Prolific writers sell more books! Here’s how you can too.
Listening to an inspiring talk in my local public library by M C Beaton, crime writer and Regency romance novelist (an unusual combination!), I was vividly reminded that any writer increases his or her chance of becoming a bestselling author – and just as importantly, a regular seller – simply by writing more books.
We can all name writers who have secured literary immortality with a single, shining bright novel, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, never out of print since it was published in 1960. But it’s far easier to name bestselling authors who have written many books.
Who are the most prolific authors of all time?
In this list of the all-time best-selling fiction writers, the number of books each had written leaps off the page:
- Agatha Christie – 85
- Barbara Cartland – 723
- Danielle Steele – 120
- Harold Robbins – 23
- Georges Simenon – 570
- Sidney Sheldon – 21
- Enid Blyton – 800
- Dr Seuss – 44
- Gilbert Patten – 209
- J K Rowling – 9
With just 9 books to her name, J K Rowling, who we tend to think of as being an all-time, record-breaking phenomenon, has actually sold only (ha!) 350 million books, a small fraction of the more productive Agatha Christie’s total sales of (wait for it) 2 billion.
Of course, quantity alone is not enough. There must be quality, to entice the reader to keep coming back for more. But your work doesn’t need to be all in the same genre. If you plan to straddle different genres, it’s a good idea to write under different pseudonyms so as not to confuse or mislead the reader. A writer’s name is effectively a brand, and the reader has certain expectations of that brand, which need to be met. Somebody picking up an M C Beaton, for example, expects a thriller, and not the 100+ historical romances which this highly prolific author has published under her real name of Marion Chesney and various pen-names (Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, and Charlotte Ward).
M C Beaton: A Role Model for Would-Be Prolific Writers
Now in her 70s, M C Beaton still produces at least two thrillers a year, one in each of her most popular series about her unconventional detectives, Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. Her many fans (of which I am one, as you’ve probably guessed by now!) snap them up the minute they’re published, because they know they will enjoy them. They don’t care what the title is, they’ll simply buy it because they are confident in the brand. “Oh, good, it’s a new Agatha!” or “I’m so looking forward to the next Hamish!” comes the cry. Many readers, once they find an author they like, will work their way through that writer’s entire works. I’m sure you have your own favourite authors that you treat this way.
An avid reader herself, M C Beaton gave a vivid example of the power of an author’s brand.
“I bought ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ by mistake at an airport,” she admitted, “because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a P D James I haven’t read!'”
A writer who follows up a successful novel with regular new books of similar quality will gain more sales. Of course, these books still won’t sell themselves: they will require active and effective promotion. But any book that follows in the wake of a successful predecessor will have a greater chance of success.
And never has it been easier to promote your books effectively than in our digital age. Whenever you publish a new book, you can blast out publicity via social media and online bookshops for next to no cost, other than time and effort – an advantage never enjoyed by Agatha Christie.
There are terrific tools for boosting serial sales available to all self-published writers. Here are three top tips:
- To the end of each book, add the beginning of the next one in the series, with the planned publication date, to whet the reader’s appetite and allow them to make a mental note to buy it as soon as it comes out.
- Create your own mailing list of your fans by embedding a sign-up form on your author website, so that you’ll be able to contact them directly as soon as the next book is published.
- Offer free downloads of the first book in a series to hook new readers, and if they enjoy it enough, they’ll buy the rest of the series.
Try not to liken yourself to a drug-dealer, but bear in mind that you’re aiming for addiction! A more comfortable analogy is to aim at writing the literary equivalent of the proverbial Mars bar: a strong product to which people will want to return regularly, rather than working their way through the rest of the sweetshop without a backward glance.
How to Write More Books
When you establish yourself as a writer of a series, or as a serial writer of a specific kind of book, the trickier task is actually not to sell more books, but to write more books in the same vein that your established readers will love. Again, as writers in the digital age, we have so many advantages over the prolific writers of the past. Can you imagine the sheer physical labour for Leo Tolstoy of writing War and Peace with a quill pen? It would certainly put me off redrafts.
Here’s how M C Beaton, now 74, still manages to turn out at least two books a year – an impressive feat even in a much younger author:
“I get up in the morning and look for opportunities to distract myself from writing, such as defrosting the fridge. I have to force myself to write, but once I start, I do it in a very focused way, for two hours at a time, in a very concentrated manner. That way I write five pages EVERY DAY.”
By making this regular, achievable appointment with the blank page, she has turned her writing into a habit. It’s a part of her daily routine. For her, to keep writing is the norm. Any writer who really wants to write more books would be well-advised to follow her example. It’s obviously easier to achieve this if, like most writers, you’re not also having to hold down a day-job, but it shouldn’t be impossible to find at least half an hour each day to produce one page and so produce 365 pages a year. Even a single appointment with yourself to write for two focused hours just once a week would produce five pages and an annual manuscript of 250 pages – a perfectly respectable book-length manuscript. If you’re not able to commit to that practice, and have so many other things in your life that you’d rather be doing, you have to ask yourself how much you really want to write more books.
But don’t be downhearted: even my high-achieving hero M C Beaton has her moments of weakness. I’ll share the endearing admission with which she ended her talk:
“The most beautiful words in the English language are ‘The End’.”
Good luck, keep calm, and keep writing.
- For more details of M C Beaton’s library talk, I’ve written a blog post about her talk from the point of view of one of her avid, addicted readers (i.e. me) on my personal blog, YoungByName, here.
- For more commonsense, practical and supportive advice on how to Sell Your Books!, check out my comprehensive handbook for self-published and indie authors here.
- To find out more about the zillion fabulous books that M C Beaton has written, visit her official website.