The Speed of Publishing

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Just back from the Christian Writers Guild’s annual conference at The Broadmoor where I was once again impressed and not-just-a-little concerned about the level of stardom attributed to such a nerdy, pitiable person as myself. And yes, I know it’s just the title and the house I work for, the perception of the power I wield over poor writers’ livelihoods and long-term happiness, not to mention personal and even spiritual fulfillment of life-long dreams. There’s a reason we acquisition editors are collectively known as the gatekeepers (of course, I’d argue that my assistant reader owns that title, or at least shares it).

But it was a great time as usual and just the right amount of inspiration and practical teaching from the little I was able to gather between appointments, presentations, and panels. If you haven’t checked out the most professional Christian writers conference in the country yet, I’d suggest you do so next year. It’s truly a well-oiled machine, which speaks to Jerry Jenkins’ commitment to assisting writers and his generosity to the deeper cause of our industry.

In chatting around the tables with the talented folks who waited in line–some for over half an hour!–for the unsurpassed pleasure of eating with me (I told you; it’s ridiculous), the questions that came up most often centered around the surprising 12-to-18-month lead time of the book publishing process and what trends and changes are taking place just out there on the horizon. I’ve long hoped for something significant and informative to say in such situations, so imagine my glee to run across this recent article in the New York Times. The author not only shares the point I’m constantly explaining to new authors (about the lead time necessary for publicity to generate healthy interest in titles from unknown authors), she also seems to share my frustration. Why do we have to wait so long for books to come out? Not only do my predictions of current trends and the larger felt needs diminish over time, but my ability to sustain personal interest and excitement for the books I do acquire is severely tested by lead times of more than a year. Simply, I’m forced to move on to the books coming out next year.

If you read to the end of the article, you’ll notice there’s a "riddle": what can be done to shorten this lead time between acquiring the book and releasing it? I believe PW writer David Rothman may have finally given me the answer–or at least an answer–to this conundrum. If the goal is shortening the time it takes to release a book, and the bottleneck is generating publicity, why not generate publicity and critical word-of-mouth with electronic and POD releases first? Publishers have long relied on advance-release copies (ARCs) of especially worthy books to send out for review–but these are hard copy and often rushed to press since printing and distributing require 2-3 months on their own. If you want a hard copy out early, it’s got to be very early. But release the book for download and POD and you’ve got word-of-mouth happening that much faster.

Yet aside from his helpful articulation of many of the arguments for such a move, I do think David is willingly suspending our disbelief that his solution could have one major roadblock: the perception of a publisher’s commitment when it produces a widely-distributed ARC. Much like covers touting "Over 1 million copies in print," such reassurances go a long way into getting a book recognized by booksellers. Forcing them to rely on their own instincts and maybe the recommendation of a tuned-in industry friend may not be as powerful an aphrodisiac. And I won’t even mention the old "I-love-hard copy" argument. We ALL love hard copy (even the Lorax agreed to be sold in hard copy). Market perception is king and hard copy still carries a higher regard virtually across the board. As adults, we may move on from chewed up copies of Pat the Bunny, but we never give up our affection for them.

When I ask the authors around my table why they write, what it is that keeps them slogging away alone in the darkness, the unanimous response is that they love books. And by extension, they love all the rest–writers, readers, publishing, editors, agents, bookstores, sales reps, publicists and even other formats like e and POD. But who’s going to get excited about it if it’s not a real book? As readers, we’ve already acquiesced to read in paperback, mass market versions, and low-quality hardcovers. We don’t require all books to be leather-bound beauties with the really nice lay-flat binding and thick, cottony pages with the type practically embossed on them. Who would carry that around anyway? …well, some people would.

So where does that leave us? I guess I’m still debating the virtue of this answer to pre-release books as "almost-books." It certainly makes sense. I just don’t know if anyone’s really ready to start reading to their kids off a Kindle, which is what it’s going to take to cure this pandemic, apologies to the Lorax. In a world that’s moving too fast, books just might need to get slower to really capitalize on their greatest potential–to help us slow down ourselves.

You think? Comments welcome.

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8 thoughts on “The Speed of Publishing”

  1. You chewed up your copy of Pat? Huh. I always thought that was a metaphor.
    I suspect the long lead time has other positives as well–forcing the writer to write something a little more timeless perhaps, testing the quality of the book against its stay-aroundness (hey, I’m a writer–I can make up words) with those working to make the book a book (I’m also an idealist).
    Something to do with that idea of good things coming to those who wait.

  2. Always an exception to the rule (I live with it), I don’t prefer hard copy and wish some of my favorites would come out in soft copy first, but since I can’t wait to read them, I buy the dang things in hard copy.
    I’ve gotten ARCs in manuscript form and in soft cover form, and it seems like it might be simpler to do a POD rendition of actual size since the typesetting would already be done, as would the cover unless they just threw a plain cover on it for the ARC.
    It seems like 9 months to a year should be ample time to produce a book physically while the cover is designed, and the PR team works simultaneously with promotion and buzz efforts. Once a book is acquired and contracted and is in the process of “becoming”, why not?
    Reading books is a way some people slow down, and from a publishing standpoint it seems “slowing down” the production process can only give the competition time to ace out another company’s next best thing.

  3. It’s kind of an unfair question to throw out to a group like this. We are, after all, mostly purists.
    I personally spend way too much time with my electronic media. It’s already difficult to pull yourself out of the e-world, do something useful and engage with the real world.
    Some people would argue that the internet IS the real world and it’s connecting you to it, but the worldwide percentage of people who regularly use the internet or surf blogs is still comparatively and abysmally low. We like to get our headlines and surf short snippets, watch You Tube and download music, but it’s not a place you go to escape into a fictional world.
    Perhaps I’ve steered completely off topic here, but while there is a place for computers and electronic media, it can’t replace time spent digesting a book.
    Since computers are where we tend to go for information, non-fiction books might benefit more from electronic release, but I can’t see that being as profitable (or probable) for fiction. I couldn’t ever see myself reading to my kids from a Kindle. Slowing down and turning pages are just too important for acquiring balance.

  4. I’m not sure I’d treasure a dog-eared Kindle. I think its primary value is in diminishing the paper poundage in having to schlep books around. I’m not sure how a Kindle survives beach or pool reading. As a reader and a writer, I underline words and passages, write notes in and around pages, circle pages numbers, write quotes on the inside covers—and I like doing that on paper.

  5. With POD, it is possible to produce a real book in a short amount of time, but how much of the delay in bringing a book to print is because of the actual printing and how much is due to the time required to do editing, typesetting and cover design? The time required for these things are not reduced by POD or e-book technology. Is the shorter amount of time enough to make the increased cost of doing POD worth it? I know that authors would like to see their books sooner and a shorter amount of time would make it easier to respond to market demands, but most readers are oblivious the delay in bringing a book to print.

  6. Oh, not on topic here. Just to say that is a really cute picture. Far surpasses the books.
    (Okay, so I used the word “books” in the comment; maybe that puts me oh so very slightly on topic in a post on loving books because they’re cuter than Kindle?)

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