Why people don’t read through the Chris Wren series – 2020 Writing Week 29

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Over a year ago I ran a revelatory questionnaire to my newsletter list, trying to figure out why people weren’t reading through the whole 9-book Last Mayor zombie series.

I had something like 3% readthrough from book 1 to book 9. Abysmal. The results were fascinating (see them here) so I decided to replicate the experience for Christopher Wren.

Why?

My goal with my writing is to make money. Of course I want enormously to tell stories, improve my craft, reach other people, and have an influence on hearts and minds, if possible. But ultimately, my ability to do all of that comes down to money.

I want to be a full-time writer. To do that, I need to sell more books.

These days my ad and income report is a rollercoaster – sometimes it’s looking like I’ve hit on it, I’m almost at a daily replacement income level, then other days I’m making zero or even a loss on ad spending.

A clear part of this problem is the cost of acquiring readers in the hyper-competitive thriller market. I read one (successful!) guy say it costs him $8 to get a reader of his book 1 in series. I’m getting something like 1 in 10 conversion, each ad click costs around 20c, so my cost of acquisition is around $2. That’s basically breakeven.

Where the other guy is successful is in readthrough. With some 16 books, and readers going from 1 to 16 in high numbers, he will quickly convert that $8 cost of acquisition to substantial profit.

Christopher Wren doesn’t have great readthrough. Here are my numbers of sales for the last 90 days:

That’s a 14% readthrough from book 1 to 2. Awful. So I’m paying at least $2 to acquire, but that’s mostly where it ends. From 1 to 3 it’s 10%. Even from 2 to 3 I’m at 70%. I’d rather that figure be up at 90%, but whatever, maybe 70% is not so bad. 3 to 4 is goood, but 4 just came out, so the figures are skewed.

14% is too low. I’d be happy with 40%+. Higher obviously is better.

What about Kindle Unlimited page reads?

These are lifetime figures. It equals 1550 full reads of book 1, 580 full reads of book 2, 300 full reads of book 3, and 4 is just getting started.

Ugh, right? It’s a 37% readthrough from 1 to 2, 20% from 1 to 3, 50% from 2 to 3. Better than bought copies, but Kindle Unlimited readers are famously more likely to read through. From 1 to 2 should be 70%+.

Clearly there is something wrong with book 1, either the text or the marketing. It has fair reviews, 4.1 out of 5 on Amazon. Nor is this new to me. I’ve been making lots of changes to the books, primarily book 1, including:

  • Massively reduce violence and gore
  • Give Wren more jokes, lighten mood

I think these changes are responsible for improving reviews. I was 4.0 out of 5, now it’s 4.1. A small step, but one in the right direction. The goal is to hit 4.3 and have what looks like the 4.5 rounded-up star rating on Amazon.

But I’m not seeing the improvement in sales or KU readthrough. So, just like I did with the Last Mayor books, I asked my readers.

Methodology

I put together a newsletter – just as before – that linked to a simple google form questionnaire with 3 questions.

  • Which book did you drop off on?
  • Why?
  • How would you fix it so you didn’t drop off?

I incentivized response with a $25 Amazon token. I wasn’t sure what I’d get. Last time I had an unexpected 100+ responses. This time, most of a week later, I’ve had 61.

Here are the results:

Which book did you drop off on?

So, of the readers on my newsletter list, 40% dropped off on book 1. It’s a fairly even 20% and 15% for books 2 and 3, then the people on book 4 didn’t drop off – they finished out what’s available.

It’s important to remember where this newsletter list came from. Many will have signed up as part of a free book promotion. They’re kind of cold leads. A few hundred signed up from a back of the book sign up call, making them warm leads and proper fans.

So. Let’s dig in.

Why did you drop off?

Lots of answers here. I’ll categorize and describe, then talk about what I can do.

  1. Cost and Corona – Here’s where I get hit by having many sign-ups who came in off free books, as well as the impact of coronavirus. 11 people out of 61 said the books cost too much, or the pandemic had flattened their spend (whiule other authors were giving away a lot of free books). For the record books 1-3 are $2.99, book 4 is $3.99. The boxset 1-3 is $7.99, so you could get all 4 current books for $11.98. That seems pretty fair to me. I expect these readers would like the books to be free.
  2. Waiting on the next book – I include this as a positive – 19 responses were people telling me they were just waiting for the next book. One said I should write faster 🙂 This was connected to a slight complaint that it was hard to remember what happened in the previous books – maybe there should be a summary at the start of each book?
  3. Not engaging – 5 respondents said the books were not engaging enough, one way or another. Unfortunately, none of them said more than a single line. Not engaging. How to fix? Make it more engaging. OK…
  4. Wrong genre – 2 people said it was the wrong genre for them. This is down to my marketing. With the violence trimmed and some humor added in, I think I’m tackking closer tothe genre the book cover and blurb suggest. Future reviews will tell.
  5. Violence – 4 people said the violence was too intense, and another 2 said the themes were too intense (child abuse in book 2). I’ve been working on both of these already, so there’s a good chance these readers didn’t read the new versions. I have to hope the new versions are better. I’ve definitely already squashed every specific mention of violence I’ve received. Likewise, there are no (and never were) and scenes of actual child abuse. Further to that, children are barely even mentioned in book 2 – it’s an ill-defined concept lurking in the background. This may still be too much for some…
  6. Fantastical – 3 people said the books, and book 2 in particular, were too unbelievable. Wren was a superhero. I’ll need to look at book 2 again to check this out. He does crash into a building, stagger through a fire, lose an enormous amount of blood, survive smoke inhalation, then cap things with a skydive and mass slaughter. Maybe I can tone it down a little, make it more realistic.
  7. Technical – One person said book 2 was too technical. There are a few little info dumps throughout the book, about darknets and hacking tactics and such.
  8. Dislike Wren – 4 people said they disliked (even hated) Wren. He’s arrogant and humorless. His politics are off. I’m reading between the lines a little, but I suppose the ‘constant urgency’ I imbued him and his actions with, as well as his ‘my way or the highway, right now!’ attitude is off-putting. I’ve heard this on book 1 before. Wren seems like a bully, even when dealing with white supremacists. That’s quite a feat. I have changed that recently – make the supremacists badder, make Wren more a victim. We’ll see if that makes him more likeable as new readers come in.
  9. Repetitive – 2 people said they wanted to move on from dealing with the Apex as a looming background character. One compared it to Harry Potter, saying voldemort was always there, but other things were going on too. I’d argue it’s the same setup for Wren, but no point arguing.
  10. Lack of cliff-hanger – 1 person interestingly said that the lack of a cliff-hanger in book 1 may be hurting my readthrough. I wanted each book to standalone, so every major thread is closed off at the end of book 1, though there are some loops left vaguely open – like the Apex. This person suggested they should be more obvious and compelling.
  11. Monsters title – 1 person suggested that book 2, titled Monsters, was an off-putting title. Made them think it was fantasy or SF. They suggested using a different title.
  12. Slow start – 1 person said book 1 spends too long introducing side characters – many of whom we don’t see again. It slows things down – they want to get to the real plot.

So, that was quite a haul. I’d expected more complaints about the violence. The dislike Wren took me by surprise. The cliff-hanger and book 2 title were single-person comments, but I think they could be easy switches that make a big difference.

How to fix it

As mentioned at the top, I’ve done a lot already to reduce the violence, make things more believable and soften Wren’s image – that’s in all the books, but primarily in book 1. Here’s what I cna do further:

  1. Cost and Corona – I’m not sure there’s much I can do here. If I reduce book 1 to 99c, which I have done several times, it weirdly doesn’t increase sales much for the same amount of ads. I think the buying readers aren’t that price sensitive. The other option is to go free, but then I end up with free readers who want book 2, 3, 4 for free as well. No point for me to do that… So, no real action here.
  2. Waiting on the next book – Write faster! I may be on schedule to hit my September goal for book 5.
  3. Not engaging – This is too vague for me to do much with. Maybe the are readers of the wrong genre. I can let them go. Most reviews say the pace is very fast – if anything, too much intensity may be the problem.
  4. Wrong genre – I think I’m getting on the right side of this issue now. The text of the books is lighter and less horrible. The concpets are still tough, but hardly anyone mentions that.
  5. Violence – This is an ongoing battle for me. I think book 1 is well softened now. Book 2 could probably just some attention, and book 3. Book 4 is already quite soft, everyone says so. I also altered the blurb for book 2, so there is no off-putting mention of ‘abusers’. They’re in the story of course, but their abuse is a crime we never see and rarely think about.
  6. Fantastical – I need to look at books 2 and 3 again and grade the superhero level of activity. Often it is silly things, like a single number, very easy to fix. Like I said – “Wren had done 3 base jumps before,” and then he pulls off an amazing skydive. Easy to say, “Wren was a pro skydiver, with many dozens of jumps undfer his belt.” Done. I just need to recognize these instances.
  7. Technical – I can probably massage book 2 in particular a bit better, to smoothe out info dumps. Not a major issue right now, though.
  8. Dislike Wren – This is a biggie – and a reason people wouldn’t want to read through. I think book 1 Wren is now pretty warm and fuzzy. Not a bully. Maybe I can give him a cute hobby? Book 2 I need to soften him up, and 3 probably too. People need to like him. This is tough. I spotted one instance in book 2 just the other day. Wren almost dies of smoke inhalation. Rogers comes in and saves him. He doesn’t even say thank you!! What a dick. I changed it, added a little banter. I’m thinking things like that.
  9. Repetitive – I’m addressing the Apex head on in book 5. His story will close out in a book or two.
  10. Lack of cliff-hanger – What a great suggestion – I did the same thing for Last Mayor book 1, and am sure it helped. So I shifted the end of Wren 1, made it feel a little more urgently focused on Wren’s hunt for the Apex, and his desire to get his family back. The loops are wide open.
  11. Monsters title – Only one person said this, but I’d never been confident of this title. It is odd. I deicded to change it – won’t match the audiobook, but that’s OK. Now it is called Pinocchios. Better? Worse? Certainly is more characterful than Monsters.
  12. Slow start – I’ll take a look at book 1 and see if I can trim anyone. Maybe Jay? They have a nice interaction. But also a nice interaction with Henry and Abdul, and then later Alli, all after the nice interaction with Eustace. It’s a lot.

Conclusions

In conclusion, I didn’t get any really strong concensus areas, like I’d thought I might. It happened very clearly for the zombie books. The most key issues are to reduce the violence and make Wren more likeable.

I have no problem with either. I can make him a little more funny, more friendly, more decent with ease. It’s fun to write him having fun. Building relationships. I need to do more for book 2 and 3.

Mostly now, I want to push more readers through book 1 and see if they continue on. Have the changes I made already helped? Time should tell.

Wren book 5 progress and goals

To cap things off, a quick check-in on Wren book 5. I did the calculations previously, figured I needed to hit 10k a week for every week going forward to publish by end of September.

That meant 25,000 words by today. Well, I spent much of this week working and re-working what I had, figuring out the shape this thing had to take. Ultimately, it looks like it’s going the same way book 4 went towards the end – Wren handles one thread, while empowering nad monitoring another team as they break off.

It feels like the right thing. This series is definitely about him learning to trust, hand over autonomy to those in his Foundation. It also makes things that much more action-packed, with several threads progressing at once. Not to worry, I don’t do this by splitting the point of view, but rather by having Wren check in regularly with the other team, or have him go with them virtually.

It’s a challenge, but fun. So, I hit 19,000 words. 6k short of the goal, but whatever. I’m looking at a pretty straightforward run now, I should think at least until the midpoint, and even from there. The story is broken out.

So, by this time next week, 30,000 words would be great, 35,000 even better. Halfway!

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