Expectation, Reality, and Serendipity

I think I’m almost a walking/classic example of “we don’t know what the public wants or how to anticipate it” that seems to be the battle cry of the entertainment industry, particularly books. Publishers take risks every day on things. They think “Oh this will be big” and then it isn’t. Or they put a book out there and it does way better than they ever expected.

[Publetariat Editor’s note: strong language after the jump]

That’s about where I am right now. When I started the Zoe pen name and the paranormal romance and then started the Kitty pen name with the erotica, the idea was as follows: I was going to market the hell out of Zoe, and really build that. It would be my more “commercial” name. Kitty would just be a niche passion project, written for love, not money.

The reality turned out to be the opposite. I have spent thousands of dollars marketing and pushing Zoe. I’ve spent probably thousands of hours toward the same goal. In the beginning when there wasn’t much in the Kindle store, Zoe books sold well. If I’d had a lot more books out (i.e. if I’d stopped arguing on the Internet and kept my eye on the prize), I would have been able to lock in more long-term fans who would REMEMBER me and keep coming back.

But I didn’t do that.

Now, a few years later, the paranormal romance market is glutted and it’s starting to go a little out of fashion. i.e. while there will always be hardcore PNR fans and you can always probably do pretty decently there if you’re at the top of the pile, except for your hardcore fans, it’s just a harder sell now.

Likewise, YA dystopians are probably on the way out, too. People just get so sick of seeing the same shit over and over. So I probably won’t be doing YA dystopians. I might do some YA, but not dystopians, probably. This isn’t me just letting the market dictate to me. If I had a really well-developed idea that I LOVED and that kept me up at night thinking about it, I’d write it and publish it and just let the chips fall wherever. It’s always possible to write that book in a glutted and largely on the way out market that just grabs people anyway.

I mean YA dystopians have been slowly falling out of favor and then we had The Hunger Games happen. So there will probably be another little surge of it. Just like there was another surge of PNR after Twilight.

So what does this mean? Life Cycle has been out three weeks. And this is generally the point where if a title of mine is going to have a good upswing in sales and ranking, it happens now. I’ve got a huge cross-promo thing going with Kimberly Kinrade. We have thousands of entries. I’ve got major paid promo with a company whose name I won’t mention since the results are lackluster and I know some people swear by the company… All this is going on CURRENTLY and is in progress. I’ve spent more money promoting Life Cycle than any other title I’ve written for either name and it’s had the most disappointing sales so far. It has only 2 Amazon reviews in all of that time. While I may love it and those who love everything I write may love it… it obviously doesn’t have enough interest in the general marketplace and people aren’t passionate enough about it to really talk about it. (This isn’t me whining or crying or bitching or boo hooing, this is me facing reality.) Though it does make me pretty sad given how much I LOVE Cain and wanted to share him with a larger audience.

Zoe has a MUCH larger visible social platform than Kitty. But doesn’t sell as well. So all this crap about building your ‘platform’ with a billion twitter followers and facebook followers and newsletter subscribers and on and on is just that… crap. 5,000 Twitter followers isn’t 5,000 core fan base. I would LOVE it if all my kitty fans were on my newsletter because frankly it feels wild and out of control to not have direct access to everybody who loves my books to make sure they know about them when they come out. But that’s part of the wholesale model, when you deal directly with an intermediary company instead of directly selling to your audience. It’s a trade off. On the one hand bad: you lose direct access to everybody. On the other hand good: you have more access to people in general.

Kitty has 150 newsletter subscribers. But every single person on that list is a SERIOUS fan. Zoe has over 2,000 newsletter subscribers and yet 25% or less even open their newsletters from Zoe. I used to have a much higher open conversion rate for Zoe. It dropped because I started giving away Kept for free to entice people to subscribe to the newsletter and also doing newsletter drives and promotions where people subscribe. Most of those people just delete the emails when they come. They don’t CARE about my work. They just wanted free stuff. (Obviously there are exceptions but they aren’t the rule.)

Back to Zoe:

I LOVE Life Cycle. I really thought it would break out. But I think part of the problem is… it’s book 4 in the series. And I think it just doesn’t matter how much I scream that it can work as a stand-alone, most people want to read books in a series in order. And Blood Lust is not my strongest book. It’s not “weak”, but it’s not break-out-able. So I can’t expect readers–except for a small core following–to push through all those books to get to Life Cycle.

I think I can wrap up this series in 7 books, so that’s what I’m going to do. Hadrian and Angeline’s book (book 5) is next. That will tie up their storyline started in Dark Mercy. Then I have 2 more to wrap up the series. I’m not going to continue to try to resurrect something that just isn’t giving me the results I want. But by the same token, I’m not going to betray the fans of the series by not finishing what I started. (and FYI, I only had 7 books with full PLANS. I was going to put in an extra book assuming I could figure out something to go in that slot, but I’m not going to do that now.)

Not when Kitty does so much better. With Kitty I have done NO major promos or giveaways (nor will I ever.) I’ve come to understand that if your selling point is giving away a Kindle or signed free books you are mainly attracting people who want free things, not a fan base. They may say: “Oh, that book sounds good!” but they will add it to their TBR pile (maybe) and then never bother to buy it or read it. Some will, but most won’t. This is 4 years of experience with all this crap talking. (And 4 years isn’t massive experience, but it’s enough to note a trend and stop doing stupid things.)

When I think of all my favorite authors and favorite books, the selling point that brought me to those authors was THE BOOK. It wasn’t a giveaway of any stripe. So all this expensive and time consuming promotion just doesn’t work. IMO. Maybe it works for other people and if so, great. But I’ve seen the difference in how Kitty and Zoe sell and the crazy amount of work I have to put into Zoe for mediocre sales

Zoe is also harder for me to write. It’s more work for the writing, more work for the editing, more work and money for the marketing… lackluster results. Kitty is easier to write, less work for the editing, no major marketing… better results… sells better over the long haul even with many months of no new release. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what I should be focusing most of my attention on, here.

Writing is my career. It’s what pays my rent and puts food on my table. Without writing, I’d have to go out and get a real job. So, while I can’t write something I hate just to please/feed a market… (i.e. I can’t just ‘write what’s hot’ if my heart isn’t in it)… I also have to focus on what makes the most sense to focus on.

I said I would write and publish as long as I could make enough money to sustain me doing it. That applies not just to my writing in general but to specific pen names/genres and how much energy I assign to things based both on my passion for it as well as reader passion for it.

There is a lot of ego tied up in Zoe. When I was this scrappy little indie not making any money I was all over the Internet running my mouth. I had something to prove. By pulling away from Zoe some, it feels like failure. It feels like all those people will go: “What the fuck happened to that loud-mouthed indie? I haven’t seen anything from her in awhile. Guess she didn’t have the goods.” Well, I think I ‘have the goods’, but the issue is, I either don’t have them enough in this genre, or I’m trying to fight an uphill struggle in a glutted market and it’s just me being stupid.

There is a lot of ego death involved in letting Zoe fade off more and more people’s radars. There was so much of a “I’ll show them!” attitude going on. And frankly I just don’t think ZOE is going to show anybody anything, except how to keep doing the same stupid thing over and over when it is like banging my head against a brick wall.

I’ll do more Zoe stuff after this series, probably. I’ll probably be shifting more into urban fantasy with romantic subplots. But I won’t put giant energy into it until and unless I see it’s got a real market/readership potential. It’s a close enough neighbor to the PNR that I think I can keep most of my readers. But at least until I finish the Preternaturals series, I’ll probably be doing one Zoe book a year and focusing most of my energy on what’s selling right now and what I’m most passionate about and have the most active ideas for and excitement… the kitty stuff.

And I’m sure I’ll get “kittied out” and need to write some Zoe, or maybe perhaps a third pen name, which I probably won’t share. Because it gets to be too much pressure. Anything tied into Zoe is too much pressure. If I’d just QUIETLY done my thing, it would be one thing… but I was not quiet. And so… whether or not anybody really notices or cares I feel like I have to “live up to something” and that’s too much fucking pressure.

I’m also pretty much finished expecting anything. I frankly don’t know what the fuck people want, and I’m tired of pretending I’m some kind of fictional oracle. For Kitty, I didn’t really think much about The Auction. I mean I enjoyed writing the book as much as all of the other Kitty books, but I didn’t think it was going to sell great. It got to the highest ranking of any of my Kitty books. People LOVED those alien dragon guys. Who knew? Several people want some more sci-fi type kitty stuff, and I do have some ideas of that nature.

Comfort Food still sells strong after over two years. Sometimes someone will rave about it with a big following and it will get a huge uptick. like a few weeks ago it got back into the top 2k of the Kindle store. (And you know what, Guys? I GET that Amazon is not the only market out there, but it is the biggest one and how you are doing there in sales ranking is a pretty good indicator of how your name/book is doing overall in terms of popularity side-by-side with others. And yes, you shouldn’t compare yourself to others… blah blah blah… but… really… you need to have some inkling on how you rank. If I didn’t pay any attention to that stuff, I wouldn’t know Kitty does so much better than Zoe.)

But… then The Last Girl, which I LOVED, didn’t do as well. It still does better than all my Zoe books, but for a Kitty book it didn’t exactly explode the charts.

But the bottom line of what I’m trying to say is… I’m done trying to “make people interested” in stuff they aren’t interested in. Advertising is next to useless. It’s word of mouth that sells books. The theory is that you need enough advertising to get enough word of mouth started, but honestly if a book is THAT gripping, it doesn’t take that many readers for word of mouth to really get started. (Kitty stuff is a prime example of this.) Advertising only really pumps up books that are already going. It’s hard to get people’s attention with stuff they’ve never heard about. And I’m really starting to believe that the kind of brand-building advertising that seems to “work” (as much as advertising ever does), is really more for the big boys, or people who are in a very limited niche where they have access to much of that audience over and over.

If you’re writing/making/doing something that has an audience you can’t reach all at once, then it’s pissing in the wind at a target you can’t even see. For something that costs thousands of dollars and tons of angst, it’s not how I want to be spending my time or money.

In an interesting twist of serendipity, today while I’m thinking about all of this, this post was Freshly Pressed on wordpress.

The only thing I don’t fully agree with is: “Let money dictate what you do”. If you are an ARTIST and that is IT and you don’t rely on your art as your livelihood, then yeah, feel free to ignore that. But if you ARE reliant on the money to live, then ideally you want to find something you love that other people love and will pay for (like for me: the Kitty work), but it’s not feasible to keep doing something that isn’t giving you the results you need/want.

That’s just reality. I have to do what I love that pays the bills. Zoe doesn’t do that for me nearly as much as Kitty, so I’m done waiting for something of Zoe’s to “break out”, or for it to “catch on and build up a following” etc. I’m just done. I’m still writing Zoe, I’m just not putting all my hopes and dreams in it or the bulk of my energy into it. Likewise, I’m not going to start having tons of expectations for Kitty, either, because it’s the expectations that lead to the disappointment. I’m just going to write what I love and am passionate about and let the chips fall wherever.

If I hadn’t been trying so hard to push Zoe and make Zoe “work” on a larger scale I probably naturally would have drifted to 1-2 Zoe titles a year as a break from Kitty and most of my focus on Kitty. I feel like if I ignored this instinct, 4 years from now I’ll be talking about how I had an opportunity to really make Kitty work, but was focused too much on Zoe. (Like I did with regards to Zoe vs. Internet arguing.)

And I swore I wouldn’t make that same stupid mistake twice.


This is a reprint from The Weblog of Zoe Winters. Also see this follow-up post.