The Numbers Game: Quality vs. Quantity

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been reading more and more stories lately lauding prolific writers as though that is the sole measure of how good their books are. For example, a self-published writer just made headlines for publishing 25 books in the last 30 months. Another author, who is only 40 yet has nearly 30 books to her name, was just given a mind blowing sum for two books.

My concern is that is this kind of publicity for writers who used to be considered phenoms is that they are setting unrealistic expectations for the rest of us. Writing books is hard work. It takes time. And there are a million reasons why some writers are faster than others:

  • Do they write full time? (Obviously full time writers would write faster.)
  • What is the word count expectation for their genre? (YA can be as few as 50K, where as fantasy is usually over 100K)
  • Do they have families or other responsibilities that cut into their writing time?
  • What are the demands of their genre? (For example, historical fiction is very research intensive, which takes time. Also, romance tends to require that you write several books a year.)
  • What is their natural speed? (Some people are naturally fast writers. I am not. I’m maybe average to slow.)

Are we all supposed to try to live up to these insane examples now if we want success? That almost seems to be what the media (and perhaps even the industry) is saying. And I hear it’s even worse among self-publishers than in the traditional publishing realm. Where does that leave young/debut writers who need day jobs to pay the bills? Are we to give up in the face of such expectations? Will these kinds of examples keep some exceptional writers from even trying to enter the business at all? For all of our sakes, I hope not.

I get that our world is speeding up. I get that readers want the next book yesterday (I’m as guilty of that as anyone else). I get that we all have developed ADD. But is writing faster necessarily the solution? I don’t think so. I’m not saying we should all adopt the snail’s pace of writers like George R. R. Martin or Margaret George, but we need to look at what kinds of books we’re getting with all this speed. It’s absolutely possible for a high-quality book to be written quickly, but it’s rare. Writing the story takes time. Then there is revision. Rounds and rounds of it. If you rush that, you end up with dreck.

If you want a good story, let writers take their time, whether that means they put out two books a year or a book every two years. (And if the writer is traditionally published, keep in mind that the publishing process is notoriously slow and is out of the author’s control.)

There is a forgotten virtue called patience that we all need to relearn, writers and readers alike. Readers, it won’t kill you to wait a bit for the next book. There are plenty of stories to keep you entertained in the meantime.  Writers, we need to be patient with ourselves and support one another rather than competing for the highest number of books on our list. I know more books usually equals more sales, but is that really why we got into this business, or was it about the story?

I, for one, will always be a quality over quantity writer and reader. It’s just in my nature. As I was thinking about writing this, I heard these lines from the Katy Perry song, “This Moment,”

“Do you ever think that, we’re just chasing our tails?
Like life is one big fast treadmill
And we pop what is prescribed
If it gets us first prize
But you know who I, who I think will win…
Are the ones that take the time.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. So write on my friends, whatever your natural pace may be. And do your best to ignore the media. I’ll try if you will.

What are your thoughts on quality vs. quantity? Do you think the media pays too much attention to prolific writers? Why or why not? How would you suggest we, as writers and readers, deal with the growing trend toward speed?


12 thoughts on “The Numbers Game: Quality vs. Quantity

  1. Shauna Granger

    As a self-pubber trying to become hybrid, I hate this standard now. When I was putting out my first series I was publishing every six months, only because when I published book 1, I already had books 2 and 3 in rough draft. Last year, my editor had one writer book her for a slot each month, so 12 totally different books. I don’t know if she was writing that fast or had some done like me, but dude. Insane. And I get a little frustrated that I am expected, as a self-pub, to publish as fast as a book every 2-3 months. I can’t do it. Not if I want it properly edited and critiqued beforehand (I have to pay for my editor and my cover art, both of which I take very seriously so I cannot afford to publish that fast). If I wanted to put out slop, sure, I could do it that fast, but I won’t. My beta readers read World of Ash in September last year, well, I wrote it in Feb. And it wasn’t ready to pub until Nov. That’s normal, I think, if you’re a full time writer, but even then, if WOA had been my first book, it wouldn’t have been ready within a year of writing it. My first book took me seven drafts.

    So, all that to say, I agree with you; I wish consumers remembered, it is better to wait for a book until it is ready, rather than be disappointed with sub-par work just because the writer is trying to bow to demands.

    1. Oh my gosh! One book a month is insane! I’m glad you’ve realized your personal standards/abilities/limits and are willing to stand up for them.

      I hadn’t even considered the cost of editing and covers. Maybe this is why we see so much low quality out there; some people just don’t care. But I also don’t get what they think they are going to achieve by putting that kind of stuff out for consumption.

  2. I agree with you, that praising quantity instead of quality is a tricky thing. Granted, any writer with a word processor should be faster than someone using pen & paper (or a typewriter with carbon paper…shivers…), but in the end, everyone’s got to find their own rhythm..

    1. That’s just it, Liv. I think there’s pressure out there to conform, rather than allow an artist to find their own rhythm. I’m curious to see if this is a passing fad or if it’s something that has a strong influence on the industry as time goes on.

  3. I agree — churning titles out is totally unrealistic if you want to enjoy what you are creating, and be proud of it! And readers, I think, may clamour for the next book or instalment immediately, but it’s doing everyone a disservice to put out something that is not ready for prime time yet. I remember the agony of waiting for the next book in a favourite series to come out — as well as the disappointment, sometimes, when it did come out “fast” and frankly wasn’t as good as the author’s previous books. I would rather, as a reader, wait for a book that is so fantastic I will return to it and reread it for years to come than get the immediate gratification of a book published hastily.
    I think perhaps the tendency to “binge-consume” things like TV series now that Netflix and other services make this easy to do blind people to the fact that anything worth watching or ready takes a lot of effort and time.
    And I will say, too, as a reader — having the time AFTER reading a book to think about it and look forward to the next one is important, too. It’s part of the enjoyment of reading for me, and, as a writer, I feel I need that time after writing something to consider whether there’s anything I could be doing significantly better or differently the next time. Because when you’re racing to do things quickly, it may be easier to get a project finished and out there, but it’s near-impossible to make any change in direction — and sometimes that may be what your story or writing really needs.

    1. David, you make some great points. I bet we’ve all experienced the disappointment of reading a beloved author’s book that just isn’t good enough. I know I’ve given up on authors for this reason, and as I writer, I certainly wouldn’t want to put anyone in the situation of having to make that choice.

      You’re on to something about our binge watching/reading culture, too. I think that’s part of the world speeding up and it doesn’t do anyone any favors.

      I hasn’t thought about the need to have time to digest a book, but you’re right – the best ones get better the more you think about them. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

      1. 🙂 I think also as writers we want to get our work out there, and maybe part of how we develop as writers depends on getting meaningful feedback from readers — but that’s not possible if the only feedback we heed is “more! now!” But yeah, still I find myself chasing deadlines and maybe that leads to impatience to put stuff out there.

  4. I just go at my own pace, which is very slow at the moment. Lots of obligations right now, plus an ailing computer doesn’t help. I may just start writing my drafts in a notebook and write anywhere I want. I can’t imagine writing at a book a month pace. Maybe for short stories. Maybe a novelette. But definitely not a novel. I can’t imagine the quality is very good. I like a good quality book, so I’m content to wait for the next George R. R. Martin book. I have a lot of other books to read in the meantime.

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