I follow the blogs of a number of successful authors (see my Blogroll and Favorite Author Links in the sidebar). I do so because I learn a lot from them about writing, publishing, and marketing.
Now, they don’t always agree with each other in the advice they put forth. It’s become something of a cliche for the more prudent authors to add the caveat, “Your mileage may vary.” Which is true. Many variables are involved in becoming a successful author — not the least of which are varied conceptions of what constitutes writing “success.”
Even a definition of “commercial success” is elusive, because it means different things to different authors. For some, earning a bit of money on the side while maintaining a job and/or other pursuits will be satisfactory. For others, earning enough from writing to do it full-time would be a dream come true. For some others, nothing but “bestseller” status and becoming wealthy will suffice.
That’s why I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable these days by what I’m reading on the blogs of some bestselling indie authors. Precisely because of their unusual levels of success (however you define it), there’s a tendency to accept a tacit definition of “success” that amounts to: I won’t be successful unless I’m as prolific and rich as these authors.
I say that this is a “tacit” definition, because I’m confident that, if asked, few of these authors would assert that “prolific and rich” are necessary definitions of an author’s success, although there are exceptions. Amazingly prolific indie author Russell Blake is one:
When I use the term success, I mean selling boatloads of books for oodles of money. Success has a very narrow definition for the purposes of this blog – it doesn’t mean how you might define it (the joy in your puppy’s eyes at seeing you again, the pride of a job well done, persevering in spite of overwhelming odds, self-actualization, the warming rays of a sunset, modest progress with marginal results, etc.). For the purposes of this blog, success is selling hundreds of thousands of books per year for many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But even for those successful indies who don’t state this so explicitly, that unspoken assumption seems to underlie much of their advice to prospective, aspiring, and not-as-”successful” authors. Perhaps that’s because, from where they sit, “prolific and rich” is their implicit notion of “success.”
A recent blog post by Hugh Howey brought this into focus for me. Let me first state, immediately and emphatically, that I admire Hugh enormously. He is a prolific author of many high-quality stories, which have justly and amply rewarded him with huge sales and riches. As perhaps the most prominent exemplar and champion of self-publishing, he is doing indie authors a huge service through his constant public advocacy, including his indispensable and seminal “Author Earnings” website and reports. He is a writer’s writer in every way, and usually I enthusiastically agree with his advice.
Usually. But in the post linked above, “The Liliana Nirvana Technique,” he endorses a problematic path to publication that, he says, “may be the secret to launching a successful self-publishing career.”
To be fair, that path was not pioneered by Hugh; he cites bestselling indie author Liliana Hart as its source and creator. “She calls it her ’5 down and 1 in the hole’ technique,” Hugh reports:
The idea is this: Annual releases are too slow to build on one another. And not just in the repetition of getting eyeballs on your works, but in how online recommendation algorithms work. Liliana suggests publishing 5 works all at once. Same day. And she thinks you should have another work sitting there ready to go a month later. While these works are gaining steam, write the next work, which if you write and edit in two months, will hit a month after the “hole” work.
Now, it goes without saying that the underlying premise of this technique is that an author can write novels so quickly that he or she can produce a number of titles in reasonably short order — say, within a year — then be able to “write and edit in two months” yet another book.
There are authors capable of producing such output. Some — like Hugh, Liliana Hart, Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, and Joe Konrath (others he names in his post) — are capable of maintaining high quality standards, even at this lickety-split pace of production. And there is little doubt that this tactic can and does work for those authors and others. Bestselling indies John Locke, Amanda Hocking, and Michael J. Sullivan come to mind as authors who published their early books simultaneously, or in very rapid succession, and thereby gained big followings who became addicted to their work. Other top-quality bestselling indie authors, such as Dean Wesley Smith and Russell Blake, advocate very rapid publishing; their own output per year is astounding (Blake published 25 novels in 30 months).
Yes, that tactic can work, for all the solid reasons Hugh states in his post (and I recommend that you read the whole thing). And he is careful to offer important caveats:
Does that mean anyone who does this will have success? Absolutely not. You’ve got to have great stories, catchy blurbs, professional covers, quality editing, and the right metadata. But you are sunk without these things however you publish. Having them should be a given.
What I think the technique does is give you a better chance, once you have all these other things down. You hit bookstore shelves with a handful of titles at once, and they prop each other up. They direct attention toward each other. They amplify your signal. Yeah, it’s hard to create that initial buzz, but what if you can do something to turn up the juice? Liliana Hart may have discovered a way.
So, what do I find “problematic” with this tactic?
It lies with the way Hugh packaged it at the outset: “…it may be the secret to launching a successful self-publishing career.” Given the recommended tactic, the tacit definition of “a successful self-publishing career” would require writing and publishing a large number of titles, very rapidly, and on an ongoing basis.
For many writers, however, that is simply not a realistic goal. So the unstated logical implication is: If you aren’t writing and publishing at a frenetic pace, you can’t succeed as a self-published author.
That is a demoralizing, but false, conclusion reached by too many writers. Quite a few posts on the indie author discussion site KBoards Writers Cafe reflect a concern, even an obsession, with writing and publishing as fast as possible, for fear of failing to generate sustainable sales. Instead of focusing on “What do I want to write?,” I see too many of them worrying about whether there’s any market for a specific genre — whether they ought to switch categories, or styles, or topics, in order to attract a supposedly fickle reading audience — whether it’s better to crank out a dozen short stories in two months, rather than “waste time” on a long novel.
At the basis of all of this is the equation of “success” with achieving bestseller status and income, and a near-paranoid worry about “selling hundreds of thousands of books per year for many hundreds of thousands of dollars,” as Russell Blake put it.
Now, there is nothing wrong with having that as a goal, and I mean no disrespect to Russell or anyone else who pursues it (he somehow manages to produce top-shelf work at a break-neck pace). Nor do I think any writer would reject gargantuan sales and lavish royalty income if they were offered. What I am suggesting instead is two-fold.
First, there can be different, more personal definitions of “success” for a given writer — and no writer should be discouraged by “failing” to “measure up” to somebody else’s definition of success. Again, I addressed that point here.
Second, “fast and prolific” publication is not even the only path to strong book sales and impressive income.
Many bestselling books have been first novels. Lightning can strike that way — as I know first-hand. No, it’s not the most reliable or sustainable path to a living income; but a deliberately crafted novel, developed and polished carefully over a year or two, can stand out from the pack and become a bestseller. Nor is it necessary to issue future titles in a series at a rapid-fire rate; George R.R. Martin is a poster boy for a more leisurely approach to writing and publishing, and from the last I heard, he’s doing pretty well.
Now, no one book will generate spectacular, ongoing sales forever. Over time, the only way to generate a sustainable income is to continue writing more books. But if your early work is appealing enough to some target audience to attract a loyal fan base, then your future books will raise your cumulative sales to higher and higher plateaus of sales and income. That’s how it works.
And while publishing books more quickly, or issuing a group of titles simultaneously, might accelerate you to a commercially remunerative career, I don’t believe such tactics are necessary to achieve a financially rewarding one. It may just take a while longer. Each author must balance the amount of time he can devote to writing with the other aspects of his life.
What I want writers to take away from this discussion is the fact that we are all different. Your definition of success doesn’t have to match those of other authors. Nor must you feel intimidated into matching the gargantuan output of some bestselling authors — or feel too discouraged to continue writing, believing that your “lesser” efforts are doomed to “failure.”
Independent authorship — self-publishing — is all about having options. You get to decide what “success” means to you. You get to decide what to write, how to write it, to whom, and on what kind of schedule. There are no “rules” about any of that.
Remember: You are a human being, not a writing machine. Focus on writing what you love to write about. Write at your own pace, and for your own satisfaction. Focus on producing the highest-quality work you can, on a schedule that you can live with.
If you do that, you’ll maximize your chances to achieve “success,” however you care to define it — and you’ll minimize the odds that you’ll become discouraged or “burn out.” You’ll continue to find that writing is a joy — and not some grim test of your self-worth.
UPDATE: “Quality and value always assert themselves when price and/or scarcity is removed from the equation.” If you wonder what this means, check out this article by Michael Bunker, which underscores what I’ve said above, but from a slightly different POV. It should give encouragement to those of you who have slaved over every word and sentence, proceeding slowly and painstakingly into print, while worrying that you aren’t publishing enough material fast enough. Your day may be coming.