If a publisher runs a really tight ship with professional authors and whip-hand production editors who can keep things on a schedule, than all of the processes required to publish a title may go on simultaneously, chapter by chapter. In the instance of publishers specializing in tribute books to the recently deceased famous folks or last month’s disaster, marketing, design, editing and layout all have to occur at once or they’ll never make their deadline. Of course, these books are usually written, or compiled, by teams of authors and editors, so there’s no question of missing a deadline because somebody has writer’s block. However, this system only works well with real cookie cutter titles, and in practice, it’s tough to keep production on schedule even if an author makes all of their deadlines.
A typical acquisitions editor at a quality trade publisher may be required to acquire anywhere from ten to twenty titles per year. How involved they are with the actual publication process depends on the publisher and the individual, but acquiring titles doesn’t mean flipping through piles of manuscripts, exclaiming, "Oh, I like this one," and sending the author a contract. Acquisitions editors have to answer to ed boards (editorial boards), publishers (the job description "publisher" is top dog at an imprint) and the sales department. The salespeople at trades can have quite an impact on deciding the who, what and when of publishing by expressing strong opinions of whether or not they’ll be able to sell a given title. Even the major buyers, by way of the salespeople, can have an impact on how books get published. If Borders tells the sales rep, "We’ll order the book if you make it smaller," then there’s a good chance the publisher will make it smaller.
Authors are often the weak link in the publishing schedule, because as experienced editors can tell you, some of them never finish the manuscript. Academic publishers are used to delays of years, they don’t make money on retail sales in any case, but for trade publishers who have added a title to their list, missing deadlines is a major expense. In some cases, the acquisitions editor will fire the original author and bring in a pinch hitter, or, if enough material has been submitted, just boil it into something resembling a book. However, authors do have two productivity advantages over publisher employees. First, authors never get invited to meetings, and nothing ever comes of sitting around and talking about work. Second, the majority of authors only write one book at a time, and those who write multiple books at once don’t work on as many as an editor, designer, or marketing person. The more projects a person works on, the more time is eaten up in overhead and task swapping between projects. Efficiency just goes to pot even with spreadsheets and modern collaborative scheduling tools.
Once a completed manuscript reaches the publisher, there are still plenty of ways the author can keep the book from being published on schedule. The acquisitions editor may find the manuscript doesn’t come anywhere close to the book that was proposed and demand a rewrite, or the submission may be lacking permissions or artwork the author was required to provide. Some authors also drag their feet during the review and corrections phases, though publishers try to limit this contractually. Once the manuscript passes muster with the acquisitions editor, the technical editors might reject or rewrite parts of the work, or the lawyers may find it too risky to publish as is. At many larger publishing companies, the manuscript is taken out of the hands of the acquisitions editor and passed to a specialized production editor, who is responsible for coordinating the copy editors, proofreaders, cover artist, book designer and typesetter.
Either by design or due to workload and personnel issues, some publishers will outsource the production job to a contractor. The contractor might be a single individual who does most of the work and subs out any extra pieces, or it could be an all-in-one production facility who charges a fixed rate per page or word count to produce books for trades. Some of the outsourced jobs are total disasters, as the contractor isn’t sufficiently familiar with the subject matter to deal with pictures or graphics properly, or simply doesn’t follow instructions. I even know of one instance where an author working for a major literary nonfiction publisher received the final proof for her book and it turned out to contain production directives added with "Track Changes" which had been set as type! Depending on the publisher, the type and length of the book, and requirements of the marketing people, typical production schedules may last anywhere from two months to six months for books that are produced in stages. Large reference type works and textbooks may drone on for a year or more, with the production work carried out a chapter ar a time.