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How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

If you're thinking about writing a non-fiction book (or perhaps are already doing so) you may be wondering: how long will this take? My answer is: twice as long as you think, although shorter in some places. I know this is not a very satisfying answer, so let me add some of that beloved quantitativeness to it.

I divide the book creation process into three parts (although sometimes they repeat themselves).

Part I is development. During this period, you figure out what the book will be. The content: what will be in the book. The structure, chapter by chapter. The main messages: the book boiled down to a sentence. The audience: who might read this? People keep telling me that development can be done in a few days, but that's not my experience. It usually takes about three months. (Including time off for real work and overseas travel.) The culmination of the development period is the book proposal, a document that can be as short as a few pages and as long as a hundred.

Now comes one of the shorter parts, the tail end of development: taking the proposal out to publishers. If you're working with an agent, the proposal typically goes out, by email, all at once, to a number of publishers (as few as five and as many as twenty). If the publisher decides to "pass" they may or may not respond. If they're interested, they may respond the following day, sometimes over the weekend, and usually within a week. I have never seen the process take more than two weeks.

Part II is the writing. Like the accumulation period, the writing time varies rather dramatically from two decades of fits and starts, to five months of solid writing, to a string of Sundays. The publisher will usually set a deadline for delivery of a manuscript and it is quite often a year or so from agreement. It's helpful to have a deadline, because it motivates you, especially when it creeps nearer and nearer. If you meet it, all is well. If you don't, sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn't. Contractually, the publisher may not be bound to publish your book. More typically, they are no longer bound to publish it within any given time period.

Part III is the publishing. This is one of the parts that the author thinks is too long between six months and a year from the time you submit the manuscript to the time books are available for purchase, online, or in a store. (E-only books don't take as much time, of course.) Here is what authors usually ask me: What in God's name is happening in all that time?

The answer: the publisher is designing the book, editing it, typesetting it, printing it, binding it, putting it on trucks and driving it to warehouses. Having produced privately-published books, through book packagers, I can assure you that, like any manufactured product, it takes time to build a book, if you want to create something that does not follow a standard template and if you care about the quality and the details.

Also, during this period, the publisher's salesforce is learning about the book, understanding it, and visiting accounts to try to sell it. The publisher's marketing team is working to get attention for the book in all of the various content venues. The standard author's complaint is that the publisher doesn't do "much" or "anything" to support a book, and it may well be true sometimes, but the fact of the matter is that, unless you are a superstar, you are the one who must put heart and soul into bringing the book to the world advocating for it, finding audiences for it, interpreting it, engaging people about it.

Which brings me to the post-publishing period which, like accumulation, can be distressingly short, if the book really doesn't find an audience, or delightfully long decades, even centuries if it does.

Now, let us add it up. Development: three months. Selling: two weeks. Writing: one year. Publishing: nine months. Total: Two years and two weeks. Add in the accumulation and post-publishing periods, and the creation of a single book could last you a lifetime.

So: do not enter the process lightly.


The last sentence says it all

It is a touchstone for me, and I often remind clients of it.


This is a nice post in an interesting line of content.Thanks for sharing this article, great way of bring such topic to discussion.

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About Idea Platforms

Idea Platforms, Inc. collaborates with individuals and organizations to develop and structure idea-driven content, create various forms of expression (including books and visual media), and help build self-reinforcing platforms that extend and enrich content across many channels and venues and over extended periods of time.

Highlighted Works

Overlay Books

The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong In a World Where Things Go Wrong

The Idea Platforms team collaborated with author Dr. Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, to develop the proposal for this book on social resilience, place it with publisher PublicAffairs, conduct interviews and field research—in Colombia, Kenya, India, and the United States—draft and edit text, and help build and support a platform for Dr. Rodin and her ideas. The book is a "revealing examination of the anatomy of resilience" according to the Kirkus starred review. Endorsers include President Bill Clinton, Arianna Huffington, Michael Bloomberg. (PublicAffairs, 2014. 384 pages.)

Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things

IPI worked closely with author David Rose, serial entrepreneur and MIT Media Lab lecturer, to develop this book that presents an alternate vision of the future of technology, one of technology-infused but humanistic objects rather than more screens and apps. The New York Times writes of the book: "Delightful... In the scrum of talking heads wrestling to gain control of the narrative behind the Internet of Things, Mr. Rose is an engaging, plain-spoken guide." (Scribner, 2014. 320 pages.)

Trading Up: The New American Luxury

The IPI team partnered with co-authors Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske of The Boston Consulting Group to create this definitive work on consumerism and support the book in multiple media. It won the Berry-AMA Book Prize for 2003 and was a BusinessWeek bestseller. David Brooks writes: "Trading Up is far more than a dissection of a single consumer trend. It is packed with insights on how shoppers think and behave. I found it incredibly smart and illuminating." (Portfolio/Penguin, 2003. 316 pages.)

John Butman, founder and principal of Idea Platforms, has been involved in the development of ideas and the creation of expressions with a wide range of partners and collaborators, including influential organizations and institutions such as The Boston Consulting Group, NASA, The National Park Service, and The Rockefeller Foundation; influential companies including American Express, IBM, and GE; educational institutions including Brandeis, Harvard, Tufts, and the University of Massachusetts; as well as rising individual stars including entrepreneur and technologist David Rose, psychiatrist John Sharp, and executive Vineet Nayar. John has worked closely with clients in Africa, China, Europe, India, and throughout the United States. He is the author of six books, including Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) and is a frequent speaker for clients including American Express, The Chautauqua Institute, Google, and many others. His work has been featured in major publications throughout the world, including The Atlantic, BigThink, The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, Hindustani Times, Huffington Post, The Independent, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time. His titles include bestsellers in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Boston Globe. His media work has been featured or awarded honors at festivals and competitions around the world, including The American Film Festival, The Athens International Film Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival. According to Jeanie Duck, formerly of The Boston Consulting Group and author of The Change Monster, John is a "dream come true as editor and collaborator."