The ominous delivery date and what happens when you don’t make it

Most writers know that as a part of the book publishing negotiations, a delivery date is established in the publishing contract.  I usually leave this date entirely up to my clients, telling them that they should take a realistic amount of time to complete their manuscripts.

Most opt for a year or twelve months from their receipt of the publisher’s on-signing money.  Sometimes they will go for less, especially if the subject matter is a timely one or if there is a competitive book in the works.

And then there are those who take well over a year to complete their book and then wonder why they have to wait yet another year before it is published.  (This of course is the way traditional publishing works – a general rule is that there is a 12-months lag between manuscript acceptance and book publication).

But what happens when the author is late?  I thought about this when I ran across this piece which appeared in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

Usually the first thing that happens when  authors tell me they are going to be late with their manuscript is that I go to the publisher and with the author’s agreement establish a new delivery date.  “Extensions” as they are called are not at all unusual, but the publisher is generally not willing to grant more than one or two at most.  After these are exhausted, more often than not, the publisher will cancel the contract if the manuscript has not been delivered, and as a result, the author has to pay back all of the monies he or she has previously received.

Sometimes though, as in the piece above, the publisher tolerates an author being late, hoping that when the manuscript is finally delivered, it is so good that it is well worth the wait.  I actually have a project which is currently about seven years late, so late, in fact, that the acquiring editor left the company for a new career for a number of years and then decided he really wanted to be an editor so he returned to the same house to find that the manuscript was still not delivered.  This is one of those cases where the hope is that the final result will improve with age.

My own feeling about late deliveries is that they are unfortunate but often unavoidable.  The most important thing is that the author do everything he or she can to effect the ultimate delivery of a solid manuscript which the publisher will be happy to publish – even if it is seven or ten or fifteen years late.

I wonder what you think about the question of the timeliness of manuscript deliveries?  Should the author be allowed an unlimited number of extensions?  Should they be penalized for being late, even once?  Or is a good book worth the wait?

13 Responses to The ominous delivery date and what happens when you don’t make it

  1. Jenny says:

    I don’t think it’s an accident that the examples cited in the WSJ article are all biographies. While, sure, a lot of writers fall into the funk of writer’s block, biographies demand a great deal of research. Lots of interviews, picking through primary resources (when those can even be found), and then the writing itself. While ten years to finish a volume might not be out of the question if travel and translation of primary sources are involved (like research on a historic figure like Ghenghis Khan or something), thirty years strikes me as excessive.

  2. I’m glad for the possibility of extensions because, hey, life is unpredictable, and sometimes things get in the way and delay the completion of a project. A penalty for a first offense, especially if there has been communication, seems a bit strict. Of course, multiple delays, or failure to deliver without prior communication, are really unprofessional. Any other job would be in jeopardy from that type of thing, and writing maybe shouldn’t be any different.

    As a reader, I don’t mind waiting most of the time, but fanbases can grow tired and cranky if a book is delayed over and over again (see: George R.R. Martin and A DANCE WITH DRAGONS). Writers definitely have to consider how their audience perceives delays, not just their publishers.

  3. Julie Nilson says:

    If a writer has a full *year* to get a manuscript finished and doesn’t get it done on time, I ‘m betting that there was a lot of procrastination going on. Either that, or the writer spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. (This may not apply to books requiring a lot of research, when the writer may be subject to other people’s schedules.)

    In extreme situations, such as a death in the family or serious illness, then of course the writer should get an extension. But most of the time, the writer just needs to put his or her butt in the chair and get the writing done by the agreed-upon deadline.

    • Julie Nilson says:

      I should add that I come from a corporate writing and journalism background, where deadlines are king. You don’t deliver, you don’t get published–or sometimes paid. I’ve spent many a late night pounding out words to make sure I finish on time, so I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who blow off deadlines without a really good excuse.

  4. Way back when, I sold my first book because someone else didn’t turn theirs in on time. This was for a romance line at St. Martin’s Press.

    So. Meet your deadlines or someone else will.

  5. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Seems to me, if you’re a writer, you should be able to…well…WRITE. That means, get it down on paper, read it over, correct it, and mark it “finished”. If not…maybe you’re not a writer, but just a dilettante.

    I had to smile about the long biography on Crosby, and even the one on Lyndon Johnson. Winston Churchill was able to write and publish his six volume history of the Second World War in less than ten years. But then, HE was a WRITER.

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