Sunday, January 19, 2014

Demons, Funnels, and an Empty Checking Account: Why I Decided to Sell Short Fiction

Croatoa: A short story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Jenni Wiltz
In 2010, I had an idea for a short story about the lost colony of Roanoke. My first love is historical fiction and I've always been tormented by the idea of unsolved mysteries, so it seemed like a natural fit for me. Still, my writer's brain wanted more. It wanted to put a supernatural twist on the story. What better way to explain the strange disappearance of the colonists than by introducing something creepy and otherworldly? Namely, a demon named Croatoa. I know, I know...there are actual scientific theories about what happened to the colonists. But that's not nearly as much fun as a long-fingered black-haired demon.  

But I digress. It was a cold December and I was about to finish my first semester of grad school. It was time to write the final story for my first graduate-level creative writing class. I'd already turned in one historical fiction story, and one story about a talking dog who was really the devil. To reveal my amazing depth and breadth as a writer, logic dictated that I avoid (a) history and (b) the supernatural.

But since when have I done anything the way I'm supposed to?

I wrote the Roanoke story anyway.  Whether it risked my grade or not, it was the story I wanted to write. That's how I roll. 

I wrote it from the point of view of Eleanor Dare, the mother of the first English baby born in the New World. I wrote about the last days of the colony, when hunger and cold and starvation and drought and attacks by Native Americans had taken their toll. I wrote about a demon named Croatoa, who offered Eleanor Dare a terrifying bargain. I wrote about Manteo, the Croatoan man who had already been to England twice by the time the last, doomed Roanoke colonization party arrived. And I turned it in for my final: 20 pages of brutal, bloody, tragic prose.  I don't know what my grade on that particular story ended up being, since the professor said he would read our finals over a fire and burn them before assigning our final grades. But my grade in the class was an A, so I'm guessing it didn't suck too hard.

Leopard Writer Meme: Characters Fall n Love, Kill One of Them
This is pretty much how I write
 most of my non-literary short stories.
Being in grad school led to a burst of creativity for the next 16 months that resulted in me having quite a few short stories, mostly written for creative writing classes. I submitted almost all of them to journals and anthologies. Quite a few of them actually made it in and have been published. As is the case with most journals and anthologies, they requested only first North American rights, which meant that once the story had been published, all rights reverted to me.

Until recently, I thought of my short stories as a means to an end: a way to get better at writing. A way to rack up a few publishing credits for this here "Awards & Publications" page. A way to earn backlinks for this blog. But I never thought of them as anything else.

Then I read a blog post on Anne R. Allen's blog.  Writers, if you're not reading her blog, you're missing out. I only discovered it recently, but every post is chock-full of helpful and interesting information. The post I read was called, "Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction." In it, Anne writes, "What--short stories? Aren't they just for writing classes?" She had my attention right away, since that's what I'd always thought. She said she knew of a bestselling writer who put a bunch of her older short stories up for sale on Amazon (under non-famous name, of course) and ended up making $500 a month. People found them, bought them, and liked them. 

Hmm, I thought. I have folders of short stories, all just sitting there.

But I still didn't do anything about it. I was working on marketing my books and getting my website up and running, and I didn't want to think about it yet.

Meme: Learn all the Marketing!
Then, Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant released Write, Publish, Repeat. Their advice is to create a marketing funnel, with short stories, novellas, and books in tiered pricing layers that draw browsers in and convert casual readers into repeat buyers and (hopefully) fans.

Hmm, I thought. I don't have shit for a funnel.

That's when I started thinking of ways to use my short stories as part of my marketing funnel. The book I want to write next is historical fiction (both of them, actually). I have several historical fiction short stories, including Croatoa. Why not put out some of the short stories and try to use them to generate interest in my historical fiction? 

So here's what I did:

  1. Dug out my old manuscript.
  2. Polished it up. Added some stuff. Took a few awkward lines away.
  3. Made a cover. (Deepest apologies to my fantastic cover artist, but with a dead laptop and an empty propane tank, money is allergic to me right now.)
  4. Popped the completed manuscript into my eBook template.
  5. Added two bonus features to the end of the story: a historical note on Manteo, and a detailed timeline of the Roanoke Colony. I wanted to make sure the reader had a bit more than just the story, so I used the idea of a DVD's special features and came up with the timeline/historical note idea.
  6. Added a brief excerpt from my vampire book at the very end, with the cover art and a buy link. The idea here is that someone interested in a historical fiction story with a hint of the supernatural might also really like my vampire book, which also hits both of these genre's high notes. 
  7. Priced it at .99c. My books are all $2.99, and since this story is much shorter, the price needs to reflect that. Maybe when I have more items up for sale, I can make one of my funnel items permafree, but for now, I chose the entry-level price point of .99c.
  8. Published through Amazon KDP and Smashwords. Since I don't plan on doing a ton of promotion for the story, I didn't make it exclusive to KDP. I want the max amount of exposure for the minimum amount of effort, which means more venues = more eyeballs. 

So this is now the beginning of a grand experiment in which I see if I can replicate other authors' success selling short fiction. I haven't publicized the release much, since I had an interview that went live at the same time and I can only stand so much of myself. In general, my books make very little money and this story likely will, too. As of now, it's sold one copy through Smashwords and made me .73c. But that's .73c I didn't have yesterday, so that's cool with me.

Meme: Become a writer, they said. It will be fun, they said.
I don't think I'll be one of the lucky few making $500 a month off of it, but I also know I have a dozen more than can follow. It's the production time that's going to slow me down. I am writing two books right now, and don't have much time left over to market the older books plus edit, format, produce, and publish a buttload of short stories. But I'm going to try because, well, Protestant work ethic bequeathed to me by my Swedish and Scottish ancestors just will not quit. Why watch TV at night when you could work on 800 projects all at once?

That's one thing about being a one-woman indie author show. You have to love it in order to live it. So here I am, loving it and living it, and wanting to help you do the same. I'll post updates here as needed to let you know how my short story experiment goes.

If you want to check out Croatoa, you can get it from Amazon or Smashwords.

To learn more about how I researched and wrote the story itself, check out this post on my website: