steel allocations…

That said, depending a little on the time of year when a manuscript is initially read by us, the lead time between signing a publishing agreement and a book hitting the shelves is usually 12-18 months. (We’ve done some titles a lot quicker–The Tea House was done in about eight months and the books in the Administration series are on a 9-month cycle, but that’s author-specific and shouldn’t be interpreted as the norm.) How do we come up with these numbers? Here’s how it works:

We have two release seasons, spring and fall. This is standard for the industry, and actually makes a lot of sense, since booksales drop off dramatically in the summer and around the holidays, when people have better things to do than to buy books. In each season, we have a limited number of publication slots. Once those slots are filled, any new titles roll to the next season. Now, ideally, a book should be completely finished at least 4 months before the “street date” (the date the book becomes available for sale), so that it can be sent out for review–which really means that four of those months don’t count.

So let’s work backwards. Best-case scenario, a good schedule without any shortcuts would look like this:

  • September 15th – Street date
  • May 15th – Review copies are sent out (-4 months)
  • April 15th – Book gets set up with the printer (10 days), a printer’s proof is generated and approved (10 days), and review copies are ordered (10 days) (-5 months)
  • March 1st-15th – Galleys are sent to the author. Per contract author has 30 days to submit corrections, and then those corrections have to be implemented. (-6.5 months)
  • February – Book block and cover are designed/generated (-7.5 months)
  • January – Final copyedit of manuscript and author’s approval of copyedits (-8.5 months)
  • November – December – Edits going back and forth between author and publisher (-10.5 months)
  • November 1st – Author submits final manuscript revised according to publisher’s comments (-10.5 months)
  • September 1st – Contract is signed and author receives comments/suggestions for revising manuscript draft (-12.5 months)

That would be the 12-month schedule. But what if the contract is signed in June (thus making the 12-month mark fall in the middle of summer when we don’t release any new titles)? What if half the fall list is already full? What if the manuscript requires 4 instead of 2 rounds of edits? What if the author misses the original manuscript submission deadline? What about crises with the eight to ten other future books being juggled at any given time? There are a bunch of other factors that play into that schedule.

Our contracts include very standard clauses that specify a date by which the author is supposed to deliver a final draft of the manuscript, as well as the number of months we have after that designated manuscript delivery date to publish the book before the author is released from his/her contract, both of which can be changed by mutual agreement if necessary. Those dates are based on a schedule such as the above, our internal publication schedule (first available empty slot), and some basic assumptions about the amount of work a manuscript requires.

For instance, in the case of Tea House, the author is a professional editor, and as such, the manuscript we initially read was one of the cleanest we had ever seen. That made us fairly confident that once a few niggling problems we had with the timeline of the story were fixed, the manuscript wouldn’t require much more than a light copyedit before moving to pre-press, which made it possible to get the book out the door in eight months, but those were a pretty stressful eight months for us and Paul alike, because it really didn’t leave any margin for error (and no, we didn’t get the full four months for reviews either).

Other publishers, by the way, operate on similar schedules (in total lead time, if not details). Of our current roster of authors, William Walsh has a collection forthcoming from Keyhole Press in 2009, Curtis Smith has a a release lined up for spring 2009, and another collection that was just accepted for publication in 2010, and Chris Owen is pretty solidly booked through, er, at least the next year. Other authors of our acquaintance see similar turnaround times, even when signed to larger and/or academic presses.

All of which adds up to: if you want instant gratification and publication, we are not the right place to query. We’re pretty damn proud of the quality of our titles–we won’t let a book hit the shelves unless we’re absolutely certain it’s the best book we can possibly make it–and producing a book of that quality takes time. If an author doesn’t share that same goal, we’re probably not a good match.

And in case you’re wondering: we’re currently reading for the last few fall 2009 slots and beyond.

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