How Many Books Should You Write Per Year?

Kill-Shot-CoverA couple of weeks ago I read a thought-provoking article that raised the question of whether, in the new world order of publishing, authors are attempting to write too many books per year. The article was a well thought out discussion of the possibility that too many authors are substituting quantity for quality and that as a result we’re sliding into an era of pulp fiction.

Hmm. Could this author have a point?

I know that I, for one, have felt the pressure to publish a lot. I attended a packed and exciting workshop about self-publishing at RWA Nationals in Atlanta this past summer given by Liliana Hart in which she talked about the necessity of starting a series/career by publishing five novels in a series at once with one ready to go a month later and another a month after that. Her experience and advice revolved around hitting the ground running with a whole bunch of books. That way you hook your readers from day one by enabling them to buy several books all at once.

This really worked for her. She’s got a ton of books out and shared her numbers to prove that it works. I’m really excited for her that it did work too! I haven’t read any of her books though (they’re not a genre I gravitate toward), so I can’t personally attest to the quality of her writing. It has to be at least a little good though, because she’s selling like gang-busters!

But what about the more human amongst us? In my experience, most writers can’t churn out full novel after full novel of publishable quality, one right after the other. In fact, most of the writers I’ve talked to would feel much more comfortable if they could take their time to craft one or two gems a year. Only nowadays the pressure to produce a novel a quarter or even a novel a month is pretty strong.

So is this what we should be doing?

I’m not so sure I have the answer to that. For the first two years of my publishing journey I put out two books a year at irregular intervals. I was still getting my feet wet and figuring out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I was still on the traditional/indie fence and spent a tiny bit of half-hearted time submitting to agents and publishers. Earlier this year I received the divine signs and committed to self-publishing, and by the end of this year I will have published 4 books (2 novels, 2 novellas) in 2013. I have at least 3 full-length novels and 1 novella slated for 2014, very likely a fourth full-length novel, and likely a fifth as part of a boxed set with some fellow writers. However, three of those books are already written and just need editing. I won’t be starting from scratch. And as for 2015? We’ll see.

Ah!  My first novel!  One of two published that year.

Ah! My first novel! One of two published that year.

In my heart of hearts, I would love to publish four full-length novels per year. I will never forget the conversation I had at the very first RWA conference I attended in New Jersey several years ago in which a long, long-time writer recounted the way things had been back in the 80s. Back then, she said, the average romance novelist could expect to sell four novels a year (and to receive a $50,000 advance for each one!). I don’t know if her experience was the norm, although she made out like it was, but from that moment on, that has become the standard I hope to meet.

Four novels a year isn’t too much, is it? I mean, I can write pretty fast and still call it good writing. Once I hit the point where writing is my one and only job, I think I’ll be able to write faster because I’ll have more time to do it. I’d love to work on one genre in the morning and another in the afternoon. I could make that work. At least I think I could.

Could you? The thing is, there are wonderful authors out there who just write and revise at a different pace. Maybe they top out at two books a year. Should they be made to feel the pressure to get more done if it isn’t going to be as good as something they were at leisure to write with more time?

I don’t think so. I think each writer should be free to create at their own pace. But I’m not the one investing money in them or determining their schedule. On top of that, the world has changed and people have grown more impatient. Can a writer hold the focus and attention of readers if they aren’t constantly coming out with something new? What do readers want?

And that’s the question we would all like to know, isn’t it. The problem is, there isn’t just one answer. What works for one author might not work for another. A slow-writer who is invested in building a career over the long-term might be fine with taking their time. Someone less patient (like me) might feel the urgency to publish more acutely. But I have the feeling that it might just be necessary to publish a lot in the early days to build enough traction to “hit”.

So what do you think? Can a writer make it if they publish more slowly in this new publishing world? Is publishing fast and often the only way to stay in the sights of fickle readers? What should we new world authors be doing?

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21 thoughts on “How Many Books Should You Write Per Year?

  1. Good article, Merry. And if I remember correctly, one that you and I discussed in Atlanta last summer. I feel the need to push out four books a year, but I also would like to do something more in depth that would take more time. Maybe one day.

  2. This is a topic I’ve discussed often with fellow authors. Speaking from my personal experience as an editor and a writer, I can definitely say that giving yourself more time to craft your novel results in a better end product. I think that manuscripts should be allowed to rest for a time. When the author sets it down for awhile and does other work, that allows him or her to come back to the novel with fresh eyes. New ideas are born, and weak points can be corrected. It seems like this push for quick publication is also eliminating a lot of the craftsmanship that should go into writing a book. It is only when the author gives him- or herself time to learn and adjust and experiment with styles and approaches that the BEST version of the work is presented to readers. However, it’s also true that different authors work at different paces. Readers have begun demanding sequels as if producing a novel is a simple matter. Possibly the best solution is to have several in the can before you start publishing in order to allow yourself some overlap. But in the end, quality should always win out over speed.

    • I agree with you! I do think quality should be the most important goal we set for ourselves with writing. And I think at this point I can tell when an author hasn’t spent the time they could have on a book. But man, it gets hard to stick to those ideals when the demand is so hot! Thanks!

  3. I think a lot of it depends on the genre. I write big books, and will not put out more than 3 books a calendar year. My first three books are coming out quickly because my agent wanted me to be able to build a readership. There is also a danger of over exposure. It’s very nice to say let the creative juices guide you, but this is a business, and some practicality has to be involved as well. Tweeted and share.

    • I think that you’ve had a really smart career-starting strategy, Ella! I’ve been watching and it seems to be working very well for you. But yeah, balancing the business aspect with the creative aspect of writing is definitely the hardest part of this job. Thanks!

  4. Nicely put. I think the idea is not to write X number of novels a year, but to write X number of GOOD novels a year, and every writer has their own pace to do that. Also, something I haven’t seen mentioned so far in this overall discussion (not just here on this blog): we change as writers over time. We write differently and our books change, too. What we want to write changes, and our lives and priorities might change, we get older, our lives change, and all of that feeds into writing. There’s no simple formula, no easy rule — the most important thing is to be in touch with what you want as a writer — what you want to accomplish — and then work from there, whatever that means. I always fall back on the Annie Dillard quote “what we do with our days is what we do with our lives” (paraphrased). That puts different weight on writing for me.

    I don’t think the number of books out matters, really, and isn’t the question we should be focusing on — if the books are good, the readers will find you. Focus on what makes you happy, and what makes you a better writer.

    Sam

    • That’s a really good point, Sam! Thanks! I know that I’ve changed a lot as a writer since publishing The Loyal Heart two and a bit years ago. My working style has changed, my editing style has changed, and above all, I’ve gotten better. I guess I worry that the industry doesn’t really allow authors the time to write conscientiously and to get better now.

      • I hear you, absolutely… though the thing is, the industry changes, too 😉 What it was 20 years ago is different from now (as you point out) and what it will be 5 years from now will be different, and so on. The way you deal with that is knowing how you work, and sticking to that, no matter what goes on around you. IMO, anyway. 😉

        Sam

        • Ooo! I get all tingly when I think about where the publishing industry might be in 5 years. Things are changing so fast nowadays that it boggles the mind! This is also one of the reasons I stick to writing the books I want to write instead of chasing fads. 😉

  5. Brilliant post!
    I’ve recently given up on a bunch of my favorite authors who released a whole chunk of books they’d obviously spent a bit of time writing (years) and then, after they got their publishing deals, ended up pumping new ones out far too quickly. The lack of nuance and intricacy in character and plot was really evident in the latter ones after a while and it was so upsetting given how talented these ladies are.

    I think there’s far too much pressure on authors and I really worry that it’s going to lead to an overall burnout in the long run.

    • Thanks, Georgina! I’ve noticed the same thing, I hate to say, even from my favorite authors. I also suspect that after an author gains a huge following, resources are allocated away from editing them because publishing companies know they have a sure thing. That’s my theory, and I wonder what the bestselling authors would say to it. 😉

  6. A great post, Merry, and it answers my question perfectly. I prefer quality over quantity any day. So, I’ll keep plodding along at a steady pace I’m comfortable with 🙂

    • Thanks, Juanita! And I say do it. I think the key to writing a good book (and let’s face it, good books are the ones that sell) is writing at the pace you feel comfortable with.

  7. So glad you weighed in on this. The push to publish quantity is interesting as a writer. I’m chugging along at the same speed as normal, and hoping for the best.

    As a reader, I’m more than willing to wait a year for the next book. There are enough novels to fill the gap between the ones that require us to abandon family and sink into a chair.

  8. So glad you weighed in on this. The push to publish quantity is interesting as a writer. I’m chugging along at the same speed as normal, and hoping for the best.

    As a reader, I’m more than willing to wait a year for the next book. There are enough novels to fill the gap between the ones that require us to abandon family and sink into a chair.

    • I’m willing to wait a year for the authors I love too. The trick is having enough books out there to catch the attention of readers so that you are the writer they wait for. Then again, a bigger and bigger part of me is convinced that that can be done with marketing the books you have well instead of writing copious amounts of okay books.

  9. I can write a 100k novel in 3 months, but that’s JUST a first draft. No way I could write and publish four books a year. The most I am hoping for is one novel and one novella a year. I wrote, revised and published a 25k novella in 3 months, but I was also only working part-time when I did that.

    • I’ve found that I can draft fairly fast too, but as Hemingway says, the first draft of everything I write is doo-doo. In fact, the first draft that I’m working on right now is just painfully awful. You’re right, it needs time to sit and percolate and layers of revisions before it will be anything. That’s what makes a book great. And it’s also so hard to write and have a day job. 😛

  10. Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post. Even though I have several books written, they still need to be edited. After having uploaded the first book twice, I don’t want to go through that again. I want what I release to be as near perfect as possible. In the meantime, I also have a full time job that I also want to be done well. So for me the only answer is to go slow and hope my readership will spread as my books release. Most of the authors I follow release a book, maybe two a year (and usually that is a hardback going to paperback and a new hardback release). I will continue to plod along and hope the quality outdoes the quantity and my readership will build.

  11. I so agree about the percolating process, Merry. Although I write fast, my books sit for many, many months, sometimes many years while I start other books and then eventually go back to finish or completely revise them. I started a WW2 story 10 years ago. It’s taken me longer than the real war to write it 🙂 and has ended up so long, it’s now a trilogy! But I’ve learned a lot about writing in the meantime, researched a lot about WW2 and even visited the area it’s set in in France, to add authenticity.
    What I’m really conscious of now that I’ve moved from being Trad published to Indie, is to employ the best editor I could find. Her help with structure and revisions is invaluable. Unfortunately, too many Indie pubs think that’s a step they can get away with not paying for – and it shows!
    Great topic btw!

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