Sherwood Smith is the co-author of Stranger and its sequel, the now self-published Hostage, neither of which I have read. I discovered her writing a guest-post on Charlie Stross’s blog. She (Sherwood) gives a revealing insight into the contemporary publishing model—at least in their experience—where the focus is on books as products, rather than literary pieces.

Their first book in the series was published via the traditional model, something they sought not to replicate because primarily the time factor:

But, as publishing often does these days, that process took three years from the time she expressed interest in the project (September 2011) to publication (November 2014). From Viking’s end, it was 2.5 years, i.e. from the time we signed their contract, in March 2012. But from the writer’s perspective? That wonderful “I’m interested” call came after the long period of submission, and then was followed by half a year of contract negotiation.

What the next step looks like from the writer’s end is that, once the offer is made, the writer gets notes that take a few weeks to rewrite or polish or proofread the manuscript before turning it back in to the publisher. Then they wait, and wait, and wait, until the next stage, and then wait again. From what we have been hearing from other writers is that the gaps between getting editorial feedback at each stage of the process may be anywhere from a few months to nine months to over a year—or longer. In those cases, the book’s release may be delayed, then delayed again.

Why the delays? My understanding is that publishing houses have changed a lot in the past forty years, partly because they’ve been scooped up by mega-corporations who regard books as product units, meant to gain instant profit or be dropped. And at minimal cost at their end, which means no more editorial staffs: editors are doing what used to be three and sometimes four people’s full time jobs, which means reading actual manuscripts on their own time. Rather like teachers, who correct and lesson plan on their own time. As I know from my own experience, they are paid for their classroom time, but they put in at least as much unpaid time behind the scenes.

As a result, manuscripts languish unread, or bought but unedited, for years, because one human being can only do so much in a day.

It’s an interesting case study, as you more hear about writers self-publishing their first book, then getting discovered, and entering the more traditional model. Pricing issues aside, which she describes in her blog-post, I think the most telling reason of why it’s easy to make the shift, is that authors are expected to generate their own publicity, something that publishers seem less willing to do. Publicity is already half the battle towards getting name recognition, the production of books, electronically or physically, is notably easier. Take that with the two possibilities of writing a book on your own time/money or funding more complex projects via Kickstarter and other sites, and the role of the traditional publisher is by and large diminished.