Publishing takes so long because . . .
1. Because each book is individual.
The beautiful and difficult thing about publishing is that it's a one-to-one industry: one writer connecting to one reader at a time. And because everything is individual, there are absolutely zilch solid rules in this business (beyond "Have a sense of humor" and "Don't be a jerk"). Each author is different; each manuscript is different; each editor is different; each agent is different; each publishing house is different. No matter how many books an editor and author have worked on together, each new manuscript has to be considered on its own strengths, with its own problems.
Aesthetically terrible books get published and make a ton of money; aesthetically brilliant books win the National Book Award; other aesthetically terrible books cost their publishers piles of cash with very little return; other aesthetically brilliant books disappear completely. In adult publishing, Alice Sebold, Charles Frazier, Audrey Niffenegger and Sara Gruen (to pick four names in a very common pattern) all experienced incredible success with their first novels, leading to advances for their second novels in the multiple millions; and not one of those second novels has achieved the success of their previous books. Markus Zusak and The Book Thief ended up on Good Morning America because a smart Knopf publicist sent a copy directly to Charlie Gibson, who happened to open his own mail that day, became fascinated with the book, and took it home to read over the weekend. There's no way to guarantee that happening again, and thus it illustrates my point: Every book is individual, and a success not easily replicable.
(N.B. An earlier version of this post misstated the nature of the Zusak-GMA connection, which was kindly corrected by a Random House insider. This blog regrets the error.)
2. Because editors and agents have many submissions to wade through, because . . .
2A. . . . The barriers to being a writer who submits manuscripts are extremely low.
This is not a complaint or an accusation or anything pejorative, just a factual observation: Writing is an individual pursuit, that anyone who is literate can participate in, with extremely low technological requirements (as technological requirements go in the modern age). As a result, all you need to write and submit a manuscript is the ability to write in English, access to a computer with word-processing software, and an Internet account so you can send out the resulting manuscript. (You no longer even need a printer! Or stamps!) So a lot of people can participate in this process, and do.
2B. . . . Writers vastly outnumber editors and agents — especially when writers multiply submit.
We are also living in an unprecedented age of access to information about publishers and editors and agents, thanks to the Internet, Amazon, acknowledgment pages, writers’ discussion boards, QueryTracker, you name it. This makes it extremely easy for writers to research places to submit their work, and to send forth manuscripts accordingly to all the places they find.
I am not complaining about multiple submissions, please note; I understand why writers and agents do it, and those reasons are 100% valid. But if we think of the amount of time spent reading a query as quantity X, then one writer submitting to one agent equals a reading time of X across the whole industry. One writer submitting to six agents equals 6X across the industry. Six writers submitting to six agents each equals 36X (though note we still have just those same six agents doing six times the work) . . . and so it all grows exponentially, and crowds out the time for other things within the industry. Again, these are not complaints, just facts.
2C. . . . Reading is inherently not fast.
The very smart Jason Pinter once wrote something on Twitter like, "The average person reads 250 words per minute -- 60 pages an hour. If you give someone your 350-page manuscript, you're asking them to spend the length of a flight from New York to California with you talking to them." His point was that you should do your best to be sure that you're good company, which is true. But no matter how good the company is, it takes a lot more than just sitting down to listen to a three-minute song, or watch a 30-minute TV show. . . . I have days when I wish I could fly back and forth from New York to California to get all my reading done.
3. Because each book has both aesthetic and economic factors that must be carefully weighed at each step in the process.
I remember once in my first year as an editorial assistant, I fell in love with a picture-book manuscript and took it in to my afternoon meeting with Arthur. “I love this manuscript,” I said. “Will you read it right now?”
“Sure, leave it with me,” he said.
“It’s not even two complete pages,” I said. “Can’t you just look at it?”
“No, I can’t,” he said patiently. “Leave it here and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Now that I’ve had manuscripts thrust at me at conferences, and been that editor facing an intern with a great manuscript in hand, I understand where he was coming from. Because each manuscript — even a two-hundred-word picture book text — presents an editor with a series of questions to be answered, to wit:
- Is this any good in an aesthetic sense?
- Is it of any interest in a publishing sense?
- Is it appropriate for our publishing house?
- Do I like this?*
- If it is some good aesthetically, but not perfect, what parts aren't working?
- Can those parts be made to work?
- Assuming yes to question #6: Are the good parts good enough, and the publishing interest strong enough, to justify the editorial time and energy in trying to make it work?
- Assuming yes to question #7: Is this strong enough as it is to try to acquire it? Or should I request a noncontractual revision?
- Is the author capable of revising it? (Some writers simply are no good at revising.)
- Is s/he someone we'll want to work with for the long term or just this book?
- How much do we think the book will sell?
- Following on #11, how much should we pay for it?
- Assuming no to question #7: How should this be rejected?
- If it’s a picture book: Who could or should illustrate it? What is Dream Illustrator's schedule like? How much would we have to pay him/her? Etc.
And if I do decide I want to acquire it, there's a whole other to-do list after that (and then another one after that), which keeps coming back to evaluating the book's artistic and publishing strengths and how they can be maximized. Publishing is an extremely long-term game, and long-term games aren't fast.
* N. B. Many years ago, back when I was an assistant with time to do freelance editing, an author I was working with said, "I have the feeling you don't like my book." I realized then that I didn't care whether I liked the project, actually, because I was committed to editing it either way; I cared only whether the book worked, whether it accomplished the task it was meant to do, because then the book (and my work) would have been successful, and my personal feelings about the project were irrelevant. It's very different from my job now, where, if I'm going to put in all the time and effort that I do put in to a manuscript, and stand before my acquisitions committee, sales force, and the world and say, "You should pay attention to this," I want to feel emotionally connected to the project, and to feel like it's worthy of that attention.
4. Because each draft is a wholly new artistic work and must be considered as such.
I can't just read the two chapters or five lines that were changed from the previous draft to this; I have to consider them in the context of the whole, to see how the whole makes me feel now, and therefore whether the revision is working. (This is not so true in later stages of novels, after I've read the book six times and we're polishing moments; but it is true early on, and always true with picture books.) Then see #2C above.
5. Because what is individual is often deeply personal, and people deserve kindness.
I love my authors, and I often know their spouses’ names, their children’s names, where they’re from, when they’re going on vacation and where. When I have bad news, I want to present it to them in the kindest and most supportive way possible. When I have good news, I want to celebrate with them in a way that feels present. I have relationships with agents, and I want to give them smart feedback on projects so they'll keep thinking I'm worth submitting to even when I say no (as I frequently must). When I read manuscripts, I'm very aware that every one is a little piece of the writer's soul there on the page for me -- like a good Horcrux -- and that if I'm turning it down, I need to do so with at least politeness. In a world that grows ever more rushed and demanding, time spent is a compliment, and I want to pay that compliment to the people who are important to me.
6. Because we're trying to make beautiful things that matter here and share them with other people who will love them too.
And that takes time, in the writing and thinking and editing and painting and copywriting and publicizing and selling and reading and telling; and that's all there is to it.