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

Illustration for article titled What Samuel R. Delany Can Tell Publishing About Its Latest Trend

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.

Illustration for article titled What Samuel R. Delany Can Tell Publishing About Its Latest Trend

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.

Illustration for article titled What Samuel R. Delany Can Tell Publishing About Its Latest Trend

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.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


The difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is that genre fiction is very often what could be described as commodity fiction. It's like mass-produced, cheap chocolate bars — nummy while you're consuming it, but quickly forgotten, and probably not very good for you. Literary fiction aspires to be the broccoli of writing, or at the very least, the rare, hand-made chocolate treats from small shops in Europe — finely crafted, memorable and, if not good for you, then at least it enhances your life in a singular way. That's the idea, anyway.

Commodity fiction is relatively easy to produce (by someone, if not by a particular author). Back in the days of pulp magazines, for example, guys like Lester Dent pumped out novel-length manuscripts every month. Of course, these were often much shorter works — a typical Doc Savage novel might barely qualify as a novel as far as word count goes.

Personally, I wouldn't mind if publishing veered back toward producing shorter books. Novels today are typically 100,000 words or more, which had more to do with filling up space in supermarket book racks than anything. Personally, I'd like to see more novels in the 40,000-60,000 word range, or even novellas. It would, if nothing else, make me feel like less of a slacker because I can neither read nor write as fast as I used to.