18 September 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 12 comments

There have been a number of recent articles by self-avowed authorities that advise new authors, specifically new self-published authors, on the proper number of novels to write per year. The consensus is usually to write few rather than many, which is difficult to argue if one buys into the falsehood that higher production speed is inverse to quality.

Of course, the world is filled with different skill levels, talent levels, and work ethics, which these click-bait screeds generally ignore. Picasso could jot out a sketch in seconds that was a collector’s item, while someone else armed with the same napkin and pencil could spend a year and wind up with a doodle.

Here’s my take: All things being equal (competent grasp of craft, reasonably interesting story to tell), I tend to think more like a publisher than like an author when evaluating the market and my production speed. That means that I view publishing as a commercial endeavor that does things like pay for my vices and cars and homes, and I develop production schedules based upon what will be required in order to hit my income goals for the year.

I could easily view the process as an artist, where my muse makes that decision, or where what I write is dictated by my desire to craft a unique vision of breathtaking originality and artistry. I have no problem with that approach, as long as all those who advance the artistic argument remember that the vast majority of artists starve.

I shoot for a happy medium, where the craft level is above the norms for my genre, and where the story lines and writing hit more right notes than wrong. If my publishing company had several thousand candidate MSs to choose from each year I would probably write fewer novels, because I could pay others pennies on the dollars for theirs, and that sure as hell beats working 12 hours a day, but because I’m the exclusive content creator for Me, Inc., I have to keep my shareholder (me) happy with what I have to work with, which is my output, nothing more.

Back to the assumption that underpins most of these articles, namely that faster production speed equates to reduced quality. It can. Unless it doesn’t. I can cite countless prodigiously prolific authors who produced at insane levels for decades, and who are recognized as not just competent, but in many cases, brilliant. So the core assumption driving the dogma is easily disprovable (Dickens, Burroughs, Asimov, Erle Stanley Gardner, King, and on and on), at least for some. And yet it persists.

I think it continues to rear its ugly head because those writing the articles mistake their abilities for the abilities of all, and thus if they can’t write more than a single novel of marketable quality per year, then nobody can. They simply ignore those who clearly can. Data filtering to support one’s pre-assumptions being a hallmark of pseudo-science and quackery.

The truth is that some can’t write well at any speed. Others take forever to generate high-quality prose. Still others can, and do, write at a high level, rather quickly. Just as some can sing out of the gate, others can after years of practice, and still others will never be more than tone deaf or the bane of Karaoke bars worldwide.

Quality is also highly subjective. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. I’m no fan of FSOG, and yet it basically paid Random House’s bonuses for the year, and is the most purchased book of the 21st Century (yes, I made that up, but it’s probably right, so bite me). Point being there have always been literary snobs who declare whatever is popular as trash unworthy of being read, and there always will be. Often, anything other than what they are laboring over, or something that’s won a prize, and thus is clearly anointed as being superior by the big brains that hand out awards.

Back to thinking like a publisher, which is to say, as a person involved in the packaging and selling of books. As an author you are a content creator for your publisher, who is also you, but whose mission differs, in that it is focused on marketing and selling books for maximum revenue and profit, whereas your author self is focused on crafting compelling work (which may or may not ultimately sell).

In an ideal world, your author self would hold regular meetings with your publisher self, and you’d discuss what would likely be most marketable, what production schedule would be ideal, etc. Then your author self would agree with your publisher self, and you’d have a game plan to follow, the success or failure thereof being revenue generated.

That’s kind of how I do it. Doesn’t mean it’s the only way, but it’s the way I naturally use as someone who loves to write, but comes from a business background. Don’t get me wrong – if a trad deal offering seven figures for one tome came along, I’d jump at it, and lovingly polish each sentence in a 100K word door stopper for a year or three – because I’m being paid to do so. But absent that, I have to sell books in the current market, where after 90 days, and in many cases, 30 days, the first wave of readers have bought your work, and you better have another waiting, or they move on to the next pretty face. Harsh reality, but business is filled with difficult truths, especially retail, which is what the book business is.

I tend to argue for several things: 1) Quality, meaning adequate craft, editing, packaging. 2) Production speed to meet income objectives. 3) Genre choices that will maximize possible success.

That’s it. I can’t tell you how to craft The Goldfinch or Infinite Jest. I can tell you that if you aren’t earning income selling books over the couple to thirteen years it takes to write them, your broke ass better have another gig to pay the rent, or you better be independently wealthy, or suck a mean…amount of juice from life in some other manner.

Because if you aren’t selling books in order to earn a living, writing is a hobby, not a vocation, and your hobby can take as long as it takes. If you’re creating content as a vocation, you have to produce, consistently, to standards your employer (the market, in this case) is willing to pay for, just as if you wrote software or scores for films or scripts for NBC. Somewhere in all these “writing fast is writing badly” articles, writing novels becomes a holy grail where you shouldn’t worry your pretty head over things like deadlines or generating income. Imagine if that was your approach at Pixar or Dreamworks. You’d last about twenty minutes.

So there’s my take on this latest tempest in a teapot. Produce what you can, at the speed you’re comfortable with, and the market will determine whether you’re going to make a living at it, or have a hobby you’re passionate about that produces little or no income. Nothing wrong with either approach.

And yes, there is an occasional lottery winner who takes a decade (supporting him/herself in other ways, as all hobbyists must) to write the great American novel, and it hits, rewarding them with riches. If your dream is to win a lottery, that’s not a bad aspiration. Mine isn’t a lottery win. Mine is to operate a business that makes decent revenue doing what I love, and entertain folks in the process.

So far so good. Now go buy my crap. Books don’t sell themselves…



  1. Fri 18th Sep 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Words of truth from a man who practices what he speaks…

  2. Fri 18th Sep 2015 at 6:11 pm

    Could not have said this any better, but I saved the time it would have taken to write something like this, to keep writing my next story.
    Where is the Like button?

  3. Fri 18th Sep 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Good post, Russell. Thanks for taking the time.

  4. Scarlett Braden
    Fri 18th Sep 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to share. Wonderful article that is sending me back to my scrivener to finish that book. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking, but being a new writer and as yet untested in the market place, it is easy to believe what you read. It is refreshing to read common sense for a change.

    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 18th Sep 2015 at 8:31 pm

      Glad it resonated with you. No way of knowing how readers will react to your work if you never complete it and put it out.

  5. Sat 19th Sep 2015 at 12:38 am

    I think you could tell us how to craft The Goldfinch or Infinite Jest.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 19th Sep 2015 at 11:51 am

      What’s funny is that even though those are brilliant novels, they are very, very difficult reads. It takes a certain skill, a certain training, to appreciate why they’re great. That skill is akin to the appreciation of the nuance of poetry, or opera – one sadly lacking in the vast majority of the population. So while I get why they are great, I also get that if you tried to find an audience for that as an indie, you’d have a hell of a time finding a readership. Trad pubs cultivate that elite readership, who take their lead from the groups that award literary prizes. Joe Anyone writes that tome, and best of luck making any money with it on Amazon. So part of my reasoning for avoiding the two year investment into crafting the great American novel is that it would be impossible for me to sell, except to NY, and if you think anyone there is going to buy my Infinite Jest after establishing myself as an action thriller author of prolific production, you need your head examined. Ain’t going to happen, so I’d be wasting my time. That’s why I don’t bother writing one, or trying to, much to my original editor’s consternation.

      I see no shame in being an entertainer rather than an artist. For one thing, it pays better. For another, I rather like it. And so does my readership. Case closed.

      • robert bucchianeri  –  Sun 20th Sep 2015 at 9:25 am

        David Foster Wallace was so smart it hurt…I think him mostly. But his essays are brilliant. Never have finished Infinite Jest but I know it’s amazing. As to The Goldfinch–it took Donna Tart almost ten years to write and what it still needs most is an editor.
        By the way, your above post is great.

  6. Jan
    Sat 19th Sep 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Another brilliant blog post by The Russell Blake. I’ve dropped off following lots of blogs, but not this one. This is a must-read.

    Yep. IMHO one of the paradigm shifts in thinking is that, from the POV of indie authors, we also have to put on the publisher hat. Even tradpub small presses do not publish just one book a quarter or one book year. Ask any small press, and they have multiple authors. I would be surprised if any small press stays in business if all they had were 1-4 books out each year. They can’t pay editors, cover designers, ads, office space, etc. They’d be broke.

    Unless an indie author-publisher also publishes other authors’ books, pretty much your entire publishing business hinges on your own books. Author of one. On that note, back I go to my writing cave to get the next book written. My editor is waiting.

    Thanks again, Russell Blake!

  7. Collette
    Sun 20th Sep 2015 at 10:33 am

    As a reader I thank you for writing and publishing so fast. You’re absolutely correct that many of us are fickle when it comes to staying with an author who only publishes yearly at the best. No matter my interest in the story I need to read the next installment fast. Impatient yes. I’d say 3 months is about my limit. That being said certain authors are good enough for me to check back with in 4-5 months. I also cry real tears when a favorite series comes to an end. Hint, hint.

  8. Kirk Alex
    Sun 20th Sep 2015 at 6:56 pm

    Love the post, Russ! Spot on, as usual––as well as hilarious. Am surprised trad-pub have not approached you yet with an offer. Can’t they see that there’s $$$ to be made off of that dude Blake?
    I hope you stay clear of them when they do come knockin’ on your casita. Why? We dig our Indie heroes, is why.
    You, Joe, Hugh, Barry, Amanda Lee, Sela, Annie J & Annie B (& a few others): Indie All-Stars. All the way.
    Kirk Alex
    Author, Ziggy Popper at Large

  9. Wed 23rd Sep 2015 at 9:09 am

    “I tend to think more like a publisher than like an author when evaluating the market and my production speed. That means that I view publishing as a commercial endeavor that does things like pay for my vices and cars and homes, and I develop production schedules based upon what will be required in order to hit my income goals for the year.”

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Your experience in this area is invaluable.

    I have a three year production schedule and a 10 year plan. A business cannot survive without product and I agree with Michael Hyatt’s take that everything we produce should be a wow product. The more wow products you can create, the greater chance of growth and income.

    Thank you for the post!


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