The Failure of Free

How and Why I Gave Away My First Book to Attract New Readers to My Second


Despite the headline, I’d prefer to frame my book giveaway as an experiment, not a failure. I tested the strategy of making my book free and got definitive results — fewer sales or reviews than my modest projections. A successful experiment, but a failed strategy.

bones in the wash book coverMy hope was that by giving away my well-received first novel — Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher. — I would gain sales for my second book, Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the Berkeley recycling world, as well as more reviews.

I published Bones in the Wash more than two years ago, and, being new to book marketing, didn’t realize that unless I tirelessly flogged the book, no one would know about it, let alone buy it. I hosted a fun and successful book launch at a cafe near my house in Berkeley, which attracted more than 50 people and I gave talks at the California Writers Club in Berkeley and Marin. I wrote blog posts and pitched the book on Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads. I started an email newsletter, and sent notes to friends and colleagues.

I tried a variety of blurbs. Here’s one:

One half political thriller, one half family soap, and one half murder mystery — that’s right, it’s a novel and a half — Bones in the Wash careens through the pressure cooker of the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico, where straitlaced Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara grapples with a fierce opponent, a volatile new woman, a demanding family. Oh, and he’s a suspect in his wife’s murder.

Response to the book has been heartening. I now have 60 reviews, including the most recent one, just posted a few days ago.

Five Stars: I didn’t want to have to put the book down when I had to.

And last December, I was thrilled to win the Best Book 2015 from the Bay Area Independent Book Publishers Association (BAIPA). My award even included a $200 check. Did it increase sales? Not much. I posted about my award several times in several places, and it barely moved the needle.

Doesn’t make much difference that the book is good if potential readers don’t know it exists.

I had read many posts suggesting that making your ebook free was a way to find new readers who then might write a positive review and/or purchase your other books. That sounded like a good plan.

I heard a presentation at a California Writers Club–Berkeley meeting by South Bay author Chess Desalls, about how she’s gained readers for her series of four young adult time travel books with a BookBub promotion. For a price, BookBub promotes your free or discounted book to its email list of millions. But BookBub is tough to crack. I submitted Bones twice and was rejected twice. (Desalls did suggest that a giveaway is more likely to be effective for a series — my two novels are distinct, with different characters, different settings, even different genres.)

Despite the BookBub rejections, I have succeeded in getting my free ebook downloaded by more than 5,000 potential readers, far more than I expected. With minimal promotion.

My first step was uploading a new digital version of Bones in the Wash, with an ad for Wasted at the beginning, and a letter to the reader at the end, asking for a review, and suggesting they might like Wasted. Then I made the book free on Smashwords. Amazon will not let you set the price to free, but they will match the lower price elsewhere. (I did, as suggested, first lower the Kindle price from $2.99 to $0.99)

Nothing happened at first. Then I asked four different people to go to the Amazon page and click where it said “lower price elsewhere.) The price stayed at $0.99. Then, a week later, Amazon changed it to free.

The next day, without me doing anything, Bones showed up as a featured free ebook on Digital Book Today, as one of the Top 100 Free Kindle Books on Amazon.

Bones featured DBTOn its first morning, it was one of the top 10 downloads. Within the first week, more than 3,000 people downloaded the book.

Because this was an experiment, I set some goals, which I thought were extremely conservative. I estimated that I’d get one sale of Wasted or the paperback version of Bones in the Wash for every 100 ebook downloads. Here were my projections for April and May.

Date Bones reviews Wasted sales Bones paperback sales
April 1 15 25 5
May 1 35 (cumulative) 60 10

The downloads kept coming. By June 1, there were more than 5,000 downloads, many times more than the number of books I’ve sold.

The sales and reviews trickled in. Slowly. One here, two there. Two five-star reviews showed up on Amazon. But mostly, nothing. Except more downloads, and even they tapered off.

I got a little obsessed, checked my sales and reviews three, four times daily. I reminded myself that it takes people a while to read the book. They might have other books in their queue ahead of mine. They might like to download free books, but not read them.

Soon enough, I realized my modest 1 percent estimate was too high.

Because I was busy with other things and thought this promotion would spur sales more, I did hardly any other marketing, so I presume most of the sales and reviews I did get were as a result of this giveaway gamble.

I included my email in the book, and got two notes, including a lovely one from woman who’s been fighting voter suppression and appreciated that I was able to illustrate that issue in an entertaining way, and that my protagonists demonstrated integrity and bravery. (She also said she was going to pick up Wasted, and there was a purchase the next day, though Amazon doesn’t tell me who the purchaser is.)

Here are my numbers as of August 15.

Month Downloads Wasted sales Bones sales Reviews Royalties 
March 4423 9 15 5 30.20
April 337 2 4 5 11.36
May 373 3 1 4 12.23
June 38 6 0 0 14.20
July 24 1 1 0 3.95
August 22 0 0 1 0.00
Totals 5141 21 21 15 71.74

 Note: The Bones sales include international sales of the ebook, as well as paperback sales.

So the book sales, of 42, which most certainly include some sales not related to the free promotion, amounts to 0.8 percent of downloads. Not too short of my goal. Maybe it’s better to call this a disappointment than a failure.

As for reviews, I didn’t even come close to my projections. I ended up with 11 more Bones reviews on Amazon and four more on GoodReads, and my average rating went down. The 11 Amazon reviews averaged 3.6 — including 1 3-star, 2 2-stars, and my first 1-star. Before the promotion, I only had 4- and 5-star reviews.

Here’s what that 1-star reviewer said:

Truly Terrible: If you can get past the author’s ameturish (sic) writing style, and if you can get past the unimaginative characters, and if you can get past the lack of any semblance of a good story line, and if you are a liberal, then you might actually like this book for some reason beyond my personal understanding. However, if you appreciate good writing, then you would be smart to not even touch this book. It is terrible. Period.

Guess he or she didn’t like my politics.

That’s another downside of free — it’s more likely that people who might not appreciate the book will download it just because it’s free.

Or was.

That’s the last part of my experiment. To raise the price back to $2.99 and see if anyone buys it now. And to share this post far and wide and see if that finds me any new readers.

I welcome your comments.

Surrounded by English Professors

My first reading and signing for Wasted came in Detroit, Michigan, where I was surrounded by English professors —physically and mentally. I was one of three authors on a panel at the University of Detroit Mercy, called “On Telling a Story and Getting Others to Read It,” with UDM Professor Nick Rombes, and retired UDM Professor R.J. Reilly. (My brother Michael Barry, who introduced us, is also a professor, and chair of the UDM English Department. Our father was an English professor at Loyola University for more than 30 years.)

Hemmed in as I was by English professors, I began by disavowing any presumption that I was writing literature. “I’m writing entertainment,” I said. “If there’s any literary merit in my books, that’s an fortuitous accident.”

UDM posterThat said, I added, I did set Wasted in the gritty and malodorous world of garbage and recycling, which is rich with resonant themes of reinvention, transition, and discarding that which no longer serves us.

I also mentioned that I was in Minneapolis recently and attended a friend’s book reading. He recounted asking a bookseller what was the difference between literature and genres like mystery, suspense, or thriller. The bookseller responded that people read the genre books.


Early on, I asked for a show of hands. How many of the two dozen or so participants had thought about writing a novel?

Almost everyone.

How many have started writing one?

About half.

Completed one?

A handful.

Published one.

I think there was one person in addition to the three of us on the stage.

R.J. (Bob) Reilly is 90, and retired from UDM before my brother started there. Though he’d done plenty of academic writing while teaching, including an acclaimed essay on Henry James, he didn’t begin writing novels until he retired. With the help of his daughter, Mary McCall, who teaches technical writing at UDM, he’s published two novels and a volume of short stories. His daughter read a moving passage from The Prevalence of Love about how war dehumanizes everyone in its wake.

Nick Rombes, seated on the other side of me, is a film buff, whose novel, the The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, follows a film librarian who watches a stockpile of unknown films by acclaimed directors, burns them, and then describes them to a journalist from memory. Rombes talked about the appeal of misremembering.

I read the first chapter from Wasted — you can see the first three chapters here — and then mostly talked about the process of publishing.

What seemed to resonate most, if the questions were at all representative, was how much publishing has changed. Bob Reilly said the hardest part wasn’t the writing, but preparing the book for publication. For me, I said, it’s the marketing and finding readers that’s so challenging. (Of course, I have been an editor and designer for decades, so while I hadn’t gone through the specific steps of publishing a novel before, the publishing process was familiar.)

I talked about how self-publishers used to have to print up books in advance and ship them out from boxes in their basement. But now, the book is not even printed until it’s ordered. There’s no inventory sitting on a shelf. The online retailer, Amazon or otherwise, has the template in its database, and when you buy the book, then they print it.

The ebook is another huge change. They are easy to publish, but it’s increasingly difficult to find readers, because there are more books available than ever before.

Several students asked about formatting for the different versions.  “When you publish a print book, what’s on page 23 is always on page 23,” I said, “but an ebook doesn’t have page numbers because what each page looks like is dependent on the device you read it on. Like a web page, the text flows to fill the screen as you widen or narrow your browser, so you have to strip almost all the formatting except for styles before uploading an ebook. But if you do it right, it can be published within 24 hours of your upload.”

The UDM panel was a wonderful start to my “Wasted Author Tour.” I even sold a few books. (You can buy one here.)

Thanks to my brother Michael Barry for organizing the panel and to my two panel colleagues, R.J. Reilly and Nick Rombes. (You may be interested in seeing the UDM Varsity News report on the panel.)

Here are the upcoming dates for my “Wasted Author Tour.”

WASTED tour 092815


My First Death Cafe

Death Cafe FairfaxSaturday, I talked with a group of strangers about death — it was the most intimate and meaningful conversation of my week.

This was my first Death Cafe, and the first one for most of the 50 to 60 people gathered at the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a Buddhist meditation center in Fairfax, California.

In small groups, mostly four people sitting around café tables with coffee and pastries, we discussed three hypothetical questions —

  • If you knew you had twelve months to live, what would you do?
  • If someone you were close to died and you could somehow speak to on from the other side, what would you ask them?
  • How would you like to die and why?

There were twelve tables around the room, plus a group sitting on pillows in the middle. Each person got three minutes to answer the question, then there was a gong, and it was on to the next person. After the small group discussions, the facilitator opened it up to the larger group and moved around the room with a microphone.

Most participants were middle-aged, middle-class, and white. A few were under fifty. More than a few appeared to be over seventy.

Since launching in London in 2011, there have been more than 1,863 Death Cafes. As of this past Saturday. In the several days since, there have been at least a dozen more — in Zurich, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Auckland, to name a few locations. Most are small gatherings, according to our facilitator in Fairfax. For our gathering, they had to find additional chairs and pillows to accommodate the crowd.

The concept is simple. People gather to talk about death, with the aim of “increasing the awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Death Cafe is a “social franchise” — that is, anyone who signs up to use the guide and principles can use the name “Death Cafe.” There’s no staff and no profit.

In our group, there seemed to be broad range of perspectives on death and what comes after. One person, for example, said that the second question implies there is another side after death and she doesn’t believe there is. What everyone seemed to agree on, however, was that it would be a good thing if we were more comfortable as individuals, families, and societies discussing death.

That’s why I attended. Last summer, my mother, who will be 92 at the end of this month, was coughing up blood and ended up in a Chicago hospital for two weeks. All five of her children, as well as most of her grandchildren, convened from California, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and New York. We thought she might die. So did the doctors. Because she had a DNR (do not resuscitate) on file, we had to discuss almost every procedure. How much intervention? Did we want a breathing tube down her throat if it was necessary? No. What about antibiotics? Yes.

I also went because I am in the early stages of writing a novel about a man whose father, suffering from cancer and dementia, asks his son to help him end his life. (Here’s a draft of Quality of Life, Chapter 1: The Weight of a Nitrogen Tank.)

Several people shared memorable stories.

One woman, sitting on a pillow in the middle of the circle, recounted how a couple in her neighborhood, who’d been married for 65 years, “suicided together.” They were both members of the Hemlock Society, and they left detailed notes. The sheriff who arrived on the scene apparently said he had never felt so much love in a room. “As you can imagine,” the woman said, “this stirred up quite a bit of controversy and conversation in the neighborhood.”

Another participant spoke of a doctor who told people when and how he was going to die. The day he took his medication, his wife left and went away, in the company of other people, because if she would have been present, she could have been charged as an accessory.

I thought the question about how we would like to die was the most challenging. I started with the usual answer, the one most people give.

In bed, at home, in my sleep. WIth no warning.

But then I recalled my father’s death, where I was in the room at Evanston Hospital, with my mom and two of my brothers, and we were holding his hands and feet as he took his last breath. We could feel the warmth draining from his body. Being part of his death was one of the most powerful and profound experiences of my life, so I changed my answer. Said I’d like to die in the company of loved ones. At home. With plenty of morphine for the pain, I added.

The facilitator cited a recent California poll, showing that more than 70 percent of people would prefer to die at home in their beds. But in fact, about 70 percent die in a hospital.

You might think it would be morbid to sit inside on a sunny afternoon and discuss death, but for me, it was uplifting and fascinating. Death and how we want to die was on the agenda, but mostly we talked about how we want to live.

Find out more about Death Cafe at

(Also posted at Death Cafe.)

Politically Correct Dating

Here’s a silly piece I wrote a long time ago and dusted off last year for an audition.

I pride myself on being a sensitive enlightened feminist man. I’ve read Our Bodies Our Selves twice, once in hardback, and I never exploit women by opening doors for them.

I have a tough time at dances, however.  I love dancing, but asking a woman to dance without compromising my integrity is where I get hung up. I can’t ask a pretty woman to dance because I’d be imposing my patriarchal standards of beauty on them. So I look for a woman I’m not attracted to. It’s even better if she doesn’t like me. Or men.

But then my body language gives me away. She can sense I don’t find her attractive, and I end up oppressing her by judging her with my internalized sexist standards, and we both feel terrible.

Fortunately, when I met Jenny, the music was loud, and we were dancing before I had a chance to think through all the socio-political implications. We made a date for the next night.

She came over to supper, because it’s hard to find a restaurant that can accommodate my diet. I used to eat meat and other oppressed foods. But now I don’t eat anything that requires the killing of any animals — or plants. I only eat fruits and vegetables that have already died of natural causes. (Of course, I also include onions in my diet because cutting onions is how I learned to cry.)

I was sobbing over the cutting board when Jenny arrived. One look at the wilted carrots on the table, and she said, “Let’s just catch a movie.”

But I had already made plans—to ride our bicycles to a civil disobedience against fracking. The perfect first date, I thought, getting arrested together for a good cause.

But on the way, she ran over some glass and got a flat tire. “It would be patronizing of me to offer to fix this,” I said, “so I’ll let you do it.”

“I’ve never been treated like this before,” she said.

I explained that that was because most men put women up on pedestals and don’t allow them to achieve their full potential as human beings or, in this case, bicycle mechanics.

“I don’t believe what you’re saying.”

“I forgive you for that,” I said, “because I understand that your mistrust of men is based on centuries and centuries of brutal oppression of women by white men, like myself. And—”

“You are one of a kind,” she said, “And why are you putting that broken glass in your pocket?”

“To recycle it course,” I said, but by then, she had hailed a cab and vanished. She didn’t even write or call me in jail.

I guess I’m just not as sensitive as I thought. So I’ve recently started a support group for men—the White Man’s Burden Support Group—because it’s crucial we men become more attuned to the plight of women.

Our first act of solidarity—since we’re not able to menstruate—is to go down to the Red Cross once a month and donate blood.



One Year Since Launching Bones in the Wash

I hosted a book launch a year ago today in Berkeley for Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.

My first book, my first launch. Pretty exciting. And nerve-wracking.

bones launch flyer
More than 50 people showed up—standing room only—and though most were friends and family, there were a few strangers in the mix, which was heartening. (It helped that the Mo’ Joe Café, where we did the launch, was a block from where I lived for 25 years and walking distance for a bunch of my friends.)

My friend Bob Schildgen, author of Hey Mr. Green, served as M.C. and read a passage. My wife Nanette and my son Sean also read excerpts. I delivered a brief intro about how I came to write the book, read a few pages, and answered questions.

I was thrilled with how well it went—it felt like a smash success. (Scroll down to see some photos.)

I even ran out of books to sell. I sold 22 books, including the one I was reading from, which had a couple of pencil marks. (I thought I would be tempting the fates if I came to the launch with too many books.)

That book launch was my single best day for selling the book, but sales since have been disappointing. A year later, despite continuing to get positive response and reviews, I can sometimes go a month without selling a book. I did a better job writing my novel than I have marketing it, but I believe that even if I were a marketing superstar, it would be an uphill climb.

I expected that marketing my self-published first novel would be hard, and I was right about that. I thought, however, that I had managed my expectations pretty well. Looking back, even my modest projections seem overly ambitious.

The actual publishing wasn’t too hard—I mean, other than rewriting the book a dozen-plus times and incorporating suggestions and corrections from many readers and editors. Getting the book formatted for Kindle and trade paperback took at least a month, and a lot of careful proofreading, but it was straightforward.

I am close to completing my next novel, Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley. I wrote Wasted before Bones in the Wash, and am now rewriting it one more time. Response so far has been positive—most everyone has enjoyed it and three people said they raced through it in a day or two. That’s what I like to hear. And that was the advance reader copy. It’s now at least 3 percent better!🙂

My hope is that when I launch Wasted this spring, response will continue to be favorable and maybe I’ll sell a few copies of Bones in the Wash along the way.

Screenshot 2015-02-23 16.27.50Screenshot 2015-02-23 16.26.18

More photos here.

Why Design Matters


From My Kitchen Cabinets to the Russian Far East

Last year, I devoted many months writing and designing the Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East—which was about, among other things, growing markets for wild salmon in Kamchatka, scientists and indigenous hunters teaming up to monitor walruses in Chukotka for climate change impacts, mobile fire brigades fighting wildfires accidentally set by farmers burning their fields. More fascinating than you might think.Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East

The client, Pacific Environment, was thrilled with the report and I was proud of it too. It’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.

What I found interesting, though not surprising, was that almost all the kudos were about the design, even though that accounted for only a quarter of the work.

That’s probably because most people didn’t read the entire 80 pages. And those few who did appreciated that the design elements reinforced the message of the document.

It’s a reminder to me, as a writer and designer who identifies more as a writer, that in many cases, design is as important or more important than the words.

My plan here is to deconstruct my design process to see if I can learn from what I did, and maybe others can as well. It’s not that I didn’t consciously make decisions along the way as much as that I’ve been a designer for decades and some of those decisions were almost intuitive. Looking back I can see more clearly what I did.

Screenshot 2015-02-20 14.37.21

A word about the writing part. There was heavy slogging along the way—I had to distill hundreds of pages of dry scientific language into a compelling narrative, and there were moments when I was pulling out my hair. It’s not that the content I had to work with boring, though some of it was. But it wasn’t exactly high in entertainment value, so one of my goals was for the casual reader to get the basic message from the decks and captions and headlines.

Here’s an example—I didn’t have a photo for this story, but the concept was pretty straightforward, that satellite photos could document pollution much more effectively than a government agent who has to make an appointment to visit the mine.


What Do Readers Read?

Photos, of course, play a huge role, not just the images themselves, but the captions, which get read, depending on who you listen to, four times more often than the body text. The best captions reinforcing the message of the document. So, for example, the caption for the photo below of two tigers growling at one another doesn’t reference the photo directly, as much as it provides important context—how there are only 500 Amur tigers left in the wild, but they are on the rebound.

Screenshot 2015-01-20 12.16.22

There’s no need for the caption to repeat what the reader can see in the photo.

I also looked for ways to feature people, in the narrative and the images. So much of the content I had to work with was scientific, like the names of threatened species, or fishing harvest data.

The chapter on Chukotka, which is across the Bering Strait from Alaska, and equally frigid, didn’t have a lot of compelling stories. All of the photos I had to start with were of stark landscapes. None of people. In my search for better images, I came across a wonderful website and story by a photographer from California, Sasha Leahovcenco, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldava and journeyed to Chukotka to take photos of indigenous people there, most of whom had never seen photographs of themselves before. He was happy to let me use his photos. Here’s one of my favorites.

Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.11.58

Five-Column Grid—It’s Great to Be Odd

Even though I’ve designed dozens of reports like this, I deliberated carefully on what kind of grid to use. Mostly, for reports that are standard 8.5” x 11” size page, I use a simple two column grid, but for something long and complex like this, with maps and photos and charts, I chose five columns, which allows for both uniformity and variation. The default layout was two blocks of text, one two columns wide, the other three. It’s more interesting than two columns the same width.

It also allows for one column of white space when necessary. I found this very helpful for fitting copy. When text was added or cut, and I didn’t want to add extra pages, I could expand or contract the column width and still have a unified look.

Here are two chapter-opening spreads where the left-most column is primarily white space, and the right page uses the 2 + 3 grid. Then comes a text-heavy page with 2 + 3 on both the left and right side.

Screenshot 2015-01-20 12.34.42

Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.13.03

Screenshot 2015-01-20 12.38.26Note also how the map, which is a dominant element in the first spread above, is used on a smaller scale at the bottom of the second spread, as a locator map for the particular region being addressed, in this case, Chukotka. Maps are especially important when readers may not know the area, but even when they do, they help anchor the story.

Another design element that helped orient readers (pun intended) was including a mini-contents box at the bottom of each chapter’s opening page to supplement the map. This was a big and complicated document, and though these mini-tables of contents were redundant to what was in the main table of contents, I wanted to make it as easy as possible for readers to know where they were and what was coming.

Color Bars

Arguably, the most important design decision was to use wide horizontal bars in gold, olive, and rust to feature what I call “decks.” (They are often referred to as “pull-quotes,” but for this project, I more often distilled an important point into a sentence that might been a paragraph in the text.)

Like the grid, the regular use of the color bars contributed to a unified design, but they were even more versatile than the grid.

Because I used the color bars in a slightly different way each time, I was able to use them more than a dozen times without being repetitive. What was consistent was the color palette, the height of the boxes, and the typeface, and what varied was the length and placement of the stripes, and the specific colors. In some cases where there were three lines, I used all three colors. In some cases, all three stripes were aligned on the left. But other times, I staggered them or only used two colors. (In a few places, where I was already using the olive green as a background, I added a fourth color, a darker green to the color bar palette.

Below are a some examples. You can see that the placement, alignment, colors, and length vary, and of course, the words do too, but the palette and typeface keep things unified.

Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.18.07 Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.22.53

Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.15.52 Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.18.53

From My Kitchen Cabinets to the Russian Far East

Choosing a color palette is one of the most important parts of a design, and there are almost an infinite number of options.

I knew I wanted warm colors to counteract the arctic content. I started with rust, one of my favorites, and before I realized it, I was working with roughly the same colors I painted my kitchen cabinets in Berkeley a decade ago. (I know I can’t keep using the same colors over and over, but recycling a palette every ten years doesn’t seems to be a problem.)

Back around the turn of the century, my kitchen cabinets were medium brown wooden doors and drawers that were becoming increasingly ugly with wear and tear. On a trip to Mexico, I purchased colorful ceramic (Talavera) knobs from street vendors in San Miguel de Allende, and my plan was to paint the cabinets white and add the knobs for color. The first few I painted didn’t look as interesting as I’d hoped.

So I played with some richer, more intense colors, and after some trial and error ended up with three colors—rust, gold, and olive green. You can see the cabinets here.

Screenshot 2015-01-21 10.42.30

Reinforcing the Message, Telegraphing the Character

Design that is visually appealing and memorable is a strong start. But not enough. The most critical element of good design is that it telegraph and/or reinforce the message and character of the content. Is it authoritative? Whimsical? Serious as death? Important, but not self-important. In the case of the Russian Far East document, it was important to get across the comprehensiveness of the report. Because the length of the report and the long list of contributors at the beginning already characterized it as comprehensive, I didn’t need to do much more with the design to reinforce that. Instead, my primary design goal was to make the report more engaging and welcoming. The colors and the maps and the intimate closeups of people helped with that.

Writing (and Cutting) Sex Scenes

True confession: I have, more than a couple times in my life, poured over a steamy passage in a bookstore or library because, well, because it was steamy.

I’m not the only one. Some of those passages were in best-selling books.

As a writer, however, sex scenes, steamy or otherwise, are, pun intended, hard to get right.

This fall, I’ve done a couple readings from my novel—Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher—and I devoted some of my time to talking about writing sex scenes.

Talking about politics, family, and sex at the Oakland Public Library. Thanks to Tim Jollymore for the photo.

Since there were a number of writers in the audience, I asked for a show of hands of those who had written sex scenes. More than a dozen each time. Then I asked how many were satisfied with what they wrote. Only a few.

I also asked everyone, as readers, how satisfied they were, again, pun intended, with sex scenes in novels. Mostly, not so much.

Which begs the question: why include them? Sure, they’re titillating, and yes, sex sells. But plenty of fun and successful novels are sex-free zones. You could argue that sex is part of most people’s lives, so why wouldn’t it be in novels, but so is peeing, and few authors show their characters going to the bathroom.

Response from readers to Bones in the Wash has been heartening. Reviews have all been positive, some effusively so. But not everyone liked the sex scenes. My wife, for one, and the women in her book group, who discussed the novel one Thursday evening when I found somewhere else to be.

I asked around. One woman friend said several phrases—“ravaged” and ‘his hardness found her wetness”—read like “a cheap grocery store romance.” Ouch! “And take away from the book,” she added, “which I loved.” That was certainly not my intention. It wasn’t just women—one man said the explicit sex didn’t do anything for him.

So I rewrote some of the sex scenes, and uploaded a new version. I think the book is better now, but I’m curious as to what you think. Here’s some before and after.

First, an easy one. This excerpt comes—spoiler alert—after a flash flood has unearthed the bones of protagonist Tomas Zamara’s long-disappeared wife Vera in a wash outside Santa Fe.

original revised
Tomas was not interested in making love, and Tory didn’t tease him or touch him suggestively like she often did. But in the middle of the night, in the moonless darkness, they found each others lips and his hardness found her wetness and they moaned together in two-part harmony before falling back to sleep. In the morning, the sky was bright and the sun was blue. Tomas was not interested in having sex and Tory didn’t tease him or touch him suggestively like she often did. But in the middle of the night, in the moonless darkness, they found each other’s lips and made love slowly, tenderly for a few minutes before falling back to sleep.

Better, right? What was I was thinking? Was I thinking?

Here’s another, from a few chapters earlier. Tomas lived in Albuquerque and Tory in Santa Fe, so on their first several dates, he did a lot of driving. So she suggested on their next date, they do a “sleepover.” No sex, but he wouldn’t have to drive all the way home.

original revised
He expected they would make out a little, but sleepover, to him, implied sleeping. Tory had other ideas. She leaned into his chest. “I love to snuggle,” she said.

She didn’t so much attack him with her kisses, as pull him towards her. Welcoming him. It had been a long time.

He reached under her nightshirt. No underpants. Wet. She wriggled into his finger and purred as he rubbed her. She nuzzled her nose to his. “You tricked me,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

After she came, she took him in her mouth, and oh Jesus Christ, how is this happening?

He expected they would make out a little, but sleepover, to him, implied sleeping. Tory had other ideas. She leaned into his chest. “I love to snuggle,” she said.

She didn’t so much attack him with her kisses, as pull him towards her. Welcoming him. It had been a long time.

He reached for her. She nuzzled her nose to his. “You tricked me,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

That was simple. Just take a few sentences out. Then, in the morning:

original revised
He slept, and woke at daybreak with a throbbing erection.

Nothing unusual about that, except that here he was in bed with Victoria Singer, Hurricane Tory, her calf resting on his ankle.

She opened her eyes, yawned, then smiled.


They kissed, dozed, kissed some more. And then, suddenly awake, he found himself straddling her, his arms rigid, elbows locked, their heads at the foot of the bed, her unkempt hair spilling over the side. She held him between her fingers and guided him towards her, dipping him in her juices. Knocking at the door. Full of anticipation and desire.

She was so present, her eyes, bright and playful, locked onto his. Her smile beguiling. Then she crossed a line from delight into a focused intensity. She was hardly breathing. He was hardly breathing.

Then he slipped in. Plunged in. Quickly. Deeply.

Did she take her hand away? Draw him in? Was there permission there? Or did—?

He pulled out. Broke from her gaze.

When he looked up again, she had that same intent and lustful look, and didn’t look concerned at all. “A preview,” she said, and then her face relaxed into a grin. As if in slow motion. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”


She nodded.

“Aren’t most previews more than a few seconds?” he said.

“You’re the one who pulled out.”

He slept, and woke at daybreak with a throbbing erection.

Nothing unusual about that, except that here he was in bed with Victoria Singer, Hurricane Tory, her calf resting on his ankle.

She opened her eyes, yawned, then smiled.


They kissed, dozed, kissed some more. And then, suddenly awake, he found himself straddling her, his arms rigid, elbows locked, their heads at the foot of the bed, her unkempt hair spilling over the side. She held him between her fingers and guided him towards her, dipping him in her juices. Knocking at the door. Full of anticipation and desire.

She was so present, her eyes, bright and playful, locked onto his. Her smile beguiling. Then she crossed a line from delight into a focused intensity. She was hardly breathing. He was hardly breathing.

Then. Then. Did she take her hand away? Was there—?

When he looked up again, she had that same intent and lustful look.

“A preview,” she said, and then her face relaxed into a grin. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”


She nodded.

“Aren’t most previews more than a few seconds?” he said.

“So I’ve heard.”

Again, the same scene, with fewer explicit words. Better? Is less more? I thought so before. Now I’m not so sure. Or I could have cut more. 

Are these minor “improvements” worth all the teeth-gnashing? It’s hard to know. (Though I think eliminating the word “ravage” from my vocabulary is a no-brainer.)

Let me go back to the question I asked above: Why did I include sex scenes?

(btw, we’re talking about five, six pages out of 400. Most of the book is not about sex.)

For me, the answer is because they reveal character.

Sex is something universal that just about all adults engage in, but because it’s private, emotionally charged, and the participants are exposed and vulnerable, it shows who people are in ways nothing else does. There’s also plenty of religious and cultural baggage associated with it, and that can add richness and texture. And because sex is private, readers tend to be curious about how other people, fictional or not, do it.

The best sex scenes aren’t necessarily the steamiest. Great sex doesn’t make for a great scene. What’s often more interesting is when things go wrong. Where instead of ecstasy, the lovers experience distress or embarrassment or loneliness. Which they usually keep to themselves.