A Book A Year
Posted on June 10, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 40 Comments
There’s some grumbling out there in the writerverse about this article, in which some bestselling novelists bitch and moan about their publisher’s hope that they’ll bang out a book year. Publishers want a book year because it works really well with the publishing cycle: An author’s new hardcover book will come out just as his or her previous book goes into mass market paperback, thus pumping up the sales of both and getting readers into the virtuous cycle of hoping for (and expecting) another book at the same time in the next year. The problem is that writing a book a year is kind of a drag; heck, it seems like work. This attitude is naturally annoying to those writers who would strangle fluffy kittens if it meant they could publish a book a year, or alternately to those who are publishing more than a novel a year, many of whom are wondering if these authors would like a pillow for their widdle heads.
My thought about it: Well, if it works for them, why not? There is a stratum of writers whose readers will be happy to read them whenever they do get around to publishing, rather than needing to be prompted by an annual cycle. Whether these novelists are the same novelists who are currently complaining about the imposition of an annual schedule is another matter entirely. But they certainly do exist. Many of them exist because in earlier portions of their publishing careers they did publish on an annual schedule, i.e., they gave their readers something to rely on. So there’s a little irony there. But the irony doesn’t mean these authors are wrong about no longer needing to publish annually if they choose not to.
Personally I sort of go in the opposite direction at the moment. In 2009 I have only one new novel slated: The High Castle, which is looking to come out in the May – June timeframe. Having only one new book out for the whole calendar year makes me twitchy. Now if I think about it logically, this is silly: the trade paperback of Agent is out in November, and for most readers it qualifies as a new book, and then I’ll have another novel out in early 2010; i.e., seven months or so later. Be that as it may: a whole calendar year with just one novel in it. If I didn’t also currently have a novella slated for the year, I’d be even more twitchy. I like having work out there on a frequent basis. Also there’s the matter that while my sales are pretty good, if I published less than a novel a year I’d definitely feel it in the pocketbook.
So I don’t expect you’ll see less than a novel a year from me for some time now — presuming, that is, that someone out there keeps wanting to publish me that frequently. Right now they do. Lucky me. And, hopefully, lucky you.
“In 2009 I have only one new novel slated: The High Castle, which is looking to come out in the May – June timeframe.”
Time to start camping out at Barnes & Noble!
Okay, maybe not. But I must admit, and hopefully without sounding like a kiss-ass, that this book tops the list of novels I’m looking forward to.
Maybe I’m confused, but if your worst problem is that people want more of your creative work more frequently, and wish to pay you cash money for it, then it seems like your best move is to just quietly count your blessings.
What I find interesting is the kind of people who are able to write like that, and do it well, are actually not as rare as I think they should be.
The idea of producing a novel, A WHOLE NOVEL, still seems like some marvelous gift from the heavens. The ideas, the words, that must keep flowing….it’s astounding, because I haven’t done it yet.
Sometimes I doubt I ever will.
But one a year? OR MORE?
Crap on a stick…
Good on you, mate, and all your ilk.
Well, you know. Writing is actual work, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, and I do think a lot of folks are reasonably concerned that being put on a yearly schedule won’t give them time to come up with new ideas, etc. Given the choice between writing crap yearly or writing better stuff over longer periods, a lot of writers will go for the latter. I’m not at the point where I have to make that choice (knock on wood), but I like to think I’d go for quality, too.
Several things pop into mind.
First, Graham Greene distinguished between his NOVELS and his ENTERTAINMENTS. So one can keep the publisher happy knocking out one of the latter each year, while taking one’s own sweet time with the former.
This seems to work for, say, serious novelists who write media spinoffs too, such as (Star Wars example): Kevin J. Anderson, Michael Stackpole, Barbara Hambly, Vonda McIntyre, Michael P. Kube-McDowell, and others.
For that matter, it works for writers who have serious and fast-written funny novels in series, such as Piers Anthony.
Second, if one has multiple series, whose cycles are relatively prime to each other in annual timing, one often has a book in a given year.
Third, there is a misplaced assumption by the publisher that the book is product, which can be ground out on an assembly line basis. Norman Mailer had a nasty divorce trial (wife sued for bigamy, and it turned out that he was in fact married to 3 women at once).
The judge, attempting to craft a rmedy based on annual income, asked Mailer how much money he’d made that year.
“One million dollars,” said Mailer, and was cut off.
The judge awarded a half million dollars a year to the plaintiff. Mailer tried to explain that he’d spent a decade working on the book that came out in the year at question, but the judge gavelled him down.
Fortunately, you know that you (like I) got very very lucky in whom we married, and never intend or expect to be in Norman Mailer’s situation. To put it mildly.
…Too, I wonder how much of this angst has to do with reluctance to be shoved back into the pitch stage.
I’ve put off to six weeks copy I could’ve written properly in a week and a half, all because of twisty passages in my psyche that run screaming away from bizdev. My editor is understanding, thank goodness.
On further reflection I wonder how many of these people are griping because the advance is a given, but they don’t get along well with their editors.
I think I can write a novel a year because of what I write, but supposing you write historical fiction or seven hundred word literary masterpieces? Sometimes it takes forever to do research. Interestingly, my husband who is a singer/songwriter thought a year for a novel was ample time, but I bet if I told him he had to do a CD a year with all new songs, he might think a bit differently! Sure, the first year he’s got all the new songs he hasn’t recorded yet. And maybe he could pull off the second year…but in between promoting them and touring and living his life, when would he write the third CD?
What slackers. You guys should all be like PK Dick, spewing out twelve novels in one methamphetamine hazed year.
Oh, it’s tempting, Steve.
It really depends on both the writer, and the book. My first big book was with HarperCollins, Bodies in Motion. It took me four years to write. They contracted for a novel to accompany it, which I was supposed to write in a year. I agreed to try — and in fact drafted the novel (The Arrangement) in four months. I wasn’t thrilled with the draft, but it was done. My editor wasn’t thrilled with it either. I went through four revisions with the editor, over the next eight months, trying to get it to a point that we were both happy with it. It didn’t happen, and we finally agreed to go our separate ways.
The entire experience was horrible and traumatic; I feel like I wasted much of a writing year, trying to write a book faster than it needed. (And I say this as someone who has written short fiction books that I’m happy with in two months in the past — every book has its own demands, its own pace.) I went into the only major depression I’ve ever experienced, and didn’t write anything for much of the next year. It took that long to get my confidence back, my faith in my writing and talent.
It would be tempting to blame the publisher for pushing so hard that I finish that first novel in a year, but in truth, the responsibility was mine, as a writer — to say to them, a few months into the project, “I’m sorry, but I can tell now that this book is going to take longer to do right.” The trouble is, as a new writer — or at least a writer new to the NY publishing scene — it’s really hard to trust your own writerly instincts when an editor is telling you that they think something different. You’re so grateful to be published by them, and you want so badly to prove to them that you’re everything they hope you will be — especially if they’ve given you a nice advance on the project!
I wish I’d had a more experienced writer around that year, to tell me that I needed to stand up to my editor, stand up for myself, and my book. Because they’re not mind-readers either, and with the best of intentions, they can push you in entirely the wrong direction.
Hell, I’d write TWO books a year if the money was right.
Quite frankly my opinion isn’t worth the cost of posting this message since I have yet to finish my first novel. That said – If you’re at the 5k advance level and still working the day job to make rent, a book a year may not be reasonable. But if you are actually supporting yourself through your fiction sales, while you may not technically be an employee, you have a job and some industry wide standards – suck it up. If you are already a rock star, well then you have plenty of negotiating power to do what you want. But if you are like, most of the rest of the world (or at least the US) you work long hard hours and have to deal with difficult professional expectations. Deal with it or don’t, we all have choices in life.
Ok that may have been a little harsh – to many deadlines are putting me in a bad mood
Hey, everybody has their own process, every project has its own shape. Naturally, I would love to write fiction as fast as Jay Lake and as well as Vernor Vinge, but it’s pretty clear that Vernor Vinge does not write as well as he does by writing as fast as Jay Lake.
The novel I recently completed (my first) took me about five months to actually write/type. But, I’d been working on the idea in notes and in my mind for almost nine years. It’s the great old question: “So, how long did it take you to write your book?”
As for the second volume, well, it would be nice to finish it within a year’s time, but given the large scope/scale of the project (it’s in the fantasy genre), it’s not something I want to, or will, rush. When it comes to novels like this, however long it takes to finish it will be the right amount of time. But, I’m no prima donna. I want to get it written as soon as I can. I mean, shit, how long did it take George RR Martin to get the 4th volume in his series out? Forever? There is a tipping point when it comes to reader patience, methinks. It’s something I’m already sensitive to. It’s just a matter of finding the right balance when it comes to quality and time pressure.
Bottom line: I care more about having a book I’m happy with than meeting a deadline. The deadline will pass (as will the “marketing strategy” behind it), but that book will be as I finished it forever.
Thanks for making me feel astoundingly prolific. I used to consider my output glacial because it takes me a whole year to crank out a 100,000-word novel.
Hum. I’m intrigued by comments like “It’s fine if you don’t have a life” by Patricia
What counts as “having a life”? I know that creative work isn’t done fully with eight hours a day solidly typing, whiteboarding out plot elements, et cetera but by the same token one *whole* year – 365 days, of which one can reasonably expect to be awake and sober for at least half of that, even for real party animals…. how much life does a person need?
I’m just bitter ’cause I’ve been working my guts out for a month. I’ll have a life when I’m done with this project, oh yes… I’ll go outside and everything…
As someone who just signed a contract for a second series—meaning I’m delivery TWO books a year–I’m a little amused. I took this jump because of math: I need to deliver a 100k book in a year. That’s a little over 8K a month. Assuming I only write 20 days a month (i.e., like a “real” job), that’s a little over 400 words a day. A little over a page.
Am I going to keep double that schedule? 800 words a day? We’ll see. But I’m not panicking.(yet).
Maybe I don’t anguish enough about my creativity and work. But as lots of folks mentioned, I think it also depends on the book and the author. And, like most mainstream journalism, this Boston Globe article (my hometown paper. go sox) is painting a very wide brush across a very few authors. Try complaining about this at any genre conventions and watch the beatings commence.
…strangle fluffy kittens.”
-Scalzi’s guide to publishing.
“And in truly tragic news today, the SF world was rocked by the admissions of storied SF author John Scalzi that after melting his daughter to a sofa, feeding TempDog to his large attack Akita, that in his regular methamphetamine-induced stupor needed to keep writing more than one book a year, he frequently strangles fluffy kittens…
“Now over to Sports with Jim — say, how about them Cubbies?”
My first novel took a year for the first draft. My most recent took 90 days for the first draft. My other one took two years for the first draft. Different novels take different times.
Having said that, I don’t think a book a year is unreasonable. As a former bookstore manager I can certainly say that it’s the best way to build an audience.
Although I appreciate you staking out a position and defending it, I’ve been told by some very well respected writers that they can not produce a book every year. And I believe them. Then again, as I understand it, signing the contract is not compulsory. If you know you’re not going to produce your next book by the deadline, then don’t sign. Does this really require collective bargaining? Is it so hard for a writer to negotiate this on their own? I guess that’s what I’d like to know.
Anecdotally, I outlined the book I am planning to a writer friend, and he said it sounded great, and it will take me at least two years to write. He’s correct. If you have something that’s very research intensive, you may need a whole year just to do research.
Well, as I noted upthread, it’s better to be good than fast, and I certainly don’t hold it against any writer if they can’t produce a book a year. I’m glad I can, however, since that sort of output lends itself to the dynamics of the book business as it exists.
Iain Banks used to write a novel a year, but he’d do it in 3 months and take 9 months off. That sounds like a good plan. If only I had his talent and creativity.
supposing you write historical fiction or seven hundred word literary masterpieces?
I think even I could write 700 words in a year. :)
I’ll take quality over quantity in my favorite writers any day. The same goes for actors–I’d rather see excellent acting in one awesome movie a year than three or four awful performances with more media exposure. And it can be applied to musicians, politics, and Olympic sports, too!!!
I recently saw Stuart Woods speak at a conference. He explained that he went from writing 1 book a year to 2 books a year because he discovered his publisher would pay him twice as much money. He then moved on to 3, where he happily stays at the moment.
Ulrika #15 – are you equating speed to quality?
Joelle #8 – writers are paid to write, not tour. Musicians make a buck while touring. Writers CAN say no to promotional tours. Editors would prefer the next book more than the publicity tour.
“Editors would prefer the next book more than the publicity tour.”
I’d be careful about making that particular assertion, actually. There are times when it makes rather better sense for an author to promote a current work than immediate dive into the next writing cycle.
John – you mention High Castle coming out in 2009. I was rootling around in your archives recently and saw that you were writing this book in early 2007 and expecting it to come out in early 2008. Do you mind me asking why it’s been put back to 2009? Did Tor want to keep up the momentum of the OMW series and bring Zoe’s Tale out first?
Well, it is a generalization… Also, there is publisher driven publicity and writer driven publicity. You attend quite a bit of Conventions, which I don’t believe are paid for by your publisher nor are they required. I’m sure they don’t mind, but by the same token, if you were missing deadlines, they might prefer you cut back from cons if that was your excuse.
Clearly, I am speculating(since I am not an editor or published writer) and quite possibly am talking out my ass, but I don’t mind making an ass out of myself.
Oh, as a complete aside: (from an unpublished writer no less) I do not consider the book that took longest to write to be the best I’ve written.
I’d say a book a year is reasonable, every six months not so reasonable, and every three or four months it might even hurt because they just come too fast and don’t build up the anticipation.
(Speaking as a former bookstore manager.)
It really does come down to the individual author and what they can generate. But from a marketing PoV, keeping the attention of your fans/readers is a good idea. Over the years there have been several authors and/or series that when the new book comes out I just can’t pick up the thread again since it’s been so long since the last one I read.
Then there are the exceptions, aka the Rat Bastards(tm), John Ringo being a prime example. First Published in Aug. 2000 and has his 29th novel (inclueding colaborations, senior and junior) coming out this Aug. for his 8th Anniversery as a published author.
Yes, I’m a Founding Member of the Ringo Book of the Month Club. ;)
My agent told me when I signed with her that she would like to see me complete a book every year. Even better: every nine months.
I did the math and figured that I could manage that daily word count with room to spare. And that’s what I’m doing. My first novel will come out next year and I’ve working on the sequel right now.
As it turns out, it’s not the number of words you can type, it’s coming up with original, interesting characters and plots, along with creating stories that tie together in an effective way.
I have sympathize with those writers.
Contrariwise to #33 there’s Lois M Bujold who just about makes the one book a year rate.
I love both Ringo and Bujold (and just so as he’s not feeling left out our host here too) but while I buy everything Ringo writes I doubt that I (or anyone else for that matter) will be (re)reading most of them in 50 years time.
The majority of the Bujold opus OTOH is likely to be reread again and again because there is a craft(wo)manship in a Bujold book that just ain’t there in a Ringo one.
I actually think that a book every 6-9 months seems to be the pace that works well for a full time* author with few external commitments. Faster and the book stend to be rushed. Rushed through the editting cycle at least even if the author is happy with them. Slower is bad for all those sales related reasons and IMO means you’d better have been thinking (as Ms Bujold does) about pretty much every phrase in the book to make sure it was appropriate and (again like Bujold), you’d better have got those phrases RIGHT otherwise you’re just wasting time.
*Non full time authors are obviously different. If writing fiction fails to pay enough to keep the wolf from the door then time spent on something else is clearly required.
I’ve just had my thirteenth novel released to production at Tor, and I’ve been doing two novels a year for a while now.
If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t get easier with practice, it gets harder. Because if you’re doing it right, you mine out the easy stuff first — and you’re always pushing to do something better, something more challenging, and to extend your technique.
Sometime soon, I’m going to have to drop back to one book a year, just so I can spend the time on them to get them right. (Alas, there’s no niche for one book every eight or nine months; you get either one slot a year, or two slots a year, but the publishers’ marketing cycle isn’t designed for the convenience of writers — it’s designed for the convenience of the big chainstore book buyers.)
Isn’t this all based on the assumptions that the reader A) is trying this author for the first time and B) will like the new author enough to buy another book of his/her’s and C) wouldn’t buy that book if it was more expensive?
For myself, I don’t subscribe to this thinking. If I find an author I like enough to pick up more books by him/her, I’m going to get what’s available, not what’s cheap. That’s what I did with Scott Westerfeld’s Specials, and now I’ve got two books of a trilogy in paperback and one in hardcover. Not good for my OCD.
But they’ve been in the business longer than I have, they probably know what they’re talking about. I just think it’s a stretch. But every stretch counts in the industry.
High Castle was bumped on the schedule because I asked Tor if they would like Zoe’s Tale first and they said “Yes, please.”
A long time ago I worked in the publicity section of a large, independent bookstore. My then-boss said, “So-and-so used to write a really good book every two years. Now he does one every year, and they kinda suck.” Doesn’t seem to have had an effect on his sales, though.
(This was early 1990s and a mystery/thriller author, so no present oxen are getting gored.)