Picture book authors and illustrators! If you are new to the publishing process (or even if you’ve been at it for a little while now), there may be one question on your lips as you navigate this weird and wonderful world: why does publishing a book take so long?
Well, we want to answer this question, and so this post is all about the life cycle of a picture book. Hopefully this timeline will help you manage your own expectations by understanding what’s going on behind the scenes at any given point in the process (because, trust me, there is always a lot going on behind the scenes).
So. A picture book author has written a text. That is excellent!
But, not every text will be picked up by a publisher. This can be for any number of reasons and does not mean the author's writing is bad (you can read more about this here).
When choosing which texts to commission, in the first instance picture book editors will get that feeling in their gut, telling them that a text is special. But, beyond that they will need to back up their instincts by thinking about that text in the context of what books they have scheduled to publish in the coming two-ish years (yes, two-ish years), as well as considering existing picture book themes, trends, possible market shifts, key retailers and co-edition customers (more on that later).
Editors tend to take texts to an acquisitions meeting, where they pitch the idea to a room full of people (at the moment this is a virtual room full of people). They will position the text in the marketplace (as in, talk about which area of the market in which it would sit, and which books it would compete with), talk about possible illustrator pairings and show they understand which retailers would sell the book if it is published.
Sometimes a text is given the green light at this point. Hooray!
Sometimes folks in the acquisitions meeting ask for the text to be developed a bit before it’s commissioned. Depending on the author, this may take one week or a few weeks, at which point it can then be commissioned. Hooray!
Sometimes texts are rejected at this point. Damn it. But every rejection is a learning opportunity. What is the feedback? Why didn’t this idea work for the publisher? It's helpful for authors to consider the reasons, bank that information and use it to develop their craft.
But back to the process. Once a text is commissioned, the editor may spend time developing it further with the author. The editor-author relationship is such an important one, and it can sometimes take time for each side to develop an effective way of working. Trust, openess and a mutual respect lie at the relationship's heart.
Once the text is finalised, the editor will work with a designer to commission an illustrator. As mentioned earlier, they will probably already have an idea about which illustrator they’d like to bring on board, and the editor and designer would've had discussions about that before the acquisition meeting, but a few things need to be factored into the decision:
Illustrator availability. Lots of illustrators are booked up for the next 6-12 months. Some are booked up for a couple of years (or longer).
The illustrator’s opinion. If the illustrator doesn’t connect with the text, or feel it would complement their illustration style, they will decline the opportunity. As an aside, whenever this happens it’s done very politely and with the utmost respect for the author and their work.
The publishing budget. A number of publishing houses will run profit and loss (P&L) spreadsheets (also called "costings") before acquiring anything to ensure it’s financially viable. These spreadsheets factor in every cost related to making a book – including the author and illustrator advance levels. If an author or illustrator costs more than the publisher can afford, they’ll need to look for affordable alternatives.
Ahead of an illustrator starting work, the designer will put the author’s text into “layouts”. These show the story split into spreads (a "spread" is two facing pages), taking into account how the story flows with every page turn, big reveal moments, etc. The designer will suggest general illustration ideas while also leaving the illustrator room to bring their magic.
When the illustrator is able to start work, they will first create their roughs. Roughs are a series of (you’ve guessed it) rough sketches showing what will be where. Depending on how rough the roughs are (!), it’s not always easy to visualise how each spread will look at this point in the proceedings.
The illustrator will often go through a round or two of feedback with the editor and designer, and will chat through/take in changes. The editor will then share the roughs with the author after this extra bit of development is done. This process can take around three months.
Next comes the colour art. So, how long does one spread of colour art take to create? Well, depending on the level of detail, one colour spread could take around three days to create. And your standard picture book has 32 pages.
So when you hear about illustrators creating picture books in six weeks (or even one week in some fall-off-your-chair-in-shock cases) … well, that is very, very hard graft (and hopefully not to be repeated, because it’s not maintainable).
Illustrator schedules for picture books have got shorter in recent years but in an ideal world illustrators would have up to nine months to create the artwork for a 32-page picture book. The reality is often more like up to six months, and that is intense work for an illustrator.
While the illustrator is artworking the book, their designer is always on hand to give them advice, come up with solutions if needed and support them in any way they need. This is usually a highly collaborative process and the illustrator-designer relationship is an extremely important one.
When the artwork comes in, the editor and designer get together, collate feedback and send thoughts back to the illustrator so they can do a round (or two) of colour corrections.
When the corrected colour artwork is in, the editor will share it with the author as well as everyone in-house at the publisher, and everyone will marvel at how brilliant it is. Hooray!
The illustrator will breathe a momentary sigh of relief. Yippee! But then… the cover.
Traditionally, picture book cover ideas come once the final artwork is in. Getting the cover right is vital. VITAL! I don’t know why people say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Judge the book by its cover – that’s what the cover is for!
But creating the cover can drive some illustrators to the edge, because editors and designers (and the senior management team behind them) can get really nit-picky at this stage. Why? Because we all want your book to be a success! We’re not just thinking about what will work for your book, we’re also thinking about:
What hasn’t worked in the past.
What books are already out there.
Every conversation we’ve had with retailers in recent months.
How the children's book market is constantly changing (especially right now).
So, we have the whole book. It’s ready! The author, illustrator and everyone at the publishing house – they’re all so happy with it. Which means it’s time to publish – right now – yes?
LOL, no. You can’t just publish a book immediately like that! What about selling-in to retailers? What about selling-in to co-edition customers? This stuff takes time!
So. Picture books are taken to book fairs and pitched by the Rights team to co-edition customers (that is, foreign publishers). This needs to be done early enough to allow the customers to join the first print run, so that publishers can take advantage of larger print numbers and lower unit costs (you can find more on this here).
A book publishing January-June 2022 will be presented at Bologna and London book fairs in 2021. A book publishing July-December 2022 will be presented at Frankfurt book fair in 2021.
The more material there is to sell from, the more likely it is that the Rights team will garner interest. This is why books ideally need to be fully formed when they are taken to a book fair.
It’s worth mentioning that it used to be standard for the Rights team to sell from “blads”, which look like a finished picture book but they’re stapled instead of bound. Since the pandemic, they’ve been sharing material electronically instead, and the good news is that this is working really, really well.
So, all of this happens around one year ahead of publication.
At around nine months ahead of publication, editors and designers will receive flat proofs for the book. These are flat pages that are relatively colour accurate so give a good representation of how the colour will look. Under normal circumstances, authors and illustrators will also receive flat proofs, but during the pandemic, this has proven challenging (read: a logistical nightmare).
Around eight months ahead of publication, your book data, including the book cover, will feed out to retailer websites.
Between seven to eight months ahead of publication, your editor and designer will be working with the Production team, going back and forth to iron out any perceived printing issues while also correcting minor mistakes (such as the inevitable typos).
Around six months ahead of publication, the Sales team will pitch your book to UK retailers. Again, it is essential that as much material as possible is available for them to sell from, and at this point everything should be near-final.
Given that picture books are usually printed in East Asia, at around four to five months ahead of publication your book will finish printing. Advance copies (that is, the first few copies hot off the printing press) will be sent to your editor for approval.
Once the advances are approved, the bulk stock sets sail, making its way across the world in a UK-bound ship. Publishers tend to allow up to two to three months for delivery from East Asia, and books need to be in the warehouse around one month before publication to allow warehouse staff enough time to fulfil every retailer’s order.
Around three months ahead of publication, the PR team will start putting together a plan for social media assets, support a cover reveal moment, line up events for you (if you want them), put together activity sheets and/or teaching packs for schools.
One month ahead of publication, the editorial team will send you your advance copies of the book and order your contractual copies from the warehouse.
Then comes… publication day! Thanks to everyone’s hard work, your picture book will be released into the big, wide world. After going through an often rigorous and controlled publishing process, this is the part that is pretty much out of everyone’s control (!). But all of your efforts, and the efforts of everyone behind the scenes, will give your book the best possible chance of success.
And there you have it. Perhaps not the simple process you might imagine when you’re new to the industry? Hopefully this helps explain why things can often take more time than we expect them to – because everyone working in a publishing house is working on more than one book at a time, and every book is at a different stage in its timeline but still going through this publishing process (roughly speaking).
Phew, it's enough to make anyone need a lie-down...