In August we received a request from an author to publish their book by Christmas. Next July we will receive a request from someone to publish their book before the November election. I mean, how long can it take to publish a book? You get it typeset and printed and you’re done. Right? A month? Two months maybe?
It’s mistaken notions like this that had me shouting “Amen!” when I read chapter two of Tom Woll’s Publishing for Profit. (Well, actually, I just wrote “Amen!” in the margin.) In working my way through the book, I wished every author would read this. Publishers need to read it too. “You may think,” writes Woll, “that the quicker you can edit and produce a book, the quicker you will generate cash and profitability. Unfortunately, this is not true most of the time. Why? Because each of the other organizations in the route to the consumer [distributors, wholesalers, retail accounts, libraries, book clubs, etc.] has its own time constraints and organizational needs that you must adhere to if your book is to make its way down the road in an orderly fashion.”
One of the main reasons for this is that “because of the sheer volume of books published each year [about 200,000 new titles in English each year], every organization has to impose order on the flow of books to make sure it can handle the volume successfully and at a profit.”
Just one example that could be multiplied dozens of times: Major chains choose their key promotions (for front-table or end-cap exposure) about six months ahead of publication. To make such decisions they need all the details on a book, including length, size, price, binding, ISBN and cover, before they make a decision. What will it take for a publisher to get all that ready six months prior to publication? Getting a good cover on a book can take two or three months. Why so long? Well, you could get it done faster by asking an outside firm or in-house design team to put a rush on it. Doing that can short-circuit creativity. It can also cause you to pay a premium to the outside firm (not something you can do all the time) or cause delays to other books being designed in house (not something you want to do often). There can often be negotiation with the author on the cover as well. That can take time.
How long does it take overall to get from a complete, acceptable manuscript to the publication date? Woll says twenty-two months. I’m sure many publishers routinely produce books more quickly than that, but his calendar gives a good idea of what one publishing consultant thinks needs to be done and how long each stage can take to get it done right.
Instant books have been around for decades, from The Warren Commission Report to The Pentagon Papers and likely before then. There can be times when it’s the right decision to do a book faster than usual in order to take advantage of an unusual opportunity. “At the same time,” Woll reminds us, “the moment you start to compress the publication schedule, the more you begin to pressure those responsible for doing the work. All too often, this results in mistakes or poor performance.”
Mistakes in the book and poor performance in the marketplace because the supply line did not have adequate opportunity to maximize its effort. Publishing for profit takes time.