Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Slow Can You Go?

At the writer's conference over the weekend, I dazzled (or possibly terrified?) attendees with stories about just how long some books take from the point of selling them to the time they actually appear on bookstore shelves.  Especially picture books (though all aspects of publishing can be slow.)

I know folks who have waited 3, 5, 7 or more years for a bought-and-paid-for book to be published, because the publisher couldn't choose an illustrator, or the chosen illustrator had other things on their plate, or the first (two) editor(s) left the company, etc etc. You just never know how long a book will take and it depends on numerous variables that are mostly totally out of the author's control.

Quick example from one of my own clients. Keep in mind that none of these is especially slow or unusual. I just think it is interesting because the one I sold first is coming out last:
  • In early 2008, I sold a picture book called OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW by Kate Messner. It will be on shelves in time for Christmas of 2011. (4 years, 1 editor)
  • Some months later, in Spring 2008 I sold a chapter book called MARTY McGUIRE by Kate Messner. It will be on shelves this coming May, 2011  (3 years, 3 editors)
  • Some months later still, in Summer of 2008, I sold a middle grade novel called BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. by Kate Messner. It came out in hardback in early Fall 2009, won the EB White Readaloud Award in spring 2010 and appeared in paperback in Fall 2010. (1 year, 1 editor)
Anyway, after the presentation a nice man came up to me and asked a question. "Why, in this age of modern technology, do books take so darn long to come out?"

At first I will admit that I was a bit brusque with him. "That's just the way it is. Because." I said. But really, there are lots of reasons, and I know some of them. So I thought it might be nice to share them with you so that man will not think that I am always such a big meanie.

The Joy of Sketch

I love illustrators. But they are involved in the making of a book, that book will always take longer than a novel. Why? I guess because they are making great art by hand, that's all, what do you want, sheesh!

Anyway, once a short-list of illustrators is chosen and one accepted (a process that in itself might take an age, as many illustrators might say no for any number of reasons), it will probably take six months to a year for an illustrator to finish a book. Now imagine that there are three books in line ahead of yours, each of which has to go through sketches, and changes, and final art, and changes, and the illustrator sometimes is allowed to get up from his easel and eat, too. And once all the art is done, the book still has to be properly put together, so it will be done early enough (see below).  It all adds up, yeah?

Life Gets in the Way

Have I ever mentioned that pretty much every step of the way to publication takes a long time and input from multiple people?  Well, at least one of those people is always on her honeymoon, on maternity leave or at a conference. Fact.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Each publisher will have their own timeline of when things should be done. But in general, your book will be in fully copyedited and ready-to-go form 8 months (or even more) from publication date, to prepare for bound galleys that can start appearing anywhere from 4 to 6 months (or even more) early. Why should the book be ready so early? Well, maybe so that you can get blurbs from great people in time for them to make it onto the finished book. And so bookstores, who order quite early, can see the book first, all the better to fall in love with it and order lots. And so that reviewers can read it and write intelligent reviews. And so that librarians, booksellers and other big-mouths have a chance to get their hands on a copy, read it and start buzzing about it, of course

The calendar matters, too. If you have a poetry book, it might be a good idea for it to come out in early March to take advantage of the fact that April is National Poetry Month.  If you have a Get Ready for School book, it is a good idea for it to come out during the summer, to take advantage of First Day of School displays. All of this seems obvious, right? But just how many poetry books can one small publisher crank out in March?  This brings us to...
Juggling to Fit the List

As the months pass, your season will begin to actually hover on the horizon. "Spring 2012" (or whatever) are words that have beat a tattoo on your heart for the past year. But what the publisher meant by "Spring 2012" when they said it back in Spring 2010 might have been more like "Oh, Spring 2012, or so, we'll see how it goes when the time comes."

Yes, your date is subject to change. This is (probably) not because everyone hates you.  Rather, when the time comes, the good folks in charge at the publisher will actually take a hard look at what is on the upcoming schedule for all the imprints at the publisher. They want their lists to be dynamic, full of books that are different enough that each will make a splash, not too heavily weighted toward one type of book. So if they feel that two books on the list might compete with one another to the detriment of either, one of them might get moved.  Like for example, if they realize, OH HELLO, we have two realistic middle grade dog stories slated to release within a month of one another, yeah, it is very possible that one of them will get moved to a later date.

This is not a bad thing. How pissed would you be if your charming THE DOGS OF CAMP FRISKY that you spent a year writing came out a month after Suzie Q. Author's THANK DOG IT'S FRIDAY, from the same publisher? All the bookstores who ordered from a catalogue chose Suzie's book over yours (because they don't need two different new dog books at the same time, and hers was first in the catalogue), and the publicist pitched both books to media but people went for the first one, so your book was in no stores and nobody was talking about it and Suzie won the Schipperke Fanciers Book Prize and you got screwed?  QUITE pissed, I imagine.  So let the publisher move things around if they need to, to maximize opportunities for both books.

So you Sold? So What. 

I know, I know. Getting a publishing deal is really big. It will change your life FOREVER and nothing has ever been as important and OMGYAY the universe has a new axis around which to spin. Right? 

But the thing is, from the publisher's perspective, this is a cool book, and yeah, they are happy, but guess what? They have lots of cool books that they are happy about. Like... LOTS of them.  You have to get in line, because only so many can come out each season, or they risk getting completely lost in an already way overcrowded field.

Get some perspective. Your book isn't the most important, it is just the most recent. And, as we've seen above, it isn't coming out for at least a year and more likely a couple of years. So, no matter how excited the editor is that she got to buy your book, as soon as the celebratory mini-bottle of champagne is done being quaffed, she has to return to her regularly scheduled programming: dealing with fires that need to be put out RIGHT NOW for books that are coming out way sooner than yours.

Yes. Lots of extremely busy people in a far-off metropolis are ignoring your baby. I bet it makes you feel like one of those moms on Toddlers and Tiaras. Don't you worry, Mama, your little princess will have her time to shine! Just not quite yet. This is where yogic breathing and making a pretty new baby  writing a great new book will come in handy.
Make sense?