My debt to The Scarlet Letter

I’ve been agonizing a bit about whether to get rid of all traces of The Scarlet Letter in my sales copy.

I think it might scare away a lot of readers, especially some romance readers I might otherwise attract, and it also likely means nothing to overseas readers. Certainly BookBub didn’t mention it in their copy, and judging from the response I had to my free days with them, they are true masters of book blurb copywriting … not that it’s necessarily all that hard to persuade people to download something that’s free.

This weekend, as I dipped back into the 100,000ths in Kindle sales rank for the first time since my free days (ouch), I started tweaking my sales copy to take advantage of two sections I hadn’t used before, Editorial Reviews and From the Author, which allowed me to write directly to potential readers.

But it could be I’m just making things worse. I added what you’ll read below to the From the Author section, because 1) it’s true, and 2) I hope it indicates that while I owe a debt to Hawthorne, my book is going to be a different sort of read.

I’ve also added more detail to some of my eight points here, since I’m assuming you might be more interested than the general audience at Amazon.

Here it is:

From the Author

I wrote The Awful Mess: A Love Story as a way of puzzling out why three gifted Episcopal priests I knew would mess up their careers by getting into trouble with women who were not their wives. I also wondered about the women who would mess with a married priest. And since I’m a woman myself and not in even the slightest way a priest, I ended up telling the story from the woman’s point of view.

Eventually I realized that what I was writing echoed The Scarlet Letter in a lot of ways. I began to see this book as my response to Hawthorne from across a century-plus (his was published in 1850). So I reread his book, and decided that…

  1. The Scarlet Letter is so much more fun to read as an adult than as a high school senior.
  2. For a book involving adultery, Hawthorne sure skipped over a lot of the good parts.
  3. Unlike Hawthorne, I was going to have to explain how two people with access to birth control and certain medical procedures could get into this particular predicament.
  4. Chillingworth is a wonderful villain, but not at all typical. It is usually women, not their lovers, who have the most to fear from angry men.
  5. Americans are much more tolerant today, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for bad behavior.
  6. Nobody names a daughter Hester anymore. (Almost nobody. I actually saw the name on a business van at the local grocery store this week! It was for some sort of cleaning service. I wanted to take a picture of it, but I was afraid the owner would come out and demand to know why I was photographing her van.)
  7. No child, even a fictional one, should ever be saddled with the symbolic weight Hawthorne loaded onto poor little Pearl.
  8. I didn’t want the same ending, and in today’s world Hawthorne’s ending wouldn’t make much sense anyway. (It may not have made sense in his day, either — people often don’t realize that this was a historical novel when it was published about a decade before the Civil War.)

That’s pretty much where I stopped for my book page, besides the usual call to action.

Do you remember reading The Scarlet Letter? What did you think of it? If you found it a dreary assignment in high school, you might consider trying it again. (Definitely skip that  deadly-dull introduction “The Custom House,” though.) Even better, you can download The Scarlet Letter free at Amazon.

I found it much easier to read Hawthorne’s later novel The Blithedale Romance. It’s an often quite funny novel about a bunch of mid-nineteenth century hippies living in a commune, obsessing about natural food and seething with sexual tension. In other words, it’s about those crazy Transcendentalists. And it’s free in multiple formats at If you’re familiar with Emerson, Fuller, Alcott, and Thoreau, you might enjoy reading it just to try to figure out who might be a thinly-veiled portrait of whom.

My own insights into that gang came mostly from reading the diary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife Lydian — Lydia, actually, but he preferred she go by a less ordinary name (!!!). It was loaned to me by the lovely Prof. Emerson at UMass when I was taking American Lit with him. All I can say is that if you want the real dirt on a man, definitely read what his wife writes about him.

And here’s a portrait of our famous author as a young man. Nathaniel Hawthorne was lucky enough to come from a wealthy, distinguished family that could support him (and, presumably, pay for this lovely painting) before he made a critical success of his writing.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Charles Osgood (1841) in the Peabody Essex Museum (via Wikipedia)

Even so, it’s interesting to read that although it was considered a critical success, Hawthorne sold only 7,800 copies of The Scarlet Letter during his lifetime, according to Kathryn Harrison’s introduction to the Modern Library Edition of 2000.

This is a reason to take heart, downtrodden writers! One of your books might really take off and make some serious money for someone someday.

It’s just very possible that it won’t be for you.

Traditional and indie

Ah, traditional publishers.

Indie authors tend to get irate at them. Formerly well-published traditional authors tend to get irate at them. Formerly well-employed publishing professionals like me sometimes like to get irate at them.

And sure, there are reasons for indies to feel superior to the big six. Traditional publishing houses must chase revenue and profit targets for their corporations.

This can result in a lot of trend following, the egregious milking of cash cows, and committee-itis — a reluctance to try new things, or to try them and then drop them too quickly if they don’t show signs of paying off soon.

On the plus side, though, they have to chase revenue and profit targets.

I’m serious. That can be a good thing. Because, to get to that point, traditional publishers have developed a track record in the market. Their divisions — if they are well managed — have deep experience in acquiring and selling books. They try very hard not to waste a lot of time and money.

A caption-less cartoon from The Independent Publishing Magazine.

This is something an indie author should think carefully about, because the time and money an indie author might waste is her own.

(Besides, indies do plenty of egregious cash-cow milking and trend following, too. Have you noticed that suddenly everything that possibly can be has been turned into a series? Have you noticed all the titles suddenly having Amazon-friendly key words added to them, like The Dingo Ate My Baby: A Cozy Novel of Romantic Suspense?)

I’ve been thinking about all this during the last exhausting week of my life as an indie author and publisher and budding (wilting?) playwright.

Because writing and publishing is not my day job.

My day job is teaching four composition courses as an adjunct professor. My composition courses are pretty heavy on writing. (How else can people learn to write?) I enjoy it, even though the pay is terrible and there is zero job security and no benefits to speak of. I just love teaching college-age students. What is better than helping students find their voices?

But that doesn’t mean I love grading four Composition I classes all in one week because midterm grades are due. (Even full-time professors will confess to all sorts of procrastination when faced with a stack of papers to grade. Apparently it’s the prime time to clean the house.)

This was also the week my short play Nude with Bearded Irises got its premiere along with six other shorts as part of the Sand Lake Center for the Arts/Circle Theater Players second original one act play festival. Surely a little basking in glory was called for?

However, I was so busy grading I could only go see two of the shows, and couldn’t even hang around for the cast party.

I saw one early show for a senior home, which was a very small but appreciative audience. On the last day of the run I had the pleasure of seeing a full house, and seeing how a production that had started out strong had gotten even stronger. I got to see people laughing in all the right places, and my play placed in the prizes, which is very nice for a first time playwright.

But after the first act I had to sneak out so I could go home and stay up into the night doing more grading.

And that’s just going to be the deal for the foreseeable future. Teaching pays bills and also allows me flexibility that a full-time job wouldn’t. People are sometimes surprised by this, but writing really doesn’t pay, not unless you’re one of the lucky ones (this is true even of traditionally published authors). I’m still in the hole and don’t expect to get out of it any time soon.

In fact, I really don’t want to calculate my own bottom line (like Rachel Thompson recently did), although doing my taxes will no doubt force me to do it.

But publishing is a business, and businesses require investment. For indie authors, that’s their own hard-earned money. How much can they realistically expect to make back? For most, it will be nothing. I’ve already beaten the odds in some ways — at least partly because I was willing to invest in advertising. So I’m feeling optimistic, but not enough to pour my savings indiscriminately into this enterprise.

The deal I have with myself is that If I save money in another part of the budget, then I can spend it on this. In fact, we plan to sell this lovely house and live much more simply so that I can focus more on writing and less on making the mortgage, and seriously try to make a go of this. (Or, at least, not lose any major ground in the process of trying — and it’s time for us to simplify, anyway.)

Real publishers cut costs where they can, too, of course. Sometimes quite brutally…

But there’s nothing like trying something yourself for a while to build up a little respect for the real professionals. So here’s to traditional publishing: Here’s to having people who get to work all day at publishing, and get to draw on expertise all over the building.

Long may they prosper.

And, in four or five years, maybe I will, too.





Sincere blasphemy

My book The Awful Mess: A Love Story is a contemporary twist on The Scarlet Letter that naturally features a priest who gets himself into a very bad spot.

Hawthorne didn’t inspire this book, and I didn’t set out to model mine after his. I think I was nearly done with the first draft when I suddenly realized I was echoing The Scarlet Letter in some major ways. I hadn’t read it since high school, though, so I promptly reread it — this time with much more appreciation than I’d had at 17.

My errant cleric is an Episcopal priest because this book was actually inspired by the sad  coincidence of knowing three separate married Episcopal priests who had cheated on their spouses in the course of their duties and thereby wrecked their careers.

(They had not cheated with me, I hasten to add!)

These were three men who were dynamic in the pulpit and beloved of their congregations. Why would they risk all that for an affair? But I also knew they were hardly alone in this.

That’s how I eventually arrived at Arthur, who wasn’t Arthur at all in the very first draft. I changed his name when I realized how much he had in common with Arthur Dimmesdale. (Roger’s name changed at that point, too.)

Anyway, why would a man do this? I decided that Arthur needed to be feeling trapped and stale to go so wrong, so I gave him a miserable marriage, as well as the problem of knowing a lot more provocative Biblical scholarship than the average congregation would ever want to hear. (Not that I’m entirely convinced he wouldn’t have cheated anyway, mind you.)

Then I needed someone for my errant priest to mess with. And that was another puzzle. What self-respecting woman would want to sleep with a married priest? And who would be stupid enough to get pregnant in the process?

My husband and I had dealt with infertility issues ourselves, so I had my answer to the second question. If you think you’re infertile, you never bother with birth control (except, ironically, during infertility treatments).

So I made Mary someone who had been cast off, and was just lonely and isolated enough to indulge in the immediate physical comfort of something she herself didn’t think was right. (I just couldn’t rename her Hester. NOBODY is named Hester.)

Anyway, for the priest, I figured Mary could represent a welcome break from having to be a spiritual leader all the time. But oddly enough, every time I tried to write Arthur seeking solace in Mary’s lack of religion (and/or her pants), he kept trying to save her soul anyway. And that’s because the man is still a sincere Christian, if a rather flagrant sinner. He’s a Christian, even though he clearly has wrestled with doubt, and doesn’t put much store in purity – or his own vows – and his theology is about as progressive as it can get and still be called Christian.

Religiously, I actually have a lot in common with Arthur. I don’t share his disregard for marital fidelity, but I do share his theology. I used to find his ideas – for example, about the virgin birth – absolutely appalling. I even left a church once because the priest was espousing them. But since then I’ve learned more, and changed my opinion about that and many other aspects of my belief.

I can still vividly remember what it was like to be so appalled, though. I can fully understand having that kind of belief, being viscerally attached to that kind of belief, while still being a perfectly intelligent person.(Atheists just don’t get how this is possible, in my experience.)

So I can value Bert’s Evangelical faith, for example. Most of all, though, I appreciate that even though he feels strongly that many things in the world are an abomination to God, he still finds it in his heart to love rather than to condemn when it really matters.

And sometimes that love is expressed in very practical ways: With food. With a coat. With shelter. With comfort to to the sick, or to those in prison.

With forgiveness.

It’s all there in the gospels, multiple times, attributed to Jesus. And that is a Jesus whose fan club I can happily remain a member of, even after I have come to doubt many aspects of the creed. Not because I expect to burn in hellfire if I don’t believe, but because I respect His teachings and want to follow them.

Anyway, as I expected, I’ve gotten some occasional grief from religious reviewers. I kept my book out of the Christian category to avoid the worst of it, but I didn’t feel I should be chased out of “religion and spirituality” completely, and so at the moment I’m drafting this, if you type in “women’s religion and spirituality” my book still shows up on the front page.

I expected some condemnation, but I’m actually impressed by the kindness shown by some people who clearly don’t share all the book’s beliefs.

(I’m also still new enough at this to be tickled to have any reviews, period.)

This blog post is, however, my rather long-winded attempt to refute the reviewer who says that the book feels insincere. She writes:

I liked the characters, and I thought the story interesting enough for 4 stars. However, I downgraded it to 3 because I felt it had a quasi-religious agenda that came across forced. The religious agenda was also somewhat blasphemous. If you have to force feed a position, it doesn’t resonate with truth. This book had undertones of man twisting God to be whatever man wants him to be so as not to have to change our behavior. It just felt insincere. Good plot though. And well paced writing.

She was generous enough to give me credit where she felt credit was due, so I can’t  complain. But I’d like her and anyone who thinks that way to know that my “religious agenda” is entirely sincere.

Because I firmly believe that if you are a Christian, or even just a human, then giving and accepting love should be more important to you than anything else.


Going viral

Everything I’ve read lately has told me it’s pointless to offer free books unless you have something else to sell people. In fact, I’d pretty much resigned myself to just plugging away on the paperback version of The Awful Mess: A Love Story* (since I’d promised it to some folks), and then getting the next book up.

However, I’d already ordered an ad from BookBub to support free days originally planned for back in the beginning of September, and I was going to lose that investment if I didn’t use it. I’d already required their kind indulgence just to postpone it, something I’m not even sure they’re still allowing now.

So the ad ran Thursday, my first day free, and downloads shot off like a rocket. (Mind you, I didn’t notice this for a few of hours, because I kept looking at the wrong side of the sales report and wondering why I didn’t have even a single download yet.)

The pace slowed Friday, the second day free. This was a day that was unsupported by any ads. However, some odd little sites had picked it up as #1 free download (or #2 or wherever it was) and started tweeting it and such. And maybe other people also check their promotional emails as late as I sometimes do. Because while it slowed, it was still pretty impressive. I did some tweeting too, but somehow I doubt @sheerhubris’s 79 followers had a huge effect on sales.

Anyway, I had gone into this figuring I’d be lucky to get another 6,000-10,000 free downloads. I’d had 6,000+ for my first three free days, using other advertisers as well as some free sites that I was lucky picked me up. Really, I figured it would mostly get me some new reviews, and I was a little worried that they’d be irate that it wasn’t romantic enough, or whatever it is “women’s fiction” readers expect.

But I ended up getting almost 44,000 free downloads — twice what BookBub had listed as the upper range for my list.

I also spent some time at the top of the free bestsellers list, but that is something I also hit the last time I was free, at much lower download numbers. So while it would be nice to think I’m just brilliant and have an excellent book that OF COURSE is going to catch fire, I think it’s clear I was mostly just lucky.

One, the new Kindle Paperwhite had just come out and was being advertised heavily. So people were perhaps looking for ebooks at higher rates than usual. Two, it was just before the weekend and raining and chilly, at least where I live in the Northeast. (Plus there was a blizzard out west!)

Whatever the cause, this time I got to see Amazon’s algorithms really swing into action.

First, in an act of torture, they dropped me down to the 250,000ths in sales rank, which may be lower than I’ve ever seen this book (though I’ve certainly spent time in the 100,000ths). I looked at this figure — which lasted hours, mind you — in disbelief: how was that even possible?

Then suddenly I was ranking in the 1000ths. Here’s where I was as I started drafting this on the Sunday afternoon after my Thursday and Friday free:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,071 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

  • #15 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Romance
  • #39 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
  • #40 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Women’s Fiction

What’s more, if I went lurking in private browsing mode and typed in search terms like “Kindle literary romance” my book was offered right up there at the top!

Which reminds me of another change this time around: I had picked some new keywords. And at least two of them are showing up above. So that probably helped, too. It also helps that literary fiction is a smaller category to begin with — I can shoot to the top of that one much more easily than plain old “romance” or something like that. (Of course, that also means I’m not really anywhere near being an actual bestseller. This is not going to change my life anytime soon.)

At any rate, something happened to make Amazon start actively promoting my book, even though paid sales were fairly strong, but not insane (and there were also the inevitable returns from people who thought they were getting it free). Maybe the fact that I’m at $3.99 instead of 99 cents means those sales are worth a lot more than they were the last time? (I’d dropped to 99 cents to salvage something from my lost two free days last month.) Maybe the pace of reviews pouring in helped? (It’s stunning how fast some people read full-length books!)

I expect this to tail off, of course — I’ve already dipped a bit in some of the lists I was on —  but it’s been nice while it lasts. I’ve also earned over 20 new reviews, all positive except for the sole one-star “boring,” which I knew had to come sooner or later. But it’s so much better to get it now, with 40 good ones already in the bank. And that’s a matter of luck, too!

If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t get my book updated with good promos for the next book, or a better enticement to get on my email list. I’ve been too busy, and agonizing over the cover for the next book, and as time got shorter I became deeply afraid that I might accidentally blow up my book at a Very. Bad. Time. So I let it go.

Anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re an indie author going free might still have some uses, even with a solo title. But to get these kinds of numbers, you’ll need to support your free days with good advertising, and that expense may take quite some time to earn back. Also, obviously, your book needs to be in good enough shape to earn good reviews from strangers.

And perhaps most of all you need to be lucky.

So … good luck!

The illustrated version:

Thursday night. Notice that I had 25 reviews.

Top free 10-2013

And here’s what that translated into three days later, when I typed “Kindle women’s literary romance” into Amazon’s search box. The Awful Mess* was right there at the top, right where any author of a literary romance might hope to be. And this time I had 47 reviews.

Pretty heady stuff, when it goes well!

kindle womens romance search 10-13* My book links are Amazon associate links, which means I get a small additional fee if you purchase the book after going to Amazon through my web site. (Your sales price will be no different.)

And … it’s free again Oct. 3 and 4

I had to postpone my Bookbub ad back from when I’d planned five free days, thanks to a certain retailer’s jealous streak. I count myself lucky that I didn’t lose the ad completely.

I should perhaps count myself doubly lucky, actually, because it’s had over 21,000 downloads as of 5:30pm on the 3rd. I’d call that a reasonably productive investment in future reviews and hopefully some sales.

Do feel free to pass the word. (I know most of you reading this either already have the ebook or are waiting for the paper edition.)

This month 10% goes to Feeding America. I earned them far less than the $100 I’d put in initially last month (and it will take 60 days to get the actual money), so it would be nice to keep that fund growing.

If you want it, here’s the US link: The Awful Mess: A Love Story

And the UK link is: The Awful Mess: A Love Story

The really fun part of doing this? I was sandwiched between Jane Eyre and Persuasion at one point today in the free rankings (for literary romances). Ah, such bliss!