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Are Super Prolific Authors Damaging Their Careers?

Does over production ultimately put the writer at risk for damaging their long-term career?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

You have Jonathan Franzen then you have Joyce Carol Oates, you have George R.R. Martin and then you have James Patterson…some writers produce works slowly, painstakingly over years, while others produce two or three titles per year. And with digital publishing and self-publishing the pace has become even more frenetic as DIY authors look to feed their growing audiences with new books while they have readers’ attention.

But is the rush to supply a demanding market of readers ultimately damaging to writers careers? Oates and Patterson are outliers who have been able to sustain magnificent careers often in spite of their over production. While few would argue that a new JCO novel is hailed as an event, she still manages every other year or so to win critical acclaim, even if a large number of her books go all but unnoticed by a broader audience; Patterson, helped by co-authors, produces a stream of “branded” James Patterson books and is as much an asset for his publisher Little, Brown as are, say, their offices, staff, and backlist (you can thank him for funding so many of Little, Brown’s smaller passion projects).

But what of authors doing it on their own? The super-prolific self-published who have managed to sell hundreds of thousands of books? Digital publishing has given them the opportunity to reach an audience, to make a living from their writing, and develop a career. The question is, ultimately, how will these writers sustain their careers? Will the pace of writing burn them out? Will readers grow bored? And, with a lack of time to hone one’s production, will the quality of the work diminish rather than improve?

One might argue that the quality of the work was never the point to begin with — prolific production was always intended as a commercial exercise. You often see in traditional publishing how authors who have had successful debut novels, forced under a generous contract to quickly produce a follow up, fail to deliver a book worthy of the first (which they may have invested years or decades in writing). The result can range from significantly reduced advances to a derailed career altogether. (Then, hopefully, in America — a second shot at redemption further along the line with a different publisher.)

So, tell us what you think, does over production ultimately put the writer at risk for developing a long-term career? Or is the need to capitalize on immediate success so urgent that one keep their head down, produce as much as possible as quickly as possible, and hope for the best?

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4 Comments

  1. Vincent
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Over production? Depends if you treat the writing of a book as a artistic adventure: painful and soulful. Some write a book a year, some take years to bring one book to the world. Oh the pain, oh the starin of being soo creative. The tortured soul of an artist!
    But what of the craftsman that produces blown glass vases day after day. Each piece of glass a finished artwork. Working in heat and physical conditions, great art is produced and sold.
    The writer who writes quickley, will do so. Those that work – create – at a more sedate pace will ultimately produce less work, but not be necessaly be any less wealthy.
    Be painters, writers, engineers, designers; we all produce what we can when we can.

  2. Maria M.
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Ebooks should accelerate the publishing process but not the process of creating a book. And if you work hard and professionally on a book, its publication is also something special as it once was. If it’s published faster and more accessible to all, much better. It’s great that more people can now publish their books or ideas. But I agree that we should not rush the writing and design process of the book by the only fact that it can be published right now.

  3. Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I am not sure there’s a direct connection between the digital revolution and the explosion in writers’ production. It seems to me that some writers have always been more prolific than others (Patterson and Joyce Carol Oates are cases in point) and they were so long before ebooks came along. Over the past forty years, there has been a development in the “genre” industry, sustained by the traditional publishing model. Publishers always knew that romance sold more than sci-fi and they planned accordingly.

    And when you say “genre”, you’re talking about assembly-line literature. A genre has well-defined criteria, and to write within a genre is to use a recipe – ok, sometimes a complex recipe and some writers are better at it than others – but still a recipe. A lot of genre literature is based on series: same hero or heroine, just different adventures. Therefore, it becomes a lot easier to produce more than one genre book per year. Tweak a character’s features, change the location, add an outside event that might be something you read in the news, and voilà, you have yet another book in your series.

    Will that kill your chances of making a career as a writer? No, not if you’re a genre writer. On the contrary, it will help your sales. And the process no doubt is made much easier by electronic publishing. But, as I said before, the process started well before the digital revolution. Now, if you’re a literary sort and a great artist who needs years to produce that masterpiece, well, no, trying to produce one novel per year might very well kill you – or at least cause you to write a book that isn’t as good as it could be and your fans will surely notice…

  4. Steven
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Isaac Asimov had a few master pieces of speculative science fiction. He authored about 500 books, which is pretty amazing. If you ever look at the massive volumes of stories and fragments that we have from JRR Tolkien, he was pretty prolific himself. They also say that Freud wrote enough books to fill a book case, though most people focus on a small quantity of his literature. Another genre: Mozart and Bach are two composers who wrote massive quantities of literature. Finally, one more genre: Picasso. Usually the law of supply and demand apply to the works of artists. Yet routinely, Picasso pieces are sold for incredible sums, despite the fact that his creative output was prodigious.

    So, I think that quantity and quality are related to the individual rather than how fast one might clock one author versus another, and take one piece of work to make a qualitative analysis of it and declare that it has quality because it took so darned long.

    And, now that Canada doesn’t make pennies any more I must no longer say that those are my two cents.

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