Questioning the super-productivity push – from the productive side

Often I read critiques of productivity and the push to over-production from people who find it harder to participate – people with small children, living with disabilities, or casual academics. And those are really important and valuable contributions to the debate, but they can’t be left to make the argument alone. When it’s only people excluded from super-productivity who are complaining, it makes it sound like we just need to widen access and then everyone can participate in the over-production.

But right now I’m submitting my third book manuscript in a year (not to mention a book chapter, two commissioned poems, a book review, some peer reviews, and a short non-fiction piece that I also submitted in the last 12 months). My work-life is structured so I can afford to take the time to write books, and I had some extensive research leave at the end of last year. So it’s not that I’m excluded from super-productivity, it’s that I’m benefiting from it and succeeding at it… and I’m not at all sure it’s a good thing.

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First of all, I am really bored. It’s my third final read-through before submitting a book to a publisher in less than 12 months… and I am bored out of my brains. Thank goodness for the read-aloud function, and awesome co-authors, and lots of coffee. But I am submitting a book, a high point in an author’s life! This book is a month early! It’s… become routine not exciting.

Academic and writing books don’t particularly pay well (it’s fine! but it’s not a living!), though they do give you esteem (which can improve employability), and they do (hopefully) help readers. The only point of publishing more is to help more people, and because writing a book is an exciting challenge.

I ended up in this situation for a couple of reasons that don’t include ‘I intend to write three books in a year’. In the past, like many other people, I’ve experienced lots of road-blocks and rejections trying to get things published. So I said yes to trying to be part of quite a few projects, expecting some of them to fall through. Partly due to luck, and partly due to the fact that I’m now a much more experienced author, they all became real publishing projects.

Plus, the original plans had far more evenly-paced deadlines. All three book-project timelines got moved: my co-authors had very good reasons, including chronic health conditions, a historic anniversary, work commitments, and the arrival of twins! Still, one book was moved quite a long way back, and two other books had to be moved forward, and that meant a real squish.

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The second reason the squish is an issue, is that each book requires about a year of publicity to really flourish once it’s published. You need time to run workshops, incorporate the book into your teaching, host online and offline events. People need to hear about your book, and then hear about it again from someone they trust, then have a chance to buy it or borrow it from the library. That takes time.

And people only have so much bandwidth to acquire and read books – I personally have a big list of books I’m still meaning to get around to. Apart from super-fans like my Mum, no-one has the financial or mental budget for that many books by me, at least not all at once.

You need even more time to get the word out about your books when they are different genres. I write about academic writing, but I also try to keep up my academic and creative writing… and I do it all under a single name. My co-author for Your PhD Survival Guide Peta has two personas – Dr Peta Freestone, the inventor of Thesis Boot Camp; and P.M. Freestone, the successful YA author who has been published in over 8 languages. If you love my work on how to wrangle your PhD writing… you might not love my niche religious reflections book about a World War II German double-agent and martyr; or my super-dense and technical translations of 18th-century cantata texts.

In the world of academic publishing where attention is measured in citations, similar issues can arise where you spread the citations across a few similar articles, instead of concentrating them on one comprehensive work. Spreading readers out more thinly makes it less likely that people will find your work, and even fewer people will benefit from all of that research, thinking and writing.

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Finally, this productivity push was only possible because of my extensive backstories with each of my (many) co-authors. Each book was written with a different team and a different publisher. The Academic Writing Trouble team got back together to write a version for undergraduates. The Thesis Boot Camp team have been working together for over 8 years, so it’s not surprising we found it easy to collaborate on the project we call ‘Thesis Boot Camp in a book’. The reflections book was written with the same academic co-author with whom I’ve been working with for years on projects about German Lutherans. That’s a lot of years of good-will, experience and energy to expend at once. We’re all tired, and we’re all begging each other to take a break before we do the next project together. We’d all love to work with each other again one day… just not for a while, okay?

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This post isn’t rejecting being productive. I still believe it’s rewarding and empowering to meet your healthy goals for writing, thinking, and helping other people. I still believe we should remove barriers to inclusion that limit certain groups’ access to research, writing and publication. But just because productivity is a good thing doesn’t mean that exponential productivity is better. This post is pointing out that there is an upper limit to useful productivity, and that once we tip over into over-production, we get diminishing returns.

I never plan to write this many books at once, ever again. So this is a post to remind me that saying ‘no thanks’, or ‘how about later?’ is an option for me now. It reminds me that a writing career and writing relationships need to be sustainable over many years, not just one 12-month splash. It reminds me that I’m in this career because I care about doing a good job, not just a lot of job.

I don’t know how this post might be useful to you. Depending on your field, 2 articles in a year might be way too many or not nearly enough. You may never write anything book-length after your thesis is complete. You might be in the desperate early career researcher years where lots of potential publishing projects do fall through. You might be having such a hard time accessing productivity that this over-productivity is a distant mirage. If this post isn’t right for you, right now, you might find support at Shut Up and Write – Parents Edition; Chronically Academic; elsewhere on the blog; or over on blogs like Thesis Whisperer or Research Whisperer.

But perhaps this post helps you set useful boundaries to your productivity aspirations, rather than just ‘more more more’. And perhaps it gives you some insider information about the further pitfalls that can occur, even when you have ‘made it’ – as researchers we are always still ‘going on making it’, still learning and hopefully still sharing what we learn.

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