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?)


  1. How long the wait is for the next book is very much dependent on when the reader discovers an author. I began reading your husband’s books recently enough that the wait for “Stoke the Flames Higher” was only a couple of months for me.

  2. I’ve been working on this current book for over two years now. (Wrote most of another one in the middle.) My editor friend says that this one should come out before the one that’s mostly finished (for reasons). I hope I become faster, with practice. If I could convince my brain to produce at a typing pace rather than a handwriting pace it would be much better.

    1. Writing may be an art, but it is an art that requires a number of skills. The good news is, skills get better with focused practice! So you will get better as you keep writing.

      (I know, anyone seeing me doing yoga might be hard pressed to believe that skills get better with practice, but ’tis true, ’tis true.)

  3. Off the top of my not-yet-caffinated head, four novel-length collections or novellas, a novel in a second series, plus short stories.

  4. Both Peter and Sarah are also active, and interesting, bloggers, which I am sure helps keep up reader interest.

    1. It does – although, interestingly, you can with a long-running blog that doesn’t directly mirror the art produced, get a surprising yet inevitable fandom split: the blog itself will get followers who don’t care for the books. (This is why I support tip jars for active blogs: I’ve seen people specifically use ’em to pay back because they don’t care for the books/art/acting, and don’t want to buy them/ go see it.)

      Either way, the advantage of the blog is that it lets a large pool of interested people know when a new release is about to happen, so word of mouth can start, and when it’s released, so you get a sales bump in the first three days from blog readers that makes it more visible for all other browsing customers. Some people use facebook or twitter or Gab or livejournal, or mailing lists instead, to get the same function. Some people don’t, and yet their fans manage to get the word out for them, because humans love sharing good things with other interested people. (The latter, word of mouth, being much slower than the former, but still a powerful force.)

  5. I still think that if we could lasso and hogtie our readers and make them write revues it would help, but a friend says that method produces a lot of one stars. I didn’t ask how he knew.

  6. Every time I see one of your posts, I wish you were on my team. Three years, huh?

    I shouldn’t worry so much then – it’s been one, and I have a decent number of good reviews. It just feels like forever, and I don’t think I’ll get Book 2 finished this year, even though I will spend all this year plus whatever more it takes to finish Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD. It doesn’t help that I’ve been coughing since Nov. 1 – but as we age some of these things are bound to happen.

    But I feel so S L O W compared to the whippersnappers.

      1. ‘I started writing pieces of *Ten Gentle Opportunities* in 1967. I finished it in 2012 and published it in 2016.’ You actually made me feel better!

        I started PC Book 1 in 2000, published late 2015.

          1. I’ll be serious now, because you raise an interesting point. TGO was a resurrected trunk story that incorporated ideas I’d had at various times down the years since I was 15. Never throw anything away, even your juvenalia. Ideas (and sometimes characters) are independent of execution.

    1. Three years, on average, yeah. The internet has spawned a massive chase by many retailers to try to manipulate word of mouth, and to speed it up. Mostly, though, that’s been amazingly ineffective… because people have really good BS detectors, and don’t care for spam.

      This is why, in the bad old days of trad-pub being the only route, the “let’s yank the book after a year” change that came in after the Thor Power Tool Vs. Comissioner decision was so deadly to series. By the time word of mouth spread, many books were out of print – and people wouldn’t buy book 5 if they couldn’t find Book 4 anywhere. Despite the authors not getting any royalties from resale, this made used book stores a vital part of the author’s economy – because that was the only way people could get into the series, or find the author in the first place to get to like them and look for a new release.

  7. Thank you, Dorothy, it’s reassuring. I’m so slow compared to other authors–and no engagement with fans, either. But you’re correct. No matter how late the next book is, I’m still not starting from nothing.

    1. You’re welcome. πŸ™‚

      As a side note, you may want to poke Author Central, and ask them to re-link your paperback & ebook. They’re not currently linked to each other.

  8. At the bottom end, I can report that one novel every four years since 2000 — I am going to try to finish The Girl Who Saved the World this year–is not adequate to draw audience interest. Alternatively, no one has bothered to tell me that my writing is so terrible that most people who read my book, like watchers of The King in Yellow–are now in insane asylums.

  9. I can see how writing fast is more or less a need when writing a series, even if you go traditional. Readers want to get started on that next story in the series, after all. However, if each book you write is one unto itself, I would think a writer can go at a slower pace. True, series books are the trend now but, like all trends, that will change eventually.

    1. “slower” possibly (It may work the other way around, with people being more willing to wait for the next in the series, but not so much chomping at the bit for another stand alone) but, if it does work that way the question becomes how slow is ‘too slow’ and people start forgetting your name rather than waiting for the next book. (Not a question I have an answer to) and what are the trade offs for stand-alones? As fans of one series may not be fans of another (even by the same author), fans of one stand alone may not be fans of another. I know authors such as Alistair McClean and Loius L’Amour (to name two of the bigger names in the ‘large number of stand alones’) set made it work. Those sets had a unity of type. I’m not sure if that kind of a unity would work as well modernly or not. Both authors also had a very high volume out put so probably aren’t the best sample set for ‘slower than series’ comparison.

  10. I started this writing thing after failing to find work. That was about five years ago. It was not an idea that popped out of nowhere. I’ve always loved writing and have been writing since an early age, but never took myself serious as a writer. However, dire circumstances and desperation have a way of cutting through insecurities and excuses and so, having nothing to lose except maybe the last vestiges of my pride, I took the plunge.

    Since 2013 I’ve published a short story and a novella and I have contributed various short stories and another novella to three anthologies. It’s been a good journey. I wish I could write faster, of course, and I wish the income from what I’ve already written could pay all the bills. It does not, not yet, anyway. I’m not giving up, though. I’m stubborn that way. The way I see it, I just need to keep writing and to do it the best way I can. Eventually something must happen. Either Lady Luck gets tired of my persistence and allows me some glory or she puts a final nail in my coffin. We’ll see.

  11. This is my fear. Three books in about 4 or 5 years, but I guess that’s not too bad. Trying to regiment my sleep, but I think the family is worth it.

    1. I’ll strongly recommend focusing on getting more finished, instead of on getting people to read the first one. Here’s my reasoning: you can make finishing the next story happen. Short of holding a knife to their throat, there’s not much you can do to make people buy. You can entice, cajole, plead, advertise… but you can’t actually compel. So don’t wear out all your hopes and dreams on something that you can’t make happen.

      Besides, in the long game, treating this like a career, one of the maxims of business is that new customers are the hardest and most expensive customers to get. If you get 1,000 sales of your only story, then you have to put all that effort into advertising and promotion 1,000 times. Say you have 5 things out: for the same effort, you’d get up to 5,000 sales. If you have 10 things out, then you can make up to 10,000 sales for the same amount of effort that it took for the first 1,000 sales of your only story.

      So don’t focus all your energy on promotion, when you get a lot more reward further down the line by focusing most of that energy on writing, and finishing what you write. Not to say don’t promote – but don’t lose sight of the next book in the worry of sales on the current one.

      And yes, your first 100 sales will be the hardest you ever do. Next time you go out shopping, if you look around, many small businesses have a dollar bill framed on the wall. That’s the first dollar they ever made: the hardest sale they ever did, because of all the work to lead up to that sale. The business of author isn’t much different.

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