No matter how you slice it, writing a book is a big, long, complex job. Most first-time writers assume that once they finish their draft manuscript, the heavy lifting is complete. All they have to do is wait for their publisher to put a few things together, and they’ll have a beautiful book in their hands. Right?
In our age of instant gratification, you’d think so. And it’s true that if you decide to self-publish, you may have just 1-3 months to wait between delivering your manuscript and receiving a book in return.
But if you’re aiming for publication with a traditional publisher—the kind who pays you for the right to publish your book and takes care of all the details for you—you can expect to wait a good 9-18 months before your book hits shelves.
Why on earth does it take so long? If you ask a publishing pro, their answer will likely be something like, “Because it takes that long to set up the book well for publication.”
What does it mean to get a book “set up” well? Funny you should ask…that’s exactly what this blog is about. Below, you’ll find a detailed timeline explaining what you can expect in the publication process. While this timeline won’t fit every single publishing company, you can think of it as a good snapshot of a typical publication process.
12-18 months prior to publication: Editorial team is “filling the list.”
This means the editors are buying books and slotting them into the publication schedule. Most houses publish on a three-season cycle: Winter (January-April), Summer (May-August), and Fall (September-December). All the books for a given season are launched to the in-house sales team at the same time. You may deliver in what seems like plenty of time for publication next summer, but if the summer list is already full—or if you missed the summer sales launch (even just by a few days)—you’ll be slotted for the fall.
9-12 months prior to publication: Final title/subtitle and marketing copy are due.
Even if the book isn’t yet written, the marketing team will be looking for a rocking title and compelling copy, so they can start planning their work. (FYI, “copy” generally includes an author bio and a thorough description of the book’s content.) A jacket design meeting will be scheduled, where the editor will pitch the book to the art team to get the cover underway. And the editor will begin filling out “fact sheets.” (Cue eyerolls from every editor at every house, everywhere.) A necessary evil, these one-page documents contain all the information the sales team will need to know in order to begin pitching your book to booksellers far and wide.
9 months prior to publication: Delivery!
You send your baby to your editor. You hope you’ll hear back from her right-freaking-away. Alas, it’s far more likely that you’ll end up waiting for her to reply….and waiting…and waiting. Take it from someone who’s been there: your editor is feeling TERRIBLE that she hasn’t replied. But she is up to her ears in manuscripts needing editing—and it’s a triage situation. First-come, first-served around here! She will truly get to it the minute she can.
Also: The unedited manuscript may be sent around the house for reads by other departments.
8 months prior to publication: Editorial feedback arrives.
We’ll give your editor the benefit of the doubt, and say she’s going to take just four weeks to deliver feedback. (Results may vary.) You receive a developmental edit, covering global issues and requesting revisions. Or perhaps she has done a combo dev edit/line edit, covering both the big picture and the line-by-line work she would like to see. Either way, she’ll now give you a far-too-short period of time—relative to how long it took her to deliver her editorial feedback—to complete your revisions. Once you turn the manuscript around to her, she will read it again and offer a second round of content editing. (Her turnaround will be faster this time, because the managing editor is breathing down her neck to get the book into production.) You’ll get about three and a half seconds to complete your revisions on this round. But you’ll do it, and your editor will approve it, and your baby will move onto production!
Also: Around this time you’ll receive a cover design and jacket copy for review and approval.
6-7 months prior to publication: The book goes into production.
Hurrah! As the author, the hard work is now complete. In this stage, the book will be “transmitted”—handed over from the editorial team to the production editorial team—and it will enter the technical editing stages. The first thing you’ll get from production will be a strangely marked-up manuscript: the copyedit. You’ll be responsible for reviewing this manuscript, accepting or rejecting the copyeditor’s changes, and making any final additions or deletions from the text. Once you send back the copyedit, you will no longer be allowed to make significant changes.
Also: You’ll receive sample page layouts so you can approve the interior design.
6 months prior to publication: Catalogs arrive and the sales team sells the book in!
The term “selling a book in” refers to the sales team taking the seasonal catalog, along with additional materials like cover design and sample content, to the booksellers. Contrary to what many new authors think, getting your book into bookstores everywhere doesn’t happen automatically. The salesperson for each account—including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the major book distributors, Ingram and Baker & Taylor—meets with the buyers each season, and does her best to sell them on the merits of your work. The goal is to get the bookseller to take a “big position” on your book. This might mean ordering 1,000 copies or it might mean ordering 20,000 copies—it depends on the size of the bookseller and the size of the publisher. When a publisher says no to “crashing” your book onto the list in a shorter timeframe, it’s because the book will not be catalogued and sold into the booksellers on schedule. In 99% of cases, it’s in the book’s interest—and thus, the best interest of the author—to publish on a schedule that will have the book set up well with the booksellers.
Also: Your PR team is starting to pitch you to long-lead magazines (People Magazine, the women’s magazines, Time Magazine, etc) and TV shows (Good Morning America, Today, CBS This Morning and of course, Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday).
4-6 months prior to publication: The book is designed and proofread.
Now that any and all substantive edits are complete, your book is ready for typesetting! This means the words from the polished manuscript will be “poured” into the page layout format you’ve approved. Once the interior is designed, the typeset pages—a.k.a. proof pages or galley pages—will be sent to you and the proofreader simultaneously. As the proofer goes over your words with a fine-toothed comb, correcting any typos and other errors, you will have your final chance to read the book before it goes to press. No major changes are allowed at this point, as they may cause the text to “re-flow”—requiring the interior designer to make adjustments to each and every page that comes after the changes. (Big “no-no” in the publishing world!) Many houses will continue to proofread for another round or two before considering the book ready for printing.
Also: You and your editor may begin sending the typeset pages to more well-known writers for cover endorsements. Cover proofs—designed front, back and spine of your book—will also be sent to you for approval during this period. The uncorrected proof pages may turned into paperback-style “bound galleys,” which are sent to reviewers in hopes of generating buzz for the book before it’s published.
3 months prior to publication: Files are sent to the printer!
And there is much rejoicing at the publishing house. Your book is on its way!
2-4 weeks prior to publication: Early copies arrive.
Early copies of the book arrive at the publishing house, and sometimes the “author copies” promised in your book contract will be sent directly to your house as well. You hold your book in your very own hands for the first time. Ahhh!
Publication day: You made it!
It took a long time, a lot of hard work and nail-biting, but the day is finally here. Congratulations! Now, all you have to do is sell it!
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.