The ONE Book

I remember being twenty two (shuddup.  Yes, I DO have a good memory) and in awe of the idea of writing my first “real” book, i.e. the first book I intended to submit, I managed to block myself for almost an entire year, in fear of “ruining” it.

Fortunately, later in my career, when I HAD to do six books a year I had not time to consider each of them my precious, and also aware at least two of the houses I was working with at the time would kill them dead before they got to press, if not by bizarre editing (one of them) by refusing to publicize them or even distribute them.  So I just wrote them.  “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be done by Wednesday.”

So explain to me how 32? 33? 34? (I keep forgetting to count some series) books on, I woke up yesterday morning realizing what held me back on the current book in progress, for just about a year, was the desire to make it “perfect.”  Which frankly is bloody stupid. It’s not even a book-of-the-heart (more on that later) it’s just a fun book, and anyway, it’s always been destined to indie, which means the chances of its going Harry-Potter-big are near zero.  Not that they were much higher with traditional, particularly not with my history.  NO ONE — not even me — is going to throw that kind of promo at someone who failed to make it really big in the last twenty years.  Yes, not even if I have explanations for every failure, they’re all different explanations and mostly the first three hinge on “Stupid publisher tricks” and the rest on “But you have three failed series.”

Besides, with indie, it’s perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes on their heads, that the game is now “as many books as possible as fast as possible.”

Yes, that’s changed the game for traditional publishers too, because that’s the market they’re competing in.  No, that doesn’t mean they’ll get it, not now, not any time soon, probably at no time before the bell tolls for THEM.  I’m strangely cool with that, at this point.

They don’t get they’re competing with indie, because they’ve bought into the “bags and bags of slush/sewage, so we’re a completely different market.”

In fact what’s happened with indie, unless you’re trolling in very specific markets like what I call “legal fanfic” (I.e. writing in long-dead-author’s worlds) or the crazier genres like “Male pregnancy” (No, I’m not joking.  I landed on one by accident. The blurb sounded like space opera.  Once I figured out what it was I was like “how are they going to make this biologically plausible?” Hint, they didn’t. Also, the writing in general had become like watching a train wreck) which are tiny little subgenres with an underserved (yes, it’s possible, because tiny online is still hundreds of thousands) fanatical following that will read ANYTHING even books seemingly written in sanskrit, is that the really bad ones have long since dropped away.  Their “oeuvre” failed to sell millions, writing is hard, and their one book they left up has dropped out of sight in the rankings.

Most of the stuff in indie, even in Kindle Unlimited Lending Library is like most of the stuff that traditional publishers put out: popcorn books.  I.e. books you read, enjoy, and sometimes remember the name of the author under “hey, that’s not painful.”

Back when bookstores stocked authors in general and not those that the publishers were betting everything on, and pushing with all their might (so pre-nineties) entire careers were made on “hey, that’s not painful.”

You see, most of the people who buy books are not the ones looking for “the one book” that is going to set their world on fire, and define an entire generation. (Say, Harry Potter.)

Most of the people who buy MOST books are like me.  I don’t know how many of us there are.  Someone estimated we’re like 5% of the population.  We might be.  Or there might be up to 20% if you don’t restrict yourself to “all genres but romance.” There are a lot of romance readers.

But we punch WAY out of our league.

I was reading about how many books people read/buy a year, and even among the population who “read for pleasure” (instead of just watching movies or playing games) that’s around 2 per year USUALLY.  Some people read up to 10  year or a little less than one a month.  These are known to the industry as “voracious readers” btw.

And then there’s people like me.  We require on average a book a day unless we are, say, installing floor or rebuilding a Victorian (and even then we usually go through an audio book a day.)  If we spend two days without reading we start feeling a little funny, like we left our burner on and have been out of the house.  Or like we lost our wallet.  Or something.

People like me have often tried to figure out how to read while asleep or (of course) in the shower.  Because it’s too cruel to be story deprived for minutes at a time.

Yes, we probably have problems, psychological kind, but let’s forget that for a moment.  Let’s say there is way less than ten percent of us.  Let’s say there’ a million of us.  In the US that’s a negligible minority.  Or is it?  In fact, at a book a day we buy 365 million books a year.

But let’s suppose some of us are slackers, in the book a week category (as I was while hypo-thyroidal, or raising toddlers.) If all of us slack off, that’s still 40 million books a year.  Fiction — almost all of us read fiction, though in a pinch I read everything, including instructions for someone else’ medicine — books that rock your world aren’t put out at the rate of 40 million a year.

Hell, even fiction books of the “well, that wasn’t painful” variety aren’t put out at that rate.

And we need it. There’s only so much you can re-read.  And really, guys, most of us read more than one book a week, even while sick/raising toddlers.  Because we have vacations, or times we land in bed through overwork. And then we consume 6 books a day or so.  I’d guess the super-readers’ aggregate average is more like 300 million books a year, if not more (now there’s indie.)

My sheer need for books back in the bad old days and the inability to find enough “well, that wasn’t painful” books pushed me out of SF to Fantasy to Mystery to Romance to “fictionalized history.”  Like a heroin addict switching to methadone.  Exactly like that.

So, you know, there are careers to be made in “well, that wasn’t painful” which is good news for most of us.  But it means that we have to write a lot of those books, because those careers — like pulp careers (indie most resembles pulp in mode) — are made on “there’s more to read, yay.”  And people won’t remember the author’s name until they’ve read ten or twenty (and sometimes not that.  I know some mystery series’ titles, but space on the author.)

I want to emphasize again this is true for traditional publishing too.  Even with their search for “the one book” since… well, since I’ve been in the field, all they’ve managed is mostly “Well, that wasn’t painful” though they’re shading ever more towards “OMG, I can’t even finish this” because they think what makes a book memorable is MO’E MESSAGE.

Trad pub doesn’t see it that way. They don’t understand that they are competing with indie. They don’t understand that indie IS competition.  So, instead of trying to figure out how to compete, they’re holding themselves to pseudo-heights and saying “of course they’ll come back to us. We’re better.” News flash guys: you’re not.  You’re perhaps/sometimes better distributed and publicized and that gives you an edge with Ms. one book a year.  Ms. 365 books a year because it was a low year MIGHT read your book…. and a lot of others.

So, what’s the point of this for indie authors (since trad publishers are known not to listen?)

Don’t treat yourself like a traditional publisher would.  Sure, some books are books of the heart.

What is a book of the heart? It’s a book that you’re in awe of having written, a book that pours out of you and leaves you feeling like it’s ultra-special forever, a book you love above all your other books.

The sad thing is that books of the heart don’t perform markedly better than other books.  None of my books that won awards are books of the heart. My short story of of the heart took 8 years and 80 rejections to be printed. Stories I wrote on a day I was bored, meanwhile, sold first time out the door and for more money.

IOW what makes a book your book of the heart has zero to do with what makes it sell well.  Or even SELL.  Which I need to remember, because I have at least one book and the beginning of one series ‘of the heart’ to write this year, and I must remember not to stop in awe and go “I must make this so perfect.”

A colleague once told me that any book you write will be someone’s favorite of your books, and someone’s least favorite of your books.  Think about that.  It doesn’t matter what the book is, this will happen.  In my experience that’s true.

My best-selling book that has paid twice in royalties what it paid me in advance was a write-for-hire under a pen name (a house name, actually) which I didn’t want to write, put off until I rushed through it in 3 days (I wrote another book that month, which was far more important to me, and which sank without a trace) and sent off first-draft.

It’s not the loving care. It’s not the idea. It’s not the love you put into it.  Past basic competence, the market right now rewards being prolific.  This could change, of course.  But right now, that’s what it is.  If you can turn out ten readable books a year, DO SO.  You’ll do much better than if you spent a year tinkering with a book, making it “perfect.”

Because most of the people buying your book want “well, that wasn’t painful” and that’s what they’ll read.

So stop blocking yourself with the be all end all importance of “making it perfect.”  Make it not painful and finish by Wednesday.

And sometimes, weirdly, in the middle of it, you’ll find you wrote a book people consider perfect, anyway.

Now, go write.



    1. I’m a bit surprised at the surprise, but I probably need to remember that many of us don’t have a heavy background in fanfic.

      1. I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I once stumbled upon the existence of minotaur erotica.

        1. …. lactation erotica. SERIOUSLY. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t involve Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
          I stumbled on book and description (never downloaded) while researching.

          1. I’m pretty open minded, so I *usually* can at least understand the draw of most of the fetishes I come across, even when I don’t share them.

            Lactation Erotica is pretty easy to understand. But when you add in Henry VIII… well… I have to admit that goes beyond my ability to understand!

          2. It’s not THAAAAT hard to understand when you keep a timeline handy.

            Catherine of Aragon was his first wife, divorced in 1533.

            Henry’s notorious…errm… “Bodytype” owed to a crippling injury he suffered in 1536 which prevented him from being as furiously active as he was for most of his life. The appetite he had + sedentary lifestyle = well…yeah.

            For comparison, here are (admittedly romanticized/idealized) portraits closer to how the protagonists would’ve looked like at the time.


            Henry would’ve been old and probably getting grayer, but still strong, tall, muscular, and handsome.

            Random driveby comment.

        2. I try not to judge other people’s tastes, but… minotaur erotica?
          I’m getting some rather disturbing images in my head as well as a bizarre curiosity as to how that would even work.

      1. “comes with its own barfbag” is how I later heard it described.
        My main issue, though was “the science is not even there.” This is like criticizing spelling and grammar in erotica. (Which I also do, which is why I don’t read it.) 😀

        1. Seems to me that even in erotica, you ought to have clear, correct prose describing how tab A went into slot B.

          (That’s not why I don’t read it, but would be another reason to avoid it).

        2. Em read a LOT of fanfic when we first got married…. and we quickly established that some of them qualified as “husband abuse”….. 8-0

        3. There were some decent ones where the aliens did an experiment on Mulder, and he ended up having Scully’s baby. But it wasn’t erotica; It was “nurses and pregnant ladies going into great detail” fiction. With a lot of comedy.

          But yeah, everything that came from the “make Mulder have problems” subgenre eventually became slash erotica staples, sad to say. Or maybe it has already happened in other fandoms.

          1. I remember that one episode of Dilbert.

            Can’t remember whether it was good or bad.

    2. I’ve come across M-Pregnancy a few times. Didn’t read, not my thing, but I can’t see why M-Pregnancy would be hard to understand. “Alternate Gender” stuff is pretty prevalent these days, so I can imagine there are guys out there who fantasize about having babies, as well as women out there who fantasize about being the “father” (in a more literal sense). I imagine some of it can get pretty dark.

  1. M-preg. Yeah, I remember that being a genre of fanfic. Which I avoided. They were pushing buttons for someone, but I never found that any of mine were pushed enough to bother. I recall Piers Anthony claiming to have been asked to write one, then having it rejected because he implemented it differently than they wanted.

    That said… *Points wearing an expression of shock and horror* “Transphobia! An obvious sign of the desire to murder all homosexuals.”

    Seriously, I’m sure there is something here that I can apply to satisfying my own customers. Can’t articulate it now, but it’ll do me as much good if I figure it out later. Thanks.

  2. Yep. If you can’t write that many books, try writing some short stories in between. Especially if they’re in-series, they will sell, and they will keep your name out there. If people like your characters, a short with them barely needs a plot. The readers want to see what their friends did for Christmas. Or April Fool’s Day. Scenes you cut out of a story because it didn’t advance a plot.

    1. Yep, that was my plan. Put out my three novels and write a series of novelettes. Unfortunately, I became to ill after writing the third novelette, and have two unfinished novels as well. Oh well, it’s a new year so I can have another go at trying to write three novels a year and a bunch of novelettes.

    2. Hmm. Ya know, I think I could work with this idea. As my writing skills improve, I do it less often, but I used to write deleted scenes and all kinds of extras for every coherent story I turned out. The first book of The Garia Cycle has a sub-folder of ‘notes and extra bits’ that’s longer than the story itself. The second book is the same. Someday the series will have more than half a dozen fans, and I’ll publish some of the deleted scenes.

      1. I just finished those 2 books, and I would buy the “notes and extra bits”. I’m not much on reviewing books, but I’ll buy them.

      1. Oh, that’s not true, Mary. You can learn to write short stories or novels, depending on what you start with. You’ll always love one better. I’ll always be a novelist by nature, but I have over 100 pro sales that say I got d*mn competent at shorts.

        1. “Can learn to write” is not the same as “can write” in the arena of “keeping your hand in with short stories because you can’t write novels fast enough.” The learning curve can add quite a time lag.

  3. I remember a year ago discussing “voracious” reading. Where I was lamenting that the number I had read had dropped considerably over the previous year (i.e. I was reading only something like 10 books). Yeah, I can read a book a week when I feel like it or have the time. Sometimes even more (I read over four books last month, think it was five). Makes me wonder who they are polling to get there book reading figures from.

    1. And how do they count books? I’d think one volume of A Song of Ice and Fire or Wheel of Time should get you double credit (like when we did book reports in grade school.)

    2. I aim for a book a week, but generally fall short of that. Looking back made me realise I was only managing one book a fortnight. However, in my defence, I do read a lot of stuff online: science articles and blogs.

  4. Who’d have thought that “merchant marine in space” would have a rabid following? It does. And they like other “merchant marine sort of” books as well, if you scratch that itch. One of the talks at LibertyCon ’18 was about accidental cross-over marketing. In this case, a fantasy novel that drew in fans of Amish romances because it inadvertently hit the same buttons.

    Right now I’ve got two series going, with a third on pause. All very different. And I have no idea what will come next – more blue-collar fantasy? Or something totally different? None have been books of the heart… Well, I take that back. There was one.

    1. I might do one on “how much background does a reader need,” based on a non-fic book I just finished. (It was homework for me. Well written but… the story is in a vacuum.)

      1. I just read a fiction one, by a well-known author who usually writes mystery, but this was hist-fic, that was… inadequately set. I knew what was going on because I was already familiar with the catalysts of the Indian Mutiny, but most people who are of the modern era would have been lost, I suspect. Now, to give her credit this book was written several decades ago and the history would have been fresher, and for a British audience.

    2. Speaking of your work, I just finished God’s Wolfling. I enjoyed it. Even though I had read Vulcan’s Kittens some years back, I picked up the characters pretty quickly for the most part. It’s evenly paced and it wraps nicely.

    3. My grandson told me at Christmas time that he really enjoyed your Pixie Noir books. I had gotten them to him last Christmas. So I promised him your Tanager books for his birthday in March. They just arrived in the mail today, so now I have to keep them safe for 3 months, lol.

      1. Oh, thank you! I’m so happy he liked them. And I kept the First Reader’s Christmas gift a surprise for 6 months… in the garage. We threw a sheet over it, but it was definitely a case of the purloined letter.

  5. I will say that this is part of the reason I want to get the romance I wrote this November into publishable shape and out the door. Romance seems to have more “super-readers” than other genres, and I suspect there’s decent money in it if you can manage to become someone’s fiftieth favorite romance writer. Now, I’m not really a romantic at heart, and no romance novel I put out is likely to be a ONE book, but I figure that as long as I can think of plots, I should put them out and see if I can get some money out. Plus, it may earn me a few crossover fans for my urban fantasy series that’s much closer to my heart.

  6. I struggle with this perfection shtick too. I was quoted “Be ye therefore perfect,” several times a day from my earliest childhood. Hard to overcome…

    1. Yeah, but… one definition of “perfect” is “complete”, i.e. not really the same as “cannot improve upon”.
      “Get ‘er done” is therefore being perfect…

    2. In terms of art, there comes a point when you need to just back off and not “overwork” it. The same probably applies to writing. That being said, perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of art was becoming the graphics person for my college newspaper, where they often gave me assignments at the last minute. (And some of those were… interesting. The one I will always remember was “We need a graphic on abortion. Make it neutral.”) A hard deadline focuses the mind wonderfully and streamlines your production.

      1. Yep. I am amused by how much better a writer I’ve become since taking on piecework ad copy as a side job. “Sell this thing in 30 words” improves vocabulary immensely. 🙂

        1. It may be worthwhile to learn to make pie crust from scratch — can’t get a good one if you over-knead it. The same approach can apply to The Book.

  7. I wonder if the revitalization of the concept of “house name” adapted to the times might not be workable, or at least category branding the way category romances work.

    (That was my only thought that wasn’t, “Yes, this is such good advice and I should take it to heart.)

  8. “Voracious reading”.

    Yeah. Once upon a time I knew when the local bookstores put their garbage out, so I could raid their boxes of discards. There was many a novel with no front cover on my “to read” pile, once upon a time. Those were in addition to the comic books and the novels I paid full price for.

    “I remember when I was twenty two…”

    Ah yes, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and TV was in black and white. I remember it well. ~:D

      1. My first TV was black & white, and I’m younger than you. I remember mi mama watching BBC Mystery while ironing…

        Fortunately, we got a colour TV in time to watch Dukes of Hazzard, and for my brother to learn to slide across the hood like that. So, a few years before your mum.

      2. Back when I got my broadcast studies degree, TV studios still had B&W monitors where the switchboard was. The reasoning then was that people still had B&W sets, so they needed to make sure about the backwards compatibility.

        I don’t know if that is still a thing, due to the switch to HD, but it should be, and for a very good reason—if your show is muddy in B&W, it’s not going to look great in color either. Contrast is important, and putting an image in B&W is a quick way to see if you have enough. (For cover design, I recommend a color-shifting layer to change it to B&W, because you can turn it on at any time to check and keep it off for the final version.)

        1. Contrast is very important in making your title visible on the cover. I’ve had to muck about with darkening/lightening — followed by increasing saturation — to get some titles looking readable.

  9. (sorry, but seeing that post title forces me to get this out of my system)

    One Book to rule them all, One Book to find them,
    One Book to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

      1. And as a reader, I can see how I might want to throw a “male pregnancy” novel into the fiery pits of Mordor ( when a wall just won’t do).

  10. There is an actual rare but not unknown medical issue here, and a path for arranging it artificially that ought to work, as the corresponding natural process works for women. Most readers here will be happier not knowing.

    1. Now, I do tend to have a(n unhealthy) curiosity, HOWEVER… thank you for that glorious lack of detail. I shall continue to abstain in this case.

    2. Yeah, but the realistic approach is largely not what is attracting people to write this stuff. Generally we are talking about a certain flavor of girl or woman, who is writing the stuff for emotional reasons.

      1. And writing it really, really badly. Have you seen any of it? We’re talking Adventures of Dick and Jane here.

        “See Spot! See Spot run! Run Spot, run! Run to your gender-neutral safe space!”

        They’re challenging Empress Theresa for supremacy.

    3. “…and a path for arranging it artificially that ought to work…”

      There’s most likely a way to grow ’em in a test tube as well. But that does not mean it would be a great idea to really -do- it. Because what the hell are you going to do with a bunch of little humans who have no Mom and Dad?

      Imagine feeding and changing time at Das Clone Werke. Imagine the acne when they ALL HIT PUBERTY at the same time. Imagine the sales of Emo music spiking so hard that the Apple store crashes, because they all found My Chemical Romance at the same time.

      A good science fiction story will take an idea like that and follow it along to see where the rushing train of The Plan roars down the tracks and meets the granite mountain of Reality. And bursts into flaming wreckage. ~:D

        1. Any snowflake can do badly written angst, with attendant Sturm und Drang. NPCs can cut and past Real Good.

          It takes a mad genius to think up what happens when ten thousand clones all hit puberty at the same time, and all want to go to Hot Topic.

          But Test Tube Mom has yoga class, and can’t drive them to the mall…

      1. Is the goal fairly well adjusted, functioning adults?

        Adopt them out.

        Preferably private adoptions, and you’d need some level of gov’t covering the paperwork, but a private, closed-adoption type setup, with the egg donor as the mother (or her sister, if you want to go the “got the eggs from organ donation” route).

        Probably going the “possible drug abuse” backstory in the adoptions to cover any oddities in their behavior.

        1. And if you want them thoroughly fucked up, raised them in creches, regimented, by the numbers. IF YOU REALLY want to screw with them, tell them how special/improved they are.
          Then watch the world implode.
          Buffs nails on shirt.
          It’s Darkship Thieves World. And you’re welcome.

        2. It would be funnier if they were trying for Clone Army and ended up with Clone Goths instead. Now hiring in the white makeup and black eyeliner trades… Sales of Doc Martins booming… bwaha!

          1. WRITE IT!!!!

            (Seriously, I can’t– I might make it a sub-plot, though, to destroy a villain. Oooh, that actually works kinda nice with my TotallyNotGarak guy…..)

  11. I think I just realized my problem in terms of writing. I don’t want to be a writer. I’d rather be a reader. The things I’ve written have been in the order of “I want to read this and nobody’s done it” or (more often) “I see the answer to a challenge.” (In the latter category, I have a riff on A Christmas Carol that I finished too late to put out this year, but oh yes, next year it will be there.)

    So yeah. I guess that’s why I keep saying I’m not a writer. It gets in the way of my reading.

  12. Well, once again, if revenue is the be-all and end-all, I can’t argue. But the most important word in the previous sentence, as always, is if.

    Sure, pump ’em out. Don’t worry about quality or durability. Follow the “hot trends.” Vampires, werewolves, post-apocalyptic fiction, whatever is flying off the shelves. But don’t expect any of them to be remembered…and that’s important to more writers than you might think.

    1. Any damned fool who knows people well enough can show them a good time once

  13. Had not known that reading the amount that I do is unusual. Still, my imagination is better than an awful lot of the movies I see. Might be why I no longer see a lot of movies. Gave up the TV when I flushed the last thing I really used it for. (Used to watch pro football but I decided to flush that bad habit) I give away a large % of my books. Keep a very few (maybe 400 to 500). Of the ones I give away most of the better ones went to libraries and the worst went to the trash or to a garage sale.

  14. Used to be, a paperback was the price of a a hot dog at the stand. Now a hot dog at a big-city ballpark is half the price of the paperback. And there’s no excuse for an e-book more than about 15% of the hardcover price.

  15. Wow. Talk about being pegged perfectly by a post.

    But how did you know that I’d read this? Or that I was online looking through Instapundit, putting off writing. Okay, okay, I’m going to, right now. But witchcraft is not something to toy with, Sarah.

      1. Just responding to your ‘Now, go write.’
        I was just wondering how you knew I was putting off writing by reading your column. But I did get to work and got a bit done, so thanks.

  16. 1)I’ve had to learn, and I’m still trying to learn, the goal of “getting the story down, then get the story right.” It’s been harder that one might expect…
    2)I’ve read and edited fan fiction. I know what evil lurks in the hearts of men. And their loins. Dear God, the things people wank off to…there’s lemon fanfics that are scary because you can so easily imagine their particular perversions…

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