How Long to Write

How Long to Write

Why is current literature so bad?

The thesis I’m developing here is that contemporary literature is poor for economic reasons, because it doesn’t make commercial sense for a reasonably honest, intelligent and well-educated person to embark on a literary career.   Quality is not what gives authors their sales and status, and unless they ruthlessly promote themselves into the literary establishment, most will face a life of  casual penury. That is not how the establishment sees matters, naturally, nor their supporting chain of booksellers, newspaper critics and reviewers, but what D.J. Taylor wrote back in 1988 {1} still largely seems to be true {2}. Only  20% had any semblance of literary respectability, he thought, and George Greenfield   {3} remarked that authors had mechanically to turn out a standardized product or starve.

The problems appear if we look at author earnings. How long does it take to write a novel? Well, it depends, of course: on the genre, the quality, what you call writing. Kerouac’s On the Road was dashed off in three weeks, but Joyce’s Ulysses took sixteen years {1}. The actual writing may only require a few months, moreover, but the ideas generally take years to gestate, and that first draft requires correcting, amplifying, recasting, often a whole new storyline. Some novels never come good, and have to be abandoned – no doubt   providing useful experience but not, as Bernard Shaw remarked, quite worth what we’ve had to pay for it. Still, if I’d been asked the question about time taken I’d probably have said a couple of years, from first sitting down at the keys   to final corrections, and that figure seems about right, to judge by a recent Google search.

Most novelists say a year or two of actual writing. Best-selling novelists can afford a more leisurely pace, turning out a blockbuster every three or four years. Some novels are written in weeks, either under inspiration or dogged application, but that pace can’t be maintained for long. Indeed I wrote the first draft of my last novel in 6 weeks, 50,000 words of dialogue largely, and that is something I’d most certainly not want to do again.

Recently I looked at Dan Poynter’s compendium of publishing data, {2} sobering statistics that I’d suggest any aspiring writer ponders. Back in 1998, when desktop publishing had got into its stride, a survey of small and independent publishers found that the average work of fiction took 475 hours to write, compared   to 725 hours for the average work of nonfiction. Now perhaps the nonfiction   works were not full novels, but romance novellas. And perhaps they were not very good. (Indeed, writing about British fiction in the 1980s,  D. J. Taylor   called the whole business a vain conceit, {3} awarding only 20% of novels any literary respectability, a view he maintains, {4} and I’m developing here.)   Say the fiction works averaged 70,000 words, and each had to be rewritten completely.   140,00 words were written in 475 hours, or 295 words an hour – a rate that   most novelists would find exhausting to maintain.

Now the revenues. How many copies were sold? The surveys don’t give the figure, but the average 1997 sales were $420,000, nonfiction outweighed fiction by 4 to 1, and book production took an average of 531 hours. The average publisher worked 50 hours a week. Putting all that together, we get 4.7 books published a year for an average sales figure per book of $89,400. Unless they were publishing their own work, authors would got royalties of 10% at best, or $18,000/year if each author produced two novels a year. To me that sounds like drudgery, and only underlines what George Greenfield wrote: novelist must learn to mechanically turn out a product, or starve. {5}

In fact, most of the fiction will have been pulp fiction, which made up 53.3% of book sales in 2004, in contrast to to art books, literature and poetry, which together accounted for only 3.3% {6}. In general, the average first novel, favourably reviewed in the serious press – and most aren’t so lucky – will sell 2,000   copies over two years. {5} The novel will be in hardback form, probably, earning   a royalty of perhaps $2 per copy, giving the literary novelist a royalty stream of $2000/year. No wonder the respected UK Society of Authors found that that half their members earned less than the minimum wage. {7}

These are back-of-the-envelop calculations, but Grubstreet or sweatshops are the words that come to mind. {8-9}

So perhaps Samuel Johnson had it right after all. Only a blockhead, he said, wrote for anything other than money.


1. Mya Bell’s Web Log.

2. Poynter, Dan. Statistics 2004

3. Taylor, D.J. A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980’s.  1989.   Bloomsbury Press. London.

4. A novel complaint. D J Taylor. Sep. 1999.

5. Greenfield, G. Scribblers for Bread. 1989. Hodder and Stoughton.   New York.

6. Poynter, Dan. The Self-Publishing Manual (Para Publishing, Santa Barbara,   CA), 224.

7. An Independent (UK) newspaper article of 4th March 2006 quoted a 2005 Society   of Authors study, which found 50% of UK authors earned less than the minimum   wage, and 75% less then £20,000/year.

8. Sendbuehler, Fran. First Novel Policy and The Bestseller. Feb. 1996.

9. Weinberg, Robert. Writing Full Time – A User’s Guide 2003

Relevant Website Pages

State of Poetry.

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