By Farah Mendlesohn
A major new critical study of the writings of a giant of the SF genre by a Hugo award-winning critic and historian.
Thursday, 5 April 2018
The slow process of publishing.
I've been receiving enough comments along the lines of "why will it take so long to publish your book?" that it seems worth making a post about it. Hopefully this won't be too dull.
Book publishing is slow. Because as readers we tend to focus on the words between the covers, we often lose sight of the fact that this is a manufactured product. That means that it:
- needs to meet physical specifications
- is dependent on materials and processes all being done on time
- and is probably part of a production line.
But most of this is invisible to the reader. The Unbound process renders it visible.
Academic books often suffer from this because the time line can leave them outdated. My book The Inter-Galactic Playground: science fiction for children and teens went to the publishers just before The Hunger Games came out. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy came out just before George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire sequence went from an obscure fantasy that was taking too long to write, to a huge mega hit, that was about to be written faster on screen than on paper. I regularly get letters from readers asking me how could I possibly have missed out these books.
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein arrived at Unbound relatively late in the process. It consisted of a manuscript of around 170,000 words. So it skipped over Proposal, Review, Commission, Write. For a non-fiction book the first three of those can take a year if you are lucky (though one of my books, and only one, managed the lot in a week: it's my best selling book so the publishers made a good call). We also skipped over writing, but I started this book in 2012. You do the math(s).
So we come in at the point where Unbound launched the campaign. Unbound campaigns can take up to six months. This one took ten days in September. Great news, yes? Well yes, it was wonderful, but neither I nor Unbound had been quite ready for that. On my part I always knew I wasn't going to edit the book until the December (I am writing another book at the moment and wanted to have the first draft of that written first) and funding early wasn't going to make a difference. Unbound have a production line and with it a schedule for everything from layout, cover design, printing, and marketing. My book gets added into the project charts so that every stage should (fingers crossed) happen when it is supposed to happen without conflicting with each department's other committments. My project is one of many and awesome though I like to believe it is, it has to fit in with everyone else's awesome. Coming in with the funding early created pressure.
Right now, the book has been through a developmental edit which brought it down to 140,000 ish words, mostly by taking out repetition and making some decisions about where things should be discussed. For anyone worried about the phrase "developmental edit" this is the one where the editor is a much appreciated killer of darlings. In this case, and after discussion with my editor at Unbound, Simon Spanton, we decided to keep the developmental edit in house. Quite literally in house, as the developmental editor for this book is my partner Edward James noted sf critic, historian, and collaborator. It took until the end of February. The book then went back to Unbound to be looked over, and accepted. In March it went off to the copy editor. This too was kept in house with the fabulous Maureen Kincaid Speller, noted sf critic herself, who has copy edited all my books (sf criticism presents a number of problems to literature copy editors, from the penchant for neologisms to the problem correcting the grammar can mess up the science--I still shudder at the memory of the mess the non-sf copy editor made of my book on Diana Wynne Jones). The copy edits landed on my desk just before the vacation and I will be tackling them tomorrow (or more accurately, I will do the first pass and when I collapse into a whimpering heap, Edward will take over).
That takes us to the end of April and into the "year before publication". Still to do, is the design, the cover design, sourcing cover quotes, and the indexing. And oh boy does the book need an index. The index will be done by another colleague, the author Leigh Kennedy, who has indexed all but one of my books. Again, there is a lot to be said for using someone who knows the field: Leigh will catch incorrect titles (remind me again, where do the quotes go in "we also walk dogs"?) slippage of names (Heinlein reuses personal names and it can get confusing), and those places where I have used two different spellings for a critic (my own name has been known to be spelled three different ways in the same book).
And then I still have to proof read it (by which I mean the long suffering Edward James will probably proof read it).
If you assume a month for each of the activities above (because everything has to be checked, circulated, agreed to) the soonest it would be able to go to press if no other books existed and all they cared about were mine would be around September. And it still has to be printed, and distributed.
Now given the basic rule that any project takes longer than people anticipated, that gives time for things to go wrong, minds to change, etc etc. you can I hope see why spring 2019 is actually pretty good.
At this stage someone always asks: "why don't you self publish?" To which the answer is, self publishing takes every bit as long if the author is in the least bit conscientious. It's just that you don't see it. And then they have to do all their own marketing and distribution.
So I hope you will bear with me. If you want to ask any other questions about the book, or its content or any thoughts I may have on your pet Heinlein peeve, please do ask.
I'm as keen to see the book published as the rest of you.
Thanks for the information.
At least I don't see much risk of breaking news affecting the book.
posted 6th April 2018
The use of SF people throughout the process sounds reassuring! It's not just publishing - people are always amazed how long ANY project takes, because of all the bits they don't see!
posted 6th April 2018
Fascinating story--I know about academic time (as I call it) for journals more than peer-reviewed monographs (including the friend whose accepted essay didn't appear for three years because the journal's publishing schedule was full until then), but I always love hearing more. In recent years, I've tried to encourage my students (meaning I lecture at them if they don't notice!) the publication dates of scholarship (which is hard--it's amazing to me how people generally never think about that--including fiction not just scholarship, i.e. thinking that Terry Pratchett Unseen University was taken from J. K. Rowling's stories, ack).
This project is actually moving at nearly lightspeed compared to some of the anthologies I've been involved in.
posted 6th April 2018