Truth: The slow writers in this new world of publishing are going to have trouble. Far more trouble than they had with traditional publishing only. We are in a new golden age of fiction. The first golden age was the pulp age. Speed of writing was celebrated in that time and it will be this time around as well.
Okay, say it: I have no fear. Or better yet, I’m as dumb as they come for bringing up the subject of speed of writing. Speed of writing is the third rail in publishing, but in the discussion of the new world of publishing, it has to be talked about. So here I go.
Personal Information First
I am not a fast typist, which most people think as fast writing. As many of you have watched in my accounts of writing my challenge stories, I tend to average around one page, 250 words, in about 15 minutes. I tend to write for about an hour before my mind shuts down and I have to walk around and take a break and then come back. I am not yet a touch typist, but slowly my two finger method has worked over to using four fingers. Using all ten fingers to type will never happen in my lifetime.
When I say “fast writer” I don’t mean fast typist. I hope everyone is clear on that. I am a slow typist, yet a fast writer.
I’ll explain how that can be. Stay with me.
Now Some Evil Math
250 words is about one manuscript page if you have your margins correct, and font size large enough for an editor to read, and double-spaced your page. You know, professional manuscript format. (Most of you don’t know that, I have learned, but you assume you do.)
Most people’s e-mails to me, and some of the questions in the comments sections are longer than 250 words. I’ve seen some people do 250 words in tweets in under five minutes.
250 Words = 1 Manuscript Page.
A standard novel for the sake of this discussion is 90,000 words long. So divide 90,000 words by 250 words and you get 360 manuscript pages.
So if a person spent 15 minutes per day and wrote 250 words, that person would finish a novel in one year.
Now, if that person spent 1/2 hour per day on writing and created 500 words per day, they would finish 2 novels per year and be considered prolific by many people.
Write 1,000 words per day, or about an hour, and in 270 days you would have finished three novels. And that means you would only have to do that five days a week to write three novels per year. In other words, it doesn’t take many hours to be considered prolific.
That is why I am considered prolific. I don’t type faster with my little four-finger typing, I just write more hours than most.
(Yeah, yeah, I know, simplistic, but mostly right.)
I am considered a fast writer because I spend more hours writing. Nothing more.
The Myths of Writing Faster.
I did an entire chapter and had other areas of discussion about this in Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. You can find the speed chapter here. (Be kind when you read it. That chapter was the very first in that series. I was just getting my feet under me.)
But the short version of the myth is that back around 1890s a series of articles started this silly myth by claiming that the slow “literary” writers could only be read by the rich and the fast pulp writers were for the great unwashed. (Remember at that time class systems in both Great Britain and the States was very distinct and clear.) The literary writers were published in expensive hardbacks, the fast pulp writers were published in ten cent magazines.
If a book was thick and hard to read, it was literature. Easy, fun, and a great story and it was pulp. A pure class division to make the rich feel better about themselves.
Then because professors didn’t want to grade more papers than necessary, and always considered themselves part of the elite, the university systems picked up on the slow is better, and then some genres of publishing picked it up because they became too small and it was a good way to slow down publishing of some authors.
So the myth became solid by the middle of the last century that writing slow equals writing well and writing quickly equals writing poorly. (Forget how any thought to how the human brain works in creative mode. We won’t go there.) The writers who could spend more than fifteen minutes per day were punished for their drive and work ethic. And writers who were fast (meaning worked more hours) began hiding the fact and not talking about it in public and writing under many pen names we still see on the stands today. You know pen names like Max Brand, Kenneth Robinson, Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Michaels, and so many others. (No, not telling you my pen names, so don’t ask.)
Some History: The Pulp Writers.
The men and women who wrote for the pulps and slicks from before 1900 up until 1958 were hard-working writers who would spend long hours pounding out stories on manual typewriters and getting paid a penny a word. And many of these writers became fantastically rich doing so.
A writer by the name of Frederick Faust (aka Max Brand and many other names) was the richest and one of the most popular writers of his time, and one year alone in the 1940s had over twenty movies made from his books and stories. He wasn’t a fast typist at all. But he was consistent year-in-and-year-out. Rumor and story has it that he wrote every morning, producing his set word count, sometimes upwards of 5,000 words per day. He ended up writing over 500 books and died as a war correspondent in WWII at the age of 52 from an injury received at the front lines. If he hadn’t been killed in the war, there was no telling how many more books he would have written.
Most of the mid-level pulp writers were no faster than I am at typing. However, they worked a lot of hours. And at a penny a word, they could make $10.00 per hour, a fantastic wage back in the Depression when bread was 10 cents, a car $300 and a house under $2,000.
Speed: In Traditional Publishing
Okay, let me first try to break this down into categories of fiction writers by speed and income.
One book every few years.
The only way these writers made a living at their fiction writing was write bestsellers. Most fiction writers at that speed teach full time or work other jobs. Writing is often a hobby. (Nothing wrong at all with that, but for this discussion, I’m talking about making a living with your fiction.)
If a new writer only wrote one book every two years, they had little if any chance of breaking in under the most recent traditional publishing. I’m sure it happened, but I sure wouldn’t want to bet on those odds. Far too many things go wrong in traditional publishing for me to ever put all my hopes and dreams on one book.
One book a year.
These writers, mostly in small genres such as science fiction or horror or literature couldn’t make a living either. The small genres just didn’t pay enough. So again, the only way writers doing only one book a year could make a living in traditional publishing was have some decent bestsellers. Again, not something I would want to depend on to make my house payment.
Two books per year writers.
Now we are getting into a level that English professors think is too fast, and for some smaller genres such as science fiction, it is. But the writer, considered prolific in some circles, has a much better chance of making a living. At two books per year, a writer could make a decent living on $30,000 plus advances, which were not uncommon up until the last few years. Add in the extra overseas sales and movie options and two books per year could make a writer a decent living, and still can, if nothing goes seriously south. In fact, many, many midlist writers work at this pace and do just fine.
Four books per year writers.
For the most part, writers in this category of three or four books per year write a number of series, usually in different genres. Advances can safely range more, from $15,000 to $25,000 per book and still make the author a nice living. (Remember, for those of you with twisting stomachs at that pace because the myth is in deep, that’s about one hour per day average of writing to make upwards of a hundred grand per year. Even if you are a major rewriter, you can write one hour and rewrite seven hours and still hit that pace. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m degrading art here. So yell at me later.)
Five books per year and up.
Those of us who manage to spend enough hours (1.25 hours per day average and up) actually typing original fiction have a freedom not found in most writer’s careers. We can take jobs for small amounts, turn down offers, and turn down contracts. We can take advances ranging from $10,000 and up depending on the project and still make six figures every year without too much problem. And that pace allows for books and entire series to go very, very ugly and not force the writer back to a day job.
So, in summary in traditional publishing, it was possible to make a nice living from two books per year and up. But those of us who wrote more than “normal” always hid our speed, usually hidden behind many pen names. And we never talked about it at all in public. That was traditional publishing from the mid-1950s until now.
And remember, in traditional publishing, two books a year is considered prolific and you will have that word added to your name as a new first name if you write two books per year regularly.
NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING: Speed
Now, in electronic publishing, is when things get ugly for the slow writer. Especially the slow writer trying to break into this business now, in 2011.
Same exact factors apply in traditional publishing and electronic publishing. Exactly. Only things are much, much tighter and hard to get into traditional publishing now as traditional publishers go through all this flux and upheaval.
For a writer to make any kind of decent money at indie-publishing, the author either has to have a lot of products selling at low levels, but regularly, or the author needs to hit it big like Amanda Hocking. And even she has more than one book.
So an author writing only one book every few years would be much better served to never think of indie publishing. The chances of a bestseller are much higher in traditional publishing where there is professional help on everything from editing to packaging to covers to distribution.
But that said, it’s very, very difficult these days for a book to get through the traditional systems, especially if the writer believes in the agent system. So the chance of getting a single book through the system and sold and then made into a bestseller are between slim and a few factors less than slim.
Indie Publishing Facts
It would be rare, if not almost zero chance for a one-book-every-few years-author to make a living at indie publishing. Sure, you have to sell a lot fewer books in indie publishing to make nice money, but that’s still a lot of books for years every month with no support from other products. Not likely to happen would be a generous assessment.
An author with patience and the speed of two books per year can, over time, build up enough inventory to have enough of the reader feedback loops to make enough money indie-publishing. But that’s going to take five plus years at least to reach that ten book list. And even then the sales have to be pretty solid per book.
An author publishing four books per year can get ten books up within 2.5 years and more than likely at that pace, after twenty books or so in five years, be making a pretty fine living from just indie-publishing, even with lower per-book sales.
Those of us who write more than that, and who can also do short stories and collections, don’t even have to have many per-book sales to have it add up to large amounts of money.
Here is some simple math. I’m going to use round numbers. (Forgive me.)
— Goal: Make $80,000 per year indie-publishing.
— Sales Assumption: Book sells 3 copies per day total across all sites at $4.99 earning the author $3.33 per sale or about $10.00 per day or $3,650.00 per year per book. (If you use $2.99 price, double the numbers of sales. If you use 99 cents per novel sales price, just go read something else because it will never work long term for you.)
So, with my assumption, the magic number is 21 books needed to make close to $80,000 per year on that level of per-book sales.
One Book Per Year: 21 years of writing one book per year until author is making $80,000 per year. (Again, all kinds of assumptions of similar sales and who knows what’s going to be happening in publishing in 21 years. Not a plan I would start on in these turbulent times.)
(Author would need to sell 65 copies per day on the one book to make $80,000 in one year off of one book. Very possible, but not likely. That’s more of a produce-type sales level.)
Two Books Per Year: 10.5 years of writing two books per year until author is making close to $80,000 per year.
(Author would need to sell 33 copies per day on each book to make close to $80,000 in one year off of just two books. Very possible, but again not likely.)
Four Books Per Year: 5.25 years of writing four books per year until author is making close to $80,000 per year.
(Author would need to sell 17 copies per day on each book of four books (across all sites combined, remember) to make $80,000 in one year off of four books. Very possible, and coming a little closer to us normal folks.)
Now it should be clear that midlist authors with a decent backlist of novels and stories can make a fortune very quickly, even at sales lower than 3 sales per book per day. That’s why I laugh when indie authors are saying us old idiots doing traditional publishing just don’t understand indie publishing. Oh, trust me, we all get it and are running at full speed to indie publishing. This is a gold mine to us.
Some midlist authors will have over twenty novels up and selling by this time next year. And uncounted short stories and collections.
Yes, this is a gold mine for fast writers with a backlist. And Kris and I are not the only midlist writers running to this new world. Trust me.
Kris, on her site at KristineKathrynRusch.com is doing a series talking about this new world and new writers. Go read it.
For a new writer, without backlist, the writer has to build the publishing list, build the magic bakery inventory. And unless you write one major catchy book and hit a bestseller level of sales, a new writer will take years to get to the goal of having enough inventory to actually make that goal of $80,000 per year. But it took years to make that level in traditional publishing as well.
That’s why the focus has to be on writing new work all the time. Stories will find their readers, but your readers can’t find more of your work unless you write it.
And sure, you can promote the hell out of your first book, but then when someone likes it, what else of yours are they going to buy? Write the next book.
(Also, if you write the next book and focus on becoming a better writer, you might gain readers as well. Again, outside of this topic.)
In the first golden age of fiction, fast writers made a fortune. When you could buy a car for $300 and a house for $2,000, the pulp writers at a penny per word were making $10.00 per hour. Of course they learned to be fast, and many, many of them we are still reading today.
In the traditional publishing world that grew from 1958 until 2008, critics didn’t like fast writers because of the myths, but fans loved them. So many of our top sellers are fast writers, meaning they work a lot of hours. And many have settled into a book a year because they became bestsellers and were forced to slow down. But Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Stephen King, and many others just kept writing at their own natural speeds.
And in those years, those of us who liked to write and thus just wrote more hours and thus wrote more words and books, hid what we were doing for the most part. (I still do, actually.) Many, many major pen names that you would recognize are the prolific writers working behind the scenes. My best year was eleven novels at traditional lengths of 90,000 words. I hope to break that at some point in the near future.
Now we are in the new world. Those of us who love to just write, who love to tell stories, now can indie publish the stories or books and find them homes and readers, and we don’t have to slow down because of some slow schedule placed on us by a traditional publisher.
We can write and publish as fast as we want.
The rules of speed have vanished.
If you only write one book every few years, keep your focus solidly on traditional publishing.
But if you love to write, love to finish stories, and love to have readers get to your stories quickly after you finish them, indie publishing is for you.
There is no need for those of us who love to write and love to finish a lot of products to even think of slowing down ever again.
Sure, I’ll still sell books to traditional publishers. I won’t need to sell everything in indie publishing. Why? When you consider how many hours I spend at computers writing, a couple books to traditional publishing a year is just advertising that I am getting paid to write. Everyone get that? Those books sold to traditional publishers are just advertising for my indie books and stories.
I can’t begin to tell you how many times over the years I wished I was back in the days of pulp writing, when the writers could write what they wanted at the speed they wanted. I hated the restrictions of modern traditional publishing. And I hated hiding that I enjoyed writing and telling stories. I hated the rules and the bars and the restrictions put on my natural desire to just sit and write.
But no more. Writers are free once again. We are free to write at our own pace, write for as many hours as we want to write, and publish what we want. Only each writer now sets their own limits.
This is fantastic for writers.
And even more fantastic for readers.
This really is the dawn of a second golden age of fiction.
Copyright 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, why put a tip jar in when I’m just trying to help people. But I figured I needed to get past that as well, so here it is.
And when a bartender gets you a drink quickly, he gets tipped. Right? Well, I get you stories quickly. So I should have a tip jar. (I’m not sure if that makes sense, but anyway, the tip jar is here.)
And speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.
If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.
If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.
And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!