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Don’t Let Your Books Be Late: What the Penalties Are and How to Stay on Schedule

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So what if a book isn’t ready when the catalog said it would be? You know authors. They promise to deliver the manuscript on a certain date and then deliver it 6 months, 12 months later. Someone died, the dog ate the manuscript, the file disappeared from the computer.

And when the text finally arrives, it’s a mess. Authors who think they’re designers send files loaded with fancy formatting that has to be taken out–a time-consuming process–and then the writing itself is a disaster. And I’m an independent publisher with limited resources. Pulling an incompetent manuscript together can take months of unexpected editorial work.

Designers, proofreaders, indexers all take on more work than they can finish on time and leave me holding the bag. And printers. You know about printers. A bigger job than yours shows up, and you are blown off the press.

So there will always be late titles. The book trade will just have to understand the daunting challenges that independent presses face and make the necessary accommodations.

If you are a publisher who agrees with this statement, and if you rely to any significant extent on selling books into retail bookstores, you may soon be pushed toward a career change.

In fact, the book trade is indifferent to any and all problems that cause your titles to be late. No matter what the explanation, late titles will be severely punished.

Punished? You may think this is a strangely personal word to use to describe the seemingly impersonal way the book trade separates the professionals from the amateurs. But let me explain why no other word will do.

The Sad History of a Late Book

Your rep, or your distributor’s rep, sits down with a bookstore buyer and pitches your book. The buyer agrees to take some copies on the understanding that they will show up as per the pub date indicated in the catalog.

The pub date is an essential part of the deal. In the larger stores and the chains, the buyer has a more or less fixed budget to spend each month for the acquisition of new titles. Agreeing to buy your book means allocating a part of that budget. Down the line, the buyer’s skills will be evaluated in terms of sales of the books that the buyer selected.

But your book does not show up when promised, which means some of the buying budget has gone to waste. The buyer’s performance will be less good than it might have been, and therefore a raise or a bonus will be less likely. Buyers take threats to their income quite personally.

The publicity, however, is right on schedule, because you made your deal with the publicist months ago, and much of the best publicity requires a long lead time. Indeed, the publicity is starting to work. Customers come into the bookstores to get copies of your book. Maybe someone at the store will try to special-order your title, but since it is not yet available from any wholesaler, the salesperson won’t find it, and the sale will be lost.

This is bad, but it gets worse. The customer concludes that the bookstore (not your publishing company) is incompetent. How could a bookstore fail to have copies of a book that has just been reviewed in the local press? You have made the bookseller look like a fool to the customers. Booksellers take this very personally.

As time goes by and the title still does not arrive, many of the stores that have bought it contact the rep or distributor or wholesalers to find out when it will be available. These queries need to be answered. Many calls, e-mails, and faxes are exchanged (quite possibly hundreds of them), but no one is making any money.

“When will the book actually be in print?” you are asked repeatedly. Hearing the irritation in the voices of the questioners, you gulp and say, “Next month for sure!” which everyone knows is likely to be false: late books just get later. People take being lied to very personally.

Finally the book is published. But by now the advance sale has dwindled because many purchase orders expire if not filled by a certain date. The unexpired orders can be filled, though, and you tell your reps or your distributor’s reps, “By the way, you will need to reinstate all those expired POs.” Unfortunately, since there is no button to push to reinstate orders, the rep knows this means, “You will have to resell the title to each of your bookstore buyers.”

Frequently, the reps decide not to bother. Carefully weighing the inevitable damage to their credibility when they waste a buyer’s time by re-pitching a title, reps imagine the buyer’s raised eyebrows if they even mention this overdue title. Is the book strong enough to take the risk? Is it smart to remind buyers that you have wasted their time and their budget and then waste some more? Since buyers are essential to a rep’s livelihood, the reps take relationships with them very personally.

It is true that the computer now makes many aspects of book sales and marketing seem quite impersonal–think of EDI, databases, Bookscan, title modeling, al0eSo on. But there are still crucial points of human contact in this system that must be understood and respected. The people involved in bookselling will put their own egos, productivity, and incomes far ahead of the fate of any particular title, as they should. And they have long memories. A publishing company with a reputation for late books is a severely wounded, if not a dead, duck.

How to Stay Out of the Late Book Trap

Keep a careful, detailed, and realistic spreadsheet or calendar to schedule, and mark the progress of every title. (See the accompanying chart for an example of how detailed this schedule needs to be.)

Never announce a title until the author’s work on the manuscript is entirely finished, and allow plenty of time to get the design and editorial work done.

Make the schedule and its urgency very clear to your suppliers. Most freelance design and editorial people will keep to a schedule if the material you’re supposed to send them arrives on time. But when you don’t deliver on the scheduled date, the project goes on the back burner.

Put a bit of padding in the time allowed for the printing, just in case. And if you are late in delivering the text or cover, or you need last-minute changes, don’t expect the printer to rescue the schedule.

If worse comes to worst, at the very first inkling of trouble with the schedule, consult with your sales team, tell them the absolute truth, and take their advice. The sooner the bad news is out, the less damage is done all around.

Perhaps a revised pub date should be provided, but if so it had better be a bulletproof one. Or maybe the title should be canceled and reannounced for the next publishing season. In any event, remember that a late book is a problem that the book trade takes very seriously.

Curt Matthews is CEO of Independent Publishers Group, and of Chicago Review Press. Gerilee Hundt coordinates the production of 50 new titles per year for Chicago Review Press.


The No-Late-Books Sample Schedule

Prepared by Gerilee Hundt, Chicago Review Press

Substitute specific dates for the intervals in brackets below to come up with a publication date that you will be able to make. If the pub date you have in mind doesn’t work with this schedule, change it now–before you announce it.

_____ [start date] Complete manuscript and all art/photos in to editor with permissions and roughs for any illustrations to be commissioned

_____ [4 weeks later] Edited ms. and accompaniments (see above) to copy editor

_____ [4 weeks later] Copyedited manuscript back to editor, to designer for design sample and to author for review

_____ [2 weeks later] Cleanup and author review completed

_____ [1 week later] Preliminary design samples delivered

_____ [2 days later] Design samples reviewed by project editor, managing editor, acquiring editor

_____ [1 week later] Final design received and approved

_____ [1 week later] Cleaned-up manuscript and all art/photos to designer

_____ [3 weeks later] First pages due with all art/photos in place

_____ [2 days later] First pages to proofreader and to author for review

_____ [2 weeks later] First pages due back to project editor from proofreader and author

_____ [1 day later] First pages reviewed by managing editor

_____ [1 week later] First pages back to designer for revision with corrections coordinated and queries resolved

_____ [2 weeks later] Revised pages due

_____ [2 days later] Revised pages to indexer/proofreader/ editor to review

_____ [2 weeks later] Revised pages and index due back to project editor (subtract 1 week if the book will not have an index)

_____ [2 weeks later] Revised pages back to designer for final revisions and incorporation of index

_____ [1 week later] Final pages due to project editor from designer: 1 week before to-printer date

_____ [2 days later] Review of final pages by editor, managing editor, acquiring editor: last-minute corrections (preferably via fax) to designer

_____ [1 day later] Final final pages and disks due from layout person

_____ [1 day later] Send disk to printer

_____ [3 days later] Disk delivered to printer

_____ [4 weeks later] Paperback books off press (6 weeks for hardcovers; 8 weeks for books printed overseas)

_____ [1 week later] Books due in warehouse

_____ [6—8 weeks later] Publication date

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