Business Musings: Churning It Out
Toward the end of a pretty good Entertainment Weekly article about the romance side of the publishing industry, this sentence appears:
[Bella Andre]’s a naturally fast writer — on average she churns out four to six books a year — and she released the first one in June 2011.
Before we get to the reason I’m telling you about that sentence, let me say one thing that might or might not be related: There’s a slight snobby tone to EW’s romance article. What’s that all about? The magazine’s called Entertainment Weekly, not The New York Times Book Review. EW sings the praises of The Walking Dead and video games, and everything in between, for heaven’s sake, but somehow romance fiction doesn’t meet the high standards of entertainment?
Sorry. I had to get that off my chest.
As I said, the article, “A Billion-dollar Affair,” by Karen Valby, appeared in the October 24th issue, and did cover the romance industry pretty well.
So why am I objecting to that single sentence?
I’m not, really. It’s a common sentence from any media that covers books. And I’m not even objecting to the entire sentence. Bella Andre does write fast by most writers’ standards, and she does so comfortably.
What I’m objecting to is the phrase “churned out.”
It’s become a cliché. Any writer who writes fast “churns out” material. Or she “cranks out” or “pounds out” whatever it is that she writes. Because clearly, no writer who writes fast can think about what she writes.
There are other implications in that phrase. The material “churned out” isn’t very good. It’s also an exact copy of what has come before. It has no real value, primarily because of the speed with which the writer “churns” the material out.
In the olden days of traditional publishing, those of us who “churned out” a lot of books did so under a lot of pen names. Here’s how it worked in my case: Kristine Kathryn Rusch might, at best, put out two books per year; Kris Nelscott one every two years; and Kristine Grayson one every six months.
Most reviewers never noticed all the short stories or blog posts or nonfiction. Only a handful of people (including my agents back when I was stupid enough to hire them) knew that I wrote under other pen names as well.
While reading a midlist thriller novel in bed one night several years ago, I laughed so hard that I woke Dean up. What made me laugh? The author’s bio, which stated that the byline of the novel I was reading was a pen name for a “well-known #1 New York Times bestselling author.” Ballsy and hysterical. That writer wrote so many books that his publisher refused to publish them all under his bestselling name.
Or maybe the publisher never got a chance. Because I later discovered who the author in question was (and that’s why I’m not naming the book here), and discovered that the author had nearly a dozen pen names, and kept them all quiet—except for that coy little bio for at least one of them.
In the opening to Bag of Bones, Stephen King writes that his main character, a bestselling novelist, kept one novel in the drawer for every novel he published, since his publisher was demanding that he not publish more than one book per year.
Think about this, people: How many other industries that have megaselling products demand that the producer of popular, high-quality material slow down? What happened to providing the consumers with what they wanted?
When Nora Roberts started out, she was fortunate to begin with Harlequin, which could publish as many books as she produced. She stayed with Harlequin even after she moved to a bigger publisher (Bantam) for a once-per-year hardcover, which then became a once-per-year hardcover and twice-a-year mass market paper, and then became twice-a-year hardcovers and three-times-a-year mass market paper, and finally, she had a big fight with Harlequin, and started up the J.D. Robb pen name (twice per year) and her publisher (by then, Putnam) threw in the towel. The publisher finally agreed that Nora could put out a lot of books. But not the publisher’s other writers.
Her speed didn’t matter to that publisher because the publisher had no expectation of quality based on the genre. As we all know, and Entertainment Weekly’s snobby tone confirms, romance is trash anyway. No one expects quality fiction from writers who crank out cookie-cutter books for women.
You think I’m kidding, right? I’m not. I’m old enough to have read the trade journals as romance got its start as a genre, as the Romance Writers of America fought for recognition from publishers, as romance readers who slowly realized that they were marketing force that had a lot of clout.
Romance has a lot of respect now compared to thirty years ago—and still writers see phrases like “churned out” and that slightly school-boyish tone that every Literary Critic uses when discussing romance.
It’s about love and mushy stuff. It can’t be good. It might include kissing and touching and actual irony-free emotion. Anyone can churn out that crap if they put their minds to it. But most people are sensible enough to want respectability instead of…whatever it is that these romance people have.
Oh, yeah. Money.
Who actually like the books.
I have taken exception to that snobbish attitude for my entire career. I’ve written essay after essay about it in all kinds of journals and magazines. I’ve written some business blogs on it too.
Back when I was writing those essays, the attitude was merely annoying. Savvy writers could get past it with the judicious use of pen names, and make not just a living, but a substantial living. As in earning mid-six figures or more, simply by hiding the fact that the fast writers wrote more than one book per year.
That snobbish attitude has always been harmful to writers who wanted to make a living. But in my mind, that snobbery always went hand-in-hand with a desire to be recognized over a desire to have a full-time writing career. The writers who wanted to make a living figured out how to handle the respectability argument while “churning out” a lot of books. The writers who wanted respectability and labored over each word never left their day jobs.
Now, however, that snobbish attitude has become actively harmful to writers. Most of the ways that books sell to readers have broken down. The traditional publishing systems have lost their impact. The old-fashioned way that publishers advertised books—that one-size-fits-all method—no longer works. Bookstores don’t window titles much any more, if a reader can find a brick-and-mortar bookstore that sells new titles within driving distance of home.
Because books are available all the time, rather than for only a few months, readers pay less attention to release dates than ever before. It’s always been the case that readers would get to a book when they felt like reading it, but in the past, readers had to buy the book when they saw it, because they might never find a copy again.
So, even if readers didn’t read the book for a year or more, readers still had to buy it in that limited time window.
Not any longer. Readers can make a note of the title, realize it’s been published, and buy it days or hours or minutes before reading it. That really changes the way that the publishing industry markets books—or should.
It hasn’t yet, entirely, anyway. But the industry is starting to get a clue.
Event books, the ones that publishers convinced the media to promote, are no longer events. The numbers to become a bestseller are much, much lower than they were as little as seven years ago.
Lists matter, but less and less as readers discover their books in other ways.
And one of the major ways that readers discover a book? E-mail alerts or notifications that scroll across the reader’s favorite online retailing site—alerts and notifications tailored to that reader.
No longer do we all get notification of the top five books on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, we get science fiction (if that’s what we read) or romance or mystery. We get notifications about our favorite author’s latest book, not the latest release from some author whose work we would never, ever, ever read.
What provokes those bots to let a reader know about an author? Publication of her latest work. The bots always send readers a note that an author they have bought before (through that retailer) has released a new book.
The reader might not buy that book immediately, but the book might go on a wish list. It might be put in reserve until the reader has the cash to order or the time to read.
Another change in the way people buy books also has to do with unlimited availability. All readers indulged in binge reading of a new-to-them author, but in the past, that binge reading was combined with treasure hunting.
Whenever I discovered a new writer whose work I liked, I’d read what was easily available, then I’d go to the library to see what it had. Libraries never had the complete oeuvre because, like bookstores, they have limited shelf space. So I’d dig through every used bookstore in every town I visited until I got each and every book by that author.
Or as close to each and every book as I could get.
Other readers did the same.
Now, readers can order every book that a favorite author has written, whether that author has written five books or hundreds. That fear writers have, the fear that readers won’t respect the work if it doesn’t take years to complete, is silly when looked at from a reader’s perspective.
Readers want to escape from their lives for a few hours. They might want to read a beautiful well-written slow-moving literary novel or they might want to read a fast-paced hard-to-believe thriller. But readers want the book when they’re ready to relax. If they liked that book, they want another by the same author. The author becomes a known quantity, and the reader wants more.
Binge-reading has become an all-consuming activity, just like binge-watching. And the best way to get noticed as a writer is to publish enough to enable your readers to binge for a weekend.
But the idea of writing a lot is the opposite of the way that most writers are trained. Writers are told to slow down, think about every word, consider every sentence. Writers are taught to forget story because story is something that hack writers do.
Hack writers can “churn” out words because words are unimportant to them.
Real writers write so slowly that they might only compose a paragraph per day.
Real writers who have day jobs and who still believe myths spouted in the 19th century.
Real 19th century writers who are still read today, like Charles Dickens or Louisa May Alcott, got paid by the word, so they wrote a lot of words, for a lot of publications. These writers wrote fast long hand, and they “churned out” a lot of stories we no longer read.
But they also “churned out” stories that all of us still read.
That little phrase, “churned out,” holds so much disrespect. Deadly disrespect, because writers who hear that phrase—and use it themselves—won’t be able to survive in this new world.
The 21st century is not leisurely, although we have more leisure time than ever. Can you remember the name of the “important” literary novel of five years ago? Ten? Without looking it up? I didn’t think so.
Yet, I can still name the important literary novels of forty years ago, because they got all the press, and I do mean all the press.
It’s impossible to get all of the press now. The best way to get attention is to give your readers what they want. If they like your work, they want more of it.
If they want more of it, the only person who can give them more is you.
And the only way to do that is to write a lot, whatever that means for you.
One sure way to teach yourself to write at a comfortable pace is to clean up your language. Watch every word. Make sure you’re using the right phrase—when you’re talking about writing.
Clean “churned out” from your vocabulary. Don’t say you “cranked out” a novel. Don’t apologize for writing fast. Don’t tell anyone how long it took to finish a novel.
Write and release.
The only people who judge fiction writers for how fast they write are people to whom reading isn’t something they do for enjoyment but for prestige. They want to impress others with their literary acumen.
I don’t know about you, but I want readers who get lost in the story, not readers who have already determined that I’m a hack because I don’t write at the proper speed or in the proper genre or with the proper attention to language.
Enjoy your writing. Take as much—or as little—time as you like to compose your stories.
Because how you created the story doesn’t matter. How much readers enjoy the story does. Readers don’t care if it took you one week to write that story or fifteen years. All readers want is escape.
And it’s your job to provide it.
Contrary to popular opinion, I do not crank out these blogs. I think about them for weeks, maybe months, maybe years, before ever committing a word to paper.
I also make things up for a living.
Clearly, I’m blogging again. Blogging does not pay the bills, though, so if you’re enjoying the blogs, please leave a tip on the way out. (And yes, White Mist Mountain is my company.)
“Business Musings: Churning It Out,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.