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.
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.
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.
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.