Before I started working on the editorial side of the publishing industry myself, I had no idea how long it took for the publishing cycle to complete its orbit around a book. But I had gleaned a general sense of a 9- to 12-month schedule from stalking (in a professional sense – or in as professional a sense as a wannabe author can manage) a few favourite authors, who would announce they had sent their new novel off to their agent or editor one week, then come back a little later and reveal the publication date.
I assumed that much of this time was taken up actually printing the books. After all, the whole business of cutting up paper, printing a book on it and then binding it all together – then repeating that a few thousand times – seemed like quite a laborious process. Then I started working in publishing, discovered that printing and binding thousands of copies in the UK only takes a few weeks, and learnt where most of the time really goes.
Bloomsbury Publishing bought my first children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane, in November 2012. It was published in October 2014. This is actually a rather long schedule for a book, but more on that a few paragraphs hence. By the time they bought it I had been working on the publishing industry’s editorial wing for about five years, so had already experienced the process from the other side (though only with non-fiction, where the process might be slightly different).
Consequently I have had that correspondence with authors (usually but not always first-time authors) whereby they go through their first proofs in a couple of days and then can’t understand why it takes us publishing squirrels several weeks to catch up. The truth is that whilst most authors only have one book on the go, most people in publishing are juggling a dozen or more books at any one time. If they could devote all their time to one book and not look at another until the first was on the shelves, then yes, each book might enjoy a turnaround you could time in weeks. Might, but probably wouldn’t.
Publishing is one of those industries where, for better or worse, if the job’s done well, most of it is invisible. Most people will only remember the job of the proofreader if they find a typo that slipped through, for example. When you consider how many people are involved at each stage of a book’s development (editing, copyediting, designing, typesetting, proofreading) and how many other books each of them are juggling, you start to see why each book takes the better part of a year to work its way through the system.
And whilst printing thousands of copies in the UK might be possible to turn around in a matter of weeks, the UK is actually a pretty expensive place to print books. It’s cheaper to print books in certain other European countries; cheaper still to print them in the Far East. But the further away the books are printed, the longer they will take to get back to the UK. Nobody is going to fill up an entire cargo plane with books, after all (not unless those books all have a cover price of £249.99), so they tend to come via ship. That will add a few months to any schedule at least.
Another factor that can extend a book’s publication schedule is timing. Big lead titles will often be released on the so-called Super Thursday, which tends to be at the beginning of October, before the start of the Christmas shopping season. Conversely, books that would get lost amongst the big names during the Christmas blitz might be pushed back until a quieter time when they can make a bigger impact. In the case of The Thieves of Pudding Lane, it was simply a case of avoiding publishing it too closely to another book Bloomsbury was doing about the Great Fire of London.
In the US schedules are even longer, and if your book is being released by a global publisher they may release it later in America or extend the UK schedule to publish concurrently. This is mostly driven by retailers, who expect to order stock up to a year and a half in advance of publication. You could write a sequel whilst waiting!
This waiting in limbo could all be quite frustrating to a new author who, by the time he signs his or her first book contract, has probably already been itching to get published for a decade or more. In my case, I first had the idea for The Thieves of Pudding Lane in summer 2004, so it really did take ten years to reach the shelf. I wrote two more full-length stories in the time it took this one to go from manuscript to finished book. The first one didn’t go anywhere (except the metaphorical drawer of fondly-remembered ones-that-got-away). The second one got me a literary agent. If you’re a writer, time’s only wasted if you don’t spend it writing.