Writing a story of any size comes with inherent risks:
On the one hand, it’s difficult to gauge at the beginning how much time will be needed to finish the work. As is often the case with my stories, including the short ones, I underestimate the time I think I need to finish by about 400%. To date, I think The Computer Nerd was the only story to defy my expectations by coming out ahead of my predicted completion time, which is to say I’d wanted to write and release it in two months, and I’d actually hit that goal, despite the first release being undercooked and in need of additional revisions that I wouldn’t complete until the end of the pandemic, or seven years past the original completion date.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to know how successful the story will become once it’s released to the public. When I’d started uploading e-books to the various booksellers in 2015, I’d released the majority of them as free short stories through the Smashwords platform and saw an average of about 10-20 downloads the first day and about 10x that for the rest of the year. My first released e-book, Shell Out, has done the best with almost 1,000 downloads in its lifetime across all platforms, including Google Play Books (though almost 900 of those sales reports have been lost to time).*
On this second point, it’s worth noting that Smashwords and its distribution partners (Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc.) are just a small fraction of the e-book market compared to Amazon, and that Amazon is the only platform I cannot set a book to zero dollars without implementing price matching tricks, which I’ve never actually done because I occasionally update my books with new back matter or cover art, and that always requires going back through Amazon’s upload process, which, I believe, would reset the prices, which would make price matching a tidal headache.
So, because these same short books on Amazon sell for $0.99, I very rarely make a sale. In fact, most of them have never sold a single copy, so I’ve since removed all but five of them from my Amazon listing.
For paid sales, the longer works have performed almost as poorly on Amazon (maybe a couple dozen sales for Gutter Child, my most popular e-book), and flat-out tanked on the other platforms.
To demonstrate my e-books’ sales climate, below is a screenshot of all of my sales and downloads since 2015, as reported by the ScribeCount data visualization app.
*Of all of the booksellers that receive titles from Smashwords, Kobo is the only one that doesn’t report its free downloads. So, my download counts for Shell Out and other early titles could be far more than I realize, but Kobo has never mentioned it, so I’ll never know it. But given how much they’ve been downloaded on Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google Play Books, I’m sure the real numbers are in the dozens or less. Not the hundreds.
So, yes, starting a new story with the intention of selling it on Amazon or the other platforms comes with risk. Unfortunately, that risk extends into serial platforms like Wattpad, or in the case of my most recently completed story, Kindle Vella.
The following is a quick postmortem on The Hybrid City Entrepreneur, now that the final episode has been live for more than two months.
The story has been an experience to write because I had to mix episodic writing to appeal to Kindle Vella readers with chapter writing standards to make the story work as a unit. Sometimes the lines between them were too blurry to sort out the differences, and I suspect the story’s failure at the very beginning had much to do with confused pacing.
In fact, it’s easy to see where drop-off began, and unfortunately that drop-off started as early as Episode 2. Last year, when I attended a virtual writer’s conference called Inkers Con, the moderator of a Zoom session dedicated to Kindle Vella success listed the bullet points for developing a story Vella readers might not only discover, but devour. Although the packaging requirements made sense and were easy to fix: high contrast images of interesting looking characters, neither of which I had per se, the episode length recommendations (2,500 words) were much harder to adjust given how Kindle Vella’s internal episode upload system works (in sequence).
To maximize reader interest, I’d packed the first three episodes (the free episodes) with word counts nearing the maximum 5,000-word limit. But the argument is that Vella readers may not want to read 5,000 words in a single chunk, especially since Vella doesn’t save their place if they need to pause for a coffee break. Therefore, half that size seems to be the ideal length. As much as I’d liked to have adhered to that standard, to split these earliest episodes into 2,000-3,000-word chunks would’ve thrown off my entire episode list. I just couldn’t see the sense in doing that.
So, I didn’t.
The end result may have cost me readers. I don’t know. I just know that I’ve never had a reader get past Episode 4, the first paid episode, and Kindle Vella doesn’t make it easy to find out why, especially if readers choose not to provide feedback.
And, of course, Kindle Vella doesn’t make it easy for new readers to discover my work, since it promotes only those stories that already have massive followings. For all I know, I have no new readers because no readers know I, or my story, exist. At the end of the day, I’d managed to find 14 unique readers before the story hit a permanent dead spot.
So, I’ll chalk this one up to a learning experience. Maybe my story is written for a time long past, or maybe I just haven’t found the right audience yet. The important thing, at least, is that it’s finished, and that anyone who might discover it can now read it in its entirety.
That is, until I take it down and rewrite it as a series of 1980s coming-of-age novels.
Note: This article was written for my July 2023 newsletter, which I normally make exclusive to subscribers. If you enjoyed the updated version of this article and would like to see more from me, please consider subscribing to my newsletter by filling out the form in the side panel (or below, if you’re viewing on mobile), or visiting my official newsletter signup page. As a bonus, you’ll get access to Read My Shorts, Volume 1, a mini-collection of short stories about corporate blunders and occasional revenge that you can’t read anywhere else.
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