When an author sells her first fiction book to a publisher, 9,999 times out of 10,000, the manuscript is complete. It may need revisions, but the bulk of the work is done. Subsequent books can go to contract on a partial, but not a first book. Because of too many incidents similar to the ones I’m about to relate, publishers have become very wary of purchasing a first book based upon a synopsis and sample chapters. Too often the manuscript never gets finished.
This happened frequently in the Romance genre. Romance Writers of America sponsors a major writing contest for unpublished writers. To win the Golden Heart is a big deal, and publishers stand in line to make an offer for the finished book. The competition is fierce. The authors have spent a lot of time polishing their entry of a synopsis and first chapter. Some worked for years on the same entry before getting it perfect. Some have never finished an entire novel and have no concept of how to write anything but the synopsis and first chapter. A writer I know won the contest, got a contract with a deadline and…you guessed it, never finished the book.
Can you imagine the humiliation of having to return the advance money two, three, or even five years later because the manuscript still has only a synopsis and first chapter? Can you imagine having to scrape up the thousands of dollars you’ve already spent while waiting for your muse to wake up and help you write the book?
The Golden Heart contest now requires submission of a completed manuscript to qualify. Only the synopsis and first chapter are judged, but the book has to be done, at least a first draft, in order to win.
When I sold my first book, a big name author told me that deadlines in the contract existed only to satisfy the lawyers who draw up the contracts. Deadlines mean nothing. Write the book in the timeline that feels right.
That author has now changed publishers five times because he can’t seem to finish a book on time, or at all. This after a decent career of eight books in print. The ninth book was contracted and is now six years overdue. The author doesn’t care. The muse has not struck him to write that book anymore. He’s moved on to more exciting projects. If his books didn’t sell so well when they finally make print no new publisher would touch him.
Admitting in a cover letter to an agent or editor that your book is the best thing ever written because you have slaved over it for ten years is no longer a selling point. Will it take you ten years to write the second book? Publishers want to build a career with their authors. That means multiple books coming out at regular intervals. One shot wonders like Margaret Mitchell are not good business. And this is a business even if it demands huge hunks of creativity at every turn.
What is so important about deadlines? There is more to publishing a book than just writing the story. Behind the scenes, cover art is commissioned, a schedule is compiled for copy editors, proof readers, and typsetting, publicity is organized to be released at specific times. All of it a year or two in advance for each book. Large publishers put out 4 to 20 books a month. An editor can be responsible for all or part of that list. Each piece of the giant puzzle depends upon the adjacent pieces arriving on time. If one piece is delayed, the entire schedule crumbles into more pieces than they started with.
Small presses are more flexible. Because they are small, they don’t have as many projects due within short time spans to complete each stage and move on. If an editor has to stay up all night three nights running to get a book into production, it’s only one book. There aren’t 15 more awaiting attention on the same deadline. And that editor is usually the publisher, responsible only to herself.
In the 15 years I have been in this business, I have 20 books in print, 2 in production, another under contract, and proposals out for more. In all that time I have only missed one deadline. The year my mother died. I gave my editor 9 months notice so she could rearrange her schedule and move my book to a later publication date.
Twice, when other authors have informed my editor on the due date that their manuscript would be 6 months to a year late, my book was on her desk early, ready to go. I got the other author’s lead list in the catalogue and their publicity budget. Being on time pays.