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Indie Publishing and The Meat Grinder

meat grinder 1I recently purchased one of those Guide to Indie Publishing type books. It was cheap and a quick read. However, the author’s central point left me a bit bummed. After outlining in detail her fairly prolific sales record, she concludes that the best way for an author to succeed at indie publishing is to crank out books. Lots of books. Of course, there is discussion about professional editing and cover design, as well as tricks and tips for exploiting Amazon’s algorithms. But the bottom line is — Write Faster and Publish Often. This particular writer publishes two novels a year minimum, along with various novellas, anthologies, short stories, and self-help books.

Key to Indie Success: Write Faster and Publish Often

 

One of the debates that’s arisen as a result of this changing landscape is whether e-publishing is shaping the expectations of readers. Does a faster supply line affect readers’ expectations? Do we approach ebooks expecting:

  • Less density
  • Less editorial quality
  • A faster read

Apparently, some think readers DO expect less from ebooks — less craft, less substance, less in-depth characterizations, less detail — than traditional novels. Which is OK for them. What they want is a quick read. Something to hold them over until their next literary snack. Sure, maybe this doesn’t mean readers have less or lower expectations. Perhaps they just expect something “different” from ebooks. I’m not sure. Either way, if indie authors are guided by the aforementioned rule — Write Faster and Publish Often — density and quality will eventually suffer.

I was a fan of Patrick Goldstein’s The Big Picture, a Hollywood insider column, that appeared weekly in the L.A. Times. (Goldstein left the paper in 2012 after a change of management.) His piece (now 7 or 8 years old) on the success of Disney pictures has always stuck with me. In it, Goldstein handed out year-end report cards to the studios. The overall score consisted of three grades: first for box office and profitability, second for film quality, and third for overall success. At the top of the list — Disney with an A-. But what surprised me most about the ’07 tallies was not that Disney was, again, near the top of the pack, but the reason given for their success.

Blessed with the most respected brand in the business, Disney is now less of a film division and more of a family entertainment company. Of the 11 movies it released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.

“We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you’re not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality. That way, if we do stumble, and I’m sure we will, it will be because we were pushing the envelope instead of not keeping our eye on the ball.” (bold mine)

Disney has obviously maintained its edge, landing 4 films in the 10 highest grossing movies of 2014. It’s hard to argue about the meticulous detail that goes into Disney’s films. But as with any quality product, perfection takes time. And this is exactly what differentiates Disney from its competitors.

“We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” said Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are.” Unlike other studios, most of whom are cranking out twice as many films a year, Disney has valued quality over quantity.

And it is precisely this value that goes against industry norms.

I can’t help but relate this to the arts in general and the industries that represent them. The film industry, like the book industry, like the music industry, is admittedly more about making money than producing quality craft. It’s what Mr. Cook calls “the meat grinder.” No sooner does a publisher contract an author than they are requesting a second book. (In fact, how many authors are left unsigned because they don’t have a second book?) So what if it took ten years to write the script for an indie hit — you’ve got 16 months for the follow-up. Likewise, indie authors are taught to Write Faster and Publish often. Why niggle over details when you can fire up the assembly line and fast track your books to anxious readers?

Art is being jammed through a “meat grinder.”

Perhaps more indie authors should reconsider Disney’s approach. “[I]t’s not how many you [publish] but how good they are.” Of course, both would be ideal — more books, more often, of high quality. But as long as “success” is being defined in terms of money, why not choose the meat grinder?

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Kessie January 20, 2015, 8:00 AM

    The indies preaching “publish fast and often” seem awfully shortsighted to me. The argument for slowly producing quality product is “readers will forget you”. Well, maybe. Until you release book 15 of a well-written urban fantasy series, like Jim Butcher did last year. Nobody had forgotten him. In fact, the longer wait had fans positively screaming to get their hands on the book.

    Longer waits didn’t hurt Harry Potter. Or any other successful trad pub series. Why do indies think that people’s reading habits/memories suddenly change now that everything is on ebook?

  • Robert Treskillard January 20, 2015, 10:48 AM

    Mike,

    I think there’s a LOT of truth in what you say … quality really does matter.

    However, that alone cannot be the only barometer. If that were true, then why doesn’t Disney only put out ONE film a year and make it the utmost in quality? I think what Disney has done is find the sweet spot between getting films to market but maintaining a high quality.

    The other issue in your comparison is that Disney is already an established brand with lots of money to promote their movies, and what they do is *not* drowned out by the competition. As small-time authors, we’re so easily forgotten that I think publishing as many books as we’re able is actually an important truth … keep your name in front of the readers regularly so they remember you and also provide a bigger back-list that they can buy if they like your writing. The “shelf time” for a book is so short and there is so much competition that it is difficult to not lose your readers.

    But you’ve still got to hit that sweet spot … quality craftsmanship (without OCD’ing on quality such that it slows you down) while still putting out books regularly enough to keep reader’s focused on you (without sacrificing quality). It’s about momentum … and both quality and quantity have to be there to grow your audience. It’s tough.

    One book i can recommend on this subject is “2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love”

    http://www.amazon.com/2k-10k-Writing-Faster-Better-ebook/dp/B009NKXAWS

    The point of the book is how to (a) find how, when, and where you are most productive at writing, and (b) how to motivate yourself to write.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, I’m trying with my current novel to track (not just how many words I write each day), but where I am, whether or not I have internet access, what time of day it is, and how many hours I write … hoping I can see a pattern for when I’m most productive.

    Great topic, mike!

    • Mike Duran January 21, 2015, 6:06 AM

      Robert, I’m definitely learning to write faster and, I think, better. Problem is, I could never achieve the level of productivity that some of these authors suggest. Two novels a year — at least novels that would satisfy MY expectations — is absurd. Especially if you measure that against my current station in life and responsibilities. But I think you’re right about finding our own sweet spot. Also, I bought the book you linked to. Looks interesting. Now if I can find time to read it…

  • Samuel Choy January 20, 2015, 12:08 PM

    Mike,

    I wouldn’t compare indie ebook authors and publishers to the big movie industry, especially mega-companies like Disney. A more accurate analogy would be to compare indie ebook publishing to YouTube. Successful YouTubers don’t necessarily make the Disney-quality content, but they create a lot of content. So is this a good or bad thing? I guess it depends on what you want.

    Sometimes, I just feel like going to McDonald’s and getting a hamburger. I probably do that too much! It’s enjoyable and affordable, but not really memorable.

    On the other hand, twelve years ago I splurged at a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas and purchased a $50 dollar steak, cooked and seasoned to perfection. Every buttery, tender morsel seemed to melt on my tongue, and I still salivate at the memory.

    • Mike Duran January 21, 2015, 6:13 AM

      That’s probably a better comparison, Samuel. I’m thinking more in terms of the principle. Even among their peers, Disney is still the anomaly by producing half as many films a year as their competitors. I think this applies in whatever industry we find ourselves — music, indie film-making, or publishing. And while I agree that there’s a place for literary fast food AND high-end cuisine, I think there’s a good reason to limit the intake and supply of junk food. Thanks for commenting!

  • Lyn Perry January 20, 2015, 3:07 PM

    I know you may not be making this point, but remember that writing “quickly” does not necessitate poorer quality. Grinding it out has a pejorative connotation that does a disservice to writers who can, with integrity and craftsmanship, produce a book a month. (Which, by the way, for a full time writer is only 3,000 words/day for a 90k word novel – not undoable especially when considering some professional writers work 10 hour days at their craft.)

    • Mike Duran January 21, 2015, 6:23 AM

      I’ll admit it, Lyn, I’m skeptical when it comes to productivity like that. Not saying that fast writing and mediocrity are synonymous, but that there’s so many other things to factor in… like research, plotting, audience, genre, editing, re-writing, book length, career station, production timeline, formatting, marketing, social media, etc., etc. I think there’s a reason why some of the best loved stories — Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Song of Ice and Fire, etc. — were not cranked out in a month.

      • Karen P. January 21, 2015, 2:58 PM

        I have been working on my stories for a long time…a very long time. Every time I hear about “churning out content” I cringe. While I think I possibly could do it, I, like you Mike, would not be satisfied with it in the least. Every time another story idea which I might crank out pops into my head, I end up realizing it is not worth doing because there is no real point to it, no deeper meaning – and for me that deeper meaning takes time to craft. In the end, that kind of talk serves only as background chatter that distracts me from what I really want to do. So, no, I won’t be churning out some junk-reading just to keep my name trending. Bottom line: I’m just not that kind of writer, nor do I want to be.

  • 1 L Loyd January 23, 2015, 6:00 PM

    I have heard this argument before. But I think what most people on both sides of this issue overlook is a novel is the result of X hours of work. (One blogger said it took him 120 – 150 hours.) Most writers have other careers that keep their writing time down. There is a big difference between writing two hours a day and ten hours a day. Maybe the difference between writing one novel a year and five a year, or more.

  • Johnny Anonymous January 27, 2015, 7:47 AM

    Nope. I believed this at first, that quality matters. I self-published a novel and spared no expenses on the cover, editing, etc. The sales weren’t great. Now I’m kicking out an endless stream of short stories. They find one and it’s advertising for the next one. I’m now making an annual rate of about $12,000.

    Quantity trumps quality. With few exceptions, the people who are making a lot of money in self-publishing have a large quantity of fiction.

    Oh, and you know how Kindle Unlimited only pays you if the person reads 10% of your work? While you’re waiting for that person to hit page 50 on your 500 page novel, I get when they get to page two on my 20 page story. And the first page is the title page. If they read the first paragraph of the story and hate it, doesn’t matter, I get paid. And I get paid the same amount that you do for entertaining them for 50 pages.

  • Teddi Deppner February 3, 2015, 4:26 PM

    Took me a little while to get to this article, but it’s an important topic for indie authors. Whichever side of the spectrum we fall into (prolific vs. not, quantity vs. quality), we need to consider who we are, what we’re capable of, what we’re trying to produce and make our choices mindfully. I don’t think there’s a “right” or “wrong” but there should be some analysis and strategic action.

    Some people write faster than others. That’s just reality. Some people (as was pointed out in an earlier comment) have more time for writing than others. Some people need less revisions or research (for a variety of reasons). Some people are creating the literary equivalent of the daily comic strip and others are creating a Time magazine article and the list could go on. It’s more important to understand yourself and what you want to do than to arbitrarily say “more is better” or “higher quality is better”.

    So far as “quality” goes, I expect a lot less from an artist who specializes in a loose, sketchy or cartoony style than I do from a photo-realistic oil painter. But one isn’t “lesser” than the other — they are two different art styles, each completely legit.

    I think quantity matters a LOT in terms of making fans and keeping them, but if you take the long view, you’ll realize that you can build your library of work over 20 years or 5 years. Either one is probably fine, but you may not build enough momentum so far as gaining new fans until there’s a body of work to become a fan of. So write 10-20 books or stories and THEN start your major marketing efforts. (Well, most people recommend 5 books, so you don’t have to wait that long…)

    Also, know what you’re trying to do. If you’re looking at it as a way to earn income entertaining people, that’s a whole different thing than looking at it as an artist who wants to produce pieces of great art. Sure, sometimes the pulp fiction becomes great art or turns out to be great art, but often the two are different paths.

  • Teddi Deppner February 3, 2015, 4:33 PM

    Above all, and especially as Christians, I think it’s important we don’t fall for the trap of judging others. “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls…” (Romans 14:4)

    Declaring that prolific authors are just hacks putting out poor quality, low-brow entertainment is both foolish and untrue. Not all of them are. (Not that you did that, Mike, but I’ve seen it happen.)

    Many times we feel the need to justify our own art or approach, and often put other approaches — or people — down in order to feel validated for what we’re doing. It’s a trap. Don’t fall for it.

    How each of us does our own art is between us and God. If I’m feeling insecure about what I’m doing, I need to work that out. I need to know what I’m doing, who I am, why I’m doing it. And once I have that clearly in mind, and once I know I am where God wants me to be and doing what He wants me to be doing, then I can rest in that assurance. Nobody’s criticism will then daunt me. Nobody’s praise will then distract me.

    Many times, we jump into these things without processing some of the deeper identity questions of life, and it leaves us open to all sorts of heartache and conflict. Be who you are. Do what you were made to do. There’s room for variety. God loves variety. Fast writers, slow writers, deep writers, entertainment writers. Writing as a job, writing as a hobby, writing as a joy, writing as an art.

    Find your sweet spot. And keep going!

  • DD February 8, 2015, 8:53 PM

    Most of the successful indies I know – key word being ‘successful’ – don’t subscribe to the “publish often” mantra. Anyone who cares about the craft of writing, cares about quality. Sure, there will always be exceptions here and there that publish good or bad books frequently and succeed. One doesn’t need dozens of books to succeed. Even those who write profusely are often only remembered by their best efforts.

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