People like to talk about how much the publishing world has changed recently and how the rate of change is accelerating. Actually, it’s been in a constant state of change during the entire 30-year period I have been in the business. Although the focus on social media is a fairly recent development, the transition from print to digital has been in the works for more than a decade, and transitions during the past few decades have affected many aspects of the business, including sales channels, book production and design techniques, freelance services, communications, and marketing methods.
One set of changes has meant that books can easily go from concept to available for sale in six months or less, but you should consider a schedule that allows more time because so much more than creation of the physical or digital book has to happen for a title to attract readers.
Some of the clients we service who are new to publishing start working on developing content to create a book and forget that while they are doing this, they must also be focusing on sales and marketing. Otherwise, they will be late getting their sales material out to customers and/or to distributors, and unprepared to launch their marketing plans when their books hit.
Basically, the process from acquisition to availability in retail channels has three phases: the setup, the build, and the release. Major publishing houses typically allot 12 to 24 months for this cycle. Independent publishers tend to allot less time, partly because they can move a lot faster and partly because they want to start getting revenue as quickly as possible.
How long each phase takes depends on three elements not addressed here (content, cash flow, and internal production capacity) as well as on what you need to be doing as you develop your content into product and make it available for sale. The full cycle is outlined below.
The Setup: One month to complete. With a finished unedited manuscript in hand, set the schedule for your editor, proofreader, designer, indexer, and anyone else who will be working on the book. You don’t want to be surprised to find that the indexer is off to Australia for the month when you send the interior pages for indexing. Even if you are several months away from working with a freelancer, or if you handle some things or everything in-house, the responsible people will appreciate the heads up.
Identify your target consumers in detail and outline a plan of action to reach them. No doubt you considered these issues before acquiring the content, but now it’s important to have concrete information about the readers you should and can realistically reach.
Do the research to discover what social media they might use or not use, what periodicals they read, what non-book products they buy, where they gather, and so on. The better your concept of who the book’s readers are, the better you can develop a product to meet their needs. Once you identify your target consumers, never forget that’s who you’re making the book for.
Figure out all basic product specifications, including title, subtitle, publication date, suggested retail price, format(s), page count, illustrations, and ISBN(s). This information will be relevant to your work in the months to come, and it’s best to figure it out and record it at the start.
The Build: Four to eight months to complete. Develop your marketing materials as early as possible. You will need fairly final copy months before publication date to send a book out for testimonials.
If you have a distributor, the deadline for you to send all product information and a front cover concept will be no less than six months before the planned publication date, and more probably nine months before. If you aren’t working with a distributor, you still need to start sending product information to wholesalers, retailers, and other potential customers at least six months before pub date. First-timers should do this even earlier.
If it is important that your book be reviewed in trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and/or in other long-lead-time periodicals, you’ll need a nearly finished interior and cover to send them no less than four months before publication date.
Most of the marketing outreach in this phase will be directed to the book trade, with advance reading copies sent out for review and perhaps advertising through one of IBPA’s marketing programs or through a wholesaler.
Stay flexible. Your schedule should allow time for adjustments if, for example, you find you need to send a chapter back for rewrite, or to reduce the book’s word count; or to ask the designer to try something different.
As you develop your marketing plan to reach the consumers you identified in the setup phase, you will need to gather media lists, develop specific plans for targeting readers, and tally the costs of PR materials, samples, advertising, and everything else in your plan. Also, in the months before you send the finished file to the printer, you need to develop media storylines related to publication date, write press releases, build a blog audience, and develop an author Website and other social media outlets.
The Release: Two months to complete. Once you have sent the finished files in accordance with your printer’s specifications and those of your conversion house, all you need to do, from a product development standpoint, is hope the proofs look good and the conversion goes smoothly.
Typical offset printing time for domestically produced trade paperback and hardcover books is four to six weeks, after which you and your distributor begin shipping books immediately. But it will take another two to four weeks for the books to hit store shelves around the country. As for the conversion process, that will probably take two to four weeks, with distribution and posting of files taking another two to four weeks.
This is the time to put the finishing touches on your consumer marketing strategy. You want your PR to start hitting one month after the books are delivered to you or to your distributor’s warehouse.
Too Much Time May Be Just Enough
Using this timeline, if you get a finished manuscript in June, you might finish the setup process in July and go through the build phase from August through sometime between November and March. Depending on how long the build phase will take, you can announce a publication date between January and May of the following year.
That’s a fairly standard eight- to twelve-month production cycle. Although it is faster than the cycle in larger publishing houses, it still takes a lot of time, and it tends to feel as if it’s taking a very long time. But you will rarely—if ever—end up thinking you allowed too much time.
Whatever production schedule you decide on, remember it’s not all, or even mostly, about production. Start selling early and concentrate on marketing during the entire process. If time is money, be rich and give yourself plenty.
Tom Doherty has been president of Cardinal Publishers Group since 2000 and publisher of Blue River Press since 2004. His more than 30 years in publishing include eight he spent in book distribution with Time-Warner and The Hearst Corporation. At Cardinal Publishers Group, a full-service distributor, he has launched more than 50 new imprints. As publisher of Blue River Press, he has published notable New York Times bestselling authors James Alexander Thom and Jack D. Hunter, as well as category nonfiction and regional bestsellers.