How fast is slow?
…And other indie myths.
When talking to indies, one of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear is to have a lot of volume, putting out X stories per year. (I’ve heard anywhere from 4 to 12 on this one.) While this is good advice, it’s neither mandatory nor the only way to succeed, and “You have to write fast to succeed as indie” is fast on its way to becoming a myth masquerading as a bedrock belief in the indie universe.
Let’s break down the reasons why.
First, the indie market (in e-book) is very young. It’s still shaking out of the initial gold rush mentality and into a mature market, and isn’t there yet. (Despite being online, it doesn’t move at internet news cycle speed.) When the bad old days of trad-only were, ah, ten years ago? This is still a brand-new market. Therefore, the people who’ve come in indie-only are, at most, only on their tenth year of this. (Most haven’t been doing it for that long, either.)
Having a lot of books out there not only has more ways for readers to find you, it also lets them binge-read once they do find you – which creates fans, and plenty of royalties. However, ten years (or less) isn’t that long a time for writing a lot of books, so the indie-only authors who naturally write very quickly, and the ones who had a lot of backlog ready to put up, were able to get ahead of the trad authors whose houses didn’t upload ebooks / didn’t have rights back yet, and the newer indies who write more slowly.
However, let me show you two examples of people who don’t have to write quickly, both midlist. First, our own lovely Sarah Hoyt. Sarah has put years of effort into writing a blog, and built an audience there, as well as building fans between her mystery books, her scifi, and her fantasy. She only has one indie book out, while all the rest are trad… and when she didn’t get a book out for two years (three since the last one in that series), she still had fairly good sales, as many of her fans were happy to read anything she’d put out. (Others may be mystery-only or fantasy-only.) However, when she gets the next shifters book out, despite it being three? four? years since the last one, I guarantee you she won’t be starting from scratch on building a fanbase or selling the series.
Second, my darling husband, Peter Grant. Despite his body’s best attempts to sneak out of this marriage by hiding six feet under the soil, I’m not letting him go (and he certainly doesn’t want to go!) However, medical misadventures have seriously slowed his production schedule from the hoped-for four a year to two a year, and then only one. He’s better now (yay!) and writing again (yay!), but despite all the dire warnings of “you must do mass volume to make it as an indie…” we actually didn’t. Now, the sales do drop significantly when it’s been almost two years between books in a series (Feb 2014 to Dec 2015), but you’re not restarting from scratch. If you keep in contact with your fans, they’re excited to get the new book in the series when you help them find out it’s available.
(Caveat: if you define “making it” as “making a living”, well, yeah. Peter did not make enough off releasing one book in a brand new genre to pay the bills for all of 2016, until the December launch of Stoke the Flames Higher. I got a day job last year, and it’s both awesome and helping offset medical bills and mortgage. This is the freelance life: money does not come in steadily, and if the reserve drops too low, it’s time to supplement the income with a job until the reserve is built back up, and you want to leave. Personally, I like this job; I’ll be staying well after the reserve is rebuilt.)
When you think about it, it makes sense: back when trad pub limited us to one book a year per author, there were still plenty of people who became fans of Terry Prachett, Mercedes Lackey, Patricia Briggs and David Weber. They all started publishing well before the ebook revolution, and they still have plenty of fans even at a slow release rate today. (Heck, there are new Heinlein, Anne McCaffery, and Prachett fans being made all the time, even though those authors are no longer with us. All it takes is a body of work and visibility, or word of mouth, same as with the living.)
So if you’re a slow writer, don’t despair. Just keep writing! And if you’re a fast writer, don’t feel you have to kill yourself to keep up a schedule if your life (or health) falls apart. Just keep writing, as you can! It does help to have a place where your fans can gather and converse, so they remember they liked you and so you have an easy way to notify them that your newest book is out when it gets there. It may take a lot longer, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. (Quick math – if the average time for word of mouth to spread noticeably for an author is about three years, how many books do you have that have been out long enough to start to get word of mouth recommendations?)