Release Fast, Stay Focused. Or Not.

It came up in an advice thread on a writing forum today and it came up at that conference this weekend, too, so I figured I’d also weigh in on this idea that you have to release quickly and in the same subgenre if you want to make money at self-publishing.

It’s just not true.

I want to try to unpack this from a few different angles.

First, the book is the core.  What you write and how much it connects with readers drives everything. The more you write a book that readers want to read the better you will do at any type of publishing. And if you hit that target well enough, frequency of release is not going to matter as much.

(In the trade publishing world just look at George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss.)

A book that readers love will get steady sales for years. Because those readers will tell other readers about that book. And if it’s an evergreen sort of title it’ll continue to appeal to new readers as they find it.

So if you have a choice between writing a mediocre title and a great title, write the great title. It’s much more likely to sell itself and to continue to sell for a longer period of time.

Second, yes, there are factors that skew in favor of frequent releases. The Amazon algorithm is one of the biggies. Amazon makes it much harder to sell a book that’s more than 90 days old. They like new and shiny and they don’t care what that does for an author’s income.

Not to mention that more books equals more organic visibility. And more bites at the apple. More chances to connect with a reader who will then go read your other books.

If you find a reader who loves you it’s hard to keep their attention. None of us (or at least almost none of us) write so fast that we can be the only source of books for a reader. But if you’re releasing frequently the reader will see your next book is out before they forget about you.

So there is absolutely a benefit to releasing faster.

Third, yes, keeping a narrow focus will help. If readers liked A from you, chances are they want more of it not B or C or D. China Mieville is about the only author I can think of who really gets away with writing across the board and keeping my attention. That’s because I read him for his ideas not the type of story he’s telling. But, for example, when Anne McCaffrey decided to stop writing about dragons and started writing about a unicorn girl in space she only kept my attention for two books and then I moved on. Same with other authors I liked who then moved on to writing a different kind of book.

Readers like what they like. They attach to a story world or a character and that’s all they want from you. Or a feeling. (I’m thinking Nora Roberts here who my mom has historically bought without hesitation who recently wrote a post-apocalyptic book my mom tried and hated and then a school shooting book my mom wouldn’t even buy.)

So, yes, writing fast and giving readers more of what they already liked are ideal as long as you can maintain quality.

But what a lot of this advice ignores is that writers are human. We’re not machines that can just crank out the same but different thing over and over again. I said in that comment thread today that if I had to do that I’d just go back to consulting. Take away my freedom to create and change direction and you’ve taken away a large part of the reason I do this.

And some writers who try to do the write a book a month thing can’t do it. Maybe for a year. Maybe two. But not forever. They burn out. They have to step back. And because (and no insults meant here) most of the rapid release model requires more simplistic plotting approaches most of those books are not evergreen books. They’re cotton candy not Lindt chocolates. (Most, not all.)

By that I mean people will buy your brand of cotton candy if it’s there and available but they won’t think twice about buying a different brand of cotton candy if yours isn’t there. Whereas people who like Lindt brand chocolate are going to go out of their way to find more of it. Which means that if you choose to follow the rapid release model when you stop producing you stop earning.

Now, the question is, can you make money if you don’t follow the release fast, stay focused model?

Most will answer no. They’ll argue that you just get buried and no one will ever find you.

My reply is “define make money.”

March of this year I grossed close to $4K and netted close to $2K. It’s about the equivalent of $12.50 an hour for a forty-hour-a-week job. A lot of people live on that much. Hell, people raise families on that much. So for many that would qualify as making money.

(It’s not where I want to be, but it’s not nothing.)

That was without having released any new title since December. And while one title was about half of that my top five titles for that period were two non-fiction titles, two romances, and a fantasy novel written under three different pen names, the most recent of which was six months old at that point and the oldest of which was released in 2014.

It’s not easy to take the path I have. And it’s probably not the path to making a million a year, but with enough time I could see earning six figures a year this way.

So for those of you like me who write a variety of things (or who write slowly) and know that writing the same thing and publishing a novel once a month would destroy you, take heart.

(And for those of you who are, rightly, pointing out that non-fiction is part of why I’m where I am right now, let me say that there are authors out there who have done well with slow releases of fiction, too. They hit a sweet spot and took off. It’s possible. And I’ll also add that I would’ve never gotten to where I am right now if I weren’t the type to write whatever pops into my head because my best-seller is not something I thought would sell.)

And one final thought: If you are going to follow the slow path, I recommend focusing on novels and/or non-fiction. And not doing long series unless your books take off. Trilogies are a nice compromise there. They’re meaty enough to draw readers in but not so long you spend years writing something readers don’t want to read. (Refer back to my first point that the book is the core.)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

I am a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 I have also been a published author who writes under a variety of pen names across non-fiction, fantasy, and romance.

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