writing & publishing

Author Productivity

An interesting article in the New York Times on the slow productivity rate of certain authors:

Updike and Oates are extreme examples, but there’s something to be said for what might be called the Woody Allen Method: Good times, bad times, you keep making art. Many of your productions will hit; some will miss; some will miss by a lot. But there’s no time for the flatulent gas of pretension to seep into your construction’s sheetrock. This is how Trollope, Balzac and Dickens worked. Each would have agreed with Gore Vidal, who once declared of those who moan about writer’s block: “You’re not meant to be doing this. Plenty more where you came from.”

Contrast this with the more productive writers:

Some novelists may be in revolt against today’s almost militarily mechanized pop writers. Not so long ago a dignified genre writer — a John Grisham, let’s say — was expected to issue a book a year. Now we confront James Patterson, who publishes as many as nine a year; they pop from the chute like Krispy Kremes.

Though of course, the Pattersons are all co-written; he’s more like an imprint than an author.

That aside, it does seem odd that many of us consider long gaps between books to translate roughly into ‘longer time produces better quality books’. There’s wisdom in the fact that, when you bang something out it might not all that good. Presumably there’s an ideal spot between spending time lovingly crafting something and not leaving it so late that your readers have forgotten who you are. You also have to throw in what the prevailing culture is, which defines readers’ expectations – pretty much a book a year (though many authors achieve success by having a glut thrown at the market and their books being in 3 for 2 promos as if this industry was about selling tins of baked beans).

I’ve mentioned before that writers get better at writing (or at least some do). They get more experienced at the craft and it can become easier to put a novel or characters together, so I know that speed of craft is not that related to quality. What’s more, it’s worth suggesting that some writers take their time not because they’re channelling some divine entity for their gift – but because they’re slow at writing books.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

8 replies on “Author Productivity”

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and then Home (2008).

Also, Alexander Jablokov admits to taking ten years off from writing to deal with the real world, before returning in 2009 with Brain Thief.

One element that I would add to the mix is: can writers produce an infinite number of books? Or more accurately, should they?

If you wrote a book a year and retired at the normal age (which most writers don’t) then that would be another 35 novels. To me, that sounds like an awful lot. How many people have written 35+ good novels? In comparison, how many people have written a half a dozen good ones and lots of okay ones? I guess I’m talking about the difference between inspiration and technique; producing a book isn’t just the act of writing itself. It is no suprise that the really prolific authors work in prescribed genres with strict mechanisms – the detective series or the endless epic fantasy or whatever.

That’s a very good point. It probably depends on a number of things. You see fantasy authors churning out endless books in an apparently endless series – do readers care, or do they just want more of the same kind of thing as before? Do some audiences desire boilerplate plots? That goes back to what you say about genres and mechanisms.  

It’s probably a good reason why some authors like to change genres, as well – some presumably possess more room for flexibility, fresh ideas, and so on; anything to put pen to paper.

But I suppose a delay on inspiration is perhaps something akin to writer’s block? And that’s where genres help. Then again, some of the classic literary writers – Dickens etc – really churned them out, too. Going back to the point of 35+ novels – perhaps some writers need to get rid the bad ideas so that novel 27, for example, will be the best of their career, or hit some cultural Zeitgeist?

I think there’s a cynical point to be made concerning just how many copies of certain novels are sold, and the relationship between that and the need to write more…

I understand writing is looked at as a business, but does anyone demand
painters or sculptors or other visual artists produce on a timeline? (I
expect the music business is much the same as writing, demanding artist
output in a timely manner, however). Where does this idea come from that
you’re ‘supposed to’ or expected to, or are somehow obligated to
produce books in quantity? That kind of thinking is what gives rise to
the James Pattersons who outsource the actual writing.

I can’t speak for artists etc, but I would say it is in their interest to put out enough work to be able to earn a living, in the first instance. Unless commissioned, they’re probably not working for another company as such, which is – essentially – what a writer is doing, unless completely self-published. There’s a kind of pact with a publisher, in that respect, which is what a freelance artist would not do perhaps? 

It’s probably worth saying that writers are the ones wanting to produce books in quantity – I can’t think of any writer who would just want to put one book out and fade away into obscurity. Every writer wants a little bit more success, to be read widely, and that probably means some acknowledgement that they’d have to write more than one novel, and to appreciate that they’re producing something to sell in the marketplace, no matter how horrible that phrase sounds!

I couple of thoughts and authors immediately jump to mind.  John Irving.  He ALWAYS takes AT LEAST five years to finish and publish a new book.  He fully admits this, saying he spends a couple years plotting and writing out the entire story, and then a couple more years meticulously editing it down to a fine work of art.  He’s been this way for a while and his readers know when to expect a new one from him.

I remember when Stephen King was asked what he’d be writing next while he was in the middle of completing his “Dark Tower” series, and his response was that he was retiring and done with writing after this.  Of course, he has clearly proven otherwise because he is a prolific writer and can’t stop.  But he’s also been doing it for a while, and depending on writer’s schedules and how much they get written each day, he clearly has his down to a fine art of getting a lot of writing done, because he loves to do it.

Brandon Sanderson is another prolific writer, but that’s because — I believe — his writing schedule is from 10PM until 4AM every night, when everyone has gone to bed and he has these quiet hours to get a lot of work done. (at least that’s what he said in the interview –

Another thing that should be taken into account is how much research is required by certain authors on certain books.  Obviously, this would vary book to book, but also from author to author, depending on what they’re writing about.  Then there’s the whole book tour thing that many authors do which can take up to months, eating into their regular writing schedule, as well as attending conventions.  Bare in mind also that Stephen King doesn’t do much other than one or two public appearances due in part to his fame, but this also give him more time to write!

And like you said, I do feel it has something to do with the more you write, the more you should improve, and when you’re writing within a specific genre, or a series, I think the more books you write, the faster it should get.

The other side that I don’t know too much about is the publishing side with the deadlines.  It seems like so many authors need to churn out one or more books a year because the publishers set it up this way with the deadlines and necessary next bestsellers.  A new development with this I’m starting to see is that some of these annual books that are expected from certain authors are starting to get shorter and shorter, and yet the price stays around $25.

Thanks for the lengthy comment, Alex, and for shining a light on many of those authors. 

The one book a year thing isn’t so much what the publishers suggest, although it is an optimum for them, but that’s in the author’s own interest – a book a year is kind of what the industry desires. It’s a great way of building a career. Of course, you need a great cover and money spent to put your book in a promotion and so on, but hitting the book a year spot helps chains market your work in a more effective manner.

Books getting shorter may be down to a variety of things – I’ve not noticed it in the UK, but I have heard that shorter books help keep print costs down to a minimum. I think it depends on the publisher, though, and their own margins etc. It’s certainly not a deal breaker. 

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