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I went paid (and pivoted my strategy)
Well… I did it. I published the first four chapters of my gothic novel Obscurity for free—and the fifth one went out to paid subscribers on Friday night. If you didn’t get it and you want to continue reading, you can still subscribe here:
Before we get into all that happened during book launch month, I want to take a moment just to be excited about it all.
Three years ago I sat down to write a gothic novel. For two years, every morning I got up and wrote my book in the early hours before work. Then I spent another year editing it, pitching it to agents, researching the publishing industry, and starting this newsletter. It’s probably the longest project I have ever committed to.
When I finally finished writing my book last year, I thought, “I’ve done it, I’ve written my own personal masterpiece!” I knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, but I also knew that if I stumbled across my book as a reader, it would be exactly the sort of thing I would love—and that feels like an accomplishment worth celebrating regardless of what happens next.
I wanted to protect that moment for a minute—and I did so with a ritual. When I was writing Obscurity, I told myself that when I finally published it I would splurge and buy myself a bottle of Dom Perignon. My friend beat me to it—we drank really fancy champagne at the cemetery and enjoyed a picnic dinner overlooking the city, it was a moment to celebrate a big personal accomplishment beneath the light of the full moon.
I’m incredibly proud to have made it this far. And I’m so excited my novel is finally out in the world! Thank you so much for being part of that with me.
On going paid
Now, that my book is out, it’s interesting to watch what happens to it now that it’s no longer mine—and I watch these things pass by with an idling fascination. Some people liked my chapters, some people didn’t. Some people sent me encouraging notes, others sent me all the things they didn’t like—but all of that is to be expected.
By the time my book locked down to paying subscribers this weekend, 28 people opted to become paying subscribers—six at the Collector level (four of them my own family members) and 21 at the Reader level—contributing $2,460 in gross annualized revenue just for my little book project. I can’t help but be thrilled that that is far beyond what I could have expected on Amazon—and for my debut novel!
Better yet, there are now 28 people who are in it with me—reading my chapters as they come out and sharing some camaraderie with me in the comments section of my newsletter and my private little Discord community—and in the case of my family members, via text. I certainly wouldn’t have any of that on Amazon—I wouldn’t even know who was buying my book, much less enjoying it.
I’m so excited by all that has happened so far, and to see what happens to my book in the months to come. Now the question becomes: where do we go from here?
On finding readers
This week, my husband and I were walking to dinner when suddenly we discovered, out of nowhere, a little back alley with a little black door. The door was ajar, and just above it was a sign that said 9th and 9th Book & Music.
Walking through that door I was transported. It was a speakeasy bookshop, where all the books were old, beautiful, and collectible. The owner gave us a tour, introducing us to all his favorite leatherbound tomes and a collection of macabre treasures strewn about by local artists.
It was eclectic and comfortable, a cupboard with velvet furniture and vintage books—exactly the sort of place I could spend hours. Old copies of Dickins and Dumas were elegantly arranged—and when I told the owner I was serializing my books just like those old heroes of mine—he knew exactly what I was talking about.
When we left my husband said, “That shop was basically custom-curated for you—I can’t believe it’s been there for a year and you didn’t even know about it.”
I know. I live close to that book shop, I go to the restaurants right by it all the time, I’m ideally suited to love it, and yet the owner hasn’t been able to find me. How could he? He can’t reach me via Instagram or TikTok—I don’t use those. He certainly won’t find me in the newspaper—who reads that? He can’t even find me in the local free magazines at grocery stores that share all the new businesses like that—I haven’t picked up one of those maybe ever.
The problem is this: There are maybe a couple thousand people in this city who will love that shop to death, and that owner has the unenviable task of finding them if he wants to stay in business.
Fiction writers have to do the same—and I am learning this in real-time. There is no one place where people who might like my novel hang out on the internet. They’re mixed in with everyone else! That’s why, when I sat down last weekend to pitch my novel chapters to publications that might reach people like me, I felt stumped.
I sent my chapters to book clubs and book reviewers—I even started pitching gothic publications like Scream Magazine and the This is Horror podcast, as well as a bunch of bibliophile accounts on Instagram—but I started to feel off track. Are the people who might love my book really frequenting niche horror sites? I’m not sure, but I am a prolific gothic reader and I have never been a patron of any of those mediums.
On pivoting my strategy
When I sat down with this question, I realized there was one obvious solution. This is, after all, a great time of year to get more horror readers, and there are A LOT of them already reading serial fiction on platforms like Wattpad, Inkitt, Royal Road, Reddit, Neovel, and Dreame—even if it is for free. Which made me think that I should take advantage of the season, and the platforms, and put my chapters up on all of them—four weeks after the paid version goes live on Substack.
I know, I originally said I wouldn’t do that until my novel was complete on this Substack newsletter. But should I stick with my original plan because that’s what I said I was going to do, and spend a year publishing my novel to 28 people without any way to grow that? Or do I pivot to something that might make it work a little bit better, and feed into it as the year goes on?
As I cover startups for a living, I think pivoting is the smarter answer. I sent an email out to my existing subscribers and shared my new plan, offering them the ability to get a refund if they felt this cheapened their subscription—none of them took me up on it. In fact, many were curious whether this new strategy would work.
Even more interesting, I learned something from them: Of the subscribers I spoke with, not a single one became a paying subscriber because they wanted to read my novel. All of them became subscribers because they like my newsletter and wanted to support it. One even suggested it might be better to offer my novels for free, and make my newsletter the premium subscription.
I think I have more experimenting to do—and I’m going to keep learning from other novelists who are making the creator economy work for them right here in my newsletter. It might be true that people don’t value fiction content the way they value nonfiction content—we have been giving it away for free or cheap for far too long. Or maybe we just don’t have enough case studies yet, or the right technology yet. Maybe serialization isn’t mainstream enough yet to work the way it used to.
Either way, now I’m entering into a new phase of my experiment. Following in the footsteps of all the Royal Road/Patreon authors I interviewed, I launched my novel on Medium, Wattpad, Inkitt, Royal Road, Reddit, and Neovel on Friday night and you can read it on any of those platforms for free—one month after the chapter debuts for my paid newsletter subscribers.
Or, if you want to continue reading my book in real-time, join my online community, and even purchase a signed (very) first edition hardcover collector’s copy, you can subscribe right here:
Either way, I’ll see you right here in two weeks when I’ll be interviewing a serial author who A/B tests book chapters from several different novel ideas, before she moves forward with writing one. As a result, her novels have made more than $60,000 a piece on Amazon!
See you then,