Why It Takes So Long

Posted: March 21st, 2010 under the writing life.
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Though I’m delighted that some of you are eager to read the next volume of the book, I need to clear up a few misconceptions about how books are scheduled and why it takes so long.

Let’s start with some history:  the original Paks books were all written before any of them were bought…so the publisher had three manuscripts in hand to start with.    That meant the books could be slotted in quickly into any gap in the schedule.    Even a small publisher, as Baen is, has a complicated schedule to follow.    They used “stock art” (a painting they already had on hand) for the cover of the first book and were able to commission art for the second and third early on.   Thus they were able to bring out all three in a short time.   But in fact, behind that, were years of my work: the original Paks manuscript (about 30% longer than the final books) went through three complete drafts.   Plus the research.    If those books had been done “on contract”  they’d have come out farther apart just because of the time it took to write them.

The new group is in a different situation.   I had a contract before the books were written (some chapters were written, in the proposal, but they emerged, in altered form, in book two, Kings.)  It takes me a year, more or less, to write a book.  This includes planning, research, first-drafting, second drafting, alpha readers going over it, revisions I do before my agent and editor see it.

Then my agent sees it and usually tells me to make changes.  Then my editor sees it and asks for revisions.    Those changes and revisions typically take weeks, so that they’re seamless  and you never know what was done.     Meanwhile (from the moment I first sent it off to my agent),  I’ve started work on the next book.   However, work on that book is interrupted by work on the book just sent off.   Revisions on book A  trump first-drafting on book B, because copy-editing has a closer deadline than turning in the next book.

It can take weeks before an editor is able to read and comment on a book received:  today’s editors have many corporate duties besides editing, and they have many, many writers, all of whom want their books read instantly, as well as new writers coming into the system.

When my editor approves the revisions,  the book then goes to production, where the first part of business is sending it out to be copy-edited.    While that’s going on, I can work on Book B.  The larger the publisher, the more tightly production details are scheduled (think of airplanes coming into a major airport–if you miss your slot, you have to wait around until one opens.)    The copy editor has so many weeks to do the copy edit.   Then it comes back to me, and I have so many days to go over the copy-edited manuscript and “stet” or change back, those changes I refuse.  Sometimes this requires a conference with the editor (not copy-editor.)    Once I send the copy-edits back,  I can go back to working on Book B.

Meanwhile,  the art department and marketing department are deciding on a cover design, commissioning an artist, and selecting from the artist’s proposals.   Then the artist creates the cover art–and book artists also have busy schedules, with deadlines from multiple publishers.

Also meanwhile, if I’m contributing any art to the book (and I did the map for Oath and will do another for Kings) I have to spend the time doing that–which means clearing the kitchen table and drawing it in pencil and then in ink, and then photographing it, putting the image into the computer and resizing it  at the correct pixel density for production as a book illustration.  Separate skillset–I worked as a draftsman many years ago, taught by my engineer mother–but I’m not super-fast at it, so figure days of work on that alone.

Production’s next job is seeing that the markup of the manuscript results in a typeset version that meets the designer’s standards.   When the page proofs come back, they send me the page proofs, and I have a certain amount of time to go over them, usually 7-10 days unless (as happened once)  the proof get soaking wet and I have to spend days drying them carefully.   When I’ve sent the page proofs back, I can return to Book B.

When the page proofs are considered OK by Production, they can then send the file to the printer…in the slot they’ve arranged for, months before.    Publishers no longer have their own printshops–they contract with outside specialists.   The only way to “jump” the queue in these various slots is  for the publisher to a) pay extra and b) have a gap open up.     After the printer comes the binder (also contracted outside) and then the book is married with its cover (which also had to be printed, proofed, etc., though I have no part in that chore.)   For books deemed important enough, advanced reader copies or ARCs are printed as uncorrected proofs, and sent to reviewers (which adds another several weeks to the schedule.)

Six months from manuscript-accepted to publication is a very short interval–12-18 months is more common.   That’s because it takes time to do the job right (and even so–there are always some errors in the final version–because commercial fiction must be published to schedule.)   And also because those slots (for copy edits, for page proofs, at the printer’s, at the binder’s, etc, etc.)  may not line up one right after the other.

Thus trying to make the writer write faster will not necessarily produce another book on the shelves faster.   It might, if this were the only writer the publisher had–but that’s not the case.   Everybody’s got a slot in that big traffic pattern–every stage has a maximum throughput.

Moreover, the writer may not be able to write faster.    There are other demands on a writer’s time than actual writing:   today’s writer is expected to participate in publicity efforts (like this blog, for instance, but also “social networking”, attending conventions, giving radio & TV interviews, and son on) all of which take time away from writing.)

In addition to publisher demands, there are personal needs.    Writers are people: we have families, friends, other things we need to do to stay healthy and productive as writers.   Most also have day jobs (I’m lucky: writing is my day job.  And night job.  And weekend job.  But I like it.)    Every writer has a productivity limit, beyond which the writer’s health (and the quality of writing) suffer.  Every writer needs to “fill the well” with non-writing experiences…or experience burnout.

So if I’m writing roughly a book a year,  it makes sense to bring the books out about a year apart,  leaving some “wiggle room” in the schedule for the things that happen in real life publishing (last year, a copy editor “disappeared” for weeks.   Another time it might be a paper delivery that didn’t come at the printer’s, or the cover artist getting sick and not finishing the cover, or the writer having a car wreck…)

The intent is never to “make people wait”…but to produce the best possible book on a schedule that people can actually meet.

For those new to the blog, who just discovered it, the next book is now in revision (with revisions to be emailed off to tomorrow if I quit this and get back to work.)  Note the time:  it’s 10:30 on a Sunday night and I’ve already put in more than five hours of writing work today, interspersed with helping our son write an essay,  cooking dinner,  and after church, grocery shopping, and an hour’s drive each way.   If you think you can make me work harder, think again.

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