NEW RULE: No More Binge Publishing!

BooksYou know how Bill Maher has his New Rule shtick? Well, I’m taking a page from his playbook. Many of you aren’t going to like this, but I think it has to be said: STOP publishing all these ebooks. I don’t want to sound negative, but it’s getting nuts out there. Ever since the self-publishing floodgates opened, “the more the merrier” has been the rule of thumb for indie authors. If you’re not making the sales you want, just write a new book and publish it. Add to your series. Start a new one. That’s the way to boost sales. I know people who are publishing five or six books a year! Which is why I call it Binge Publishing. (Btw, I’m talking about new books here, not backlist novels. Will deal with them later.) Who came up with this notion? What expert, exactly, figured out that the best way to sell more is to write more? While it’s true that books are viewed as fungible commodities, that’s nothing new. When I started in this business as a traditionally published author, it was clear that if my books didn’t sell well, there were three or four other enthusiastic authors waiting to fill my shoes with their “product.” My novels were eminently replaceable. But whoever said one novel should be replaced by five is wrong.

More books do NOT necessarily mean more sales

A few wise authors are beginning to realize the ‘write more’ theory is flawed. In fact author Mike Dennis admitted just that on the KBoards Writers’ Café, an online forum where a lot of self-published authors hang out (including me). His post was promptly followed by advice from others urging him to market and promote differently, write MORE books, or write in a different “hot” genre. However some of the authors in the forum did acknowledge reality. V.J. Chambers was one: “You know what amazes me? Here we have clear evidence that the ‘formula’ is not a formula after all, and there is no guarantee of success in this business. Basically, that the universe as we know it is entirely uncertain. And yet, in these comments, people still want to find some way to make the formula work. People keep trying to figure out why it’s not working. Here’s the reason: There are no guarantees. Everything is uncertain. There’s no surefire path to success.” Amen to that. Here’s why…(at least IMHO)…

The craft of fiction

Many people still think they know how to write a great novel from day one. Some even sell a bunch of books, which I think confers an inflated sense of talent. The craft of writing isn’t something you automatically ‘get’ fresh out of the gate. It comes with practice. An Eye for MurderMy fourth book, AN EYE FOR MURDER, was the first of my books to be published, and I still have the other manuscripts in a drawer. Why? I needed to learn the craft of writing fiction. For example, a writer needs to learn narrative and dialogue, how to create suspense, build a believable setting, perfect the choice of language, use point of view correctly. We learn over time. If you are writing a lot of books, say six per year, you have little time to develop your craft. You’re too busy churning out “stuff.” And, please, don’t tell me your editor will “fix” it. Like authors, the pool of editors who will take your money has multiplied too. And judging from the results, many of them don’t understand craft that well either. Like it or not, half-done books pollute the stream for everybody else. Which is why we hear that so much self-published writing is crap. Hey, I understand. When I finished my first book, I thought it was fabulous. The two agents who turned it down were polite, saying things like “it’s not what we’re looking for.” I realized later that was code for, “girl… go learn how to write!” I cringe now when I look back at that first attempt. And I don’t think I’m that different from other writers. Bottom line: over the long haul, it’s self-defeating for you and for everyone else, to publish sub-standard work.

Over-saturation

Let’s face it. With over a thousand self-published books hitting the virtual shelves every day, the market is flooded. You’ve heard the figures: only about 10% of what’s available is read, even if it’s sold. At what point will we realize this is an unsustainable model?  What happens when readers conclude it’s too overwhelming to browse the digital “stacks?” In a way, they already have. “Discoverability” is the new buzz word these days. Websites that profess to curate books for readers either by subscriptions or other means have popped up like mushrooms after a rain. It’s a problem, btw, that affects not just indie publishers, but traditional publishers as well. And some of these services are, at least anecdotally, seeing flatter yields. Take BookBub, which used to get fabulous results for authors. (I’m not talking about free books, which probably deserve a blogpost of their own—but books on sale for $.99 or more.) The number of books sold after a BookBub ad has slowed, at least for me and other authors I’ve talked to. The same is happening with books on ENT and Pixel of Ink. Why? Because the sheer volume of promoted books is just too much for BB’s subscribers. The market has become so cluttered that even sophisticated discoverability tools are growing sluggish.

Author Exhaustion and Anxiety

And yet, even traditionally published authors are being pushed to publish more than one book a year. As Jeffery Deaver said in the October RT Book Reviews: “The problem I have now is … one of endurance. I’ve got so many ideas for novels, I don’t have the energy to write them as quickly as I used to. This year I did two books and it was exhausting!” There’s an old story in the mystery community about a woman who had a full time job but was writing a novel on the side. It took her about a year, so she went part time to see if a less demanding job could help her write faster. It still took her a year. So she quit her job altogether, thinking she could write even faster… but it still took her a year. The point is, it often takes that long to figure out what your book is about, what you’re trying to say, and how to say it. The process itself is part of what makes a writer an author. I’ve got to wonder whether the demand for new work is so insatiable that authors need to push themselves. Do publishers and writers really think readers won’t flock to your next book if you wait a few months?

What happened to anticipation?

Every July I look forward to a new Daniel Silva book. Every fall I anticipate a new Sara Paretsky. It’s a celebration, an event, kind of like anticipating a new season of Homeland. Why are we taking that pleasure away from our readers? Why not make your release a celebration, a thrilling event people are happy to wait for? If you launch with a flourish, you might even get more attention for your “baby.” Okay, before you climb all over me, let’s explore the possibility that you really are a fast writer, and have so many ideas you can’t possibly rein them in. Go ahead. Write four books a year. Then put them away for a few months. And then edit or re-edit. There isn’t a book around that can’t get better over time. And before others tell me how bone-headed I am and how your sales have just exploded because you’re writing so many books, good for you. Let’s talk again in a year. Someone on KBoards called Mike Dennis’s thread the “Most Depressing Thread of 2013.” I don’t agree. I think it’s one of the first times we’ve had an honest discussion about self-publishing. It’s been long overdue. I realize I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I’d love to know your opinions. Don’t hold back. I didn’t.

  • Anne R. Allen

    You make a convincing argument. I think the advice to “Write more! Publish more!” is useful when directed at the newbie author with one book she keeps endlessly pimping and obsessing about. But I agree that the dictum to “churn out 6 books a year, year in and year out.” is stupid. It may work for Patterson and his stable of co-writers, but on the other end of the spectrum is Donna Tartt, who’s written three books in as many decades. And hits the bestseller list with each (and stays)

    • Bob Mayer

      Does anyone think posting a blog like this is going to change anyone’s behavior? Does anyone write a letter to the editor saying: Hey, I think I need to stop doing something I’m doing?

      It’s always: someone else needs to change something they’re doing.

      As far as Kindleboards, I’ve stayed away for a while now because if you posted a blog saying the sun rose in the east, there would be a slew of people telling you that you were wrong.

      And here’s the kicker– posting there doesn’t sell books.

      Everything you say is true, but it’s not reality. The reality is in the digital age people are clamoring for new content. If you don’t give it to them, someone else will. The difference between the gold rush of digital publishing two years ago and now is startling. Bestseller lists churn faster and faster. Check out the rankings of some of the big names from them and where they are now.

      I’m a fan of reality rather than the way I wish things were.

      • Bob… I agree with everything you said. But we tend to operate in a digital bubble, forgetting that others don’t know what we know about the industry. So if my rant (and I’ll admit I’m definitely frustrated) opens a few eyes, great. You never know.

      • Kathleen Baldwin

        Hiya Bob!
        Loved your line: “Everything you say is true, but it’s not reality.”

        But I know you enjoy being the devil’s advocate – because we were sitting by the bar in Dallas and you said the same thing Libby is saying
        “…make sure the book is damn good.”

        So, I think you’re saying we need to do both – write really well and fast.

        Because the sad SAD answer to Libby’s question: “Do publishers and writers really think readers won’t flock to your next book if you wait a few months?”
        Is YES.
        Most publishers do think that. They’ve got the marketing numbers to back it up. I’m lucky TOR gives me eight months. But most don’t. As you say, they do it for good reason, because Readers move on. Readers are human; they forget, or they get distracted.

        But I REALLY appreciated Libby bringing some sanity into it. Thank you, Libby, for reminding us – Don’t sling hash. Write well!

        As my friend, Suzanne Ferrell says, give readers a lush meal with well-developed flavors, simmered sauces, and tender succulent meat.
        That kind of writing takes time. How much time is an individual thing. I wish I could do it in a shorter time, I envy those who can, but I can’t and won’t compromise doing my best.

        Great post Libby! thank you for getting authors to talk about it.

  • OMG, I think this is the post I’ve been waiting to read. This self-publishing boom cannot be all unicorns and lollipops as everyone (it honestly seems like EVERYONE) professes. Your blog made me breathe a sigh of relief.

    I was thinking about how the overall quality of literature may decrease because of the flood of self-pub books. Sure there are some really, really good self-pubs, but I honestly believe the querying process HELPS all writers. And there’s a REASON it’s hard to find an agent/publisher.

    I’m sure one could argue that the market will even out and the cream will rise to the top, but if I’ve seen anything, it’s that people really like WalMart and McDonalds. Honestly that’s how I feel about this flood of books, fast food literature. Not that I don’t want a crappy burger once in a while, but a steady diet, no thanks. If this deluge continues, will we lose our more discerning tastes?

  • Rochelle Melander

    Great post, Libby. My biggest criticism of the over exposure I’m seeing: the quality has suffered. Most self-published books should stay in the drawer! Thanks for this.

  • Michael Kelberer

    Hmmm … “more is better”, oversaturation, loss of quality, hype over substance…sounds like a microcosm of our whole society.

  • Love this post, Libby-gives me permission to exhale my anxiety over the next right steps with my current work

  • RuthHarris

    Thanks soooo much for this sane & sensible post, Libby. My first bestseller was DECADES. I had been writing professionally [magazine articles, mmpb under a variety of pseudonyms in different genres, unpublished (deservedly so) novels] for almost 15 years before my agent sold DECADES to Simon & Schuster.

    I have read that it takes a million words to, essentially, turn a typist into a writer. Art is one thing but the craft that supports it is fundamental and takes time to learn.

    I have no problem whatever with people adding to the “crap” if that’s what they want to do. I do not, however, plan to read any of it. Early in my career as an editor and publisher, I did my time in the slush pile. Trust me, once was more than enough. 🙂

  • Fran Baker

    Great post. I’ve always been a slow writer – 16 books (8 trads and 8 indies) in 25+ years and in a genre – romance – where writers were encouraged to speed up their output. I used to feel anxious because I was so slow. Now I don’t worry about it. I write the best book I can, have it edited and go for an eye-catching cover. I’m still not fast, but my four Regency romances have made Zon’s comedy of manners bestseller list and I have high hopes for Miss Sophie’s Secret, due out next month.

  • Thank you. I agree. I recently told my agent how much I miss traditional publishing, and I think you’ve just explained why.

  • Alexes Razevich

    Is there a way to make this post required reading for all authors? Everything you said was exactly right. Brava!

  • Connie Barrett

    Excellent post. I’m not impressed by writers who write 10,000 words a day. You’re so right that the word “binge” applies. The binge eater doesn’t enjoy food. Does the binge writer enjoy writing? If not, what’s the purpose?

    • Marc Cabot

      10K words in a day is aiming kinda high, but I have sat down on more than one occasion and said, “5-8K word short story. Finished today. Go!”

      It was bags of fun. 🙂 Also, people give me money to read them. Sooooo…

  • msl_007

    LIke any strategy, this one will not work for everyone, that’s sure. However, there are plenty of indies who make a buttload of money because they come out with a book every few months, and they have been doing it for years.

    For every successful indie who does this, there’ll be a hundred others that haven’t found the same wave—thus the points you brought out in this post.

    Would they make as much if they didn’t, choosing to come out with higher quality stuff instead? Tough to say.

    I don’t think the answer is necessarily for everyone to stop publishing as much … cause that’s just not going to happen. For every writer that gives up, there’ll be ten more who are just starting the over saturation journey.

    Encouraging quality over quantity definitely has its place, which is what’s great about this post.

  • Mike Dennis

    Libby–Thanks for keeping this discussion going. It’s stuff that needs to be said, to be aired. When I started that thread on Kindle Boards, I had no idea it would unleash such a firestorm of commentary. As I write this, it’s slipped to the fourth page of posts on the forum, so it looks like it’s finally through, but not before it drew over three hundred replies. Here’s one of the more recent (and better) ones from one Scott William Carter:

    “So while I agree that you have to be honest with yourself how hard you’re working at this, and working harder is generally better, the most important factor isn’t effort. It’s the quality of your decisions, all the way down to the words you put on the page one at a time.”

    • Mike, thanks again for letting me take your name in vain. Scott’s right, of course.

  • Pat Brown

    As authors we really aren’t good judges of our own work. It seems to me that if you’re writing 4 books a year, where’s the time to edit them? Revision is where my books become good, but if I feel I have to pump out so much in such a short time I know the quality would suffer. Not saying that’s true of other writers but the abundance of so much badly written stuff published every year suggest it might be at least part of the problem.

    I know I don’t stop reading a favorite author or ‘forget’ them if it’s been over a year since their last book. I really don’t think readers are that fickle and I’d rather take the time to make 1 book the best I can, rather than 4 okay books.

  • Betty Webb

    Excellent blog, Libby.

  • Polly Iyer

    You may be right, Libby, and people are churning out too many books a year, flooding the marketplace, and burying some good books in the process. You’re also right about the diminishing returns from ad sites like Book Bub, ENT, and Pixel of Ink. But you can’t tell people they shouldn’t write so many books. You just
    can’t. It’s like telling couples they should have so many children or telling artists they shouldn’t paint all those pictures because they’re eyesores. Many self-published authors, me included, have spent years polishing our craft, going through the traditional querying, getting agents, and being turned down by publishers for a number of reasons. During those years we wrote, built up a backlist, and decided for various reasons to self-publish our work. It took me eleven years to publish a book and thirteen years to publish the very first book I
    wrote. It’s unfair to paint us all with the same broad brush just because we chose or were forced to choose a different path. Many writers, including some who publish books not quite ready for prime time, love writing as a personal artistic expression. Readers should be more discerning in the authors they read, and most sites give them the opportunity to sample the books so they make the right decisions. So though I agree with you in theory, I don’t agree with telling anyone how much they should write/publish. As a reader, I’ll make the decision who
    I want to read. In saying that, I’ve read some big name authors lately who’ve produced some terrible books. Maybe their publishers are forcing them to churn out books to satisfy their bottom line, I don’t know, but a caution should be directed at them too.

    Polly
    http://PollyIyer.com
    Goddess of the Moon
    Hooked
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  • writebrainrd

    I was inspired by Libby at the Midwest Writers Conference some years ago and she became somewhat of a role model. I listen when she speaks. Thanks.

  • Neil Plakcy

    I agree with your points, Libby — but don’t discount those who do multiple drafts, self-edit and have editors, and still manage to put out more than one book a year. I published, on my own and with publishers, five novels and a long story this year, and each of them went through multiple drafts and edits. I try to work ahead so I have time to let things sit– have four first drafts of books on my computer now for publication next year.

  • Lynn Reynolds

    I completely agree with you, Libby. It’s an insane system, guaranteed to burn out good writers prematurely. I know I can’t compete with the far more driven authors who are writing multiple books every year, or those who have a stockpile of unpublished manuscripts they’ve accumulated over decades. And we won’t even talk about the established authors who are now reprinting their entire backlists at once.

    I’m sure the tide will slow down soon, though. I think more than a few people are getting into ebook publishing right now because they think this is a quick road to riches. In most cases, it’s definitely not. When that becomes clear, and when the novelty wears off, all but the most dedicated writers will move on to a new diversion.

  • suspensewriter

    There are so many points I agree with in this post that I can’t even keep track. Great post!

  • Tracey Lyons

    I am so glad someone was finally brave enough to put this out there. I’ve been saying this for months! And everyone is telling me I’m wrong. You absolutely can dilute your market and your own brand by putting too much stuff up. I am sharing this post on all my social media outlets!

  • WriterBry

    Some writers just write for the fun and enjoyment. Amazon just happens to be the best place to get the writing out for those types of writers. Amazon has writers that churn out so many books because they enjoy writing more than making a profit and they don’t care about another writers opinion on how they’re destroying the overall monetary value because some writers are in it to write. The greedy for-profit writers probably don’t write as well as the writers that write, to write, anyway. So yeah, they’re mad…

    I don’t care that they’re mad. Now excuse me, I’m off to saturate Amazon with another good book…

  • New Rule (from 2006): No more binge blogging! There are so many bloggers out there, that real artistry is getting buried! Don’t post once or twice a day!

    You get my drift. The publishing world is changing, big time, and we’re in the middle of it. The more ways that people’s creative talents are let loose in the world without gatekeepers, the better, from my perspective. Some people get better at their craft, and others don’t, but it’s kinda irrelevant, because even crappily written stuff sells a lot, depending on the subject matter.

    Eventually, the system will get better so that people can keep finding what they love to read. And, ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all about? Providing the widest range of people the greatest variety of stuff they will enjoy reading?

  • Rebecca Kojetin

    Not only are people turning out book, after book, after book; far too many of those books are poorly written. Far too many people who epublish have not edited or proofread their own work, nor have they had anyone else do it. And if you make comments on the piece, they get irate. I was once asked how I would know a good book since I hadn’t written one. His one defense: “I am a published author.”

  • Kyla Somerville

    I disagree completely. First let me say that, NO ONE IS COMPLAINING ABOUT NORA ROBERTS/ JD ROBB and her writing a book ONCE A MONTH (literally)! But I guess us unknown authors don’t matter as much. Writers who only read writers that they love are not able to fully contribute to this discussion. All writers just want to be heard. There are people that have written over twenty books and neither you or I have read them. Why? Because we are too busy reading Daniel Silva in the July or Sara Paretsky in the fall… or other ‘best sellers’. Not saying those authors aren’t amazing but no one would know who they are unless someone had first read their book. If you really want to have a ‘discussion’, dont let NYTBSL choose your books for you. Go on Amazon and pick a book, a book that maybe only 39 people have read, a book that only had five people rate/comment on it. No one can read ALL the books that people publish but if the same million people who have their heads in the same author’s book would just BRANCH OUT ALREADY, maybe a million writers would get that feeling of satisfaction from knowing that someone heard what they were saying. Im sure Daniel Silva wouldnt mind you leaving his book until August and in July reading an unknown author’s book.

  • About time the truth came out ! God, I’m happy you pulled out that post about “binge publishing”, love that term!…Though I fear this truth won’t slow down the self-publishing tsunami that is in fact killing the readers’ pleasure in reading. I know I can’t stand to see one more Bookbub message in my email! I. no. longer. care. to. read!!! And if I feel that way and I’m a writer and have read all my life and in more languages than just English (I read in French, Spanish and Italian), Good God, how do readers who are not also writers feel like?

    I have an even worse theory than yours: I truly believe that artists, whether they are writers or painters or sculptors or musicians, only have a limited number of outstanding “pieces” in them…The others they come out with over their lifetime are to a large extent “copies” of the first, second and perhaps third artwork they’ve produced and have come to be known for. In other words, expect to be able to produce a maximum of five outstanding books in your lifetime…All the others will be copies!

  • True North Writers

    There are a couple of takeaways from this good article:

    a) Do you hurt yourself as an author by writing and publishing fast? I don’t think there’s any hard evidence one way or the other. I am in favor of apprenticeship, but some people get lucky the first time.

    b) Do you hurt the market by writing and publishing fast? I’d like to see more statistics on this. Are people reading less because there are more books? Are fewer books being sold? That doesn’t follow.

    More thoughts here: http://myth.typepad.com/borschland/2013/10/dean-wesley-smith-on-books-as-non-events.html

    My pet peeve is that too many authors are giving away their e-books or selling them for 99 cents. That really hurts the market. It hurts us as artists and makes it less likely anyone is going to make any money from books. If there are always thousands of books out there for free, readers are never going to want to ante up. An e-book may not be worth $24.99, but it’s sure as heck worth $7.99 if it’s a good one. New Rule: Value your own book! Have some self-esteem and price it right.

  • Jennifer Ellis

    Thank you for this post. Some writers are more prolific than others. I think it is theoretically possible to write a good book a year, perhaps even two – if you are very focused and do it full time. However, when I see some authors putting out a book a month, I get very worried. I worry in part that the vast quantity of books now being published every day will result in good books getting lost. But more importantly, I worry that the rush to publish will result in a decline in the overall quality of all books over time as all writers feel the pressure to publish more frequently. I just do not see how it is possible, unless one has a staff, to write a good book every month or even every two months. Yes, I know there are exceptions – some people can probably write an amazing book in a short period of time. But most people can’t. Unfortunately this trend of pushing out as many books a year will probably continue, as that is currently the prevailing advice with regard to how to be successful. Different writers have different motivations obviously. Some write just to express themselves, others write to make money and others want to produce the best possible book they can. Some writers have all three motivations. Those who operate from just the first two perspectives will likely continue to push out as many books as they can in a year. I do agree though that it is time for us all to take a sober look at the implications of the need to publish so frequently on the quality of the books that we are reading. Most of us write because we love reading. And don’t we all want to read great books?

  • Petrea Burchard

    It does smack of desperation, doesn’t it? On everyone’s part. There are some who can write more than one good book a year. I could write a few crappy ones, but I want to write good books so I’m holding out.

  • Nia Forrester

    I agree with you up to a point. But it seems like your argument is against the NUMBER of e-books not necessarily the quality of the books that come out (though you do argue that if you let the book marinate a little it can only improve when you go back to look at it–true). So yes, the market may be saturated and there may be some good books buried for awhile, but at the end of the day, I think your readers/audience find you. It may be a slow build, but they find you and if they like what you do, they tend to stick, regardless of the appearance of the next new shiny thing (author). So ultimately, I think authors lose nothing when there is more choice in the marketplace; readers will simply read more. This, at its heart sounds like yet another traditionally published author who resents the digital explosion that makes ‘published author’ a less exclusive club than it used to be. I look forward to the next book by Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt and Stephen King, and that is not diminished by the fact that I also read indie authors who crank out 6 books a year.

  • Virginia Munoz

    Looks like the conversation has moved to Passive Voice blog, where this was reposted. Great comments. http://www.thepassivevoice.com/10/2013/new-rule-no-more-binge-publishing/