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