Marrying my publisher made a number of things clear to me I might never otherwise have understood. As well as being very professional in his approach to his work, he is a kind man, always one to go the second mile. Where he can help, or listen, or share the weight of someone else’s burden, he always will.
As he talks to me about how his day has gone, I gain insights into the publisher’s point of view, and of nothing is this more true than publishing schedules.
Book publishing is certainly about words, but it’s also a numbers game. If the projected sales figures don’t stack up, the project isn’t viable – and this doesn’t always mean the book isn’t good or the commissioning editor doesn’t like it. Sometimes even fine work has no market.
But once a proposal has made it through ordeal-by-committee, and shown itself capable of leaping the series of hurdles standing between the germ of an idea and publication, a publishing schedule is set in place. The author is always, always consulted about this. No publisher would accept a book for publication without checking that the author felt confident of honouring the contract in the agreed time frame.
It is staggering to me how many writers do dishonour that contract and agreement.
Some of the excuses fit squarely into the category of emotional blackmail – ‘My niece was ill,’ etc. The publisher is a human being, and the relationship with the author a sort of quasi-friendship. What sort of person could say, ‘So? Your niece isn’t writing the book’?
Sometimes there is no excuse offered, and no manuscript either for a very long time.
But why does it matter if a book comes in late?
Well, because there is a symbiosis, not always apparent to the author, between authors and publishers and also between authors and authors.
A book may come in late, which has been scheduled to be out in time for a big conference. It may have been promised as one of the conference books, or the projected sales figures may absolutely rely on that conference – perhaps the writer may be a speaker there. Often in Christian publishing, the writer has the contract on the basis of their edifying life/work/story – not because they can write exceptionally well. The text needs extensive in-depth work before it will do justice to the story it tells.
In that case, there is no wiggle room. The work on the text has to be done in time. Bottom line; the staff at the publishing house, and the freelancers working on the text, have to take up the slack. But anyone who knows anything about the world of publishing grasps that there is no slack in a publishing schedule. The world of publishing isn’t full of gentle old coves in corduroys puffing on their pipes as they sit in the window-seat reading sonnets – it goes like an express train.
The freelancer waiting for the late book to come in, having kept the slot open, is marking time and unable to take on other work until it arrives, then has to sit up late, sometimes working through the night if the text is seriously dodgy, to get it back onto schedule.
The manuscript misses its slot in the schedule of those who have to copy-edit, format, work on the electronic processes, produce and check proofs etc – so it bumps into the slots scheduled for other books. The effect is disastrous. Publishing house staff already working as hard and fast as they can go have to try to get more done in less time to accommodate the work on the manuscript.
This is not mildly annoying, it causes melt-down – stressed-out people in tears, senior staff having to stop their own work to help out junior staff now struggling with impossible workloads in a crashed schedule.
And it doesn’t just stop at the publishing house. The symbiosis connecting authors extends to create a support network for all concerned. Many, many books never erode their royalty advance – they make a loss. Publishing is a gamble, always; sometimes you lose. But the spectrum of books published creates the interest and variety of a good list; and somehow new authors have to get started, and few hit the big-time with a first book. The many that fail are balanced by the few that succeed impressively.
If a book misses its slot in the publishing schedule, it just leaves a gap. If the author had been realistic and aimed for six months or a year later – and honoured that – another book could have been commissioned to fill the gap, perhaps one of the best-sellers that keep the many less successful writers afloat. Even if not a best-seller, at least one of the many, many hopeful authors submitting manuscripts would have been in with a chance.
The book that misses the schedule and, despite the best efforts of publishing house staff and freelancers to get it back on track, must be postponed, takes up the publishing opportunities of two writers.
I write books and I also work on other authors’ manuscripts. My dear Badger has taken a long-postponed sabbatical this autumn, and gone on an exciting pilgrimage – he is walking the 500 miles from St Jean Pied de Port in France, across the Pyrenees, through Galicia, to the Spanish coast and Santiago de Compostela (the place with the mahoosive swingy incense thingy). I cancelled just about everything I do, so that while he is away I’d have the chance to write a novel, Book 8 of my Hawk & Dove series.
And then, guess what? The book I had been asked to edit for early October, leaving me a month to six weeks in which to write my own book, came in a month late. So in the precious, rare slot of empty time, that’s what I’m doing; editing someone’s late manuscript. Sure, I’ll get to my own book by some means – but it will take me twice as long to write it in a house with a husband in it, and the effort and struggle of keeping focus will be twice as hard.
If there are any writers reading this – friends, please remember, we are all in this together; your book is not the only water lily on the surface of the pond. Please, please, be realistic, be disciplined, be methodical and professional when you undertake to write a book. If you haven’t got time to do it, have the restraint to pass up the opportunity. If you take the work and sign the contract, stick to the agreement you made. Submitting your script within the agreed time frame is one of the ways you, as a writer, keep faith with your publishers and your fellow-writers, including people like me whose name you don’t know and whom you may never meet.
Self-discipline is a beautiful characteristic.