Business Musings: Churning It Out

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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.

And readers.

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.)


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“Business Musings: Churning It Out,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

23 thoughts on “Business Musings: Churning It Out

  1. Boy did I read this on the right day. I wrote more today than I did on any single day last year — I know. I started a spreadsheet last year to keep track.

    Even more than watching my time closely, it was about focus. No strain. No sense of effort. Just getting my head into the story and keeping it there. In fact I finished the day excited and ready to keep going. I could have written more, but the Ducks game was about to start.

    And the best part? I got pulled away from my chair too many times by things beyond my control. If I can keep up this focus, then when this year is over, today won’t stand out as my best day anymore. Not even close.

    Great post, Kris. I can’t thank you and Dean enough for teaching me this (and related lessons that help me take advantage of it).

  2. I think that part of the problem with the term churn comes from the financial sector where traders are said to churn an account by making multiple trades to make more money for themselves on the per-trade activity. Like all those terms that imply speed, as though the concept of fast/good/cheap (you can only get 2) applied universally to a creative endeavor like a story. I’m still baffled by the idea that because a publisher has chosen to limit themselves to X number of books in a year, someone like Nora Roberts has to limit themselves rather than have her books put out whenever they’re ready. It’s not like they’re not going to sell whenever you put them out, after all. I guess that it was part of the idea of rules for the sake of rules because there has to be a limit or there’s no cachet in making it into the inner circle of The Published.

  3. Awesome article and one I can very much relate to. I often have people act as if there is something wrong with me when I tell them I regularly write a 50,000 word first draft in two weeks. Then they start commiserating over how much work it must take to turn such a fast written manuscript into something decent. Even when I explain that I put in a lot of hours and almost never spend any time staring at the screen, they still rarely get it. We’re all different. Some of us write fast, some of us don’t. There is nothing wrong with either.

    1. I agree with April’s non-judgement. The important thing is just respect for the work and the creator, no matter what speed it was written or what genre it’s in.

      I love good writing, period. That includes literary writing and poetry with imagery so clear, it lifts my heart. I don’t care how long it takes you to write it. It’s your life.

      I can write fast. I astonished myself when I tried NaNoWriMo last year and pumped (nay churned!) out over 70,000 words, while doing at least one shift at four different hospitals, in three different towns, presenting two seminars at a conference two hours away, and helping to raise our two little kids. But now I’m taking it slow, piecing the novel together. Mystery novels take me a long time, and I had to rest up.

      Fast, slow. Literary, romance. I wonder if humans just feel the need to divide and dismiss instead of just enjoying good writing wherever they find it.

  4. I’ve heard writers who publish only one book every five or more years say they would never write faster because they need to think about the story and as a result they may only write five words some week or some such nonsense. [The only conclusion to be drawn is a hack is someone who can write and think simultaneously and also think while I’m doing the dishes, ect.. between writing sessions]

    When I was younger I tried to slow down, but I love writing too much. My problem has always been managing real life, writing is the easy part.

    You’re right about watching our language when we push along sabataging phrases even if when said it was done in jest or insiders’ slang.

    Thanks for the article – and the part about EW being romance snobs had me laughing out loud.

  5. Great post. It ties in with the “Productivity” workshop. I ran into an odd situation, where a relative of mine began to make snide comments about how “my books are doing so well.” She doesn’t know if they are or aren’t (and neither do I, my first was published less than 2 years ago). But I have 7 out as of today. I felt compelled to take a defensive position and minimize what could be viewed as an accomplishment. During a different visit, another family member said, “Well looks like you’ve become a regular book factory!” It wasn’t mean-spirited, just incredulous. “I have strong work ethic,” I lied (grin). “If I want to take writing seriously, I have to work hard at it, just like at any other job.” The answer was accepted as reasonable. The envy part sort of threw me, though. She’s fully capable of writing her own damn book.

    1. I have been fortune in encountering very little envy, but I’ve experienced it a few times over the years. And, yep, there is always a big, noticeable, unmistakable difference between someone sincerely complimenting you on the way you’ve kept your shoulder to the wheel to release book after book after book over a period of years, when writing even one book seems like a huge milestone to them… and people implying that, rather than being committed and working hard toward your goals, you’re “churning out” books like a “factory” and surely not doing the sort of QUALITY work THEY do (or WOULD do, if they were actually writing rather than just talking about writing)l

  6. just an edit:

    It is my understanding that
    Nora Roberts began with Silhoutte
    (Hq had turned her down)
    and then Silhoutte was bought by
    Harlequin and later the tussle you mention developed.

  7. Love your post. And today those ten romance novels I wrote in recent years made my day. My husband’s cousin from Canada wrote she’s coming to visit us and had just ordered every one of my books for her e-reader. Because I sent her a bookmark with the invitation to come to California. Thanks for all your earlier blogs that made me keep writing. Doing happy dance.

  8. Good point about cleaning up my language. I’m afraid I’m guilty of using that phrase “cranking on a novel” although not in a derogatory way. I was delighted when I said it, because my productivity is improving. I wrote a novella in 6 weeks at the end of the summer, and that was faster than I’d managed before. Then I wrote a novel in 8 weeks during the fall. Now I’m working on another novel, and I expect to finish it around the end of this month. It feels great, and I’m thrilled.

    I tend to call myself a slow writer. And compared to the folks who manage pulp speeds, I am. But I’m a lot more productive than I used to be. I still type the words at between 500 and 700 words per hour. In that respect, I’m no faster. But my brain doesn’t wear out and cease to generate ideas as soon as it used to, so I can write more hours in the day.

    The result is that I feel more immersed in my story and my characters as I write. I love it! I know I said that before, but it’s true. And I have every hope that my creative stamina will continue to grow. Maybe next year I’ll be writing novellas in 4 weeks and novels in 6. 😀

    1. Oh, JM, I hope my brain works like yours. I had to laugh at someone’s above comment, because I’m a pokey-pete when it comes to writing. Like Laura, I change my mind a lot, and life circumstances being what they are, my “6 hours’ writing time” looks a lot like other people’s “2 hours’ writing time.” I’ve recently started clawing back focus from distractions (ie, making my kids do their own laundry and walk the dog, etc…) and I think my story focus is growing. At the very least, I’m starting to come to terms with my upside-down and backwards process of writing. I really hope my brain will develop more stamina, too.

  9. P.S. Nora Roberts and I had the same editor for about a year, back when we were both writing for Silhouette Books (a division of Harlequin for whom I wrote 11 books at the start of my career, and for whom Nora Roberts wrote, I estimate, about 100 books).

    I remember the editor saying that they reserved 6 publishing slots a year for Nora. The reason they didn’t reserve more was simply that they released a finite number of books every year and had a lot of other authors filling them, i.e. allocating even more slots to Nora would mean not publishing someone else. (It might also mean letting too much of their annual scheduled rely on one sole author, which could be very problematic if that authors died, got very ill, or refused to sign the next contract.) The more Nora wrote, the more skilled and focused she got, and the faster she got. By the time she was turning in her 6 books within the first 6-7 months of a year, they said, they knew she’d seek a second publisher.

    She started publishing for Bantam then. But, in fact, that was back in the laste 1980s and early 1990s when, despite HUGE paperback sales in romance, publishers wouldn’t release romance writers in hardcover–precisely because of dismissive contempt for the genre and the readers: romance readers “aren’t a hardcover audience” publishers said, and to romance writers (including Roberts) they said, “And your books aren’t hardcover material.”

    Male writers with 1/5 or 1/10 the sales of popular romance writers were routinely being published in hardcover, but romance writers with hundreds of thousands of readers and multiple NYT paperback bestsellers were being told over and over that they weren’t “ready” for hardcover publication.

    Nora was one of the early groundbreakers, but not at Bantam, which wouldn’t release her in hardcover. She moved over to Berkley/Putnam to get her first hardcover release, HONEST ILLUSIONS–which, in contradiction of other publishers’ repeated claims that romance readers wouldn’t buy hardcovers and romance fiction wasn’t “hardcover material”–made the hc NYT list.

  10. Agreed! I absolutely HATE phrases like “churned out” and “cranked out” and “pounded out” for writing. Those phrase are NOT loaded with the implication of strong focus and long hours at the keyboard, but rather loaded with the implication of carelessness, sloppiness, trash, poor quality, mass production (as in, derivative and generic).

    Whereas, in fact, a key reason Nora Roberts is so productive isn’t because she “churns out” prose, but rather because she famously spends at least 6 hours a day writing fiction, almost every day, and seldom takes more than a day off between books. At conventions, Nora spends part of every day in her hotel room, focusing on getting her word-count written that day. Friends of hers who’ve travelled with her say she does the same thing even on vacation–spends several hours a day working on her current book while on vacation. Hugh Howey, also a prolific writer, has talked about writing while on the road for tours and interviews, while in waiting rooms, while sick, etc. At the last Ninc conference I was at, some of the most prolific writers talked candidly about their writing schedules, and the stories were identical in one way: they all produce a lot of fiction because they spend really long hours writing fiction, with very few days off.

    In all those cases, their output would be drastically reduced if they drastically reduced the hours they spent writing. They almost certainly have more focus than I do (because I can sit writing fiction for 6 hours and not produce as much as a fast writer–I think slowly and change my mind a lot; neither of which thing makes my fiction BETTER than it would be if I learned to think fast and arrive at the best decision more quickly), but even so, they’d produce far less fiction if they spent far fewer hours sitting at the keyboards focused on writing it.

    How many people producing one 100K-word book every 5 years are actually writing that book 6 hours a day, 6-7 days a week through those 5 years? My guess would be: none of them.

    So churn out us not only pompous and pretentious in terms of assuming that a productive writer is necessarily a derivative, careless, generic, sloppy one, it also completely ignores how much TIME that writer spends writing instead of doing other things.

  11. I’m so tired of people judging people for what they write.

    Judge the book on its own merits, sure, within the framework of its genre.

    But judging the person who writes them? Gah. Maybe they’re jealous because romance writers can make quite a bit of money. I don’t know.

    But yeah. Shrug off the haters. Write what you want to write, write what sells, DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH YOUR LIFE as long as it doesn’t cause harm to other people.

    What harm could romance possibly cause to anyone?

    Good post 🙂

    1. Annabelle, there’s a long and storied history of trashing romance, and underneath it runs a rich vein of institutional misogyny and male privilege. Romance literature is an industry that is historically populated by women as producers *and* consumers in all the levels where that’s important (while the CEOs of the conglomerates, or the head literary muckety-mucks have been happy to pooh-pooh the “ladybooks” they are certainly not turning the phat loot away, either).

  12. Was in B&N a few days ago (yes, I still go in to browse) and saw a book titled The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity.

    Flipped through it and had a good laugh. The snootyism and literary pretentiousness drenched every page. It didn’t go on my buy list.

    1. I saw a comment on ThePassiveVoice that referred to this book. I thought it was satire. Turns out Amazon offers this book for sale.

      Head-banging unbelievable.

  13. Wonderful post. This is why I chose the Indie route so I can write what I want and how much I want. I don’t really talk about how much I write, that still is a taboo subject it seems. You get a label then. So, I just do it and keep quiet.
    In the end it’s about the control.

  14. I’m on a Facebook writer’s group, and they’re talking about this subject — almost with a sense of pride that they’ve taken 10 years to write a book. I did my last one (two at the same time actually) in five months. That was a record for me, but I honestly did not feel like I wrote it very fast.

    I more or less tracked how many words I wrote. It was probably averaging around 750 words a day on that book, with some days I probably didn’t write at all and some days I wrote more. Some days, I worked on up to two additional projects, the second book and a short story. I had one day where I was horribly sick and got 4K, but the following day the cold won and I did nothing at all. I also got stuck at the 1/3 point for two months on the book while I redrafted a handful of scenes trying to wear down the critical brain. In the old days, I would have followed the how-to advice that says plow ahead and fix it on the revision. If I’d done that, the story would have twisted itself into the messes that caused me years of revision trying to fix it. Then I suddenly got down to the end, and it surprised me it was there and I was two scenes from finishing.

    And I look back on the books that took more than a year for the first draft. A lot of times I might have let weeks go by before I wrote anything. If I got stuck, I stopped writing to try to work it out, but often meant simply not writing and not fixing the problem. Or procrastinating with short stories. And I always ended up making more work myself down the road by not fixing it. A 2-3 day fix turned into a year revision. Yet, somehow, all this work and frustration is supposed to be better than “cranking” out a book.

    I hope to do better time with my next one, simply because I could have done the book in 3 months without getting stuck. But then, I’m also working on short stories, so if I took longer but had more material, that’d be okay too. Showing up and not making work for yourself is important to getting projects done.

    1. Nobody takes 8 or 10 years to write a book. They write it in a few months stretched out over years. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other industry where that level of extreme procrastination is celebrated and even encouraged like it is for writers. Everyone writes at their own pace but when someone gloats about taking years to write a book (and aren’t producing other material in the meantime) that generally means there’s been a while lot of not writing at all going on.

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