Publishing is one of the slowest processes in life
I was one of the luckier ones. My first short story sold only three or four years after I’d started seriously trying to market my fiction. Two years later, I have five short stories published, and a literary agent is currently shopping two of my novels to major publishing houses.
Now, however, like every other point on the aforementioned timeline, I am a bit impatient. At first I was wondering for years how long it would take for me to sell a story. Then I was waiting to sell a second. By that point, I was waiting for years to contract with a literary agent. In the meantime, I’ve also waited for feedback from beta readers, submission reports from my agent, and decisions on novels I was invited to submit.
More than many endeavors that require someone to approve of your work, fiction publishing is a game of waiting for months or years for things to happen. Why?
Writing and revision time (about 2 years)
Let’s take a novel. I average about 6-9 months to finish drafting a novel, which usually follows 3-12 months of prewriting (See The Prewriting Challenge). Then I send it out for beta reviews, and I start making revisions as those start rolling in, because my beta readers have busy lives and lots of stuff they promised to read before my manuscript, in many cases.
Agent review time (about 6 months)
By the time I’ve made my second or third revision, it’s likely another 6-12 months has elapsed. But then it’s ready to send to my agent. And my agent has lots of other clients, so my manuscript has to wait its turn. My agent has to prioritize requests from publishers, and since he also sells subsidiary rights, each book has the potential of requiring contacts with multiple publishers that want something from him. When he gets to my novel, because he’s a fast reader, he can usually finish it in 10-14 days.
Editor review time (up to a year)
Even with a literary agent, my manuscript proposal to an editor may languish in their TBR (to be read) stack for 3-6 months before they take a serious look at it. Some editors will then decide, without having read the manuscript, that I am not well known enough, the theme or premise not unique enough (especially given similar things they may have in their pipeline), the writing style not their cup of tea (making it harder for them to advocate for), or any other difficulty (including that editor hopping to another publishing house, the editor’s mandate changing, or the editor going on sabbatical or taking sick leave). Others will start to read, and their interest will flag later. Some will read to the end, hem and haw about how much work they want to put in on it, wonder if it will make economic sense to the publisher to take it on, and either send me a revise-and-resubmit request or even set it aside for a couple of months seeking clarity about whether to take it to the next step.
Publisher review time (weeks to months)
If the editor wants to go ahead with publishing my novel, they still have to convince other people at the publishing house. In some cases, this is as simple as putting together a budget and sales forecast for a pro forma approval. In many cases, it requires a formal presentation at one or two levels where sales, marketing, publicity, production, design, and finance all weigh in on the fate of my novel. If that is a go, then the editor makes an offer to my agent, my agent presents the offer to me, I respond, and the editor and agent may go back and forth for a couple of weeks negotiating terms. Then a couple of weeks later, the editor sends my agent a contract to review and for me to sign. Then it gets sent back, and my editor begins to edit my manuscript.
Editing time (2-3 months)
You can usually count on an editor editing a manuscript about 2-4 times slower than just reading it, so it’s not unusual for them to take a matter of months. They are considering where character development needs attention, where plot is dragging, where plotholes (See Potholes and Plotholes) need filling, and where a scene may need to be added, deleted, or moved in addition to catching a bunch of typos, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and formatting errors.
Rewriting time (3-6 months)
Depending on how quickly the publisher wants to release my novel–they may have started to pay out my royalty advance and production and design costs and want to recoup them sooner rather than later–I may have only a few months to turn around the rewritten manuscript. How harried I am during that time depends a little on how extensive the requested changes are.
Production time (9-12 months)
I’ve seen books go from editor to printer in as little as three months, but that is an exceptional case. Most often, even with a smaller print run due to the increased consumption of e-books, less than nine months is unusual. After the editor finishes her or his work, it goes to a copy editor, to catch more detailed nitpicky things than the editor had time to do. That often takes 3-6 weeks. From there, it goes to a designer to lay out the pages and work with an artist on a cover design. Around then the publicist and marketing manager are deciding how to spend their budgets, and setting up promotions, reviews, media appearances, and book signings/readings. The production team is getting quotes and booking time with printers, binders, shipping, and warehousing. The sales team is deciding where in the catalog my novel will appear and how much prominence it will have, which of their accounts are likely to take copies and how many (with a new author like me, that may only be one copy at first), and which libraries and distributors they can interest.
So it’s not unusual for it to take me over five years to get from the first word on the page to seeing my novel on Amazon or in a bookstore. You better bet I have other things to keep me busy while all that is going on.
If I get even luckier, and that publisher or another publisher wants a second novel from me, I will often be asked to submit it shortly after I finished the changes on the first one the editor requested. At that point, I would no longer be waiting around a lot. I would be constantly promoting one published book, revising another book, and starting a third book while trying to have a social life, another job, and keep pumping out short stories.
If you enjoyed this glimpse into the fiction publishing process, you might also want to peruse some of the following blog posts: Editing Tips: Bad Advice, Editing Tips: Style Guides, Conversation/Character Starter, The Roots of Inspiration, The journey begins . . . or did it?