Why is Publishing So Slow?
One of the most common complaints about traditional publishing is how long everything seems to take. We’ve heard these grumblings for as long as I’ve been in this business, but it’s certainly increased in this digital age where immediate gratification rules.
To the author it seems like publishers do everything at a glacial pace. The funny thing is, when you work in a publishing house, you’re always moving at top speed, overwhelmed by how much needs to get done in a short amount of time. Things actually move very quickly for the editors, designers, marketing and sales people. The days fly by. Each person has dozens of projects in play at any given time, and it’s crazy managing them. They can’t do much but chuckle and shake their heads when everyone accuses them of being slow.
So why is there such a disconnect between publisher realities and author perceptions? Let’s look at a couple of different aspects.
“Publishers are SO Slow to Make Offers”
To authors, it seems like publishers (and agents) often take forever to make yes/no decisions on acquiring projects. And that makes it seem like publishing “moves slowly.” But the reason it seems slow is because your project is just one amongst dozens or hundreds on each agent/editor’s desk at any given moment. It may be taking a long time to get to yours… but it’s just because of the volume everyone is dealing with. In reality, everyone is making decisions at exactly the speed they need to, in order to fill their lists. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s fast. But you can be sure that no matter where in the pile your project is, this process isn’t all about you. Don’t take the perceived slowness personally.
“Publishers Have SUCH Long Lead Times”
These days, you can get your book up for sale on Kindle within a matter of days after you finish writing it. So authors have less patience for publisher lead times, which are still often 12 to 18 months from contract to book release. Writers want to know why it’s so slow, and they’re constantly asking why publishers can’t speed it up.
Well, they could speed it up if they wanted to, and for certain (“fast track”) books, they do. But what you’re getting in that longer lead time is an editorial process to help your book shine; professional interior and exterior book design; and obviously your book gets printed and shipped to stores. That all takes time.
However, that’s not even the biggest reason for the long lead times. The fact is that even in this digital age, it’s the sales and marketing aspect that requires long lead times. This is where all those things you get with a traditional publisher that you don’t get with digital self-pub comes into play. There’s a whole marketing team that needs to read some or all of your book and plan their strategy. Even if their marketing efforts aren’t visible to you, they’re still sending your galleys out for review; contacting appropriate media outlets; and placing your book in the right retailer, wholesaler and trade catalogs, all of which require long lead times. Then there’s an entire sales team that also needs to read some or all or your book, and go out on the road to visit their accounts. This is all happening months before your book release.
So because of these very real marketing and sales realities, publishers are usually wary about a contract-to-pub span of less than 12 months.
Take It or Leave It
Of course, sometimes your long lead time is just a matter of scheduling. The publisher may want to acquire your book, but there’s no slot open until 18 months from now. Or 24 months. You have a choice to make. Sign the contract and deal with the long lead time; pass it up and hope to find another publisher who can publish you sooner; or pass it up and self-publish. (But if you’ve gone to all the trouble of getting an agent and working towards a traditional publisher, and your agent has shopped your project with due diligence and gotten you a solid offer in which the only downside is the timing, you’re probably unlikely to choose door #3.)
Is This a Dinosaur Industry?
In some ways, yes. Publishing has a long history and tradition behind it, as well as systems, practices and manufacturing realities that originated in the last century and are slow to change. But… it is changing. I imagine the next five years will see more change in the business of bringing book-length works to the masses than has occurred in the last 571 years. So, the meteor has hit, the dinosaurs are about to become extinct, and new life forms are taking over the earth. What an exciting time.
Q4U: What do you think about the glacial pace of the publishing industry? Has it bothered you? Why or why not?
TOMORROW…A decidedly more philosophical take.