How Not To Write Best Sellers

thNobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.

The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.

How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.

Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.

How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.

So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.


11 thoughts on “How Not To Write Best Sellers

  1. As a reader who also prefers literary fiction and tends to avoid the never-ending-series style of fiction, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write full character driven novels that have complex plots! I’m off to check out your work now 🙂

    Stephanie Jane

  2. I don’t mind genre fiction as I read both genre and literary fiction. But by the end of the day, I do prefer novels which ’emphasize character development over action’ like you said. Yet, I still admire how those authors do it and churn so many books out as I’m a slow writer myself. And always going back to fix a character/plot hole. As to the writers who churn at least 10 books a year, they really must not sleep at all.

  3. I could have written that post! Thanks for doing it for me. When it comes right down to it, a lot of the pressure to write more, write faster, is the idea that writing at all should be about earning a living. Historically, very few authors have earned a living from their writing. For most of us, it’s an unrealistic goal, even if we’d be happy with the money. I’m a genre writer, but I don’t write “to market,” and I never will. The satisfaction doesn’t have to be all about the money.

    Thanks for following.

  4. Well, if there’s ever a post to strike a chord, this must be it! Anyone who’s been rewarded with the quality read of your work would completely understand why your books take three to four years to write. They’re good, extremely well written and rigorously edited. Bestsellars are commercial products but how many of them are well written, let alone properly edited? There’s writing ‘to get it out there’ and writing as a craft . . .

    1. Thanks so much, Marcus, for your kind comments. I could say the same about your work. There is a satisfaction in feeling you’ve gotten it right, or at least have done the best you can, that justifies taking a long time to do it.

  5. It took me fifteen years to write Pride’s Childre, but that’s partly due to chronic illness – when you can only count on your brain for a couple of hours a day AND have high standards from a lifetime of reading, it’s going to take you a while.

    But it’s worth it – to me, and possibly to my tribe (which I’m trying mightily to gather and expand). I admire those who write fast and produce lots of work, but I can’t emulate them. Can’t. But also won’t. Hugh Howey’s Wool pulled me in – but others of his books have not. Sand left me confused (could be my fault) by the end of the first section; I haven’t sorted it out yet. But it had a wonderfully inventive beginning.

    I have the luxury of writing the way I do, because I’m in the retirement years, and we planned reasonably well, as a couple – and the kids managed not to bankrupt us. Not all writers have anything near that safety: if they want to write, they have to do it in the spaces around the day job and families and… So if they’re not able to do that, they don’t become as successful.

    I’d hate to think that the incredibly slow pace of traditional publishing (1-2 years once the books is handed in) vs. the speed self-publishing can be capable of (Dean Wesley Smith has written and published a book in a week or so) are the only options, and hope there’s room in the middle for all kinds. Including me.

    1. I’m like you–I can’t write fast. Even now that I’m retired, I can’t. I’m working on my fifth novel now, with the help of a great critique group, but there are limits to how much time I can productively spend on it each day. After a while, extra effort produces diminishing returns.

      1. I get a few hours out of my brain each day, which I’m about to go try for.

        It’s how I work, I like the eventual results, and I can’t do anything else any more: my ‘method’ has gelled into something solid and reliable, though slow. It took fifteen years to get it to all work together; I think I have all the bases covered (see what you’ve done to me?).

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