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Bestselling vs Bestwriting Books

First, I want to say that I was fortunate enough to meet Samuel Park in person when he read from his debut novel This Burns My Heart here in San Francisco tonight. I was so drawn in by the story and his dialogue that I bought THREE copies–all at full hardcover price. So if you’re looking for a great summer read, buy his book!

Next, I want to share a discussion I had with Roni Loren last week on her blog. Roni’s post “How Fast Do You Have To Write To Build a Successful Literary Career” struck a nerve with me. She stated that although the standard expectation of writers for decades has been to write one book a year, today writers are expected to write faster. In order to create her backlist and quit her day job, she said, “I KNOW I have got to be able to write more than 1-2 books a year.” She mentioned that romance author Maya Banks writes 8-10 books a year and that proof that her quality hasn’t suffered is that she hit the New York Times bestseller list last year.

In May, I wrote a post about social media books in which I quoted a story told by Robert Kiyosaki in Rich Dad, Poor Dad, a personal finance book I’m sure you’ve heard of. Kiyosaki told a reporter who had had trouble getting her novel published that she should take a marketing class. When the reporter appeared taken aback, Kiyosaki pointed out that the cover of his book read “bestselling author,” not “bestwriting author.” I used that anecdote to illustrate the importance of social media marketing. What I didn’t mention is that the best-writing part is equally as important. ONCE you’ve written your book as best you can, THEN you should worry about selling it and marketing it, but not at the expense of the quality of the writing. And just because a book hits a bestseller list, does not mean it is well written. It means that it has sold a lot of copies, for whatever reason. (Think of all the blockbuster movies that make gazillions of dollars but get terrible reviews.)

IF you are lucky enough to be one of those authors who can truly crank out two great books a year without letting the quality of your writing suffer, go for it. I am not one of those people. The first draft of my memoir was 520 pages, and I’ve spent the past four years revising it and editing it down. I’ve never heard that there is any expectation for writers to write more than a book a year. Most published authors I know spend 3-4 years on a book. (Samuel Park spent 3 years 9 mos on his). Roni’s rationale behind writing 2+ books per year is that she needs to create a backlist in order to make enough money from her writing to quit her day job.

The argument for a backlist is a good one. (The point being that if someone reads and likes one of your books, he can go out and buy the others.) It’s an argument to stop being so anal about your first book being a super-mega-bestseller and just GET IT OUT THERE because if people like your second book, they’ll go back and buy your first. That happened to Alice Siebold. After the runaway success of The Lovely Bones, people went out and bought her earlier memoir, Lucky, which hadn’t met great success when it was first published.

But why does a backlist have to be developed in six months? What’s wrong with publishing a book every two or three years? You’ll still create a backlist, just a little slower. Like slow blogging. If you blog once a week, you’ll still build a following, just a little slower. My argument that I’d rather see authors take time to write a really good book than to rush them to publication was countered with many comments by people arguing that more time writing does not necessarily equal a better book. Of course it doesn’t in all cases. But I bet if you piled all the books that took less than one year to write on the left side of a table and all the books that took more than one year to write on the right side, well, first the table would tip over. But I bet you’d see a greater number of high quality books—regardless of genre—on the right side. Now, there will be some great books on the left side. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. There will be YA books and novellas that took little time because they are short. There will be books by experienced writers who have so much practice writing that they truly can crank out a good book in less than a year.

But I hope everyone doesn’t get into a two+ books a year frenzy. There are many ways to make a living as a writer. You can publish your books and earn money from your backlist, but you can also teach, edit, consult, speak, and publish shorter pieces like book reviews and magazine articles.

I think it’s wonderful that Roni is so motivated and that she has a clear goal for herself in mind. I think it’s wonderful that writers are mastering social media and how to market their work. But I think it’s even more wonderful when someone spends four years—or three years and nine months—on a book to create a truly wonderful book that will enlighten and entertain his or her readers.

22 comments to Bestselling vs Bestwriting Books

  • Kristan

    Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap clap. Clap clap clap. CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAPCALCPLAPCAPA.

    (That's the slow clap, in case you didn't get it. :P)

    Well said!

    I hate how much pressure is being put out there to be fastfastfast! — because yes, let's be honest, it's often (though not always) at the expense of quality. Practice makes perfect, but haste makes waste. And I want to make a living off my writing just as much as the next author, but I don't want to just throw every story or book out there and see what sticks. I want to write things that are meaningful, that are crafted. And that's what I want to read, too.

  • Obviously we agree to disagree on this one. 🙂

    For the record, I'm not trying to quit my day job. I'm a stay at home mom, so writing is my day job. But I would like to bring in money for my family so that I don't have to return to a full time job when my kidlet starts school.

    But anyway, obviously bestselling doesn't necessarily equal best writing. Though, in Maya Banks defense, she was nominated for a RITA this year (which is the romance industry's equivalent of an Oscar) so her writing isn't just selling well, it's also good.

    And I am not "rushing" my books and sacrificing quality. My debut took seven months to write, but then I got an agent, did another two major revisions, then a minor revision with my editor once is sold. And while waiting for this book to come out, I wrote book two, which is scheduled to come out six months after book one. I'm proud of what I put out and anyone who follows my blog knows I take craft very seriously and spend my time honing mine.

    But you saying that you haven't heard of any writer being expected to put out books quickly means you probably spend much of your time around literary fic writers. In genre fiction, there is more of an expectation to put out things like quick-release trilogies (where you have three books released in three back to back months) or shorter works in between your longer works (anthologies, e-shorts, etc.) to build up momentum as a new writer. And romance (and YA) readers are especially voracious, so are eager for the next book in a series to come out. A year between book releases is acceptable, but that year between releases doesn't necessarily mean you had a year to write it. My first finished draft to my editor is due six month before expected release date.

    But like I said, we agree to disagree. I feel like taking more time writing a book doesn't mean it has better quality. Everyone writes in different ways and at different speeds. (And in my genre world, I'm actually considered a "slow" writer.) But honestly, if I spent five years on one of my books, I would have murdered it with overediting. If I let my perfectionist self run free, I will suck the life right out of the prose making it technically perfect. So that would screw with my process.

    My whole motto with regards to this is to each her own. 🙂 And I don't think we should judge the merit or quality of another writer's work by how long it took them to create it. It should be by the words on the page, period. How long it took that writer to get those words there is irrelevant.

  • How absolutely fantastic that you got to meet Samuel Park! I'm not surprised that his book is genius. He's a brilliant, deeply caring man. (He'll be guest blogging for me on August 7.)

    As you know, I'm a big advocate of slow blogging–and slow everything. After all, I live in SLO-town (San Luis Obispo)–"the happiest town on earth" according to Oprah. Slower people tend to be happier people, because they can get a balance in their lives.

    But Roni has an important point: literary fiction and genre fiction are two different animals. Romances tend to be about 60K words and have a distinct formula. Writing them is more like writing novellas.

    And memoirs aren't something you churn out dozens of. You've only got the one life, and examining it takes a psychological toll as well as a creative one. You're comparing a jet-trip over the Grand Canyon with a hike to the valley floor. Both of them are visits to the Canyon, but the experience is going to be very different.

    Of course some genre fiction is written like literary fiction. (I think of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, or the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.) And then there's stuff in between–long, intricately plotted stuff like Grisham's, or deeply psychological stuff like Dennis Lehane's These guys don't pop out five books a year.

    Patterson does, and so does Nora Roberts, but they employ stables of hired writers to do the actual writing on the outines they provide, so it's not exactly the same thing. Maybe some day Roni will have a stable of her own.

    But my feeling is that if anybody tried to produce five Dennis Lehane novels or Samuel Park novels a year, they'd probably commit suicide. Nobody can spend that much time deep in their own subconscious. I've written about the link between intense thought and depression: they both use the same area of the brain, so the brain can't tell the difference.

    And creativity isn't something you can bully. Some people may have more than others, but most of us need to "fill the well" as Julia Cameron said. Otherwise, we'll just run out of creative juice.

    I'm not saying genre fiction isn't as "good" as literary fiction. But one skims the surface and the other delves deep. We read genre fiction because we don't want to go that deep, so it serves a purpose. But the rules for one are not the same as rules for the other.

    The most important thing you've said here is: don't rush to publish that first novel. You want to build inventory up first, or you'll suddenly be expected to produce many many more while you're promoting and marketing. And you still won't be earning a living–that part is true: you usually can't quit your day job with just one title.

    Writing partnerships seem to help with the speed-writing factor, and I'm going to address that on my blog pretty soon. But I'd better shut up now, or THIS will turn into a novel…

    • Hi Anne! : )

      For the record, romance novels are 80k-100k. Only category romances (Harlequins) are 60k. All your single titles are the same length as other novels. I write single title.

      And I don't want a stable, lol. I only want my name on things I personally wrote. (Nora has said repeatedly that she doesn't have a ghostwriter. Don't know for sure, but I doubt she'd have been awarded the "written over 100 novels" honor with RWA if she employed other people to write them for her.)

    • Ann Best

      Anne: Your comments are masterpieces (as well as your blog posts), and everything you say here resonates with me. Give me "literary" fiction; stories with depth of characterization and setting; stories that dig deep.

      I reacted to what you say about memoir. This of course is where I am. First one published. Staring at notes for the second and probably final one. Writing memoir does take a psychological toll. Go slow. Though at age 71 I can't go too slow or this last one won't get written. But I know exactly what you're saying. Go slow and enjoy the "little" things around me; this is what I'm telling myself.

      Thanks for this mini-post of a reply. Awesome!

      • Thank you both, Anne and Ann, for your comments! I'm learning more and more that genre writing really is a different beast. This article talks about writers feeling pressure to write one book a MONTH and what a toll that takes on the quality of the writing:

  • marykateleahy

    Great debate. I happen to agree with Roni, because I think her point all along was based on producing quality books. I don't think she suggested to write fast for the sake of getting published to pad your back list. A Because she cares about quality and B That advice would be idiotic, because 9 times out of 10 you would alienate readers. The argument really boils down to are some authors capable of producing more than 1-2 quality books per year? The answer is yes, that is possible.

    You are right that best-selling doesn't mean best-writing, but the length of time invested does not correlate to the quality of the writing either. It is largely a matter of how the individual author operates. Some authors would make a book worse by spending more time on it, as Roni suggests. I would probably fall into that camp also. Other authors don't write fast enough to produce one a year, and that's fine too. As long as the end product is a quality story, that's the bottom line.

    • Hi Mary Kate, Yes, I've said a couple of times in this post and on Roni's blog that I agree that more time invested doesn't always mean a better quality book. However, examples abound of writers who feel pressure to rush the next book out before it's really ready. Amanda Hocking herself has said that her books lacked much-needed editing. I think part of the problem is that there is a whole spectrum of "quality." What may seem like fantastic writing to one person (The Hunger Games or The DaVinci Code or The Devil Wears Prada for example), may not seem like quality writing at all to another. It all depends on your expectation of what "good writing" is.

  • Hey, if I could write a book a year I'd be happy. A book a decade, even.

  • Sorry Roni, I didn't realize you were writing five 80,000-100,000-word books a year. And keeping your day job, and two blogs, too. Amazing.

    I'm reminded of an old blues song from the pre-Civil War era. "Bluejay pulled a four-horse plow–sparrow, why can't you?/ Because my legs is little and long, and they might get broke in two."

    A few writers seem to be those super-bluejays with steel-clad souls, and others are fragile sparrows. Corporate conglomerates/big bossmen only want bluejays they can work till they drop. But in the end, I think there's a place for sparrows too.

    • Oh, lol, I'm not saying I'm writing five a year! My post was saying that I hope to learn to write faster. Right now I'm about a 1 and a half full length/per year writer–which is considered "kinda slow". Maya Banks is the one busting out all the books in a year. 🙂

  • Stay slow, Roni–we love you that way! Besides, then you won't make the rest of us feel bad
    :-] I still think slow and steady can win the race. But I also know that each book comes a little faster for me. Well–especially since my first one took a decade. I think it was about 300,000 words. Yeah. That's why they call it a practice novel. But my last one–#7–only took about 8 months. We learn by doing.

    • Yes, Roni, you're making us look bad by all this speed writing you're doing! As I near the end of final revisions of my memoir, I have two other projects in mind. One book that I predict will take me six months to write and the other three years. One is lighthearted and funny, and I can write that stuff quickly. The other is going to require a lot of research and be much deeper/more serious/in depth. But I do think there is merit in getting that first draft out as quickly as possible–and all your suggestions on your blog for doing that, Roni, were great.

    • By the way, Anne – on a side note, I am totally hooked on Firefly. What a great show!

  • Ann Best

    Meghan: I appreciate the comment you made yesterday on my The Station Will Come Soon Enough post. The Station, if viewed as death, will probably come sooner for me than for you. You will probably have time to write the books that you'd like, if you keep working on them steadily step by step. I like, and just commented on, what Anne Allen said above: Go slow. One page a day. That's 365 a year. Well, not even I want to go that slow, but I think the point is, Do what works for us, and enjoy doing it. In today's publishing world, a great many of the good books being written right now by all of us hopefuls just won't get published. Or I guess they will if everyone who can't get "accepted" by a publisher ends up self-publishing.

    As I'm approaching the twilight of my life, I just want to feel a sense of accomplishment no matter what that accomplishment is. Not all of my life's dreams have come true, but I've tried my best to use my talents and if in the process I've helped others along the way, this is all in the end that I ask for.

    • Ann, from what I've read on your blog, you've done a wonderful job of using your talents and of helping others. I would feel very satisfied if I were you. And the whole go-slow/go-fast thing – I think it really is an individual decision. Everyone writes differently, everyone has different goals, and everyone has a different relationship to the publishing industry. I think the key is for people to know that there is no formula – that not everyone should take five years to write a book and not everyone should try to write two per year. Everyone needs to trust his/her own instincts on what works for him/her.

  • […] I read a comment by our blogger friend Anne Allen that touched on my dilemma. She posted it on Meghan’s Ward’s blog. (Both blogs are very interesting and […]

  • […] Best-selling vs. Best-writing from Meghan […]

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