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What Samuel R. Delany Can Tell Publishing About Its Latest "Trend"

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Almost every article you read about books lately bemoans the fact that nobody reads any more — except that now, in the age of ebooks, you're starting to hear the opposite complaint. A recent New York Times article says people are reading too much, and too quickly.

This, in turn, is meaning authors are under pressure to crank out books faster. In the past, the industry standard has been one book a year for many books considered "genre" fiction, which includes everything from fantasy to westerns to mysteries to romance to science fiction. (Why the majority of published fiction is called genre fiction is a bit of a mystery.) But now, publishers are expecting authors to turn out multiple books a year — or at least supplement new book releases with short stories and novellas. Short stories released as ebooks seem to be the marketing equivalent of those tiny spoons of ice cream you get to check out new flavors. Their low prices are designed to entice readers to try out new books and new authors.


The demand for multiple novels a year, however, seems to be more about reader demand than improving an author's fan base. According to the Times James Patterson (and his co-writers) released 12 books last year. And while that's great for James Patterson and his publisher Little, Brown & Co, it's not great for anyone else writing thrillers. If readers can get a monthly fix of one author, what will encourage them to seek out new authors? As more and more authors publish multiple novels a year, we run the risk of creating authorial monopolies.


The authors who can't hire armies of ghost writers to fill these impossible quotas may spend much of their time struggling to produce two or more books a year. An author quoted in the article says her writing days last as long as 14 hours. And that's not good for authorial output in the long run. We know this because science fiction writers used to regularly write at that pace.

In Samuel R. Delaney's 1972 essay "Letter to a Critic" he writes,

"[V]irtually every great name in s-f-Sturgeon, Bester, Bradbry, Knight, Merril, Leiber, Pohl, Van Vogt, Asimov, Tenn, del Rey, Clarke — any writer, indeed, who began publishing in the thirties or forties when these high production [4-6 books a year] demands became tradition — has had at least one eight-to-sixteen-year period when he could write no science fiction at all. "


So if you love your favorite author, encourage them to write at a reasonable and healthy pace so they don't burn out, leaving you bereft of their books for a decade or two. Spend time finding new authors to fill in the gaps between regularly scheduled books.