Create Productive Production Schedules
by Jessica Tribble
For many, a production schedule seems like a frustrating list of minutiae. But although they may seem low-tech, production schedules help us be better publishers—publishers who provide a better product, communicate more effectively with their authors, and provide sturdy support for the authors in terms of marketing.
In simplest terms, a production schedule helps keep track of our titles as they travel through the various stages of production. But I like to believe that it tracks a life-or-death situation. I visualize one of those white boards that surgeons use to track patients, with a hastily scrawled surgeon’s name next to a room number and the words “heart transplant” slapped next to that. OK, so maybe nobody’s life depends on the efficacy of my production schedule. But the schedule does do something nearly as magical as saving a life—taking an idea, the text, the art, the binding—and creating a book that affects lots of lives.
Like those surgeons, publishers need schedules to show when each action must be performed to complete the overall task. A surgeon would not start operating without being sure that the anesthetic had taken effect, or stitch up a patient until the organ had been transplanted. Likewise, a publisher wouldn’t send a book to reviewers until the manuscript had been typeset, or send it to the bindery until the copy had been proofread and corrected.
Types of Production Schedules
The different stages of production and the tasks associated with those phases require different schedules.
A prepublication schedule tracks reviews, proofreading progress, editing, and cover design.
A printing schedule shows when the manuscript needs to get to the printer and how long the printing and binding process will take.
A shipping schedule shows when the book will arrive in the warehouse and when it will be available for sale.
A number of other schedules might be useful along the way too (those covering marketing and publicity come to mind), but these three categories will take care of the production basics.
Assuming, that is, that you can count backward.
Essential Dates and Steps
Books, like open-heart surgery, should be scheduled in advance. You wouldn’t go into open-heart surgery days before your family vacation to Hawaii, nor should you publish a book when the author is unavailable for promotion or if the timing is otherwise wrong. For instance, it might not be a good idea to publish an all-butter cookbook during National Healthy Heart Month.
First, you need to know two dates at the end of the production cycle: your ship date and your publication date. The ship date is the day that the finished product needs to leave the printer to make its sometimes long and arduous trek to your warehouse (or garage, as the case may be) so that it can be available to the public on the publication date, that being the date that shows up in bold on Amazon and in the hearts of our authors and their mothers.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that a February book can ship at the beginning of February, even if the printer is next door to your warehouse. The book must be available to your trading partners when you say it will. This means you need to allow at least a month for getting lost, asking for directions, and finally arriving on a shelf. In other words, your ship date should be at least a month before your publication date.
Once you have a ship date, you can determine the rest of your production schedule. Here’s the production life of a book as I see it.
Final manuscript —> One last glance by the editor —> typesetter/cover designer = review copy
Review copy —> proofreader/author/reviewers —> back to typesetter/cover designer = press-ready book and cover files
Book and cover files —> printer/bindery —> warehouse = finished book on bookshelves
In the current market, with the current technologies, I allow approximately a month for every step on the flow chart above for a traditionally printed book. That’s right. I suggest a year from the receipt of the final manuscript to the arrival of books on the bookshelf.
While the industry is changing, and the way we read a book is changing, it still takes time for people to read books and to talk and write about them, as well as to print and bind them. In short, it takes time for humans to engage with the book. I am not, by any means, arguing that a year is an absolute requirement. Print-on-demand books may have faster turnaround; so might e-books. But these guidelines are for a book that you hope to market traditionally and plan on making available in stores, a route many of us are still taking.
After you’ve determined your publication date and the ship date that will let you meet it, determine how long your printer/bindery will take to work on your book.
Never be afraid to ask questions about this or any other phase of production. It is your service providers’ job to furnish you with realistic information. It is your job to assume that they will need an additional two weeks beyond the date they give you.
From there, continue working backwards through the steps outlined above—including the steps necessary for media coverage, distribution and sales—and whenever someone gives you a date, add at least another week, preferably two. It is always better to have too much time instead of too little.
The form that the production schedule takes is nearly as important as the schedule itself. To decide on a form, you need to ask two questions:
Who will be using the schedule?
What form will be easiest for these people to understand and follow?
When I started working at Poisoned Pen Press, we were using a whiteboard. There weren’t as many titles then, and it made sense. Also, we all sat practically on top of each other in one office. Now we need something that everyone can access from several offices, or from home and Timbuktu, as the case may be.
Here are two forms that we’ve found effective.
The Excel Spreadsheet
The first page of a production schedule in Excel.The full schedule covers several months and takes several pages.
The nice thing about Excel spreadsheets is that they’re easy to update and maintain. And once I insert a publication date, I can determine when I should send the book to press, when it needs to go to my proofreader, and even when the review copies should be sent, simply by pushing a button.
Because it is easy to get bogged down quickly in Excel, I maintain a separate schedule for each section of the production calendar. I have a review-copy schedule, a general production schedule (shown here), and a finished-book schedule. It is simply too difficult to put all the due dates on one sheet and still have this document be quick and easy to read.
Thus, I have also come up with:
A sample color-coded calendar.
I use Google’s calendar feature to let the entire staff see books progressing through their various stages. By using a different color for each stage, I can quickly and easily determine what has to be done for a book every month without flipping between separate schedules.
The calendar, which is easy to change, easy to see, and easy to evaluate at a glance, works best for visual people. I think of it as a high-tech whiteboard.
Whatever format you choose, the best way to maintain effective production schedules is to set deadlines that can accommodate even the most unusual situation. If you let your imagination run a little wild on the subject of glitches, you’ll probably be on the right track. In the end, it’s really about the finished product, not about the surgeries and stitches. Once a book is published, no one but you will ever know about the battle scars.
Jessica Tribble joined the staff of Poisoned Pen Press—the second-largest publisher of hardcover mysteries in the country—in 2005. As associate publisher there, she creates the catalogs, handles marketing materials, serves as the first point of contact for the press’ authors, and maintains a detailed production schedule.