Is Two Too Many?
by J.D. Rhoades
A week or so ago, an article in the New York Times sparked quite a bit of discussion in the writing world. The article was titled “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” It noted that, with the explosion of e-readers and e-reader apps on mobile devices, readers “used to downloading any book they want at the touch of a button” get impatient for new material from their favorite authors, resulting in authors being pushed by publishers to pull “the literary equivalent of a double shift, churning out short stories, novellas or even an extra full-length book each year.” This led publisher’s representative Bruce Joshua Miller to write a letter warning that authors and publishers who “buy into” this were “devaluing the writing process as well as the product of that process” and risked ending up on the “toxic junk pile along with old e-readers and cell phones.”
As I watched the debate unfold, the question kept nagging at me: is this really such a new thing? I seem to remember back in the day (as we geezers like to put it), my favorite science fiction writers were publishing novels, short stories, and the occasional novella during the same year. And, as I once wrote elsewhere, my friend Duane Swierczynski, once did a blog series called “Legends of the Underwood,” about some of the old-school paperback and noir writers like Gil Brewer, Richard Matheson, Richard Bachman aka Stephen King, etc. who could write like the wind. Bachmann/King, for example, supposedly wrote THE RUNNING MAN in three days. In those days, multiple books a year by the same author weren’t unusual; Western writer Louis L’Amour was writing as many as four books a year for Gold Medal until Bantam offered him a contract to do a mere three. Much of the stuff produced by the paperback houses, of course, was dreadful, but they also published writers like John D. McDonald, who was cranking out a couple of Travis McGee books a year until he slowed down to one a year in the 70′s.
Now, I confess, when I first saw this article, I said to myself, “I couldn’t put out two full length novels a year if you held a gun to my head.” But then I thought about it. On a regular writing day, I’m good for a little over a thousand words. Writing five days a week, that’s about a 5K a week. Most of the writers I know, by the way, write more than five days a week. A regular mystery novel runs anywhere from 85,000 to 100,000 words. So you could, theoretically, turn out a first draft every 17 to 20 weeks. The key words there are “first draft”. When I said “a thousand words”, I didn’t promise they’d be any good. But should it really take 32 weeks for a second, third, however many drafts you have to do to polish that masterpiece?
But this calculation also presupposes that all a writer has to do is write. One of the secrets of the productivity of the old paperback masters was that they didn’t have to tour, promote, contribute to their websites, or all the things a modern author is supposed to do to keep their fans and their publishers happy. They turned the book in to Fawcett, who printed a mind boggling amount of copies and put them in spin racks in every drug, grocery, and candy store in the country. Do that for me, and I’ll give you two a year, easy. Oh, and pay me enough to quit the day job so I can get all this done.
So what do you think? Thalians, is two a year doable for you? What about one plus a couple of novellas (now that e-publishing has made that a viable form again)? What would make it possible? Readers, would two to three books a year from the same author delight you or burn you out? Are authors complaining about doing two books a year trying to safeguard the quality of the writing process or just crybabies?