Late November Update

Is it time for another update? Why yes, I suppose it is.

Sons of the Starfarers is coming along quite well. Book 6, Patriots in Retreat, is up for preorder right now with a release date of January 19th. My editor just got back with the edits for book 7, A Queen in Hiding. Haven’t had a chance to look through those yet, but I will in the near future. Come January, that book will be up for preorder as well, with a release date of March 16th.

Right now, I’m writing book 8, An Empire in Disarray, with a hard deadline of 22 December (just before Christmas). Normally, I’d be panicking right now, but I’m trying out a new outlining method that seems to be working quite well. If everything works out the way I hope, I’ll finish up book 9 sometime in February and move on to other projects.

Looking back, it was a mistake to set out to write a nine-book series before knowing how the first one would do. If I could go back to 2009 and do it all over again, I’d stick to trilogies, where the first book stands well enough alone that I can abandon the other two books if it doesn’t gain much traction. That’s going to be my modus operandi from here on out.

So here are the trilogies I need to finish:

Genesis Earth Trilogy

This one has been outstanding for a long time. The first book did much better than I was expecting, and while its popularity has fallen off in recent years, it still gets very good reviews. For a first novel, I’m honestly surprised that this book has done as well as it has.

The second book, Edenfall, is still on the back burner for now. Partially written, partially outlined, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of months to get it done when I finally sit down to finish it.

As for book three, The Stars of Redemption, I have no idea because I haven’t even outlined it yet. Perhaps that’s what I need to get the ball rolling: outline the last book, so I know what has to happen in the second book. In any case.

Gunslingers Trilogy

Gunslinger to the Stars hasn’t done as well as I would have liked, but I enjoy this universe so much that I’m going to finish the trilogy if for no other reason than the fun of it. I’ve already written the first four or five chapters of Gunslinger to the Galaxy, and it’s coming along swimmingly. In fact, I’ll probably go right back to it after finishing up Sons of the Starfarers and call it a vacation. Expect to see more Jane Carter soon!

The Twelfth Sword Trilogy

I am super super excited to finish this trilogy—which is good, because the way the first book ends, it’s definitely not a standalone. Definitely not. Haven’t formally outlined it yet, but there’s a ton of stuff I’m going to throw into the second book, The Sword Bearer. Mercenaries, sorcerors, death mages, winged cataphracts, desert ruins, and mountain strongholds—it’s going to be great fun!

The Outworlds Trilogy

For a while now, I’ve been playing around with the idea of condensing all of Star Wanderers into a novel and then turning it into a trilogy. The first book will basically be made up of bits and pieces from all of the Star Wanderers novellas, spliced together to make a coherent novel. In particular, I’d like to expand on Noemi’s viewpoint and trim out some (or a lot) of the extraneous stuff that made the series drag on. Basically, turn it into less of a sci-fi romance and more of a classic space opera.

I’ve already started the sequel, Children of the Starry Sea, though I haven’t gotten past the first chapter. Where Star Wanderers is a series of novellas, though, Children of the Starry Sea is definitely a proper novel, and it would probably work a lot better to frame it as a trilogy than anything else.

I suppose it’s a bit like how Orson Scott Card turned a bunch of his early short stories into The Worthing Saga, which in my opinion is his very best book. I won’t unpublish any of the old Star Wanderers stuff, but I may just let it fade into obscurity as I push the other stuff.

These are the books that are on my mind. I’ve got to be honest: Sons of the Starfarers feels a bit like a ball and chain, but I’ve committed to finishing it and I’ll do my best to finish it well.

On the publishing front, there’s so much stuff I want to do that I’m having trouble keeping up with it all. My main goal is to get to 10k subscribers on my email list. Currently, I’m just shy of 4k. InstaFreebie has been hugely useful for that, but I’ve got to try other strategies as well. One of those strategies involves a new signup incentive, so if you’re already signed up for my email list, I’ve got a surprise for you soon.

So much stuff going on. I swear, this is the best depiction of what it’s like to be an indie author:

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.