Every now and again I get an email from a reader who asks why it takes so long for a book to be published after it's written. Some ask why authors don't speed things up by publishing their books themselves.
Let me start with what publishers do.
The first thing the publisher does is edit the manuscript. There are generally two steps involved here. Not necessarily in this order: One, a copy editor goes through the manuscript checking spelling, punctuation, marking special characters for the typesetter, and other mundane details. Two, an editor reads the manuscript more critically, deleting redundancies, straightening out convoluted sentences so they make sense to the reader, changing inappropriate word choices, and sometimes recommending rewriting or additonal text to clarify matters - among other things. Finally, the editor gives the art director information about the novel. (I'll be mentioning the editor frequently as this is the person responsible for ushering the book through all its steps from received manuscript to finished book.)
With the editor's information, the art director decides what the cover illustration should be and assigns an artist to do the cover. The artist's conception may have to go through several revisions before it's finally accepted. And, somewhere in there, the author may be asked for suggestions and/or approval of the illustration. In addition, in the case of a series, a uniform logo and design have to be created for the series.
Concurrently, someone else writes the cover text, though sometimes the author writes it as Dan Cragg did on a couple of the Starfist novels.
Once the cover illustration and text are finished, the art department combines them into the final cover design and sends it to a printer to print out however many thousands of copies, some of which have specially prepared text on their backs for use by the publisher's sales force.
Now back to the manuscript itself. Once the manuscript been marked up by the editor and copy editor, and possibly gone over again by the author, it goes to the typesetter and galleys, or "page proofs," are printed. Copies of the galleys are distributed to the editor, the copy editor, and the author to read for corrections (typesetters make typoes just as anybody else does, or perhaps the editor or author sees something in the typeset manuscript they didn't notice in the manuscript and make changes). Then the various corrections go back to the typesetter to be fixed. Finally, it is sent to the printer. Not just any print shop, mind you, but an industrial-strength printer. For example, the Starfist paperbacks have a first printing of about 50,000 copies. You're not going to get that from the local print shop that did your wedding invitations.
Then the printed pages and the covers go to the binders to be assembled into books, which are warehoused until they are shipped to distributers or bookstores. In some cases, "bound galleys" are sent out to reviewers several months prior to publication so that reviews can be published in newspapers and magazines either before or concurrent with publication (if you checked the description of Lazarus Rising in the Starfist pages, you may have noticed quotes from two reviews that appeared a month and a half or more before the book's release. Those weren't the only reviews I saw before I ever saw a copy of the book.
And I haven't yet said anything about what the marketing / sales department does. Marketing decides what kind of advertising to do, how much, and where to do it. Whatever advertising there is has to be designed and produced and sent out to wherever it's going. Sales contacts bookstore buyers and convinces them to stock the book.
This is brief, I'm sure I left out quite a few steps between the manuscript and the book on the shelf. It generally takes anywhere from ten months to two years for a publisher to go through all of those steps, with approximately one year being the norm. Could it be done faster? Sure, if that was the only book the publisher was working on. But it's not.
As for why the author doesn't publish his books himself, he'd have to do all of that himself. Yes, even the copy editing. An author really needs someone else to go over the manuscript, because someone else will see things the author doesn't. I have been rather abashed from time to time when someone pointed out a goof I hadn't noticed in one of my manuscripts. Everything the publisher does costs money, money the author would have to spend out of his own pocket if he published his books himself. And everyone of those steps takes time, time the author would otherwise spend writing more novels.
But the really big reason authors don't publish their own books is bookstores.
You can go into any well-stocked bookstore anywhere in the country and find some or all of the Starfist and DemonTech books on the shelves. I live in Philadelphia and could probably talk a few local bookstores into stocking my books. But how would I get them into stores all around the country?
So now you know.
(3/18/2009. An example of the need for copy editing; I just reread this piece and spotted a few typoes, which I corrected. Someone else probably would have caught them before I posted this essay.)