It’s not so much a rule as a repeated observation. While the plural of anecdote isn’t data, there comes a point where something happens often enough that one has to believe there’s something other than divine intervention at work.
The observation is that many authors don’t begin to get traction until they’ve published five novels. More specifically, they’ve published five novels in the same recognizable niche—ideally, in a series.
There are two reasons why this observation is important.
First, the goal is to gain an audience for your work. Having an audience means people like to read the stories you like to tell. Everything else comes from that basic premise. Fame, fortune, or just seeing your name on the cover of the book a stranger is reading, you can’t get very far in publishing without an audience.
To gain that audience, you need to be putting books in the places they look. For the average indie author, that means in a sub-sub-cat on Amazon. This creates a problem if your five novels are all in different categories. Sure, go wide if you want. Kobo and Nook and iBook, oh my, but the same observation holds across vendors and even formats. (Can you say "audiobooks?" Of course you can.)
For an example:
In the old days, science fiction was on the Science Fiction shelf. Today it might be on the Space Opera shelf or the First Contact shelf or the Colonization Shelf or the Military SF shelf. If I want to gain an audience, I need to know who that audience is with a much greater degree of specificity than I might have had to in the past—and what kinds of stories each of those shelves hold. I write science fiction, but if I want traction, I need to pick one of those shelves to focus on because that’s where the most likely readers will look.
Which is not to say I need to run up the demographics on those people who have bought my books. I already know their most salient characteristic: they read space opera. Sure, they might read other niches as well, but in order to get their attention I need to have a big enough footprint in one niche to show up on their radar.
Second, amortization of your promotional investment becomes easier when you have more properties. As I wrote last September, backlist is your lever. The five-novel rule provides a rule of thumb for how long that backlist might need to be to effectively amortize your promotional investment in time, money, and focus across your catalog. When you can realistically expect buy-through on your catalog—because the books are in a series or at least all in the same niche—then justifying giving one book away for free becomes a lot more palatable.
This second bit is why I generally don’t recommend that new authors spend time, money, and attention on paid promotion. A Bookbub is great when you’ve got five books, but not so great when you spend $500 to give away a few hundred copies of your only title.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t work on gaining some early fans, but more like maybe focus on what matters most—having your five novels in play—and work on building relationships with the other authors in your chosen niche.
The career path for indie authors involves a different kind of dues. We don’t have to ride the query-go-round, but we have to look past the sales levels of our earliest works and grit through to at least five novels in order to find traction. While it’s true that some people capture lightning in a bottle on their first time in the rain, the odds of winning the lottery are still pretty small.
Somebody cue up Lou Bega. Suddenly, I want to mambo.
As an aside, what would you like me to write about as 2018 unwinds? Leave a comment or email me at nathan.lowell on the gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.