on January 12, 2015

On one of the writer’s loops I participate in, a loop with both published and aspiring writers, a conversation started about the pros and cons of writing not only fast, but releasing four or more books a year.

Now, the primary focus of this conversation began with the discussion of indie books – self-published, primarily digital books – where the “conventional wisdom” is that you must have at least five books in your body of work before you can see a serious uptick in sales. I put “conventional wisdom” in quotes because some indie authors have broken out big with one or two books, others have never earned a living even after twenty books.

Not so ironically, this is the same with traditional publishing.

This business is vastly different for different authors. The late, fabulous Michael Palmer was writing one book every two years — while being a full-time doctor. His publisher wanted one book a year, and according to an article he was interviewed in for the Boston Globe, he was having difficulties — because writing one book a year was next to impossible while also having a demanding career. Hardcover authors GENERALLY publish one book a year. There are of course exceptions, but that has been the way it’s been for decades.

Many, many successful authors publish one book a year. Many successful authors publish one book every 2-3 years. Fantasy authors rarely publish more than once every 2-3 years because their books are huge (long),
with extensive world building and lots of story in the story.

Even authors without day jobs can successfully publish one book a
year. Meaning, just because you don’t have a “day job” doesn’t mean you can – or should – write faster.

Cozy mystery writers, romance writers, and pulp fiction/detective novels have always been published more than one a year. These genre novels tend to be shorter, and they started like magazine subscriptions, where the book would be out for a month then pulled from the shelf (now this is just in romance/Harlequin — but it used to be with other genres as well.) Romance writers were notoriously not paid like their literary counterparts, and to make a living writing they wrote 2 and 3 and 4 books a year.

Yet not every romance writer could do it. Lisa Gardner was writing for Harlequin and wrote one book every 9 months and it was difficult, but she managed — then they wanted a book every six months. She said it almost killed her because that’s not how she wrote. Even her Harlequin romantic suspense books took her time because she would research and write and rewrite and that was her process. Now she writes one big book a year and it’s fabulous and that’s what she’s comfortable doing. She researches for 2-3 months, then writes the first draft in 3-4 months, then re-writes the book and polishes and then sends to her editor, gets revisions, goes to copyedits, page proofs, production. It takes her 11 months from start of her research to final printed book.

Thomas Harris, Dan Brown, Diana Galbadon, George RR Martin,
Gillian Flynn, and others write one book ever 2-5 years. It works for them and they have a huge fan base. Most of these authors needed time to break-out, including the support of a publisher who stayed with them for their less-than-stellar-selling books.

Some authors write fast. They might be able to write 2, 3, 4, 6 books a year that are GOOD BOOKS and develop an audience that way, people who want to pay mass market prices for a series that keeps coming multiple times a year. These authors are successful in a different way.

My point is that neither is better than the other, they’re different. Not everyone can write fast. Susan Andersen is a friend of mine and she said it takes her 10 months to write a book. That’s her process. She writes and sits and edits and re-writes and her stories are fantastic, but she can’t physically do it in less than 9-10 months. That’s why she has one book out a year. She consistently hits the NYT list with that one book a year.

Other authors, like Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz (with her multiple pen names) can write good books in 2-3 months and then start the next book. Other authors need down time because they physically can’t write a new book after finishing one. Tess Gerritsen comes to mind, who goes on a trip after finishing every book she writes because she says she needs to “Refill the Well.” Does this make Tess Gerritsen’s books better than Nora Roberts? Some people think so. Some people don’t. Who cares? They both write good books with loyal followings.

One of the commenters on the loop said she wouldn’t follow authors who didn’t publish at least twice a year, either because they were lazy or didn’t care about their readers. She wants her books and she wants them now. Fortunately, there are lots of writers who can accommodate her. But that doesn’t mean all writers need to write two or more books a year. Most readers only read a book or so a month. They have a dozen authors they might buy regularly (and I’m being generous here!) and if their favorite author writes more than one a year, they may not buy both. We — you, me, and others who follow this blog or similar blogs — aren’t normal readers. We read far more than the average person. And I think that was one of the problems with the discussion on the loop — who is the audience for these books? Romance readers expect a lot of books in a short time. Thriller readers? Not so much.

We need to accept, as writers, that everyone has their own unique writing process and their own timeline. I refuse to be critical of authors who write “too fast” or “too slow” or whatever. Because as a writer, I understand that creativity is different for everyone. And there are different paths to success.

Some believe that the more “product” out there generates more sales and builds success. I agree … though I think that there is a rush to produce more “product” and the “product” (stories) are suffering because of it.

The other side of that coin is that with ebooks, the stories are often shorter. “Novels” are 45-60K words – the size of a Harlequin romance. Some are of course longer or shorter, and writing short is in no way “easy” – but simply because of the length, they don’t take as long to write.

In the ebook world, a lot of authors are going the “more books, few words” route. This isn’t good or bad, it just is. It’s probably a sign of the reading public’s exposure to episodic television, where they like their stories in smaller bites with an overarcing season story (or series story in books.) It’s one way to find an audience and be successful.

But it certainly isn’t the only way.

I write fast. I can write three books a year plus a few short stories here and there. But my process is not sit down and write and finish and start another book. Often, I’m thinking 2 and 3 books ahead, turning the story over in my head while writing another book. I had the idea for NOTORIOUS, the first Max book, four years before I wrote a word on it. I had no idea what would happen, who the killer was, or anything, but I thought about her character for a long time before I started writing the book, so when I did write it, I knew exactly what she would do when faced with the circumstances of the story, which I didn’t develop until later. I wouldn’t say it took me 4 years to write the book — it took me 4 months to write and edit it. But years to “think” about it.

But the other thing to recognize is that many authors who write more than 2 books a year aren’t doing much else other than writing. My entire life is my kids and my writing. I have no time for much else. I don’t go on vacations, I don’t go out with girlfriends (unless it’s at a writing conference) and I don’t have any other hobbies (other than what I do with the kids — sports and television and whatnot.) For me, now, it works, but I might not want to keep up the pace of writing 8-10 hours a day 7 days a week for the rest of my life. For me, it’s about the time I put at the computer, but for other authors they can’t sit for that long, or can’t come up with the words if they put in more than 3 hours a day. I know how it feels to stare at a manuscript and not know what to do or where the story is going. I might write and rewrite a chapter in panic because I’m completely stuck, panicked because I have a deadline.

What I think is truly detrimental to creativity is the rush to publish. There are too many people who think they can—and should—publish everything they finish. There are too many people who think they just need a friend to proofread and their story is “fine.” There are too many people who think that because it’s easy to publish an ebook, that they should be published. I’ve grabbed enough free ebooks (legally!) off the Internet that I cringe at some of the material, which lends credence to the idea that writing fast is a bad thing.

However, it’s not writing fast that is bad … it’s writing without thought, without editing, without constructive criticism.

My point — don’t think that writing fast or slow breeds success. For every fast writer who is successful, I can show you a slow writer who is successful. What works, and the only thing that works, is to consistently put out good books — whether you write one book every 3 years or every 3 months. While the venue — whether you’re an indie author or a traditional author or a hybrid — and the genre — matters to some degree as to the business decisions you make, first and foremost you should look at your own ability and creative muse before deciding whether you should focus on writing one book a year or more. And when you find your comfort zone, don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.