Rapid-Release Publishing: How to Do It, and Whether It’s Right for You

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, December 2014.]

Conventional wisdom for many decades of genre publishing: Traditional publishers brought out one book per author per year. Publishers believed that no reader would ever buy an author’s work more frequently. Authors who wanted to publish more frequently used pen names to distribute their work.

There were two exceptions to the rule. Nationally bestselling authors might see two books a year – one hardcover original and the paperback edition of last year’s hardcover. Also, in later years, Harlequin published category romance authors more frequently than once a year (but generally no more than three or four times a year, if that.)

My, how the conventional wisdom has changed.

Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing

Actually, traditional publishing, with its continuing emphasis on selling print copies of books in bricks-and-mortar stores, still favors relatively slow publishing. While traditional publishers have experimented with rapid-release schedules (for example, launching three books in a series on the first Tuesday of three consecutive months), the vast majority of those experiments have failed.

That failure was due, in large part, to the computerized ordering model of bricks-and-mortar stores. Stores ordered Book 2 based on a percentage of the sales of Book 1 (which didn’t have a chance to build up its full head of steam), and then they ordered Book 3 based on a percentage of the sales of Book 2 (which sold even more poorly than Book 1, with fewer copies on the shelves.)

But self-publishing offers a different playing field for rapid-release publishing. Most self-published authors are focused on electronic books sold through online stores at customers’ demands. Computerized ordering is not a factor in the supply chain.

In fact, online vendors favor rapid-release publishing, and they favor it strongly. Amazon’s oft-discussed secret algorithms are said to benefit authors who publish at least every sixty days. Those algorithms are widely believed to weight a book’s ranking,which in turn determines Amazon’s internal marketing such as “Readers who bought this book also bought Book X” promotion.

A rapid-release project is essentially self-publishing on steroids. An author selects a concept, develops a number of novels related to that concept, and publishes each of those novels on a promised schedule, no more than sixty days apart.

Not All Concepts Are Created Equal

As an initial step, an author developing a rapid-release publishing program must develop a concept, an overall idea for a series. That concept must unify the project, defining parameters so that readers remain eager to snap up the next book in the series. As a side benefit, a unifying concept allows an author to write more rapidly, as she does not need to create new “worlds” for each book.

In general, rapid release favors high-concept, commercial ideas that can be expanded over multiple volumes. In my Diamond Brides Series (a nine-volume rapid-release project that I published between March 31, 2014 and November 4, 2014), I told the story of the (imaginary) Raleigh Rockets baseball team. The series covers the personal lives of nine players over two seasons (and the off-season winter) as the team struggles to win the world championship. My commercial concept was simple and easy to convey – hometown team makes good.

Rapid-release projects benefit from an inter-related cast of characters – family members, friends, teammates, etc. Readers become familiar with the various heroes and heroines, and they enjoy checking up on earlier couples in later volumes of the story. Authors can “seed” stories in earlier volumes, introducing minor characters who later step forward for their own tale. While a series might call for dozens of characters (my Diamond Brides has over 250 named characters in the nine volumes, although most are minor), those characters are united by circumstances, making the story easy for readers to follow for authors to write.

Similarly, rapid-release projects are most amenable to simple, straightforward plots. Most rapid-release projects rely heavily on tropes – those familiar storyline building blocks that readers immediately recognize. Tropes allow readers to engage with characters rapidly, because the reader already has a basic understanding of what is at stake in the novel. Tropes also allow a writer to create rapidly, because the essential parameters of the story are already defined. The strongest rapid-release novels are built around multiple tropes – some writers include as many as half a dozen. A list of some of the most popular romance tropes can be found at: http://www.mindyklasky.com/index.php/for-writers/romance-tropes/

Biggest Challenge to Concept Selection

The biggest challenge authors face when selecting the concept of their rapid-release project is creating a series that reads like a serial. With a high-concept base, unified cast of characters, and structured trope-based plots, individual novels in the series may tend to run together, with details in one storyline being introduced in one book, run through several more, and resolved far down the line.

One vital tool to avoid Serialization Fever is to structure each individual novel with its own huge “Hollywood” ending. The entire plot of that book – separate and apart from the concept of the series as a whole – should resolve in an emotionally satisfying manner. That hero and heroine should get their complete “moment in the spotlight” – the grander, the better – to satisfy readers and to put off any possible complaint that the rapidly produced book was not well written or complete.

Graduate Course in Time Management

Once a concept is selected and defined, the true challenge of rapid-release publishing begins: time management. In any given day, an author may work on five or more novels – planning one, writing another, editing a third, publishing a fourth, and promoting a fifth.

A variety of tools simplify time management. These include:

  • Calendar (either paper or electronic): Authors can use different colors to track different books or different tasks, recording deadlines as necessary.
  • Spreadsheet: Authors can assign each task to a row and each date to a column, creating a two-dimensional calendar system that can be modified with colors, fonts, etc., with the added capacity of totaling pages and/or words written by specific dates.
  • Software: Authors can use free or fee-based project management software such as GanttProject, Basecamp, etc. These sophisticated programs take time and effort to learn; however, they might be worthwhile for authors planning multiple complex projects.

The key to a successful rapid-release plan is weaving together all the elements in publishing one book, staggering those elements and repeating them for each book in a series. (See Sidebar for individual elements.)

Prior to starting the project, identify all contractors you will need for skills you don’t have. These might include:

  • Production editor
  • Copy editor and/or proofreader
  • Cover designer
  • Formatter
  • Publicist

Discuss your schedule with your vendors to determine that they can meet your goals. Given the high demands of rapid-release publishing, you might determine that you need multiple vendors for some of the more time-consuming functions, such as a “stable” of two or three production editors and two or three copy editors who can rotate through the books, delivering them to you on a timely basis.

After you have lined up your production team, use your time management tools to record every deadline for the first novel in your project, working backward from your publication date. Some authors will keep deadlines on a relatively “macro” level; they might state the due date for the first draft of the entire manuscript. Other authors will work better with more granular scheduling, recording due dates for individual chapters or even scenes.

Once you have scheduled your first book, add in the second book, again working backward from that book’s publication date. Study the schedule to determine “choke points”, where obligations between the first and second book compete, making it impossible to meet your goals. Adjust the schedules to compensate for that competition. Repeat the process for each book in the series, always reviewing the overall schedule to make sure that you can meet your deadlines.

Of course, each author’s production schedule will vary substantially. When structuring a rapid-release project, authors typically choose to stretch their usual boundaries – writing more words per day, working for longer hours, or putting in more days per week than usual.

Biggest Challenge in Time Management

The biggest challenge in time management is the unexpected. Writers succumb to illness (even something as minor as a cold can disrupt the high-production days necessary to accomplish a rapid-release program.) Family members and friends experience crises. Holidays and travel stretch beyond their strict allocations.

Every schedule for a rapid-release project needs a recovery plan, to pick up the slack when things go wrong. That plan can take many forms: extra days built into the schedule with no specific assigned tasks (e.g., “down days” or weekend days that weren’t previously scheduled), extra hours built into already-scheduled days (e.g., television-viewing time or reading time), trimming of plan (e.g., reducing the amount of publicity and promotion for published works or reducing the number of works in the project), etc.

Creating a plan and a schedule with no flexibility is creating a virtual certainty of disaster. An author who is scheduled to work at maximum capacity has no means of modifying her calendar. Look for escape hatches before you need them, so that you can proceed with confidence.

Is Rapid-Release Publishing For You?

Rapid-release publishing has the potential to jump-start a writer’s career, taking advantage of vendors’ ranking algorithms to sell a substantial number of books over a relatively short period of time. Even if a rapidly released series does not “catch fire” with vendors, authors enjoy the benefits of having more individual works available for sale at the end of the project than they had at the beginning.

Nevertheless, rapid-release publishing might not be right for you. Potential barriers to a successful rapid-release project include:

  • Writing slowly. Slow writers might be overwhelmed by the time demands of rapid-release publishing.       Solution: Write multiple novels and postpone publishing until most or all of your writing is finished.
  • Overly complex novels. Some authors naturally craft stories that contain huge casts of characters with vastly detailed goals, expressed through intricately interwoven subplots – a level of complexity that is not conducive to rapid-release publishing. Solution: Simplify characters and plots, potentially teasing out subplots into separate stories, published as individual novels in the series.
  • Up-front costs. Outside vendors expect payment, even if your books have not been on the market long enough for you to recoup those costs. Solution: Finance your rapid-release program with a “loan” from your prior books or other income streams, recognizing that you’ll repay yourself on an expedited basis once the project kicks into higher gear. In the alternative, discuss financing with your vendors, offering to pay a slightly higher price for the ability to pay back over time.
  • Difficulty multi-tasking. Rapid-release publishing requires authors to shift between multiple works at different stages of completion. Solution: Delegate tasks that you cannot juggle, taking advantage of vendors, family members, assistants, etc. In the alternative, streamline tasks to the extent possible (e.g., eliminate some of the publicity and promotion that you typically do for a single novel).
  • Unrealistic goals. Rapid-release publishing is not the time for authors to develop new work habits or career skills. If you regularly write 250 words a day, don’t plan on increasing your output ten-fold for extended periods of time. Solution: Plan in advance, being realistic about your abilities.

Rapid-release publishing is an empowering, financially remunerative option for authors ready to push themselves to higher levels of sustained productivity. With proper planning, you can enact your plan today.

Sidebar – Steps in Self-Publishing a Single Novel

Create novel

  1. Draft novel
  2. Circulate draft to beta readers
  3. Edit draft
  4. Circulate draft to production editor
  5. Edit draft
  6. Circulate draft to copy editor
  7. Edit draft to final

Create metadata

  1. Cover copy
  2. Author bio
  3. BISAC Categories (e.g. Fiction -> Romance -> Contemporary)
  4. BIC Codes (e.g., FR, FRD)
  5. Keywords

Create book package

  1. Design cover
  2. International Standard Book Number
  3. Format .EPUB file
  4. Format .MOBI file
  5. Format .PDF file

Upload to each vendor

  1. Amazon (Pre-order available)
  2. Barnes & Noble
  3. iBooks (Pre-order available)
  4. Kobo (Pre-order available)
  5. CreateSpace, Lightning Source, or other print-on-demand service
    1. Order proof
    2. Revise or accept proof

Schedule marketing

  1. Advertising services
  2. Blog tour
  3. Readings
  4. Interviews
  5. Launch party in real life
  6. Launch party online, (e.g. Facebook)
  7. Newsletter
  8. Etc.

Update website

  1. Buy links
  2. Cover
  3. Cover copy
  4. Snippet

Book launch

  1. Check links at all vendors
  2. Launch party, if any
  3. Social media announcements
  4. Request for signal boost
    1. Sample Tweets
    2. Sample Facebook posts
    3. Cover copy
    4. Snippet