How Book Production Could Be Faster and Why It Usually Isn’t

Authors, once they’ve managed to complete their book, which often takes years, often want the published version within a few months of the time they turn it over to the publisher. Readers, anticipating a new volume of their favorite author’s work or wanting the latest information on some hot-breaking story, often want a book as soon as they hear about it, even though it might have just hit the publisher’s desk.

Blog and websites are updated frequently–hourly, daily, weekly. Newspapers generally come out once a day or once a day, and in the days before the Internet, some papers came out more than once a day. How do they manage to publish work so quickly, while it often takes a scholarly book publisher a year?

The issue is one of resources–time and money–as well as quality and the necessity of timing.


Getting from here…                                                               

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credit: Ladyheart, Morguefile.com

to here…

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In terms of a fast schedule, blogs and websites have many advantages that print publications lack. Printing a book often takes two to four weeks to complete. Blogs and websites, obviously, don’t have to be printed. A content provider puts the new material up, and that’s it, unless of course the web page needs to be designed and a program written to allow writers and editors to upload material without extensive manual coding. If there isn’t a template already in place, an Internet source may take much of the same time that a printed text might take to produce. But most sites that are updating frequently have templates in place, so design and coding is not an issue. Another thing that’s not an issue? Editing and proofreading. Many such sites are personal–and it’s a rare person who sends material to an editor for something put together on the fly.

Newspapers, however, manage to come out every day, and they are printed. And they are also edited. How do they manage to do what book publishers often don’t manage? Before one even asks this question, one also must consider the audience. A newspaper story’s greatest use comes soon after an event; a scholarly book usually has a much longer shelf life. With such differing audiences, the strategies for publication vary greatly.

This is where time and money comes into play. To meet their goals, newspapers have the larger staff and singular focus needed to get that editing, composition, and printing done in quick time. Access to printing is usually close by. And printing standards are often lower (newspapers aren’t bound; few fuss too much if color registration is off; paper is cheap; even magazines often use stapling rather than true binding). And procedures have been put in place to assure the work can be done quickly, and because generally all the people involved are on staff (not freelancers with varying standards that have to be retrofitted to fit into the newspaper’s production line), those procedures are followed.

But all that said, how fast could a book come out within the time that it is handed to a publisher? The answer depends heavily on what is desired. A manuscript can be taken to a photocopy center and copied and spiral bound in less than a day. But this not the kind of book that people are going to want to place on their shelves for years, even decades, to come.

To create a book that has been edited, proofread, designed, typeset, and printed in a respectable form that would warrant archiving for future generations would likely take a few weeks, given enough resources. Let’s take a look at each one.

Before editing can even occur, a manuscript often has to be standardized so that it can run through a press’s procedures more easily. Odd formatting in a word processing file has to be cleared out, and a coding structure has to be put in place for future typesetting purposes. Because authors are not on staff, they are not usually aware of many of the press’s needs beyond the most basic. Assuming an author follows a press’s guidelines and the manuscript is not very complex, standardizing the manuscript might take a couple of hours, at which time it is ready to go to the editor. (This process, however, usually takes one to three days, because most manuscripts do not come so well prepared, and many have things that add complexity to that preparation, such as art.)

A copyeditor can generally work through four to ten 250-word manuscript pages per hour. If the book is well written to start and the desire is only a very light edit to catch obvious errors, ten pages might not be out of the question. Most edits will probably round off at about six pages per hour. Using this average, a four-hundred-page manuscript, which would be typical of a historical monograph, would equate to sixty-seven hours work on the part of a copyeditor. That’s a week and a half of work, assuming a forty-hour week. But the concentration demanded of such work means that most editors only work about thirty hours a week on a given book. Beyond that, many editors are working on multiple books at once, and if they are freelance–and most are–some have to be scheduled well in advance. Just finding an editor who is available can sometimes eat up a book schedule. Using multiple editors on a book would speed up the process, but editing is its own kind of writing, and keeping consistent standards across a set of editors on a single book is very difficult. So assuming we have a copyeditor ready to go when the book arrives and he or she is devoted only to this one book, you’re probably looking at two to three weeks for the edit.

After that, comes the author’s review of the editing. Again, this can greatly complicate schedules. Authors have lives outside of their book, and they aren’t usually getting paid much, if anything, so reviewing the editing is a part-time gig. If the author demands explanations about every minute change a copyeditor has made or if the author rewrites the work at this time, the process can bog down for months. But assuming the author is amenable to the changes made and that very few queries have to be resolved, reviewing a four-hundred-page manuscript likely would take only as much time as it takes to read it. Assuming the author reads ten pages an hour and that he or she can devote full-time to that reading, the review would take only a week.

The editor would then need to clean up the manuscript that the author has returned. If changes have been minimal throughout the process, the cleanup can probably be accomplished in a matter of hours. Some editors reread the book at this stage, but we’ll assume that’s not needed here and that the cleanup takes no longer than a couple of days.

So far then, we’ve used up about eighteen work days. A few other things can be used to speed up the process, such as a template design. Rather than designing the book as a special work, we’ll drop it into a design that has already been set up. Pages will still need to be adjusted, and this will take a few hours, but arguably typesetting could be done in a day. Proofreading would follow, and again, it would take at least a week. That week will also be needed for indexing, for which in this case we’ll hire a professional who just happens to have space clear in his or her schedule. Corrections to the proofs, which we’ll suppose are minimal because of the excellent editing, will take another day or so, along with setting the index. Those need to be checked, but assuming all goes well, we’ve now spent just twenty-six days.

Now the book goes to the printer. Printers for book publishers are often miles away and are usually chosen based on price and quality. But since money isn’t an object here, we’ll go with a great printer who happens to be close by and who happens to have space open on the press. (None of these things are likely. Jobs usually have to be scheduled months in advance, and printers who regularly work with books are not so easily found just down the road.) The printer will need to double-check to make sure the files work with its own machinery and will send a set of confirming proofs to the publisher before doing the actual printing. The printing, once it gets going, often only takes hours for a few hundred copies. Let’s allow two days for the whole print job; but then the ink has to dry if this is conventional high-quality printing, and that takes another week or so, and then there’s another day needed for binding. Allow one more day to get the book to the warehouse, from which someone will unpack the books and repack them in new boxes going to individual markets.

What is the result? A book that has come out in just under six weeks. It’s possible. But it isn’t likely.

Here is another reason this doesn’t happen very often. All of the above is best-case scenario. There are usually inevitable delays. Plus, nearly everyone is working on other books and tasks, not on a single work, meaning those schedules have to be worked around (those ten hours here and ten hours there are spread out over multiple days and weeks). And then there is this: A book is a one-off product. It doesn’t usually have a built-in audience, the way, say, a newspaper or magazine does. That means that it has to be marketed uniquely. Sales reps sell each one to each store they visit. A work whose sales are based on subscription is sold as a whole, and after that, its audience is assured. Marketing takes time. Even if a publisher could and did put a book out in a single month, making it successful would be difficult, because building an audience–building anticipation–for the work is part of the publishing process, and that often takes six months of and by itself.

Marketing, thus, is a reason book production is not geared toward extremely fast schedules. This usually works to the book publisher’s benefit. But of course, when a staff is small and resources few and a book comes along that is a hot topic in which marketing opportunities are instantaneous rather something that needs to be built over the course of months, the slower production to which books are usually geared becomes a disadvantage. And production processes have to be realigned accordingly if the opportunity is not to be lost, and given enough lead time, production usually can be sped up.

Here’s a recent real-life case from the University of Georgia Press. Last summer, director Lisa Bayer and acquisitions editor Walter Biggins came up with the idea of turning the Charleston Syllabus, which had begun as a hashtag on Twitter, into a book to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the tragic events in Charleston on June 17, 2015. The two of them got in touch with the creators of the syllabus, Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain, to ask whether they would be amenable to the task of creating a book that could be used as a conversation point about the event as well as in classes addressing race and history. The book’s three volume editors then had the whirlwind task of selecting the readings that could be contained within the book. For that, they were given about three months. This task also included digitizing some of the nondigital material so that it could be reprinted in the book.

This being an anthology of previously published material, much of it was still under copyright with other publishers. This meant that reprint rights had to be pursued, which was done by Jordon Stepp here at the Press. Those rights can take a long time to obtain, depending on how quickly rightsholders respond to queries. Some take a few hours; some take a few months; some never respond. In addition, some want compensation that is beyond the scope of a given budget and a certain amount of negotiation then has to take place or a selection must be dropped or shortened. Such uncertainty about what is ultimately going to appear in the book complicates production.

The manuscript entered production with a table of contents that was not completely final. Because the material was all previously published, the usual deep copyediting was not required; we opted to critically read the material in house, which involved coding the manuscript for composition, looking for typos, and standardizing a few small matters of punctuation. Three of our in-house manuscript editors were involved, along with a couple of interns. All of that material was routed back to the volume editors in batches for one final review. All the editing and review happened over the course of about two months in the fall of 2015.

After the text of the manuscript was finalized, however, the permissions were still incomplete. We could not begin typesetting. Production went into a holding pattern for about a month while we awaited word from the stragglers. Eventually, without adequate responses from some permissions holders, we opted to cut some pieces. The volume editors, however, knew some of the authors and decided to attempt one last time to obtain permissions for some of the pieces that were still being held out. Another week or so passed, but several of the pieces that we had thought we would have to cut ended up miraculously being cleared. In the end, we published about 80 percent of the readings that appeared in the original table of contents.

At last, typesetting began. Proofs arrived in January; the volume editors reviewed these in conjunction with our staff. Corrections to those proofs arrived and were reviewed in February, and the whole thing was off to print by mid-March for a bound book date sometime in April, in time for distribution to occur before the anniversary. In this case, a particular bound book date was desired, and the production schedule of the book was adapted to meet those needs, which were also the needs of the market.

Jon Davies is the Assistant Director for Editorial, Design, and Production at the University of Georgia Press

One thought on “How Book Production Could Be Faster and Why It Usually Isn’t

  1. Pingback: Why I Loved My Internship at Duke University Press | Duke University Press Log

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