Rapid Release Romance?

I can actually type this fast, but that doesn’t mean the book gets done any faster….

Ebooks, especially with services like Kindle Unlimited, have changed some of the fundamental economics of publishing today. For small, independent publishers and self-published authors, the old rules don’t work anymore. Once upon a time, an author painstakingly wrote and revised a book. If they were lucky enough to get a contract with a reputable publisher, they could count on editorial revisions, followed by copyedits and galley proofs, and many, many months later a book would finally appear on the shelves of bookstores. If the author wanted to publish a sequel, they would have to wait to see how sales on the first book went. If the first book was popular enough, a follow-up might land a contract.

Even once ebooks began to take off, this model still worked, but today savvy entrepreneurs (whom I won’t automatically call “authors” for reasons I explain in a second) have figured out that the real secret to success on platforms like Amazon’s Kindle store was not to write one popular, well-selling book. It wasn’t even to get a lot of good reviews, though those help. No, the secret is something called “rapid release,” which means publishing a series of related books set in the same universe in a very short period of time. This keeps the author’s name fresh, which means the author will continue to appear under new releases, and the abundance of offerings are more likely to result in multiple sales to the same readers – all of which is favored by Amazon’s algorithms, making it more likely the book will be recommended to other readers. Whereas in the past, too many books set in one universe or series might have been a detriment because of a presumed saturation point for readers, rapid release favors excess: the more books there are, the more someone can buy and read, cross-promote, review, recommend to someone else, and the cycle continues.

It doesn’t take much googling to find countless resources for authors interested in rapid release. Author Imprints offers a checklist to prepare writers in advance for what will be a very heavy and swift writing, revising, and publishing season. Mindy Klasky describes her own experiences with a rapid release romance series and suggests using interweaving characters with the seed for one book’s plot planted in another. This helps the author keep the universe tidy and moving forward, and it no doubt whets a reader’s appetite to buy the next book to see how the secondary characters’ experiences will turn out. There are even books on the subject, which, given the pace of publishing and the changes rapid release is trying to impart, seems a little weird to me.

My writing takes a long time. Once I have the idea for a story fleshed out, it’s quick to actually draft the novel. But drafting is hardly writing a finished product. I sit with the characters, dialogue, and plot for a while, and then I revise for story clarity first before changing any out of place dialogue or details. All told, I revise each book I write in its entirety at least twice before submitting it to a publisher. Although my writing process may change in the future, at the moment I am not a good candidate for rapid release.

So I won’t weigh in on the many benefits and possible drawbacks for writers. Plenty has been said about that already by people who are participating in this movement. Instead, I want to focus on what rapid release gets to, which is only one aspect of what ebook publishing on platforms like Kindle are making us question. Is e-publishing a sport for profit or a craft that requires patience to develop? Should an author approach writing to earn an income by tapping into the secrets of algorithms that contribute to our popularity and ability to sell books, or should an author’s first duty be to writing the best book possible? Are there any compromises between these two extremes?

Some people participating in the rapid release movement are more interested in earning profit than creating art. There have been scandals over how certain people manipulate the number of books they publish by regurgitating material and how they pad book length by combining shorter books that have already been published to earn the person a share of the Kindle Unlimited fund (which pays based on the percent of a book that’s read). While some of these people are bona fide writers, others are just entrepreneurs who have realized there’s an opportunity to make serious cash in this game, and they write things with typos, plagiarized passages, even nonsensical ramblings – all to get it out there, get it read, and get paid. You can see why I hesitate to call them “authors.”

At the same time, authors deserve to get paid. Recent studies have shown that “writing” is no longer a wage-earning profession. The New York Times published a story earlier this year that cited a median income for full-time writers as approximately $20,000. This living wage calculator developed at MIT shows that you could maybe survive on that in a rural area, but not in most of the United States and certainly not if you have a partner or kids (or pets, I’ll add. These things never factor in pets, which from my experience are terribly expensive family additions).

So what are writers to do in this new world where bookstores are closing, paperbacks are vanishing, and small presses are disappearing? Where there is real money to be made from a company whose founder is the world’s richest person and earns more in one second on the clock than many Americans earn in a month? Under these conditions, it’s understandable why folks would trade in the old write-and-revise-and-revise-and-revise model for something faster that could actually earn them a living.

Do these books feel as satisfying to readers? That’s a question I don’t see discussed much on the many websites touting the virtues of rapid release. For a genre like romance, with a tight formula and predetermined ending, readers may not sense much difference between a story written in under three weeks and one written in three months or three years. (And it’s worth nothing that some of the great American literature was written speedily: Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in just seven weeks, and high schoolers are still reading in AP English eighty years later.) So does there need to be a fine distinction between craft and cash? Maybe not.

In the meantime, I’m headed to Jami Gold’s beat sheet to revise, for the third time in eight months, the second pinch point for my novel in progress.

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