Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Problem with Too Frequent Release Days

Richard Bachman was created out of necessity. Though Stephen King cites many reasons for his early pen name, one of the more pragmatic ones was the fact that publishers said he couldn’t publish more than one book a year, and the famously prolific writer felt inhibited.

Why though?

Today you’ll see very much the opposite attitude. With the popularity of self-publishing, most successful indie authors will claim that frequent release days and having a large number of books out is key to staying at the forefront, keeping readers’ attention, and making money. Most self-publishers don’t start to see sales until they have a couple of books out and many have readers breathing down their necks for the next installment. If they were to only produce a book a year, they would have hell to pay.

Of course there’s the issue of time. Traditional published books have a lot of vetting to go through. You submit to an agent who submits to editors who approach their boards. You have many eyes that need to read it that also have other things to look at. Outside of the exhaustive editing and back and forth, there’s negotiations, contracts, and other things that need to be done.

Even for self-publishers that do go through extensive editing themselves with freelance editors, beta-readers, and the whole shebang, they have more freedom to produce work quickly. They have one project to focus on and can find people who are able and willing to work on their time frame.

And, of course, there are many self-publishers that sacrifice editing for speed. Despite what people say, I see a tremendous difference in traditionally published books (by larger publishers at least) than indies. Of course, I also rarely buy a first printing, so that factors into it as well, but claims that trad books have has many errors as a well-edited self-published work doesn’t seem true for me. Even my favorite indie novel had a few mistakes here or there, but I don’t recall seeing them in my favorite trad. (Which, again to be fair, is older with more printings.)

There’s a lot of disagreement about quality over quantity, yet in contrast to what I say above, I don’t believe that time taken is constantly correlational to quality put out. Not only can you overwork something, not only does magic come from freeing yourself, but everyone truly does work differently and prematurely judging someone’s quality based on time taken seems to be confirmation bias—a catharsis from jealousy. It’s possible I’m projecting though, because I know very well that I feel a pang of remorse every time someone is more productive than me,  however those that straight out attack people from producing quickly tend to have rich histories of insecurities it seems. I mean, that’s what causes blunt attacks in the first place, especially on the internet.

But getting the theoretical out of the way, it comes down to the question of, outside of quality, is there a reason to space out your book launches? Even as a fast writer, or say, you have a lot of irons in the fire so that they end up coming out all at the same time, should you do like the big guns and keep them to different years?

Well, one major benefit I see is that you’re not competing with yourself for awards, though indies are notoriously out of the running for most of those currently. For the big guns, however, when each book is published in a different year, they have a second chance to win something, and it might turn out that all books become award-winning while only one could be if launched in the same time frame.

I also do believe in the curse of overexposure. The hatred of Twilight came from having it shoved down people’s throats despite a great deal of the populace not understanding it’s thrall. I liked the books and even I started to get annoyed when the bookstore had it on every table to walk out and see a wall-sized poster of the movie hanging from the ceiling. I liked Batman better than Superman because Superman’s merchandise was a lot more prevalent when I was younger, then Spiderman better than the Bat for the same reason. Something about seeing it everywhere can make it less special.

But there’s also something else that didn’t occur to me before: Gestation period with the public.

The reason I bring this up is because I have an indie author I love and stalk. She first friended me at the start of her career, and I was at the forefront of her growth over the years. She is successful in a mild sense, not seeing numbers that would seem like a big deal to someone who hasn’t tried it himself, but impressive compared to her peers.

I loved her first cover, which she subsequently changed. I loved her first title which later evolved as well. I loved her first plotline, and I really, really wanted to love her book.

But there were some issues. When I tried to read it, some cringeworthy lines put me off. They were badly phrased, or too meta. She slips in casually the illustration of the height differences—great!—but then crams his hair color and other descriptions into that same sentence where it doesn’t belong. “I am showing you what he looks like now.” The jokes were ruined by explanations, and the pacing was just a little weird, though I can’t put my finger on why. As a friendly audience member, I still struggled with it.

Some people say typos don’t matter if the story is good, but I think it’s the opposite. If you have a wonderful story, little errors ruin it far worse than if it was just okay. Her book needed a little more work, just some more smoothing out, but it could have been brilliant.

For her first few releases, I followed along. Sequels to that first novel came in a timely fashion, and though somehow I missed Book 2, she grabbed my attention with Book 3, and it was easy enough to find the other.

That’s when things started to get confusing.

She began to write nonrelated stories in a totally different genre. She would be talking about “the sequel” which I started to confuse a standalone for. The summary had me baffled—how did they get here?—until I figured out that she had launched the two books around the same time. Then, even after I understood which book was what, I still associated the standalone as the sequel when I knew better.

She also would throw out new stories in the first novel’s setting as promotional tactics for her newsletter. It started to become cluttered. What was the first book? Which ones were in which series?

As time went on, her books became shorter and produced faster, cutting up a three-hundred page story into 5 sixty paged stories. This made zero sense to me outside of trying to make more money. Why split a book then launch it in with a week’s difference?

Of course, I’m not that fast of a reader. I typically read about four books a month, sometimes only one, theoretically up to 30, but I think 20 has been my record. So for me, a week’s difference is even off my radar. If I immediately read it upon launch, I still probably would get done just in time for the next. Most commonly though, I would pick it up long after buying it, and by that point, it would just be an inconvenience to immediately have to download all of the sequels. Worse if I was so into it that I read those 60 pages in two hours. I can read a 300 page book in day, having to download five different copies to do so irritates me.

It took me a while to decide to buy her books, and it was really only after I realized how serious she was about being an enduring writer that I started to become more loyal to buying her books just because they were her books, but the truth is, I don’t get to reading them before she has a bunch of others out.

The thing is, the more she produces, the more confused I get. She’s constantly changing covers and titles. She’s constantly coming out with new series, standalones, short stories, and honestly, they lack the love and affection of the first book. Not just on her side, but mine. I started to feel endeared to her characters because she talked about them so much, but now their stories are getting lost. I don’t see a launch until I find that book six of a series I had no idea existed is coming out. By that point, a part of me is like, “Who cares? You don’t seem to.”

In the case of self-publishers who are successful, I think the genre also has to be examined. Erotica and fluffy romance are hot sellers. People typically pick them up to get a jolt of feel goods and often don’t mind that they’re short, sweet, and to the point. Hell, I will forgive bad writing in a fluffy romance novel before any other genre, as long as it hits the sweet spot. But for novels, including romance novels, that aren’t solely based on sexy scenes, rather character development, setting, plot—the ones that I really love—I have higher expectations. If you’re not some trashy means to get me off, I am reading it to be emerged in another world… which requires more time to not only live it, but ruminate on it. If I read it in an hour, it’s gone before I could commit. If it takes me an entire day (week, month), I become more connected.

Anticipation can be a wonderful feeling. Waiting for the next book to come out keeps the story in your mind. The authors who are successful by producing sixty novellas/short stories in a year typically are just writing one-offs you don’t really expect to be deeply satisfying. You don’t expect to remember the characters because, really, it’s just about the sex or to appease your drama-mongering gossip lust. Not the actual story.

I liked her first novel for the plot and the characters, and I did get more intrigued the more dedicated she seemed to her career. But her goals to produce fast doesn’t seem to be yielding the results she wants, and honestly they appear to be alienating me. Some of her tactics are coming off as money grubbing instead of thinking about the enjoyment of the reader, and I do start to become skeptical of quality even before I begin to pick them up.

If you decide to go into self-publishing, the question of how often to launch a new book is a big one. Is it better to stagger them out? Is it better to keep new material coming?

I don’t have the answer, but I will say this:

Don’t worry about releasing so frequently just to keep your readers happy. They might complain, but interest in books takes years to grow, and the more you centralize your focus, the more you’ll stick in people’s memories. Anticipation is kind of fun. Making a big deal out of launch dates is kind of fun. Taking months before the release to advertise is important. Showing people that you care about each and every book will make them care even more.

And try to stick with the decisions you make. Don’t constantly be re-releasing. Don’t keep changing the titles and covers. Don’t constantly rewrite the thing. Don’t keep putting it out in pieces and then releasing it as a whole. Consider future issues like if you do want to do print-on-demand one day and take that into consideration before you reveal it to the public. Prioritize making a good impression over making money. Be true to your deadlines once you’ve announced them.

But at the end of the day, just do what it takes to tell a good story.

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