Quantity vs. Quality

Folks, I am experiencing an existential crisis.  I want to make writing my full-time job.  I want to be able to support myself with my pen (or keyboard) alone.  But….

Right now I do okay with the two books I have self-published.  (Ooo!  Look over there to your right!  There they are!)  I have another one that is more or less ready to publish but that I’m going to use to test some trad pub waters, and I have at least started the third book in my Medieval trilogy and have a goal to publish before September.  But this is not enough to support a life as a homeless vagrant, let alone my comfy middle-class life in suburban Philadelphia.

Recently I read this interesting article from Derek J. Canyon’s blog “Adventures in ePublishing” with statistics from self-published authors who sell over 50,000 copies a year.  And while it didn’t include a lot of the information I wanted to know (what promotional tools were used, what reviews said about these books, whether they were professionally edited, and how much they spent on editing and cover design) one of the big, noticeable stats was that many of these authors had published over 11 book.  Some within a year or two.

Why does that statistic make me so angry?  I’ll tell you why.  Because I have this niggling feeling that somewhere along the line someone told self-publishing authors that they key to success is QUANTITY.

This is what Quanitity looks like

Now, I have no problem with writing lots of books.  I’m a pretty fast writer myself.  But I have this other thing called a full-time bill-paying job that for various reasons this year has been sucking up a way larger portion of my brain and energy than a job ever has before.  And while I have about a zillion story ideas and a file full of ideas that have been outlined and expanded on, everything needs work.

Herein lies the crux of my argument.

I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who said “The first draft of anything is shit.”  Preach old man!

It’s so true.  I am very, very proud of my two novels, The Loyal Heart and The Faithful Heart, but I’ll let you in on a little secret.  The draft that of TLH that is published is draft 8.  It’s draft 7 for TFH.  And the novel I’m currently slaving over to try out traditionally, Our Little Secrets, is on draft 5 right now … and I still have kinks to work out.

Sure, I could slap something together, spell-check it, save many hundreds of dollars by having a friend or two read it and then throwing it up on Smashwords.  … On second thought, no I couldn’t.  My head would explode.  I need to knead my novels like bread dough.  I need a professional opinion.  And like bread dough, I have to let things sit and rise to get the best results.

Frankly (and I’m sure someone will take offense to this, so sorry in advance) when I see your average self-published author smacking together book after book after book and proudly proclaiming that they have fifty-leven titles for sale on Amazon and that they’ve never had to drop a penny on professional editing (because they have great beta-readers), I just want to laugh and say “Oh really?  I’d like to see you get just one request for a full manuscript from an agent or publisher.”

This is what Quality looks like. Ooo, pretty! And hundreds of years in the making!

Because I believe it’s quality that counts.  Yes, we could all write penny dreadfuls until the cows come home.  That article proves that there are some successful self-published authors selling 50,000+ books a year.  But how many self-published authors sell 50 books a year?  I suspect those numbers are higher.  Much higher.

Okay, so let’s get realistic for a second.  Good realistic, mind you.  Your average traditionally published author in my genre of Romance publishes one, maybe two books a year.  It takes about a year from the time the publisher says go to the time when you see the book in stores, maybe even longer.  Why?  Editing, cover design, copy-editing, care, attention.  Quality.  The publisher is staking their reputation and a lot of money on that book.

Yes, a lot of traditionally published authors working on this model have more than eleven books published.  One of my personal favorite authors, Elizabeth Hoyt, has 13 books and a novella published.  But she didn’t publish them all in the last two years.

My point is: Quantity is good.  Quality is better.  Quantity can happen over time.  Publishing is a long game.  The beauty of eBooks is that they don’t go out of print.  They’re going to be there for a while.  The best course of action in working towards quantity is to take your time now and boost your quality.

I strongly dislike the message being sent to self-publishing dreamers that quantity is the key to sales.  Sure, it’s true, but I think that the way the message is being sent right now is ultimately damaging to the reputation of self-publishers everywhere.  The message is being received as “Get as much as you can out there as fast as you can.  Substitute beta-readers for professional editors if you have to.  Never mind minor grammatical mistakes.  Publish, publish, publish!”

Also Quantity ... and a reminder that I should tidy up.

No, people!  Stop the insanity!  Slow down and make sure that what you’re publishing is worthy of the imaginary ink you’re publishing it with!  And definitely get the idea out of your head that you’re going to be one of the VERY FEW authors selling more than 50,000 copies of books a year!  It’s nice when it happens, but to expect it?  That way lies madness.

So what do you all think?  Is there a message to publish quantity rather than quality out there or am I just imagining things?  Do you think self-published authors need to adjust their thinking about this game?

8 thoughts on “Quantity vs. Quality

  1. Very interesting blog! I LOVE the picture, “This is what quantity looks like” hahaha! I recognize myself in many of the things you say. This will be a long reply, I can feel it, but it’s an interesting subject.

    There are two messages to self-published authors I don’t approve of. The first is, just as you say, that quantity is extremely important. If you’re self published and only have one or two books, there’s clearly something wrong with you, and you should try to write faster. The second is that books should be free, or very close to free. (At least deeming from a myriad of discussions on Amazon.) This second point is, however, a function of the first.

    If an e-book costs 99 cents people think it’s okay. If it costs $2.99 they start to grumble, and if it costs $5.99 it’s outrageously expensive. I spend more than $2.99 on one cup of coffee. The e-book can be read many times, or, in some cases, returned and refunded. The coffee is gone within minutes, and the flimsy plastic mug ends up in another landfill. Now, don’t get me wrong, I would happily give my books away for publicity if Amazon and B&N would let me. It’s the principle of the thing that makes me raise an eyebrow: everyone else gets paid for their work, so why is it so horrible to pay an author? I have an inquisitive mind, so I started asking random people I met on Amazon. The answer was unanimous: There’s so much poorly edited crap, it’s impossible to know what’s good and what will give the reader a headache, and we don’t want to pay for this. Someone even suggested creating a seal of approval self-published authors could apply for, to show their work is edited with regards to language.

    I have noted many of the established authors with the big publishing houses release a book every second year. Every year if they’re productive and quick. Why so few? Well, there’s a few differences between their works and say… mine. I research through Google. I neither have time nor money to travel to Russia or Australia just to see what it really looks like, or to talk to people there.

    My self-published books are edited — best case scenario — by me and a friend or two. I did buy “professional” editing for one of them. When I got the material back some parts were brilliant, but for the larger part I wondered, “Was she drunk when she did this?” I could just as well have flushed $800 down the drain. In retrospect this too was a learning experience, but an expensive one. (I’m re-writing that book now, trying to straighten out all problems stemming from both my own inexperience at the time, and from that expensive and completely useless editing.)

    In contrast, the big authors’ books are polished to perfection, edited x times, and have covers by professional artists and marketing campaigns planned by professional marketers. They go on media tours and do book signings, and all this takes both money and… time. To even be considered for a review in some venues the ARC must be submitted at least three months before publishing date.

    I am very lucky; I have signed a contract for two books, and the process has been an eye-opener. I used to think, “Why should my final re-write be submitted so early? Oh well, that’s good, it gives me months to work on something else.” Was I mistaken! Editing takes a lot of time, and this far, three different people have read and helped me make changes in the first manuscript. It’s still not perfect, and it won’t be perfect; there’s always one more word that could be replaced or deleted.

    Like you, I hope I will be able to live on my writing one day. It would be a life-long dream come true, but considering how many books I would have to sell, and how many books are available, I doubt it’s realistic.

    • I get really annoyed with eBook pricing myself. It seems designed to devalue the work of the writer. But I also kind of hesitate to price my books higher than the “expected norm” with the fear that I won’t sell anything. I’m not a household name yet. I would love to try the experiment of pricing things higher to see where it takes me though.

      As for editing and time spent perfecting a manuscript. I love my editor. She’s worth every penny. She’s helped me take good and make it great. Especially with this one I’m working on now. Oh my gosh, you’re all going to love it! But I wouldn’t have even thought of some of the suggestions she had to make it better if I was going it on my own. Which has taught me that I would rather spend the time to make something great rather than getting it out there fast and dirty.

  2. Quick dumb question coming! Can you not self-pub your book and simultaneously shop it to trad publishers? I’ve got a similar situation coming up but not sure I can resist putting it up (it’s with the editor now) while I wait to hear back from agents/editors!

    • That’s a really good point, Susan! I’m not sure how agents and publishers feel about that these days. I know that Carina Press publishes previously self-published material. I’m not sure about others.

      And yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to wait once I finish revisions and edits of “Our Little Secrets”! I want to share it so badly.

  3. I went and read the Kindleboard thread that triggered Canyon’s blog and at one point the moderator says fewer than 20% of all these sales (more than 50K) came from titles priced at 99c. So the long and the short of it (always dangerous, I know) is that these authors are selling in tremendous numbers dangerous, I know) is that these authors are selling in tremendous numbers and their common denominator (that we can deduce) is that they have multiple titles. We don’t know if they’re well-edited or dashed out, but the fifty authors I looked at who said they sold more than 50K books had decent looking covers. (Their book covers are shown in their signatures.) A couple were horrible, but most looked professional. I think it comes down, again, to what you want. At the end of the day, making a living writing, ie doing what you love, seems to be the goal for many (me, at least.) Pumping out as many stories as you can–as long as, at some point, these stories spend some time with a good professional developmental editor before going on to a good copyeditor and proofreader–seems like the key to making money as a writer. It seems to be the way THESE people are making money anyway and I would love to have their success! If this isn’t the case, then what we’re looking at is a situation where readers are buying mountains of crap and I just don’t believe they are. You can fool ’em once, but after that they’re too smart for that. I have to come to the conclusion that these writers are fast writers, who hire decent professional help for cleaning up after their fast work, and they’re making money. They’re in the 50K PLUS club! And on the Kindleboard thread, it looked like most of them were WAY beyond 50K and into the hundreds of thousands sold in a year.

    • Well, Twilight has sold zillions of copies and has had movies made from it, but I talk to far, far more people who say it’s horrible than I do people who like it. And my cousin who is a published author (Liza Gyllenhaal, look her up! She’s awesome) and I were talking at Easter about how the current New York Times bestseller, “50 Shades of Gray” (or something like that) was originally self-published and is just terrible. But it’s on the best-seller list.

      I want to know how these things happen! =P

  4. I know, right? I scoured the whole kindleboard thread (7 pages!) of the 50K authors telling how well they were doing and only found ONE author who bothered to mention how she thought she did it. (She said she altered her marketing plan (not sure I even have one!), brought in professional book cover designers and spent time on, Twitter and her blog for keeping the names of her books “out there.”) Sigh. There is no easy way, it seems.

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