Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Publishing Time

I was reading an article in The New Yorker awhile back by a foreign correspondent in West Africa who introduced to me the phenomenon of "African time." This consists of a much more relaxed attitude toward scheduling, punctuality, and time in general across many African countries than is traditionally found in the United States.

In case you're curious, there is such a thing as "publishing time," and it's similar in some respects. An editor might sit on an e-mail for two weeks even though it could be answered in five minutes; an assistant might take a week to read a partial even if (s)he could reasonably get to it in an afternoon; a marketing or sales manager might take several days to post materials to an internal website even though it could probably have been done much sooner.

A lot of this is the result of the kind of prioritization and reprioritization that is endemic not only to publishing, but to any major corporate enterprise—some projects just keep getting pushed back. Some of it, however, is due to the nature of the business.

Publishing—at least in general, and at least below the very top echelons of management—is not a fast-paced business, and the sense of urgency and desire for efficiency you might find in the offices of an investment bank or law firm don't generally exist, simply because publishing doesn't generally attract the sorts of people you often find in those fields. Couple that with the overworked staff of smaller publishers and the bureaucratic red tape of the Big Six, and it's no wonder you haven't heard back about that royalty check question you posed a month ago.

Publishing professionals are not inefficient or lazy, but a combination of multitasking/prioritizing and the culture of the industry means that it may take awhile for your e-mails to be returned, your manuscript to be read, your questions to be answered. Be patient, but don't be afraid to send reminders or request something a second time if your initial query is met with a protracted silence. We're not ignoring you, I promise! We're just busy. And a little strange.


  1. (Total side note: the "African time" phenomenon is seen across many, many cultures. In chronemics, it's called "polychronic" time, and is seen in Latin American, Polynesian and Arabic cultures, as opposed to "monochronic" systems in northern Europe and the Americas.)

  2. And that, my friend, is one reason I think Amazon will beat the pants off of the Big 6 once it fully insinuates itself into the publishing game. Amazon is agile and adaptable because its entire game is built on being able to push and respond in near-real-time.

    The cycle may change again in a few years; in fact, it no doubt will. But as long as Amazon is playing on monochronic time in the near term, it'll be the pacesetter. *puts away crystal ball*

  3. Publishing time is not an easy adjustment for someone who's been in the high response/produce industries for years. But I like it better now because it relates to the actual market, readers, who want to savor a good story. Pub Time also relates to writers who need time to create a good story.

    Reading and writing do not relate to high efficiency, so and while Amazon may be the pacesetter for distribution and availability, it does not relate to reading and writing.

  4. The good news about publishing time is that it cuts both ways. I spent most of my working life in a big brand multinational where I had to pounce on every request or be swamped with followups. Slow responses from the publisher worried me (…do they hate the revisions? …are the reviews so bad they’re afraid to tell me about them?). It took me a while to adopt an it-happens-when-it-happens approach to doing business, but now that I have, I’m a much more relaxed writer.

  5. ...and I still ask the question: are there no interns to help these beleaguered agents?

  6. I dig it. I've worked for government and universities, and they certainly have their own, um... gentle? timetables.

  7. This situation seems a bit like doctors' offices. In a normal work environment, secretaries, receptionists, and anyone else who's expected to answer phones and keep customers happy (so they return!) take different breaks and lunches so that there's always at least one person available to help people. Not in a doctor's office. They have the power, since they do not have to worry about keeping their customers happy vs. losing their business. Hence, they can shut down for a couple of hours during the afternoon, or close on Wednesdays, or do whatever they dang well want. It won't hurt them.
    Publishing corporations have long held the power over their groveling little wannabe authors, so they, too, can darn well take their own sweet time and let the peasants deal with it as best they can. This is also why they can plan to space months or years between books in a series and not worry about it, as they have the power.
    I hope Phoenix Sullivan is right.

  8. Sounds a lot like printer time. When I was a graphic designer, time could be squeezed out of every other process (usually resulting in our deadlines tightening) but whatever time the printer quoted seemed always to be sacrosanct. But I know from working with a couple of printers, too, but they move just about as slowly as everybody else. Maybe we should all go on African time.

  9. Publishing doesn't generally attract the sorts of people you often find in those fields — worse still, it attracts writers.

  10. Here in The Gambia, West Africa, we call it GMT. Gambian Maybe Time.

    Which about sums up our experience of much of the publishing industry and why this old culture can and must go.

    It's all very well waiting for a book to be published once everything's been agreed and advances have exchanged hands. We all understand editing and proof-reading take time.

    But that long wait for a "maybe" just isn't acceptable.

    It's the torture of waiting month after month after month just to be told thanks but no thanks, then facing the same hurdle again, that drive competent-but-not-quite-ready writers to rush into e-publishing.

    We've just heard back from an agent who was excited by our proposal and asked for exlusivity at each stage. Four months on they come back with a thanks but no thanks response.

    Unacceptable? Too right. If someone asks for exclusivity the least they could do is respect the writer enough to prioritise.

  11. African time is actually a pretty common phenomenon in Europe, too.

    Not, of course, in the traditionally protestant countries. You will find no laid back loafers sitting under a tree playing their guitar when they should be building your house, in Switzerland or Germany.

    But Greece or Portugal...wonderful! This way of living has its downsides, to be sure, but it also reduces dramatically the number of people with hypertension.

    But...imagine trying to hear back about your query from a Greek publisher...

  12. Waiting is not a strong point w/me - I'm lousy at it hence the self-published road. Someday I want to be laid back, no time, easy going until then off to work on another book to self-publish. Are we done, already?

  13. Once a publishing company decides to publish a manuscript, how long does it generally take to get it into print? About a year? Is it faster for e-books?

  14. A lot of this is the result of the kind of prioritization and reprioritization that is endemic not only to publishing, but to any major corporate enterprise—some projects just keep getting pushed back. Some of it, however, is due to the nature of the business.
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