Welcome to my Front Parlor, a place where I hope to engage you in some stimulating conversations about my continued journey as an indie author and the joys of writing historical fiction. I continue to marvel at how well the first three books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, and Bloody Lessons, and the companion short stories, Dandy Detects, The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, and Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong, have been selling. Thanks to all of you for your support. Do come in, look around, comment, and before you go, please leave a visiting card (url, twitter, fb address, etc) so I can return the courtesy and visit you next time.
I am the last author you would think would be writing short stories. As a writer who tends to be prolix, the short form wouldn’t seem a good match for me. I don’t write anything short––not emails, not blog posts, not books. Twitter, forget it––the most I can do is retweet those of you who are good at being succinct. I don’t even read many short stories, (except by 19th century writers like Alcott, Wharton, and James).
Yet, this spring I took time off from doing the research for Deadly Proof, the next book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, to write my third and fourth short stories, which are now part of a collection, Victorian San Francisco Stories, that I just published on Kindle, and I have every intention of putting out more short stories in the coming year.
So what happened?
Dandy Detects, my first short story happened. Three months after the publication of my first book in my series, Maids of Misfortune, I started to write a short story about the Boston terrier I had introduced in the book. I had read that publishing an inexpensive short story was a good way of introducing potential readers to your work, so my reason was completely pragmatic. Maids of Misfortune was selling less than one ebook a day, and I wanted to feel like I was doing something to help gain it some visibility. I was only producing about two blog posts a month (remember my tendency to be long-winded), and writing a short story and putting it up on Kindle seemed like manageable activity.
Dandy Detects ended up doing more than I could have thought possible to boost sales. Stephen Windwalker picked it as one of his earliest Kindle Shorts on Kindle Nation Daily (probably the first site to effectively promote ebooks) over the weekend of July 4, 2010. This prompted so many people to buy the full-length book that Maids of Misfortune raced to the top of the historical mystery category, where it stayed for over two years.
But even more significantly—writing this story turned out to be great fun, and the readers enjoyed it. Dandy Detect also was less than 8000 words—a triumph for me since I swear I have blog posts longer than that!
While I didn’t write the next story for another two years (in this case after the publication of my second novel), during that time I started keeping track of short story plots I wanted to write. By the time I had written my third story, I had concluded that writing short stories is about more than providing a loss leader to sell other books. In fact, I believe that, particularly for authors of series, short stories can be one of the most effective methods of building and maintaining both the readers’ and the author’s enthusiasm for a series.
Reason #1: Short stories permit me to expand on events, places, and, most importantly, characters from my longer novels.
As an author of historical mysteries, I constantly struggle to maintain an adequate balance among the competing demands of character development, historical detail, and plot momentum, while keeping my novels to a reasonable length. Writing short stories that help me develop back-story, expand the roles of minor characters, and provide more historical context, have been crucial to helping me keep that balance within the novels, while satisfying my creative impulses.
For example, historical fiction readers love to read about the details of day-to-day life in the past, and they are interested in how character development provides insight into social relationships and behavior in other times. So they expect the historical fiction novels they read to be fairly long.
Mystery readers, on the other hand, tend to be partial to speed. They are generally looking for fast-paced, suspense-driven plots. They certainly want to know enough about the characters to understand their motivations, but their expectation is that every scene and every conversation is going to move the mystery plot forward by dropping clues, introducing red herrings, etc. For an example, the advice on word count for traditionally published books is that mysteries should be under 100,000 words while the top limit for historical fiction can go as high as 140,000 words.
If you add in light romance to the mix, as I do, you have a third set of expectations to meet. I need to weave in the push and pull of the romantic relationship between my protagonists, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, making sure there is some sort of satisfactory resolution of that relationship along with solving the crime.
To meet all those expectations and not end up with a mammoth tome that tests the patience of the reader (particularly the mystery reader) means that I often have to sacrifice minor characters and historical detail. I suspect I am not alone in being frustrated about making this sort of choice.
Writing a series is one way I deal with this dilemma. I console myself with the promise that I will get to expand the roles of these minor characters or introduce more historical places and events in future books in the series. For example, in my second book, Uneasy Spirits, I gave the boarding house maid, Kathleen, a starring role, writing a number of chapters from her point of view. In my third book, Bloody Lessons, I sent some characters off to spend more time at Woodward’s Gardens (a fabulous place in San Francisco that was a cross between a zoo, art museum, and county fair) that I had introduced briefly in my first two books.)
Another way I satisfy my urge to expand, however, has been to write short stories where these minor characters get to have center stage and where I can provide even more historical detail about Victorian San Francisco. In The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, I took two characters that barely had speaking roles in my novels and gave them a whole adventure to themselves. This meant I could develop their distinct personalities (and some of the back story that explained those personalities), throw in detail on women’s fashion (they are dressmakers) and spend a whole scene describing the interior of the famous Palace Hotel.
In Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong, I was able to explore more of the history of Chinese immigrants in this era, including the precarious position of Chinese women and the hostile attitudes of the Irish to this ethnic group—something I had only been able to hint at in Maids of Misfortune, the novel that introduced Mr. Wong.
In my latest short story Madam Sibyl’s First Client (only found in the new collection), I was even able to write a prequel to the series. In earlier drafts of Maids of Misfortune, I had had a complete backstory for why Annie Fuller, my young widowed boarding house owner, decided to supplement her income by pretending to be the clairvoyant Madam Sibyl. But after lots of input from various people over the years, most of that back-story was cut in the interests of introducing the murder earlier and expediting the plot. In Madam Sibyl’s First Client, I was finally able to tell that story and introduce some economic detail about San Francisco in 1878 that would have never made it through the editing process with my full-length mysteries.
In fact, except for Dandy Detects, my short stories aren’t really mysteries at all, and as such are designed to satisfy those who are reading my books more for the historical setting than the mystery plot. Since I was a professional historian before I shifted to my career to writing fiction, this satisfies me as well.
Reason #2: Short stories help build and maintain the interest in my series in between books.
I am a relatively slow writer. Part of the reason for this is that I do write relatively long books (my shortest is 110,000 words and my longest nearly 140,000-––not long for historical fiction—very long for the mystery genre.) Doing the extra research needed for an historical mystery also takes time—before starting out as well as during the writing.
Added to the time spent on research and just writing these books, there is the amount of time I spend staying connected with both fans and other authors, which is the biggest part of the on-going marketing of my books. These connections are incredibly rewarding, but they still represent time taken away from working on the next book.
Finally, since I am in my mid-sixties––I spend a good deal of my time just maintaining my body in working order (smile) and visiting my grandchildren.
The result is that each book has come out about two years after the previous one. Two years is a long time to leave readers waiting. Therefore, my short stories are my way of thanking my fans for being patient and helping maintain their interest in the series in the interim.
These stories keep my enthusiasm for the series going as well. I find that my motivation to write tends to flag during the months I spend marketing a book when it first comes out and then during the months doing the basic research for the next book. I know I am not alone in this pattern. I suspect this is one of the reasons that some authors have more than one series going at a time or why they get tired of their series after a few books and move on to something else.
But I love my characters and the world of Victorian San Francisco, and I have lots of stories about them I still want to tell. I am reminded of that love when I start a short story. A day that I spend with my minor characters, hanging around the kitchen of the boarding house or moving across the city with Annie Fuller, is just what I need to rekindle my enthusiasm for the series—something I hope happens for readers as well.
And the rewards are almost immediate. I can write, edit, and publish a short story in a month’s time, and I immediately start to get feedback, in terms of sales and reviews, which is terribly motivating. Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong came out three months ago, and it has already sold 1595 copies and had twenty reviews with an average rating of 4.3.
Also, these stories don’t require much investment in time or money on the part of the reader, which brings me to the third reason I think writing short stories is good for series authors.
3. Short stories provide an inexpensive (in terms of time and cost) introduction to a series, and that can attract new readers.
This may have been the primary reason I wrote my first short story, but for me, personally, it’s now the least important reason for writing them. If I discovered that everyone who bought one of my individual short stories was already a fan of the series, I wouldn’t be disappointed. I expect that most of the people who buy my new collection will be people who have read at least one of my novels, and one of the reasons I did the collection was to provide a print edition for those fans that still prefer print.
However, when Dandy Detects was published in April of 2010, short stories were still viewed as something authors sold to magazines and traditional publishers were still successfully keeping ebook prices high—often higher than paperback print prices. Amanda Hocking had just published her first 99 cent book, KDP Select with its free days wasn’t on the scene, BookBub and other marketing sites weren’t sending us emails every day listing every discount, and no one was talking about perma-free books as loss leaders. Therefore, a 99 cent or free short story was still a pretty big deal.
Fast forward four years to 2014. Readers now can find long lists of books for free and even boxed sets of five or more books for 99 cents. The fact that a short story is free or 99 cents is no longer as much of an incentive to buy.
That doesn’t mean that short stories can’t still be an important marketing tool for those authors who are either unwilling or unable (perhaps because they don’t control the price of their books) to discount their full-length books. In this case, publishing a free or 99 cent short story is one of the few ways these writers can attract the reader who isn’t willing to shell out much money for a book by an author they don’t know.
In addition, giving away a short stories is an effective method of encouraging people to do things like sign up for a newsletter, subscribe to a blog, or like an author’s facebook page. I have now given away two of my short stories through my newsletter. This has helped grow my email list of people who want to hear when my next publication comes out.
Perhaps more significantly, short stories and novellas are beginning to appeal more to readers because they are perfect for the person who has short bits of time on their hands and a mobile device. Anyone who been traveling recently, or spent much time on public transportation, or in waiting rooms, has witnessed the rapid integration of mobile phones, tablets, and ereaders into everyday life.
Amazon, never a slouch about anticipating the desires of consumers, has responded by creating a number of features that emphasize the short form: Kindle Singles, Kindle Worlds, DayOne, and StoryFront. Just last month they introduced a new Kindle feature called Short Reads that lists selected short stories by the length of time it takes to read the story.
For authors who write series, whether they are writing historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy, or contemporary literature of any sub-genre, I am confident that they might find writing short stories or novellas that use characters and settings from their series as rewarding as I have, for many of the same reasons.
The intricate world building that goes into creating a dystopian future or alternative universe can just as easily come into conflict with moving the plot forward or adequately developing a romance. Or, a contemporary cozy mystery series can have secondary supporting characters that readers want to know more about. See this interesting blog post and series of comments by Elizabeth Spann Craig for an example. Any author can use a short story from their series as a way of enticing new readers or rewarding existing fans. And every short story can enhance the enjoyment by both the author and the readers of the imaginary world that has been created.
So, readers: Do you have any examples of series that you feel have benefited from having short stories connected to them? Authors: Have you written or contemplated writing short stories—with or without a series connection? I would love to know.
M. Louisa Locke, June 12.2014
It has been 3 months since I wrote a substantive blog post. So you might be wondering, what have I been doing? The answer is simple, I actually started taking some of my own advice, and I have been concentrating on writing and getting more work out there and available rather than spending so much time marketing or giving everyone else advice. Did you miss me?
Mostly, I have been writing short stories for my Victorian San Francisco series. If you want to see my most recent one, Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong, you can buy it for 99 cents here. The story I have almost completed, Madam Sibyl’s First Client, is going to be available for free in June for a limited time to those who have signed up for my newsletter. Additionally, I am working on bringing my short stories together as a collection with an extended historical essay. This way I can make them available at a reasonable cost in print for those who prefer this method of delivery.
I have also been collaborating with my new narrator, Alexander Haag, on getting my short stories out as audio books. If you sign up for the great new audiobook promotional site AudaVoxx, you will get a chance to win audiobook versions of Dandy Detects, The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, and Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong in the coming months.
Finally, I have been doing the research and prep work for Deadly Proof, the fourth book in the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, which features women in the printing industry. I hope it will be out in early 2015.
I haven’t stopped marketing altogether (after all, this whole blog could be called marketing.) But I have accepted that for my books the wild west days of huge sales bumps after a free promotion are over. I still think a well-planned (and advertised) free promotion can be an excellent tool for a relatively unknown author who wishes to get their work visible and to obtain enough reviews to convince readers to give their books a try.
However, my novels already have more reviews than I ever thought possible, I am evidently not so much of an unknown any longer, and free promotions aren’t giving my books enough of a sales bump to justify high promotional costs in time and money. In addition, with only 3 books in my series, the perma-free or discounted approach for the first book in the series doesn’t make sense. Maybe some day, after book 4 or 5?
But as I have written here before, I have found that doing a monthly 99 cent Kindle Countdown on one of my novels generates enough income to supplement the recent anemic sales of those books at full price. In addition, these monthly promotions keep the books visible enough in the main sub-categories so that those sales don’t disappear altogether.
Scheduling the promotions takes about 5 minutes (and the price drop goes down automatically so I don’t have to worry about spacing out and forgetting to do the price change.) Most of the work in getting promotional support takes about two hours a month before the promotion begins (applying for promotional ads) and about 15 minutes each day of the promotion (doing tweets and facebook announcements). In short, none of this takes away too much time from my writing.
For those of you who don’t want to put your books in KDP Select or haven’t found your books sell well on a Kindle Countdown, I would hope that you are pursuing the alternative strategy of getting your books into as many bookstores (physical and internet) and libraries (as print or ebooks.) This way, even if your sales are anemic in one venue, the total sales over all the venues should add up (particularly if you do a promotion.)
Meanwhile, I am kicking off the summer holidays with another Kindle Countdown. This time, Uneasy Spirits, the second book in my Victorian San Francisco series, will be 99 cents between Sunday May 25 and Saturday May 31 in the US Kindle Store and the UK Kindle Store.
M. Louisa Locke, May 25, 2014
Ana Brazil has tagged me in this blog hop where I will answer seven questions about my main character in my Victorian San Francisco series. Ana has a forthcoming historical mystery entitled Fanny Newcomb & the Irish Channel Ripper. I suspect my character Annie Fuller and Ana’s Fanny Newcomb might quite like each other! You can find out more about her work and Fanny Newcomb here.
The concept behind my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series came from my desire to find a way to introduce the reading public to the women who lived and worked in the far west at the end of the 19th century (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). As a fan of mysteries with amateur detectives (Sayer’s Lord Peter and Harriet Vane) and female sleuths (this was in the early 1980s and Sue Grafton had just burst on the scene) I decided that I needed to come up with a reason why a woman in 1880 San Francisco would investigate crimes by going undercover in a series of female occupations. From that idea came my series protagonist, Annie Fuller, a widow who owns a boarding house and supplements her income as a pretend clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl. In her first case, in Maids of Misfortune, Annie goes undercover as a domestic servant to investigate the suspicious death of one of Madam Sibyl’s clients. In the process she meets the murdered man’s lawyer, Nate Dawson, who becomes her romantic interest.
Since then I have written two other novels, Uneasy Spirits, where Annie and Nate investigate a fraudulent trance medium, and Bloody Lessons, where they try to figure out who is attacking local public school teachers. I have also written 3 short stories featuring minor characters from the series, Dandy Detects, The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, and Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong. The forthcoming work I am going to write about is another short story, entitled Madam Sibyl’s First Client.
Here are the 7 Questions about my character and this forthcoming work.
1. What is the name of my main character? Is he/she fictional or historical?
Mrs. Annie Fuller is my main character and she is very much fictional. However, since I drew on the extensive work I did for my history doctoral dissertation, I tried to make her representative of real women of her time and place as possible. She is a young widow who runs a boarding house. This is one of the primary occupations for married and widowed women in the 19th century because it was seen as a very respectable extension of a woman’s normal duties as a wife and mother. In addition, in most rapidly growing cities in this period in the United States, there was a voracious demand for boarding houses. Young single men and women were leaving their rural homes and flocking to the cities for the new jobs that were opening up, and they needed a place to live, where someone would take care of feeding them, doing light wash, etc.
While no one would think twice about Annie Fuller’s occupation as boarding house keeper—her second occupation, as the clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl, was not so ordinary. However, in 1880, spiritualism was very popular, and on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle were listed at least a dozen clairvoyants of one type or another, mostly women. And a number of them offered to give business advice. In fact, in the mid 1870s a famous woman, Victoria Woodhull, had gained national notice when she and her sister set up the first known female brokerage firm. Like Madam Sibyl, they suggested that the got their stock tips through supernatural means. So while this wasn’t a common occupation for women, it was certainly a possible one (and perfect for my purposes) and much more probable than setting herself up as a private detective in this era.
For the past year there has been a good deal of hand-wringing over the question of KDP Select free promotions. Have they de-valued fiction, do they attract negative reviews, do they even work anymore? As anyone who regularly reads my blog posts knows, I have been a strong proponent of offering ebooks free for promotional purposes, and free promotions have been very good to me in terms of increasing my reviews and keeping my books visible and selling.
However, I also believe one of the distinct advantages we have as indie authors is our ability to use our own sales data to respond innovatively to changes in the marketing environment. As a result, in the past year I followed a number of different strategies to keep the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series visible, including beginning to experiment with the new promotional tool, the Kindle Countdown, that has been introduced as part of KDP Select.
In this post I am going to:
A. Review how successful the strategies I pursued last year were for selling books in 2013.
B. Address whether or not Free is failing as a strategy.
D. Assess whether or not Kindle Countdown promotions can replace free-book promotions as my primary promotional strategy for 2014.
A. Last March, I became concerned by the growing competitiveness within the eBook market as the number of eBooks published soared and traditional publishers began to adopt some of the strategies of indie authors. I listed six strategies I was going to follow in 2013.
1. Have free promotions less frequently. In 2012, I had noticed that promotions too close together were less effective, so I began to space out my promotions. As a result, whereas In 2012 I ran ten free promotions, resulting in 132,552 free downloads, in 2013 I only did four free promotions, resulting in 145,494 free downloads. This meant that fewer promotions in 2013 resulted in higher numbers of downloads with each promotion—and greater effect on the post-promotion rankings and sales from each promotion.
2. Use longer promotions. I had concluded that breaking up the five free days available under the KDP Select rules into 2-3 promotions was counter-productive (more time-consuming, more expensive, less effective). So, I determined to do fewer but longer promotions. However, I soon discovered if you used a BookBub ad with your promotion—most of the downloads came within the first few days, so I scrapped this approach and kept to one short free promotion per 3 month interval.
3. Schedule promotions near the end of the month. I noticed that most of the borrows of my books as part of the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) were at the beginning of a month. It is as if all Prime Members suddenly say, “Hey, I get another free borrow,” when a new month rolls around. So, I scheduled two of my four promotions for the end of the month so that the resulting post-promotional visibility would be at the beginning of the next month. This strategy worked: In each case, the promoted book was borrowed at least 1000 times during the month following the promotion.
4. Do more 99 cent promotions. By 2013, the evidence was mounting that the one way to ensure a successful promotion was to schedule a BookBub ad. However, it costs almost twice as much to promote a 99 cent book as a free one with BookBub. Therefore, when a 99 cent sale of my second series book, Uneasy Spirits, had disappointing results without a BookBub ad, I decided not to pursue this strategy in 2013. I did, however, use a 99 cent promotion of Uneasy Spirits in conjunction with the launch of my third book, and I did begin to schedule 99 cent sales through the KDP Select Kindle Countdown option as soon as it was introduced at the end of 2013.
5. Experiment with promotions that are not tied to free or discounting. My premise here was that, if free promotions were becoming less effective, I would need to find alternative or complementary methods of making my work visible. In 2013, I did a book tour and guest posts on relevant blogs: I participated in book and Kindle Fire giveaways; I paid for banner ads and book sponsorships; and I paid to boost posts on my Facebook page. As far as I can tell, none of these alternative methods of promotion had any appreciable effect compared to the impact of a single free-book promotion on Bookbub.
6. Write more books and short stories. I published the third book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series, Bloody Lessons, in September of 2013, and I put together the first three books in the series as a boxed set and made it available in November. I am about to publish a third short story.
Conclusions: Looking at the effects of these six strategies, there is evidence that three of them proved effective. Having fewer free promotions increased the effectiveness of the promotions I did, placing the promotions near the end of the month did stimulate borrows, and publishing additional works did compensate for the lower royalties brought in by the first two books in the series. As a result, I was able to maintain my over all sales for 2013 near the level of the year before.
I am excited to announce that my first short story, Dandy Detects, is now available as an audio book on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. I am trying a new narrator, Alexandra Haag, who I love, and I hope she will be able to do the rest of my work. But, ultimately it is the fans of the series who can tell me if Alexandra has captured the world of Annie Fuller, Nate Dawson, and the O’Farrell Street Boarding House.
The price for the audiobook is $3.95 (I don’t set the price and I know this seems steep for a short story—but it is cheap for an audio book—and it has already been discounted on Amazon to $3.45).
To encourage you all to give it a try I am giving out a limited number of free coupons—just send me a message at email@example.com.
M. Louisa Locke, February 22, 2014