The Five (or More) Books Between Writers and Their Audience

I first heard about Donald Maass and his five-books threshold for establishing an audience when I met Australian Fantasy and SF novelists Karen Miller, who’d spent the early years of her career powering through a pretty impressive number of novels back-to-back in order to establish an audience as quickly as possible.

The results were impressive: two fantasy series under her own name, an urban fantasy under the pen name K. E. Mills, plus tie in work for both Star Wars and Stargate universes. Eighteen books total in the first five or six years of her career, if the release dates on wikipedia can be trusted. They’re good books, too; you can see my response to her debut, The Innocent Mage, in the blog archives.

I’d only just turned my attention to writing SF at the time I first met Karen and I’m not sure I’ve ever told her how revelatory that conversation was for me. It was the first time I’d ever really talked to a writer who had an actual plan to build and establish their career instead of finishing a book and then figuring out the next thing.

Holy shit, I thought, I can have a plan. There is data out there that can tell me what to aim for.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the past few weeks, courtesy of the discussion that surrounded my post about writers not wanting to be published. A lot of people seized on the five books number, and a number of established authors talked about their own experience on twitter, admitting that they were closer to ten books than anything else.

With that in mind, I figured it’d be worth revisiting and exploring in a bit more detail.

You see, while Five Books is a useful number to aim for – small enough to be achievable, large enough to do the job – it’s worth noting that a lot of the feedback I got on twitter and facebook suggested that can take longer than that, which more or less tracks with the data I dug up when I first started looking into this.

Five is a useful number, but there are all sorts of things that can affect it and slow down your ability to find an audience. I’ve seen quotes as high as ten books in multiple places, and I’m willing to believe that, especially given the way writing careers evolve, and the addition of some of the qualifiers in the original Donald Maass quote.

CAVEATS IN THE PRIMARY SOURCE (IN WHICH THE KEY WORD IS “ON AVERAGE”)

Donald Maass is the agent behind Maass Literary, a literary agency that started in the 80s and represents a startling number of big names. He’s also written a bunch of books about writing, including The Breakout Novelist where his five-book estimate appears.

Most fiction audiences build slowly. It’s easy to see why when you realise there are roughly six thousand new novels every year. Standing out is difficult. On average, it takes five books for name recognition to take hold among readers of given category. I call this the five-book threshold.

Like any number associated with writing, five books isn’t a hard-and-fast threshold. Maass is working on averages and notes, even in his write-up, that there are all sorts of things that writers can do to to slow things down. The big ones are switching genre and switching publishers, both of which have a noticeable effect on slowing things down.

The genre thing makes perfect sense to me. I remember, very early on in my career, reading an essay by Australian writer Sean Williams where he pointed out that he needed to write twice as fast as everyone else because he wanted to write SF and fantasy.

Switching Publishers is also a common sense thing: building your audience takes time and backlist. It’s rare that a backlist goes with you when you shift between publishers, so you’re effectively starting over with your new publishing house.

You can mitigate both these factors by working hard and fast. When I initially started doing research into Maass advice, looking for ways to back it up, I had Karen to use as a role-model…but could also see her approach mirrored in a careers of rising SF writers like Elizabeth Bear.

A quick perusal of my bookshelf shows that Bear’s work was published by three different publishers within her first three years of publishing novels, but the problem was probably somewhat mitigated by the fact that they were often publishing her work at the same time.

YOUR GENRE MATTERS

Maass already acknowledges the problems with switching genres in his book, but I’m willing to bet that the genre that you’re writing in will have its own impact on the five-book threshold. When I started looking into the number, trying to verify it with secondary sources, I found a couple of references to SF writers being regarded as “neo-pros” until they had ten books out.

Often these reference harken back to writers who came out of the era of the short SF novel – a time and place when novels of 50,000 to 60,000 words were the norm – and readers had the ability to follow brands as easily as they did individual authors.

I’d be interested in seeing how the five-books threshold matches up in the realms of romance, as well, where category brands are still big sellers.

CONSISTANT RELEASES MATTER

Conventional wisdom used to be that you released one book a year in order to maintain your audience. It’s the reason why particularly fast writers, like Stephen King, used to start turning towards pen names like Richard Bachman in order to double their output. The fear was that the market simply couldn’t handle two King books a year, let alone more than that.

These days publishing seems to be moving away from that. There’s an emerging culture of binge reading which encourages the rapid release of books back-to-back, to capitalise on the discussion that builds up around them. Personally, I suspect that culture was always there, it’s just that the internet has allowed publishers to see the benefit of doing so.

In any case, I’d place money on the fact that the consistency of your release goes a long way towards shifting the five-book threshold. The discovery of new books is fuelled by conversation and personal recommendations, and there is only so long a conversation about an author can maintain itself without new content.

My own experience certainly bears this out: there were a lot of people who asked me about the Aster novellas in the gap between Horn and Bleed; now there’s basically a handful of die hard fans who bring it up, and even then it’s a rare thing.

Having a prolonged gap will definitely extend your threshold; it’ll be interesting to see how the fast-release phenomena changes things as well.

AUSTRALIAN WRITERS/AMERICAN ADVICE

One of the great traps for Australian writers is taking advice aimed at the American market as gospel. The five-book number works for me ’cause, as an SF writer, I’m largely aiming my work at the US publishers anyway and I’m far more interested in breaking out over there than I am locally.

But for writers working within the local market…well, I haven’t done any research to verify Maass five-book number, and I’m well aware that Australian publishing behaves a little differently to its overseas counterparts. Advice that American writers take as essential – all writers need an agent, for example – just doesn’t apply here.

We don’t have enough Australian-based agents to represent all the writers in the country currently publishing, let alone all the aspiring writers, and there are many local writers who make their way through their career without representation.

SOMETIMES YOU’RE JUST UNLUCKY

Publishing is weird, and sometimes you’re just unlucky. You’re one of the poor bastards who had a book released during a major catastrophe, like September 11, or you get crushed between the stomping feet of mega-corporations like Amazon and the publisher Hachette as they negotiate and jockey for position.

Basically, there are so many things that can derail an otherwise promising book that it isn’t funny. Thinking about it will probably give you night terrors.

Bad luck is inevitable in every writing career. I’ve never met a writer who has managed to avoid it, from the rookies to the pros. The trick seems to be getting on with things and doing the next bit.

  3 comments for “The Five (or More) Books Between Writers and Their Audience

  1. Karen Miller
    30/07/2014 at 5:35 PM

    You make some great points here, Pete. As always, know your market, know your target audience, and know how your niche in the industry works.

    BTW, you owe me a blog post. *g*

  2. M R Pritchard
    05/09/2014 at 6:33 AM

    Great post! I'm one of those poor bastards. I had a book release on the day Robin Williams passed away. And before that I had another release on the day of the Sandy Hook Massacre. Talk about unlucky. Trying to set a release day gives me night terrors now….

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