When I worked in publishing in the late 1990s, my boss often repeated the business maxim, “Fast, cheap, and good—pick two.” This is the belief that it’s impossible to produce something of high quality very quickly and at low cost. Companies have to prioritize two of these and sacrifice the third.
Traditional publishers are often criticized for not prioritizing fast. Despite new technology, most books still take one to two years to reach market. Publishers tend to prioritize quality over speed, which wasn’t seen as problematic until the industry started getting compared to innovative startups. Silicon Valley’s often-celebrated operating procedures tend to focus on agile product development, which values speed and releasing new iterations.
But this mode of making has never applied well to traditional book publishing, with a few exceptions in the case of nonfiction. Furthermore, the success of most books that are evergreen moneymakers has nothing to do with getting to market quickly.
Still, self-publishers and Amazon have demonstrated that for authors selling most of their books online (or sidestepping traditional print distribution), it is possible to speed up the production cycle dramatically. In the area of commercial fiction—romance especially—the common advice is to release several books per year.
The pressure to produce more has perhaps never been greater for genre authors than it is today. More than a few writers have confided that they simply can’t produce any faster than they already do, yet they feel behind their peers. What’s the secret to increasing output, they ask.
There is no secret. The faster the production, the more the quality will suffer. And, if the book doesn’t suffer in terms of editorial quality, then it may suffer from poor marketing. Unless an author can hire help to support each book’s launch as she works on the next manuscript, it is not possible to do justice to each release before starting the next one. For high-volume authors who have seen their sales soften, the first remedy I suggest is to more thoughtfully and intentionally promote each title before moving on to the next.
Traditional publishing itself is not immune to the “more product equals more profit” line of thinking. I was part of a team at a traditional publisher that was supposed to “innovate” and release 50 new digital products within a month. It was an enormous failure, because the new products didn’t mean we had the time or resources to market them effectively. Though it can feel boring to revisit existing books and products and identify new or missed opportunities, it’s this discipline and diligence that leads to better sales and a larger readership.
New self-published authors need to understand this as much as the established ones. It’s a common and unfortunate platitude that self-publishing offers an advantage in getting books to market quickly. But this is a terrible reason to choose self-publishing, because a successful launch requires months of preparation. If done right, it’s the same amount of preparation as a traditional publishing launch.
However, if the book only took days or weeks to produce and the quality isn’t where it should be, perhaps phoning it in on the marketing is just as well—there’s little joy in bringing attention to a work that could be better. Fast, cheap, and good: always know which compromises you’re making.