The final season of Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, but fans of the show and novels are still wondering when George R.R. Martin will finally release the series’ sixth book, The Winds of Winter. The answer? Even if the notoriously slow-paced scribe is already done with his manuscript, it will still be quite some time before readers can get their hands on it.
Unfortunately for devoted readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the reality is that the book publishing world isn’t built to accommodate the equivalent of a surprise album drop or Netflix documentary about Beyoncé. And even though it’s been eight years since Martin released A Dance with Dragons, there’s no real reason for his publisher to hurry up.
The only real urgency lies with the fans. Book purists fret about the 70-year-old Martin dying before finishing his story (“I find that question pretty offensive, frankly, when people start speculating about my death and my health, so fuck you to those people,” the author said in 2014). But Martin has also started feeling the pressure, recently telling Entertainment Weekly, “I better live a long time because I have a lot of work left to do.”
With the final episodes coming, there’s new speculation that he’s finished Winds, based on small hints like his unveiling of a new headshot and a friend saying the writer’s schedule has surprisingly cleared. (Martin’s publishers would not comment about the book or their general plans to Fortune). But if Martin really is done and the manuscript is turned in to his publisher, how quickly would fans be able to get it?
The answer is still months, at least, even if the book is fast-tracked. Here’s a breakdown of why that’s the case.
Manufacturing Books Takes Time
In 2011, Random House produced 650,000 hardcover copies of the 1,016-page A Dance with Dragons for its first run. The Winds of Winter will likely be longer as Martin told The Guardian, it’s “not so much a novel as a dozen novels, each with a different protagonist.” Regardless of the length and size of the print run, which will be much larger given how popular the series is, there are no corners to cut in production. In terms of printing, the presses are never dormant, so they can’t just start making copies of Winds at the drop of a hat. And that’s only part of it.
“Historically, it takes about six months to make a book,” says Mike Shatzkin, a publishing industry veteran and founder/CEO of the Idea Logical Company. “First, a book has to be designed, a cover has to be made. It takes one to two months to get the type set, then you have four to eight weeks of printing and binding. That’s from when the manuscript is ready, and it’s longer if it’s heavily illustrated.”
The Sales and Marketing Calendars Are Already Set (Mostly)
Like Hollywood, the book world plans releases at least several months in advance. Online and physical retailers need to know what’s coming and adjust their sales strategies accordingly, while publishers need time for distribution, marketing, and publicity. Yes, even Thrones needs more media coverage, mostly in author interviews, excerpts, and getting advance reader copies to important people.
“The time between manuscripts and publication not just getting the book made but also having reviewers in place, getting quotes for marketing and reaching retailers,” Shatzkin says. “Barnes and Noble [and other stores are] trying to plan what’s going to be on its new-release table. They can’t put your book in there for next week—it’s already committed. You have to fit their schedule substantially in advance.”
The Preorder Period Is Huge for Sales
These days, no book tops the New York Times Best Sellers list solely by in-store sales—preorders play a massive role. In addition to customer satisfaction, preorders let both the publisher and stores know how well sales are going and whether they need to increase inventory to meet demand in a timely fashion.
“The first-week sale is massively influential. You don’t want to put your Game of Thrones book out where you won’t get a preorder bump,” Shatzkin says. “You could probably put it out in three months without any serious compromise to opportunities in the marketplace, but [faster] than that might be difficult. It wouldn’t give the book the start it’s entitled to.”
Thanks to the Show, There’s No Reason to Rush
Random House announced A Dance with Dragons in March 2011 with a release date in July, just after the show’s first season concluded. It’s what’s known in publishing as a “drop-in,” meaning it was fast-tracked to stores at the expense of the aforementioned sales and marketing efforts.
The difference between Winds and Dance is that the announcement of the latter was made before HBO renewed the show. “They probably wanted to strike while the iron was hot because they didn’t know it was going to look just as good eight years later,” Shatzkin says. The list-topping first-day sales, including preorders, tallied 170,000 hardcovers, 110,000 ebooks and 18,000 audiobooks, a number that would have been far lower if the show got canceled.
And while that season was popular, with just over 3 million people watching its post-Ned-Stark-beheading conclusion, Game of Thrones drew over 16.5 million viewers in its most recent turn back in 2017. Season eight is guaranteed to eclipse that, now that people have had to catch up through DVDs, streaming, password-sharing of HBO Now and piracy. Even after the grand finale, that legion of fans won’t disappear—if anything, the post-show void could lead to greater demand for more Thrones content.
Now, in six weeks, those millions of people will know the onscreen fate of Westeros and all the main characters. Martin’s deviation from the show will still be of interest in a few months—maybe he’ll resurrect Jon Snow in a different way or kill off a beloved character much sooner—so nobody will suffer by waiting for a proper, fleshed-out release schedule.
“There’s a natural rhythm of things that comfortably takes months because there are thousands and thousands of books. Random House is doing 10,000 a year, so that’s 200 a week, 40 a day,” Shatzkin says. “It’s a real pain in the ass to pull a book out of the normal queue and treat it separately when you’re dealing with that many. Sure, the publisher is going to say, ‘We want to do it faster because everybody’s waiting for it,’ but there’s no real upside in putting it too soon and not covering all your bases. It will not benefit from being rushed.”
So, be patient Thrones fans. If you’re lucky, it’ll be 90 days from whenever Martin finally announces The Winds of Winter or, more realistically, half a year. On the bright side, that’ll give you ample time to rewatch the show and reread the other five books—not to mention all the other related novellas and companion guides Martin’s put out—giving you plenty of content to feast upon.