Isaac Asimov may have died in 1992, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still publish new books. The sci-fi giant’s estate signed a deal last week with Penguin’s Berkley imprint for a new I, Robot prequel trilogy penned by Mickey Zucker Reichert, the author of the fantasy series Renshai. Reichert becomes the first woman to write an authorized Asimov novel; previous posthumous collaborators include Greg Bear, David Brin, and Gregory Benford. According to Berkley editorial director Susan Allison, the first book, tentatively titled Robots and Chaos, will follow Dr. Susan Calvin on the first year of her psychiatry residency at a New York City teaching hospital. In Asimov’s stories, Calvin goes on to become the chief robot psychologist at U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men, Inc. Despite what you may remember from 2004’s very loose big-screen adaptation I, Robot starring Will Smith, Calvin was the main human character in Asimov’s Robot stories (Bridget Moynihan played her in the film). There is no publication date for the first book in the new trilogy, Allison says, adding that the manuscript is due to be delivered in late 2010. Reichert herself was unavailable for comment and, curiously for a popular genre writer, her official website doesn’t seem to have been updated in the last eight years.

Asimov is one in a long line of writers who remain incredibly prolific even in death. V.C. Andrews, who died in 1986, still cranks out about two books a year (most are by Andrew Neiderman). Eric Van Lustbader has churned out five Jason Bourne thrillers under the name Robert Ludlum™ since the original author’s 2001 death. This fall, we’ve seen estate-authorized sequels of everything from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (David Benedictus’ Return to the Hundred Acre Wood) to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing…) to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm). At least Colfer and Sebastian Faulks, who published the James Bond sequel Devil May Care last year, are writers of some repute. But some of these brand extensions seem not much better than authorized fan fiction. (Anyone remember Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett?)

I’m not even counting the exhumation of every unfinished (or nearly finished) manuscript or previously unpublished PostIt note by a noted author. This fall brings Michael Cricthon’s Pirate Latitudes, an adventure story set in 17th-century Jamaica apparently completed before his death, as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s story collection Look at the Birdie, William Styron’s The Suicide Run, and Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished final novel The Original of Laura. Signs suggest that none of these authors have drawers of unpublished material quite as deep as Western storyteller Louis L’Amour, whose estate produced a whopping 15 new books after his 1988 death, mostly story collections from his days of writing for ’30s pulp magazines — his widow, Kathy, insisted that all the material was her husband’s work alone.

At what point does a writer morph from author to brand, a line that can be extended by the original creator’s heirs long after his or her death? To publishers, I guess this practice makes perfect sense — particularly at a time when they keep hearing about the death of reading (and of books). As long as publishers are transparent about who actually writes (or finishes, or polishes) these posthumous works, I don’t have a problem with new stories about popular characters. But the vast number of such works — and the number of notable writers spending their time producing them — suggests that this has become the publishing equivalent of Hollywood studios’ fixation on remakes of old movies and TV shows (and adaptations of toy franchises). Where will the original ideas (and future remake material) come from? No wonder they call it ghostwriting.