Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the self-publishing market, it’s slow but unmistakable deterioration, and how author-publishers should approach the problem of a dwindling capacity to get their work in front of readers rather than having their stories sink to the bottom of the self-published slush pile. I posted my own take on this issue in February, and it gave birth to some great discussion. One of my main points in that blog post was that many author-publishers are too eager to push work out to the public without taking the necessary steps to produce their best work. Obviously, this boils down to editing–a process that, at times, takes as long or longer to do properly than it did to write the first draft.
The fact that editing is such an in-depth process when done properly is, I’m sure, one of the reasons why writers are tempted to either attempt it halfheartedly or, at times, skip it altogether. But what happens when we step out of the realm of self-publishing and turn the magnifying glass back upon the author with the legitimate publishing deal? Does all that potential half-assery vanish from the picture because the author is being “watched”?
I wish I could give that question a resound “yes”. Unfortunately…
I think hybrid authors are great. I think it’s fantastic that writers are taking the reins of their own careers. For some authors, the freedom to self-publish work while also being under contract with a publishing house has an irresistible pull. On one hand, the author has a publisher backing him up, dropping money on marketing; on the other hand, he’s retaining his independence, tossing up his hands and saying “I’ll publish what I want when I want and there ain’t nobody who can say anything about it.” Again, that’s great. Except that a publishing contract doesn’t magically erase the temptation to push out work before it’s ready, and being a hybrid author with one foot in each door doesn’t make a writer any less prone to producing less-than-stellar work.
Here’s what I know from experience: self-published authors actively try to be prolific. They try to produce three, four, sometimes five or six books a year. Knowing that, you may be sitting there shaking your head, wondering “how in the hell can one person write that much and make it good?” My sentiment exactly. I’ll be bold and state it simply: I don’t think it’s possible. I write pretty quickly. If pressed, I can write a first draft in a month. But that’s full-throttle eight-hour-a-day stuff that leaves me mentally exhausted each and every night; that, often times, makes me wonder why I’m writing at such a pace because, as they days add up, I’m enjoying myself and liking what I’m producing less and less. If you subscribe to the school of writing for the joy of writing, to the belief that if you love what you write others will love it as well, you can see how this type of writing can be problematic. Deadline? Sure, I can make it. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to stress, anxiety, and disenchantment. I can fall out of love with a story and character as quickly as the next writer. Sometimes, writing at crazy speeds doesn’t mean you blast past those issues. Sometimes, it means you run into those hurdles for the very reason of going too fast–it’s hard to take the curves when the gas pedal is flush against the floorboard. And sometimes going too fast (and the resulting exhaustion) can cause the best of us to say “screw it” to the most important factors–factors that get passed down to the reader.
Self-published authors aren’t the only with a reputation of spitting out new books every few months. Hybrid authors aren’t immune to the charm of having a monstrous backlist, nor are they ignorant to the fact that the more books you write, the more books you have available to sell. This thinking was first brought to light, at least for me, by Joe Konrath and his rabidly pro-indie stance. (Note: Konrath is a hybrid, not a pure indie.) And while I do agree that the more space you take up on the virtual e-bookshelf the better your chances are of making a living off of your writing, on the other hand, producing work at breakneck speeds produces lower-quality work, lower-quality work gets you a bad rap, and a bad rap gets you bad reviews and less sales. Welcome to the joy of a writer’s Catch-22.
And none of this is taking into account a little thing called reader fatigue. When I signed with 47North, my first few words to my editor were “I’m going to produce, and produce a lot.” His first few words to me were, “watch out for reader fatigue.” I hadn’t ever heard the term, and so he patiently explained to me that readers have a threshold for how much of one author they want to read at one time. Of course, this isn’t 100% accurate. There are people out there that could read the same author on a loop for the rest of their lives. Most of us, however, don’t work that way. Have you ever noticed how major publishers will only publish one title per year by a single author? It isn’t that they can’t publish more. There is, however, magic in anticipation, in the buzz that leads up to the release. Ever notice how, when a book is made into a movie, the book has a huge surge in sales before the movie’s release? It’s the magic of that anticipation that’s driving people to relish in what’s to come. Anticipation gives us something to look forward to, it makes life a little sweeter. The power of that magic, however, seems to have been lost on a lot of author-publishers and hybrid authors.
This brings us full-circle to writers pushing out a new book every two to three months. How, you wonder, can they possibly be doing their work justice in such a short span of time? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve tried to figure out and every time I’m left with a neon question mark burning over my head. Because while I could write four books a year, shrug my shoulders and call it good (I don’t have time to focus on the details, I have other books to write if I want to meet my quota), I don’t want to do that. I would rather tell stories I’m proud of, produce the best work I’m capable of, and give my readers the best possible experience I can. If I do that, I don’t have to worry about hooking them with a new release every ninety days.
Am I saying that all of the authors that are high producers don’t care about the quality of their work? No. But no matter how much one of those authors may want to convince me that their attention to detail is at the highest possible level, I wouldn’t believe it. Am I saying that the best writers produce only one book every decade? No. There’s a balance between attention to detail and being a perfectionist toeing the line of insanity. I suppose my genuine gripe is that many readers think lots of books = amazing writing, and that’s simply not true. In a way, when I see these types of producers, my mind immediately turns to “it’s about the money” rather than “it’s about the writing.” Is that fair? Probably not. But just like slowing down allows you to enjoy the view, it also lets you see mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t have caught, gives you time to fully realize the story that wants to be told, and allows you to actually enjoy yourself rather than be tormented by sales numbers and ranks and whatever other yardstick writers are measuring themselves with these days.
I once had a conversation with my agent about a certain writer and the level of their productivity. This is someone who seems to write novels in weeks and never, I mean never takes a break. “How is it possible?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” my agent replied. “Their books don’t sell.” In a sense, that solidified my take on this whole hyper-producer thing. Because if the books aren’t selling, there has to be a reason for it, and if you’re writing at insane speeds for the money and your books still aren’t selling, what’s the point?
My advice to new writers, be it self-published or hybrid or whatever; writers who are feeling the pressure of needing to keep up with these types of producers: don’t. It’s nuts, and not only are you subjecting yourself to a burnout, but you’re subjecting your readers to lesser quality and, potentially, ambivalence to all that work.