Keeping Up With The Joneses

I frequently hear that I am a very productive — even prolific — author.

By mainstream standards, that’s true. In mainstream, two novels a year — four if you’re ultra ambitious — is pretty much the norm. At the end of this year, I’ll have published some 46 individual works as Josh Lanyon. It took me four years.* A couple of weeks ago one of my Facebook author friends mentioned in passing that she was aiming to publish 50 works this year.

When I recovered from my faint, I began to snoop around, checking out the production schedules of various colleagues in order to get a feel for the “normal” output of authors in our particular genre. I even posed a couple of questions to writers both aspiring and published on my Facebook and Goodreads walls this past week. While the actual numbers varied, there was a common theme. Everyone valued quality over quantity, everyone was working to their maximum ability, and nearly everyone believed they were not productive enough.

I find the last response the most intriguing. It seems to imply that there’s an unknown yardstick by which to judge our productivity. Or that we’re in competition with other writers.

And, of course, that’s the truth. We do compete with each other for everything from reviews to premium shelf space (even if these days the shelf is a cyber-shelf). We also help each other and support each other, but the fact remains that there are only so many readers with so much money and time. Whether we wish to or not, we are in competition with other writers in our genre.

Few people make a living writing fiction. Most of the writers who support themselves through their craft do so through non-fiction. Even today, with the boom in both ebooks and erotica — and despite the encouraging success of the Amanda Hockings and Joe Konraths — most writers of fiction are not earning a living. But there’s no question that earning a living spinning yarns looks a lot more possible than it used to.

Mainstream wisdom dictates that an author begins to earn real money — a self-supporting income — when she’s finally got sufficient and still active backlist. How big that backlist needs to be varies according to who you talk to. I’ve heard everything quoted from seven to forty still active titles. The fact is, it’s not the number of titles on your backlist, it’s how active those titles are. A backlist of thirty OP titles does one little good.

Ebooks, of course, are the game changer. Ebooks, with their eternal and everlasting backlist, change the publishing world as we know it. Our titles need never go out of print. While the average mainstream mass market paperback has something like a six month shelf life, our electronic books (potentially) last forever.

On the surface that’s a wonderful thing. Wonderful for all of us. In four years I’ve been able to create an active, thriving 46-book backlist. I’m earning a living now — and that earning is no longer supplemented by credit cards as it was for the first couple of years I went fulltime. In fact, my credit cards are clear and I’m saving for my retirement. And, as we’ve seen, I’m not nearly as prolific as others in this genre.

Ebooks have made it possible for us to do what few in mainstream publishing ever manage.

So is there any possible way this eternal backlist could be a bad thing? I’ve been thinking about that, and I’m starting to wonder.

We had a home team advantage in that we got here first. We had the vision and the daring to try electronic publishing before most. But the game is changing again. Mainstream writers who originally insisted ebooks would never catch on, are now taking their out-of-print backlists and dumping them onto Amazon and Barnes and Noble and every other possible digital venue. Other entrepreneurs are taking public domain classics and funneling those into the digital channels. All around us digital mini-presses are popping up like mushrooms, and hundreds of new m/m titles are released each month.

What we’re essentially talking about is a flood of books hitting an already fiercely competitive market. No wonder there’s a pervading sense of we’re not producing fast enough. It’s a reader’s market, no question. If you’re a reader, you’ve got more to choose from than ever before. For authors, however, it’s heading fast for the old status quo. With all those books to choose from — ultimately millions more than before — how will readers find your book?

I suppose, whether we like it or not, there will be still greater reliance on promotion and marketing, voices raised ever higher and prices dropped ever lower in a desperate bid to stand out from an exponentially expanding crowd.

The old business model was pretty simple: sell a lot of copies of a few books. But a new business model seems to be taking hold here in ebooks: sell a few copies of a lot of books. It’s the democratization of publishing. If you’re prolific enough, aggressive enough, it might not even matter whether you’re a competent writer. You could still, in theory, sell as much or more as any feted mainstream bestseller.

Thus we have the gal who hoped to write 50 books this year. The odds are she’s only selling a few hundred copies of each title. But so long as she keeps having a new title every few weeks, she’s got a steady source of revenue. Each new release gives her backlist a little bump and provided her imagination and wrists hold out, she could earn a comfortable living.

Or maybe not.

The problem with an eternal backlist in a genre where it takes dedication to avoid being published, is our first and weakest efforts linger forever side by side with our latest and best releases, and with so much to choose from, readers increasingly exhibit a take-no-prisoners attitude. If your first book fails to satisfy, odds are strong that you won’t get another shot, .99 cent price break or not.

Already we’re hearing from reviewers and regular readers alike that there is too much to read and it’s harder and harder to sift through the dreck. On the other side of the coin, writers are trying frantically to up their output before the market becomes so flooded only the established names will have any chance of earning reader attention. That fear leads to taking shortcuts, and the shortcuts lead to more inferior books, which merely reinforces the complaints of reviewers and readers about the proliferation of crap flooding the m/m market.

Is there a solution to all this? Probably not. The publishing industry is changing so fast right now that I suspect none of us will recognize it in five years. My advice to aspiring writers is that they take their time and make sure their first published work is the absolute best it can be, that they promote it adequately before rushing off to sell the next five manuscripts, and that they pace themselves so that they build a reputation for quality over quantity. Simple stuff, but surprisingly difficult to do when all around you people seem to be pumping out five books a month.

Here’s the thing to remember. No one can continue to pump out 50 books a year indefinitely. You don’t want to be left at the end of that run of awesome productivity with a largely inactive backlist. But if you’ve taken time to craft a strong body of work over a period, it will continue to payoff for years and years to come. Take the long view of your writing career and don’t worry about what the Joneses are up to.

*The breakdown of those four years went as follows:
7 works in 2007 (3 novels were previously published)
6 works in 2008
15 works in 2009
11 works in 2010
6 works in 2011

151 comments

  • Josh, you’re scaring me. 😮

    It’s possible I’ll come up with something more intelligent and insightful to say later on, but don’t hold your breath. Most of what I have to say has already been said, and said better. Although, I can’t help thinking that a lot of the problems that arise in this kind of publishing market could be alleviated if people would just read slower.

    Slow food, slow writing, slow reading. I can get behind all three.

    Reply
    • No no, Anne. I do honestly believe that there is always — always — room for good writers and quality work. It may take a little more effort to make your voice heard, but as several have pointed out, you’ll find readers to champion you.

      All you can do is write the best book you have in you.

      Reply
  • Well, I’m late to the party, but it is a very interesting discussion.

    Seems like great advice for those looking to create a business with their writing. When I think about the portfolio of my favorite long-standing mainstream authors (+ 10 years), their best work is their first paperback or hardback novels. They were tightly written entertaining stories. Their later work, now that their bestsellers instantly, is enjoyable but not GREAT. They are established.

    Another facet of -“Did I feel satisfied with my purchase?” and “Would I buy again?” … is $$$/value.

    I feel very amiable toward a book that delivers a couple of hours of enjoyment for $4 or so. @7,8,9,10 dollars it gets progressively challenging to deliver value and I get progressively hostile when presented with sub-par composition.

    So pricing does affect the business model and it also affects my “grading” of the book and the author’s quality.

    Thanks for the interesting post and everyones thoughtful comments!

    Reply
    • What’s interesting about that, Reggie, is generally mainstream authors have considerably more time to work on their projects.

      But when you figure that often an author’s first work(s) is something they were polishing and refining for years, maybe that makes sense.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about pricing (well, I guess we all have because it’s a major topic in publishing right now). There’s a huge amount of attention on the “sweet spot” pricing, but that sweet spot differs depending on genre and author.

      Too low actually seems like more of a danger than too high — too low seems to indicate a lack of confidence in the work. But then again, if the reader feels cheated, that doesn’t go down well either!

      Reply
  • From a reader’s perspective, I think the glut of books coming out is more of a problem for the writers than the readers. I read across genres & am always picking out 1 or 2 books to read out of the millions available. I basically use the same methods for avoiding the drecks that I always do, so I’m not any worse off than I was before.

    I don’t avoid new authors. If it sounds interesting & there are good reviews out there, I’m still quite willing to try them out. A lot of the newer authors help themselves out by having some free shorts on their website. For example, I read Kaje Harper’s free story first. I really liked it so this led me to purchase her first published book, Life Lessons & then her second one, Breaking cover.

    I think getting reviewed on sites like this helps bring books to people’s attention. If you’re an m/m writer you really should join Goodreads m/m romance group. It’s not just for the reviews. If your book gets talked about there, it just brings it to the attention of people. It’s great for word of mouth style publicity. I first heard about books like “Hot Head” & “Bear, Otter & the Kid” from that site. It’s also very helpful if you can get some of the more popular members to preview your books for you.

    There are lots of writers I like but I really don’t have an auto buy policy. If it’s a continuation of a series, then I’ll probably get it quicker. But if say they normally write contemporary & they’ve suddenly switched to fantasy, then I’ll be waiting on reviews & word of mouth.

    Reply
    • Oh when there are good reviews out there, I am definitely very willing to try new authors, but without the reviews I am more choosy when I purchase the book. It is a great feeling though to find a well written story which has no reviews yet and wait with anticipation for this author’s new story. It happened to me couple of times rather recently in a very short period of time, unfortunately several biggest duds which I have read lately were also new authors. It is of course much easier to try new author when I am choosing the book from the reviewing copies, but I also review a lot of books which I purchased myself and when I do that I am a bit more careful.

      Reply
      • I really don’t think there’s a problem with people trying new authors, per se. Especially if there’s good word of mouth. The problem is with so many new releases, it’s hard for reviewers and bloggers and readers to keep up. So promotion does become an ever greater factor.

        But then you’ve got everyone upping their promo efforts so…does that then leave everyone where they started?

        Reply
    • Yes, it’s definitely a reader’s market, Sara. As a reader I’m in heaven. Especially as so many OP favorites come back into electronic print.

      As a writer….I’m just very grateful I got here early and was able to get a seat next to the stage. 😉

      Reply
  • This might or might not be self-serving but authors usually start out thinking they have an inexhaustible wellspring of creativity and energy. Most don’t. It’s smart to place your books with the best publisher you can because you want to make every work you do count.

    Reply
    • So true, Treva. I think publishers are very much poart of the same trend. It’s wonderful that we as authors have such a solid field of scrupulous, supportive publishers that push the genre’s limits creatively and promotionally; and I’m psyched to see the shady, rickety operations go gently into that good night. Again this is part of the maturation of the genre. As th epublishers have honed their “brands” and authors have gathered accordingly reader can actually find what they’re looking for when they’re looking for it.

      I imagine that trend will continue more aggressively in the next 3 years as the M/M market reaches a point where it’s large enough to segment… the signs are already there and I imagine the impact will be positive and persuasive to folks who’ve yet to dip their toe in the genre. We’re less and less “one big pool” because the variety is so rich and cimplex. Much like mass-market romance in the 1970s and 1980s the volume has produced a wide spectrum that has begun to cluster into colors. LOL

      Reply
    • I agree, Treva. And I always recommend that new authors align themselves to the best publishers they can. A publisher certainly brings advantages to the table. Not least of which is the opportunity to work with good content editors.

      Reply
  • Yes! Yes-I said yes he will yes! Yes-yes-yes.

    Everything you said, Josh. And more. :bravo:

    There have always been writers who generate bales of prose to earn a buck, the yellow press has existed alongside “serious” content from the moment there WAS a publishing industry. By the same token, history shows us that grinding out hackwork only proves profitable (or even viable) for very narrow windows in history. Technology is compressing those windows.

    I think there is a radical shift headed our way in the way epublishers and niche authors earn their crust. I was just talking to Z.A. Maxfield about this very thing. In the early days of M/M (and epublishing, natch) people bought EVERYTHING because the output didn’t meet demand. As the market exploded it was (as markets always are) flooded by product that ran the gamut from exceptional to embarrassing. That’s the nature of ecosystems; that’s how you invent a jungle.

    But eventually planets cool and climates stabilize and the Wild West is hemmed in by a corset of railroads and urban expansion and the ecosystem changes. Pumping out dross is a bottom feeders tactic. That’s how pulp writers survived at a penny a word back in the day. Some of it was great, some was hideous, and most of it is forgotten… but not ALL. 😀 Out of the pulps came some of the major stylistic trends and voices of the American midcentury. Pulps changed entertainment globally. But the hacks that pumped out slop to meet demand… lost to time and rightly so. Even THEY didn’t think they were great, at best they thought they were getting AWAY with being treated like they were. :blink2: As you say, it’s a “rape ‘n’ pillage” economic model and it cannot be sustained. Witness every empire from Persia to Rome to Britain to the US of A.

    Ecosystems seek balance.

    Having said that, some things. Some books find an audience. And as with anything publishing will find its level. The urge to grind out 50 books a year is not going to set anyone’s literary expectations on their ear certainly. What you’re describing is the process of M/M and erotic romance pulling on their big boy pants. Frankly, Erotic romance doesn’t face the stigma and prejudices confronting LGBT fiction and you can already see it making inroads to mass market. That will come for M/M of course, in just the same way that gay characters are now de rigeur on sitcoms and soaps.

    Death at the hands of youth: the history of the world in one sentence. M/M is growing up. Or as Martha Graham once said, “No artist is ahead of their time, the artist IS the time.” We are living at a hingepoint in history. Look at books 5 years ago, at the cover art and volume and expectations and it’s a DRASTICALLY different landscape. Professionalism is viral and will spread, because if authors don’t treat it LIKE a business then the business will treat them like a JOKE. That hometeam advantage will continue to shift. The minnow pond of M/M abuts a VAST and complex see of intellectual property and the internet and ereaders are eroding that partition. :my2cents:

    Big boy pants, big time! Thank you for a marvelous, timely post.

    Reply
  • I just wanted to give an example RE: new writers being heard and since it is a positive example I am going to name the book. The word of the mouth is going around about “Bear, Otter and the Kid” by TJ Klune. I am looking on Amazon and the book was published on August 12, today is August 24 where I am and the book already has twenty reviews. I have no way to check whether all reviews are genuine of course, but at least three or four reviews are from people I talk to a lot online and I know that those reviews are genuine. Several other people who did not leave the reviews told me how much they loved the book as well, so while I have not read the book myself yet, I have to conclude that the book overall is a hit with quite a few readers. The reason I brought it up here is because it appears to be a debut for the author and what I am trying to say is that IMO no matter how crowded the genre is, if you write a good book you are quite likely to be noticed. IMO of course.

    Reply
    • I’ve heard excellent things about the book as well, Sirius — and from readers who I know are absolutely sincere.

      I will say that Dreamspinner books (even from unknown authors) almost always have a ton of terrific reviews right out the gate — as well as many tags — so I would say that this is a publisher that has a well-oiled promo machine for their new author releases. That’s not a criticism and it’s not a reflection on the books, because the fact that some of them become huge hits is not faked. The Klune book is most certainly hitting a chord with readers. There’s definitely a release pattern there that other publishers could learn from.

      Reply
      • I dont know about that actually. I mean I am sure you are right about them being good at publicity, but I look at Dreamspinner releases on Amazon at least twice a week(and buy some of them of course :)) and I do not see all of them or even half of them getting as many reviews that fast as that book did. IMO of course.

        Reply
    • First, I have to laugh because I am on this site looking at reviews while I load my dreamspinner cart as I need some new books and i was deciding on “Bear, Otter and the Kid” because of the buzz. Also, the same thing happened with “The Cranberry Hush” earlier this year as people share something that stands out as very good. Of course, it still takes pioneers willing to brave the unknown, and I’ve found I don’t like to be a pioneer. I hate feeling like i wasted time on books spat out just to get another book out there. But I love those willing to take a chance and share the gems!

      Reply
    • I am sure all forms are satisfying for the writer, I am just saying that I understand why a lot of shorter stories from many authors are less satisfying for the reader, you know? For me personally, I always loved short stories as much as long works. I grew up on Russian classics, I am yet to find somebody who did short stories as well as lets say Chechov, so for me when I started reading this genre it was not a question of avoiding short stories, quite the contrary. However, it quickly made my love of short stories diminish significantly if that makes sense. Thank goodness for you and Sarah Black and few other writers if you ask me.

      Reply

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