Must Today’s Successful Author Be a Writing Machine?


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.


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10 Responses to Must Today’s Successful Author Be a Writing Machine?

  1. Jason Lockwood says:

    Hugh’s piece bothered me, too. I do get where he’s coming from, as you do, but I can’t share that viewpoint about publishing success for ALL writers.

    For me, success is completing the work and putting it out there. Money is the cherry on top. It’s taken me more than 20 years to complete the manuscript for my forthcoming book and I’ve still got plenty of revising to do before the baby is born. Now, it didn’t take me 20 years to write the book. But it did take distance from the events in it and the maturity to write it well. In order to give readers a sense for what life was like in Slovakia of the early 1990s, I had to also understand the underlying principles of the Eastern Bloc nations. As a ragtag young English teacher over there, I could grasp the awfulness of the system just by observing it, but I couldn’t write about WHY it was so. I also couldn’t appreciate the heroism of the few souls who broke away from their upbringing to craft a life of their own.

    Some stories, whether they’re outright fiction or memoirs, need nurturing, and that can take time. The contemporary novelist Donna Tartt has written three big novels over the course of 30 years, but every time she releases a new book, it’s a big event. (I will note that I enjoy her books, but I accept that she may not be your cup of tea.)

    I love thrillers. I love detective stories. They’re great fun to read and they give me great emotional fuel. But I also love those slow, deliberate stories that unfold with grace, neither rushing the plot nor the character development. It’s the kind of novel writing I aspire to and I know it’s difficult to get right. I certainly don’t think I can do it in a few months. In the coming year, I’ll be starting work on a novel of some length that explores a father/son relationship, but not as a tedious or naturalistic slice of life, but as a compelling plot with heroes and villains. And plot twists. I’m giving myself a massive challenge, so for this story, success will be finishing it, even if no one buys it.

    I know people tease you for taking three years to finish Bad Deeds, but I’m grateful you did, because you wrote an even better story than Hunter, which I also liked. Yes, it can be agonising and slow, but what a sweet reward to have written something that gives you great pride.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      Thanks for sharing all of that, Jason. Your story underscores the point that people write for different motives. As I read the various bloggers, I’m struck by how some of them presume that our motives are all the same — or should be. Now, if asked, I doubt that most of them would say that; in fact, they would emphatically agree that indie writing is all about allowing writers to pursue their individual paths. However, their ADVICE frequently assumes that writers are all pursuing the same paths and priorities that they are.

      Regarding BAD DEEDS, the only thing that I could have done to publish it faster was to start it much sooner than I did. I needed a break after HUNTER, but I took too long to get back to writing the sequel. After five months, Amazon’s big promotion sent it into sales orbit, and that became a distraction for many months.

      However, when I finally got to writing BAD DEEDS, it proved to be a physical and emotional ordeal. The plot came to me very slowly, despite my best efforts. I got sick in the middle of the writing, and for several months my pace slowed even further. Various life events interrupted me, too. I also felt under tremendous self-imposed pressure to write a book at least the equal of HUNTER, to prove to myself that I had more than one story in me. I also felt the weight of expectations from fans of the first novel. BAD DEEDS was not so much written as it was beaten and kicked into submission.

      But the reader response speaks for itself. There is no way that response would be occurring had I rushed it to meet somebody’s notion of an ideal marketing plan.

      HUNTER also took a long time to write. However, I believe that the tender loving care that I put into it led to the early great reviews and steady sales — and that it was those reviews and sales that caught the attention of the Kindle editors, who named it an Editors’ Pick and put it in that fateful 2011 promotion, which sent it to the top of the Amazon and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Again, I could have rushed the book into print. But at what cost? What would the trade-offs have been?

      My conclusion: Write for yourself, and at your own pace. Don’t publish until you are satisfied that your book says exactly what you wanted to say, as well as you could say it. Don’t chase an ever-changing marketplace with the latest tactics and gimmicks if they compromise the quality of your work, or your personal identity.

      I firmly believe that if you remain true to yourself, you’ll have the greatest chance of achieving “success” in the marketplace. For one thing, you’ll stand out in that marketplace, distinguished as someone who is not participating in what is increasingly turning into a desperate rat race, rather than a joyous opportunity for self-fulfillment.

      • Jason Lockwood says:

        Wise words, Robert. For my entire life I’ve always blazed my own trail, so there is no way I’ll compromise my own edicts just to sell a couple more copies of a book.

        A recently deceased former high school classmate of mine kept insisting I write Star Trek novels. Every time he suggested it, I politely explained why I’d never do that. It’s not what motivates me to write. Everything I write about HAS to be my own creation, just as my own quirky life has consisted of my own choices. Pretty simple, really.

  2. Carolynn Gockel says:

    Thanks for this, Robert. For all the people out there talking about how the most important thing to grind those stories out fast, there are people out there who have followed that advice and gotten nothing (and they’re very bitter, and leave me feeling sad and uncertain what to say).

    There are a lot of reasons some people can’t produce a book a month or every other month. Children are a big reason! But also, if you write in a niche genre that doesn’t have an audience, you probably need a job. (Okay, I got that too.)

    Which begs the question–should you write in niche genres? I think the most important thing is to tell stories that you feel compelled to write. Otherwise you run the risk of burnout. Sometimes I think I should have waited until I had a backlist to publish, and released them all at once. But the thing about that is I wouldn’t have started getting feedback if I’d done that. Feedback and reviews are important. They help you become a better writer.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      Excellent, excellent points, Carolynn — all of them. I also think you’re dead-on about the importance of feedback and reviews in the process of growing as a writer. Publishing lickety-split, or dumping multiple works on the world all at once, precludes that.

      Every choice we make, including the choice to publish rapidly/simultaneously, entails tradeoffs. Sometimes those trades are worth making; sometimes not. But only the individual writer, in her own circumstances, can and should make that decision. Following the latest marketing fad, just because “everyone is doing it,” isn’t smart. If I had wanted to follow “one size fits all” prescriptions, I would have pursued a traditional publisher.

  3. Abby Goldsmith says:

    I’m glad to hear someone who’s a bit fed up with the “CRANK IT OUT AS FAST AS POSSIBLE” focus on quantity. Quality is subjective, so I understand why it’s rarely talked about. But I wonder how many aspiring novelists are ignoring it in favor of quantity.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      Abby, if they accept the message resounding from the indie echo chamber — that the only way to “succeed” is to churn out work as fast as you can — then many are going to become too discouraged to try, or they will burn out fast, or their quality will suffer. Seriously did any of us decide to become writers simply to substitute for the conventional rat race of a nine-to-five job a new rat race of trying frantically to upload a new book every month?

      Russell Blake acknowledges that to meet his goals, he writes 10 to 15 hours per day. And that’s fine, if you want to do that and are able. But to equate that pace with a requirement for “success,” and to equate “success” solely with “selling boatloads of books for oodles of money,” makes the pathway to literary success too narrow, and its definition Procrustean.

      I would like a return to the time, not so long ago, when we all celebrated self-publishing precisely because it gave writers unprecedented options: when we made self-publishing fit our requirements, rather than the other way around.

      Maybe some author has a burning desire to write just one great book in his lifetime. So, is he to be viewed a “failure” by the reigning notion of “success”? Maybe another author has some specific mission he wishes to advance and accomplish with his writing — some vision he wishes to put forth, some concrete objective he wishes to achieve. Is she, too, a “failure” because her goals are incompatible with monthly publication, or unlikely to generate a five-figure monthly income?

      One thing I know: If this obsession on quantity continues, many of those writing today won’t be in another year or two. And if so, then the problem of an “oversaturated marketplace” is going to take care of itself.

  4. If you can write and publish quality work that quickly, more power to you. But it’s the quality that matters most. There’s no point in putting out multiple poorly written works. It’s better to take your time. Find the pace that works for you.

    • bidinotto says:

      Kristen, obviously I agree with you wholeheartedly. There are some who can produce fine work at a rapid pace. Some can produce fine work only at a slower pace. I think the focus ought to be on producing fine work — not on the pace of production.

  5. tony Valera says:

    I’ve been writing for a few years. I finished my first Novel “Every Sunday Is Father’s Day” in 1990. I rewrote it for a couple of years, and got a copyright in 1993. I gave it to an agent, and she didn’t do a darn thing with it. Basically, I got ripped off. I had to get a lawyer just to get my Novel back! I got it back. I put it away and kept writing when I could. I’ve written a bunch of short stories and poems.( I’m working on a new Novel, now.)
    A year or so ago, I picked up my first novel and worked on it some more; and just recently I’ve had two rounds of professional line editing done on it. “Sunday Is father’s day” Is ready to be published. It’ll be out in e-book and trade paper back on amazon some time in late October or early November. My name is Anthony Valera, but most people call me “tony”.

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