When discussing a new project with a client, right after “How much is this book going to cost?” the second most frequently asked question is “How long is this going to take?” We’ve learned not to respond “It depends....” But it does—on all sorts of variables:
- The manuscript (“MS”)—has it been written? If so, how well? And if not, who’s going to write it? When will she begin? How soon does she expect to deliver the first draft?
- The art program—how many and what kind of pictures—photos, info graphics (“charts/tables/graphs”), etc.—are involved? Is it assembled? If not, who will put it all together? Are its sources spread far and wide or contained in a smaller, more circumscribed context? How extensive will permissions clearance be? (Therein lies the subject of a blog for the not-too-distant future, by the way.)
- Design—do you want a fairly straightforward tradelike design, or did you have something more elaborate in mind? Just how elaborate? And, by the way, just how long is this book? What is its trim size? Will you review most stages electronically (as pdfs, for example), or do you require hard copy (i.e., printed pages on paper) at each stage?
- Production and printing—does the budget permit printing domestically, or does it necessitate overseas printing? Will you deliver printer-ready image scans, or is VAI or the printer expected to create them from your reflective (that is, non-digital) art? Does a hard-and-fast due date apply, or can delivery of bound books be somewhat open ended?
These are just a few of the most cogent questions we need to answer in order to determine how long we project the gestation period needed for top-quality illustrated books. Let’s look at the first item above to get an idea of how broadly the manuscript variables can be interpreted:
Has the MS been written?
Yes: we can begin editing as soon as the project is contracted.
No: we will need to wait anywhere from five months to a couple of years before editing can begin, and rush jobs almost always result in more complex, time-consuming editorial phases.
What shape is the MS in?
Professional-quality prose written by an expert on the subject is apt to require much less time for editing, fact checking, and authorial handholding (say, a month or so) than a MS by a copywriter with no experience with book-length material. (We’d probably add another month or two in that case.) As for a first-time author just starting to feel his way into the topic, a conservative estimate of the time devoted to the editorial component is five to six months.
Of course, none of this is hard and fast. Books develop organically. Each has its own strengths and difficulties, both of which will have direct, unavoidable effects on the book’s growth to maturity. For example, I have breezed through editing text in half the time I initially allotted. Conversely, a few books written by established scholars have kept me busy four, even five times as long as I had projected at the outset.
So, what kind of ballpark estimate can we (do we) offer? Our rule of thumb for a fairly standard illustrated book is nine months to one year from delivery of first-draft MS, and for the most part that guesstimate has turned out to be pretty much on the money.
We can always suggest ways to reduce it if need be. Printing domestically, for example, cuts down on the back-and-forth shipping time during the proof-approval stage, which can end up shaving off a week or two. Domestic binderies can also ship books by truck, for delivery in a day or two, as opposed to four to eight weeks sea freight can require.