Why Does It Take So Long to Publish a Book?
A short post on why publishing takes such a long time
Publishing a book can feel like it takes forever. Forever to write, forever to query agents, forever to find an editor, and then, somehow, forever for the publisher to get the damn thing—by this point you’re sick of your own work—on shelves.
For this post, I’m just talking about the last part: how long it takes to publish a book once you sell it to a traditional publisher. Often, unpublished and self-published authors are baffled at turn around time for books. This discourse was most recently kicked off by a tweet asking authors how they would feel if a publisher offered to publish their book yet it would take 2 years and they’d have to cut 10,000 words. The replies were filled with a lot of unpublished authors saying “that’s way too long!” and/or “that’s way too many words to cut!” and then a lot of published authors saying “uh, this is completely standard in publishing?”
The latter is quite true, but since a whole lot of unpublished author seem confused as to why this is the case I thought I’d break it down. (If you’re a published author who is familiar with the basics of book publishing this newsletter will probably be quite boring so feel free to close out!)
Publishing vs. Publishing Well
In 2022, it doesn’t take long to physically publish a printed book. There are quick turnaround printers out there, and even the higher quality ones can turn around the actual printing in a couple months at most. (Well, global supply chain crises aside.) So why is two years standard?
First, we should differentiate between simply being published and being published well. Anyone can print physical books in a few weeks and anyone can sell digital ebook files in a few hours. But most writers don’t simply want to have a book exist. They want the book to be read. And it’s very hard to have a book get read. A recent New York Times article claimed 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies. The reasons for this could be explored in a whole series of newsletters, but suffice to say that it comes down to something pretty basic: a near infinite number of books published vs. the extremely finite amount of space for books to get attention. There are only so many spots for book reviews in major newspapers, only so many spots on the front table of bookstores, etc.
To be very clear, getting published by a good publisher in no way guarantees you’ll get much attention or sell many copies. Yet if you want any chance of getting those things, your publisher needs a lot of time to pitch your book to distributors and bookstores and to do all of the publicity and marketing.
This—the general publicity, marketing, and distribution—is where much of the publishing time disappears. And it’s the kind of stuff you might not realize if you aren’t a traditionally published author. Things like major bookstore orders (including Amazon) are set long before a book is published. Anticipated book lists and “buzz” begins well in advance, sometimes before books are even finished being written. Review copies get sent to reviewers months before books are published, so that reviews can appear when the book does. And so on and so forth.
In addition to the distribution, marketing, and publicity there are other important steps if you want a professional book, especially editing (big scale stuff), copyediting (line level stuff), proofreading (typos). There are many other steps here too such as getting blurbs and getting cover art but thankfully many of these can be done concurrently with the other steps timewise.
A Sample Publishing Timeline
Probably the easiest way to show how long it takes to publish a book is to show you a real timeline. Here’s the (real) timeline for my novel The Body Scout, which was published in hardcover in September of 2021.
~2015 to 2019: WRITING THE NOVEL
I won’t go into the details of how I wrote the book—you can read more about my writing process (if that interests you) here—but it was finished around the end of 2019.
FEBRUARY 2020: SUBMITTING
Here’s the first potential time lag: choosing when to submit. Sometimes it makes sense to wait to submit depending on various factors, like when editors are on vacation (August and late December / early January are traditional publishing down times).
APRIL/MAY 2020: OFFERS
Since we submitted right before COVID suddenly appeared, I thought the novel was dead in the water. But we got offers at the end of April and start of May. In May, I signed with the great Angeline Rodriguez and Orbit books.
AUGUST 2020: CONTRACT SIGNED
Well, actually I didn’t sign the contract in May. We agreed in May but the actual contract language took a few months to work out. This is completely standard and while it adds more months to the process you absolutely do not want to skip legal reads and contract negotiations!
AUGUST 2020—JANUARY 2021: EDITS
Various rounds of edits that involved, yes, cutting words and also adding some. All of the edits improved the book and, again, not something you want to skip. This part of the publishing timeline can be shorter or much, much longer. It all depends on how extensive the edits are that you and your editor agree on, and also how fast it takes you to complete them.
APRIL 2021: FIRST PASS
First pass is when you receive your book in layout form. You might think that that layout is some simple process, but layout is real work and takes real time. Books aren’t printed from a Microsoft Word file. They have to be converted, cleaned up, and laid out. First pass is also when you get your first round of copyedits. I cannot stress how important good copyeditors can be. True lifesavers.
MAY 2021: GALLEYS PRINTED
As you can see from the above and below, the galleys—aka review copies—are published before the copyediting and proofing has been done. Although normally there aren’t major edits at this stage that would transform the whole book, there are typically tons of small edits and fixes made. (This is why reviewers are not supposed to quote from galleys.)
As I said above, galleys have to be printed well in advance because book coverage is decided months before publication. For example, the last review I wrote for The New York Times was assigned to me three months before it was published. Often, assignments go out well before that.
JUNE 2021: SECOND PASS
More copyediting and proofreading (and yes, there are always more errors to fix!). Once again, I want to shout out the proofreaders, copyeditors, layout people, and other unsung heroes of publishing.
JULY 2021: BOOK FINALIZED
The book was signed sealed and delivered in July, a few months before it hit stores. This is when everything from cover design and blurb wording to copyedits and the acknowledgement page were finished.
SEPTEMBER 2021: PUBLICATION
And then—about a year and a half later—the book finally hit shelves.
The above timeline is a standard one, and perhaps even on the fast side. When a book takes longer than 1.5 years, it is probably because the editing rounds took longer. Or because the publisher scheduled the book further out. Why schedule a book far out in advance? Well, it gets back to publishing well. A publishing house only has so many publicists who can only handle so many books. An editor can only edit so many books at a time. And then there are other factors like a publisher wanting to space out books that might appeal to similar audiences or thinking a book will do better in one season or another. (Is it a summer “beach read”? A fall prestige book? Etc.)
There are probably some areas of a book’s timeline that could be shortened. Indeed, sometimes a book is pushed out as quickly as possible (typically time-sensitive nonfiction). But for the most part all of these steps are ones you don’t want to skip or rush. A bad contract can screw you for years. A poorly copyedited book will be filled with errors. If you want to put out the best book you can, it’s going to take some time.
ETA: I should add that I’m describing the process here, not saying there couldn’t be ways to improve it. However, a good portion of the timeline is not entirely in publisher’s hands (e.g., newspapers could turn around reviews quickly—they do with news articles of course—but publishers can’t just make them). And all of the above is from the perspective of traditionally publishing a book and trying to get attention in the traditional ways. If you are the kind of author whose work sells well in the self-publishing world, or you have other ways of getting attention to your work, the calculation is different.
As always, If you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”