Tue 24

Why It Takes So Long

Writing Why does it take a year for a book to go from a draft to bookstore shelves? Is it to build anticipation? Because publishers are modern-day Neanderthals, trying to make e-books by rubbing sticks together? Because authors are so precious?

The correct answer is: yes! In more detail, it’s because this*:


The editor and the author kick things off by exchanging emails about how happy they are to be working with one another. The editor prepares an EDIT LETTER, which is a document describing how fantastic the book is, and how even more fantasticer it would be if the following thirty or so issues were addressed. I put EDIT LETTER in caps because it’s very important. The author considers this. There is some back and forth over any parts of the EDIT LETTER that the author requires more clarification on to fully understand what kind of universe the editor must be living in to say such a thing.


The author rewrites. How long this takes depends on how much rewriting is required, and how depressed the author gets. All books have been through at least a couple author-driven drafts before they’re picked up by a publisher, but obviously another pass is needed, because why else editors. An editor who says, “Fine as is!” might as well go panhandle.

Also, books at this stage really do need rewriting.

In my case, I did a lot of rewriting for my editor on Company, and the publication process took 22 months. I didn’t do much on Syrup, and it took nine. So there is possibly a causal link there.

The art department begins fooling around with cover ideas, under strict instructions to not share them with anybody, especially authors.


The editor approves the rewritten draft and shares it internally with salespeople, the art department, and unrelated editors’ assistants. I’m not sure why assistants; I just know every editorial assistant I’ve ever met has read all my books.

The editor and author begin seeking people to provide a blurb/cover quote. The first edition can’t have actual reviews on the cover, because those will be received too late. But you need someone to say “MAGNIFICENT… STUNNING,” so you have to hit up a fellow author.

The copyeditor prints out the new draft and scrawls arcane markings on it by the light of tallow candles using quills. This ensures the book can no longer be shared electronically, and all subsequent changes must be done by hand. This five-hundred-page monstrosity is photocopied and e-mailed to the author. Sorry, that was a typo. I mean mailed. You know. Mailed. When they physically transport something. The author reads this by light of a virgin moon, which is the only time the unicorn ink becomes visible, and accepts some changes while giving others a jolly good stet. This can be a difficult time for the author, who must defend grammatical errors as stylistic choices in order to not look stupid.

The editor emails the author a scan of the finished cover art, saying, “Everyone here loves this!” The author may object to aspects of it, if he is an ungrateful asshole who thinks he knows how to publish books better than a, you know, publisher.

The book’s layouts are developed: the internal artwork, including the fonts, spacing, and style of chapter headings.

Publicity plans are developed, and final-ish decisions made on things like price and publication dates.


The manuscript is transformed into a galley, which is the final, copyedited version embedded in the layouts. When I say “transformed,” I mean someone sits down with the five-hundred-page copyedited manuscript, which by now has been scrawled on by at least two and probably four different people, with additional pages inserted here and there, and some of the changes stetted and then destetted and maybe redesteted again, some of which are impossible to read because I had to use a green pencil to signify which changes were mine and I couldn’t find a sharpener and I was trying to squeeze between the printed lines and thought I had enough room but didn’t. This person types all that out. I have never met them, because, I assume, they are kept in a basement and fed raw fish.

The author is sent galleys of forthcoming books by authors who agreed to consider giving a blurb, in case he wishes to reciprocate, while maintaining artistic integrity.

The Advanced Reader Copies are produced, which are like galleys, but one step closer to the finished version. They’re for reviewers and various promotions (a lot of Machine Man ARCs were given out at Comic Con last year), and are essentially the finished book, minus any late editorial changes, printed on cheap paper, and possibly with different cover art.

The author reads the latest galley/ARC and notices several horrendous errors that somehow escaped previous notice. He writes in with corrections.

The audio version is developed.

The author corresponds with translators attached to various foreign publishers, who want explanations for odd word choices. These will probably be published many months or even years later, and look super exotic.


The publisher pitches its quarterly list to large bookstore chains and buyers. I believe they actually sit down in a room, and the editor or marketing manager or whoever says, “Now THIS is a title we’re very excited about, it’s OH GOD PLEASE BUY ME by Max Barry,” and they have a little discussion about the author’s sales record and whether people are really interested in that kind of book any more, so that the bookstore chain/buyer can decide how many copies to stock. If they choose a low number, the book is essentially dead, because no-one will see it, and the publisher will scale back its marketing plans, because why spend money promoting a book no-one knows about. But if it’s a high number, there will be renewed excitement and high-fives and a little extra marketing budget for things like co-op (payment to bookstores for favorable shelf placement). The author can tell which it is because if it is a low number, the publisher won’t tell him.

Thanks to the amazing new website Random House has for its authors, I know they call this process “working with the accounts on an ongoing basis to estimate initial purchase quantities.”

The ARCs go out to newspapers, blogs, magazines, and anyone else who wants a copy and has an audience of more than three people. Interview and feature requests begin to come in and are scheduled by the publicity department. Early reviews come in and are forwarded to the author, unless they’re bad.

An e-book version is developed via a process involving priests and goats’ blood. Not really. It’s really done by re-typing the entire book from the finished, typeset manuscript. Nah, I’m still kidding. They take the last electronic document and just try to reimplement all the manual changes made since then by hand. You can decide which of those it is.

Due to piracy concerns, the e-book is closely guarded, so often cannot be reviewed by the author. Instead it is distributed to anyone with a blog and a account.

MONTHS 11-13

More reviews come in, and early interviews/profiles are conducted. The author, who has spent the last two years alone with a keyboard, begins spending large parts of each day talking or writing about himself, sowing the seeds for future personality disorders.

The publisher does whatever it is that needs to be done to ensure that tens of thousands of physical copies end up in the right place at the right time. I assume that’s something.

The book is published! The author catches the bus to the nearest bookstore to discover they’re not stocking it. Calls to agent ensue. The author may go on tour, which could involve dozens of cities over many weeks, or just popping into local bookstore and plaintively offering to sign copies, if they have some, like out the back or whatever.

During a book reading, the author notices a horrendous error that somehow escaped the editorial process.

The author wakes three-hourly to check his sales ranking.

And that’s about it.

* Note: Blog may represent one-sided author’s view of a process he actually knows little about, with gaps in knowledge filled with speculation and lies.


This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Canada
Posted: 4382 days ago


You should write a corporate fiction about it.

Machine Man subscriber Alan W (#1427)

Location: Spokane, Washington
Quote: "Corgis are like potato chips"
Posted: 4382 days ago

Nice explanation. Are you sure this isn't just upsidaisy Ausstrailian publishing? I mean, it sounds crazy enough.

Machine Man subscriber Lance Mertz (#3541)

Location: Seattle
Quote: "It wasn't me, I wasn't there and did nothing."
Posted: 4382 days ago

They still use galleys and pencils to do editing? Isn't that just a little old school? Never heard of Word's edit tracking tools? Luddites all... off with their heads!

This so makes me want to be an author.

ryandake (#2199)

Location: scenic monterey, ca
Quote: ""The rest is not our business.""
Posted: 4382 days ago

yes! in fact we ARE kept in a basement and fed raw fish! or at least were, back in the day, we typesetters--i think now the budget has diminished to Pink Slime instead of fish--but the basement thing, oh ya.

p.s. pencils rock.

Machine Man subscriber Bob (#4095)

Location: Kansas
Quote: "Freeze!!! This is the Government!!"
Posted: 4382 days ago

Wonderfully enlightening. I've honestly (and you must have known!) wondered about this very sort of thing. I suspected some, was astounded by others and cringed at the appalling. Stand tall Max Barry, stand tall. You've bested these fools at their own game and well yeah really I just wish your book would come out already so what bloody step is it on?

Jak (#2464)

Quote: "The Straight-Jacket makes it hard to type."
Posted: 4382 days ago

This should be the back of your book.

Machine Man subscriber Robin Heckathorn (#3341)

Location: Lost in California
Quote: "Since I stopped drinking, I've been thinking, and its reminded me why I started drinking in the first place."
Posted: 4382 days ago

My first Maxx Barry experience was actually an ARC of Syrup, many, many moons ago. To be honest, the cover art was better than what made the final cut!

Machine Man subscriber Adam Willard (#4231)

Location: Madagascar
Quote: "What unseen pen etched eternal things in the hearts of humankind... but never let them in our minds?"
Posted: 4382 days ago

Wow. Every time you write something about the publishing industry it makes them sound more and more like idiots who don't realize half of what they're doing. I'm assuming that's true.

Anyway, I loved the line about "piracy concerns" so that often the writer doesn't get to see the e-book version. Instead everyone with a blog gets one. Classic. Very smart (of them).

Swkoll (#5394)

Location: USA
Quote: ":)"
Posted: 4382 days ago

So, this is a draft of your 6th book?

Machine Man subscriber Electrichead (#3898)

Location: Toronto
Posted: 4382 days ago

This was equal parts entertaining and enlightening. I've often wondered what exactly the role of the publisher is in the process. I assume that it is a similar process with music records too, but I wonder what the corresponding format is for the printed book with written edits.

Kristy (#4441)

Location: Baltimore, MD
Posted: 4382 days ago

Off topic but...You'll tell us when we can see your movies, RIGHT? That hasn't happened yet...RIGHT?!?!

Machine Man subscriber Mapuche (#1184)

Location: Darwin, Australia
Quote: "Inconceivable!"
Posted: 4381 days ago

Here is an alternative view from another author - very prolific and well published...

Machine Man subscriber Ben (#3924)

Location: Alberta, Canada
Quote: "I don't wanna ride the elevator."
Posted: 4381 days ago

I think their end game is getting rid of troubling parts of the process like authors and copy editors. After all, its the selling that makes money right? Plus it also sounds like an old boys club of editors, marketers and publishers who occassionally allow bloggers to join them for a cigar in the back room.

On another note, a combination of pencil and digital editting probably finds more errors than just one method. Even with similar numbers of editors.

Machine Man subscriber David (#1456)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Why are the pretty ones always insane?"
Posted: 4379 days ago

Can't wait for the next book, what's taking so long?

[Reads post. Laughs, cries, shakes head in disbelief] Oh I see, but that takes too long, please do something about it.

Actually, for those who want to know even more about the wonderous, arcane and bewildering world of publishing Charlie Stross has written several blog posts on the process and the industry that are very interesting:

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 4378 days ago

"Due to piracy concerns"

I never would have guess novel piracy was so rampant.

Evan (#5905)

Posted: 4375 days ago

this has inspired me to open a publication company and do it so much better :P

Brittany O. (#1688)

Location: Montana
Quote: "people are kind of overrated "
Posted: 4368 days ago

Dear Max,
Please promise us that there will be a paper-hold-in-your-hand book, please! I do not electronic book in any way and paper is wonderful.

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