In late March, after years of its sitting on my hard drive doing nothing at all, I published Just Looking: How the Revolution in Medical Education Influenced the Lives and Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and William Carlos Williams. I’d written Just Looking as my honors thesis during college, and it’s at just the right length that it really had no possible publication market; it’s too long (I think 20,000 words or so? 40-ish pages) for an academic journal, but too short for . . . well, I’d say book-length, but how long’s an ebook?
In normal academic circumstances, one possible solution would have been to cut the book in half, so that one article focused on Doyle and the other on Williams. I never liked the idea, though; I’d written it all in one go, as one large argument, and in fact, part of the essay hinged on the fact that both Williams studied medicine just a decade or so after Doyle had. One relates very explicitly to the other.
I liked the idea. I remember the moment I found the book that mentioned that changes in medical education in England and Europe (and Edinburgh, where Doyle studies) had taken a few years to get to America, right about when Williams was entering medical school at the University of Pennsylvania; it tied the whole thing together perfectly. The discovery excited even my advisor.
So splitting it in half wasn’t something I wanted to do, but that meant there was really no place for it. Besides my hard drive. For a decade.
The Kindle Singles idea is brilliant: low-priced (usually $1.99 or so) ebooks that are longer than short stories but not so long as a traditional print books.
And as soon as Kindle announced the Singles program, I knew it was a good solution.
Just Looking is not a Kindle Single. Not officially or anything. It’s just a long-ish, academic essay published on the Kindle platform and available for a dollar. So it’s just a single on Kindle.
Its reception has utterly surprised me.
Since March, it’s drifted into and out of the Kindle bestsellers list, which is divided into hundreds of categories. One in particular focuses on the history of medicine as a special topic in non-fiction, and it’s there that people seem to find it.I
I hope the people who’ve downloaded it enjoy it. As a work, as writing, it predates even my collection, which made me a little anxious about its maturity, but it earned my editrix’s seal of approval, and years ago it earned me the honors portion of my bachelor’s degree, and those are people whose opinions I trust. I think it stands up well.
And then September 11th, 2011. Ten years later. Ten long years.
When word came that American special forces had finally killed bin Laden, I felt a strange mix of emotions I can’t quite enumerate even now. Certainly, there was some catharsis in it.
I might have started writing “I Still Love You, Though, New York” that night. I only wrote a handful of paragraphs before I realized it was more than I’d thought it was when I’d started.
I’d thought it was about still loving New York, but really it was about the past five years. My first five years after September 11th were spent in something of a holding pattern, until I went to USC. That four day car trip made a very certain demarcation in my life, and from this end of them, it’s interesting how motivations changed. I’d joined MySpace a half dozen or so months before that trip, and I was so concerned about being liked, being viewed, getting subscriptions to my blog or getting kudos for it. And I went to USC hoping for fame and fortune, hoping for a book deal and accolades, and I came out the opposite end a better writer.
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
So I started writing “I Still Love You, Though, New York,” and realized it was bigger than I’d thought, but then I started thinking about my other writing related, either directly or tangentially, to September 11th: “What I Saw That Day,” which had become a centerpiece in Entrekin, and “The Come Back,” which I wrote while riding a bus to the interview that ultimately brought me back to Jersey City and Manhattan living.
So I combined them. And published them, as A New York Trilogy. It’s just a dollar for three long-ish essays about a personal experience of the last decade, starting from September 11th.
And, utterly surprisingly to me, they hit another Kindle bestseller list. This time in the biographies and memoirs of journalists. Yesterday, it was spotting higher than Hunter Thompson and Larry King, but of course one can’t expect it to remain in such auspicious company.
Still, what a ride it is, eh?
I’m reasonably sure their success has something to do with metadata, which are keywords associated, internally, with a given book, and which software must be able to read while remaining for the most part invisible to the general public. I’m also reasonably sure it has something to do with choosing the right categories for their sale, and which is a part of publishing that sometimes frustrates me, at least with regard to Amazon. Most novels, in hardcover, list in their frontis matter a few categories in which the publisher has placed them; I remember Neil Gaiman’s American Gods mentioned stuff like coin tricks and jail (I’d have to look it up to be precise). Those are minor aspects in the text but major aspects of the story, and it is within those sub-categories that niche occurs.
I think Amazon used to allow for more metadata. Right now, authors using Kindle Direct Publishing can choose two main categories and seven keywords, which determine where a title is ranked and its search terms, respectively. I’m fairly sure that this was changed; I seem to remember having been able to choose five main categories and having no restriction whatsoever on keywords. I preferred this system, because I thought it both made books easier to find and gave them a higher chance of being classified in more categories, but I could see both that authors might abuse that in some way (particularly with regard to infinite search words) and that the newer system allows a better chance of more books to be found.
What’s interesting is that one has a better chance of success with a niche than with a mainstream-targeted work. The Prodigal Hour is, I’d say, general science fiction (actually, I think it’s even more general fiction than science fiction, really, but that’s a different discussion of genre. Suffice to say, I think it’s more The Time-Traveler’s Wife than The Accidental Time Machine). Alternate history, too (I don’t recall that time travel is its own genre). But because there are so many titles in general science fiction, and because there are fewer titles in the medicine as a special topic under history, Just Looking has a far greater likelihood of ranking higher and longer than The Prodigal Hour.
There’s no easy solution there and, so far as I can see, no real way to game the system (though I could be wrong about that. I’ve heard of authors who figure out a way to manipulate rankings in some way, and I think that seems like the number one way to get a book noticed). MySpace used to rank blogs based on views, which made it possible for anyone with an auto-refresher to dominate the lists; it seems as though Amazon uses more factors, and that’s to its credit.
So far, one strategy I’ve been using is my “Also By” page, and making sure that its links are all up-to-date, but I’m sure there must be others. I’m just not yet certain what they are.