How Many Books You Should Write In a Year
Folks have pointed me toward this Huffington Post piece, begging self-published authors not to write four books a year, because the author (Lorraine Devon Wilke) maintains that no mere human can write four books a year and have them be any good. This has apparently earned her the wrath of a number of people, including writer Larry Correia, who snarks apart the piece here and whose position is that a) the premise of the article is crap, and b) authors should get paid, and if four books a year gets you paid, then rock on with your bad self. I suspect people may be wanting to have me comment on the piece so I can take punches at either or both Wilke or Correia, and are waiting, popcorn at ready.
If so, you may be disappointed. With regard to Correia’s piece, Larry and I disagree on a number of issues unrelated to writing craft, but we align fairly well here, and to the extent that I’m accurately condensing his points here, we don’t really disagree. One, there are a lot of writers who write fast and well, for whom four books a year of readable, enjoyable prose is not a stretch. And, you know. If you can do that, and you want to do that, and you see an economic benefit to it, then why not do it?
Two, there really isn’t a huge correlation between time writing and quality of the finished work. Yes, as Wilke notes, The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt eleven years to write, and she got a Pulitzer for it, but so what? A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was famously written in three weeks and is generally considered to be one of the great novels of the 20th Century. We can have an argument to which novel of the two is better, but that’s not the point, and anyway no matter what the two are within hailing distance of each other. The point is, again, there’s not a huge correlation between time writing and quality of finished work, particularly when one is cherry-picking one’s examples.
How much time does it take to write a novel? As long as it takes. I wrote Redshirts in five weeks; it took me most of a year to write The End of All Things. Which is better? It’s a subjective call. On average it takes me three to four months of daily work to write a novel. Would my novels be better if I took two years each on them? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. I write the speed I write because that’s the speed I write. If I inherently wrote faster, then they would take less time. If I inherently wrote slower, then they would take more. I suspect the inherent quality of the work would remain about equal, because I am the writer I am.
Also, you know. What a “novel” or “book” is, is a very fungible thing. The term “novel” encompasses a book like The Goldfinch, which is almost 300,000 words, and Redshirts, which was 55,000 words, not counting the codas. The more-or-less official lower length of a novel is 40,000 words; at the other extreme, Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem, slated for publication next year, is a million words long. I don’t recommend trying to write four Jerusalems in a year. But on the other hand, four 40,000 word stories? That’s entirely doable for a very large number of writers.
Moreover, with specific reference to self-pubbed folks, they have a considerable amount of flexibility toward the length of their books. All of my novels are contracted to be around 100,000 words, because that makes for a nice-sized book on the bookstore shelf (this is one reason, among others, why I added the codas to Redshirts). I have some flexibility there, but add up the total word count for all my published novels to date, and you get very close to 100k as an average word count number. Self-pubbed books can be considerably shorter, and many are. So again, four books of competent, readable prose is not a stretch in that case.
The economic argument for writing that much in a year is pretty simple: If you do, you give yourself more sales opportunities; there are more targets with which to draw in new readers and to keep continuing readers happy. Wilke might argue that these all aren’t Pulitzer-quality works, but even if they aren’t: So what? Not everything readable has to be in serious contention for the Pulitzer. It’s okay to eat a cheeseburger; it’s okay to read the literary equivalent of a cheeseburger. Believe it or not, some people will read both The Goldfinch and a literary cheeseburger! Because people are like that.
With all that said, I suspect that at least part of what Wilke was aiming at was that one shouldn’t feel compelled to write four books a year, just because a self-pubbed author (or any other type of author, for that matter) read something somewhere that said four books a year was what every self-pubbed author should or must do to make money. And you know what? If that’s actually part of Wilke’s argument, then she’s correct.
She’s correct for a couple of reasons. One, and most simply: Not everyone can write four books worth reading in a year, regardless of length. Because here’s a thing: There’s more to a book than word count. There’s also what you do with the words, not to mention general plotting and organization and, moving away from the purely “creative” aspect, production and distribution, the latter aspects of which self-pubbed authors have to attend to directly (other authors get the benefit of a publisher to deal with a lot of that). Some people have a lot of bandwidth for this sort of stuff; other people don’t.
If you’re one of the people who don’t, then aiming for four books in a year, every year, isn’t going to be beneficial for you. You’ll end up drained and fatigued, and writing/producing inferior work, and it will be obvious. You’ll be punished for it, in the sense that people will stop paying you for your work. If you’re writing four books worth of crap, well. People will eat cheeseburgers, but very few people will eat crap. Don’t serve up crap.
What is actually important for writers to do, all of them, regardless of publishing method, is to find their pace for how they write, and what they write. One writer can happily crank out four books a year, in which case, good for them. Another writer will take years to write a book they’re happy with. In which case, good for them, too. These two writers should not try to write at each others’ pace; they’ll both be unhappy.
Nor is it 100% certain that the “four books a year” writer will make more money than the “one book every few years” writer. Andy Weir, as far as I know, has only one book, but that one book is The Martian, so it’s a reasonable guess he’s making more than almost every “four books a year” author. The four books a year author has more shots on goal, but if your one shot hits the bullseye, then it doesn’t matter. Yes, I did just mix metaphors there. Deal with it. Point is: money is possible at every speed.
Which bring me to my next point: be aware that there’s more than one recipe to making money as a writer. I write a novel in three to four months on average, and I have a backlog of story ideas, so it’s a pretty safe bet that I could write three or even four novels a year. I don’t. Why? Well, because I do other things with my time that make money, and also, make me happy. One novel a year, more or less, plus my other activities, has done very well for me. Other writers publish more and are happy; others publish less and are also perfectly happy. There’s not a right path for everyone. There is, however, likely a best path for you.
(Nor is it a given that every writer should have as their hard goal for writing “making money.” It’s a fine goal — I’m all for it! — and if indeed you want to write as your primary means of income then clearly you have to factor that into your workflow. But not every writer wants to, or should. You can be a writer, and be a professional writer, and do other things too. It’s allowed. And indeed, in many circumstances it can offer you more flexibility for your writing than being a full-time writer allows. Just to put that out there.)
So how many books should you write in a year? As many as you like, and as many as you can do, within your ability, for the sort of writing you want to do. What you need to do is to discover what your own capabilities are, and then work within them. Write the books you would want to read, and buy. If you can do four of those a year, great. If you do one of those every eleven years, that’s good too. Most writers, I suspect, will fall in between those two data points. That’ll work.