Almost everything in the market is mass produced in today. Even if it is a limited edition, often thousands are made and sold.
It is funny but iPhones (Apple products in general) try to create an illusion of exclusivity, in spite of being sold by the millions. This goes for all brands including Nike, Diesel, Toyota, etc. A market is made for an “exclusive” product, and then a flood of products pours out.
What are the things that are truly exclusive- that are still being created in real limited numbers?
Artwork. You can buy prints of a Rembrandt or Picasso but this is not close to owning the real thing. Even if the work is forged to such a high standard that it is close to impossible to distinguish between the original and the copy, a forgery is just that – a forgery.
How does this idea of exclusivity this work in the world of publishing? Some authors write very little while others seem to be doing nothing else.
Less is more
The traditional approach is to spend more time on each book, perfecting the characters, the atmosphere, the language etc. And you can quite easily understand the logic. If the reader feels that the book is not well written or contains a lot of factual errors, it won’t bode well for the sales potential of the book.
Publishing is big business, and big business is about money, not literary art. But even from a business point of view it makes sense to bring better, well rounded products to the market than a cheaper Made in China counterpart. It might be more expensive to get there, but it would presumably also command better prices and profits.
James Herriot, British veterinarian and author of All Creatures Great and Small, spent years improving his writing. (Have a look that this post. It is full of good advice for all authors.)
Many writers have become famous with very limited output. Have a look at this list.
Arthur Golden – Memoirs of a Geisha
Apparently it took the man six years to research and write this book. Legal hassles with his geisha source followed. Golden hasn’t written another book since.
To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, her only novel to date, tackles difficult issues like racism. Although she has written just one book, her novel is a staple in classroom syllabus and a path breaking work.
J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
This famous book about the angst and alienation experienced by adolescents, the only novel by Salinger arguably created a new genre, or at least provided a new approach.
Ironically Salinger could not deal with the fame of the book. Fame also prevented Margaret Mitchell, who penned Gone with the Wind, from writing again.
Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights
Death, by way of tuberculosis, cut short the writing career of one of the most revered female authors, perhaps ever. But she is revered still!
Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things
In 2014, seventeen years after this novel was published followed by a series of non-fiction essays and books, Roy is remembered mostly for her debut novel.
According to The Guardian’s 2013 list of the 100 Greatest Novels ever, the top ten are:
- Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
- Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
- Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
- Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
- Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
- Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
- Emma by Jane Austen
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
(Note: I agree that a list like this is very subjective and that we would find a different Top 10 on virtually every other Best 100 list out there.)
Donna Tartt, author of TheGoldfinch, has been writing for more than thirty years and she has published only three novels. The Secret History in 1992, The Little Friend in 2002, and most recently The Goldfinch in 2013.
Not one of these authors could be called prolific with scores of titles in the market. It is possible to be a successful and financially independent author without having to publish every few minutes.
More is More
The common wisdom for indie authors is to write multiple books, write series and basically win the audience by writing a lot. But the idea of writing a lot pre-dates the Internet and the current Indie-author movement.
Heinz G. Konzalik (May 28, 1921 – October 2, 1999) published 155 novels, which sold 83 million copies. A contemporary of his Louis L’Amour (22 March 1908 – 10 June 1988) published 89 novels and sold more than 200 million copies.
They are both examples of how volume instead of quality per se makes you famous and financially independent. (Just for the record: I am not saying that if someone wrote a lot of books, those were automatically of bad quality.)
There are hosts of popular traditionally published authors who wrote many books, who went for volume. Terry Prattchet has two- books-a-year average. With more than 85 million copies sold, you cannot doubt his popularity.
Another example would be she of Harry Potter, yes, J.K. Rowling. The seven Harry Potter books were published over twelve years, but she wrote millions and millions of words. Add to that three supplements to Harry Potter series, one fiction for adults (The Casual Vacancy), two books under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith and two Harry Potter related short stories.
Perhaps Charles Dickens is the first famous serial-writer. In his day, a book like Oliver Twist was serialized. Every week a new chapter would be published. Remember that Stephen King did something similar with his novel The Plant. Although he made more than $500 000 with it, I doubt if it had as popular and lengthy a run as Dickens’.
Stephen King, Dean R Koontz, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Kellerman, Ken Follet are but a few examples of prolific writers who were/are very successful traditionally published authors.
So what should Indie authors do?
Robert J. Crane, who claims to have sold 150 000 copies of his books argues for the prolific-writing approach if you are an Indie-author. He made his book Alone:The Girl in the Box free for download. In the six months that he tried to sell this book, he was ‘successful’ 42 times. Since the book has been free, it has been downloaded more than 320 000 times. (Note to self: See if it might interest me!)
The next books in the series have been bought for about $5 over 100 000 times. Crane is adamant that if he did not “free” the first book in the series, the rest of the series would have failed as well.
A free book is a way to do marketing, except that you spent hours and hours writing the free book. Somehow you have to create an audience that pays and that is where writing multiple books come in. The latter ones get paid for.
And the winner is…
I don’t know if there is a winner. Asking this question is a bit like asking an American: Is Baseball, Basketball or Gridiron the winner? They are not even in the same competition.
If you are an Indie author initiate it is highly unlikely that one book will create an audience for you that will turn into dollars. You have to build a reputation over time. For that you have to write multiple books.
If you are planning to write just in your of time, and not planning to make a living out of it, then the one-book approach will probably suit you better.If luck strikes and you do become a high-earning, one-book wonder, well… Money doesn’t bite, does it?
Edited by: Neelima Vinod