On Deadlines

The reality of book deadlines — at least the way I’ve learned it.

Miraz confessed to me today that she was a bit anxious about getting our WordPress book done by its deadline. According to the project site she maintains for the book, we have only 18 days left.

I replied via e-mail with my take on deadlines. Here’s a slightly expanded version.

Every book I’ve worked on seems to have at least two or three deadlines:

The Contract Deadline

The contract deadline is the one that’s in the contract. It isn’t necessarily real and is often ignored.

Why? Well that deadline was cooked up to fill a placeholder in the contract template. It may or may not reflect a deadline that is possible.

For example, suppose I signed a contract today for my next Mac OS X book. When will that book be due? No one even knows when the software will be available to write about. Or when the software will be released. So how can someone put a realistic deadline in a contract? They can’t. But they have to put a date in the contract. It’s required. So they guess at a date and put that in. I sign it because I know it isn’t necessarily real and will likely be ignored.

The Editorial Deadline

The editorial deadline is when your editor expects to get the book. It’s based real-life things, like when the software will be available to write about it and how quickly (or slowly) you write.

Although this deadline is often after the deadline in the contract, sometimes it’s sooner. That’s the way it was for my Tiger book.

Sometimes there are multiple deadlines. That’s the deal when I work on my Quicken for Windows book. My editor actually has a spreadsheet that lists all the chapters and they dates they’re due. Sometimes they’re only a day or two apart. I used to follow those deadlines carefully. Now I just churn away at the revision and submit chapters as I finish them. Some come in early, others don’t. But it all gets done on time.

Does your editor tell you this deadline’s date? Sometimes. It depend on the editor.

The Drop-Dead Deadline

The drop dead deadline is the real date the book needs to be done. That date is often tied in with some third party event.

For example, my Peachpit books all have drop-dead deadlines based on printer schedules. Here’s how it works. I work on a book and my editors (editorial and production) get a feel for when the book will be ready to go to the printer. They schedule a printing date. The printer expects to get the files that make up the book by that date. If Peachpit and I miss that date, we’ll miss our printing slot and will have to wait for the next slot. I have a feeling that there’s a financial penalty involved with missing a drop-dead deadline, but fortunately, I’ve never been asked to cough up money.

Does your editor tell you this deadline’s date? Of course not! The book has to be done before that.

The Sad Truth

The sad truth is that most editors don’t expect their authors to meet deadlines because so few do.

I remember my third book (which was my second solo book). I finished the book the day it was due (per the contract) and actually hired a courier to deliver the manuscript to my editor in New York. (I lived in New Jersey at the time.) This was in the days before manuscripts were submitted electronically via e-mail or FTP. Back when they actually expected me to print out two double-spaced copies of the document and I’d send it in a manuscript box. Anyway, my editor was completely shocked to get the manuscript on time.

I, of course, was proud of myself for writing 300 pages in 10 days.

The moral of this story? Don’t sweat the contract deadline and get it done within a reasonable time.

What do you think?