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20BooksTo50K vs Craftsmanship

There are two camps in the writing community—and I’m not talking about the debate between ‘traditional’ or ‘self-publishing’. Instead, I’m talking about something much more fundamental: regardless of an author’s production rate, how quickly they should release their work, and when an author knows the body of work is (sufficient) good enough for the public or to win a prestigious award?

Photo of Mr. Michael Anderle. PC: PR Newswire

In one camp, a writer community believes in rapid production and rapid release. These writers aim to write at least four books per year, which seems daunting for anyone who has never written a book (myself included). The group is called “20BooksTo50K,” and Mr. Michael Anderle founded it. Mr. Anderle advanced the idea of a Minimally Viable Product or MVP book. The rationale is that as humans in a capitalist system, we are judged based upon our output and not as much on the quality of our writing. So, if you want to be a full-time writer, you must write prolifically. Another community cornerstone is the idea that after writing twenty books, you’ll make fifty thousand in passive income per year (here, passive income is defined loosely). But the idea is not without merit. As a Facebook member, I have seen screenshots of writers who have grossed over a million dollars and written over twenty books (closer to fifty) in ten years. Plus, even though they are self-published, they are “real” writers—no matter how much some gatekeep.

In the other camp, authors view themselves as deliberate craftsmen and women of the writing world. Works should never be released until they are as perfect as possible. The members in this community tend to seek out traditional publishers, but some self-publishers view their craft and themselves this way, too. Also, in general, these writers (the literati craftsmen) often win big-name awards, like the Nobel Prize, and their manuscripts are exceptional. Of course, it does help to have several editors review the material, but the writers deserve credit for economizing words, the plot, and the emotions invoked in readers. When I read these books, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s or C.S. Lewis’s, they imbue wisdom and morality through allegories, allowing readers to view life in previously-undiscovered ways. Plus, even if a writer achieves commercial success, who wouldn’t want to receive recognition from the establishment of your brilliance?

Photo of me writing on a Saturday. PC: My girlfriend

As a twenty-five-year-old blogger and part-time dabbler in all things writing, it is hard to know which group we’ll affiliate ourselves with—also, it’s worth caveating these only pertain to successful writers and doesn’t even broach the subject of the unsuccessful writers, those commercially unloved and unawarded.

But if we were to shelve writing habit discussions for a minute and pivot to talks of motivations for writing, it is also poignant to state that authors choose, to an extent, which camp speaks to them. Do you (the author) want to be a full-time writer? If so, one traditionally-published book contract isn’t going to cut it. Advances are around $5-15,000 and, on an hourly basis, are abysmal. Even if the book becomes a best-seller, twenty-thousand people purchase the book, the earnings would still be low. So, writing cannot be a ‘one-and-done’ activity if you hope to do it full-time. Thus, the ethos espoused in the 20BooksTo50K group is highly relevant to long-term success.

Or, do you want your book to win a big-name prize? If so, even today, despite the big push to self-publish in the Kindle Unlimited era, it is rare for those types of authors to win prizes. Why? Well, most self-published books are excluded from competing against traditional contracts. So, the point is this: figure out your motivations for writing, and once you do that, you’ll understand which community best supports the life you want. While you’re figuring this out, let’s learn more about each community!

What is 20BooksTo50K?

20BooksTo50K Stairwell. PC: Helen Halme

Shortly after that, and around the time he started to earn serious cash, Mr. Anderle calculated that he needed to write twenty books to make almost fifty thousand a year in passive income. Once he did that, he reasoned, he could retire. Pretty impressive, huh? But, I hesitate to say that the money is genuinely as passive as the group perpetuates. Such a statement discounts the numerous hours the writer spends on writing, editing, revising, etc., and doing so on a deadline. However, I think the idea of earning fifty thousand a year in passive income is likely tied to the notion that books generate royalties when customers buy copies. While true, writing is effectively a lower-wage job that is sometimes, but not always, attached to a fluctuating salary. But the most significant unspoken benefit as a full-time writer is scheduling freedom to write as you please and do so during the hours you want. So, from that perspective, in particular, the quest to write full-time is rather compelling.

As a current “20BooksTo50K” member, I, for one, believe it is one of the most exceptional writing communities online (despite the few critiques). Mr. Michael Anderle deserves applause for everything he has done, and so too do other writers in the community who impart wisdom and help to novice indie writers. Arguably, for the first time in human history, more people are able to become full-time writers living a life doing what they love. Also, shout out to Jeff Bezos and the Kindle Unlimited team (no joke, the disruptive innovation they brought to the writing world has leveled gatekeeper control over the publishing industry—not necessarily a terrible or great thing).

Further, the “20BooksTo50K” group’s underlying principle that we are judged on our productivity is true. Authors must have books to hawk if they want to live (and work) as a full-time writer. So, I love this ethos. Plus, learning to work hard and deliver readable quality (clean prose) on a deadline is an important skill for commercial success. But writing a novel every three months that’s of a superb quality seems tenuous, at best, and unlikely, most of the time. But, I am speaking of my own production rate as a writer, so maybe some can do it.

Does Rapid Production & Rapid Release Undermine a Writer’s Goal?

While Mr. Anderle and others are correct that capitalism rewards people based upon output, I think that writing and, more importantly, rewriting content until it is as good as you can make it is more important than commercial success.

Let me put it this way—good quality writing ripples through the ages. As children, when we learn about Ancient Greece, we still read and listen to the trials of Odysseus. In high school, when discussing the Viet Nam war, we read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and reflected on the intangible, destructive baggage of violence.

Plus, the notion of creating a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) is nebulous. Whose standards are we writing to—our own? How can we objectively check our work within a short period of time? Does editing constitute only pushing work through Grammarly once? How are structural errors addressed? Or does an MVP mean we stop writing and rewriting after four drafts instead of the six required to make the work flawless? These questions on quality control remain unanswered to me.

Stephen King at his desk. PC: NPR

Further, in his On Writing memoir, Stephen King said that he never wrote for money. Sure, success and fame and truckloads of cash were happy byproducts, but the desire to create came from within himself. He has an artist’s approach to writing and grew up poor—so damn the commercialism. Plus, I’m sure the track record Stephen King enjoyed from writing and selling short stories, then selling novels on the presumption of detailed and quality writing helped him solidify himself as one of the all-time horror writers. But perhaps it is too lofty for all of us to dream of becoming ourselves likened in the image of Stephen King. I mean, Mr. Anderle does have a point. Capitalism does reward output, and even though writers are artists, we have to eat and afford rent.

Sidestepping these points, for now, I do wish to reiterate that whatever path we stumble through and on, the 20BooksTo50K is immensely supportive. As someone who has been a Facebook member for almost a year, I’ve seen people provide instructions and a roadmap on Kindle Unlimited and how to gross millions in profit. In addition, the group discusses advertisement strategies, and the community helps foster self-confidence in writers as they hone their craft further. Plus, no one can say you’re not a writer if you’re commercially successful. Sure, they can despise the quality of your work, but you can laugh or cry at their comments on the way to the bank (so to speak!).

So, if your goal is to achieve the ability to write full-time, take a look at the group. But if you think the aim of writing is a bit different—to make people think or feel—then check out this next story based on a conversation between my brother and me.

Why The World Always Needs Craftsmen

Last Fall, I decided to commit myself to writing. I decided around the same time that I was supposed to take the October Law School Admission Test (LSAT). After putting in an obscene number of hours studying for the test, I knew I was ready and wanted to pursue another interest. As someone who is a primarily average person but tends to 'see all possibilities' and 'obsesses,' I dove headfirst into the freelance platform UpWork. It is fairly well-known, and the website facilitates financial deals between employers and at-will employees.

And, writing on UpWork was exciting! For the first time, I was paid to write professionally. I edited resumes, wrote NFT stories, summarized medical research, and more. But after a few poor interactions with clients and this nagging feeling in the back of my head that these jobs were hour-for-hour trade-offs to make money—I wanted something more. But I didn't know what I needed. I knew that I wanted to make some money, but I also wanted the words attributable to myself and not others. So, as you can imagine, I flailed in my mind. In part, I flailed because as people, and especially as writers, it's difficult to know exactly who we are when we write, the genre we identify with, and what experiences are worth conveying through our work.

This uncertainty engrossed my mind and consumed my thoughts until my brother provided the best advice that I've ever received in my life. In October, we were driving in the car together, and he listened to me endlessly express all the many curses of the novice, freelance writer. I told him that I wanted to write my material and get paid, but I didn't know where to begin. I told him that I was part of the 20BooksTo50K group and had seen Reddit users were making boatloads penning erotica—but that genre was not my passion, and I didn't think I could produce a new book every three months. As someone who averages closer to 20,000-25,000 words a month with a mostly full-time job as an Air Force Officer, I knew I would struggle to produce enough words to meet this quota. Even today, I think even if I could write a book every three months, they would be terrible because I know quality writing requires built-in leisure time to digest the material. But what he said in the car that day changed my life.

'Think of yourself as a craftsman. The world always needs deliberate masters of their craft.' My brother continued. He used watchmakers as an example. Sure, some sell millions of Ironman watches, but the good is substitutable (say Timex). But even though these watches tell the same time as iPhones or Androids, people, especially the rich, still buy Rolex and Patek Phillippe. His point is this: there is always a market for true artisans.

Cal Newport presenting Deep Work book. PC: Forbes

Months later, I would come across the same points in other literature, such as Cal Newport's book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World. He, too, discusses the findings of Harvard professors (Dreyfuss was one, and I forgot the other) who said a cure to nihilism is craftsmanship. Finding something to make sacred and holy in a distracted world filled with questionable value systems brings relief to the content producer.

As silly or trite as it sounds, these words bring relief even now. I'm not in a race with the millions of other writers out there. I'm in competition with only the craftsmen and women, and you are too! The point is: it's easy to be discouraged with the unreasonably high expectation of producing quality books and materials ad infinitum. Instead, suppose we focus on crafting quality bodies of work. In that case, we'll always be okay (think of them as evergreen content), and, to a large degree, we should trust humanity that it will reflect that quality (even if it isn't immediate). Of course, this isn't to say that you write a book and never market it, but that the most essential aspect of writing is the high-quality production of the material itself—not rapid production or rapid release.

Although some authors are truly prolific and can write at a high level without fail, most of the people who churn out books or manuscripts are offering underdeveloped writing to the world. The book project will have poor pacing, one-dimensional characters, and, in the end, the writer is associating their name with poor quality (ultimately, a disservice to the writer and reader). That's if the author is even aware that what they are doing is wrong. One analogy that I thought describes this situation well is short-term versus long-term profit-seeking behavior. If you're only focused on quarterly profits instead of the long-view, the type of work we produce may not be as good, and that short-term thinking could lead to long-term failure.

The One Major Problematic Limit to Craftsmanship

The greatest trap that a craftsman or woman can fall into is the idea of tinkering without production. When you’re a novice but want to be an artisan, you (the author) must accept that we do not have the skill or eye to recognize when something is at the highest level of our abilities. So, if someone tinkers out of fear of not wanting critique or wants everything just-so, ten years could go by without producing anything. If anything, it would be better to produce ten average books than zero masterpieces—if you’re not going to release any work you are proud of, you might as well abandon the whole approach and at least strive for commercial viability.

Adam Grant tweet. PC: Twitter

Adam Grant, a Wharton Business School professor, once conducted a study that showed a positive association between quality and output. So, for writing, an author’s first few books could suck, but over time they may get better and eventually write at a higher level than they thought possible. Further, in a previous post, I discussed the benefits of using a platform like Kindle Vella to develop yourself as a writer (since it has a low readership and you can get paid). So, get those repetitions in and train your writing muscles (concentration, vocabulary, flow, rhythm, etc.) before attempting to secure literary representation or self-publish!

My Recommendation: Between the Magnum Opus and the MVP

My recommendation/approach advocates for a third option. To write and produce works between the Magnum Opus and the MVP. This idea blends my brother's craftsman advice with my mother's practical sensibility that 'if you want to be a full-time writer, you need to make money.'

Throughout the post, you read two approaches that successful writers take: some focus on money, others on intangibles. There are downfalls to each case, but when combined, the author and the reader get the best of both approaches. For example, 20BooksTo50K members don't thrust their perceived value into subjective editors' hands. How many stories have we heard of amazing authors getting rejected tens if not hundreds of times? F. Scott Fitzgerald was rejected 122 times, and Canfield, the guy who wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul, had been rejected 144 times. However, if you haven't put the appropriate amount of time into a project to do it well, then it doesn't matter how much you believe in yourself. The product's quality simply won't be there. However, when the artisans' approach is taken to the extreme, they may not produce works. As we all know, you can't be an author if you never produce anything commercially published.

So, take the best of the two. Don't believe ideas to a fault. When information changes and the world becomes more digital, consider what would be best for you. Is it vanity that requires you to obtain a literary agent, or do you think the process of having an editor review your work is necessary to the production of a quality product? Consider your motivations for writing, as well. Commercial viability is a worthy goal. Why shouldn't you get to spend your limited time on Earth spending it as you wish, writing from the comfort of your desk, and breathing life into words? Why is that considered inappropriate by some in these literary circles who never sell any copies of their work?

For me, personally, this is my plan:

  • First, create, edit, and release MVPs.

  • Second, collect a check when able and certainly collect the feedback.

  • Then, if the feedback has merit, I'll rewrite, re-release, and repeat.

da Vinci's magnum opus, the Mona Lisa. PC: Wiki

This method is a middle ground between the MVP and the Magnum Opus: Better Than Good Enough. When priced fairly, the reader will get a quality product and feel satisfied. Plus, no one wants to read an incomplete or half-assed work. And, like blogging, I know that the better the quality of my content, the more likely the material is ever-green.

In addition to the MVPs, I am writing high-quality short stories and submitting them to magazines. Since I'm an Air Force Officer, I'll focus on military-styled stories in fiction or creative non-fiction and rely upon my friends and family to act as Beta readers. If I can publish enough, I'll consider seeking a literary agent. But even if I don't, I'll be sure to use the feedback I get from editors and any rejected stories to write at a higher level. This method is a hybrid approach.

Lastly, I'll leave you all with one parting thought. As we begin writing, let's steal the best ideas from either camp on our writing journey and build the life we want to live. For some, the ultimate aim is to be remembered for our words and how we made them feel or think. For others, the goal is to earn enough to write full-time. Whatever the goal, pick something, and dedicate yourself to being the most competent writer you can be—and trust the process.


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