Rethinking free

I recently read an interesting blog post on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, about how, how not, and whether to make your books free. The conclusion he comes to is this:

Free is short time, limited supply, and never on the major bookstore shelves.

In other words, no permafree, no free pulsing, and no publishing free online content on sites like InstaFreebie unless it’s for a limited time.

Three or four years ago, I probably would have pushed back pretty hard against this advice. There are still points of it that I disagree with, such as the idea that giving anything away for free devalues all your other work. Perhaps that’s true for physical product, but for digital content I think there’s a solid argument to be made that the rules have changed.

That said, a lot has happened in the last three or four years. Permafree worked really great until about the middle of 2014, at which point I noticed that it was a lot harder to generate any kind of interest in my free books. I switched to a free pulsing strategy in 2015, which was a lot more effective at giving away free books, but that didn’t always translate into more sales.

In fact, there’s a passage from Dean’s blog that sums it up real well:

A customer walks through your door and you have a wall of twenty pies in glass cases, all the smaller short story pies in a case in the center, and some specials near the cash register.

And there on your wall are three pies that say, “Free.”

And a bunch of short stories that are “Free.”

The customer can take an entire pie for free or buy one. As a customer, what would you do? Duh. You take the free pie and leave.

And pretty soon your customers start to change. The only people who come through the door are people who only want the free stuff. They would never buy something under any circumstances, but you are giving your pies away for free, so they take one.

Pretty soon there would be lines out the door to get your free pies and you would make nothing. The free takers would crowd out and devalue the pies you are trying to sell.

Now, I don’t entirely agree with Dean here. My 90-day sales chart on Amazon shows a predictable uptick in sales every time I set a book free and send out an email to my list. Most of my subscribers signed up through InstaFreebie, which means they’re probably not quite fans yet (and probably signed up for a bunch of authors’ lists).

But my long-term data tends to agree with Dean. Back in 2012 and 2013, there was a very clear correlation between free downloads and royalties / paid sales. Then, in 2014, that correlation started to become fuzzy. Over the next several months, it got progressively fuzzier (even though I was giving away more books), until today there’s really no correlation at all.

Obviously, YMMV and I can only speak for my own books. But there have been a lot of major shifts in the ebook market over the last five years. Kindle Unlimited has had a huge impact on the effectiveness of permafree, or any kind of free book strategy for that matter.

Point is, it may be personally useful to rethink my free strategy. I’m not going to stop doing the free book thing altogether, since I do think there’s still value to it (if for no other reason than that little sales bump, plus the handful of “thank you!” responses I get from my email subscribers each month). But instead of free pulsing two books each month, usually including a first-in-series novel, it may be better to do a 99¢ novel and a free short story.

The two biggest mistakes I’ve made so far in my writing career have been 1. underpricing my books, and 2. unpublishing books that were still selling. (I still can’t believe how stupid I was) Holding onto a free books strategy that isn’t working could easily become a close third. I’m not going to throw the bus into reverse while it’s barrelling down the highway at 70 mph, but some experimentation and a course correction may be in order.

Writing is not a business

I recently read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. It’s a fantastic book, not only because it gives you a basic education on financial literacy, but because it gives you a solid foundation for making money in general. It’s one of those books that really deserves its bestseller status.

About midway through reading it, I realized that I’ve been thinking all wrong about my writing. Everyone always says that if you want to write professionally, you should treat your writing as a business. But that’s not entirely correct.

Writing is not a business, it is an investment. Publishing is a business.

The basic argument of Rich Dad, Poor Dad goes like this: if you want to be wealthy, don’t work for money—make your money work for you. How? By owning more assets than liabilities. An asset is something that puts money in your pocket. A liability is something that takes it away.

When you write a book, you are creating an asset. A book is an intellectual property that generates money. Dean Wesley Smith compares it to a piece of pie in a magical bakery, where you can cut infinite pieces for your customers. With online publishing through ebooks and print-on-demand, that’s not a bad analogy.

If I were to cease all of my publishing activities right now, including all marketing and promotion whatsoever, my books would still generate income. It probably wouldn’t be a lot, but it would still be something. Even starting from zero, with a single book on Amazon under a totally unknown name, over time it will generate a small trickle of income.

A book is an asset. Writing is how you create that asset. Publishing is how you service that asset to make it more profitable.

As an indie writer, I am my own publisher. The business that I own is a publishing business, not a writing business. It’s a subtle but important distinction. I could still create books if I weren’t my own publisher, but at that point I’d be a contractor, not a small business owner.

Writers are not paid by the hour. As an indie, I’m still earning money on work I did ten years ago, and I fully expect to continue earning income on that work for the rest of my life. That’s because writing is an investment. Not a job. Not even a business. An investment.

Which is not to say that the publishing aspect—or in other words, the business aspect—is less important. Quite the contrary. A rental property is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you find renters and take care of the upkeep. Similarly, a prime plot of farmland is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you work it.

So how do you “work” your books? By publishing them, of course. Publishing is your business. This includes marketing, promotion, branding, and the like. Publishing is the business that makes your assets—your investments—profitable.

 

The implications of this are really interesting. For example, suppose you have a book that doesn’t sell very well, or that gets a bunch of negative reviews. Does that make you a failed writer? Does it spell doom for your career? It’s easy to think so if you think of writing as your business.

But when you think of writing as an investment, everyone changes. Got a book that tanked? That’s okay, it’s just that book. Every investor gets it wrong every once in a while. Learn from the mistake and pick a better investment next time.

If all your books are tanking, is that a sign that you’re just not cut out for this writing thing? Possibly… or it could just be that you need to work on your publishing. Even the richest farmland needs to be tilled, and fertilized, and watered properly. Perhaps you just need to learn how to market better, or brand your books better, or do a better job of finding and connecting with your readers.

On the flipside, suppose you have a book that used to do well, but now it isn’t selling as well as you would like. You’ve clearly done a good job of marketing it in the past, but what can you do now? Market it even harder? Or recognize that this is just a normal part of the investment cycle and go out to develop a new asset?

If writing is your business, then the success or failure of your books is a direct reflection of yourself as a writer. With that kind of mindset, it’s easy to fall into some traps. On the one extreme are those who believe that publishing well is secondary to writing a good book, and that therefore they should devote the bulk of their time and energy to writing. On the other extreme are those who seek validation so hard that they put all of their effort into the publishing aspect and neglect the writing. The truth is NOT somewhere in the middle, because both extremes grow out of a faulty premise: that writing is your business.

This is the Fugio cent. It was commissioned by the Continental Congress before the ratification of the Constitution, and designed by Benjamin Franklin. Fugio means “I fly,” referring to the sundial, which represents time. Taken with the inscription below, it is a reminder that we can all leave the world a better place by doing our best in whatever line of work we choose to pursue.

For many of us, writing is more than just a hobby, or a job, or even a career. It is a vocation. It is our calling. And yet, we live in a commercial world, where the price of a thing is often conflated with its value. How, then, can we best fulfill our calling as writers? By ignoring the demands of the market? By fancying that our books are simply unappreciated by those of inferior tastes? Or by losing sight of our calling for that lucre that will perish with us?

Benjamin Franklin’s message is that we can best fulfill our calling by pursuing excellence in every aspect of it. That includes the commercial aspect as well as the artistic, the practical as well as the spiritual. When we truly learn how to excel, we will see that there is no contradiction between the two sides.

Writing is our calling. Publishing is our business. Our books are investments, many of which may very well outlive us. By understanding this, I firmly believe that we can mind our business as well as Franklin admonished us, and truly fulfill our calling.

The timelessness of novels

Every few months, an article about the “death of the novel” makes the rounds on the internet. This subject, the impending doom of one of literature’s most enduring forms, is a perennial favorite for bookish handwringers everywhere. If it isn’t ebooks that’s going to kill the novel, it’s millennials, the internet, our dwindling attention spans, or one of a hundred other things.

As a professional writer, though, I am awestruck by the timelessness of the novel. Think about it:

From its origin with Don Quixote in 1605, the modern novel has endured through social and political upheaval, global pandemics, the collapse of numerous societies, the most devastating war the world has ever seen, genocide and holocaust on an industrial scale, and rise and fall of half a dozen global empires. The world today would be unrecognizable to a person from Cervantes’ time, yet the novel has endured.

Movies didn’t kill the novel. Television didn’t kill the novel. Video games didn’t kill the novel. On the contrary—numerous franchises from Star Trek to Halo have a thriving line of novel tie-ins. When the ebook revolution was just getting started, people thought that so-called “enhanced novels” would dominate the marketplace. They failed to realize that all of the added audio-visual content was a distraction for most readers. Plain text is not a bug, it’s a feature.

It’s important here to make a distinction between novels and other literary forms, such as novellas and short stories. The other forms have endured as well, but not with anything approaching the popularity of the novel. Short stories are great for exploring an idea, but not so good at immersing the reader into another world. Novellas are great for telling an intimate story about two or three characters, but not nearly as good at conveying scope or intrigue.

There’s something about a novel-length story that captures the imagination in a way that other forms just can’t. Whether it’s the large cast of characters, the intricate world-building, or the interplay of numerous subplots, novels are more immersive, and therefore have the capacity to be much more satisfying. Little wonder, then, that the novel has endured.

I’ve seen this in my own books, too. Over the years, I’ve done relatively little to promote my full-length novels, and yet they still chug along with a steady month-to-month trickle of sales. When I do promote them, such as with this month’s free run of Genesis Earth, the results are astounding. My full-length novels also tend to receive much higher reviews.

In my second year of self-publishing, I got impatient and switched to novellas. While I don’t think that was a mistake, it did not provide the foundation for a lasting career. The Star Wanderers novellas did well for a couple of years, but I don’t think they’re going to endure in their current form.

I love writing novellas, but the books that I’m proudest of are all novels. Where novellas entice, novels satisfy. Where novellas tell an intimate story, novels possess greater depth. As such, I think it’s time for a change.

In the next couple of months, I’m going to prune back my catalog a bit. The Star Wanderers series will still all be up there, but I’m going to remove the individual novellas from sale, keeping the omnibus editions instead. This will pave the way for a sequel novel, Children of the Starry Sea, which I’ve already started work on.

I will probably remove most of my older short stories, and some of the derivative works. I don’t want to clutter my book pages with my earlier practice work, or anything that looks too obviously self-published.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with Sons of the Starfarers just yet. I’ll definitely finish the series, but I’m not sure whether to do the other two omnibus editions or to just release each individual book in print. I’m toying with the idea of releasing the last four books in rapid succession, to build some momentum for the series, but it would take some time to write them, which means that Patriots in Retreat (Book VI) would be delayed for maybe a year.

I’m definitely going to turn Genesis Earth into a trilogy. No idea when the next book, Edenfall, is going to come out, but I’m going to do as thorough a job with that book as I did for Genesis Earth, which means it may take a while.

Novels take a lot longer for me to write than shorter books, but the end result is generally worth it. The trouble is that without a busy release schedule, sales tend to dwindle as you fall out of readers’ minds. I’ll try to make up for that by upping my marketing game and running more free and group promotions. In the meantime, anything you guys can do to spread the word would help!

I’ve got a couple of really awesome projects that should be coming out before the end of the year: The Sword Keeper, Gunslinger to the Stars, and a bunch of other stuff that’s really going to branch out my catalog. I’ve also got a couple of short stories that should be appearing in some new markets soon. Be sure to keep an eye out, and let me know what you think!

Thoughts on series and perma-free

For the last five years, the conventional wisdom among most indie writers has been to write short books in sequential series and make the first book permanently free. It’s a strategy that works, to a certain extent. It’s what got me from making pizza money on my book sales to making a humble living at this gig. However, I’m starting to question that wisdom.

I have two books available for free this month: Genesis Earth and Star Wanderers: Outworlder (Part I). Genesis Earth was my first indie published novel, a “standalone with series potential” (specifically, a trilogy) written according to the conventional wisdom for breaking into traditional publishing. Outworlder is a very different book: the first in an eight-book novella series, strong enough to stand alone but short enough to leave the reader wanting more. And for several years, it was perma-free.

Outworlder was the first of my books to make it big. It’s gotten tens of thousands of free downloads and driven thousands of sales (I don’t have the exact numbers because I haven’t yet collated all of my sales reports from the past five years, but that’s something I plan to do). It was largely on the success of Outworlder and the Star Wanderers series that I built my early career.

But over time, downloads of Outworlder slowed to a bare trickle, and sales did as well. I could give it a short-term boost by running a few strategically placed ads, but it would always fall back down to a baseline that was simply unacceptable.

Also, when you have a book that’s permanently free, it tends to accumulate a lot of negative reviews. It’s strange, but some people seem to feel more entitled to XYZ when they get it for free, as opposed to paying for it. Or maybe these are the people who try to go through life without actually paying for anything? Who hoard everything, even the stuff that they hate, so long as they can get it for free? I don’t know.

Certainly, that’s not true of everyone who reads free books. But when you have a perma-free book, it tends to accumulate more of the barely-coherent “dis buk sux” kinds of reviews from people who probably weren’t in the target audience to begin with. And over time, that tends to weigh the book’s overall rating down, which unfortunately can be a turn-off for people who are in the book’s audience.

Contrast that with Genesis Earth. I launched it at full price with a blog tour (which I put together myself, among writer friends whom I knew personally and who had readers who would probably enjoy the book). It sold about a hundred copies in the first ninety days, then slowed to a very low trickle—maybe one or two sales each month, if that. Things continued like this for several years.

Then, back in December, I made it free for one month. Downloads immediately shot up, and continued strong throughout the entire month. Even without any advertising, I was still getting maybe 50 downloads per day on Amazon, plus a constant trickle on the other platforms. For the next couple of months, sales of all my other books grew as well

For April, I decided to make it free again, just to see if I could duplicate that kind of success. I haven’t done any paid advertising for it, but I have submitted it to various sites and newsletters that will promote free books. The result? Thousands of downloads, with a baseline rate of more than a hundred downloads per day.

Genesis Earth has never been perma-free, but every time I set it free for a limited time, it’s like I’ve released the pent-up flood waters. In contrast, Outworlder struggles to get any downloads at all, even when it’s free for only a limited time.

Part of this may have to do with the reviews. Genesis Earth has a much better overall book rating, simply because most of the people who read it over the years were the ones willing to pay full price. This also means that the book has grown into its own niche organically, since the people who have bought Genesis Earth also tend to buy other books similar to it. Retailers like Amazon take note of this, and tend to associate these books with each other in things like also-bought recommendations.

This is all just speculation, but when all of this comes together, it seems to result not only in a higher download rate when the book is free, but more downloads from people who are in the book’s targeted audience.

The mos fascinating result of this is that when the book goes back to full price, sales get a small but long-lasting boost. I’ve seen this with Bringing Stella Home, which was free in March. It’s not a huge boost—maybe only five or six books a month—but it boosts all of the other books in the series as well, and lasts for a couple of months. It’s not just Amazon where this is happening, either—in fact, it may be boosting sales on the non-Amazon platforms even more.

Bringing Stella Home is different, though, because it’s a full-length novel (about 110k words, or +300 pages) in a series that can be read out of order just fine. In other words, more of the “stand-alone with series potential” that was the convential wisdom in the old tradpub world. Like Genesis Earth, it has never been perma-free.

So what’s the takeaway?

That maybe the convential wisdom among indies is all wrong. That perma-free actually taints books and makes it harder for them to stick in the rankings, or to grow into their natural audience. That longer stand-alone books with recurring characters set in the same universe may be better for gaining long-term traction than shorter, more episodic books. Also, that the more books you give away for free—not just first in series—the better that all of your books will sell.

My experience is purely anecdotal, and there’s a lot more analysis I need to do before I can say anything for sure. From what I can tell, though, it seems that the best strategy is to write longer, fuller books that satisfy more than they entice, and to use free as a marketing strategy for only a limited time.

In other words, the collective wisdom of KBoards is completely off the mark, and Kris Rusch (who regularly gets vilified on KBoards) actually knows what she’s talking about most of the time.

Like I said, this is all anecdotal and more analysis is required. But I’m very curious now to make some of my non- first-in-series books free for a month, just to see if it has a similar boost. With Bringing Stella Home, for example, a lot of readers seem to be jumping over books 2 and 3 to read Heart of the Nebula, the direct sequel (but book 4 in the Gaia Nova series order). It would be very interesting to see if Desert Stars has an awesome free run as well, resulting in more sales after it reverts back to full price.

Lots of interesting stuff to consider. It’s definitely going to inform my writing and marketing efforts in the future.

Can you make a living writing short fiction?

This question has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks, ever since I made a couple of semi-pro story sales. From all of the classes and conventions I’ve attended, the answer has been no, but I’m starting to wonder if that hasn’t changed in the last few years.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that short stories are not like longer books. In my experience (and I am not a master of the short form by any stretch), short stories do not sell as well in ebook form as longer books. That’s been corroborated anecdotally by virtually every indie writer I’ve spoken with.

At the same time, they aren’t like longer form books in the traditional sense either. I have three deal breakers when it comes to traditional publishing: no non-compete clauses, no ambiguous rights reversion, and no payments based on net. Short story markets typically only buy first publication rights with a 6-12 month exclusivity period, and pay by the word. That means that there’s no reason (unless you want to self-publish immediately) not to sell your short stories to a traditional market first.

(For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you’re not writing erotica. It’s a completely different market with its own idiosyncracies, which I’m going to ignore just because I don’t write it. But numerous indies have already proven that it is definitely possible to make a living writing short-form erotica.)

So let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope to see what a professional short-story writer can make.

According to SFWA, a short story is any piece of writing less than 7,500 words long. For the sake of argument, let’s say you average about 4,000 words per short story.

If you write one short story per month, you’ll have 12 by the end of the year. If you write two per month, you’ll have about 25. That comes to about 300 words per day.

If you buckle down and write one short story a week (only 600 words per day), you’ll have about 50 short stories by the end of the year. Raise that to two short stories per week, and that’s 100 short stories per year.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you’ve written 100 short stories. The next step is to put them on submission, using a database like The Submission Grinder to help you find markets. Here are the basic rules you’ll follow:

  1. Start at the top-paying markets and work your way down.
  2. Don’t submit to a market that pays less than $50 for your story.
  3. Don’t submit to markets that purchase full copyright (in other words, markets that won’t allow you to self-publish it after they buy it).

The professional markets pay upwards of $.06 per word. For a 4,000 word short story, that comes to $250 per sale. If we apply the Pareto principle to short story sales, only about 20% of our 100 stories will sell at this level (which is pathetically low for a professional short story writer, but let’s err on the conservative side). That comes to $5,000.

For the other 80 stories, let’s say you only manage to sell half of them at the minimum $50 rate—pathetic, I know, but we’re trying to be conservative. Forty stories at $50 each comes to $2,000. Together with the professional sales, that comes to a total of $7,000.

For reprint rights, let’s just apply the Pareto principle again to say that reprints account for about 20% of your income from traditional story sales, and original sales account for 80%. $7,000 divided by .8 is $8,750, which we’ll round down to $8,500 just to make the math easier.

So before you do any kind of self-publishing, you’ve got a positive balance of $8,500 just from writing and submitting those 100 stories. It’s not a lot, but it’s not insignificant either.

Now let’s say it takes about three years for you to make that $8,500, since it takes about two or three years to submit a story to all of the pro and semi-pro markets. That’s about $750 per quarter, or two professional sales, two or three semi-pro sales, and two or three reprint sales.

If I were going to self-publish short stories in order to make a living off of them, I would bundle and price them like this:

  • Singles for $.99 (ebook only).
  • Bundles of 3 for $2.99 (ebook only).
  • Collections of 10–12 for $6.99–$7.99, with paperback editions.

For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the $.99 singles. They only bring in 35¢ per sale, and you’re probably not going to release all of your short stories as singles. They can be useful for promotions, especially if you make them free from time to time, but they aren’t going to be moneymakers.

If you put all 100 stories into the $2.99 bundles, that comes to 33 (which we’ll round up to 35, just to make the math easier). The royalty rate on each of those sales is 70%, or $2. If you average only 8 sales each month of the $2.99 bundles, that comes to $560.

Looking at it another way, let’s apply the Pareto principle to say that 20% of those 35 bundles are selling a book a day. That’s 7 bundles making about $60 a month, or $420, and the rest are making $105, bringing the total each month to $525.

So for argument’s sake, let’s round down and say that you’re making $500 a month on your $2.99 bundles.

For the larger collections, let’s say you average only about 5 sales each per month, earning about $5 per sale. That’s $50 per collection, or $500 for 10 collections. Paperback sales may add to that, but let’s be conservative and just roll print sales into that number.

If it seems unusual to sell that much with self-published short stories, remember that each story published in a magazine serves as a de-facto advertisement for your self-published stories. With each new magazine publication, your name is put in front of hundreds or even thousands of short story readers, a portion of whom will search for you online and find your other work. Combine that with periodic free promotions on your singles, and it shouldn’t be too hard to build an audience.

So a typical month at these numbers would look something like this:

  • A pro-sale or a couple of semi-pro / reprints ($250)
  • About 250 sales of the $2.99 bundles ($500)
  • About 100 sales of the print/ebook collections ($500)

This is after only a year’s worth of work, writing 2 short stories per week or about 1.2k words per day. It might take a few years to get to this point, since it takes a few years to submit a short story to all of the markets, but if you can keep up this pace then by the time you’ve got 100 self-published short stories, this is probably what your career is going to look like.

And this is using conservative numbers. If you manage to sell half of those 100 stories to professional markets, the numbers go way up. Same if you have a couple of bundles that sell more than 1 copy per day. Same if you build a respectable email list that can push a couple hundred sales with each new release.

So is it possible to make a living writing short fiction? Well, let’s flip that question around and ask: is it possible to make a living writing short non-fiction? Of course it is—it’s called freelance writing. If anything, writing fiction gives us an advantage, because with fiction, the author is the brand.

These numbers look meager ($1,250 a month isn’t a great living), but remember, it’s only after 100 stories, or a year’s worth of work, writing at 1.2k words per day. If you can keep that up for several years, your income will scale up accordingly—especially on the self-publishing side.

Before the digital disruption of publishing, short fiction was dying a long, slow death. There weren’t a lot of paying markets for it, and self-publishing wasn’t a viable option. Now, there appears to be a renaissance of the short form. New pro and semi-pro markets are popping up all the time, ebooks and print on demand are opening up all sorts of new opportunities, and reader engagement has never been higher. That’s true of short fiction just as it’s true of the longer forms.

Is it easy to make a living writing short fiction? Hell no! It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, personal organization, and dedication. Even though 1.2k words/day isn’t a whole lot, headspace does become an issue with multiple stories. Above all else, you need to have an iron-thick skin when it comes to rejection. I’ve accrued over 150 rejections and only 4 semi-pro story sales over the course of my career.

But if you’re a prolific, hard-working writer with an efficient system for submitting, self-publishing, and marketing, then in theory at least it appears to be possible to make a living writing non-erotica short fiction.