Monday, June 18, 2012

How prolific should you be?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Following on from Jim's post yesterday on attacking the self-publishing game, I started thinking about how the indie e-book phenomenon is affecting reader expectations as to the number of books a writer should be producing. In May a New York Times article explored how many bestselling writers now feel that one book a year is simply not enough. 

Publishers are placing increasing pressure on authors to accelerate production, often asking for additional material such as novellas and short stories to supplement the e-books being released. In a market where entertainment is being churned out at a faster and faster rate, I can't help worry that the push for constant new material in the e-book market comes at the expense of quality - but what writer can afford not to be prolific when the market demands it?

There aren't many of us who can match James Patterson in terms of output (I believe he released 12 titles last year with 13 due this year!) but with the demands on authors increasing all the time, I wonder how many of us feel compelled to produce more simply out of fear? 

In the indie market, clearly an author has to balance consistent output with quality in order to build readership but, as an author whose first novel was published, I don't exactly have a huge drawer load of old manuscripts I can put out there - and there are limits to how fast I can write new material to the level  that I feel is publication worthy. It seems rather a daunting challenge - balancing the need to produce with the need to keep quality standards high. 

So what do you think? Are some of these prolific authors sacrificing quality for quantity? Is your publisher pushing for you to produce more than one book a year? If you are considering (or in the process of attempting) the indie route, how are you approaching this issue? What is your target output - and how do you plan on achieving it?


  1. OK, I'm going to say it, and probably make some people angry.
    (In this post, I am talking about those who are able to work full-time at writing, dedicate eight-hours a day, five-days a week to it, not those with day jobs or other commitments that keep them from writing full time.)

    One novel a year is a ridiculously slow pace for a full time writer.

    Here is how I figure it--
    Assume, there are 250 working days a year (5 days a week x 50 weeks, allowing for weekends off and two weeks of vacation). Assume you can write 1000 words a day (again full time writers) that's 250,000 words a year or THREE 80,000 word novels.

    Now, is 1000 words a day doable? Assume you can write (type) 500 words an hour--2 manuscript pages. (I do on average 700 wph, and am slow by a lot of people's standards). That's two-hours of work a day to produce THREE novels a year, taking every weekend off and two weeks of vacation.

    Okay, people will argue, sure but you have to research and plan and re-write. I agree. With two-hours of actual writing time a day, (and taking an hour lunch and/or breaks) that still leaves five hours a day to plan, research, rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite to produce--the equivalent of THREE novels a year.

    Every writer is different. Everyone's circumstances are different. Every book written has its own demands. I get that. But, to product more than ONE quality book per year (again I am talking about people who can--and say they are--full time writers) is very doable.

    The one book a year is a limit trad. publishers put on writers to accommodate their production schedule, not the writers ability to produce. That was why Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and others when they first started out wrote under pen names. Koontz early on wrote five to seven novels a year to break in.

    Readers have a voracious appetite for their favorite authors and can and will read more than one novel a year from them. Patterson proved it and Nora Roberts has lived it for years--without co-authors.

    No one says you need to produce like them, but two novels a year, or maybe three. By those who want to succeed, and can work at it full-time, that's doable.

  2. One one hand, I see no reason why an author who is making his living from writing can't produce more than one book a year. I haven't been able to recently, but then, my real job has prevented that.

    But I can't help but think that the pressure to produce more than we can produce with quality is what happens when we allow money to rule our lives. Money is good to have, but if that's the reason we're writing, we should quit.

  3. David: In principle, I don't disagree, but for me, there's a chasm of difference between putting a thousand words on the page and producing work that is worthy of being read. For writers who stick to a simple formula, three books a year is probably doable--I know many writers who produce at that level--but for more complex books, one per year seems about right to me.

    John Gilstrap

  4. The famous preacher John Wesley was once asked how much a good Christian should give to the church, and how much keep for himself. Wesley said, "Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can."

    I'd give that same advice to the writer. Write all you can. Edit all you can. Publish all you can.

    I advise my workshop students to figure out how many words they can comfortably do in a week. Then up that by 10%. They need that bit of "added pressure." It's not a bad thing to build in that kind of motivation if you want to succeed as a writer.

    The nice thing about new world of the indie is that there are more ways to put out more material, not just books, but novellas and stories, too. My FORCE OF HABIT series is novelette form, 15k or so words. Perfect for the kind of stories I'm telling there.

    If a writer truly feels a certain schedule impacts quality, fine. Back off. But I was always most impressed with the writers of old who were professionals in every sense of the word. They produced, and worked hard to do it, and were both prolific and good. Like John D. MacDonald, he of the "red hot typewriter."

    Write all you can. Edit all you can. Publish all you can.

  5. If the world of traditional publishing is so oppressive, what with the pressure to put out more than one book a year, you can always just go indie/self-pub yourself, where you're free to publish as much or as little as you like. Of course, then you wouldn't be able to post about how self-pub writers are ruining it for the "real" writers.

  6. I admit the increased demand (perceived or real) is intimidating. But I don't think writing more per year necessarily equates to less quality.

    Some people always have been and will continue to be able to produce at a high rate with quality results.

    For me, I am slow and methodical at everything I do. It drives me insane sometimes but that's just how I'm wired. Nevertheless, I do have a goal of producing 2 books per year, even though I'm employed full time in a day job.

    But I'm not going to be able to do that right off the bat. I may be 90 by the time I hit my goal, but I'll get there. 8-)

  7. What about the increasing time required--whether indie or traditionally published--for promotion? How does that figure into the schedule?

  8. I'm thinking about putting out some corollary content that was vetoed when my series was under contract. I wanted to put together an "advice" book by one of the characters in the book, and was told that the publisher doesn't support that kind of thing for midlist writers. Now I'll get to see how it does on my own!

  9. Increased productivity doesn't necessarily equate to decreased quality. It may mean the writer needs to learn new writing strategies that make him or her more efficient. For example, writers who outline throw away less content than pantsers, (although there is some trade-off for the time spent creating the outline).

    Writers may also need to lean on editors more. You can spend hours of your own time trying to identify the fixes your work needs, or you can toss the manuscript over the wall to a good editor who will come up with that list for you while you move forward on the draft of the next work.

    As a professional tech writer, I have to say that one book a year from a fiction writer who works full-time at the craft seems like not nearly enough productivity. My personal goal is six books a year while I break in, and four a year after that.

    Hey, Mr. Bell, enjoyed the Austin seminar. Perhaps you want to design a module on writing productivity suggestions for a future seminar/book?


  10. I think I'm in the minority here.

    I think a book a year is fine. Writers should have real lives too. I don't think I want to be a full time writer anymore. I like writing because I want to do it, not because I have to. Once you have to do something, it takes the fun out of it.

    My favorite authors all do a book a year. My top favorite is a full time writer, I think. In their case, I want quality over quantity, because that's what attracted me to their books in the first place. It's worth the wait.

  11. I am sticking to my 5 pages a day routine. It's what works best for me. I need a month for revisions, then more time to plot the next story. I do not want to squeeze more pages in at the expense of quality of life, never mind quality of the work. Never mind that marketing and promotion takes up all the remaining hours. I'm not getting any younger. And nor am I any faster than I've been. I admire those of you who can write ten to fifteen pages a day. That's not me. But yes, I feel the pressure to increase productivity now that we have so many outlets for our work.

  12. Great conversation.

    John, I agree with you completely, some projects are more complex and can take up more time, some flow earlier, and get done faster. High-tech thrillers and historicals that require a lot of research come immediately to mind. Each project is different.
    And I also agree with what Jim said, each writer needs to find their own pace, what they are comfortable with. What works for them.
    My point was that doing more than one book a year is not the overwhelming burden some would make it sound. Nor do I equate quality with how fast or slowly a book was written. Quality comes from the level of skill the writer has acquired at that point in his or her career.

  13. Jadi, I don't disagree with you, a book a year is fine, if that's what the author is comfortable with and their readers are satisfied. The article talked about fan wanting more an the best sellers feeling pressured to write more than one a year (and how hard that was).

    Like others here have said, find your comfort zone and write to it.

  14. LOL Nancy, none of us are getting any younger, and I agree that balance in life as well as work is important. Writing today isn't just about writing (unfortunately) but the promoting and the social networking and everything else, which goes to my point that writing two or even three novels a year (or the equivalent short stories, novella, etc,) even with the other work related tasks, is possible.
    You say five pages a day is your comfort level. That's great output. More than the 1000 words a day I was talking about earlier. And multiplied out over five days a week, and 10-months is 1000 pages or 250,000 words. The equivalent of 3 83,000 word novels.

    Will you do that much? IDK, that's up to you, but it shows that it certainly is do-able.

    Good luck

  15. Thanks for the feedback - I would like to think I would be able to produce more than one book a year but juggling the writing and promotion is hard enough as it is! I certainly think additional material like novellas and short stories are great promotional tools to get out there but I think ultimately an author must do what works for them. But there's no doubting the pressure is there! I don't think output in terms of word count is the point as many of these words will ultimately get culled in the editing and revision process.

  16. There is another aspect to this that I don’t believe has been mentioned.

    How many times as a reader have you been waiting for one of your favourite authors to bring out their latest novel, and ended up buying a book by a new author (or at least new to you) to give you something to read while you waited? I imagine many of us have found new favourite authors that way and there are probably writers out there who got their chance because of this.

    But if your favourite authors are now bringing out three books a year instead of one, how many less opportunities will you have to try someone new? And if you are a writer who isn’t one of the big names, how many less potential readers will you have?

    Just a thought.

    All the Best,


  17. If that leap can be made, or somehow I could find energy to not sleep for at least a few days a week I would definitely be doing at least two novels and a dozen shorts a year. As well as narrating two or more books a month.

    But alas, I get loopy when I'm tired now.

    I went with 4-5 hours sleep a night for over 30 years, since I was a young teen, all the while thinking I was getting twice as much done as everyone else. Then after 40 that started to break down and someone pointed out to me the following thought provoker.

    "We are all only allotted a particular number of waking hours. If you deprive yourself of sleep on one end, it automatically comes off the other."

    What that means is that, while I slept half what most folks did, rather doing twice as much I was burning twice as fast. Which explains why at 44 I sometimes feel like I'm closer to 88.

    A fairly buff, strong and extraordinarily handsome 88, but not sure how long I can hold that pose.

    In the meantime I will write as many stories as I can, without losing too much sleep over it anymore.

  18. As a reader, I can say that if the author is good than I will wait fanatically for their next one. I have been waiting for over a year for the next Mercedes Thompson book to come out, and I was really sad to learn that though it was anticipated to come out in Jan 2012 and was delayed for another year. I have stopped James Patterson's adult novels because they all sound the same. (I have started on his ya series, but am afraid that the same thing has happened). Novellas and short stories are good supplements, but I wouldn't stress myself out over it, because the quality speaks for itself.

  19. It has become a bit overwhelming. I went from writing one book a year to writing three, plus "extras" like quizzes, teaser stories, etc etc etc. I kind of feel like I'm back in school and there's always a term paper hanging over my head.