There’s an old New Yorker cartoon that shows a writer typing at his desk as a conveyor belt delivers him inexorably to a large meat-grinding drum. A sign above the drum reads ‘DEADLINE’. I’ve always liked the cartoon. And – confession time – I love a deadline. I’m less enthusiastic when that meat grinder starts to stalk my dreams, but a deadline gives me structure and allows me to plan my work. More importantly, though, meeting a deadline reassures me that I’ve given my book the best possible start on its way through the production process to publication.
I know this from having worked at two big publishers – one of which, in its heyday, was publishing over 1000 books a year. Even in these days of fewer titles, keeping a book on track is a complicated business. To manage the production process, most publishers have a critical path that maps a book’s progress to the bookshop. This critical path works backwards from the agreed publication date through the different stages for both text and cover production.
So, for example, the critical path lays out the dates by which a manuscript has to be delivered, copy-edited, designed, proof-read and made ready for press. Similarly it stipulates when a cover image and marketing materials have to be ready for different retailer presentations. In other words, your deadline is just the first of umpteen other deadlines. All of which are calculated to publish the book successfully and get it into the hands of as many readers as possible.
If you miss your deadline, there can be a shift in the atmosphere surrounding the book. If you miss a second deadline or publication date has to be changed because you are late delivering, a perceptible ‘slightly disappointed’ emoji attaches itself to your title, which is very difficult to banish. As the book makes it through the production process, the emoji can make some designers, publicists or sales people wince as they handle it. Some books recover from this. Many don’t. But I really don’t think it’s worth the risk, given how many other new books yours is competing against (last time I checked, 184,000 published in the UK in one year). Not to mention the multiple distractions offered by Netflix, Amazon Prime, iPlayer, Spotify and every other digital channel shouting at a potential reader.
There are always exceptions– and every one of the very experienced ghosts at United Ghostwriters has a haunting horror story of a book that has had to be crashed through in a matter of weeks – but for the overwhelming majority of titles there will be an optimal time to publish and a carefully worked out schedule to meet that date. Take your deadline seriously.
Ninety-nine out of 100 articles about deadlines quote Douglas Adams:
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
And it turns out this one is no exception. But while I love the quote, the sentiment makes me shudder.