The Dilemma of the Prolific Writer

I have a few clients who are very prolific. As soon as they’ve finished a manuscript (including getting outside feedback and going through a few rounds of revisions) they’re always excited to move on to another. They immediately brainstorm a new story and get going on it. They can write two or more terrific manuscripts in a year.


For some authors, especially if they’re already established, this works out great because they’re able to contract those books as fast as they can write them. But for other authors, not so much.

The problem comes with a writer who is contracting with a publisher for the first time. Let’s say the publisher loves their writing and we get a two book deal. And with a prolific writer, those two books may already be complete before we even sign the contract. They’ll have edits and revisions to deal with over the next couple of years, but they’re going to want be writing also, since that’s what makes them happy. So they start on a new project.

Six months later, they’ve finished that new project and they’re antsy to do something with it. Unfortunately, it may not be that easy. We are now in the dead zone between signing a contract, and actually having a book released and some sales figures to show for it.

There’s a good chance we can’t shop or sell that new project, because the original publishing contract for those first two books prohibits an author from doing so for a specified length of time, which may last until the first book – or the last book – in the contract has been released.

That publisher may even have an option on the author’s “next work” and their contract may specify that they won’t exercise the option until a certain time. Their goal will be to get some meaningful sales data on that first book before they decide whether to buy more books from the author.

They also don’t want the author confusing their brand or cannibalizing their own sales by putting out books from another publisher while that first contract is still in play.

Of course, sometimes we try to soften these clauses in contracts (with varying success), but we also have to remember that the publisher needs to protect their investment in you, their author, and these clauses do make sense.

So what about my author who just got a two-book deal, both books are complete, a third is also complete, and she’s nearly finished with a fourth? I’m advising her:

1) Keep writing. We should be able to sell those books eventually.

2) Since there’s no hurry to write more books, spend more time on carefully building her brand and platform, including planning and writing her blog.

3) She can find other ways to make money from writing during this time. She can consider writing articles, or ghostwriting.

4) Selling other books under a pseudonym could be a possibility, but not one I recommend. All her books are firmly in her genre—the brand she’s trying to build. If she were writing under two names, she’d not only be competing with herself in the market, she’d also have to try and maintain social media presence under two names—something most authors won’t have the time or energy to do, especially when they still work the day job and have children at home.

Later in your career when you’re an established author, you’ll have more freedom and you may be able to publish with more than one house at a time; we’ll also have more leverage to negotiate these sticky clauses in publisher contracts.

But if you’re a new author, be aware that in the beginning, if you sign with a major publisher, that contract may be your only one for a year, two years or more.

Of course, that’s a pretty nice problem to have, don’t you think?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Lisa Kilian

    >It is quite the dilemma. Good thing it takes me three months to finish a short story.

    I am the impulsive writer. As soon as I feel that a project is finished, I want it out of my house!

  • Susan Cushman

    >Good information here. I have two books-in-progress, one nonfiction and one novel. Is it a good idea to query agents with one book but also let them know about the other one at the same time? Would the agent guide me as to which book has the most promise initially?

  • Beth Dunn

    >Great post. I'm a compulsive writer, so I would have found it hard to take if your advice had not been "keep writing." :)

    But I do like the advice to think about diversifying — work on your blog, write some articles, work on different formats. I also like to "get meta" if I have time on my hands — think more deeply about the thing I'm doing, and how I can help others with it. So maybe it's time to mentor a high school writer, look for opportunities for public speaking, or volunteer at a writing center.

    It is all go here in Cranford, as they say.

  • phyllis sweetwater

    >So what if I write two completely different genres – YA adventure and poetry. Could I publish my poetry under a pen name without competing with myself?

  • T. Anne

    >A problem I would love to have.

    I’m prolific as well, but I’m also realistic. And as I continue to create new WIPs, I feel like I’m honing my craft a little better each time. I can’t take a break for too long before I feel like I’m getting rusty, so for me the solution would be to soldier on and have fun doing it no matter how fast any of it makes it to publication.

  • Keli Gwyn

    >Thanks for the helpful information, Rachelle. I'm one writer who's taking notes.

  • Phil

    >I'm in the prolific category. I'm aiming to write 12 novels this year, one each month by hitting 2,740 words per day. I'm fully aware that they're all first drafts, and that this is just a ludicrous year of writing, but my goal is slay my inner editor and really work my way into my own voice.

    Which means next year, if all goes well, writing 4 novels per year shouldn't be a problem. Ah, hubris!

    Question: if you write different novels in different genres from the get-go (say one in fantasy, one in sci-fi), can you submit to multiple publishing houses straight away if one is under a pen name?

  • Dawn Embers

    >That is a bit of a dilemma but one I think I'd be okay with having. I wouldn't call myself a prolific writer but I am a bit of an ADD one. Do like the idea of being the prolific writer as that has a nice ring to it. For me, I struggle with picking one out of the many and focusing on that story alone for more than a month. So, when I have the book I'm working on ready to submit there will be at least 5 others in various stages that will be close to submission as well. Some close-ish in genre and others very different.

    I try to look at it as an in the long run type of advantage. I hope that in the long run it will help me to have worked on so many books before getting anything published.

  • Aimee L Salter

    >Two words: I wish.

    *sigh*

  • Carol J. Garvin

    >That would be a wonderful problem to have! Some of the novels I've written are probably just good learning experiences, and I'll keep writing more for that reason. I'm also publishing in magazines, however, so that provides another outlet. I couldn't imagine not writing at all between contracts. As it is, too many stories pile up waiting to spill out.

  • Jeffrey Beesler

    >I'll always be working on some new project, even while I'm waiting for an older project to get through the publishing process.

  • stephen matlock

    >It's nice to hear this, because I suspected it was something like this – of course the publisher wants to protect the brand and the value of the author and his/her books – but still, it's nice to see it in writing.

    It also means that those of use who are simply not published yet need to anticipate the lean years.

  • Ilya Kralinsky

    >Please consider, my friends, that if you have tremendous skill in building your platform and promoting your work, then it only seems logical that you don't really need a publisher, and you can publish on your own schedule as fast as production allows, thereby increasing your profit potential. It's a truly ironic thing; in order to grasp the publisher's attention, you have to be equally skilled as their promotions departments to perform the primary function that separates them from self-publishing as a viable alternative. In other words, to work with a publisher, you have to build the skills that negates the need for them. Moreover, your production must march to the beat of another drum. Things that make you go, "Hmm …" The digital age is a new and wonderful world if you're tired of the illogical exclusion.

  • Amy Boucher Pye

    >Great post. Rachelle, do you agree that overpublishing is not such a problem with fiction (fiction fans can't wait for the next book) but with nonfiction, an author can publish too many books too soon? I've seen that on the publisher's side of things. An A-list author here in the UK could produce two books a year (and needed to as this and speaking was a sole source of income) but having done that for 10 years, the market was flooded out with these books – and the booksellers had to be creative to keep shifting books. With some other authors Stateside, I've seen people in the industry roll their eyes at the number of books they write – "Another one by so-and-so? Is it more recycled sermons?"

    Don't want to be negative – it's a brilliant problem to have – but to flag up a potential challenge one could have on the nonfiction side.

  • Rosemary Gemmell

    >Interesting points, Rachelle. What if we write in different genres? My first novel coming out (e-book first) is a Regency romance, and I'm trying to sell a children's novel. I've adapted my first name in two different ways for those.

    But it's the mainstream women's fiction I want to focus on as 'myself'. I've built up my own name for published short stories and articles, plus blogs and Facebook. So, is there room for both? To publish some genres in a smaller way, and to be prepared to wait for that two-book contract with a mainstream publisher.

  • Toby Speed

    >It seems like not such a horrible problem, and one that is temporary. If in the meantime, waiting, we write and grow and get better at it, we're ahead of the game.

    One challenge I'm facing is having different agents/editors/publishers for the different genres I write in. My contacts in the picture book world (seven books published) won't do me any good when marketing my mystery novel for adults this spring. Whole new ballgame. Maybe some of the restrictions you mention don't apply in cases like this, though?

  • Katie Ganshert

    >Hmmmm…this sounds familiar! LOVE this post (for obvious reasons). Love the advice. I was thinking how I'd have some extra time on my hands for marketing, which is a great blessing.

    And I give your question a resounding YES! I think it is a wonderful problem to have. :)

  • Timothy Fish

    >"Of course, that’s a pretty nice problem to have, don’t you think?"

    No, not really, but it isn't like there's anything that any of us can do about it.

  • Tamika:

    >This is a problem I want to tackle:)

    But while I wait my turn, I'm taking notes with Keli. It's interestin to know the publidhing angle. I would heade the advice to keep honing my craft. I want every book to be better than the last, and every story premise richer.

    Thanks Rachelle!

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Interesting post. I've been wondering if targeting the big publishers first who won't let you go with another publisher is a good thing.

    I know the current wisdom is to target the big houses first, but I do wonder.

  • Terri Tiffany

    >Actually, I like that idea, the pressure is less and as you said, you can work on promoting the work you've already done for the publishing house. Thanks again for great info!

  • Becky Taylor

    >I've never even considered this. True, it is a nice problem to have. Especially for the publisher.

  • Sue Harrison

    >Oh yes! I really wish I had this problem!!

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >You are funny, Katie. Congratulations!

    A great time to tackle some short stories.

    Yep, a problem I would not mind having.

    ~ Wendy

  • sarahanneloudinthomas

    >I guess it all comes back to asking yourself why you write? For the good pleasure of it? Or to be in print? Goodness knows most writers seem to work for years in utter anonymity. Seems like it wouldn't be too hard to keep writing, writing, writing in somewhat less anonymity. And maybe a slower pace would help with the sophomore slump . . .

    Like so many other readers said–a good problem to have!

  • vvdenman.com

    >I hope this is a problem I have to face soon. Thanks for the excellent information.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >For a non prolific writer this is a good post. It takes the pressure off. Pressure that leads to writers block.

    And reminds me that it is all in God's timing anyway.

  • Judy

    >"Of course, that's a pretty nice problem to have, don't you think?"

    Yesssss!

    Great piece, Rachelle – full of great insights and suggestions. Thank you.

  • Rachelle

    >Several people have asked about writing in two different genres under two different names.

    Like I said in #4 above, using a pseudonym is certainly a possibility, but one that has to be carefully considered. Do you have the energy and "spare" time in your life to launch yourself as not one but two authors? There is not only the brand-building and other marketing to think about, there's also the reality of editing schedules that could overlap. Top priority is the quality of your work.

    So as an agent, if I had a client in this situation, I'd discuss with them all the pros and cons of trying to publish in two genres at once. With an as-yet unpublished author, I'm going to lean in the direction of focusing on getting them established in one genre first, but I would take all the individual variables into consideration.

  • R.S. Bohn

    >What a fantastic post. You answered a question I didn't realize I had. I'm bookmarking this.

    Yes, a prolific writer here. :-)

  • Marla Taviano

    >Let me guess–that darn Kathi Lipp again. Two words: theme park. (she could call it Dory Land)

  • Walt M

    >It sounds like the most important piece of advice is to keep writing. The same advice applies to someone who has a completed manuscript but no contract. A writer can get so focused on trying to sell a completed manuscript that he/she forgets to keep writing new ones.

    Still, the "problem" you describe in the post is a great one to have.

  • Beth Mann

    >GREAT problem to have! Awesome advice, as usual, Rachelle. So excited for Katie!

  • Jaime

    >That's actually nice to know how it all "works"!! I had a picture in my head that once you get a contract for one and/or two completed manuscripts you're feverishly writing to roll out #'s 3, 4, & 5 in a year time frame. Deep breath. Spacing is nice :)
    LOL
    Rachelle, your blog is SO great! I love learning from it.

  • Rosslyn Elliott

    >Ha! Yes, that would be a nice problem to have. No danger of that here. :-) I'll just be happy to keep making my deadlines.

  • Zoe Archer

    >I definitely ran into this. There was almost a year's lag between the completion of my final book in a four-book series and its release. Nearly drove my poor agent batty.

  • Ishta Mercurio

    >You made a really good point here about being limited by your contract in terms of how often you can submit work to publishers.

    THIS is why agents will always be necessary!

  • Erika Robuck

    >That sounds like a great problem to have! It seems to me, though, that that time would be well spent making the other completed works absolutely flawless by deepening themes, layering plots, and making characters more complex. I don't think a writer can spend too much time improving fiction. It can always be better.

    This calls to mind a recent reading where I saw Tracy Chevalier speak. She said there's a metaphor in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING that bothers her to this day. It was both heartening and horrifying to hear a writer of her caliber admit to such a thing.

  • Joy Nicholas

    >Interesting post!! I think that would be a wonderful problem to have, and I wouldn't mind a bit knowing that if there were a time when I felt creatively dry or empty, it would be okay! :-) I second the commenters who have said it takes the pressure off, even for non-prolific writers.

  • Jana Dean

    >Working my way into this rhythm: a finished one under revision, a new one under construction. I think it will serve me well. Here's to an exciting year!

  • Brooklyn Ann

    >What a wonderful post! I loved the insider's glimpse into what happens after 1 book is accepted for publication. And YES it took the pressure off. I have an average of about 1 1/2 books a year.

  • B.E.T.

    >That is a glorious problem to have. More time on edits and making them shiny. Better than simultaneous manuscripts before they're already done. That urge hits me sometimes (though I always remember to focus on what I'm doing).

    But I didn't know about that clause in a contract. This is why agents are so valuable, really.

  • Sean

    >Looks like I should hold off a little longer before ordering that silver 2011 ZR1 Corvette . Bummer. Already bought the floormats for it too.

  • Kara

    >Thank you for this post. You mentioned several things I had thought about, but never really understood.

  • CraftyMama

    >I would be happy to write one or two books a lifetime! ;) I never like the stories I come up with, so I'm sticking with copywriting…for now.

  • fatchristian

    >It would appear every time I stop by this blog you have unearthed yet another layer in the process. Thanks for being the perfect How To. You save me a lot of time.

  • Preslaysa

    >Great information. 'Keep writing. The books will sell eventually.' I like that perspective. Plus, there are a lot of creative ways to make extra income writing besides writing a book.

  • Kristin Laughtin

    >It would be a wonderful problem to have; so many writers struggle with their second novels (because they're writing them faster than they did the first, which could have years of planning and dreams to it?), but if these people did so…well, they'd finish them quickly and probably have another book or two ready to go by the time the publisher is ready. But I imagine it could be frustrating to have to wait on a book that's finished and ready to go, and that makes me a bit gladder to be a slower writer.

  • Beth

    >It's not like I thought I knew everything by a long shot, but that's one I hadn't heard of or thought of before. (Probably since most of us are not that prolific.)

    Wow. I wonder if that's also an issue for picture books. Thanks so much for bringing that up, Rachelle. Another good reason to hire a literary lawyer to go over your contract if you don't have an agent to help you. You probably won't be able to get it changed if it's your first contract, but at least you'll be aware of it as you move forward.

  • Jean Ann Williams

    >I learn new things here every time I visit. Thanks so much.

  • Jenna

    >Always great info on here. Thank you so much.

  • JulieSurfaceJohnson

    >This is really interesting! I've often wondered how writers found the time to write AND market. I like your advice to your client–to keep writing knowing that her books would sell eventually. I also like the fact that there is this "built-in" time to focus on marketing without feeling that you've sold out your writing.

  • Melissa Jagears

    >Thanks for the info on how that works. I'll have to refer my hubby to this post if I ever get a contract and he's wondering why I'm not getting all my manuscripts out there to sell sell sell!

    Like Jaime above, I had the impression from a few that the next book in the series that they purchase has to come rolling out at warp speed. Glad that's not always the case.

  • Fiction Chick

    >Thank you so much for this post! You know, I often have questions about publishing, and 9 times out 10, I can find the answers here. This blog is a tremendous resource, and I thank you for posting on such relevant topics.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Another thing this post h as helped me see. I really need to quit being jealous of Colleen Coble because she can churn out her manuscripts quickly.

    I am learning about other authors who churn out one every year and gasp, some one every two years.And they keep getting published as well as the more prolific writers.

    So let us keep up the pace that is natural for us and keep going, and going, and going. =)

  • Andrea

    >Thanks so much for this post…it's not a problem I ever considered. It may not be a problem I'll ever have, since I'm with Dawn in being less prolific than ADD. I'd love to have to deal with it, though!

    Several others have already asked my question about using pen names when crossing genres, but I have another: What if I'm writing what I intend to be, say, a seven-book series? How do I approach selling that and pacing my writing? Any advice?

  • Rachelle

    >Andrea, your question has been asked and answered hundreds of times on agent blogs and Twitter.

    You have to sell an agent on the FIRST book, while mentioning toward the end of your query that it could either stand alone or be the first of a multi-book series.

    If you say "seven" books you'll scare the agent away as they'll assume you're too much of a newbie with stars in your eyes and no sense of reality about the industy. No publisher is going to contract 7 books from a brand new author. Or perhaps I should clarify: the odds are so high against it that it's ridiculous to come out of the box pitching it as if you expect a 7-book deal.

  • Tony Noland

    >An important point you made here was about being able to sell the other books eventually. It doesn't hurt to have a few things in the can; once you are established, those completed books can get a fresh edit and be in the pipeline.

  • Anonymous

    >I don't think most writers can write two or more terrific manuscripts in a year.

    Maybe we're redefining what terrific is, or perhaps you have the fortune of finding a booty of top-flight authors.

    But a question I have to the so-called prolific writer, and maybe someone here can answer it: is there an idea or philosophy that you haven't communicated in the first 29 novels you wrote that necessitates a 30th book?

    If communicating a worldview isn't as important as story, do you believe you have dozens of stories to tell, and that each can sustain a novel?

    Does the quality ever suffer, with so many manuscripts being cranked out?

    Finally, I don't understand how someone can write 12 manuscripts in a year, without the quality either being terribly uneven, or almost non-existent.

    I've written two in the last five years, on top of my writing gig.

    They drained me emotionally, so I don't understand the sausage factory mentally of cranking out novels.

  • Wulf

    >As someone who outputs 2-5k a day, this is very applicable. Thanks so much for giving me some thoughts to chew on ;)

    @Anonymous: not everybody is you; I hold myself to a high standard, believe in quality, literary fiction; I finish 2-3 novels a year, and at least 6 shorts. Of course, my blog suffers greatly…

  • Catherine

    >This is the kind of dilemma I would love to have! I'd just put the manuscript away and get working on something else. Finished manuscripts do not spoil or mold.

    - Cat

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Excellent advice!

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