The New York Times has an interesting piece by Julie Bosman positing that, thanks to the ease with which e-books now allow authors to publish and self-publish, and let readers buy instantaneously, authors are now feeling “obligated” to write more, faster. Rather than publish the “usual” one book per year, authors are pressured to “[pull] the literary equivalent of a double shift” and write more frequently.
“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” said Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”
It’s not just publishers asking the writers to do more, the article explains, but sometimes authors feel the need to keep busy themselves, just to make sure their name stays out there in the public eye. And since e-books are much more conducive to impulse-buying, having more titles available more often means they’re likely to sell more often to voracious readers who want to read anything they can get their hands on from their favorite authors.
While I do strongly believe more story-writing is happening, I’m not sure I would characterize it as the bad thing that Bosman seems to imply it is. I’m also not sure I would say it’s as much of a change as Bosman thinks, either. Writers have always written short stories in addition to published novels, in order to pay the rent.
The difference is that previously they were limited to the available markets for short stories—mostly magazines such as Fantasy & Science Fiction for, well, fantasy and science fiction, or Ellery Queen for mystery. And those could only take a few stories per month, and pay has gotten steadily worse as the market for short story magazines declined. Heck, even Baen’s recent go at a SF short story magazine only lasted a few years before folding. But now the stigma against selling short stories or novellas individually has lessened since e-book sales aren’t constrained by format limitations of physical books, so writers can self-publish short stories on-line inexpensively (and more frequently than entire books).
Of course, there have been a few writers who bucked the trend and self-published short stories already. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (from whose Facebook I originally found this article) are one example, in that for years they would self-publish a Christmas chapbook every year for $10 or $11, containing two short stories or one novella for fans of their Liaden Universe stories who had to have more. They actually operated their own small publishing press, SRM Books, to release those chapbooks and periodical collections of the stories within them.
Now that they’re publishing with Baen, Lee and Miller have closed down SRM Books so that they can devote the time and effort they previously put into it into writing more novels to publish through Baen instead—they have at least five novels that I know of contracted through Baen for the next couple of years. But they’re still writing and self-publishing “e-chapbooks” (such as “Courier Run,” pictured above) through Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble as well.
In fact, from December 2011 through February 2012 they were able to publish one e-chapbook per month (though some of the stories from these had previously been web-published elsewhere). And since they don’t have to be physically printed and mailed, these e-chapbooks can sell for $2.99, less than one third the price of the print editions, meaning a lot more people will be willing to shell out for them.
Furthermore, I’m not sure where that one-book-per-year yardstick even came from. Just as there have long been writers who take several years between books, there have always been some exceptionally prolific writers who turned out far more than one book per year, even going back decades. Most notably, pulp writers wrote like crazy because it was a way to earn good money in the Great Depression. Walter B. Gibson wrote 282 issues of The Shadow over the twenty years of the pulp magazine’s life—two novel-length books per month. And then there’s phenomenally prolific mystery writer John Creasey, who wrote over 600 books under 28 pseudonyms from 1932 until his death in 1973. None of those guys needed e-books to make them write any faster!
And some writers are still doing that today. David Weber is known to write several books a year, over several publishers, and starts new series so often that it can be quite some time between new books in his existing series. (And he does it using voice recognition software since wrist injuries made it harder for him to type, no less!) Even the New York Times article points out that James Patterson produced 12 books last year, though some of them were co-authored.
So, yes, I’m sure some writers are writing more because e-publication is ever easier. And I’m sure their fans are thrilled and happy to throw more money at them every time they have the chance. That seems to be an equitable arrangement on both sides.