Friday, 3 October 2008

How long does it take you...

There are some questions that all writers face on a very regular basis, and one of those is 'how long does it take you to write a book.' (For what it's worth, my answer is nine months to a year, but I typically have two on the go at once, so I can mix some research and some writing.)

That doesn't come as much of a surprise. But what does often raise some eyebrows is how long it can take from submitting a shiny manuscript to the publisher to the finished book hitting the shelves. This is typically another nine months to a year. Of course it doesn't have to be. You will see books rushed out when someone famous dies in weeks - but that's a special case, far from the norm.

There is a lot of work behind the scenes before there's a physical book you can buy. Once the manuscript leaves the author's hands, it will typically:
  • Sit around for a month or two - books are always written to a deadline, but it's rare that there is then any urgency when the manuscript is delivered
  • Be read and have a preliminary edit by your editor - this is the worst bit, the point where the editor might come back and say 'this is rubbish' or 'we need significant re-writes'. If you are lucky you get 'I love it, and there's very little to do'
  • Be copy edited - this is the work of a different person who irons out as many of your typos and grammatical quirks as they can, plus queries anything that doesn't make sense. The copy editor may also mark up the book for proof printing
  • Proof reading - a very first cut of the book as individual sheets comes back to you and a professional proof reader. It's amazing how many little errors will still have slipped through
  • Production of bound proofs - with some but not all books an almost-paperback version is produced to send out to reviewers who take a long time reading it, or write for a publication with a long lead time. Personally, if possible, I much prefer reviewing from the real thing.
  • Production of the book - and perhaps a month ahead of publication you have the first real example of your book in your hands
A lot to do, then - but these processes are all fairly short and don't justify that nine to twelve months. It doesn't come from production requirements, it's for sales and marketing. Publishers typically produce catalogues twice a year, so there needs to be plenty of advance warning for that. The word has to be spread. The complex sales process, where your editor effectively sells the book to the in-house sales team, who then sell it to the bookshops has to be undergone. Key times of year have to be considered. (Is this a Christmas book?) All in all, it is sales and marketing that drive the timescales after you produce your masterpiece, not physical production.

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