In the past week I’ve read more than 650 pages of royalty statements for our clients from a variety of publishing houses. Such an activity gives me a bird’s eye view of how the industry is doing, as I’m looking at nonfiction, fiction, and children’s books. My recent reading reminded me of a publishing axiom that held true back in the day before digital reading. I hadn’t noticed its veracity until my observations this week. Called the 10-Novels Rule, it’s an odd mix of good news, bad news.
The 10-Novels Rule Good News
First, of course, here’s the rule: An author must publish ten novels before breaking out to the next level of his/her career.
That means persistence pays off. Considering that most novelists create one book per year, that means that not until ten years after one’s first novel is published before you see a considerable increase in readership.
The rule also assumes that the novelist is writing in the same genre for all ten books. If the author jumps from genre to genre throughout those ten novels, all bets are off. That’s because historical readers like their historicals; contemporary readers want their contemporaries; suspense readers focus on suspense. While, of course, readers move around in genres, they do tend to have their favorites.
The Building Years
Those ten years are required to build a readership base that awaits the author’s next release. It takes time to build that base. (Obviously we’re speaking in generalities; exceptions always exist.) The ten years also give the author time to build a following on social media, grow an email list, and learn what works and what doesn’t to accomplish that building.
Not to mention there’s nothing like devoting oneself to ten stories, ten sets of characters (barring series characters), and ten locales to develop serious writing chops. During these building years the author is learning his/her own writing rhythms and exploring writing techniques.
The 10-Novels Rule Bad News
The most obvious bad news is that it takes ten books! That’s a lot of hours laboring over the craft. Many novelists give up before that tenth novel.
Other bad news is that publishers seldom stick with an author for ten books if consistent growth of readership isn’t seen. In the days before digital (and before the economic downturn in 2008) publishers understood that the path to building readership is long. They committed to novelists for the long haul (but not forever, of course) as long as those writers consistently wrote strong manuscripts, met deadlines, and worked hard.
Today, most publishers make it through two to three books. If sales remain anemic, new contracts aren’t forthcoming. Some publishers, through determination, make it through four or so published novels before calling it quits.
It’s not that the publishers are more impatient than in the past, but that the financial pressures on them are greater than ever. Profit margins keep growing thinner. Each of them has to determine how much they can invest in each author before cutting the publishing house’s loss for the sake of those novelists who are bringing in profits. If publishers don’t think along these lines, their entire fiction line can collapse.
The sad news for readers is that each year we lose fabulous novelists. Discouragement, lack of financial gain, lack of publisher support erode the joy these writers once felt toward their work.
If more novelists knew about the 10-Novels Rule, they would understand the price they will need to pay. And if publishers would dust off this rule and consider it as they determine which novelists receive their next contracts and which don’t, it might lead publishers to press on through a couple of more novels to see if sales start to increase.
Does the 10-Novels Rule encourage or discourage you–both as a writer and as a reader?
If novelists and publishers kept the 10-Novels Rule in mind, we might see more novelists succeed. Click to tweet.
Knowing the 10-Novels Rule could help a novelist decide if he/she wanted to stick with this chosen career. Click to tweet.