Business Time – Impatience, Rapid Release, and Saturation

19 Feb

This has been a busy week in publishing news. A lot of people are talking about and/or the Digital Book World response to same.

Lots of people are talking about that report, but since I’m not a statistician and I don’t have access to Amazon’s actual sales numbers, I’m going to talk about something I *do* know about, and that’s rapid release schedules in genre publishing.

Prompted by this New York Times article, I wanted to talk about my observations about reader impatience, quick-to-market releases, and market saturation. Rapid release has been going on in genre publishing for quite some time. The romance category has numerous authors who write incredibly quickly, keeping their names fresh. In SF/F, we have our prolific authors as well. Seanan McGuire, Chuck Wendig, and more.  Angry Robot and several other small/medium publishers have shorter production windows, meaning that the time from acquiring the book to releasing it is less, sometimes much less, than the 12-15 months you might see at other times.

Rapid release is not a guarantee of success, or a guarantee of much of anything really, other than that a writer’s career is probably going to progress faster. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will grow, or that it will flounder, just that faster releases mean faster progression.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

A critically-acclaimed series that releases three books in a year might succeed even more than it would have if the releases had been a year apart. Or, the condensed timeline might deprive a series from the grassroots growth that comes from anticipation between releases. We can look at successes on either end. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Mans Fear was published four years after his highly-acclaimed debut The Name of the Wind. Would Patrick Rothfuss’ career have been the same if all three books of the Kingkiller Chronicles had come out in successive years? Almost certainly not. Sometimes, anticipation builds desire, or gives an author the time for a fanbase to develop, such as with Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards Sequence. The word-of-mouth campaign in support of the first two books in the series almost invariably helped build demand to the point that allowed the third book in the series to hit the New York Times list.

So there’s a value in waiting. Anticipation seems to be fairly common in literary fiction circles, with authors that take years, sometimes decades between books. A Jonathan Franzen book release tends to be taken as a national literary holiday, given how infrequent they are.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

On the other side, you have authors like Seanan McGuire, who are incredibly prolific, releasing 4 novels in a year across different series and pseudonyms. Or authors like Naomi Novik, who had their career jump-started through rapid release of straight-t0-Mass Market editions of the first three novels of her Temeraire series. Del Rey has repeated Novik’s rapid debut strategy with Kevin Hearne and Jason M. Hough. Orbit books has done or are doing rapid releases for N.K. Jemisin, Rachel Bach, and David Dalglish. At Angry Robot, we released all three Split Worlds novels by Emma Newman in 2013. We’ve also put out 1st and 2nd books by debuts within 6 months of each other for authors such as Wesley Chu and Lee Collins.

But it’s just another publishing strategy. It’s no more panacea than anything else. If the first book in a series tanks, it’s very likely that the second and/or third already scheduled for a rapid release will be unsalvageable, since rapid release makes it very hard for marketing or publicity teams to build a case or a readership for a series that’s flagging or has failed to connect with a readership.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N K Jemisin

Rapid release compounds whatever is happening.

Success + Rapid Release = Rapid success

Struggles + Rapid Release = Struggles that can spiral out of control.

There is, sometimes, the worry of saturating the market. Pseudonyms help alleviate this problem somewhat, but there are lots of other ways to get around that. Put books close together but on different sales seasons (many publishers split their year’s books into selling seasons, either Spring/Fall or Spring/Fall/Winter or so on). Whole seasons are sold together, so publishers can work around bookseller’s reticence to take too many books together by splitting them across multiple seasons. Sometimes that’s useful, sometimes it isn’t.

The most likely successful candidates for rapid release, as I see them, fall into one or more of the following categories:

1) Complete series.

2) Books with cliffhangers.

3) Highly buzz-able books.

4) New releases from established successes.

Rapid release for a debut can be tricky. For Del Rey and Orbit, who have substantial marketing budgets to wield, it can be a way to concentrate promotional effort and go all-in on a new property, trying to stack the deck in their favor. There’s still no way to guarantee a success, but big publishers have a lot of assets, and if a whole company gets behind a book or series, it’s very impressive what they can do. But each house can do that only so many times in a year, and so those rapid release spots are picked very carefully. If every house went to rapid release with every series, I think the effect would seriously dilute — there’d be so many series moving so quickly that moderate-speed readers could be overwhelmed and just shut out those rapid-release series, waiting until the whole thing is done and then getting around to it later. I don’t think we’re at that point, but just like any sales and marketing strategy, the more people who are using it, the less special and distinctive it is.

But there are some readers who will always say the more the merrier, and those are the folks that make publishers itch to find a new way to command that reader’s attention. So whether you release back-to-back-to-back or once every few years, consider the advantages and disadvantages. Your publishers likely have done so already, but it doesn’t hurt to be informed.

5 Responses to “Business Time – Impatience, Rapid Release, and Saturation”

  1. geekritiqued February 19, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    This article was extremely informative. Currently reading some Patrick Rothfuss now, actually. I’ve never even considered that patience could be a virtue when given time between novels. Now would this effect the market of authors that are already extremely successful?

    • Mike February 19, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

      As with many things, I think it depends. If the writer works fairly quickly, putting out a whole series or a duology at rapid release might be able to create a Publishing Event.

      But since most extremely successful writers in SF/F are writing as fast as they can, with readers eager to get their next release, many publishers may prefer to pull the trigger and publish what they have as soon as possible. A recent example of rapid release from a popular author is the Southern Reach trilogy by PKD-award-nominated author Jeff VanderMeer, who is releasing all three books in the trilogy this year from FSG. It’s too early to see how successful that will be, since the first book just came out. So far, it’s looking good.

      • geekritiqued February 19, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

        Fascinating topic. Thank you for the entry


  1. On Skiffy & Fanty – Business Time: Impatience, Rapid Release, and Saturation | Geek Theory - February 22, 2014

    […] Over on Skiffy & Fanty, my latest Business Time article discusses a recent New York Times artic… […]

  2. Reader Loyalty? How to get it, How to keep it? by Samantha Hunter | The Chocolate Box - March 12, 2014

    […] Skiffy and Fanty blog presents this balanced […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: