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View Full Version : It takes too long to get ms's printed/shipped.



Codger
05-05-2005, 08:25 PM
Over time, I've listened to various on-air personalities complain about how long it takes to get a book published and distributed. Many of them are mentioning two to three months after editing is completed. These are potentially hot topics and time is critical.

Why, in this technology-driven age, does it require so long to typeset, print, assemble and ship a book?

Can anyone provide a rational explanation that is more meaningful that "that's the way it's always been done"? I think that there's a "guild" mentality on the printing side of the house that creates a significant drag on velocity-to-shelves. It's not rocket science.

What is the reality of this situation?

Lauri B
05-05-2005, 08:58 PM
Well, it takes some time to layout and proof a book--and it will be longer if it's a heavily illustrated or graphically intense book. Then you wait for blue lines from the printer before the book is actually printed, which will take a week or so from start to approval. It takes about three weeks from start to finish to print the books (say a 3,000 print run--I have no idea what they do at the printer, but that's how long it takes most of our books). Then the books are shipped to a warehouse where they will be inventoried, then the prepublication orders are processed and the books are divvied up and sent to the bookstores, where it takes a few days for them to be processed into the bookstore system and put on the shelves. So it's going to take between 5 and 8 weeks to get the books from the publisher to the stores once the editing and layout are done. It's not rocket science, but you have several steps in the process and at least three different entities touching the book. That all takes time.

Codger
05-05-2005, 09:49 PM
"Well, it takes some time to layout and proof a book--and it will be longer if it's a heavily illustrated or graphically intense book. Then you wait for blue lines from the printer before the book is actually printed, which will take a week or so from start to approval."



I would think that this process is automated to a large degree, and image transmission and editing via networks eliminates a lot of wait time.

Look at the quantum improvement in the engineering process brought about largely by software and CAD/CAM technologies. I would thing that that some of these improvements could accrue to the publishing business.

It simply takes too long to accomplish the work, given the technological advances available. It's not like they set type by hand.

Jamesaritchie
05-05-2005, 09:56 PM
Over time, I've listened to various on-air personalities complain about how long it takes to get a book published and distributed. Many of them are mentioning two to three months after editing is completed. These are potentially hot topics and time is critical.

Why, in this technology-driven age, does it require so long to typeset, print, assemble and ship a book?

Can anyone provide a rational explanation that is more meaningful that "that's the way it's always been done"? I think that there's a "guild" mentality on the printing side of the house that creates a significant drag on velocity-to-shelves. It's not rocket science.

What is the reality of this situation?

It takes as long as the publisher wants it to take. When the book is topical enough, when the subject is hot enough, a book can go from manuscript to distributed book almost overnight. I've seen books go from the idea to the distributed book within a few weeks, when the idea was hot enough and timely enough.

And time sensitive or not, a few months delay is most often helpful to a book. If the book really is hot, really is time sensitive, it still needs some time to build up pre-published sales, time for teh promotion to work. This is important.

Normally, however, there's simply no logical reason to do this. No matter what writers think, darned few books are time sensitive enough for this to matter. Most publishers would rather take the time to get the job done right, and technology doesn't do all the work. I hope to God it never can. But there's simply no reason to rush. Even if a miracle happens, and your book is ready to print ten minutes after the editing is done, it will still probably be from two to eighteen months before printing actually happens.

Writers tend to forget that their book isn't the only one being published. There are usually thousands of books in queue, and unless the time factor really is important enough to bump all these other books, there's no reason to speed things up. It costs a LOT of money to bump a book higher in the queue, and to force production. It costs both with the book you're rushing, and with the books you knocked back a step.

There is a schedule to keep, and an awful lot of people and companies need their own books by a certain time. Interrupting this schedule without an extremely good reason (Read tons of profit) is usually a very bad, very costly thing to do.

Most printing companies use the latest and fastest technology, but books can only be printed so fast, and yours has to wait its turn.

Anyone who mentions two or three months has nothing at all to complain about. With many publishers, twelve to eighteen months is closer to average.

There's also the "What do you do with the book after it's published" factor. Where do you plan on shipping the book? Bookstores are already receiving more books each month than they can handle, and distributors are already handling more books than they care to. And both have more books already coming next month than they can handle. And the month after that, and the month after that, on and on and on. Whatever the writer or the publisher thinks about the book, it generally must be a fit with the distributors and bookstores, or rushing to publish it won't help. And three fourths of the nonfiction publishers and writers out there are usually yelling, "But this book is time sensitive!" No, it usually isn't. At least not THAT time sensitive. Odds are extremely high that no matter how time sensitive it is, a few months delay will help, not hurt, the sales.

Any good business has to plan many, many months ahead, and both publishers and printers have to have schedules that meet the demands of thousands to millions of customers over the next six to eighteen months. In other words, they're "booked" up well ahead. They have to be, or they would soon go broke.

It's a miracle publishers get books into production as fast as they do.

Lauri B
05-05-2005, 09:56 PM
No, the layout process is not automated--real designers lay out pages, place illustrations, and check how words flow and wrap around text. Publishers send files out to printers, so yes, that aspect of it is certainly digitized. You also have to remember that printing usually goes to the lowest bidder, so a publisher could have a book printed anywhere from Michigan to Iceland or Singapore. For example, most 4 color books are printed offshore, and are shipped via freighter from the Pacific Rim back to the US.

Are you familiar with the publishing/printing industry?

Medievalist
05-05-2005, 10:11 PM
It simply takes too long to accomplish the work, given the technological advances available. It's not like they set type by hand.

It's not done with bits of metal, no, but the type is set. Every character is painstakingly considered, with a real publisher, in order to make the book pleasant to read, and legible, and fit the paper/binding and size restrictions.

I mostly work on consumer computer books, and trust me, we're as digital as the industry gets. One publisher takes three months from final approved galleys to books on the bookstore shelf because of the demands on production staff, and the time requirements of the printers to do even a small run of fifteen thousand copies. Another, and much smaller publisher, needs a standard lead of six weeks, but has on at least one occasion done it in two weeks from final galley to bookstore shelf.

Keep in mind that in addition to the time needed to fit a book into a publisher's production department schedule, you have to reserve slots at the printers.

Codger
05-05-2005, 10:23 PM
No, the layout process is not automated--real designers lay out pages, place illustrations, and check how words flow and wrap around text. Publishers send files out to printers, so yes, that aspect of it is certainly digitized. You also have to remember that printing usually goes to the lowest bidder, so a publisher could have a book printed anywhere from Michigan to Iceland or Singapore. For example, most 4 color books are printed offshore, and are shipped via freighter from the Pacific Rim back to the US.

Are you familiar with the publishing/printing industry?

I'm not as familiar as I'd like to be, but you guys are really helping. I still sense that the "mystique" of managing what's in the queue is process/management problem that hasn't been properly addressed as business problem to solve.

I've worked in IT management and consulting and have constantly run into clients who think that something can't be changed because "our business is unique". This is often not at all true. A fresh set of eyes can sometimes work miracles. There are both art and science components involved in many industries, but they are routinely reviewed and modified. E.g., music production-to-shipment times.

I just think that sometimes processes are not nearly as rigid as the people who defend them.

Medievalist
05-05-2005, 10:56 PM
I just think that sometimes processes are not nearly as rigid as the people who defend them.

I'm not defending them, I'm just tired. Part of the problem is that there's so much coordinating between different groups of companies--for a large print run you can be dealing with multiple printers. But the runs have to be coordinated with warehouses, that means shipping and space issues. Everything must be right to schedule; there's little or no room for slippage. A slip in the schedule for book 1 can affect other books in queue. And a book that's going to sell well can have huge initial print runs.

Plus there are release timing issues, and those are very much book and industry specific.

Lauri B
05-06-2005, 01:10 AM
I'm not defending them, I'm just tired. Part of the problem is that there's so much coordinating between different groups of companies--for a large print run you can be dealing with multiple printers. But the runs have to be coordinated with warehouses, that means shipping and space issues. Everything must be right to schedule; there's little or no room for slippage. A slip in the schedule for book 1 can affect other books in queue. And a book that's going to sell well can have huge initial print runs.

Plus there are release timing issues, and those are very much book and industry specific.

I'm not defending anything, necessarily, either--just telling you how it works for us. I know we could get a book from edit through layout in a couple of weeks, but we have to get slotted in to the printer (who seems to always need 3 weeks, regardless of the size of the print run)

Also, for most of the book trade, there are two seasons: spring and fall, and books for them are chosen a year in advance. So while some books are absolutely rushed out because they are time sensitive or whatever, most have been planned for publication about a year out. They go into a catalog six months before they are on the shelves, and the whole publicity/review/blurb etc. etc. process goes churning along for six to seven months before the book is released so that (ideally) the public can't wait for it to come out, presales and book club buys are in, and THEN the book comes out and everyone is happy. In theory.

Lauri B
05-06-2005, 01:13 AM
Oh, one more thing. I'm not sure the fact that people on talk shows are complaining about their books not coming out fast enough is necessarily a business problem that needs to be solved. Sure, some books really need to get out there quickly, but most don't--their deadlines are completely artificial, so what's the huge rush? I appreciate that authors are eager to see their books in print, but I'd rather take the time to try and build some interest and publicity so that we don't end up with a warehouse full of books no one has heard of and no one wants to buy.

But that could just be me--I'm sure there are other people who would love to speed up the entire process. I have all I can handle as it is.

TashaGoddard
05-06-2005, 02:33 PM
There are definitely places where a faster turnaround from final PDFs to ready-in-warehouse would be appreciated. Most of the work my company does is for educational publishers (in the UK), where time is often very sensitive. New exam board specifications come out, or changes to the national curriculum, and teachers need books to cover these changes by the start of the new academic year. In an ideal world, they actually need them at the tail end of the previous academic year, because that is when department heads make their decisions about which courses to follow (having books and other resources already available for a course can swing that decision).

The process has already speeded up considerably since I started working in educational publishing 8 years ago. Then, the turnaround time was closer to 8 weeks, because of still using film and the like. These days the majority (I'm no longer at the mine-front, so I'm not absolutely certain this is the case in all educational publishers) of books go to the printer as PDF files, and they can print directly from them. This cuts out some of the time in the process. I believe the turnaround time is now closer to 5 weeks from finished PDFs to ready-in-warehouse (of course, you've then got to send the books out, which works differently in educational publishing, as the majority of them go direct to schools, rather than to bookshops). The actual printing can take as little as 1 week, depending on the size of the print-run.

However, as others have already mentioned, it's not possible to do this for every book. A publisher has to pay a considerable premium to a printer to have them print a book that quickly.

Why? I can see why it would seem strange that it's not possible to set this exact speedy time for every single book. If you scheduled it properly, surely it would be possible? Perhaps one day it will, but I can't see it happening very soon. Because you have to build in contingencies. Problems happen. And they happen a lot in publishing, for some reason! As someone else mentioned above, this may be due to the large number of people involved in the whole process. Delays have a tendancy to slip in at some (or even all) the stages. It could be at the stage when the author is doing rewrites; it could be at the editing stage; it could be at the typesetting stage; it could be at one or all of the proofreading stages; it could be due to illustrators, photographers, designers... there are so many people, departments and external suppliers involved that it would be extremely difficult to get the finished PDFs to the printer at the exact moment they would need it and when their press had been cleared for that specific book.

Why do problems and delays occur? Because pretty much everyone in the process is working on a large number of projects; not just this one. A freelance editor or illustrator might be working on 4 or 5 projects at any one time (some a lot more); an in-house managing editor may have 10-20 (again, sometimes a lot more) projects that they are managing at any one time; a typesetting company or design studio may be working 20+ projects at the same time... and so it goes on. Someone has to prioritise somewhere. We offer faster turnaround to publishers, for an extra cost (a considerable extra cost, because setting aside time specifically for one project that might slip, means we could end up sitting around twiddling our thumbs for a week with nothing to do); as do other suppliers. But it can't be done for every project. It would only be possible if there could be an absolute guarantee that the job would turn up exactly when it was booked in for. Which you just can't guarantee in this business. At least not at the moment.

The trouble in educational publishing (in the UK, at least; it may be different elsewhere), is that almost every single book (or resource pack or electronic resource) is time sensitive. Every list (e.g. primary science, secondary science, primary maths, secondary maths, secondary English, secondary Modern Languages... etc. etc.) has books that aboslutely have to get out by July (or by September). Are the English books more important than the science books? Should the Modern Language books take priority over the maths books?

Amazingly enough, most of the books do come out on time. But this is done by various people building in a bunch of contingencies - i.e. more time in the schedule that should in theory be needed.

So, in theory it should be possible to speed up the process a little bit more, but it is less to do with technology (which has already speeded it up considerably) and more to do with a culture shift and possibly even a considerable increase in in-house staff, which would be unlikely to be economically viable. Maybe one day, but probably not any time soon.

One technological elememt that could make a difference in educational (and academic publishing), however, is electronic delivery of all the books, rather than printing them. Education is particularly suited to this technological change, IMO, and I think that in the next 10-20 years, more and more teaching and learning materials will be delivered electronically rather than in print. It's already happening to a fairly small extent, with many educational publishers providing some material on-line. This allows for much quicker updating of material (and completely cuts out the 5 weeks or whatever for printing, plus the 2 weeks or whatever for distribution). With the right hardware (e.g. e-book-readers of some kind for all pupils/students; electronic white boards in every classroom, etc.) this could prove more useful than printed books. It's not going to happen overnight, though. And it's (probably) not really relevant for other areas of publishing. It's going to be a long time before printed novels become extinct, even though there already some people who do prefer e-books to printed ones.

[Sorry to go on! Hopefully that gives you a bit more of an idea of how it works - at least in my particular corner of the book world!]

Lauri B
05-06-2005, 06:12 PM
Hey, Codger--talk about timing! There's an article in this month's PMA Independent about Chelsea Green's best-selling book, *Don't Think of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives* and how it went from draft manuscript to finished book in only 5 weeks. It has sold 175,000 copies so far, with no advance publicity or pre-sales. So--it definitely can and does happen, if the timing is right and the connections are good. Margo Baldwin (the publisher) has some amazing connections in progressive political circles.

Tish Davidson
05-12-2005, 07:40 PM
There are also legal issues that add to the time frame. Books generally are reviewed by a legal staff (especially things like celebrity biographies). It also takes time to get permissions for photos, etc. Plus, most publishers have spring and fall catalogs and they tend to target books for release to correspond to various sales strategies. If you're a publisher of only one book, its easy to speed through the process. If you're a publisher of dozens of books, they the books have to go into some sort of coordinated queue. I don't see any "mystique" about it. It's no different from desigining any new product.