From time to time, readers ask me questions: and one of the commonest questions is, "when is [X] coming out?" for values of [X] that are usually a novel I've been muttering about for the past couple of years and have finished some time ago. And my usual answer is along the lines of "some time next year (or even the year after)". This typically produces the response, "why does it take so long?" So here's my stab at explaining what happens when you hand a novel in, from the author's point of view (which is horribly skewed and subjective and nothing like the editor's point of view).
The first thing to understand is that a book publisher is typically running a production line. They have a monthly schedule with [n] slots in it, where [n] can be anything between 0 and 20 titles. Typically slots are allocated to authors up to 2 years in advance. A slot might be assigned to J. Random Specialist's learned treatise on the care and feeding of Swamp Guppies (hardcover, est. 2000 sales) or the latest paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Preposition of Noun (slay more forests, lay on more convoys of 18-wheelers). But it's still a production line, which means it runs at a constant speed in terms of the rate at which it pumps out finished products.
(I'm going to ignore the minutiae of marketing and sales, but suffice to say that without them, the book ain't going nowhere. If you're interested in the grisly details, there are plenty of publishing folk who deal with marketing and sales on a day to day basis: for example, Anna Louise — or, from an agent's point of view, Miss Snark. But for now, I'm just going to talk about the production process in genre fiction publishing, as seen from the writer's end of the business.)
Let's suppose you've got a finished manuscript in your hands, and you're an old hand, so it was sold before you even started writing it. You've run it past your focus group and redrafted it, knocked off the rough spots, and given it a polish. What happens next?
You do not send your manuscript directly to your editor: instead, you email it to your agent. (Or print it out and mail them the slices of dead tree; it depends on your working arrangement. As I'm on the far side of an ocean from my agent, we do most of our business by email because it saves a lot of time and money.)
Now, your agent is your reader of last resort. After all, they're on commission: they get a 15% cut of your income, in return for doing their damndest to maximize that income. (Which they indeed do. Tobias Buckell ran an anonymized survey of SF/F writers' advances and discovered that agented books on average get about a 60% higher advance than un-agented ones, and better royalty terms all round.) That's because your agent knows all the tricks the publisher's contracts people will try to pull. And they're also a professional salesperson. And they're on your side.
In my case, I rely on my agent not just for the small print negotiations, but as a sanity check. She's a former editor, and if she raises a red flag over some aspect of a book I'm handing in, I'd better take it seriously. She has a strong interest in not letting me shoot myself in my foot.
However, I'm not her only client, so it will probably take her a week or so to read the book and get her thoughts together once I send it to her.
Once my agent agrees it's ready, she then sends it to my editor, who reads it. Which takes another week or two, because in addition to publishing Charlie Stross, said editor also publishes folks whose sales I can barely dream of, and who are therefore ahead of me in the queue. What's more, they also work for a big corporation in what is largely a managerial role and therefore get to spend lots of time in meetings.
When my editor has read the book and approved it, they notify Finance that the book has been delivered, which causes them (in principle) to send me a cheque for the D&A component of the advance (which can be something like 25% or 33% of the total, depending on how the contract splits up the payments).
Now, the publishing industry habours a dirty little secret: even in this age of high-throughput low-overhead efficiency cultism, some editors like to edit. They will kick the tyres and piss on the fender and get back to the author and say "change this around, and get rid of the happy singing dinosaur in chapter 14". And the author will therefore have to do a whole bunch more work on the book before it's acceptable. For the sake of this essay, the editor I'm dealing withis tired and cynical and knows my agent is on the ball, and if my agent is giving feedback before the book is even delivered, why bother? Which means everything goes smoothly.
(But at another publisher, it's quite possible that the editor will say "change this", and you politely argue the case (30%) or obey (70%), until a satisfactory manuscript is achieved and your editor signs off on it. Which may take months because editors are busy folk and even if you make the changes immediately and email them a revised manuscript, it may be weeks before they have time to read it ... and say "hey, you didn't do what I told you to do! Bad author! No advance!".)
Anyway, once the editor is happy with the manuscript the process of turning it into a book begins. And it is printed out on 11" long strips of dead tree and mailed to an external copy editor.
You know what copy editors do, right?
It takes the copy editor about 2-3 days of wall-clock time to work over a novel. They then send it back to the editor (or rather, to your editor's editorial assistant), covered in red crayon chicken tracks. Bear in mind that postage time eats up 4-10 days either side of this 2-3 day process. $EDITOR then has their intern mail it to $AUTHOR, who is given three weeks to (a) vet the chicken tracks and approve or countermand them, and (b) get them back to $EDITOR. Three weeks may sound generous to you, but bear in mind that the postal time between $EDITOR and myself is at least five working days — there's an ocean between us! And if I'm either travelling on another continent, or down with the flu, that three week turnaround schedule is going to be missed. (In mitigation, any sensible author tries to keep their editors in the loop when they're expecting to be unavailable for more than a week, and tries to find out in advance when a bunch of copy edits is due to land on their desk.)
The Copy-Edited Manuscript (CEM) then goes to Production, along with an electronic copy of the raw manuscript as a Microsoft Word document. (Speculating as to why the publishing industry demands Microsoft Word is futile; it's like death and taxes.) At a pinch they can handle plain text from Joe Stick-in-the-Mud's manual typewriter, but keying it in costs money. Production slurp the Word document into Quark Publishing System or InDesign or another publishing program, and then a typesetter goes through it by hand, transferring the hand-made changes from the CEM, until they have a typeset book block that looks like the real thing. This process probably takes about 3-5 days to do properly (someone has to check it), but it's scheduled in a queue (remember what I said about that production line earlier?) and is therefore at the mercy of all the other jobs in the queue. For example, if it's an election year and H. Beam Piper wins the White House on a write-in vote, suddenly everyone will be rushing biographies of H. Beam Piper through the presses. (This kind of job is like meeting a Challenger tank on the motorway — you don't argue right of way with it, you just get out of its path.)
While this is going on, the book designer takes a look at the MS and the art director reads the marketing synopsis of it and commissions a cover painting and they put their heads together to design a cover. Which the author might be invited to comment on ... or not. (As most authors are not graphic design/marketing folks, they do not necessarily have anything more useful to contribute to this process than, as one editor put it, "squawk! $PROTAGONIST's hair colour is all wrong! I must immediately bring western civilization to a screeching standstill until this is corrected!")
In due course, someone prints out a PDF of the book and mails it to the author. This is still called a galley proof, although it's the end result of a rather different process these days. The author is expected to proof- read it again, and mark up all the little easter eggs and typos that Production introduced into the (always-perfect) CEM. Because, as you know, nobody ever scrawls something illegible on a CEM, or fails to correctly interpret said scrawl. It's another three week turnaround job.
When the corrected galley gets back to the publisher, it gets sent back to production, who update their typeset copy again. Oh, and with any luck the editor also proof reads a copy, and then there's a second round of checking and an external proof reader goes over the corrected galley (if you're lucky and they're not cutting corners this year). One of the laws of publishing is: the worst, gouge-your-eyes-out typo will be discovered by the first reader to open the first shipped copy of the book. It doesn't matter how many typos you hunt down and kill in the production process, there will be more, lurking in dark corners. But that's no excuse for not doing a thorough job ...
Finally the book is approved for manufacturing. Production send it to their printers (who are almost certainly a separate company — publishers don't own printing presses these days, unless they're newspapers, and not always then) and in due course a shipping pallet of hardbacks materializes in the warehouse and is distributed to boostores by the Sales Elves and the Distribution Fairies.
Believe it or not, this is not the end of the story. What's just gone out is a trade paperback or hardcover first edition. There will be errors, and your readers will email you to gloat about their genius in spotting them. So you save these errors up, and after a couple of months you email your little list to your editor, who will sigh and pass them on to production for the second printing or the mass market paperback. When it's paperback time, they'll go through the whole galley proof checking stage all over again, because as likely as not they've reflowed the typeset text for a new page size, and added corrections. But proofing a paperback isn't particularly onerous: most of the mistakes have already been extirpated.
Now, if you've been keeping track, you'll recognize that there are no less than eight mail shots involved in this process, where the manuscript or CEM or galleys have to go walkabout, and for each of which you need to allow a week (as many of them are trans-continental or trans-oceanic in scope. Because it's a whole book, you also need to allow a working week for each interim stage. We're up to 16 weeks, now. You're an idiot if you don't allow 25% for contingency time due to the usual vagaries of business (author has flu, editor is on vacation, typesetter is on maternity leave) so we're up to, say, 22 weeks. There's also disaster time. If the CEM goes missing in the mail on the way back to the publisher and the office photocopy goes missing, then it's possible that you'll have to re-do two steps (i.e. the initial copy-edit and then the author's check), taking another couple of months. Think it couldn't happen? I know an author it happened to just last year. (Me, I have a scanner and I scan my corrected CEMs to PDF before I mail them. But I'm paranoid, I hate checking CEMs, and I take pains to avoid ever having to do it twice.)
A publisher can rush a book through in just 10 weeks, if it's particularly time critical (see "Shock Election Outcome: Dead SF Author in the White House"), but the stolen time has to come out of various other books' schedules, and they also have to throw money at the process to make it work (i.e. expensive courier services instead of relying on the mail).
What you're left with is, a job that should be do-able in 30 weeks, even in the face of disasters, illness, and unscheduled excursions. And guess what? Once you cross out December (because like many businesses, publishing doesn't get a hell of a lot of stuff done in December) there will be approximately 30 weeks between my novel arriving on my editor's desk to the PDF being sent to the printing press.
Now. Can we do this any faster?
In theory, you might imagine all the above jobs could be done using email, Microsoft Word's change tracking facility, and some technical nous. Saving all that postal time would in principle result in a much faster-running production line. But the catch is, not everyone uses Microsoft Word. Not everyone is technically ept, or able to use Word's change tracking facility effectively. A publishing company has to be flexible enough to deal with uber-competent geeks and eighty year olds who still write everything in longhand and don't have email at all, or even a fax machine ... but who have an enormous and loyal readership. The production line can only crank out a finished product at the speed at which the slowest raw material supplier produces input. Also, if you try to run a production line faster, the effect of any delay is amplified. Delivering something a week late into a 30-week process isn't critical. Deliver it a week late in a 4-week process, and you can screw everything up. From the publisher's business point of view, consistency is more important than speed; thus, there is a positive incentive for larger publishers not to hurry things along.
Small presses are lithe, nimble, and lean. And they usually have laser printers and understand email. My Laundry novels were originally bought by Golden Gryphon, who're small enough that the editor handles copy editing issues himself. So we worked on the copy edits by bouncing annotated Word files back and forth in email and using change tracking. The trouble is, because it took about one minute (instead of five days) to deliver the CEM, we kept going back and forth across it, picking up more issues. The book got a very thorough copy-edit indeed, but the process ended up taking about as long as a normal pencil-and-paper cycle. On the other hand, there was no risk of the MS getting lost by the Post Office, we saved a bunch of shipping costs, and we probably did a better job on it.
Typesetting at a small press follows the standard pattern, except that rather than mailing me a dead tree they often email me a PDF, and I email back lists of changes: this ends up saving maybe two weeks in postage time. However, due to the repeated copy-edits using change tracking, the galleys were very clean compared to the normal pencil-and-paper routine: because they were typesetting from an already-corrected electronic CEM, rather than importing a rough manuscript file and then hand-inputting scribbled changes from a paper CEM.
The moral of this story is, if your editor, your typesetter and your author are technologically literate and have the right tools at each end, you can do the whole job a whole lot faster. But this was a small press, only publishing about four books a year. Companies who deal with hundreds of authors have to be able to handle everything between Neal Stephenson (writes his own Emacs LISP macros to format the output he wants to deliver) and Joe Schmoe who still uses a fountain pen and pays a copy-typist because he never learned to type. You can feed the technically literate types into the pencil-and-paper chain and they'll just grumble a bit and get on with it, but if you expect Joe Schmoe to grapple with Word's change highlighting facilities you're going to get a nasty shock to the production schedule.
And this is why, in a nutshell, my novels take somewhere between 6 and 18 months to appear after I deliver the finished manuscript.