On Productivity and Publishing

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.

About Michael Davis

2 responses to “On Productivity and Publishing

  • popegrutch

    As a librarian, of course, I can literally name dozens, if not hundreds, or writers who put out a book a year. I understand your point, but I honestly feel that the art v business dichotomy involves some false premises. All human activity involves both: madames have their artistic side and poets their business to perform. Some of the most brilliant, insightful people I’ve ever met write trash I have no interest in reading.
    I tend to look at productivity in different terms: you’re on this planet for only so long. How much of yourself do you want to share in that brief span? Is a book a year too much or too little?


  • Michael Davis

    Hey, thanks for commenting. I agree–time is very limited and art is long. Art vs. business is not a real dichotomy. And everyone will be different in terms of how much they produce. On the other hand, the perspective of the artist can’t be identical to that of the businessman. Sure, everything has its commercial side. My problem is with the will-to-commodification that thinks of books as “units.” In one sense, books are units. But if you want to be a writer and that’s the way you think–if that’s your emphasis–you should be doing something else…


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