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Traditional publishers have long limited their authors to one or two books per year. Stephen King even made that a plot point in Bag of Bones. Even he, who made a profit for the publisher on every book he wrote, was restricted to two books per year for his publisher in those dark days.

The romance genre broke that mold—and got dismissed for it. Harlequin liked authors who could write six or more books per year for its category romances (generally, those books run 50-60,000 words, about half to a third the length of a standard novel). Nora Roberts continued that practice after she left the categories, and early on, she took on a pen name for her J.D. Robb series, since her publisher and agent were afraid that slight departure from her romance novels would tank her sales. It didn’t. It just brought in new readers.

It was news when historical romance writer Mary Balogh published four books in the same season. Three were paperback originals, and the fourth was a hardcover. The experiment, according to the traditional publisher, was to see if the readers would spend even more for the last book in a four-book series or if they would wait until the mass market paperback got released.

Some readers waited, of course. But most bought all four books in the same season, without a lot of qualms.

If you ask a
traditional
publisher
when a
writer will
overwhelm
readers with
content, you
will get a
different
answer than
you will if
you ask
readers.

Traditional publishers sometimes released three books in three months, usually to promote a new writer (or a new-to-the-publisher writer) with a series of books. Often that publisher had invested a lot of money in the writer or was going to build that writer into a bestseller.

Sometimes the experiment flopped; most often it worked, and it is being used more and more now.

The problem that traditional publishers have is this: it costs a lot of money to publish a book. The publisher must put all the money out up front for everything from content to editorial to production to distribution. Books go from being a proposal from a writer to being a paper edition in stores, at thousands of copies, all before the publisher sees a dime (this, of course, doesn’t count Random’s grabby e-publishing lines). The average cost for a mass market original is about $250,000 (with a $5,000 advance to the author factored in), so if the publisher is going to publish three books by that author in one year, that author had better justify the publisher’s $750,000 investment.

See why traditional publishers slow writers down?

But indie writers, handling their own publishing schedule, don’t need to slow down.

They can publish something when it’s done, with minimal financial outlay. If you figure that when the indie writer spends money on a cover and copy edits—and doesn’t count her time—she can publish her book for the cost of a expensive four-person dinner in Manhattan, the kind that editors put on their expense accounts.

With that kind of outlay, publishing 12 books per year, provided the writer can write that many, is doable.

Publishing four to six is definitely possible. If the writer has an existing backlist, then publishing even more can happen.

Velocity happens to indie and traditionally published writers alike when they’re publishing the next book in a well-loved series. About half of those indie books on the Times list are in a series, so clearly the readers were waiting for the next book.

Most online bookstores have some kind of algorithm that notifies a customer when a favorite author has published a new book. Even if the indie authors can’t do preorders yet, the algorithm more than makes up for it. The fans will buy the book day one if they want it.

How many books will a reader read by the same author? That question used to bother me, since I have such a huge inventory. At what point am I overwhelming my readers?

That, it turned out, was a traditional publishing question. If you think of limited shelf space and the importance of velocity in traditional publishing—there’s only so much room for new books and those books better sell—then it matters how many books you push by a certain writer. At minimum, that writer had better sell $800,000 worth of books per season to justify the capital outlay.

All of those factors make “overwhelming the reader” an issue because—unbeknownst to the reader— those books have to sell within a short time frame to make the publisher’s money back.   

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