How books get published, a primer

If you’ve been under a rock (or wisely don’t get lathered over publishing drama), you may have missed the prompt for this post, which is the misunderstanding between a rising star of critical acclaim and Nora Roberts, the former thinking the latter copied the idea for her book. That’s a super awkward accusation on so many levels, most notably because Ms. Roberts, in addition to being a queen of publishing, is the most famously and egregiously living plagiarized author.

There’s a whole issue with some of Adeyemi’s readers being upset on her behalf, and this is a natural extension because readers are not expected to know anything about publishing or how it works. There are other arguments about who should be calling who out and when and if and whether tweets should come down or not, and while I have my opinions on that, this is not a post about that. This is a post, for those who wish to know, about how books get published. Like how a bill becomes a law, but with less singing and less corruption.

The first thing about this tale, though, is that there are many different ways books become published, and many different timelines. One way, which we will not discuss here, is self-publishing. Self-published books are set entirely by the authors themselves, and so they can have whatever timelines they choose. They can have very long lead times and very short lead times (lead times being the time between when a book is ready to be published and when it actually is). Many self-published authors choose no lead time. Personally, I like about three months when I can get it, but often I end up with one or two. The point here, though, is it’s entirely up to the author, because they’re author, publisher, marketing department, and company head.

If an author is published with a publishing house, however, everything changes. For very small publishing houses the lead time can be as small as a few months, but for the sake of this discussion, we’re going to talk about medium to large houses. And first, we’ll talk about a new author. Because images help, I have some, but bear with me because I drew these and while I think I’m not bad as an author I’m absolute crap as a visual artist.

Visual timeline for new author to publication

I see I cut off a little of my words there on the side. The bottom there says “1-2 years until publication, bigger the release, bigger the lead needed.”

Basically what you need to focus on here is the brand new, yet-unpublished author has to write the whole book FIRST, then submit to an agent with the entire book written, and then this book will be sent out to all kinds of publishers who will think about it and say yes or no. Hopefully one of them (best scenario: a lot of them) says yes. The timeline for THIS, from when the author writes the book until a publisher says, “I want to buy this,” can take years alone. It can take a decade, sometimes with this book being rejected only to be sold after another book is sold instead, sometimes to a publisher who rejected the first one. Publishing is complicated and messy. But let’s say this book sells, and it sells fast. From submission to agent to YES takes six months. That’s light speed!

Also, here’s a secret: it’s almost harder to get an agent than it is to get a publisher. But we’re also going to pretend this newbie author is LUCKY LUCKY LUCKY.

Because what really matters for the sake of this discussion is that ONLY NOW is the timeline for when the book is going to be published established, and it’s not set by the author, the editor, or anyone but the marketing department and people in meetings. The editors will have a say in it, but these are big decisions that involve a lot of people. The new author’s work will be discussed, and at this point they will decide an ad budget, a plan for how much they will (or won’t) push it. Here’s the ugly truth: most books won’t get much of anything. It’s not that publishers are mean. It’s that they only have so much money and they operate out of a certain kind of playbook. They push hits or things they think will be hits.

But some books really are marked for greatness as they walk in the door. Some have a feeling of fire under them, and even though they’re a debut author, they’re given a lot of press and money and push. And here’s the thing: the more they want to push you, usually, the longer lead they give you. This isn’t the most absolute thing in the world, and some houses might do things differently. But generally, this is how it goes. The more planning that needs to be done, the more time needed. However, it won’t begin until this moment.

Now let’s look at an established author.

Visual Timeline for Established Author Publication

That’s supposed to be a light bulb above the author’s head, by the way

Okay with an established author, you submit frequently (often exclusively) on what’s called “spec.” You get an idea for a story/series, you pitch it to your agent/editor, and if the editor likes it, they ask to buy it and argue over a price with your agent. As soon as they give you a contract, you’re sent to marketing and design, and your timeline is set, before you have finished the book. You may not have even started. You may have a hefty chunk. You may have part of book one but not books two and three.

How long is your timeline to publication? Depends on so many factors. How big will the push for this title be? How many other books are you currently working on? How big is your career? How important is your career to the house? How long do you need to finish this book? When does marketing think would be a good time for this to land? Also, the size of the house matters a lot here. I said six months is possible, but that’s really, really rare at this level. Most of the time you’re looking at a year or longer.

So these are basically the two options. New author and established author. HOWEVER. In this particular discussion, we must talk about the unicorn track.



Stick figure drawing of a guess of Nora Roberts publishing timeline

This is quite obviously a complete guess because who the heck am I to know Ms. Roberts’s business

To call Ms. Nora Fucking Roberts an “established author” is like saying the ocean is slightly damp. Whether or not you read her, if you’re published or trying to be, you’re standing on her shoulders. She’s single-handedly holding up a huge corner of the industry and has been before many people trying for contracts have been born. She has more books come out in a single year than most of us can even think of. She invented a pen name because she had too many books coming out under Nora Roberts and it was tough on the publisher. Or it was something like that–anyway, listen, the woman is a legend’s legend. She IS a publishing timeline.

I think I would pass out if I even saw one of the spreadsheets it must take to keep her business straight. She writes constantly–I can’t remember the source, but I think I’ve read several places where she says she basically finished one draft then opens the next one. She is a story producing machine. 

She doesn’t want for money. She doesn’t want for influence, attention, readers, anything. She values her readers like you wouldn’t believe, but she lets them come to her and just continues to produce more story for them.

Her process and timeline are absolutely a separate existence from the rest of us. Any and everything we think and know are not what she experiences, and we are not to have what she does, probably ever. It’s possible there will be another author this influential and prolific, but there will never be another Nora Roberts. They’ll be a different kind of unicorn.

But anyway, this is how a publishing timeline goes down. Mostly. Just in case you wondered.

ADMIN NOTE: I allow comments, but I approve them all before they go up, and I’m not quick about doing it, especially like tonight when I’m out the door to go to my daughter’s concert. I’m also not here for any drama, so should a comment come in the queue that is anyone wanting to try to bring the drama in to this post and want to explain anything about The Situation to me or tell me how you know all about Ms. Roberts’s intentions or plans, your comment will not be joining this discussion. (Unless you’re Ms. Roberts and then I will do whatever you want, Ms. Roberts, because this is your damn business, my God.) But I’m here for geek talk about publishing any damn day, and I’m especially going to post as fast as possible any comments that point out errors in my reporting, which are highly possible because I’m human and it’s Friday afternoon in the longest week I’ve ever seen.

Go forth and publish, and may you always be the luckiest.

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