Here’s a checklist to help you create a project timeline for your self-published book or ebook, and understand how long to allocate for each stage of the process.
There are two philosophies about when to release your book. One dictates that you should pre-determine a particular event or time of year with which to coincide the release of the book for best effect. This means picking a release date well in advance, and then counting backwards on your calendar in order to determine when you need to have certain milestones completed.
The second philosophy suggests that if your book is “timeless”, you can simply release the book on your own self-determined timeline, and take a more long-term, big-picture approach, because you’re in this for the long haul.
I suggest a compromise between the two: rather than just working along as in the second philosophy, pick a date that is practical for you to achieve, because otherwise, the book won’t ever happen. After all, every book project is for the long haul. Then follow this checklist to get the book ready in time. Rushing it rarely offers a concrete advantage, but dawdling doesn’t make you any money, either.
For a print book, the timeline must include printing, which frighteningly, relies heavily on someone other than you and your core team: Your Printer. Your printer will be your best friend on this project, so be certain that you call them as early in the project as possible (see #3 below for the best time to call them) and see what their press schedule is like. Press time can be booked over a year in advance for some large companies, but for small jobs, many companies adopt a “we’ll fit you in” sort of attitude. The print timeline is also determined by the style of book you choose, including options like hardcover vs. perfect-bound, paper choices, and so on. Your printer should prepare a clearly laid out quote with all of these options and discuss them with you in detail.
I love my printer so much that I feel I should tell you about Friesens, based in Manitoba, Canada. They have grown to become one of the largest book printers in North America, (the world?) and frequently print for the big publishing houses and many other American companies as well as their native Canadian market. My rep is an amazing guy named Gerhard Aichelberger, on Vancouver Island. (Reps are determined by where you live.) He’d love to talk to you about your print needs, and no, I’m not being compensated in any way for saying that. He’s just an extraordinarily nice guy who has repeatedly bent over backwards to make my Authors happy. All of the Friesens reps are great, and the company is made up of people that are more like a huge family than employees. There is no style of book that they cannot print, stock, and ship, and their quality controls are ISO certified.
Here are the basic timeline elements, with a sample time frame below in [brackets], based on an imaginary project where; there is only one Author, the subject is one with which they are already familiar, there is a marginal amount of additional research to be done, a simple design will be chosen, the book will be simultaneously paper and ebook published, and the Author intends to perform a combination of self-marketing and traditional print book marketing through retail channels.
1. Market Research
The most important thing in the entire project. This might take minutes, or it might take months. Don’t over-do it, but you should have a clear idea as to the size and viability of the market, how they are currently receiving information in this topic area (ebook vs. book, styles of either…) and what niches are still available for you in the market. Be sure to include keyword research in this section, and purchasing of appropriate domain names. (See my earlier post for choosing a domain name, which tightly steers your book titling process.) Secure your social media outlets, like your Twitter account and YouTube channel, along with your Facebook fan page. Brainstorm about more stuff like this day and night.
[2 weeks, including time to bounce the idea off a few people in your network. Future posts will tell you a bit about how I do this with my clients.]
This feels like a grade school nightmare, but it is essential. Don’t skip it. It is almost as important as #1, because this is how you will know how many pages your book will be, how you can modularize it, how you will format/design it, what associated products you will create, how large a team you will need to help you, how much research help you will need, and much more. I can often complete an outline in a day-long marathon session, with the Author’s core team involved if necessary. This is also the time to secure things like your ISBN number, your UPC code, and so on. Get the technical and legal crap out of the way so you can get to the fun stuff. Set up your initial website, and start blogging. Make a video for YouTube – you’ll make more specific ones later, but start to build your audience.
[3 days, including adjustments to the marathon plan.]
This is the stage where you determine how long your book / ebook will be , how it will be printed (if at all), how it will be graphically designed (work with the designer to get a quote at this stage), how it will be marketed, how it will be sold (that is, the technical or real-world logistics), and many other items. Now that you know how long it’s going to be, you can calculate how many pages it will take up, based on a calculation involving page size, number of words designated or estimated per section, and how many words / illustrations / diagrams fit on the chosen page size. This means that you can now get a quote from your printer, and book your press time well in advance.
[1 day to 2 weeks, including a small amount of additional sales research. Our sample will be 2 weeks.]
4. Initial Content Development
Here’s where you start actually writing. Most clients who work through my process are extremely frustrated by the fact that they don’t get to start writing until now. My answer is: do you want to write, or do you want to make money?
[Time varies widely based on the working speed of the Author. Some people can write an entire book in a long weekend - I once wrote a 30-page ebook overnight, but I don't recommend that! For some, it can take months, but let's hope for something in-between. For our sample project, let's call it 6 weeks.]
5. Editorial Stage
There’s a lot of back-and-forth at this stage. Do not let this frustrate you. Your Editor’s job is to preserve your voice, but to make the data as saleable as possible. They should remain objective and be representative of your designated market. Usually, the book will be shorter when you get it back from your Editor, and you may have up to about 6 revisions on some areas, though more than 3 is not typically efficient. Do not indulge in dangerous emotional attachment to your content – it is only a product.
[7-10 days is often enough for a medium-length book that is essentially well-written to start with.]
Once the content has been completely, 1000% revised, there are no more changes or spelling errors, no bits that you forgot, and your diagrams or tables have been laid out for the designer to re-create, you hand the manuscript over to your typesetter/designer. See other posts for tips for working with designers, but just be sure that there are no more changes to the content before you hand it to them, as changes after the design has started can be costly both in terms of money and lost time. Be sure to include time to design an appropriate website, hopefully in tune with your book’s design, to create wholistic and congruent communication with your reader base.
[1 to 3 weeks and up, depending on the length of the book and how clear you were in stage 3 with your design choices. Our example project will be 2 weeks.]
Tip: If you feel qualified to perform your own typesetting and design, it is often a good idea to actually write the book in the design template. Adobe InDesign and InCopy is especially good for this, but I have also successfully used open-source applications like OpenOffice.org. Writing in the design template allows you to see how words flow, gives insight into subtle things like aligning style and content, allows you to create flyouts and featured content more easily, and may help you spot trouble before you’ve gone too far.
Some might say that this stage is not really worthy of a numbered point by itself, except that if there are any problems with the file that is uploaded to your printer, it can mess up a lot of other time frames. Ideally, this should be an invisible part of the process that takes minutes, but I’m adding this in as part of my “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” philosophy.
[Ideally, minutes. Possibly, a couple of days to figure it out and correct the problem. Keep in good contact with your printer during this time to ensure that you don't lose your press booking and that they are still on schedule. Our example project will not include any time for this.]
The day you send the book to the printer, you will not sleep that night, and will instead spend the night staring at the ceiling, wondering what you forgot, misspelled, left out, etc. I advise you to have a glass of wine or go to a movie and just try to get through it.
But remember, this is *not* the time to sit on your hands! If you have an ebook that was created at the same time as your print book, get that sucker out there are start hawking it – hard. Call the book distributors and retailers that you’ve been talking up and give them an update. Plan events. Create downloads for your website. Blog till your fingers bleed. Start doing interviews. Tweet like a songbird. Just keep building the momentum until it comes back from the printer and lands on your doorstep.
[2-3 weeks including freight, but this depends heavily on your printer's press schedule. The earlier you book, the less time you need to budget. Our example project will be 3 weeks.]
9. Safety Margin
It’s rare, but print errors happen. Freight gets lost, snowstorms tie up deliveries, and sometimes people just catch the flu. This time is your margin for error that ensures if you have promised delivery of the books to someone, you can deliver them early and look like a genius, or you have time to fix the mistake / wait for the snow to melt. Planning this time into your calendar at the outset will reduce a lot of stress, but if you end up with the books without delay, consider it bonus marketing time. Send out more review copies, get more last-minute interviews, do a few more talks or lectures, and just work it baby, work it.
[2 weeks in summer, 3 weeks if in winter, not because of weather, but because if you are printing at a busy time of year, you will need more time to get back on track. Our example project will be 2 weeks.]
10. Book Release Date
This date is not the end of your book journey, but the beginning. A well-designed book should have an active life span of 2-5 years, and perhaps a great deal more for an ebook, as it is a living document and can be revised to a new version any time, replacing the previous version on your website. You now have a full-time job of being an Author, and should continue to perform all of the marketing activities that you’ve been ramping up before this time, adjusting for market fluctuations and actively marketing your personal services alongside the book.
All of these time blocks, including the Safety Margin add up to: 19 weeks, or about 5 months. That sounds like a lot of time, and it is. I’ve seen Authors who work solo do it in less than 3 weeks plus press time, and it is of course possible to produce an elemental ebook overnight. 2-3 months is still practical for a paper book all in, assuming that there are no problems, and that the Author is decisive and well-prepared.
It’s up to you to process each of these stages and design a timeline of your own, but just be sure that you give yourself enough time to include proper market research up front, and a margin for error. The market research will guide you for the length of the project and steer every decision from content to design to printing to marketing. It’s first on the list because it is most important.
This was a long article, but I hope it’s encouraged you to think of your project in terms of the big picture – the picture where you are a successful, independent, and slightly wacky Self-Published Author.