Prolific Publishing for Success and Money: Or What I Learned By Trying

Had I Found the Blueprint for Success?

Last year, I read every book on writing and marketing that I could find. I subscribed to a handful of webinars, ‘attended’ email training sessions, and became a rabid devotee of any author with great branding and a promise of how I could succeed in publishing. Even though most of what I heard was not new to me, I felt like I had discovered a blueprint to success. All I had to do was publish prolifically, be helpful, and give away samples of my writing. Although the adjective “prolific” made me a little nervous, I decided to give the approach a try.

The journey hasn’t been all s’mores and champagne for me.

Attribution http://www.123rf.com/profile_bowie15 via  123RF Stock Photo

Attribution http://www.123rf.com/profile_bowie15 via 123RF Stock Photo

Initial Doubts Blasted by One Strong Outlier

I felt the first doubts about the method when I tried reading several works produced in the paradigm I was eager to emulate. It struck me that while some of these authors are doing well for themselves from a monetary standpoint, and were often quite the social media darlings, I didn’t feel their writing was good. The stories were competent in the way that food at a national restaurant chain is predictable: it won’t make you sick, but it won’t inspire you, either.

There are outliers, of course, and not everyone who publishes abundantly writes formulaic books. My friend Hunter Shea is very prolific, and offhand I can think of at least three new books he released in fairly quick succession (THE MONTUAK MONSTER, ISLAND OF THE FORBIDDEN, and HELL HOLE). Hunter’s work is consistently high-quality and fun to read, but for each one of his books that I enjoyed, there were at least two by other prolific authors that fell flat and ended up on my “didn’t finish” pile.

Despite my doubts, and with Hunter as a positive example, I remained determined to try publishing frequently. I started by drawing up a five year writing plan. In it, I scheduled myself to produce four new works a year. Each publication would have a free introductory “hook,” and at least one of the four publications would be novella-length or longer. I’d churn out works like my name was Krispy Kreme and the stories were 2AM hot donuts! Such was the plan, in any case.

What Happened When I Tried

I did manage two releases in six months (MIXED MEDIA and SPILLWAYS), but I discovered that having an excellent editor means I’m called on my authorial laziness, plot sloppiness, and continuity misfires. To be blunt: I do a lot of rewriting during edits. Getting MIXED MEDIA and SPILLWAYS right was a time consuming process, but I stayed on schedule – barely. At this point, I should reveal that both of those works were already drafted and “just” needed editing.

Long term, my personal slush pile couldn’t be my only source of material. I needed to be able to produce new works at a rate commensurate with my publication goals. To this end, I decided that I would experiment with writing a new work in a compressed timeframe. I blasted out the rough draft in a few weeks, which is amazing given that the only time I have to write is my hour-long bus ride to work. It wasn’t any worse of a first draft than most, but it was also not dazzling. I employed no challenging points of view, nor did I craft within a non-standard form. When the overarching goal was to publish at a frenetic pace, literary merit felt like a “nice to have” rather than an imperative. Under those conditions, my writing devolved to chain restaurant quality. I won’t publish a work that isn’t my best, and I’ve spent multiple editorial cycles improving the story. It is finally worthy of my readers, but getting it that way meant I missed my publication deadline for this piece by two months. So much for writing a “fast” story!

It was an interesting experiment. I think that if I were a full-time writer, I could have better luck with making quicker production turnaround, but my boundary conditions are decidedly not those of a full-time writer. For now, I’m done with attempting a frenetic publishing pace. I can’t honor my literary calling when the focus is on growing my shelf space rather than on the joy of creation.

Author Fatigue is One Thing, But What About Readers?

In a blog post Ania Ahlborn points out another possible downside of rapid-fire publication: reader fatigue. I can’t think of anything more fatiguing than reading masses of sub-par novels… well, other than writing masses of sub-par novels! I love that authors I enjoy have multiple books, but sometimes a year or more will pass between when I read those works. This, for me, is even true with series. There are so many voices to experience, and because my reading time is just as scant as my writing time, I’m apt to drift between genres and temporarily abandon even my favorite author.

Conclusion

I’m glad I tried the approach of fast publishing. I am pleased with the works I produced last year. SPILLWAYS, in particular, contains my best writing, with stories that challenged me as a writer. It is also my least read work – so far. I think that is partly because I am waiting to do a strategic campaign to advertise it, but it might also be a symptom of reader fatigue. If you are curious, you can read MOON SICK, the first story in the collection for free. All you need to do is sign up for my author newsletter at http://www.oddskybooks.com/odd-literati. After you subscribe, you’ll receive a follow-up email with a link to download the story in the format of your choice.


What about you? Have you tried writing at a multi-book per year pace? Do you read everything by your favorite prolific authors as soon as the books hit Amazon’s Whispernet (or the newstands)?

I Gave Away My TV & Made My Stories Free

Last night, I gave my only television to my sister. I am reclaiming the thought-space in my mind, rejecting the ease of stimulus and distraction. I am making time for tasks that are both harder and more meaningful.

Why?

Because I’ve defined what success looks like for me. I stopped buying the one-size-fits-all definition of what it means to succeed as a writer. I know what I want, and I can see how I’ll get there. My passion for writing and for sharing my stories is restored. The act of defining what I want freed me, because I’ve finally (FINALLY!) grasped that you and I can both be “real” writers, even if we want different things out of our writing.

the gift is in the giving.The big screen TV couldn’t show me the way to freedom and inspiration. That took introspection, spirituality, and a good kick in the motivation from Dan Holloway’s SELF PUBLISH WITH INTEGRITY. I did the exercises he suggests, not really expecting them to work, but willing to be teachable. One of the first things I realized is that I would write even if I could never distribute my work. I would write because writing is my joy. It’s the jazz and the bliss. My drive to write, abstracted from pressure of preconceived ideas of success,  has nothing to do with becoming “legitimate” or getting a publisher or a movie deal. I would write even if I could never share my stories. Writing is how I play, and I am a playful being. Of course, I can share my stories. That opens up entire planetary systems of introspection, mostly around the question of whether or not I should charge readers for the stories that are given to me as a gift. This topic is a field full of ancient landmines just waiting for one false step, I know. I read the blog posts about the tsunami of stink and the generalized, bizarre panic that there might be too many stories in the world now that anyone can publish. I’m doing cartwheels through that field. I’m standing in the middle of it and offering my stories for free, forever. I’m releasing balloons one at a time, each of them carrying a story on the internet’s breeze.

The reason I have the courage to do this comes from having done the work to determine what MY success looks like.

FOR ME, SUCCESS IS:

    • Respecting the nature of the story as gift.
    • Making everything I write available in at least one free format, in as many venues as I can find.
    • Producing stories and novels of the best quality I can, including the expense of a qualified editor.
    • Trusting that the readers who are meant to find my work, will find it.
    • Having a core group of enthusiastic, kind supporters, even if that group is small.
    • Having fun with getting the word out about my stories by making friends and being of service.
    • Producing paperback and e-formats for readers willing to pay for physical copies or convenience.
    • Stickers. There will be stickers involved in this, somehow. And possibly balloons.
    • A stranger sharing my stories with their friends.
    • Happiness, a lack of anxiety, deliberate bliss-seeking.

I hope my list inspires you to give the exercise a try. If you feel like sharing, I’d love to hear about your definition of success.

-aniko

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You Never Know Who Your Words Will Save

I almost quit writing. I was frustrated with the lack of commercial success, stymied by the opaque process of submitting work to publishing houses, and all out of joy. I resented my novel in progress because it represented a burden of thankless effort.

I was tired.

My day job is downtown. Every morning, I ride the train from my chickens-in-the-neighbor’s-backyard suburb to the heart of a city known for launching artistic careers. I stand near the doors, in a small corner where I can lean without getting pummeled by the other people’s bikes and backpacks. I read. Most days, there is another reader making the commute, and for a month he carried the same book with him, intently opening it to read a bit, then looking out the window in thought. His copy was worn, its dog-eared pages scrawled with comments written in multiple colors. I wanted to read that book, I wanted to be absorbed and consumed enough that  the noise and human stimulus of a train would fall away.  Who wouldn’t? NewSeedsCover

Now I have my own scrawled, worn copy of New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. That book was exactly what I needed to read, at exactly the right time. It was a jolt of clarity, and it made me excited about the possibility that I could save my writing spirit. Here is a passage that I’ve bracketed and underlined (pg 111 of the 2007 New Directions edition):

 

If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy.

If you write for men – you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, but only for a little while.

If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.

Clearly, Merton understands what it is to write for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to be dead, but I wanted my writer’s gift leave me alone, which may as well be the same as wishing it dead. Merton’s ‘epistle to writers’ made me aware that I was unhappy with my writing because I was measuring it against goals that weren’t authentic. I’d forgotten that I write and share for the joy of it, not because of what I can gain in popularity, money, or Amazon rankings. I didn’t yet see how to get back to the joy, but at least I understood that I had somewhere to get back to.

This was the first of three books that saved my writing life.

Loving_Imogen_Cover

The second book to save my life is a contemporary collection of fiction, Loving Imogen by Mari Biella.  Biella’s prose is beautiful and evocative, and the stories moving, but it wasn’t beauty alone that saved me. It was the fact that the book exists. Biella shared her gift with the world – with me. She could have written it and stuck it in a drawer. She could have sent it to publishers and maybe I’d still be despairing of finding my joy because Loving Imogen wouldn’t yet be available. Instead, she self-published. She gave her words to the world, not knowing who they would reach or if they would be misunderstood, ignored, or loved. The act of sharing her stories is the act of giving a gift to a largely anonymous recipient, who could be anyone almost anywhere at any time. Such a gift will outlast the author, and is an expression of what art should be: an act of timeless, selfless communication. Loving Imogen reminded me that publication matters because it allows the words to reach an audience who may not even know they need those words. How had I gotten so far away from the fresh-minded faith that stories are meant to be shared, not used as tools of self-aggrandizement?

The answer to that question came in the third book to save my writing life, and Mari Biella was the key to me finding it. She posted a review of a book with a unique premise: instead of examining the technical aspects of publishing, why not examine the spiritual aspect, the cri de coeur that propels the artist? This book is Self-Publish with Integrity: Define Success in your Own Terms and then Achieve It, by Dan Holloway. He had me at “integrity,” but the subtitle promised a way back to joy.

Holloway writes (from the Kindle edition, 2013)

The things you get praised for aren’t always the things you set out to do… The problem comes when we [writers] start to set our compass by them, when our direction finder becomes externalised, is no longer the burning desire to communicate those quirky stories whose audience we longed to find. If we’re lucky, we can reset our compass. It’s something I’ve had to do several times. But disentangling yourself from those wrong turns is a monumental task… leav[ing] behind a trail of damaged creative relationships and disappointments.

self_pub_integrity_coverThat was it! Somewhere I swapped out my personal reasons for writing and publishing with … something else. I’d lost my faith that the readers who are meant to find my works will find them, just as I found Merton, Biella, and Holloway exactly when I needed them. To quote Holloway, “It was as though I suddenly looked outside the blinkers I’d been wearing and saw just how far I’d come from where I wanted to be.Self-Publish with Integrity offers a way to reset the writing compass. All you have to do is give a one-sentence answer to this question:

So what do you want from your writing?

Like a Zen koan, this question appears deceptively simple, but upon examination opens into something deeper, richer, and more mystical. Doing the work to answer this question led me back to joy. I have my one true sentence, my cri de coeur. I have a definition of success that is mine, and only mine. I know what success will look like for me in concrete terms, and it isn’t constrained by how anyone else conceives of success. I feel good again, excited and invigorated about writing and sharing my stories. I know where I want to go, why I want to go there, and how I plan to make the journey.

None of the authors knew their words would help me. They shared freely what had come to them through muse, God, or experience. None of us can know who our words will reach and help, or in what ways they will be life-saving. In Merton’s words (page 269), “…do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.” Even if you don’t believe in God or heaven, isn’t it something to realize that stories and art extend beyond us in ways we can’t calculate, predict, or ultimately know entirely? I think that is beautiful, because it means that even if one person reads my work, it might have an impact. If there is one person, just one, waiting to read the story I’ve been given to write, I must share it with them. Not because I want fame, not because I want money, but because I want to participate in the mystery and beauty of giving.

-aniko

 

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