How Many Books Can an Author Write?

Authors don’t win much respect, at least not from critics, when they write a book-a- year…or more. Words like "hack" begin to get bandied about whenever the author’s name comes up. If a book is written quickly, does that automatically mean it’s bad? Is less creativity, emotion, and care invested in a book that’s written in three months instead of three years? Apparently, the assumption is yes. A book that’s written quickly must not be as good as one that’s written slowly…or that something isn’t quite right with the author. For instance, the folks over at Booksquare recently said:

Prolific writers are viewed with distrust. Nobody should be able to produce so
many words in so short a time. It isn’t seemly. It probably isn’t healthy. It
surely isn’t literary. It’s like a Tom Waits song. “What’s he building in
there?”

My  sister-in-law Wendy pondered on her blog:

I often wonder about writers who crank out book after book and speculate as to
how they do it. The quality of books written in warp drive aside,
I’m curious if authors like Nora Roberts sleep and eat as the rest of the
population? Do they ever go back and rewrite, rework,
retool? I can’t imagine that they do, there doesn’t seem to be
time. Do they have moments of self doubt? Do they
ever question or second guess? Are there ever moments when a
character’s motivation, a plot point, or the perfect bit of dialog is just
out of reach, tormenting them with its nearness? Don’t they
have moments when the only answer is to walk away from a story and let the
pieces drift back in, falling into the perfect places?

In the book world, writers who are fast and prolific are suspect…but this wasn’t always the case. In the heyday of pulp novels, guys like Harry Whittington wrote several books a year. And they were great.  In fact, his speedily-written paperbacks are better than many of the hardcover thrillers out today…thrillers that took some of the authors a year or more to write.

When I buy a book, I don’t care how fast it was written or how many more books the author has coming this year… as long as the books are good. That should be the measure.

But it’s not.

In the TV business,  it’s different. Writers who are fast and prolific are admired, celebrated and sought-after.  It’s not uncommon for episodes of TV shows, including the most highly regarded series on TV, to be written in a week or less. Yet, nobody assumes the episodes are badly written simply because they were written fast. The audience expects a new episode every week, 22 weeks or more a year, and they don’t give any thought to the time it takes to write them… all they want is a good show. In fact, networks expect writers to be fast and prolific…those who aren’t soon find it very difficult to get staff jobs.

I’ve got my feet in both the book and TV worlds. I’m primarily a TV writer…but lately I have been writing paperbacks originals, too. I’ve been trained by my years in TV to write fast, to deliver well-crafted stories on a tight deadline.  So I didn’t think twice about signing a deal that will require me to write four books — two DIAGNOSIS MURDERs and two MONKS — in the next 12-14 months.  Sure, I thought about how I was going to manage my time, and balance my TV and book committments, but I didn’t give any thought to how writing a book every three-to-four months would reflect on  me as an author  (then again, since the books are TV tie-ins, I know the assumption in the book community is that they are hack work anyway).

Why are speedily-written books suspect… but speedily-written screenplays are not?

15 thoughts on “How Many Books Can an Author Write?”

  1. Danged if I know! My father reads a series by a mystery writer who cranks out anywhere from two to five books a year. He and I speculated about how that is possible once, and he asked me how I write my stories (fanfic or original), particularly whether I work out exactly how the story will go first and write it all down, or do I let the plot carry me.
    I’ve done both, but found that the more detailed my outline, the easier it is to crank the story out, and the faster it goes.
    So if you’re very familiar with the type of story you’re writing, such as a segment of a series or a tie-in to a tale you’re very familiar with, I don’t see why it should be suspect that you can just take your plot and run. Especially if it’s something like a mystery series where the basic characters/background are the same. My historical fiction novel is taking awhile, but that’s because the research is so slow.
    I don’t know why it should be suspect. It seems to me more the mark of someone who’s good enough (and/or LUCKY enough) to make their LIVING as a writer, and not be tied down by other work committments.

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  2. For the longest time, Terry Pratchett managed two books a year. (I believe he still does, except it’s one novel and one Other, like a Mappe, a children’s book, or a Science of Discworld book). Are they bad? No, certainly not.
    It may be a consequence of writing comic fantasy, of course — even with all the subtle references he puts in, there’s less research than in science fiction or the like. But nevertheless, he did it, and no one actually complained. We’re not /that/ stupid.
    I think the difference between your two analogies — screenplays and novels — is the scale of it. If you think about a typical episode of a TV series, it’ll cover one, maybe two days, perhaps stretching to a week at times. It’ll focus on just a few events — I don’t watch much TV, but I recall that Casualty had three main plots per episode and a few little running things over the series. In a novel, you put in a lot more detail.
    Perhaps a better analogy would be between novels and film scripts? Then TV episodes could be like short stories, which can be written quickly — I pulled off a 2000 word piece in under an hour at one point. It was very random, but it was written, and with a couple of hours editing — and perhaps a better plot to start with — it’d be okay.
    I dunno. Maybe, and this is seeming more and more likely these days, maybe everyone in the world is completely insane.

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  3. I’m not sure I agree with your premise. Elmore Leonard puts out a new book every six weeks or so, and no one seems to mind. Joyce Carol Oates pumps ’em out faster than Dean Koontz, and I never see a complaint.

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  4. Bill,
    I found this article from a Canadian magazine on the net. It addresses your comment (I may use it as the basis of another post).
    “Genre writers are undoubtedly the most fertile; just think of Stephen King (horror), Elmore Leonard (crime), John Grisham (thriller) and Maeve Binchy (romance). Mystery-monger Anne Perry (Death By Dickens, The Shifting Tide) is currently releasing three titles a year. Genre publishing has become so fierce that publishers will cut mid-list writers who can’t — or won’t — keep pace. Sparkle Hayter is a case in point. The Canadian-born suspense writer (Naked Brunch, the Robin Hudson series) was dumped by her American publisher when she refused to stick to the book-a-year clip; Richard Barre (the Will Hardesty novels) suffered a similar fate. (Both have since allied themselves with smaller publishers.)
    For his part, Pepper says he couldn’t conceive of coercing a writer to produce more prolifically. “I don‘t think it behooves anybody to pressure somebody like that,” he says. “They might snap. Or they might put out a piece of crap.”
    There is an acknowledged double standard in how we view a prolific genre writer and a fruitful literary author. Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Updike’s absurdly prodigious output — in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism — has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. It hearkens back to this notion we have of how “serious” novels are created — that every sentence is the result of years of contemplation and agonized toil. Anything less is deemed half-assed — or purely for a commercial audience. Atkinson acknowledges the stigma. “If a Jonathan Lethem produced something like The Fortress of Solitude every year and a half, I think he would be lauded a lot less,” she says.
    And yet, there are some literary authors who we embrace for their prodigiousness. Humorist P.G. Wodehouse wrote somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100 novels, but has never been viewed as a mere word factory. (Even by Foster Wallace, who has provided gushing blurbs to a number of Wodehouse reprints.)
    There is also that exceptional breed of literary author who not only produces obsessively but does so in a wide range of styles and with a staggering commitment to quality. Joyce Carol Oates (Them, Zombie) is the most prominent representative of that tiny pantheon. Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle series) and William T. Vollman (Butterfly Stories, Royal Family) each average a novel a year — each typically the heft of a phone book. Stephenson‘s three-part Baroque Cycle numbers over 2,500 pages; Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down — a seven-volume treatise on the history of violence — weighs in at 3,352 pages. Writers like that don’t invite scorn so much as unmitigated envy. ”

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  5. I don’t know, speed is the name of the game I guess. I just had an interview at a local newspaper where I’d have to write two stories a day. One due at 2 p.m and the other at five. That’s a neverending juggle fest of sources who may or may not cooperate. The completed product has to be low quality to be pumped out like that. Not to mention the stress of it every day. I took a job in my old field of field biology instead. I’ll write on my own speed which is a book in two years or so.

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  6. I think the people who look askance at speedy novelists are those same people who turn up their noses at television anyway, so you’re looking at two different audiences.

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  7. I agree that a TV episode seems less wordy then a novel. Maybe it’s just my ignorance, but comparing a TV episode to a short story makes more sense to me.
    It does seem to me that people who devote their entire lives to writing should be able to produce at least one well written book a year, possibly more. Of course, the more of the country/world the author tours to promote the book, the less time they have to write.

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  8. I once read a book that took the author ten years to write it. The critics loved it and everyone I know who read it (and a lot of people did because the critics said it was so great) thought it was horrible (including me). Maybe being written over a long period of time gives the book some kind of a sophisticated aura. You think “Well, if it took him so long to write it, it should be really good”.
    On the other hand I once saw a play (not a screen play, but anyway) of which the author prided himself that he’d written it in one day (which is probably the truth since he simply copied half the dialogue from “Pulp Fiction”).
    On the bottom line I would say that you can give your work too much thought as well as too less. The guy who wrote the book and spent 10 years on it also wrote tons of children’s books before that and they were all really nice reads even for grown-ups. The reasons why people buy a book and think it’s good are hard to tell anyway. (I know people who judge books by the looks of the covers. “I’d love to buy this book, but…uh…the cover is orange, it doesn’t go with anything I usually wear.” That’s funny until you hear the words being spoken…then it starts becoming scary…) Time might be important to one person and not important to another. Personally I think quality comes first and how the author gets it into his book is his choice.

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  9. I think it’s crap to slam prolific writers. Every work should be judged on its individual merits. Knee jerks who denigrate works because they are one of many indicate that, perhaps, they are incapable of actually judging what is good and what is not.

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  10. Lewis—I agree with you that each and every book should be based on its merits; I care only if a work is good or not. Is my opinion of prolific authors a knee jerk reaction? Given the countless number of books I’ve read in my lifetime, I’d say no, my opinions are carefully thought out. As far as who is capable of judging, I don’t believe that’s your call to make.

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  11. How many books can an author write?

    Prolific screenwriter and novelist Lee Goldberg takes up the subject on his blog:Authors don’t win much respect, at least not from critics, when they write a book-a- year…or more. Words like

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  12. As someone who once wrote 50 scripts in a year, I don’t mind prolific writers. I don’t think every author should write that much, though I understand why a publisher wouldn’t prefer authors who can put out a novel every year or two.

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  13. I heard Robert Parker speak before a book signing last year. He said that he writes at least a chapter a day for his books, and he NEVER rereads what he has written the day before.
    Don’t know if it’s true — but that’s what he said.
    Al Nye

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