The Volume Business of Self-Publishing – Are We Doomed to Low Quality?

burger-1097101-m“Short is the new long in self-publishing.”

I said this to my critique group yesterday, a group that mostly favors trad publishing. They wondered if this strategy had anything to do with decreasing attention spans. It does, of course. People are becoming more and more accustomed to skimming short pieces on the web, and this has definitely affected their likes and dislikes with regard to reading material. But, I explained, in order to “make it” as a self-published author, you have to have volume. And in order to have volume, you can’t publish one book a year, especially if you don’t have a backlist. The general consensus–after a bit of eye rolling–was that volume = low quality. But does it?

Let’s take a look at two very different “volume” businesses: Starbucks and McDonalds.

Trend Riding: Both McDonalds and Starbucks rode the Baby Boomer trend, though at opposite ends. McDonalds capitalized on the rising tide of young ones in the 60’s and 70’s, and Starbucks caught them in the 90’s after they’d grown up. Self-publishers, too, ride trends. New adult, anyone? Erotica, anyone? But I don’t hold much stock in the old saw that genre writers only crank out junk. It may be what the snobbiest lit fic writers tell themselves before turning out the lights, but it ain’t true.

Streamlined Execution: The two mega-giants have their production timed to the second in order to deliver product in a timely manner. DIY authors, the best ones, anyway, have their “production team” in place for each book. They know who to go to for editing, book covers, formatting help, etc., so that they can pull the trigger and fire off that book in an expeditious manner. To me, this only improves the quality of a book when professional help is enlisted. Unfortunately, not all self-pubbers turn to professionals. Too many cut corners, skipping crucial steps, and put out a less than stellar book. But if done right, streamlining the process does not have to equal low quality.

Global Expansion: McDonalds became famous for exporting the American lifestyle overseas. While this makes me cringe–I can think of better cultural ambassadors!–it’s still an interesting fact. Starbucks, on the other hand, made great strides in Asian markets where houses are small. People, it seems, need a place to hang out besides home, and Bucky’s offers a variety of cozy chairs–if you can find one. Every time I go, they’re all taken by a bunch of freeloading, laptop-toting hipsters nursing tall regulars for hours on end. Leave! Leave already! I digress…  Book distributors make it easy for authors to expand into international markets. But from my own experience, only the English-speaking markets have any interest in my books. And rightly so. I’d love to have a Spanish version of my book, but it’s cost-prohibitive at this point. Bottom line: global expansion doesn’t mean you’re pushing poor product on people.

Precise Market Segmentation: Ah, now this is where the rubber meets the road. Starbucks has always prided themselves on offering “affordable luxury.” It’s a freaking genius strategy, if you ask me. It gives people the sense that they, too, can have the best that money can buy, even though they drove to get it in a rattle-trap Honda with spray-painted fenders. Other places offer coffee that’s just as good, but Starbuck’s cultivates a comfortable stay-awhile atmosphere that’s just as crucial as what’s in the cup . McDonald’s, as we know, puts out fare for the masses. Nearly 300 billion burgers sold, by last count. Crap, right? Yes and no. I’m not a big fan of their hamburgers, but they must be doing something right to sell so many. Enter the DIY author. They sell at either end of the food chain–from long, flowing sagas with languid prose to zippy horror stories that can be consumed with the speed of a Big Mac. But quick consumption does not necessarily equate poor quality. One look at Raymond Carver’s shorts, and you’ve got the proof you need. Even if you don’t care for his stuff, you’ve at least got to recognize the man’s reach. But, but, but…if an author publishes a book with numerous spelling and grammar errors and a plot that nosedives on page twenty, this is akin to serving a hamburger. With a hair in it.

I hope I’ve convinced any doubters that, in the hands of a skilled writer, volume does not equal low quality. In the hands of an unskilled writer? I’d advise opening that burger before taking a bite.


What about you? Do you prefer to read short or long pieces? For the writers in the group, are you pursuing a volume strategy? Or do you prefer to publish longer works less frequently?


4 thoughts on “The Volume Business of Self-Publishing – Are We Doomed to Low Quality?

    • That’s a great point, Matt. Fantasy works are normally doorstoppers. But I wonder if some writers aren’t beginning to break them into separate books. Which means, by the time they hit virtual shelves, they’re the length of a “normal” book. 🙂 But I completely agree, it’s harder to deviate from the standard with certain genres.

  1. We need a filter to eliminate the bad authors.. maybe 50+ reviews 4 star required before it hits the list on bookstores.

    I think there’s a major danger with the top five tips to writing etc. that prop up online. They are great to snip a select few horrible habits but if you are writing a novel, does it make sense to find short quick tips on how to write or to have the broad AND defined strokes from classes and full books on the stuff?

    I’m trying to write for me, because I find I delve into interesting concepts and quandaries. So I’m taking my sweet time.
    This ‘everyone has a book in them’ is nonsense and needs to evolve after people start writing. Maybe – How can I communicate from my head onto paper so others can understand the story in my head in a compelling way – would be better.

    • GJ: I agree. Writing is easy. Writing *well* is difficult, and most people aren’t effective judges of their own work. 🙂 I’ve been writing seriously for about a decade, have nearly 750K words under my belt…and I still need my critique group!

      If you’re serious about learning the craft of writing, then I would highly recommend taking an online class from Gotham. I’ve taken several from them, and they’re eye-opening.

      Good luck on your journey!

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