People keep posting this cover but it's worth reiterating that it isn't the official cover for the book. It was created in 2012 by fan FeroxDeoVacuusVinco, and is so good that it even convinced GRRM into thinking it was real cover concept from his publishers.
The Winds of Winter is the sixth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is currently planned to be the penultimate volume of the series, to be followed by a concluding volume called A Dream of Spring. Some commentators have speculated that, due to the large array of storylines and character arcs that need resolving, an expansion to eight or nine books (either directly or by one or both of these volumes being split in two) is possible.
According to Martin, he expects The Winds of Winter to come in at around the same length as A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons, at around 1,520 manuscript pages, 420,000 words and between 70 and 90 chapters. Based on previous volumes, the book cannot be much longer, as at that point the book would need to be split in half for publication due to limitations in printing. However, the dramatic increase in popularity of the books, due to the Game of Thrones TV series, has resulted in over 80 million additional sales and a substantial increase in profit since 2011. The publishers would likely stretch this limitation considerably for The Winds of Winter, maybe up to over 500,000 words. Another possibility is that whilst Martin is writing material for The Winds of Winter, he has disregarded the page limitation and if that means the book will have to be published in two volumes even in hardcover, so be it. Ebooks are not subject to the same limitation, of course, but with the ebook share of the market falling to 17-18% in recent years, clearly the physical limitation concerns will still be paramount.
(note that I have been covering this on Westeros.org here, and am grateful for the coverage and research provided by Brynden "Hypeslayer" BFish at r/asoiaf)
It appears that Martin has either completed or almost completed a minimum of 39 chapters based solely on his public utterances; the true number is certainly significantly higher. These comprise:
- Prologue: POV character unknown, although Ser Forley Prester seems to be the leading candidate, since GRRM has confirmed that Jeyne Westerling (Robb Stark's widow) appears in this chapter but is not necessarily the viewpoint character.
- Arya Stark: 4 chapters
- Tyrion Lannister: 3 chapters
- Barristan Selmy: 3 chapters
- Arianne Martell: 3 chapters
- Melisandre: 2 chapters
- Theon Greyjoy: 2 chapters
- Aeron Greyjoy: 2 chapters
- Areo Hotah: 2 chapters
- Cersei Lannister: 2 chapters
- Asha Greyjoy: 2 chapters
- Jon Connington: 2 chapters
- Sansa Stark: 1 chapter
- Victarion Greyjoy: 1 chapter
- Bran Stark: 1 chapter
- Daenerys Targaryen: 1 chapter
- Davos Seaworth: 1 chapter
- 6 additional chapters completed in June and July 2020
It should be noted that the above list comprises all of the surviving POV characters from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons with four exceptions: Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth and Samwell Tarly. Given Jon, Jaime and Brienne's cliffhanger fates in the previous book, it is unlikely that Martin will confirm new chapters from their POVs (although I suspect Jaime and Brienne will have POVs; Jon not having POVs after his presumably inevitable resurrection would be an interesting stylistic choice if GRRM should choose to pursue it). Sam is an interesting one as from a narrative perspective, it is possible to likely that he will have a fairly major story arc in The Winds of Winter. Martin not mentioning any additional Sam material at all is probably happenstance.
Martin has said previously that, for the first time ever, there will be no new POVs in The Winds of Winter (bar the prologue and epilogue, if applicable) and so far this appears to be the case.
To be fair, if I'd written two million words of complex fantasy on a white-on-black word processor, I'd also want to murder every single character.
Martin has publicly released the following material from The Winds of Winter in the form of sample chapters:
- "Mercy" - an Arya Stark chapter
- Arianne I
- Arianne II
- Theon I
- Alayne I - a Sansa Stark chapter
- Barristan I - in the paperback version of A Dance with Dragons
- Tyrion II - in the World of Ice and Fire app
These chapters have been read at conventions and signings:
- Tyrion I
- Barristan II
- "The Forsaken" - an Aeron Greyjoy chapter
- Victarion I
Martin delivered A Dance with Dragons, the previous volume in the series, to his publishers in May 2011; it was published in July that year. Several chapters completed for the book were held back for The Winds of Winter in the editing process, totally around 200 manuscript pages. His editor Anne Groell reported receiving an additional 168 manuscript pages in 2013, for a total of ~368 manuscript pages, although George had many more chapters in at least some partial form of completion at this time.
Relatively limited progress was made during this two-year period due to GRRM's commitments elsewhere. This included revising the maps for The Lands of Ice and Fire (2012), which required GRRM to completely re-conceive and redraw his maps of Essos, and also his scriptwriting duties on Game of Thrones, which required approximately one month of work in each year of 2010-13. He also agreed to write 3,000 words of material for The World of Ice and Fire (2014) in 2012, but this ballooned out of control and he ended up writing almost 300,000 words of material in three months. This material was heavily compressed by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson for the published book. The unedited material was later recycled and added to with new material to form Fire and Blood (2018). Martin also continued his work on co-editing the Wild Cards series with Melinda Snodgrass (as he had done since 1986) and co-editing four anthologies with Gardner Dozois during this period.
For these reasons, work in earnest on The Winds of Winter did not recommence until 2012, then accelerating through 2013 and 2014. Despite the early setbacks, progress in this period seems to have been reasonable (at least by Martin's standards from A Dance with Dragons), with his publishers reporting having the book on the shelves in 2015 or 2016 was possible, and at least two of Martin's overseas translators being advised by his that they were expecting the book in this time frame. Martin also refocused his work on the book in this time, suspending his co-editing work with Dozois in 2014 and also confirming he would not be writing any more Game of Thrones episodes after the fourth season. This seemed to make completion in 2015 for 2016 publication possible (approximating the time period spent waiting for both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons).
In a January 2016 update on the book, Martin reinforced this, noting that in 2015 he believed he was close enough to deliver the book for relatively speedy publication. However, he also noted in this update that he was still some months from completion. This period of high optimism seems to have petered out, with Martin noting that he had been trying to stay ahead of the TV show (which passed the events of A Dance with Dragons in 2015 and concluded entirely in 2019) but ultimately this pressure had been counter-productive. He also noted in March 2014 that he had not done anything like his normal rewriting and re-editing on the book, which given the substantial rewrites the last few books in the series have gone through, should have been a red flag.
Thus, although confirmation will have to wait until the book is done and Martin hopefully provides a detailed post-mortem of the process, it sounds like work on the book proceeded well and completion appeared possible in 2014-15, until he started rewriting and editing the book and ran into significant problems that required much more extensive restructuring and rewriting (on the order of, if not greater than, the "Meereenese Knot" was caused a lot of the problems with A Dance with Dragons).
The obvious answer to this question is how long is a piece of string? In his updates Martin has ruled out completion this year, but indicates that getting the book on shelves in (presumably late) 2021 may be possible. Although we've been here before and faced disappointment (with the 2016 update), it's also worth noting that GRRM's recent updates have been much more upbeat than at any time since work on The Winds of Winter began. They resemble the "light at the end of the tunnel" updates he began providing on A Dance with Dragons in late 2009, although the book was still twenty months away from hitting shelves. For that reason, granting Martin's usual tendency towards optimism, a publication date of early-to-mid 2022 for The Winds of Winter may be more realistic and likely.
At which point, of course, we get to enjoy another wait all over again.