In books or movies featuring a character who is a professional writer, it’s common for that character to have written only one or two books and based their entire career off of signings and interviews. So it’s not surprising for writers starting out to think that one successful book will have them set for life.
Quick note: even if the scenario above wasn’t categorized as fantasy, the idea that a single book will take care of you for life is. Even if that book is legendary and one of the best books of a generation. A book can’t guarantee an income—and if it’s only one book, you can be assured that the sales will drop after a few weeks.
If you want writing to be a full-time job, you’ll need to treat it like one and work with a plan.
Writing Full Time: The Demands
Becoming famous from one book is like winning the jackpot and just as unlikely. Sure, it happens. Some debuts go all the way to the top. But if you’re still new at writing and new at publishing, and you can’t expect to get everything right the first time.
More than that, one book alone won’t let you quit the day job. You’ll need to write a bunch of books if you want to secure yourself an independent future off of royalties. Keep in mind that you do not need to be a full-time author to be successful or to produce books—you need to know what works best for you and your writing and what sacrifices you’re willing to make.
Another note is the timing. While it’s normal to spend several years on a first book, commercial fiction writers usually write multiple books per year to keep up with demand. For several years, it was standard for successful self-published authors to write a book a month to keep up, but as time has changed, the rules of what makes for a successful writing career have changed as well.
1. The gold rush is over.
There’s no longer the urge to write a book every month, and the “scarcity” concept of publishing has shifted from quantity to quality.
When self-publishing was new, the marketplace was so empty that any books published could claim a readership. That’s not the case anymore. If your strategy involved a lot of spray-and-pray, publish-all-the-books-you-can-to-claim-a-larger-share-of-readers approach, you’ll need to re-think. Today’s readers don’t care if you have a lot of books—they care if you have books they like.
This means targeting your readers more specifically. It means writing with a core audience already in mind and custom-fitting your books to have the best and most potent effect possible. The good news is that this is not only doable, but for many writers will actually be far more fulfilling and fun.
2. Sales drop after your first few weeks.
There’s a reason why a lot of films focus on the opening weekend. Your book’s launch will bring in a lot of its lifetime profits.
While it’s true that anything you publish can continue to sell for the rest of your life and even after your death, your opening few weeks will likely give you the biggest bang of income. The trick is to keep in mind how many of those “bangs” you need per year to meet your goals while remembering that better books have bigger launches.
3. Readers remember their favorite authors, and hardcore fans are willing to wait.
There’s a common misconception that if you don’t publish often enough, your readers will forget you exist. Unless your writing is exceptionally formulaic with little personality (and likely few readers either), this isn’t true. People remember books they like. People will read the same great book over and over, and many franchises have continued to grow even if readers had to wait years for a sequel.
The expectations change according to genre, but if you’re struggling to make a comeback after a period of silence, it’s likely because your readers haven’t heard that you’re back—not because they don’t care or aren’t interested. A regular publishing schedule will help readers get into the habit of knowing when to expect your new books so that you won’t notice as much of a dip.
4. Higher-quality books have a longer lifespan than their lower-quality counterparts.
A basic competitive book can have a good launch, but if you can rise above the noise in the Kindle Store, people will start recommending your books to others and wanting to read more things you’ve written. This will give your books more longevity and make the launches a little less important.
How often should you publish?
While this does depend on your goals as an author, at least one book a year is a good metric if you want to keep your audience engaged. Otherwise it’s more important to make consistent progress and align your publishing with both reader expectations and with what you are able to deliver.
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