A standard publishing agreement stipulates that the publisher has somewhere between 12 and 24 months to release the book after the publisher has accepted the manuscript, with 18 months being typical.
Aside from the obvious fact that authors wish to see their book in print as soon as possible, there are other reasons to have a firm time limit. If no time frame is specified, you run a significant risk: What if the publisher runs into monetary problems, or reorganizes the types of books they publish? Or maybe it’s not even really sure it wants to publish anymore, but it already has paid your advance, so it wishes to hang onto it just in case. And rarely, a publisher may buy a book that stands to compete with a book it is about to publish (or has already published), then purposely hold it, or fail to market it, because it may interfere with the success of the other book.
Modern digital publishing and printing methods allow books to be published in much shorter times than even 10 years ago. (E-book publication alone, of course, can be accomplished in 90 -120 days.) 18 months is plenty of time for print publication. Should you ask for less than 18 months? Although you should always aim for the shortest time possible, publishers still need a minimum amount of time before publication. First novelists should be aware of the many steps that need to be taken before a book is released: editing, copy editing, digital conversions, proofreading, cover design, endorsements, catalog inclusion, listing with Books in Print, press releases, advance review copies to the trade, etc.
Sometimes the publisher may wish to delay publication of your book for “outside” reasons, such as a shift in the market. For example, many thrillers about terrorism were delayed by major publishers after 9/11. Then there are the “force majeure” (“Act of God,” unavoidable catastrophe) problems that prevent publication, such as the destruction of the publisher’s offices by a hurricane. In such cases, however, the author should have the right to take the book back if the publisher doesn’t show plans to get the book released right away once the immediate problem has ended.
What if the publisher fails to meet the time frame in the agreement? Here’s a contract clause that will force publication, or obtain the return of your rights:
If the Publisher does not publish the Work within the time specified above for reasons other than first serial or book club use, delays of the Author in returning the copyedited manuscript or proofs, the Author’s failure to comply with requests made by the Publisher’s counsel or delays, caused by circumstances beyond the Publisher’s control, and if the Publisher at any time thereafter receives written notice from the Author demanding publication, the Publisher shall within 90 days of the Publisher’s receipt of such written demand either publish the Work or revert to the Author in writing all rights to the Work granted to the Publisher in this Agreement, subject to any outstanding licenses, which shall be assigned to the Author, and the Author shall retain any advance payments made under this Agreement prior to such reversion as liquidated damages for the Publisher’s failure to publish the Work.