Lawsuits, Oh My

You don’t think about it when you decide to write a novel or produce some other creative work, but legal issues are actually a very important part of being a creative. Because it absolutely matters who owns that creative work when things take off.

And there is no way to put your work out into the world that doesn’t run into legal requirements. Whether that’s trade-publishing contracts, terms of service for listing an ebook on a distributor website like Amazon’s, or just basic copyright and trademark protections which apply to any work you put out there even if it’s something you generated on your home computer and sold on the street corner.

The law is a key part of producing creative work.

Now, you don’t have to be a lawyer to do this stuff, but you should at least understand the basics of what you’re working with. What rights are. How you license them. What trademark is and how that differs from copyright.

And I will tell you right now that relying on a daily observation of how things happen on the internet is a very bad way to do it. Because, oh my gosh, there is so much violation of copyright and trademark that happens every single day on the internet it’s not even funny. Every video shared that uses a popular song without a license to do so. Or uses the key images from some creative property without permission. Or uses the words of one creative work for another without permission.

It’s a mess out there. And it’s such a mess that most of it isn’t stopped in real-time or it’s stopped wholesale regardless of how minor the infraction. A song clip in the background of a video shared to five friends is probably not a big deal, but there are too many people out there who want to take a popular song, put it on top of their own background images, and post it on a site like Youtube so they can get paid advertising fees when people who want to hear that song go looking for it online.

(Which, by the way, is a shitty thing to do because it takes money away from the person who actually created that song. Which means we get less from creatives because they can’t make a living and so go become Uber drivers instead. And that shitty person who took someone else’s work to profit off of it? They can’t replace that because they’re not original creators. They’re just sitting around waiting to exploit the work of others.)

So. Learn copyright. Learn trademark. And respect them. Because if you don’t want people taking your stuff you shouldn’t take theirs.

Okay, so lawsuits. First up is the Bridgerton lawsuit. This is a great, but long, video discussing the whole thing.

Short version. Two women watched the Bridgerton TV show. Were inspired. Wrote songs based on what they saw and heard. Turned it into a musical. Won a Grammy for those songs. Had it performed at the Kennedy Center and came up with a bunch of merchandise to sell. And got sued for copyright and trademark infringement.

I am not a lawyer. I am not deep into this situation. But I will make a few comments.

It is possible to lose a trademark. (Fun fact: You do not have to register a trademark for it to be a trademark of your business. So just because someone is the first to file for a mark does not mean they get it if it was actually in use before that. And you can issue a cease and desist for a mark that isn’t registered, too.)

A trademark is something that distinguishes your product from that of others. It is unique to you. And the way to keep a trademark is to rigorously defend it. If you don’t do that it can become generic (like Kleenex for tissue) and no longer valid. You also have to keep using it.

So I think one misstep here by Netflix was that they probably were not adamant enough early on about the trademark part of this whole mess. Whatever they have trademarked–and I haven’t looked it up–they should have been all over in enforcing.

But that can kill a fandom if every time fans refer to X property improperly you send a nasty note about it. So there’s a balancing act there.

And even though Barlow and Bear appear to have had legal counsel involved, it seems to me the difference between trademark and copyright may be where they went wrong on this.

Because if this was just a trademark issue, then proceeding to use that mark without permission until the brand was so diluted it was no longer just Netflix’s and Julia Quinn’s brand may have gotten them off the hook. If they somehow transformed the Bridgerton brand into some more generic thing, that could, I think (and again, not a lawyer), kill the trademark.

But.

They seem to have missed how copyright works. Because, based on that summary and the lawsuit, they took verbatim wording from the TV show and used it in their songs.

Those words, that way of phrasing things, is copyright protected. I can quote something here and discuss it and that’s considered fair use. But taking those words and using them for commercial benefit, is not.

I think even those little quote books you can buy sometimes have to get permission for all the quotes they use or they need to make sure that the quotes used are so old they’re outside of copyright.

(Which currently is life of the creator + 70 years.)

Now, there is a fair use parody exception to copyright. See here and here for a discussion and the actual rule, but this doesn’t seem to fall under that.

Weird Al Yankovic made a living parodying songs but those songs are real parodies. They take the original lyrics of a song and change them to make a joke out of it.

This musical appears to instead be a derivative work from the little I’ve seen of it.

They probably would have been okay if they’d just done it on TikTok and not made money from it. But they commercialized it which is one of the four key considerations when looking at whether something is considered fair use or not. Also, they may have been okay if Netflix hadn’t also put out a live show that was going to be performed in the same city so a directly competing product.

You could argue that the musical boosted sales of the TV show but that would still be pretty dicey IMO and using the exact words was a really bad idea.

(As a side note I believe the computer books I write fall under fair use because they are educational, they are books or video courses on computer software so can’t be confused with the original product, and, if anything, they expand the market for that product by making it more accessible to users. However, if I had instead tried to consolidate or paraphrase one of the books that had already been written on those subjects, like the Dummies series books, then I would have been infringing that copyright because we’d both be selling books, I’d be taking market share from them with my sales, and if I used their words it would not be in an educational way but instead in an attempt to profit off of their work.)

So. Doesn’t look good for those girls. Especially since the original copyright owner tried to work with them and they said no.

(Before we move on I just want to also note that big companies can mess this up, too. The little IngramSpark pop-up that appears every time you try to publish a book through them gets all of this drastically confused. They ask questions that combine trademark, copyright, and libel/slander rules and then only link to guidance about copyright. They also make it sound like you have to have written permission for things when that’s not actually the legal requirement. Annoys the shit out of me that a company their size can have done something so half-assed. But I digress.)

Anyway.

The other exciting writing-related lawsuit this week has been the DOJ attempt to stop the merger of two of the largest publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Publishers Weekly has had staff on-site live-tweeting the trial all week. If you want to get caught up on it, here’s a link.

We currently live in a world where we pay the heavy cost of decreased competition in a number of industries.

Now, you can get economies of scale from larger companies. I mean, the folks at Masterclass put out better content for far less cost than most individuals can.

Right now I can pay $15/month and watch courses from top authors, creatives, and business leaders to my heart’s content. Compare that to the $300-$500 one person might charge when putting out their own material that they recorded in their home office.

So there are definite benefits to being larger. But it also constricts your options. When I can get all of that for $15 a month, I’m far less likely to pay $300 for one little course I may not like.

The DOJ has taken an interesting approach on this one and focused on the biggest authors, arguing that taking two of the biggest publishers and combining them into one will decrease the competitiveness of advances in that portion of the market.

Which we all absolutely know will happen, platitudes from senior execs at those companies that they happily allow their divisions to bid against one another aside.

What’s interesting to me is that this lawsuit may finally indicate a shift away from allowing a small number of companies to control various markets.

We have the rules in place, but what rules get enforced is very politically and philosophically driven. Right now, though, I think we’re seeing the harm of intense consolidation (baby formula anyone) and so maybe that particular pendulum is starting to swing back from the extreme we reached.

And, of course, once again I found myself watching reactions on Twitter and feeling differently from what I saw said there.

So a few comments.

One, it’s in the best interest of these senior executives to be vague and stupid about how things work. Because if they got up there and they really drilled in on all the fine points of how books get marketed and published, they’d lose their big merger.

But they can’t just outright perjure themselves either, so you get “well, it’s all random really” and “we’re not trying to be profitable, we’re just rich people trying to influence the moral course of the country”. (Not actual quotes by the way, but paraphrasing some paraphrasing.)

And to some extent what they’re saying is true. Just this week–and don’t ask me where because I can’t remember–I read an article about how there is a part of literary publishing whose interest is in publishing books that influence the cultural moment. These people have wealth already and don’t need more from their publishing efforts. What they want is to guide what people are talking about. In that situation, profitability is not the goal. Influence is the goal.

Also, I do believe that there is no exact formula for publishing a successful book. I think it was Courtney Milan maybe who talked about it being a weighted dice.

There may be no formula for making a bestseller, but there are certain subjects, ways of presenting a book, and ways of marketing a book that make it far more likely that it will sell in big numbers.

A book that everyone sees in every Barnes & Noble when they walk through the front doors of the store and that is advertised in newsletters and banner ads on all the major ebook retailer sites has a helluva lot better shot at selling than one that’s just listed on Amazon’s website as an ebook.

But there’s still no guarantee that people will click or pick it up. And no guarantee that when they do click or pick it up they’ll like what they see enough to buy it.

On this bestseller idea I will actually go further and say that if tomorrow someone said, “You can have a guaranteed bestseller if you write about X very specific idea”, that even if that were true when they said it, it would no longer be true a year later. Because ten people would have written about X and killed the excitement behind that idea that made it a “must have”. It would no longer be unique and interesting.

So you can prime the pump so to speak, but there is no guarantee.

Also, and I’ve talked about this before, I do believe that publishing works much like venture capital. As a publisher you buy ten books that seem to have a solid chance at success. Two knock it out of the park. Three are dismal failures. And the other five are okay, I guess. Solid, but not what you were hoping for.

(The numbers given in one of those comments were actually more dire than that.)

I see that with my own books. A small number generate the majority of the revenue, but going in there was no way for me to know which ones those were going to be. I might’ve suspected a bit because some are passion projects that I know won’t sell, but honestly, my number 5 book for the year in terms of profit? Completely unexpected.

There was also a lot of uproar about this comment:

I don’t know what the book was. But I suspect this was one of those situations where they paid for that book and then something changed.

Maybe it was a political book of some sort and that person fell out of favor between contract signing and book delivery. Maybe it was about a topic where the fundamentals changed by the time it released. Maybe the author somehow lost their credibility or audience. Or the book was worse than expected. Maybe a book just like that published a month or two earlier and killed the buzz potential.

There are any number of reasons a book can look like a good idea when you sign the contract and then not look like a good idea when it’s ready to publish.

And I think what he said about “I don’t think marketing money can create a success” is actually true. This is the part Twitter went nuts about. But folks…

I write some books that people don’t like. Or that only a handful of people will like.

I could win the lottery tomorrow, put the perfect cover on one of those books, get massive distribution for it, put it out in the best possible format that would let it succeed, and market it like there’s no tomorrow, and it would not suddenly become a bestseller.

Every book I release, I try to advertise. But some I stop advertising. Because it’s like slogging through mud. And, yeah, maybe a new cover would help. Or a better blurb. Or a different way to advertise.

But sometimes…What I chose to write about didn’t interest anyone else.

In self-pub, for me, short stories are wasted words unless they’re sexy. No amount of begging and pleading is going to make those short stories of mine interesting to a significantly larger audience.

So, I actually agree with that guy. You try to promote something and see if it has life, but don’t throw good money after bad if there’s nothing there. Instead, look to your titles that show a little spark and nurture that spark into a full-blown fire.

And for the record I am not saying that trade pub does this well. I just finished reading an interesting non-fiction title that discussed some of trade pub’s idiocy over the years, which has included setting a date in advance to stop publishing a book and to destroy all remaining copies of that book without even seeing if the book would sell. And doing that on an active series that still had books coming out.

What idiocy. If I see book four in the bookstore and it looks good to me? I want to buy book 1 and start reading that series through from the start. So doing that and not nurturing that series, loses readers like me and guarantees that the series will slowly sell less and less copies. Bad business.

So, yes, trade pub can do shit-stupid things when it comes to marketing. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t buy long-term sales of a book. Short bursts? Sure. Make a list? Yep. But sustained, long-term sales? That comes down to the product and whether it meets reader need or not.

Okay. Off to experiment more with audio which is currently kicking my butt but showing glimmers of hope.

Uneven Information Distribution

That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

I really need to stop reading Twitter, but when your daily conversations are your dog and your mother, well…You have to find some way to participate in humanity and that’s my current way.

So, as usual, the part of Twitter I read, or one of them at least, is blowing up right now with big-time drama.

What the drama du jour is doesn’t really matter. But it brings up an important point, which is that we don’t all possess the same information.

Two of the things that are part of today’s discourse come up often when this happens.

One, is pronoun use. The person at the center of this current drama uses a set of pronouns you’d have to have researched to know about. And they’ve now deleted their account so there’s no way to even see their bio and what pronouns they’ve listed.

I don’t know this person. I occasionally have seen tweets of theirs shared by people I do read.

On a quick glance their name and profile picture, which is all you see when that happens, present female. So if I were as a casual commenter going to mention something I saw them say in passing, I’d refer to them as “she” or “her” or, more likely for me, “they” or “them”. (I actually may have done so here in the past since a passing thread of theirs led me to comment on an issue a while back.)

Often when these things blow up on Twitter there’s a thread of comments about, “And they didn’t even use [person’s] proper pronouns! See how we can dismiss their opinion immediately.”

Except, that’s not really what happened?

What happened is someone saw a thread of a thread of a thread and by the time it was on their radar the actual person who was the source of the original situation wasn’t important enough to get a detailed biographical history before sharing an opinion about the little snippet that made its way into wider discourse.

In this case that was about an employer of this person. So people might weigh in on how someone was outed as working for X employer and refer to that person as “she” because they have no idea who that person actually is and don’t really care about who that person actually is so just go by their name.

It happens. It’s not a deliberate slight or an intentional misgendering. It’s just going by surface information.

The other big gotcha of the current scandal is that the employer information was leaked by some entity that is “known” to be BAD, and so therefore anybody reacting to that information negatively is clearly supporting this entity and its agenda.

Except, again, at least for me, my first note of the current scandal was probably ten steps down the line so all I saw were people who knew the original person reacting to them being called out and I then looked up that person’s name to see why and saw that they worked for X company.

I never saw the original source of the information. Most people probably never saw the original source of the information.

And, even if I had, not being a part of that community I’d have no frickin’ clue that Y entity is bad. Now I know about them. But the “Ooh, you’re supporting Y entity by talking about this, way to be a…” is not the gotcha you think.

According to my Google search, Twitter currently has 450 million users. That person in the midst of this drama I think had 50K followers. I’d bet you that only about 1K of those followers were dialed into the proper pronouns and who entity Y is.

When things like this break out they break out to a much wider audience than the 1K who know all the nitty gritty details.

Calling people out (and again, I don’t actually have a Twitter account and will never have one again so I’m not an active part of this conversation) for something they don’t actually know is the height of absurdity on the internet.

You live in a bubble. We all do. You cannot expect the world to know everything you know. And you cannot expect everyone to–in a casual, fast-moving conversation–dive down the rabbit hole to find every little nuance. Not gonna happen.

Of course, even if everyone in the world read this post and agreed, those sorts of callouts will never stop. Because there’s some psychological factor at work there that’s always existed. Even pre-internet you’d run into it. Like, “Ha! You didn’t factor in obscure fact number 236 in your comment, you’re wrong!”

But I like to scream into the void at times, so…

There you have it. Just because you know something doesn’t mean others do and half of internet fights seem to me to be about that exact imbalance of information and people reacting as if it doesn’t exist.

Final note. Still not approving any comments by new posters on this blog. (If you’ve posted here before, you’re fine.)

Also, full disclosure, I had a family member who worked most of their career for employer X. On space exploration, by the way. And I’m proud of the work they did there.

(And honestly this whole drama has been a good reminder for me personally that a lot of the people who are angry on the internet would never like me no matter what, so why bend over backwards trying to please them in my writing…Hm.)

Random Self-Pub Info 20220731

I was just poking around writing down some sales numbers and it occurred to me there were things to share about self-pub that maybe others don’t know but that could be useful to know. This is for those who are wide not Amazon-exclusive.

So in no particular order…

  • If you chose to list your books on D2D through libraries or stores other than the major ones, don’t trust the sales numbers for the month until you get those emails that finalize your numbers. Places like Scribd, Vivlio, Hoopla, etc. don’t report real-time. For me, since I only do Apple and the libraries and smaller stores through them that means my numbers are usually twice what I see on the sales dashboard throughout the month.
  • For Kobo you won’t know Kobo Plus sales until they publish their monthly reports. Usually that’s at the end of the next month and the only way to see the Kobo Plus numbers is by downloading the sales report. It won’t show on the sales dashboard. (At least not the one I currently have.) This is another one where you basically don’t know how much you’ve earned until the end of the next month.
  • Last I checked Google sales are delayed a few days in reporting. Sometimes not, but often, but I haven’t checked in a bit.
  • Nook sales, for the last two days you need to scroll down to the bottom of the reporting page to see those values. The monthly total does not include the last two days.
  • Apple if you download their sales reporting file for direct sales, use 7-Zip to unzip the file, open Excel, set it to look for text files, and then you can open the sales report through Excel and import as a delimited file and it will look like an Excel report by the time you import it.
  • IngramSpark you can look at the report of print sales on the screen for the month, but you have to do it using Classic reports, Print Sales, and then go by each operating unit/currency/type combo. So LS US/USD/Global Connect, LS US/USD/POD, LS UK/GBP/POD, and LS AU/AUD/POD.
  • I’ve never seen Euro sales on IngramSpark even though they list that as an option.
  • Also IngramSpark pays for USD sales on a different schedule than AUD and GBP, so if you’re selling in all three expect two sets of payments. Also expect that they take absolutely forever to pay out compared to everyone else. I think they say two months but it feels more like three.
  • Of course on Amazon you won’t know the page rate for KU page reads until the 15th of the next month. They don’t actually tell you the number but it’s easy enough to calculate.
  • Don’t forget currency conversion. Without looking I want to say that for Amazon, IngramSpark, and Apple reporting I have to convert the values from whatever currency they occurred into USD. (Apple’s the one I’m not 100% sure on, but I think that’s the other one. With Google you have to be careful which report you download, but if you download the correct report–which is not the default one–it will have the conversion in there for you.)
  • If you do a promo with Kobo and it includes a 10% fee on sales that will show up in the month-end report. You have a column that shows your revenue and then there’s an adjustment column and a final value column.

There are probably other things, but those are the ones I remembered today that sometimes trip me up or I have to be careful about. Basically for me revenues for the month aren’t final at month-end for Amazon, D2D, or Kobo and sometimes I need to be careful with Google for a couple days, too. Oh, and Authors Republic and ACX on the audio side don’t report until the end of the next month but audio is so small for me it’s not something I even pay attention to until the reports are out.

Hope that helps someone.

Random Numbers

I’m basically moved into my new place and unpacked enough that I should be writing. Which, of course, means I turned to doing analysis instead because I can’t quite decide which idea to write next.

So what I did today was finish building an Access report I’d started that breaks out my sales for each title by platform.

I thought I’d share some observations from that in case they’re of interest to anyone else. (And to make myself feel better about “wasting my time.”)

I built the report to flag any combination of title/platform that was at least $250. So if the amount I received for that title from that platform for a lifetime is over $250, the report highlights it in green.

Now that’s a pretty low threshold, but I set it there because on the wide platforms I really don’t sell near as much as on Amazon. If I’d flagged at $1K or $5K I’d basically just be looking at Amazon sales and a handful of IngramSpark sales.

So.

What were the results?

Total, I had 77 titles that have made me at least $250 when you add up sales across all platforms.

58 of those titles also made that amount on Amazon alone.

(Which means I have 19 titles that have made that amount either on some other platform but not Amazon, for example, one of my video titles, or that have made that amount total across all platforms but haven’t hit that level on just Amazon like some of my more recent titles.)

I have 6 titles that have hit that level on Apple. Almost exclusively fiction titles and mostly my YA fantasy series.

I have 5 titles that have hit that level on Kobo. All fiction titles and mostly my YA fantasy series.

I have 2 that have hit that level on Google. One non-fiction and one my YA fantasy series box set.

I have 1 that has hit that level on Nook. Again, my YA fantasy series box set.

I have one video title that hit that level. And 5 audio titles that have hit that level.

And I have 16 that have hit that level on IngramSpark.

None of my titles have hit that level through libraries or other smaller channels although each of those categories has crossed the $1000 mark with a small trickle of sales across a bunch of titles.

So what are the takeaways from this analysis that can be useful for something?

One, I really need to just write instead of do analysis, but we know that won’t happen anytime soon.

Two, Bookbubs help with wide sales. My YA fantasy series is the one that I’ve been able to consistently get BB promos on and it shows in the wide numbers.

Three, even Bookbubs don’t move the needle that much. Amazon is still 70% of my sales for that series.

Four, in my experience, wide promotion is a tough nut to crack. I think the Apple, Google, and IngramSpark non-fiction sales are partially due to some wide promotion I’ve done, but it’s not near where I’d want it to be given the amount spent.

Also, it’s key to understand that this is my experience only.

Until just now I’ve never tried permafree as a strategy. I’ve had fiction titles free for a brief period of time, but never kept a title there permanently. Which meant most of my wide promo for those titles was either a Bookbub or limited-time Facebook ads.

I won’t know for probably a year or so if doing list-based promo service promotions moves the needle for me in any sort of substantial way or if I can use FB ads long-term to move copies. That’s something I need to work on for the rest of the year now that I have a finished nine-book series to try it with.

Five, IngramSpark is a black hole in terms of knowing where those sales are occurring. I suspect that a lot of them still come from Amazon but can’t prove that because they don’t tell you where the sales actually occurred.

Six, just because you have revenue doesn’t mean you have profit.

One of those audio titles is my second-worst performing audio title. It still has not earned out after five years. (I had a Chirp deal on it recently so we’ll see what that does to those numbers, but it is more than possible in this business to have sales, even lots of sales, and lose money. In this case it’s from producing the audio in the first place. But if you spend more on ads than you earn back in sales, that’s not a good result either.)

Seven, for me, with the exception of two titles that do better in audio than ebook or print, Amazon still beats every other platform in terms of total sales per title. So the titles that were over $250 on Apple or Kobo, etc. were even higher on Amazon.

Now, looking at the above, it’s tempting to say, “Clearly Amazon is the biggest source of revenue, so go all in with Amazon and forget all those other platforms.”

Which is fair. I mean, despite my best efforts Amazon is still 86% of my total revenues after all this time.

But that’s also very much on me because AMS is what I do best with in terms of promo. Which feeds into Amazon’s dominance. 74% of my ad spend lifetime is on AMS ads so, yeah, it makes sense that my sales would reflect that. When you focus your efforts in a specific area that’s where you’re going to see results.

The problem is, AMS have changed over time and will continue to do so. I loved them when I first discovered them because I could finally get sales of my fiction titles. At a profit! At full price!

And I do still manage some fiction sales using AMS, but not the way I did when those ads were first ramping up.

The problem with focusing on the biggest sales platform is it’s also a brutal cage match because everyone is there and they’re all fighting for the same very limited amount of visibility.

Running AMS ads there these days often means paying $1+ per click in the U.S. market. Now, I have titles that are still profitable at that level, but not all of them. I’ve stopped running ads on some of my books there because I just can’t compete. I don’t have enough books to absorb the ad cost and I’m not squarely enough in the category to drive sales.

You can run ads without going that high. A couple months ago I backed off for a bit because I was just tired of paying Amazon that much for a bid when a lot of the cost was being driven by questionable competition. And I still got sales, but not as many.

Lower ad spend means accepting reduced sales. So you have to weigh having 2X sales at a lower profit margin versus X level of sales at a higher profit margin. You may feel better about yourself because you’re not paying as much per click, but if at the end of the day you’re no longer making enough to pay the mortgage…Well.

For me it often comes down to my current feelings about scammers and Amazon and how much I’m willing to support a flawed ecosystem. So I sort of cycle between getting in there and brawling it out and stepping back and letting everyone else beat each other up for a while.

So there’s that. My focus on AMS has driven my results.

Also, I’m not really sure that I’ve capitalized on the potential earnings on those other platforms.

With my fantasy titles, for example, I only have the one trilogy. I published it five years ago and it has slowly accumulated sales since then but until I publish a new title under that name I won’t see a big boost from that readership. They’ve already read all they can.

Which goes back to the idea of focusing your writing efforts on one name if you can do that so that you’re building one thing as opposed to me who it seems is building ten foundations at once. (But having fun doing so which is why I do it.)

I note, too, that sellthrough-wise the wider platforms look to be stronger than Amazon even if the total numbers are lower. So again, which is better, higher sellthrough at lower numbers or lower sellthrough at higher numbers?

The answer to that question comes down to the specific numbers you’re dealing with, because there’s an inflection point there where it switches over. And the inflection point is driven by the specific numbers for each platform and series of books. It’s completely individual.

Also, at the end of the day there are no clear answers on all of this. The most important thing to do is to keep going and producing more content.

I just looked at 2018 and by the end of that year I had 28 titles that had earned at least $250. So in the four years since then I’ve added almost 50 titles to that count.

Some probably existed in 2018 and just hadn’t sold enough yet, but the rest are new books I wrote since then, including 19 of the books I published last year.

It’s a slow build. Wide or not wide. Whatever you write. It’s a process of putting bricks in the wall and building step-by-step and not getting defeated when it just looks like a handful of bricks sitting in mud after all of your initial efforts. Or when you realize you built a crooked wall and now need to tear it down or repair it before you can move forward.

(And, yes, there are some people who experience this stratospheric rise with seemingly no effort involved, but they’re rare. Even the “oh it’s so easy” crew are now talking about six books in a series instead of three like when I was starting out in 2013. And that assumes you wrote a good series and packaged it properly, which I mean, what are the odds of your first six books being like that? Slim, my friends, slim.)

So you try, you fail, you adjust, you try again. And the numbers slowly go up, except for the years when they don’t. And when you come to that moment when you question all of your life choices you can look around at the world we live in, see where it’s headed, and realize that accumulating a bunch of wealth probably wasn’t going to work out well anyway and at least you had fun along the way. Haha.

Okay. Off to maybe actually write something now…

Reading As A Writer

There’s currently a kerfuffle on Twitter about someone who said that writers must read and questioned why on earth someone would want to write novels if they don’t read them. It’s not new advice, but who said it or how they said it led to accusations of them being ableist since not everyone can read novels.

(I think they may have called out ADHD in particular. I don’t know, I didn’t dig in deep enough to care and imprint it on my mind. If so, that person failed to understand that ADHD can present with something called hyperfocus in which case that person with ADHD will not only read that one novel but everything ever created by that author. In a week.)

Since I’m pretty sure I have said that writers should read more than once, I figured I’d wade in with some thoughts.

(Quick note that I’m still not approving first-time posters to this blog so if you have thoughts about my thoughts and haven’t posted here before, feel free to share them on your own blog or social media but they won’t end up posted here.)

So. The reason I am writing this post is because one of the people I’ve seen reacting to the initial statement did a long thread today or yesterday about reading and writing.

They spoke about how they currently do not read and used that fact as justification for refuting the writers should read statement.

But in that thread they talked about being an incredibly voracious reader at one point in their life.

And that is a very important difference.

Never having been a reader of novels and expecting to write them versus having at one point read a large number of novels and now wanting to write them even though you don’t read much anymore are two completely different things.

Because what reading novels does for you is it internalizes story structure.

I often see discussions about how long should a chapter be. Or whether or when to use scene breaks. Or how many chapters you should have. Or how long a novel should be.

For me as a writer who came to writing in my mid-30s but who was a lifetime reader, that was never something I had to think about.

Because by the time I sat down to write a novel I had easily read a couple thousand novels. So I had seen a wide variety of chapter lengths and uses of scene breaks. And I had a good intuitive feel for how long the types of novels I wanted to write were.

I was primarily a fantasy reader and my first novel was a multiple viewpoint fantasy novel like many of the ones I had read. The final product came out right there in the accepted range for that type of novel.

And that happened naturally because I had read so much in that genre that I had internalized those lessons about how much to include or not include in the story and what made a good break for the first book in a series.

(Was it perfect? No. But I firmly believe that I was able to write that first novel first draft in six weeks because of the amount of novels I’d been exposed to prior to that.)

Another thing that reading widely gives you is an understanding of what stories have been told in your genre.

Now, this one maybe doesn’t require reading, you can consume movies and TV shows, etc. to see what’s out there instead. But the type and depth of stories that are told in novels are different from, for example, the type and depth of stories told in TV shows. Or in movies for that matter, which often work best when based off of short stories not novels.

A wide exposure to other works lets you understand the difference between something that’s widely used in a genre (dragons) versus something that may have been more unique to a specific author (memory fire).

When that series we don’t name became so popular there were actually readers out there who criticized other series for stealing the idea of wizards going to a boarding school. But that’s been a part of the genre forever. “Reading” widely lets you know what’s out there already and helps spark unique material by giving you more components to recombine.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to read all the classics of the genre, which is another discussion that often results in strong feelings.

You should try, so you know what’s been written before, but if there’s nothing to connect with in that original work, move on. Life is short.

I personally have tried to read some of the best-known fantasy writers and been bored to death by them. Whatever story they were telling wasn’t one I was there for. Either I’d encountered later works by other authors that took the same story elements but emphasized the things that interested me more, or I just didn’t care about that type of story.

So I’m not saying you have to read everything in your genre. But reading widely does help. And if it’s something you can do, I’d suggest doing it.

Do you have to read to write? Well, no. Not technically. But it seems to me that’s like trying to be a ballerina without taking dance lessons.

(And to circle back to that person who read a lot when younger and now doesn’t but is a writer, that person is like someone who took dance lessons intensively for their entire childhood and now they just rehearse their own works and perform. That’s very different from someone who never took a dance lesson in their life and now wants to get on stage and perform at the age of 40.)

Writing and Flow

(Quick note I discussed briefly before: I’m currently not approving first-time posters to this blog. Sorry if you’re new here and wanted to say something.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been publishing a great series of blog posts recently called How Writers Fail. I almost linked to last week’s post, so check that one out, too, but today I wanted to link to Part 6 of that series, Words.

Go read it. It’s excellent. And written by someone with the experience and sales numbers to be able to stand behind what they’re saying.

I don’t personally talk about this often because even after as many books as I’ve written I feel like some sort of impostor who is just playing at being a novelist.

(I say this as someone who currently has fourteen novel-length works in print under three pen names and has two other novel-length works I chose to unpublish.)

After all this time and all those novels I “only” have 13,814 paid novel sales and 1.8 million page reads on Amazon. (I’m usually wide with my books so there are more sales than that if you bring in the other platforms, but it’s still not a huge number and the bulk of it is Amazon.)

My “low” numbers make me feel like I somehow can’t talk about my process because it’s “bad” and may be the reason I’m not selling more.

(For non-fiction in contrast I have 47,610 paid sales on Amazon so I feel like I have more of a leg to stand on there but my actual process is basically the same.)

In reality those numbers of novels written and of sales are much higher than many people ever reach. So I wanted to share KKR’s post and then throw my own experience out on top of that because at least I have found a way to write books and to sell some of them to people who usually give them decent reviews.

So.

Last month I wrapped up a nine-book cozy mystery series. (Book 1 is here and free.) It’s written in first-person which really helped me get over a particular block I had as a writer.

Which is that critical voice/editor/reviewer voice that sits in the back of many writers’ minds that says, “is that the right word”, “should you say it that way”, “is that the grammatically correct way to say that”, etc.

Writing it in first-person in a contemporary setting I was intimately familiar with and with a protagonist who is very much like me let me look at that critical voice and say, “Yep, that is the right way to say it, because that’s the way I would say it. That’s the way I did say it when I wrote it, thank you very much.”

For example, I learned in school and Word is happy to remind me that you don’t say that something is “more X”, you often say that it is “X-er”. So he’s not more funny, he’s funnier. Here’s a breakdown of that rule. Don’t ask me how correct it is, because I don’t always follow it.

But when I’m talking or writing, I will say that he was more funny than I’d expected. Even if that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

So there are rules. Many, many, rules. And then there’s “voice” and “character” or whatever you want to call it. There’s the reality of how a person actually communicates.

Having lived and traveled in multiple English-speaking states and countries I can assure you that actual spoken English varies widely. Not just in pronunciation but in sentence structure and word choice. And most of the “rules” that writers are theoretically supposed to follow are based on one very specific way of using English that does not correspond to how most people communicate in English.

Another example of the rules and how they can handicap a story is the insistence on using the appropriate word or phrase. KKR’s post has a good example about a fancy desk, but I also ran into this with the cozies.

I have always referred to the trees in the mountains of Colorado as evergreens. (And aspens, but we’re talking about the year-round green ones here.)

I would have told you until a year ago that was what they were really called. But they’re not. I walked through an arboretum and learned that they are technically a combination of things like spruce trees and pine trees.

But I’m not a tree expert, nor is my main character in that cozy series. So using the precise, technical words, even once I knew what they were, would have been bad characterization.

My character, who had not walked through that arboretum, would still call those trees evergreens.

(I still remember the fantasy novel where someone was on a boat for the first time ever and they used all the technical boat terms to describe things. Threw me right out of the story because that character would not know those terms.)

Those are just two little examples of where the “right” way to do things is actually not right for that particular story and character.

Now, that’s first person and a character who is like me, so it was very easy to dismiss those rules.

But if you write enough books you theoretically have to move away from writing characters just like yourself who live in a world just like yours. So what then?

Well…

Here’s where I came out on it.

My books are going to be flawed. They are going to get some things wrong. They will not appeal to all readers. Some may see me as Eurocentric. Some may see me as ableist or some other -ist. Some readers may have very specific technical knowledge that leads them to hate my book because my character wore a fabric that would not have been worn in that type of society with that level of technological innovation. (That’s one I actually heard a prominent editor scoff about at a conference once.)

Those people are not my readers. I will get criticized by those readers for my flaws, but they are not the people I am writing for. I am writing for the people who are so caught up in the story they just want to come along for the ride. And, yes, that means my readers are the ones that are blind to the history of fabric in the Middle Ages and to the current list of terms deemed inappropriate because they’re ableist and who probably never use whom.

And that’s okay.

Not all stories are for all readers. As a writer my job is to write the stories that only I can write and then as a publisher my job is to find the readers who will like them.

This is why I don’t have first readers. Or editors. I may have shared the first cozy with a few readers before I published it. But the later ones? No one saw those books except for me until they were published.

Because my books are me, flaws and all. I can create that over and over again. Whereas if my book is a collaborative effort formed with the help of first readers, editors, and who knows who else that’s a product that changes as my team changes.

Early on, with the first three novels or so, I did have first readers and I did go to critique groups with pages, because I needed to learn how my words landed with readers. And I did learn from that experience.

But after that? After I knew that most of the critiques I was receiving were “I wouldn’t tell this story” or “I wouldn’t tell this story this way” it was time to stop that.

I figured readers were either along for the ride I was offering them or they weren’t. All using first readers or editors was going to do at that point was bring multiple voices into that story.

There’s also another issue that can happen if the first reader/editor process isn’t done well. And that’s an uneven end product.

I can’t remember if I told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again if I have.

In high school I took a pottery class. One of our assignments was to create a chess set. I was going to have one that was jungle-cat-themed. So the lion was going to be the king and the tiger was going to be the rook, etc.

I made one of the pawns first. It was a dorky little cat-like piece. It had pointed ears and a noticeable face and a tail, but the rest of the piece was just a blob of clay. I could’ve made that little guy another dozen times, no problem.

My teacher came by and as she was trying to instruct me on how to better make an animal shape, she whipped up a gorgeous tiger. It was amazing. Beautiful.

It was also about three times the size of my pawn. And putting those two pieces side-by-side you could tell that they were not done by the same artist.

Size-wise the tiger also didn’t belong in the same chess set. If the tiger was that big, how big would the lion have to be? I would’ve ended up with a chess board that was two feet on a side just to accommodate that tiger.

But the tiger was so gorgeous I didn’t want to get rid of it.

Problem is, chess sets are mirrored sets of pieces. There was no way, even having watched her do it, that I could create a duplicate of that tiger.

So even though the tiger was much, much better than my other pieces, I couldn’t use it.

When I think sometimes of having someone who is really good at writing try to edit something I write, I immediately think of those two chess pieces and how they didn’t go together. How it was better to just use the less-perfect pieces I created rather than to try to merge in that beautiful tiger.

Now, I will say that not all editing experiences are like that and I was actually quite pleased with the edits of my short story I had in a collection last year. I did have to let go of a few personal preferences for how to punctuate my writing, but I figured that was part of sanding the edges off to get a unified product and that at that point my story was part of a bigger piece.

And there was definite benefit to being edited. I had confused mantel and mantle in that story, for example. But a simple light copy edit (assuming you find a good copy editor, which in self-pub spaces can be tricky) can easily handle that sort of thing. And that sort of edit should be for technical mistakes like mantle vs. mantel or eye color mix-ups, not rewrites.

Anyway. To wrap this up.

The way for me to be able to keep writing is to accept that I can only write what I can write and to hope that somewhere out there someone is looking for that type of story and will enjoy it. And to accept that some people won’t enjoy it and to remind myself that they are not my reader. And if at the end of the day no one likes what I wrote, well at least I know it was true to me and I didn’t compromise and bend and twist myself out of shape to then still have people not like it.

Random Thoughts 20220710

I’m supposed to be unpacking right now from a recent move, but I have too much crap so I’m taking a break.

So, thoughts for the day…

First, Amazon. Sigh. If they’d just let us set books to free they’d save so much headache and labor time. For those not in the know, every other platform lets you just say, “Hey, I’d like my book to be free” and they’re like, “Cool. Done.” But Amazon dangles their five free days per quarter out there as an incentive to join Kindle Unlimited, so the only way to get your book set to free with them if the book isn’t in KU is to have them price match.

So you have to reach out and say, “Hey, everyone else set the book to free, maybe you should too” and they’re like, “I don’t know, man. It’s up to us whether we do that.” And then two hours later it’s set to free, too.

Except sometimes it isn’t. Or sometimes it is in the US and India, but nowhere else. Or sometimes it is and then they change their minds. Which is why I always say to check other venues if a book is supposed to be free but isn’t on Amazon, because chances are it’s Amazon chicanery.

Which brings us to my second thought which is that I noticed the other day that someone had paid for an ebook version of Excel for Beginners which is currently supposed to be free. So I looked into it and it was in the UK. And then I checked a bunch of other countries and the book was not free there as well. So I emailed and now it should be free in all their stores.

But again, maybe not. I can guarantee you that Nook, Kobo, Apple, and Google have it free and you won’t have to worry about if Amazon felt magnanimous today and let it stay free. So anyway. If you clicked and missed out, that’s what’s going on there.

Which brings me to the third thought which is that there have been a lot of downloads of Excel for Beginners in the UK since it went free two days ago. I’m hoping it’s a newsletter that picked it up. The number don’t seem high enough for a bot, but they’re higher than I’d expect for organic downloads. As a comparison, the US is at 15 a day or something like that and the UK has been in the 300+ range since it went to free.

I know there are sites out there looking for newly-free titles to promote, so that can happen. Just usually not in non-fiction.

Fourth, I’m sort of feeling like with this monkeypox thing we’re at about how I felt in January 2020 watching COVID-19 and wondering if it was going to break out or be contained.

It seems mostly contained to the MSM community right now and mostly based on physical contact, but it does seem to also have the chance to be airborne, so, you know, practice safety if you’re in those circles or tangential to them.

And don’t be surprised if in November/December we’re dealing with a more widespread outbreak of that one.

Fifth, lots of folks I know who hadn’t had COVID before have had it in the last couple months. Part of it is the world just saying, “yeah, whatever” and removing restrictions and so more people are being caught out by that.

But also we’re on the sixth(?) major strain at this point. I mean, honestly, if these were tested and examined separately I’d think one or two would be classified as completely different but related illnesses. And the thing is that for a strain to become dominant that means it’s outperforming the prior versions in some way. So what worked in Round 1 doesn’t necessarily work in Round 6. Either because the virus has found a way around precautions or, and this is important, because it evolves enough that prior infection or vaccination don’t prevent infection.

It seems to me that this is a rapidly evolving scenario that most people are thinking is the same as it was in spring 2020. And that’s just not the case. I mean, we all have to weigh our choices and take our risks, but I will reiterate yet again that I had a dad I lost when he was 45 because of a disease that caused him harm when he was 6. And he was amazingly lucky to live that long. He fully expected to die in his early 20s.

You do not want a chronic illness. You really, really do not. He lived a full life, but it was not an easy life to live.

So what to do ? Be sure to be vaxxed and boosted. Wear a mask indoors. Wear one outdoors if things are really crowded. And if possible, have everyone test before getting together.

And not three days in advance, but an hour in advance. Being vaxxed and/or testing three days prior worked in 2021, it doesn’t now.

And the vaxxed/boosted folks I know who got sick recently were knocked on their butts for a good week. Sure, they didn’t die or end up in the hospital and hopefully they don’t develop long-term issues, but most people don’t have the work and social support to be completely down for a week. I know I certainly don’t.

Which is why prevention is best.

Finally, I’ve had a few weird first-time comments on the site recently so if someone submitted a legitimate first post and I didn’t approve or respond, sorry, you got lost in the noise. Also, I probably won’t be approving first-time posters for a little bit yet, just in case. Sorry.


Editing to tweak the language I used about the newer variants being more contagious and to add this great Twitter thread on what it means when one variant is overtaking another variant: https://twitter.com/TRyanGregory/status/1546230649664962560 and this excellent article by Ed Yong on BA.5 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/07/ba5-omicron-variant-covid-surge-immunity-reinfection/670485/.

Happy Moments

Have you ever had a moment where everything in life just seemed good? When there were no big worries pressing down on you and in that exact moment you were simply lifted up and happy?

I still remember one of those moments I had when I was about twenty. I was working at a small amusement park that curves around a lake with a view of mountains in the background. It was a mid-summer day, maybe just after it had rained and everything had cooled down for the night. And I’m pretty sure the sun was setting along the mountains, painting the sky shades of pink and purple and orange.

I was out doing my rounds, checking on my cashiers, walking through the park before it got busy. And in that exact moment I felt right with the world. Buoyed up with the pleasure of the moment.

It wasn’t a big moment. I wasn’t in love. I didn’t have lots of money. I was living in a teeny little apartment or with my grandma. I was driving a clunker of a car or some really cheap new car that wouldn’t drive well through those mountains in the distance. I was earning more than minimum wage, but not much. I knew that job wasn’t my long-term career and that I’d have to strike out and find something else.

But that moment was a moment of pure enjoyment and being right with the world.

It seems to me people are often searching for happiness in the big moments. The wedding. The birth of a kid. The first kiss.

And those moments are often good moments, but they’re also ones that carry this heavy weight of pressure around them. (How anyone survives the stresses of their wedding day without a complete meltdown, I don’t know.)

For me it’s always the quieter, smaller moments that are the moments of pure joy.

Like with skydiving, it was never the moment you leave the plane that was the best for me, it was hanging there under canopy with all the stillness and peace and just looking around. (At the lake spread out nearby and mountains in the distance. I may in fact have a thing for lakes and mountains. Haha.)

Anyway. Something to think about. We don’t always need the big moments to be happy if we can pause and capture the small ones instead.

It Only Works If Everyone Complies

This is something I think about often when I’m reading fantasy books or writing something myself. And that’s that there’s often some big evil, bad person who is presented as the antagonist.

For example, right now I’m struggling my way through a book where the ruler is physically weak and also crazy. (He’s talking to his dead grandma’s portrait.) He just killed one of his subordinates, imprisoned another, and threatened to kill others of his advisors.

What always fascinates me about these stories is this is just one person. Yes, they’re in a position of power. In this case, a hereditary position that they earned by being born.

But books (and reality) rarely question the compliance by everyone around this person that results in them being able to do all these horrible, horrendous things.

One person alone can only do so much damage. (Granted in our modern times, a lot more than say five hundred years ago.) But the actual true lasting harm comes from others complying with that one person.

If in this book the leader who is so sick he can’t physically do much himself ordered someone executed and everyone around him said, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” that would be it. That would be the end. Because he can’t do it himself.

Or he can do it to one subordinate who stood there and didn’t fight back. But even then, if the man had fought back, he’d have lived.

But because of how humans are conditioned to obey and to respect authority and to not question the status quo, a single person with bad intent can perpetuate true, lasting harm against hundreds or thousands of people.

In our modern age the wrong person in the right position of power surrounded by people scared to act independently can harm millions. Or billions.

And everyone looks at that one person or that limited group of people as the perpetrators, which they are to a certain degree, but it’s everyone who goes along with it who does the actual harm.

It’s not the general who gave the order who kills the enemy soldier, it’s the soldier who obeyed the order and fired his gun who kills them.

The supreme court case overturning RvW came down just last week and it’s unclear the extent to which that impacts abortion access in each state because if I understand the decision it basically put the determination as to who can get abortion access back to each state.

And, yes, some states had laws set to go into effect when the ruling came through, but immediately abortion clinics in states that had laws on the books shut down. No one came knocking on their door or sent out a notice, they pre-emptively did so because they anticipated that the laws would be enforced.

And I’m now hearing anecdotally of people with illnesses that require a medicine that can cause a miscarriage being denied that medicine. Just in case.

As far as I’m aware nowhere is there a law that says that people capable of child bearing are not allowed to take medicines that treat an illness if that medicine might, if taken improperly, result in a miscarriage.

But members of the medical profession (doctors, pharmacies, etc.) have decided they don’t want to risk their licenses to treat these people for an illness unrelated to pregnancy, so they’re denying them these medications.

Which makes them (the doctors or pharmacists) the ones doing the actual harm.

The changes might have been started by a very small group of people making an ideological-based ruling, but the true harm is being perpetuated by everyone who goes along with that decision and extends it in ways that aren’t even there in the law. Out of fear.

Just in case. Better to let someone suffer or die than risk that precious medical license.

But that going along with it is what perpetuates and worsens the harm. The legal system is not equipped to find and prosecute everyone who is taking a drug that may cause a miscarriage. It’s not even equipped to find and prosecute everyone who has a medical abortion. Doing so would overwhelm the courts.

Because people have chosen to willfully comply, they don’t have to. They get their result through the threat of potential consequences. Because we are so compliant and rule-based that we do their work for them.

If you haven’t read it yet I still think The Lucifer Effect by Phil Zimbardo is an excellent book that discusses the studies on what makes people comply and perpetuate evil. So is Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning which looks at a real-life example of how ordinary citizens were turned into murderers.

People don’t have to be evil to do evil. They just have to be willing to follow someone else’s orders.

Or even worse, to anticipate someone else’s reaction or order and do the harm without anyone even telling them it was necessary.

(And, yes, I know these things are far more complicated than they look on the surface, but I also know that the rule of law does not function if the majority of people don’t willingly comply. We are heading into a very ugly period of time in the United States and possibly other countries where whether people go along with increasingly harmful laws or rulings is going to determine just how bad things get. A minority only gets to rule if enough of the people in the majority let them.)

Let’s Talk Free As A Strategy

I currently have seven different titles set to free across all of my pen names. Three are because I’ve basically abandoned those pen names and so having a permafree title that I actually don’t advertise (because they’re short stories) is all the promotion I do for those names.

If I did nothing with those series I would sell nothing. But because I have a free short story under those names it leads to a little bit of a trickle of pure profit. The stories still have to be something people want, of course, which is why one of those names made me $200 last year, another made $75, and the other made basically nothing.

But for no effort and on short stories which generally do not sell well anyway, why not.

Now, the reason I wanted to talk free today is because of my cozy mystery series.

This is a completed nine-book series where readers can either buy each individual book for $3.99 or three books at a time for $9.99 in ebook.

When I released the final book in the series earlier this month I put both Book 1 and Book 4 to free.

Prior to this month I have at various points in time given away 22,000 copies of Book 1, but it has never been permanently free. I did limited-time free runs with it instead. Sometimes as short as a week but last year I think I did the last three months of the year at free.

I had a few reasons for also putting Book 4 to free this time around.

One, because in Book 3 I hurt a dog and in cozy that can be a reason for someone to drop off of the series. But Book 4 is a cute no-murder mystery with a sad little kid who needs someone to find his mom, so it was a good chance to pull back in readers who may have dropped off of Book 3 a while back and give them a chance to restart the series without any monetary risk.

Two, because Book 4 is also a romance. The whole series has an overarching romantic arc for the main character but Book 4 is where she and her love interest finally get together. So if someone reads Book 4 standalone they not only get a mystery that’s cute, they also get a romance. And I figured that might loop some people back around to Book 1 (which is free, so no risk). And if they’re good after two books they’re probably good for the whole series.

Three, it allowed me to advertise a different cover and title. Maybe potential readers who bounced off of the cover or title for Book 1, will be attracted to Book 4.

Four, summer is a slow time for book sales. Different genres are on different cycles and some books are just perennial sellers but most authors will tell you that they sell better at some points in the year than they do at others. So a free run now is a good way to goose sales during a slow period.

(New releases and big promotions can skew this for individual authors so it can sometimes be hard to tell when your slower times of the year are, but for me it always feels like summer is very sluggish.)

Now, because these are novels and I am actively trying to promote them, I did do more than just set the titles to free and walk way.

I had a Freebooksy that did very well on Book 4, Nook promoted Book 4 for me, and I’ve been running some Facebook ads as well for both Book 1 and Book 4.

I find for free that AMS ads cost too much since it’s per click (whereas FB reports your cost per click but they’re calculating that based on clicks per impressions). Also, for me personally Bookbub CPC ads also don’t do well.

So what were my results?

As of today for Book 4 I’ve given away about 8,000 copies in the last few weeks. And I’m pretty sure I’m seeing some people cycling around to Book 1 because on Amazon alone I’ve given away 2,000 copies of that one.

On FB I’ve spent $62 and the Freebooksy was I think $90. The Nook promo was free. So $150 total.

Now, we can’t directly look at results because I had a new release, too, so that’s going to potentially skew things. And my FB ads were evenly split between Book 1 and Book 4. And people are still reading through the series from previous promotions and some people read slower than others.

But what we can do is run some hypothetical numbers.

So let’s just go with 2,000 downloads of Book 1 and treat it like an eight-book series. I’m assuming here, incorrectly, that of the 8,000 people who downloaded Book 4, a quarter of those already read it and circled back to Book 1 and downloaded it, too.

Also, I’m assuming that they are no more likely to go on to Book 2 than a normal person who downloads a first-in-series freebie even though they probably are if they already read Book 4 and liked it.

So. 2,000 people.

If 1% of those people go on to buy Book 2, that’s 20 people. If 2% do that’s 40 people. If 3% do that’s 60.

(And I will note here that as of today Book 2 sales on Amazon are at 18 for the period in question so it looks like we’re already at 1% with room for more in the future.)

I’ve heard of authors who can get as high as 10% for free downloads to next-book purchases, but I am not one of those authors. I do not hit in the center of the genres I write for.

So, 1%. 20 people who buy Book 2 at $3.99. I get 70% of that. That’s $55.

If it’s 2% of people I get $110. If it’s 3% I get $165 and have already made a little profit.

But that was just Book 2. Let’s say half go on to Book 3. That’s another $25, $55, and $85 respectively.

(And right now I’m showing 14 for Book 3 which is 78% but again that could be not all the same people so 50% is a conservative estimate.)

Let’s say about 75% of readers will then go on to Book 4 for this series. And then it’s pretty much 100% from there to Book 6 but we’re leaving out Book 4 this time around. So let’s just say 75% to Book 5, 100% to Book 6.

At that point we’ve got a total of $125, $250, and $375 for 1%, 2%, and 3% sellthrough assuming that 2,000 is what we’re looking at from that Book 1 number. And we still have Books 7, 8, and 9 that aren’t factored in there.

Those three books incorporate the pandemic so maybe not everyone goes on to them. But if half do that brings even the 1% sellthrough up to breakeven.

And I forgot to include the two related short stories which are often the ones people pay for first rather than one of the other novels in the series. So every time I do a free run on this series I will see a bump in sales of the related 99 cent short stories, often before I see a bump in the novel sales.

I assume that is because people got something for free, liked it enough to want more from the author, but are more willing to pay 99 cents for a short story than $3.99 for a novel.

(Which is something I hadn’t anticipated when I was writing the series and sometimes I wonder if those short stories are the best way to further draw people into my writing, but they are what they are and at least it is the same characters.)

So no matter how I slice it, this free run with Book 4 and Book 1 at the same time will be profitable. If in the long-term I get as high as 3% sellthrough then it’s going to triple my money. Not big numbers, but still. Profit is nice.

And that’s assuming some lower sellthrough numbers than I’m seeing in the short-term.

Now, let’s talk through the factors that came into play here.

Genre. Cozy is one of those more voracious genres where people will download freebies more readily and will read them soon after doing so. I find it much harder to get movement when a book is free with YA fantasy than I do with either cozy mystery or romance.

Price. With my cozies I’m asking a reader to go from free to $3.99 which isn’t the easiest jump, but it’s not that extreme. With my YA fantasy I ask them sometimes to go from free to $5.99. That will impact how many people buy the next book after they read the free title. I find that at the higher price point for the YA that my sellthrough percent is almost 100% to Book 3, though, so sometimes keeping it up there actually does make me more. It all depends on how price-sensitive those readers really are.

Series Length. In this case I have a nine-book series. Even in the less ideal scenario of 1% from the free book and then 50% sellthrough to the next followed by 75% sellthrough to the one after that before people get hooked on the series, by the time we get to book 6 we’re still breakeven. But my YA fantasy is only three books which makes a free run a lot trickier because there’s less room to make up the ad spend in. (It does still work, though.)

Sellthrough. Free runs don’t work if people don’t like the free book enough to go pay for more of your books. It’s like giving out rancid cheese samples at the grocery store. If no one wants more of what you gave them, you just wasted your money. And the more people who like it the more you make. In this scenario 1% was breakeven, 3% was tripling our money, 10% would be a 10x return on spend. And that’s before factoring in word of mouth effects which will likely boost the number of books downloaded.

Hookiness. This is one I don’t do particularly well, but I’ve seen recommended and discussed. And that’s how much a book ends with a hook that drives readers on to the next book. If you have five standalones you are going to see less sellthrough than if Book 1 ends with a hook that makes readers need to read Book 2 and so on and so on. (I wrote about cliffhangers at some point on this blog and my general opinion is that they work really well if people were enjoying the story up to that point but that readers will kind of hate you if they weren’t enjoying the story and were just slogging through to the end.)


So. In conclusion. I think free definitely does still work. I do think it is not what it was back in the day when someone could put a book to free and get 90K downloads without promotion. And sometimes people definitely do download books and then the books sit there on their e-readers forever untouched and forgotten.

But there are enough readers who are looking for something new to read that you can in fact make a nice profit from having a book free for either a limited period of time or permanently.

I expect that I will be leaving Book 1 of that series free going forward because the series chugs along with sales when I have some sort of promotion going but falls dormant when I don’t. And for this series I find a small FB ad spend isn’t that hard to maintain.

Also, now that I have nine books in the series keeping one free doesn’t hurt as much as it does with a three-book series.

So there you have it. If you’ve been scared to try a free run but you have a series that should do well with it given the factors above, dip a toe in and give it a shot.