Earlier this week I came across this article which basically slags all over self-published authors for writing several books per year. Basically, if you’re a speed demon your work can’t possibly be any good. You can only achieve quality, so the piece argues, by slaving over a book for years and years.
Talk about just throwing up an argument for the sake of throwing up an argument! Now, I’m no speed demon. I can crank out two books a year fairly comfortably, if nothing else goes wrong. But my lack of speed is mostly due to the fact that I’m in a place in life where a lot goes wrong. That and I still have a day job.
I’m also not self-published, but even in traditional publishing, the advice is to get as much (good content) as you can out there as quickly as you can. This boosts your visibility and satisfies fans hungry for more. True, this advice tends to apply more to genre fiction and series than highbrow literary fiction, but the point is well taken. If you disappear for decades, this world’s short attention span won’t remember you. Or care. Maybe you could get away with writing a book per decade years ago, but now everything is so fragmented and fast paced that what’s hot today is forgotten by tomorrow. If you don’t keep your name in front of people, they’ll forget.
So while I am neither of the things this author is dumping on, I sympathize with them. The author of the piece is making some huge generalizations that just don’t hold water. At least not in all cases.
Plenty of people can easily crank out four books per year. They write full-time and they’ve perfected a system. They have a life that allows them that time. Such writers aren’t particularly exceptional in either good or bad ways. What they are is professional and committed. Good for them, I say. You go and do the thing.
The author of this article, though, seems to skip right over that and makes so many assumptions that are just wrong.
Where to start…
First of all, the author needs to step back and understand that it’s equally likely that a book that took decades to write is just as poor quality as one that took four months. How many times have you heard, “I slaved over this for a decade, it’s perfect!” and yet the book isn’t selling? (Whether traditionally published or self-pubbed?) Or it’s been rejected a hundred times? Or it’s got a hundred one star reviews and no five stars? Exactly.
Crap is not correlated to speed or time. Some people can write fast and well. Others can’t. Some people can write slow and well. Others can’t. Some people could write super fast, if only life would make room for such speed. Only you know what you are capable of. No one else can tell you that you can only write crap if you write fast. No one can say for certain that the only works worth reading are those that took years to write. It’s a false correlation.
Second, you have to account for motivations. Do you want a Pulitzer? Then maybe you need to spend more time on your book. (Although plenty of award winners are written in a year or so.) But if you want to make money and write as a full time job, then more is better. It increases the size of your sales funnel.
A living wage as a writer is a long shot, anyway, and if it’s taking you ten years to write a book, you’d better have a day job. Otherwise, even if the book sells and makes money, you’re only getting paid pennies per day for that decades-long masterpiece. If making a living is your goal, you need more work on the market to draw in readers and increase your backlist sales.
And if you haven’t “broken out” into the place where your name is well-known, more work on the market equals greater visibility. That’s just a fact. Now, if you’ve hit the point where you’re a household name, maybe you can get away with fewer books per year.
Although, hmm… Many household name authors are speed demons. Nora Roberts routinely cranks out four books per year. One new hardcover, usually one in a trilogy (sometimes two), and one or two under her J.D. Robb pen name. Danielle Steel is good for at least three or four in a year, and I don’t even know how many James Patterson cranks out between his own books, and those he co-writes. There are plenty more examples out there of speed demon household names.
While none of these authors are cranking out “highbrow literature,” there are plenty of people who find their books enjoyable. Nobody’s accusing them of pumping garbage into the marketplace. (Well, some are, but those are people who seriously enjoy crapping on anything fun.) Why is it only the self-published and indie authors who get slapped with the “crap” label? It’s not the manner of publication that matters. It’s the work.
All right, yes. There is a fair amount of crap in the marketplace. But I have no way of knowing if it took an author a week to write, or five years. And the junk isn’t just the province of the small-time authors. What constitutes crap is in the eye of the beholder. Some people hate the bestsellers, labelling them as crap, and gravitate toward indie stuff. Other than things full of typos, plot holes, and other glaring errors, it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad because reading tastes are personal.
Third (I think… I’m getting a little off here), practice makes perfect. My first book (now resting comfortably in a drawer) took about three years to write, largely because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But my second took less time. My third even less. Now I have a system and I can work that system. Most writers work that way, I think. You get faster as you go along, simply because you’ve gone around the learning curve. It’s like any job or skill. The more you do it, the faster you get.
Fourth, let’s separate speed and fear. Sometimes the dithering over a book for decades springs from a fear of sending it out. Or a feeling that it’s not “perfect.” (Newsflash: Nothing is ever perfect.) So while that book may have taken a year to write, the author spent another nine screwing around with it out of fear, or perfectionism. There comes a point where the dithering isn’t producing anything useful and you just need to send it out already. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, yada, yada. When an author says, “It took me ten years to write this,” we don’t know whether that was ten years of true work, or ten years of dithering.
We also don’t know if it was ten years of work every day, or a month here and there, scattered among other obligations and “life.” Fawning over the amount of time is meaningless in this case. If it’s the latter and you compressed the writing down into actual work time, you might find that it really only took a year. Or two. Not ten. But who’s to know? Casting generalizations about more being better fails to fully quantify “more.”
All this to say… If you can put your foot down on the accelerator and turn out quality stuff, do it. Floor that puppy. Turn out as many books and stories as you can and increase your visibility. Don’t worry about the naysayers. There’s just as much garbage written slowly as quickly. I mean, don’t jeopardize your health and relationships over it, but if you can go fast, get in the fast lane and go.
And if you can’t do that? don’t feel badly about it. Everyone is different and every career evolves at its own pace. The point is to turn out good work that people want to buy. That’s it. However long it takes you to do that is exactly the right amount of time for you.
(Photo courtesy of geralt)