Tuesday, October 23, 2007

To Crash Or Not to Crash?

I know it is a constant frustration of authors to wait and wait for months or even years for their publishing companies to issue their books while their editors sit and seemingly twiddle their thumbs.

These are questions I don't really blame you for asking: Why is the process so "glacial" (I borrow the word from a reader comment)? Why does it take those lazy editors so long to get around to looking at my book? And then, after the lazy editor finally looks, why does it take between nine months and a year to finally see my book in print? Seriously, don't they realize they're losing money for themselves (and for me!!) by not getting my book out more quickly while the market is hot?

Alas, I wish getting a book out quickly were such an easy problem to solve. The fact is, I turn around most manuscripts within two weeks of receiving them from the authors (some notable exceptions aside). But my rushing through the editing, copy editing, and design process doesn't actually make the book hit the printer any faster--and even if it did, that wouldn't make the book sell any better.

In fact, "crashing" a book (or publishing a book on a rush schedule, usually less than 6 months) can seriously affect sales track--negatively. I wish this was something it was easier to explain to authors. Unfortunately, I have to backtrack a bunch.

All books are catalogued in a season. Seasons differ at various publishing companies--mine, for example, has a Spring, a Summer, and a Fall, but no Winter--but each season always consitutes one catalog for a company. The catalog is more than a pretty list of books--it is the tool with which sales reps go to Buyers (Buyers with a big B in my blog always means buying reps at various bookstores and other outlets) across the country to pitch the titles. Sales reps get one shot--and only one--to sit down with each Buyer each season.

Let's backtrack a little more. So let's say you're publishing a book on knitting Halloween decorations. The best time to publish your book is going to be in the fall, ideally in early September--that guarantees books will be shipped to stores and out of pallets by the time people are getting interested in Halloween merchandise.

So your book is going to be catalogued with the Fall list at your company. Your company is putting together the catalog--and the accompanying sales materials--about 8 months in advance, because that's when sell-in starts. While a Buyer may revisit the number of copies of a given book they want to take closer to the pub date of the book, they must make an initial forecast well in advance (6 months, give or take) so they know how much budget they have left for their fiscal years, etc. So you're pubbing in September; your sales rep is taking your book (and all the other Fall books) in to sell to the various chains etc in either February or March of the year it is published (and some companies, depending on arrangements of seasons, end up falling even earlier than this).

Your company has a good reason for wanting a finished manuscript--finished meaning edited, copyedited, AND designed--before the rep goes in to sell the book to the accounts. If your rep can take a galley in with her, and the Buyer can see the awesome cover you've planned, the great text layout you have, and the excellent copy you've written (or even, on rare occasions, if the Buyer can get really excited and actually READ the galley), you've just guaranteed yourself a MUCH higher sell-in number than if your Buyer were operating on faith alone.

Why does sell-in matter so much? (Sell-in is the number of copies that bookstores commit to stocking before your pub date--it doesn't actually mean the number of copies purchased by consumers; that's called sell-through or sometimes sell-out.) A couple of reasons.

1) The higher the number of books sold in, the more initial capital your company it going to make off your book at the onset. This positive cash flow is great for them (and for you) because it allows them to commit to things like special effects on your book (foil on the jacket, embossed text, spot lamination on cover images, ragged pages, colored or printed endpapers, things like that). The better package could very well help you sell more books. It also helps them affirm that they want to devote as much energy as possible to your book--affirmation is always a good thing, at any point in the journey.

2) If a bookstore (especially a chain) has committed to carrying more than one copy of your book per store, there is a MUCH higher chance that random consumers are going to take notice of your book and buy it. How much more likely are you to pick up a book off a floor stack or a face-out than you are if you only see the spine? SO much more likely. So in fact better sell-in leads to better sell-through (in most cases). A general rule: selling lots of books => selling even more books. It's the same way wealth generates wealth and buzz generates buzz.

So the lifetime of your entire book--whether it will break out, whether people will take it seriously, whether it will ever have a chance to get noticed--is often determined by the sell-in. So it is really, really important that you and your editor be able to arm your sales rep as thoroughly as possible for the battle. This means the finished manuscript (edited, designed, etc) needs to be available at least six months before pub date.

Keep in mind the editing process takes at least two months--and that's pretty much a crash right there. Copy editors like to have at least two months with a project (although God bless all the copy editors I work with--I usually call them around 7 in the evening on a Tuesday and ask me if they can't just fit this one thing in before Friday? Just this once? Pretty please? and they stifle their sighs and turn stuff around and I owe them really, really big in brownie points). And even before copy edit, your editor will want you to see what she's done with your work, and will probably want you to go over it again.

Unless a book publication is yoked to a particular event or time of year, publishers resist cataloging it until the manuscript--fully edited, edits approved--is back from the author and safely on its way to copy edit. There's too much that can go wrong during the editorial process if you let optimism rule your judgments (I learned the hard way with Manuscript of Doom I--by the time I finally managed to get the author to cooperate and send along another draft of edits, we were running so late on galleys that we were compromised on a number of fronts).

I know it's frustrating, and the trustworthy hardworking authors who are really eager to cooperate and be responsive hopefully don't get the wrong end of the stick too often. It's especially frustrating when an issue IS timely and then by the time the book is in print the interest has inevitably begun to ebb. However, we (collectively, as an industry) have yet to figure out a better or more workable system for getting books into stores, especially on short notice.

Just a mini-expose, from my heart to yours.


Colorado Writer said...

Dear dog. I've found you just in time.

Thank you for answering Stupid Question #325 on my very long list of stupid questions.

I was wondering why there were (or is it was?)only two lonely copies of my friend's book in the store on his release day (not face out).

Church Lady said...

This was very informative. Thanks for taking the time to write about the process.

moonrat said...

hey colorado--two copies per store is really respectable sell-in. most authors only get one per store (and many get less than one averaged over the country).

David L. McAfee said...

That's why I luv yer blog, moonrat. Answers to questions I didn't know I had. :)

Yer doin' a public service, y'are.

Jill Myles said...

Great post! It's hard to wait on this end (my book is still sitting almost 18 months out) and the worry is that the genre won't be 'as hot' when it hits the marketplace...

But there's always room for another good book, right? So I'll just go on that and hopefully it'll carry me at least another fourteen months (and I'll just freak out towards the end).

Ello said...

Wow, I feel like I just took a crash course in publishing. But thanks that was incredibly informative.

Lisa said...

What a great post. There is so much to this, although after watching several debut novelists who blog go through the process of deal to publication, it seems to me that a longer time to publication is so much better, even though it must seem agonizing to the author. Thanks for sharing so much more of all of the zillions of things that have to happen for a successful book launch.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

I'm going to have to revisit this in the morning when I'm not three glasses of wine tipsy. I suspect it's something I need to know.

Conduit said...

Thanks for the insider's view on this. Most educational. My ramblings on the topic have been, of course, those of an outsider with no knowledge of the cogs and wheels of the industry. I knew the editorial process represented a few links in a very long chain, but it's good to see what some of those other links are.

Great post.

Precie said...

Absolutely fascinating! Thanks very much for sharing!

Kaytie M. Lee said...

Yes, thanks for sharing. I'd much rather have a quality book out than something rushed and compromised.

The Trouble With Roy said...

I had no idea about any of this before I read it-- thanks for the information.

Bernita said...

Valuable stuff.
Thank you.

Maprilynne said...

Wow, that's very interesting. I love seeing the side of the industry that we writers don't usually see.

Cheryl said...

Would you mind following me around and giving all this info to the people who are forever asking me "Is your book out yet? Why is it taking so long??" over and over.

Seriously, I don't mind the wait half as much as my friends and family do, but I have no idea what to tell them when they ask.