Friday, January 17, 2020

The Whimsy of Algorithms

Self-published authors are hostages of algorithms. Who and how many potential readers get to see one’s book in any online bookstore is determined by a secret cabal of algorithms operating mysteriously in the darkness behind the bright digital storefront of these online bookstores. There are books written that purport to teach self-published authors how to beguile these algorithms to favor them. And, of course, you can bribe them with folding money in the form of advertising.

Now, I can’t say how well, if at all, these methods of manipulation work, since I am content to let them work their magic however they care to. But since I do nothing to manipulate them, I can show them in operation.

Let’s start with the Case of the Mysterious Abrupt Slump in my Smashwords sales, as illustrated in the chart below. I wish I had taken a screen shot of it last year so you could see how the release of Beneath the Lanterns affected my sales, and then the redesign of the Smashwords bookstore affected them, but both those events are now off the chart. I’ll use sales figures instead, but first the chart.

 The chart below is of monthly sales that extends beyond the daily sales chart above.

Sales July 2018 -- Dec 2019

From the chart you can see that we were plugging along at about 140 - 150 copies a month until September 2018 when the release of Beneath the Lanterns goosed sales, though by November that boost as fading. The January 1st update on Smashwords reversed that slide, and the release in March 2019 of Sailing to Redoubt more than doubled my previous sales all the way to October, when it was abruptly halved once again – as illustrated by the chart. Sales boosts across the board with a new release is explainable. The difference between my July 2018 sales and my Oct 2019 sales may be explained by having two extra books to sell. But the large and lasting boost following the publication of Sailing to Redoubt is much harder to explain. Two extra books would account for some of the rise, but not all. And the sales of Sailing to Redoubt are nowhere near explaining the elevated sales, since The Bright Black Sea continued to be my best seller. But the most mysterious workings of algorithms is the abrupt drop in sales on the 6th of October 2019. I can't explain that. I have to believe that it was a change in Smashwords' algorithms in how they listed books in their store.

My second example of the whimsy of algorithms is, The Mysterious Affair of December 30th, which occurred on Amazon at the end of December, as illustrated by the chart below.

That first jump in sales was on Boxing Day (Dec 26th) of 59 copies sold, no doubt because the proud new owners of Kindles and Fire Tabs were looking to fill their new devices with inexpensive content. Sales then, naturally, tapered off until, for some mysterious reason, we have that big sales jump, of some 264 books sold on the 30th of Dec. The bulk of those sales came from the sale of The Bright Black Sea and The Lost Star’s Sea. At that point The Bright Black Sea was the #5 best seller on the free space opera bestseller chart and in the low 600's in all of the free books on Amazon. Since I did nothing to boost sales, whatever caused that jump in sales was Amazon’s doing. And since I have no friends in Amazon, it must have been the work of those mysterious algorithms.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Since I'm not writing...

...What am I doing to pass the time? Well, I’m touring the world – virtually – from the cab of trains. There are many, many ways of wasting time, and I suppose watching videos taken from the driver’s cab of trains on YouTube is one rather strange way. But I think it is better than playing solitaire on the computer. That, at any rate, is my story, and I’m sticking with it.

I’ve only discovered the joys of train driving, oh, about three months ago or so. And yet, I can’t remember how I came to discover the addictive joy of watching the countryside – or the embankments, trees, or tunnels, flow by. I think I watched a video on British steam trains, and that led to another, and eventually to train rides across Great Britain. You might be amazed at how many such rides have been recorded, and in these days, in 4K by GoPro cameras.

As I said, it is strangely addictive – the rails always stretching on ahead, and you never know what the next bend will reveal. I’ve also be come quite the expert at reading the signals that control the trains that run so frequently.

As I said, I started in Britain, and below is the map of the British Rail System, with the routes in yellow being the ones that I have traveled in the driver’s cab. I have to say that some parts of England are rather murky… But perhaps that is due to the age of the video and the cameras used…

I think that I may have traveled every route currently available to be viewed. But you never know what might turn up on my YouTube home page..

If you are interested in seeing Britain by train, the YouTube channel to start with is Don Coffey’s:

There are others that cover more than the English midlands, but his are high quality and include a lot of interesting information on the Victorian Engineering that went into making the British rail system, and how it works.

After covering all of Britain that I could, I moved on to Switzerland. As you can see from the map below, I’ve seen a lot of Switzerland. Even without taking into account the Alps, Switzerland and its rail system is very different than Britain’s. It is a much smaller system, and without all the Victorian era overhead that British rail has to deal with, it seems a much more modern system. And some of the videos of trains in the Alps are breathtaking, even if you’re not addicted to cab ride videos.

There are two very good, high quality sources for cab ride videos through Switzerland:
I highly recommend both of them.

I did ride on several French and German high speed trains and one Swedish train. There do not seem to be many German train rides*, but I will have to return to France some day.

*Update: I have found a really nice channel of lots of cab rides through Germany, here:

There are a lot of cab ride videos on Norwegian trains, which you can find here:
I have only briefly sampled one. The reason I have not explored Norway more is that because of all the mountains, there are many, many, tunnels needed to run trains through that breathtaking countryside. At least that was my impression based on my one trip that there. It seemed that there were more tunnels than breathtaking views. (Tunnels are pretty boring.) I’ll have to return some day to see it that is true on all the trips.

Anyway, now I’ve move on to a very different country: Japan. Japan has plenty of mountains and breathtaking views, but it is also very different as well. At least in the south of Japan, you are rarely out of a city/town/village unless you are in some narrow mountain pass. It is interesting to see all the cultural differences between these countries that you can note even from the front window of a train.

I’m currently exploring the videos from these channels:

I have a lot of places yet to visit, as you can see from my map below. Many of them are on slow commuter trains, but you get to enjoy the cherry blossoms that abound in the spring. I don't think there are any videos from the cabs of Japan's highspeed trains, but I have a feeling they's be pretty boring, as they generally run straight -- through hills and over valleys and have walls on each side. Luckily I can cut and paste the Japanese descriptions into Google Translate to get an idea of where I’m going.

(Map credit: )

Sunday, December 15, 2019

It Seems that...

...Sailing to Redoubt is now $.99 in's store. Apparently they have decided to stop price matching Sailing to Redoubt's $.00 price in all the other ebook stores. I need to put a list price on my books in Amazon, and they then have the option to match their competitor's prices, or not. I guess they're trying to see if they can make a little money off of my work. Good luck with that! We'll see how long this lasts.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Another Writing Update

This hasn’t gone well…

You know that post, the one two posts down, about playing chicken, well, I lost that game. That story petered out… And so did my next promising idea as well. In all these situations, I’d have no problem coming up with the first 30K words. And in each case, I had a series of incidents lined up that promised to carry the story forward. But. But the more I thought about them, the more they did not seem to have the necessary weight, if you will, to drive the story forward. I write episodic novels and you need an overarching story to hold them together. However, the more I thought about these middle episodes, the more they seemed to be just that, episodes that existed only to fill out the middle and carry the story on to a not very consequential end. There are some writers who just write what comes to their head and trust that everything will turn out alright in the end. Perhaps it does. But I hate plot holes, especially my own, so I’m not going to have some character do something just because I need it done. I have to arrange the story so as to allow the character to do what I want done, and this requires planning from the beginning to end. I don’t do extensive outlines, but I do have to have motivations in mind, and I need to place them into the stream of the story from the get-go. All of which means that even though I have solid beginnings, I’m not going put a lot of effort into writing without being fairly certain of a worthwhile payoff. So far, that payoff had eluded me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not under contract, so that I don’t have to mechanically crank out a good-enough story to fulfill a contractual obligation. And since I can’t generate any enthusiasm for these stories, I can hardly expect my readers will either. I do this for fun, and typing away just to get enough words to call it a book isn’t fun.

I don’t think this is classic writers’ block. I can write, I can come up with something like a story, but I just can’t come up with a story that I think is worth writing. I don’t want to rinse and repeat stories. I have my pirates, my bandits, my storms, my romances, and my familiar characters (under different names), and I don’t want to just drag them out, dust them off, and reuse them again without bringing out something new.

There is this term in Taoism, wu wei, which has several subtle meanings, but can use to mean that by doing nothing something gets done, or that by acting only when something can be done, that thing can be done without (much) effort. I’ve decided to apply that principle to my efforts to write. Clearly I'm not at a point where I can write a good story, so I’ll give up trying for now and wait upon some sort of inspiration to seep in when I’m not looking for them.

In the meanwhile, maybe I’ll read some books. I don’t like reading books when there is one in my head that I’m trying to work out, so that by giving up trying to write one, perhaps I can get some reading done. Or maybe I can start painting again. I haven’t been motivated to paint for some time, so perhaps now is the time to try something new, or something old, just to see if my creative juices are still flowing. Humm, might have to wait upon wu wei for that to happen as well...

The long and short of it, however, is that unless lightning strikes, I’m not going to try to come up with a story until after the first of the year. It takes me 5 or 6 months to get a story ready for my proof readers, so that this hiatus does not rule out a book in 2020. But I can’t promise one either. Indeed, I can’t promise another one ever. With more than a million words in print in the last decade, I can’t complain if the well has run dry.

In the mean time, I may use this space to yell at the clouds. That’s what us old men do. For all the good it does.

Friday, November 1, 2019

4 1/2 Years in Self Publishing Sales Report

Time flies, and once again it is time for my biannual sales report, covering the period, May 2019 through October 2019. As usual, almost all of the sales are free ebooks sold through Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, B & N, and Google. My books are also available on Kobo which does not report free sales to Smashwords, plus on many other sites that offer free books.

Let’s start by looking at the numbers:

Book Title / Release Date 1H 2019 Sales Total Sale To date
A Summer in Amber
23 April 2015
458 6,856
Some Day Days
9 July 2015
511 3,638
The Bright Black Sea
17 Sept 2015
1,214 11,053
The Lost Star’s Sea
13 July 2017
1,101 5,122
Beneath the Lanterns
13 Sept 2018
669 1,822
Sailing to Redoubt
15 March 2019
638 1,199
Total Six Month Sales 4,590 31,866 w/
2,176 sales

Now, back in May I had written that I did not expect a banner year, for several reasons. While this will probably still be true for the entire year, this first half of the year has been much better than expected. I sold almost as many books in this period as I did last year, which included a strange one day sales on Amazon of 1950 copy in August 2018. If one excludes that inexplicable spike, my sales were actually up 1,819 for the last six months compared to the same period last year. I won’t complain about that.

I have several observations about these last six months. 

First is that despite the fact that Amazon is the market leader, by far in ebooks, I sold more ebooks on Smashwords than I did on Amazon. Here is the breakdown of my sales by stores:


  Smashwords 52%  (Smashwords 83%, Apple 15%, B&N 2%)  Amazon 39%    Google 9% 

I think that there are several reasons for this result. On the Amazon side, I think that they have fine tuned their sales algorithms to maximize the sales of their best selling titles and authors who appeal to the avid reading Kindle Unlimited subscribers. These are the authors who can move the most copies and who will return the most money to Amazon via their spending on advertising on Amazon's platform. I have no complaints about this, it is just capitalism at work.  I'm happy with whatever sales I can get from Amazon. And since I see an occasional unexplained jump in my sales on Amazon, (though not 1950 in a day) I assume they are doing a little promotional work for me for free. I can't complain.

A second factor may be a result of  Smashwords redesigning their store front at the beginning of 2019. While my sales were up as a result of the release of Beneath the Lanterns in September, the slow decline reversed itself in January, and continued to rise, especially after the release of Sailing to Redoubt in March. After March I was routinely selling in the mid-400 copy range – until this past month, Oct 2019 when, for no apparent reason, sales crashed to 195 copies. Seeing that I don’t do promotions, it is hard to explain such a sudden fall. Perhaps my books had reached most of their audience. Or perhaps they had somehow become less visible in the Smashwords store. (Though I don't see how.)  We’ll see what happens going forward, but without a new book in the next six months, I don’t expect sales to improve.

And that brings us to the Google Play Store sales. While it constituted only 9% of my sales for the first half of my year, as you can see from the chart below, sales have begun to take off.  In October, with the decline of Smashwords, my Google sales constituted about 22% of my month's sales.

Now, I don't know how high sales will go, or for how long they will continue at the October level, but there seems to be a general trend here, at least for now. And with more sales and more ratings, I believe Google is coming into its own, far outpacing B&N and from the days when I distributed my books to Kobo on my own and saw the sales results, I can say that Google is likely far outpacing Kobo as well.

Looking Ahead

I expect sales to fall over the course of the next six months, as these sales still benefited from the March release of Sailing to Redoubt. I don't expect to release a new book until next summer or early fall. While I am at work on that book, the going is slow, with many false starts, so I am far from certain if and when my 2020 novel will appear. My hope has been to sell 300 books a month. Now, with six books available, I expect to be able to meet that between the three stores. Even with Smashwords' crash, I sold over 500 books in October, so I think it is do-able. But three of those books are now more than four years old, so it will depend on how those hold up. So far, so good. But.

However, when all is said and done, I'm still having fun doing this. And that is what matters. That, and that you, dear readers, are having fun as well.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Game of Chicken

Okay, let's see how many times I can start a project and publicly bail on it. The new August Avenue story starts: (At least it does tonight.)

 I lifted my summer weight felt hat off the rack and looked about my hot, twilit flat, just to make sure everything was in order, should I die before I returned. Not that I was planning on dying. I was merely going home for my annual summer holiday. And though I rather dreaded it – I’d been far too eager to put the farm behind me to attend university for my father to ever forget or completely forgive, which made my annual visits a bit tense at times – I had no reason to fear death. This time, however, I had, on several occasions, found a fleeting moment of peace in having taken that precaution. But then, I couldn’t have known that when I settled my hat on my head, slung my kitbag over my shoulder and closed the door behind me – checking to be certain that it was locked – before starting down the stairs. Had I, I would’ve stayed in bed with the covers over my head. And never opened that wire-note from my chief at the Bureau of Innovation.  

I spent a month or so this summer daydreaming this version of August Avenue before abandoning it, quietly. But I have to write something, and I think I might be able to make it work. But then, I thought that the last time as well... We'll all see how far I get.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Failed to lift"

Unfortunately, I was unable to get my August Avenue story to lift off the launching pad. It just did not quite come together -- too many disparate ideas that refused to gel. And some of the ideas I did have I couldn't find a way to use without falling back on old, out of fashion, tropes; like having the hero save the heroine, which I make a point not to use, at least not without the reverse as well.  All in all, perhaps it simply failed to lift because it did not quite spark enough enthusiasm in me -- though goodness knows I tried -- running scenes through my head for several months. So the search is on for another story idea -- one that I can get enthusiastic about, and have fun writing. Winter is coming, and I need something to write to get through it.

That said, it is probably a good thing I didn't go through with my original plan, as I have a feeling that it would not have been all that well received, being a mishmash of story ideas plus being rather short on adventure. Not that that alone would've stopped me -- I write to amuse myself -- but hopefully I can come up with a novel that will be both fun to daydream up and write, as well as entertaining you as well. We'll see.

At some point I might post the 13,000 word unedited opening chapters of August Avenue on this blog just for the heck of it, as I have done in the past -- the "noses" of stories that never made it to the wagging tail of the tale.