Jonathan Karp on a Book A Year

by | Jun 30, 2008 | Uncategorized | 28 comments

In case you have any doubt who controls the content of the Washington Post book page, look no further than Sunday’s article by Jonathan Karp, who was the subject of Thursday’s blog post, talking about Wednesday’s blog post about whether authors should come out with a book a year.


(ok, fine, it was definitely a coincidence)

As much as Jonathan Karp loved working with the likes of Clay Aiken and Manuel Noriega (he preferred Noriega), count him down in favor of letting the books marinate and stew. He cites a bunch of books from which we have all benefited because they took longer than a year to write. He counts them as a nice antidote to books that are mass produced and/or involve substanceless subject matter.

However you come down on the book a year debate, it’s definitely an article worth checking out.


  1. Sophie W.

    It might not be a coincidence. Mr. Karp might be bringing Twelve to the foreground of publishing attention as publicity for his business model.

    …or it could be a coincidence…

    I read this article yesterday, actually, and I thought it was interesting enough. However, the fact that it was written by someone who’s got stock behind the philosophy in question dampened my enthusiasm slightly.

    Also the digs at genre fiction ruffled my feathers.

  2. Marilynn Byerly

    The major flaw in Karp’s premise for fiction is that publishers or editors can’t really tell what is and isn’t of lasting worth because only time is the true indicator.

    Many of the books we now consider of lasting value were either popular fiction or poorly reviewed. Dickens and Melville are perfect examples of this.

    Nor does the amount of time spent writing the book or intensive editorial presence in the writing process equate to quality or lack, thereof.

  3. Wanda B. Ontheshelves

    Take-away quotes from article:

    “Books of this ilk have always existed. But in the past, they’ve been balanced by substantive books, crafted by monomaniacal authors who devoted years to the work.”

    “Laura envisioned specific sentences in her head, word by word, before writing them down. That kind of careful, methodical writing contributed to the power of her prose.”

    Last and most wonderfully:

    “The novelists who are truly novel will thrive;”

  4. Wanda B. Ontheshelves

    Re: “Nor does the amount of time spent writing the book or intensive editorial presence in the writing process equate to quality or lack, thereof.”

    Maybe not the time spent writing the particular book – but the amount of time a writer has spent WRITING does enter into it – another musical analogy – someone was describing the Beatles playing in Hamburg “in the early days” – the expression they used was: “they were absolutely legless” – not so sure what that means, but they drank a lot and played a lot, and put the hours in. Which (in my opinion) allows the great creative leap(s) later on.


    Obviously, the TWELVE model is not for every writer. But I’m loving it so far.


    Well, another analogy comes to mind – you have contemporary painters, lots of abstract stuff in the museums – then along comes a “blockbuster” exhibit of Rubens, or Van Gogh, one of the old school “paint til you drop” painters – one of the old school “you must be able to draw before you can paint” painters – and people are just blown away, because we of the TV and Internet and expressway aren’t used to seeing the work of someone who spent years learning to wield a mere flimsy low-tech paintbrush. A mere paintbrush! How much power can there BE in a paintbrush!

    And you can just look at the other museum visitors, the lightbulb going off in their head – gee, there are all different ways of being in this world, there is something other than hightech-ville, and the newest and latest and smallest and electronic-ist “gadget.”

    Anyway, I’m loving TWELVE so far.

    Days to leave of absence: 5 (or maybe 3, because of the holiday?) can’t wait – even though I will be in revision hell.

  5. ORION

    And did you notice what ELSE was in the Washington Post in the Book World section?
    A sweet little mention about LOTTERY out in trade paperback now.
    Oh and so no one thinks this is exclusively blatant self promotion –
    I vote on the side of taking longer than a year for novels – while I know many authors feel obligated to put out faster and some may even work well under this
    pressure- I feel my creativity become stifled when I have deadlines not of my own making…
    but like everything else…it depends on the artist…

  6. Sophie W.

    I also think the fact that they have a publicist working on one novel for an entire month is what’s guaranteeing they make money, not (necessarily) quality.

    But that’s probably me being unusually cynical. It’s Monday, after all.

  7. JES

    How one reacts to this probably comes down to how one answers the “all other things being equal” sort of question(s):

    (1) All other things being equal, would you, Aspiring Author, rather have your book published by Twelve or by Grindhouse Press?

    (2) All other things being equal, would you, Avid Reader, rather read a book published by Twelve or by Grindhouse Press?

    (3) All other things being equal, would you, Hungry Agent, rather make $X/year through commissions on 10 books, or through commissions on 100 books?

    …and finally, of course, the killer question:

    (4) All other things being equal, if you wanted to and could be EITHER a writer, a reader, or an agent, but not more than one, which would it be?

    Genre or not, I’d WAAAAAAY prefer to be published by a house which issues only a dozen books a year, with the sorts of attention which Karp’s imprint promises — rather than by a house which publishes 400 books a year, spraying them all at the wall and hoping that at least 2 or 3 stick long enough to dry.

    On the other hand, it’d be WAAAAAY harder to become the author of one of those dozen books, than the author of one of the 400.

    Ambivalences abound.

  8. Nathan Bransford

    Sorry to delete comments, but this blog isn’t a forum for trashing authors. Polite and light assessment/disagreement/criticism is fine, but this just isn’t the place for Amazon-style rants. Please don’t forget that I have a job in the industry and need to maintain good relationships, and this blog is an extension of that.

  9. Bernita

    Sophie, my general sentiments as well.

  10. bookboy28

    Sorry about my rant. On a more positive note, some of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Chabon, and Andrea Barrett, authors who I think take extreme thought in the words they put down on paper, average a book every two or three years.

  11. Lupina

    I’m simply hesitant to put an arbitrary bad/good designation on literary timelines. There are people with such a command of the language, so much wordly experience and so much to say that a great novel in a year is entirely plausible, and others who could grind away for ten years without making a single page worth its ink. Or pixels.

    I do rather like Twelve’s idea of committed and focused publicity campaigns, however. I think the current business model of most publishers, putting out a product and hoping someone else (i.e. the author) will advertise it enough to make it profitable, is plain dumb.

  12. Josephine Damian

    I liked the part about Noriega being easier to work with than Aiken.

    Nathan, have you gotten any “ten reasons why you should NOT be my agent” queries yet? Figured after that GARGOYLE author landed a sweet deal with a gimmicky query, that a legion of wannabes would follow suit.

  13. Jeff

    I think the timeline can be a bit arbitrary. I began my most recent novel on Halloween night, 2007 and finished it mid-May 2008. During that time, I also wrote a 20,000 word outline for another novel, a full screenplay, and four or five short stories.

    I finished writing my previous novel in June 2007. I wrote the outline in 2003, the screenplay in 2005, then wrote the novel from the screenplay between March and June 2007. You might say I wrote a novel in three months, but the truth is, it took me four years to write it. Actually, five, because I recently went back and rewrote the whole thing.

  14. Adaora A.

    I just don’t know. If an author takes 4-6 months working night and day – during every bit of spare time – to work on their book, doesn’t it have just as much subtstance as a book that might have taken longer? A book that took more then a year could be attributed to anything:

    1. A lot of editing of the orignal draft
    2. The writer had as lot of responsibilities (perhaps a new baby at home, maybe they’re a newlywed)

    I think it could be anything. Do you think a book that takes less then a year doesn’t have as much substance? I’m just curious. Does the time run through your head – asuming in the circumstance to which I refer – that you even know how long it took to begin with.

    There are just so many little rules. All we want to do is get published, and there are all these rules, social – or biblio of sorts – etiquettes to follow. It’s so confusing, navagating the waters.

  15. Jeff

    Everyone has their own writing speed. Also, you can get really bogged down in editing and spend all your time rewriting the same pages, never getting anywhere. Life intrudes, like you say. I have written a novel with a new baby in the house. I once had a deadline to meet and wrote the last 20,000 words with a raging fever and stoned on prescription codeine.

    To fill a book with words is relatively easy with a minimum level of discipline. If you can write 340 words a day, you can write a 320 page paperback novel in one year, and that’s with taking two weeks over for vacation and not writing on the weekends.

    Even so, I have found that writing a mere 340 words a day ruins the writing. It breaks up the flow into 340 word increments. If you start a novel in July and finish it next July, you will not be the same person when the novel was finished as the person who started the novel. It shows in your writing and you end up spending a lot of time going back an rewriting the earlier parts.

    A novel a year isn’t an unreasonable demand, in my opinion.

  16. Avrinell

    Substanceless subject matter, is in the eye of the reader. In a world of millions of people how could one possibly believe that only a few items are enough to entertain all of the masses. Limit subject matter and you’ll have far fewer readers, its as simple as that. Degrees of seperation and variation are what add to the creativity and ingenuity of people.

  17. brimfire

    Hmm. I think the book a year thing might depend on what type of writer you are. There are certain urban fantasists and YA writers who can write a darn good book in 365 days. Then there are other writers like Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss who I’ll give all the time in the world to write their masterpieces.

  18. Just_Me

    No offense to those who enjoy the literary genre, but the titles Mr. Karp listed as successes aren’t the kind I like to read. Twelve high-brow literary books a year are, to me, a waste of trees.

    Go ahead and hate me, but I still love my sci-fi books.

    Mr. Karp does have an interesting idea. I would appreciate that kind of attention given to my book. I would like to know that my editor actually read the book before tossing it on the shelf. I would like the publicity and backing of the house.

    I’m less sure about why an author needs several years to get their act together. On my timeline the editing and research are done *before* you find an agent or editor. If you need two years or more to get a story together after you’ve shown it to the editor than you didn’t query your best work. The exception there is something that’s bought on proposal, then I understand two years.

    And I’m going to confess that I’m with the cynics on this subject. What Mr. Karp says is very beneficial for him. It isn’t beneficial for writers and it isn’t beneficial for readers. Twelve great books a year, in a genre I need to be bribed to read is not exciting. It’s depressing. You may string your pretty prose together all you like, I’m devoted to my genre and I read a book a day. Mr. Karp’s model does not supply my reading lifestyle with what I need for entertainment purposes.

    So, while I support more editors paying attention to what they buy, I think limiting an imprint to 12 books cuts down on the market you can sell too.

    If you have X number of readers willing to buy Y number of books and R number of sometimes-readers willing to buy 3 books a year which audience do you want to target? For success you need to traget the repeat readers. You do that not by having them buy the same book multiple times but by convincing the reader to buy multiple books. If you only publish one book a month you are relying on hype and hope to make a sale. You may get the R readers, and even most of the X readers, but eventually you’ll pick a book where the hype tanks and the readers aren’t willing to pay $25 for a hardcover, and then what?

    P.S. Someone asked if we’d like to get published by 12. My answer is: No. I want Tor, they publish books I like.

  19. JDuncan

    I do take issue with Karp’s implication that you can’t really write a good book in less than a year, that somehow it just won’t have the substance or writing quality a book that takes far longer to write will have. This seemed to lean far too close to the ‘only literary fiction is of real value’ kind of sentiment which is a poor sentiment to have really. I’d guess Karp didn’t mean it like that, but who knows.

    Not all stories require years to write. Not all writing requires agonizing over every sentence and word that goes into it in order to be good or even great for that matter. I think many writers, who have a well honed knack for the craft of writing can produce some stellar writing in well under a year. Writers who have the fortune of being able to sit at their computer for ten hours a day, day in and day out (and manage to not go blind or insane)and write their stories, don’t require a year to create quality work. Some do. It’s just in the manner in which they work.

    I did agree with his barb at serial killer books though. You look at the bestseller list or the shelves in any supermarket these days, and half of what you see there is some kind of suspense/thriller involving the ingenious killer of some sort. I know these sorts of stories can be entertaining, but do we honestly need to see that many of them? Yeah, I know, it all comes down to money, and the damn things sell.

  20. Other Lisa

    So, uh, when Karp says: “For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.”

    Does that translate to, “advances one can live on”?

    I actually agree with a great deal of what he says.

  21. professionalquiller

    I think Mr. Karp is applying a little Branding 101. He wants the name of his imprint to be associated with a particular type of book, both in genre and quality. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

    Looking at publishing from the business aspect, producers always cut back in times of uncertainty. Karp’s basically saying, look, we may only be putting out 12 books a year, but they’re going to be really good books.

    If it’s his goal to ensure the long-term security of his firm’s revenue stream, this may very well be the route. But as other business in the entertainment industry have learned – and most books are basically meant to entertain – if you take this route you’re limiting the potentials for both loss and profit.

    Where Mr. Karp and others like him seem to have lost their minds is their understanding of the market. TWELVE and publishers like it will cut back and tune their business model, but not all readers will hold out for a Rembrandt. Most, in fact, don’t care if they forget the story and lose the book in five years. If it’s entertaining now, they’ll reach into their wallets.

    So long as that’s the case, there will be houses that will still publish everything they think they can sell.

  22. Simon Haynes

    I’m a real procrastinator, and left to my own devices I could (and have) taken years to write a novel. Having a 12 month deadline focuses my mind and ensures I put in the work. If I need a two-four month extension, so be it.

    On the flip side, I also write short fiction, some of which I’m lucky enough to have seen in print. I have no deadlines, and so I’ve not written a short story for 5-6 years.

    If you’re yet to be published and are still working on that first novel, set yourself an arbitrary deadline and map out everything you do to have the novel finished in time. If you want a bit of real life pressure, tell family and friends your novel will be written & edited by that date.

  23. Will Entrekin

    My thing about it is that if you’re actually putting the time in to writing, and not just calling yourself a “writer,” it’s nearly impossible not to write several novels per year. Even if you average 1000 words per day (which is a decent average, I think, and neither extraordinarily high nor extraordinarily low), you’re writing 365,000 words per year. If you mark a novel at 60,000 words, that’s six of them (right? Or is my math off? That’s been known to happen). 120,000 words might be a long fantasy epic, and in which case you just covered the first three installments.

    And notice I said “average”. There are days you won’t write at all. There are days you’ll blow through 5,000 words.

    But even still, several novels per year is not really all that out of the question. And I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of quality prose, either, because the whole “ruminating for days over a sentence” thing never mentions the fact that writing is a lot like many other crafts and several sports besides; the more you do it, the better you get.

  24. sex scenes at starbucks

    I personally work better under deadline. Constraints on my creativity have always made it flourish.

    I have approximately ten book ideas. I’d say five of them are viable and I could probably bang them out in a year. Thing is, these ideas have percolated for much longer than a year. I’ve done paintings and design projects that took years to concieve but came together in a matter of days. On the other hand, my very favorite book I wrote took me four months of conception/drafting. My very favorite short story took two days.

    There’s more to the creative process than putting words on a page or paint on a canvas. Aren’t many writers capable of percolating one book while writing another? I know I am. (Whether I do it well is another topic.) But I find it’s tough to nail down the exact “start” of the creative process for a particular project.

  25. Anonymous

    I think, if I were ceo (which I’m not) I would say, hmmm, what if every book we even considered publishing we would think enough of to spend a month and top money in the promoting of it. That way, some years, we would only publish 12 books, but another year we would publish 400, (because 400 GREAT books came our way)(and hire the talent to do that) and another year only 14 (because that’s where the talent panned out that year) and JUST: completely back each and every great book that we believe in that much!

    (shall I pack my bags and hit the streets of NYC?)


    On another note, I love reading writers blogging. It always stretches my dialogue. Words I rarely use (like ilk and pander and
    grind -oh my!).

    And from the article, I love the quote:
    “Journalism has long been regarded as the first rough draft of history”

    I just like the way it was said.
    (Oh no, I’m going construction!)
    So, writers, you are being read! Ha! Thank you for being so entertaining to ready your styles!

  26. Anonymous

    and then there are the bloopers
    (guilty as charged).

    Just be prepared to

    “ready your style!”

  27. R Elland

    I can only speak from personal experience in this regards, so from a reader’s point of view, the one author I’ve read whose books have come out one a year in a given series was Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series.
    At first, she did fine with the writing, and I enjoyed the regular action and story line over all on a given schedule.
    But I came to realize that as she reached the end of her time with Valdemar, the story was becoming stale to an extent, and by the last book of the “Storm” Trilogy, the story seemed rushed to be finished.
    Needless to say, I was glad to see that she decided to take a break from Valdemar for a while.
    That’s all I have to say about this, but it does make me think about my own writing, and how I should let myself take the time to develop a story and not let a psychological schedule push me to rush to finish, which is what could happen in a ‘year’.

  28. Jeff

    I didn’t read the first Harry Potter book until Order of the Phoenix came out. I hate waiting years for the next book. But I can certainly understand it from a marketing perspective. When Deathly Hallows came out, I purchased the hardback on the first day. Of the entire Harry Potter series, I only own two hardbacks – Deathly Hallows and Half-blood Prince, because I had to have them as soon as they were published. Thus I was hooked. I spent roughly 70 dollars, rather than 17 dollars for two paperbacks. Multiply that by millions of readers. No wonder she has more money than the queen.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

My blog has everything you need to know to write, edit, and publish a book. Can’t find what you need or want personalized help? Reach out.


I’m available for consultations, edits, query critiques, brainstorming, and more.



Need help with your query? Want to talk books? Check out the Nathan Bransford Forums!