Category Archives: Bones in the Wash

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.

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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.

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.

DSCN7820
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.

“Hi.”

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.”

“Rumi?”

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.

“Hi.”

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.”

“Rumi?”

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.

My Brother’s Book Review

I’ve been meaning for some time to post one of my favorite reviews of Bones in the Wash, from my brother Michael, an English professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy. He may not be objective, but he does study and teach novels for a living. So that’s something.

(There are 29 other reviews if you want some less familial takes.)

Well-crafted, thoughtful, and fun: I know the guy who wrote this too, and have known him for a while. He is my brother. I was reading the book while traveling this summer, so I’ll start with one story of reading while on the train and one of reading while on the bus. I got more and more embroiled in the plot as I got further into the book, so I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. And when I was within four paragraphs of finishing, my stop on the Chicago el train was coming right up. The train stopped and I had three paragraphs to go. Things in the book were pretty well wrapped up, but I wanted to see just how it ended. By the time the doors opened, I had one paragraph to go. I kept reading, finished, and dashed out the doors just as they were closing.

The day before, I was next to a guy on the bus, and I was talking about the book. I teach literature, so it’s a pleasure for me to talk about books. He was a reader, so he told me about Phillip Roth and I told him about John Byrne Barry. Anyway, he said “Well, it must be awkward, you being an English professor and him wanting to know what you think of the book.” And I laughed and said it wasn’t awkward at all; the book was so good I didn’t need to worry about that for a second.

I like the book’s stories of trying to do the right thing in the context of hard-ball politics. It reminded me of Robert Penn Warren’s *All the King’s Men* that way–there are times when one of the main characters, an earnest young woman who wants to bring about political change, wonders whether it would be a morally just course of action, in the long run, to dig up dirt on her opponent’s campaign manager (who is another of the main characters), to discredit him and win the election for the candidate whom she genuinely believes occupies the moral high ground. There is a meditation on how we can know enough about the consequences of an act to judge whether it’s good or bad (good news? bad news? who knows?), there are references to the temptations of political office, temptations to take care of your people.

Mayor Tomas Zamara has lost his wife, years earlier, in a mysterious disappearance that is assumed to be a murder, and when we see one Mexican drug cartel try to frame another other cartel for the crime, there’s a parallel to another plot playing out that fall, in which one party is trying to frame the other for voter fraud. This book is plot-driven and it is, for that reason, a page-turner, but the author–I’ll call him John–puts a lot of care into the composition of that plot, and the way the small plots start to take on the same shape as the larger plot is one of the ways that shows. The book keeps a lot of plots going at once, and they’re all interesting. At some point a journalist named Bas is saying that this news story he’s covering has everything–family drama, game-changing moments, gangsterism, and illustrious history–and yes, this book has all that.

Private Lives

Thanks to my friend Lawson LeGate for his perceptive review of Bones in the Wash. I wish I could say that I consciously set out to do the things he says, but maybe it doesn’t matter.

“It is remarkable how the author so completely understands the characters he develops for this story: the dynamics of Zamara family; the competitive relationship between two young women friends; the distinctly different romances between young Sierra and her boyfriend, between Mayor Zamara and the mysterious Tory, or the strained marriage of Sierra’s parents.

“You feel as if you’re peering into the private lives of real people, all skillfully set against the backdrop of the highly competitive world of presidential politics, with the sinister world of organized crime casting a faint but menacing shadow. It takes a fertile imagination to dream up a flash flood that threatens the lives of the mayor and his lover on an outing in one part of the state, while uncovering the bones of his murdered wife in another. I found myself eagerly turning the page to discover how the various plot lines in this book were going to turn out.

“Highly recommended.”

Everything he says above I did intend to do, but I never spelled it out quite the way he did. Now it’s true that I very deliberately linked the flash flood that the mayor and his lover were caught in with the bones in the wash discovered downstream. I remember mapping that out.

But the contrast between the relationships was not as conscious. The distinct differences were not so much planned as much as they grew out of the distinct characters. After all, what makes relationships similar are the universal things, like sexual attraction and getting each other and common likes. What makes them different are the people who come to them.

It’s been a challenge getting the word out about this novel, which I sweated over for years. But when someone enjoys it and captures so well the reasons I wrote it in the first place, well, that makes all that sweat worth it.

You can read the first three chapters here, and the Making of Bones in the Wash, Parts 1 and 2, here.