How long does it take to write a book?


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Wondering how long it takes to write a non-fiction book? I have been involved in the development of over two dozen books, including New York Times, Boston Globe, and BusinessWeek bestsellers. This presentation explains how the writing and publishing process typically unfolds.

To learn more about writing non-fiction books, getting your ideas to stand out in the massive ideaplex, and reaching a global audience by building a sustainable idea platform, be sure to visit and watch for my forthcoming book, "Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas" (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2013).

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How long does it take to write a book?

  1. 1. How Long Does It Actually Taketo Write a Book? John Butman Author of Breaking Out:How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas
  2. 2. The short answer(s)…About twice as long as you think or 2 years, 2 weeks
  3. 3. The longer answer…There are three main phases when you write a book: 1) Developing the book proposal 2) Writing the manuscript 3) Publishing
  4. 4. Assumptions1) You have an agent2) You want to publish through traditional channels3) You have already accumulated a treasure trove of content4) You’re developing a non-fiction bookCaveat: Each phase can repeat itself, extending thetimeline.
  5. 5. So, what happens during each phase?
  6. 6. Phase I. Proposal Development End Goal:The creation and sale of the book proposal Total estimated time: 3 ½ months
  7. 7. Phase I. Proposal Development Part I. Develop the idea and write the proposal Estimated time: 3 monthsThis is when you decide…• The main message. What is your book’s idea in one sentence?• The content. Of all the material you’ve accumulated, what research, stories, data, and examples will be in the book?• The structure. How should your content and argument unfold, chapter by chapter?• The audience. Who is likely to read the book? Who do you want to impact?• The need. Why does your book need to be written? What burning problem does it address? And why are you the right person to write it?
  8. 8. Phase I. Proposal Development Part I. Develop the idea and write the proposal Estimated time: 3 monthsA proposal contains the following sections:• Overview. An engaging synopsis of your book.• Chapter Summaries. Detailed descriptions of what each chapter will cover.• About the Author. Short biography that details your authority on the subject matter.• Marketing. What will you do to support the book?• Market Analysis. What books are also in the topic area? How will this be different? Why is there a market need for your book?
  9. 9. Phase I. Proposal Development Part I. Develop the idea and write the proposal Estimated time: 3 monthsAgent Review. Once you’ve written the proposal, your agent will read itand suggest edits. You will then:• Respond to the agent’s feedback• Iterate with the agent until you have a polished proposal that’s ready to go out to publishers.If the proposal doesn’t meet your agent’s requirements, or is not whatshe expected, you’ll have to repeat Part I of the proposal developmentphase.
  10. 10. Phase I. Proposal Development Part II. Selling the proposal Estimated time: 2 weeksAgent Sends Out The Proposal. The agent typically sends the proposal byemail to a number of publishers (as few as five and as many as twenty) allat once.The Editors Decide • If publishers decide to "pass," they may or may not respond. • If theyre interested, they may respond the following day, and usually within a week or two.
  11. 11. Phase II. Writing the manuscript End GoalA full-length manuscript that matches the publisher specifications and expresses your idea Time estimated by publisher: Typically, 1 year Actual time: 6 months to one lifetime
  12. 12. Phase II. Writing the manuscript Estimated time: 1 yearThis phase can vary dramatically in length, from severalmonths of solid writing to decades of fits and starts, andanywhere in between.The publisher’s deadline. The manuscript is usually due ayear or so from the signing of the contract. • If you meet the deadline, all is well. • If you dont: sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesnt. The publisher may no longer be bound to publish your book, or to publish it within the agreed-upon time frame.
  13. 13. Phase III. Publishing End Goal:The creation and sale of a well crafted print book Estimated time: 6 months to 1 year
  14. 14. Phase III. Publishing Estimated time: 6 months to 1 yearDuring this time, the publisher is hard at work producing the book. They are: • Editing the manuscript • Designing the jacket and interior layouts • Typesetting the text • Proofreading pages • Printing and binding the physical book • Distributing it to booksellers
  15. 15. Phase III. Publishing Estimated time: 6 months to 1 year Meanwhile, the publisher is also selling and marketing the book• The sales force is learning about the book and visiting accounts to try to sell it.• The marketing team is working to get attention for the book in all of the various content venues.
  16. 16. Phase III. Publishing Estimated time: 6 months to 1 yearBUT…unless you are a superstar, you are the one who must put yourheart and soul into bringing the book to the world —advocating for it, finding audiences for it, interpreting it, andengaging people about it.You must create an idea platform to support the book beyond publication.
  17. 17. Now, let’s add it up…Proposal Development 3 months + Sale 2 weeks + Manuscript Writing 1 year + Publishing 9 months (average) Total 2 years, 2 weeks
  18. 18. Wait, wait! The ExtrasBut what about the accumulation phase before you even start writing? Or the time it takes to build an idea platform?
  19. 19. The creation of a single book could take you a lifetime.
  20. 20. John Butman Idea Platforms, Inc.,is the principal of the content-development firm,and the author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in aWorld of Competing Ideas (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2013). If you want to learn more, please visit, or comment on Twitter: @JohnButman or his blog: