Better three hours too soon than a minute too late. — William Shakespeare
I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.
But today — for the first time in months — I feel good enough about the new book to leave it alone for a few minutes.
See, I’ve been working on the same book for too many months now. Nay, I have been working on the same CHAPTER for too many weeks now, and I am beginning to think I will never finish. Part of the problem is that both my co-author sister Kelly and I have had too many personal life intrusions this past year that have affected our ability to maintain momentum. And like Woody Allen’s shark, if your WIP doesn’t move constantly forward, it dies.
But the larger part of our problem is that this book, unlike all our others, is being written on spec. We don’t have a contract for this one yet so we don’t have the tyranny of a contractual deadline. Being a former newspaper person, I have always done my best work under a strict deadline. But with this book, time had been stretched and now the ticking clock sounds as loud as Poe’s tell-tale heart in my ears.
Here’s the thing: The worst thing you can do to screw up your career is to turn in your book late.
Being on time is very important. And it gets increasingly important the further into your career you go. Why? Because you can’t get a foothold in today’s crowded marketplace — or keep one — if you can’t turn out a book a year on time.
Time management is the hardest thing a new writer has to grasp, I think. Before you get published, you have the luxury of limitless time. Time for the virgin writer is a lovely, expandable, ever-accommodating thing. Kind of like a big purse. The bigger your purse, the most junk you carry around, right? Same with deadline. The bigger and looser it is, the more you will abuse it. Trust me. I know.
First-time authors spend YEARS making their books as good as they can. You have to, in order to get an agent to take you on. Ah, but then what? Then you enter the publishing machine and you have to produce another. And another. And yet another. And here’s the worst part of it: Each book has to be better than the last because publishers’ attention spans (dictated by the computers at B&N and rankings at Amazon) are increasingly short.
Here is another thing working against us. Unlike in the good old days, few writers entering the game today will be given the time to find their legs, their voices, their audiences. The reason is awful but pretty simple: It’s all bottom line these days and there are too many young turks waiting to take your place on the publishers list. You have to produce well…and often.
As Jim Bell put it in his Sunday post on industry updates: “My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.”
So, what happens if you are late?
You lose your place in line. I learned this in great detail at a Killer Nashville conference I went to a few years back. There was a very instructive panel with an agent, a Barnes & Noble manager, and the main buyer for Ingram distributors. It was all great advice, but the best insight came when someone asked what happens if you are late delivering your manuscript. All the experts agreed: You don’t want to do this. Ever.
Here’s the simple explanation: In traditional publishing, a publisher creates its schedule at least a year in advance. And when an editor buys your book, the process begins whereby a bunch of folks decide where that book will be positioned to get maximum attention. Publishers jockey around each others schedules, trying not to have their books competing with similar books — or with big star authors. Or Harry Potter for that matter.
So you sign your contract. You get your slot. Say you have a July 2017 release with manuscript delivery Nov. 1, 2016. Now things get more complicated. To over-simplify things:
The cover design is based on your delivery date. Ditto advance reading copies (which are important in getting bookseller buzz). Sales people start gearing up material for in-house and outside catalog placement. Marketing and publicity set a schedule of their own. And in the end, bookstores buy your book based on YOUR firm delivery date. And remember, this is happening for many other books at the same time — from your own publisher and everyone else’s. Every domino is in place.
Then you miss your delivery deadline. You’re two, three, four months late. Life intruded, the kid got sick, you wrote yourself into a corner and had to backtrack, you had writers block, there was that three-week hiking trip in the Cinque Terre you really wanted to go on…blah, blah, blah.
What’s the big deal, right?
That silence you hear is dominos NOT falling. You’ve lost your place in line, Bunky. And guess what? The world — and the process — will keep right on turning without you and your masterpiece. You’ve also been…unprofessional and made yourself a pain in the ass. Not something you want to have a reputation as being. Because publishing? — it’s a small world, after all. Once you’ve been labeled difficult, a prima donna, or unable to produce, that rep will follow you no matter how many times you switch houses.
This pattern is the same for eBook-centric publishers like Thomas & Mercer. For our most recent book, SHE’S NOT THERE, our T&M editor gave us a choice of two different manuscript-delivery dates. They bought our book when it was about half finished. One deadline they offered was farther away but the editor was honest and said that meant a less aggressive marketing campaign. The other deadline was pretty tight, but it meant they had more time before pub date and could do more to flog it.
Guess which one we chose? Guess which one we almost blew?
We finished the book by the hardest deadline (we missed by two days) but it about killed us. And to be honest, we weren’t happy with the ending. A week after we turned it in, I worked up the courage to email our editor and told her we thought the ending was rushed and we asked if we could add two or three more chapters. She gave us one week. We made the extended deadline. The book came out on time. But it was really close.
Okay, I’m self-publishing, you say. What does this have to do with me?
Having the discipline to adhere to a set publishing schedule is just as important if you are self-publishing. Maybe even more so, because you won’t have anyone nagging you about a deadline. No one will be sending you emails asking, “How’s that book coming?” You won’t have a contract mandating that if you don’t produce, you’ll be facing some legal consequences. If you are self-publishing, having the self-discipline to make deadlines is probably even more crucial to your chances for success because you will be struggling to establish a foothold and claim enough real estate on the vast virtual bookshelf. One book isn’t going to get you anywhere. A whole shelf of good books that come out at nice predictable intervals? Well, readers will notice that. Again, as Jim said: Write a really good book, get it out there, write another really good book. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat…
I am not telling you this to scare you. Well, maybe I am. Because I got scared myself listening to the experts at Killer Nashville and by my experience of almost blowing it with SHE’S NOT THERE. See, I am not a fast writer. Writing is hard, even at times painful, for me. I try to worry each word into place, torture each paragraph into perfection. And that, my friends, leads me to paralysis.
Sometimes, you just have to sit down and let flow out. As the King says in Alice In Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Because, as the Queen tells us,
“In this country, it takes all the running you can do to keep you in the same place.”