the white tree

Writers can’t agree on anything. That is because we are simply a subset of “people,” who can’t agree on anything either, but it is more fun to pretend there is something different about us that makes us especially prone to bashing each other’s heads over the most minor of issues. If nothing else, writers are–hypothetically–particularly skilled at rhetoric and word-usin’, so our spats often look more dramatic and convincing than they are.

For instance, there’s a subset of authors out there who will argue quite vehemently that in the early days of your writing career, it is worthless–counterproductive, even–to actually try to sell your books.

Instead, you should wait until you’ve got a decent backlist built up. Five, ten, twenty books. Something like that. Because you’re new to this, it’s more important to work on your craft than to waste time flogging your first books. There’s little point in marketing if you can’t yet write worth a damn. And do you know how little damns are worth? Nothing. Damn this cold weather! See, I’m just giving them away.

Furthermore, when you only have one book up, you’ve only got one book to sell. Captured eyeballs have no other titles to wander off toward. None of yours, anyway. Whereas if you have five or ten books, if you point a potential reader to one of them, they will also have four or nine other books of yours to peruse. Marketing efforts become much more efficient and thus timeworthy when you have more than one book to sell.

And really, the argument concludes, if you write a lot of books, make them available everywhere, and make sure they look nice, you won’t need to market. The books will sell themselves. You won’t even know how! Cream rises to the top, you know. Because it is of a lesser density than the less-fatty milk beneath it and thus it is a law of the natural universe that it will rise. The same physical law of science applies to books. Just ask Newton.

There’s some truth to all these ideas. I have found that is indeed easier to sell books when you have multiples of them to play with. There are all kinds of tricks and games you can play with a three-book series, for instance. And it is very difficult to keep one book selling all the time. It is like.. pushing a snowball up a hill that is also covered in snow. The further you push the ball, the bigger and heavier it gets; as you exhaust places and means to advertise a given book, the more snow it accumulates. It gets harder and harder to keep moving. But if you’ve got nine other little snowballs waiting down the hill, when one ball gets too big to push, forget it and run down to one of the others. Let the big one melt for a while.

And it is simply true that your fifth or tenth book will be better than your first. Unless you’re Joseph Heller. But for all us non-Hellers, in the early days, it is just a better use of time to focus on your writing instead of your sales. Work on your craft and the sales will come later. Craft!

But here’s the thing. Marketing is a craft, too.

That’s right. Marketing is a craft. It’s a science and an art–one of the dark ones, mwa ha ha ha!–and there are just as many myths about selling as there are about writing. For instance, did you know you don’t need a social media presence at all? (I italicized that because italics means you’re an expert. Fact.) It definitely helps, but there are all kinds of things you can do to promote books that don’t involve time-consuming Facebook sessions or blogging. Oops.

Your initial attempts to sell your book are going to be just as hamhanded and cliche-riddled as the first book you wrote. So you know what? Probably best to get them out of the way early. When nobody’s going to see your embarrassment. Thing is, every attempt to sell is a learning experience. The curve is steep. It just doesn’t take that much time and effort to accumulate a clue or two. In fact, this whole damn thing is like D&D. It takes much more experience points to advance from level 19 to level 20 than it does from level 1 to level 2. If you devote the next three years to writing–no marketing, no promotion, nothing but writing–maybe you come out the other side as a 20th Level Writer. But guess what? You are still a 1st Level Salesman. The puniest little kobold can knock you unconscious. Sweet Tiamat! Get behind the fighters!

Meanwhile, if you dedicated 95% of those three years to writing and 5% to learning how to sell books, you’re going to emerge from the dungeon as a 19th Level Writer and, say, an 8th Level Salesman. From there, guess who’s going to have an easier time building their career?

Not to mention the very minor point that if you learn how to sell your books well enough to quit your job or at least reduce your hours, you can dedicate all that extra time to writing. (See? Italics.) You will have more books and they will be better than the person who comes home from their office and dreams up stories for two hours every night while their spouse dreams up new ways to kill them without being caught. One guy’s scrabbling to get in a Sunday afternoon killing dragons with his buddies while the other woman is spending every day slaughtering her way across the Castle of the Golden Lich. Guess who levels up faster?

I’ve just spent 400 words expounding on something that is self-evident once you hear it. Selling is a skill. A craft. To get good at it, you have to work at it. Should you spend more time learning how to sell than you do learning how to write? Absolutely not. I mean, maybe. Look, it’s your life. If you’re a writer, the writing should come first.

But not putting in the effort to learn even rudimentary ways to get your books in front of people who might actually be interested in buying them? That’s shooting yourself in the foot. No. It’s worse. It’s denying you even have legs. Well, you do! You have legs. Learn how to use them, for god’s sake. Don’t rely on outside forces to get you moving. If you sit in one place, the only thing that’s going to get you rolling is an earthquake. You don’t have to train to become a marathon-seller. But at least learn to walk.

By the way one of my books is free until Christmas. See how easy this is? (Side note: this very last bit is irony. This post will in no way change the outcome of my giveaway. I just got aggravated reading for the hundredth time about how writers shouldn’t bother to learn how to sell the things they are writing.)

UPDATE: The same day I posted this, Amazon changed their sales algorithms again. This post will provide a lot of the background to what I talk about in the followup post.


Around March 19, Amazon changed the way they sell books. In a Kindleboards thread devoted to the subject, authors tracking the performance of books during and after a free promotion began reporting strange results. Prior to then, books that gave away several thousand copies during a promo would shoot to the top of the popularity lists some 36-48 hours later. It was like clockwork. Clockwork that paid you several hundred dollars.

Because the popularity lists are a big deal. These are the default book listings you’ll see when you’re browsing around by genre. Here’s the Fantasy list, for instance, with GRRM clogging up the top 10 like the greedy goose he is. If you could ride a free promotion to the top of those lists, your book would be extremely visible to shoppers. Depending on genre and your book’s presentation, topping the pop lists could snag you dozens or hundreds of sales before other books overtook you. Sometimes that visibility was enough to launch a book into the stratosphere, where the stratosphere is also made of money. It was kind of a big deal.

Then, things changed. Except they didn’t change. Not for everyone. Authors began reporting lower sales than expected as well as strange-looking lists. Chaos reigned! Dogs and cats living together, watching couch-bound authors tear out their hair. After a couple weeks, we thought we had it figured out: there was no longer a single popularity list. There were two, and books no longer seemed to be vaulting to the top no matter how many free copies they gave away.

Well, we were wrong. There weren’t two lists. There were three.

Because I am extremely imaginative, I’m going to refer to them from here on out as List A, List B, and List C. I’ll get into the methodology in a bit, but for now, I worked this out through carefully observing my books, reading other Kindleboard authors’ results obsessively, and lobbing theories around with other authors. I would never have figured this out on my own. I know, never say never. Trust me, eventually I would have gotten frustrated and left to play Mario Kart instead. One other author in particular did tremendous heavy lifting. Like the Eye of Sauron, he (or she?!) is far-seeing and awesomely powerful. And much like Sauron, you can’t invoke his or her name without facing terrible wrath. Some of the Eye’s secrets must remain just that.

But the outcome of that info can be revealed. So without further ado, here’s how the three lists work.


List A is the same version of the pop lists that existed prior to March 19. It is Select- and freebie-friendly. Here’s roughly how it works:

  • Ranks are heavily weighted to the last few days
  • Free book downloads are weighted equally with paid sales
  • Borrows count as sales

List B appears to be a throwback pop list, one that was running throughout most of last year. Here’s how book ranks are calculated on it:

  • Ranks are determined by the last 30 days of sales, with no extra weight given to the most recent sales
  • Free book downloads are discounted heavily–maybe as little as 10% the value of paid sales
  • Borrows don’t count as sales

List C is a lot like List B, with a couple major differences:

  • Free book downloads aren’t counted at all
  • Recent sales are weighted somewhat more heavily than List B(?)
  • Borrows don’t count as sales

What does that mean in practice? A lot. A lot a lot a lot. Here’s where my book The White Tree ranks on all three lists at this moment in time. Each shot will look a bit different because they’re taken from different browsers–that’s one way to see different lists. The list in question is Fiction > Fantasy > Series, a fairly quiet little fantasy subcategory.

List A:

List B:

List C:

Pictured: Oh shiiiiii–


Most of this was achieved through comparing tons and tons of different books on different browsers, just like the screenshots above. Here’s some stats for the book in question that helped me figure out what was happening here. On March 28-29, The White Tree was downloaded 4700 times (free). On April 17, it was downloaded an additional 1300 times. In April, its paid numbers came in at 210 sales and 46 borrows.

Since March 19, my main browser’s been displaying List B. My big clue to List B came on April 28, when I noticed my book had, over the span of a day or two, dropped from #67 in Epic Fantasy to #165. Rank didn’t slide–it instantly dropped off a cliff. Why? Because it had been 30 days since all those free downloads had come in. I’d noticed the same thing around March 23–I’d done a huge giveaway February 22-23, and once 30 days elapsed, it suddenly plummeted from around #45 to around #255. I didn’t know what it meant then, in fact I don’t think I even knew there were two lists at that point (let alone three), but when it happened again, I had a pattern.

I also had several weeks of observations piled up by then to help me understand new data. For weeks, List B had been showing me very static lists. The books at the stop stayed at the top. There was very little churn. There were very few Select books, i.e. books that were likely to have recently been free, especially within the top ~60 results (first five pages). Most books at the top were traditionally published. List C was even more trad-dominated; generally speaking, an indie title on List B would be ranked 15-25% worse on List C if that title hadn’t been free, and would rank much, much worse if their List B rank was dependent on free downloads (like, hundreds of places).

When I compared the top 240 titles in Epic Fantasy between List B and List C, here’s what I found: on List B, 188 titles weren’t in Select, and 52 were. On List C, 217 titles weren’t in Select, and just 23 were. With no benefit from freebies, and with fewer paperback sales to pad the numbers, most indies get killed in List C.

When it came to figuring out that borrows weren’t counted in List B and C, The Eye of Sauron was particularly helpful. We compared Select books with lots of borrows to non-Select books whose sales were roughly equivalent to the Select books’ total sales+borrows. On List B and C, the non-Select book came out ahead by a good chunk. We compared Select books with lots of borrows relative to sales with Select books with few borrows : sales. (None of these books had recently been free, which acted as a “control” between List A and B.) The ones with a higher ratio of sales : borrows almost always came out better on List B than on List A.

While I wouldn’t lay my life on the line for every one of these observations, I am very confident in the overall conclusions reached. There are three different lists. You can see them for yourself–just compare lists on different browsers, computers, and Kindles. If you’ve gone free recently, you’ll note your popularity rank on List A is much better than B or C.

How do you tell which list you’re looking at? Well, that could take a day or three to figure out, but in short, if you see a bunch of Select titles on the first pages of the pop lists, you’ve probably got List A. If it’s almost all traditionally published books, it’s List B or C. From there, compare your lists on another browser/device; if you’re seeing List C, trad books will generally be even more dominant.


What does all this mean? Hey, maybe you haven’t noticed, but this post is already epically long. The internet is only so big, you know. I’ll save that for a future post. For now, here’s what’s key: there are three different lists. Your book is listed on all three, but any given shopper is only seeing one version of the lists. (In other words, different people see different lists.) If you’re an indie in Select, one of these lists is good. The other two? Well, let’s just hope they’re not here for too much longer.

I’m presently sitting at just past 125,000 words on the sequel to The White Tree. My outline’s changed here and there in the actual writing of it, but The Great Rift has more or less stuck to my projected word count. That means I’m about 2/3 of the way through the first draft. If I can maintain this pace–which has been fast, but not breakneck–I think I might be done with it by the start of June.

From there, it’s dicey. I think I can revise it in a couple months, but progress on revisions is far less predictable than declaring “Today I shall write 3000 words” and then writing those 3000 words no matter how much crap they may be. Still, if you walked in with a gun and demanded me to put a timetable on it, I would say, “Hey, that’s not very civilized,” and then I would say, “Early August? I hope?” And then you would put the gun away and replace it with a cake that we would both enjoy.

Thanks for the cake. Back to writing.

I will improve this writeup tomorrow. But it’s been a long day, and I need to collapse. In brief, then, a dozen of us indie fantasy writers are doing a one-day Kindle giveaway of some of our books. This runs the classic fantasy gamut–epic, historical, urban. Below are the authors involved, as well as a link to the Amazon pages where their books may be downloaded. Goodnight!

EDIT: Here’s a much nicer link, including snazzy covers, to all the free books.

Also, the list:

Dave King: Betrovia

Edward W. Robinson: The White Tree

Cate Dean: Last Chance Jack

Colin Taber: Fall of Ossard

Matthew Musser: Jadeflies

S. M. Reine: Death’s Hand

Brendan Carroll: The Red Cross of Gold

E. Stoops: Corner of a Round Planet

MeiLin Miranda: Lovers and Beloved

Tristan J. Tarwater: Little Girl Lost

J. R. Tomlin: Blood Duty

Christopher Bunn: Ice and Fire

Kate Danley: Maggie for Hire


I’m nearing the halfway point of the first draft of the unnamed sequel to The White Tree. It’s a big book. A lot of travel. A lot of new characters. A lot to keep in mind, in other words. Oh, and it might be the better part of 700 pages long. I’m thinking I could use a couple-three beta readers to help me out.

What’s a beta reader? A beta reader’s somebody who reads an early draft of a book with an eye for making it better. This can cover everything from proofreading (“You misspelled ‘rein’ again, dummy”) to problems with characters and plot (“How did they get from the Cauldron of Scalded Souls to Naked Fairy Lake in two days? In chapter 42 you said they were 1000 miles apart”). It’s a pretty broad role, really. Your feedback would pretty much be whatever you feel comfortabe giving. And what do you get in return?

…Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Ah ha ha ha!

Well, not quite nothing. It would be a volunteer position. In most ways, the compensation will be pretty minimal: a free copy of a book you were (presumably) going to buy anyway. Getting to read it weeks or months in advance of when the final version will be released to the public. Helping me increase the book’s overall awesomeness. And a thank you on the acknowledgements page.

It’s probably going to be about three months before I reach this stage, so don’t expect to see any hot new copy until then. But I figure I may as well start casting the net now. So if you read The White Tree, you liked it, and you want to help the sequel be even better, please let me know–just leave a comment with your email here, or drop me a line at edwrobertson AT gmail

From there, I’ll let you know when completed draft day draws near. Thanks, everyone.

Short answer: Yeah. I’m working on it right now, in fact. I’m about 160 pages into the first draft, which I envision being about four times that long.

What does that mean for its completion date? Well, it’ll be at least another three months until the first draft is done, and more like 4-5. I’ll need to give it at least a couple weeks to cool off after that before I start revising, which will probably take another 1-2 months, say. It’s almost March now, so barring any localized tornadoes, meteor strikes, etc. (and who ever heard of a natural disaster in Southern California?), I would guess it’ll be ready somewhere between August and October.

Why so long? Yeah, I know, Amanda Hocking can write a book in 9 days. Well, for one thing, it’s going to be a long book. Most novels fall into the 70,000-120,000 word range. YA, paranormal, and romance tend to be on the shorter side of that range, which is part of why you often see those authors with so many titles and such fast turnarounds. Also they are very prolific and dedicated.

Epic fantasy’s a whole ‘nother beast. I’ve got this book outlined for about 175-200K words. In other words (if I’ll have any left at this point), about twice as long as your average book. I’m not sure how long the longest epic fantasy runs, but those 1000+ page tomes from George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss and the like have to be 300-400K words. Man. Typing that out, I suddenly understand why it’s taking them 4-5 years between books.

Anyway, so right, a sequel. And yes, there will be a sequel to that, adding up to the trilogy that is mandatory by all bylaws of Big Fat Fantasy Epics. The Cycle of Arawn. Don’t worry, I’ve already got the entire story arc planned out, more or less. The series won’t bloat beyond that. And in terms of plotting, if you’ve read The White Tree, you know the series isn’t going to be the story of one vast quest to find a Master Sword and defeat a Ganon. There will be an overall arc to it, but it’s going to be a little different than the unified quest story personified by The Lord of the Rings and books like it.

And I think that’s all I’ll say for now. I need to get back to actually writing the thing!

Well, not quite. But the fine man over at Free Book Reviews did give The White Tree a very, very nice writeup. Seriously, the first sentence of the review proper includes the word “masterpiece” and that’s not preceded by the words “not a,” anti-“, or “what in Bizarro World would be considered a.” Give it a read.

It’s been a while now since I finished or reread The White Tree and it’s been very cool to see the odd review roll in and remind me of what’s between the covers. Like that main characters Dante and Blays get into and perform an awful lot of trouble. The review puts it better than I could when it says, in reference to the two, “not all heroes have to always do the right thing to do the right thing.”

One of the main things I wanted to do with that book was write an epic fantasy where the heroes are very rarely faced with obvious choices between good and evil, leaving them to make a lot of decisions that are questionable, amoral, or outright wrong–but without making them antiheroes, exactly. I’m hardly the first one to do that, but it’s still gratifying to read about someone else getting the same kick out of that as I did.

Incidentally, The White Tree‘s still available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble.

The verdict: Scott gives it four stars.

More importantly, he touches on several items I considered critical while working on The White Tree. Biggest of all is the friendship between Dante and Blays, Blays wasn’t a big factor in my early plans; my focus, really, was on Dante, the expansion of his powers and the deepening trouble his ambitions bring them. But the moment Blays showed up on the page, the story changed.

Some authors talk about their characters coming alive, writing themselves, as if the writer is just a stenographer for these people no one else can see. My experience wasn’t quite like that. I was still the one doing the writing. But Blays’ persona was so clear to me and he was such a perfect companion for Dante (ready to call him on his BS, almost as good at getting into trouble as he is in getting out of it) that I hardly had to think at all. I just knew. I knew exactly what Blays would say, what he would do. Just thinking about them makes me want to start writing about them right now.

Scott picked up on something else that emerged between these two characters: “Dante and Blays are both willing to do what they have to do to achieve their goals regardless of the legality of their actions.” Yeah. Indeed. Over the course of the book, they lie, cheat, steal, and kill. They do a lot of bad things. I wanted to challenge them, to regularly put them into murky moral situations where the answer’s far from clear. I wanted to keep as far away from the Good Vs. Evil tendency of epic fantasy as possible. I wanted the questions Dante and Blays face in their world to be just as impossible as the ones we face in ours.

Lastly, he mentions the “rich mythology.” That damned mythology! I wrote pages of notes on the mythology behind The White Tree–not only did I have to compose my own Zodiac, complete with its own subsets of signs, signifiers, meanings, and embedded legends, but Dante eventually discovers the myths have changed over time, meaning I had to track all that, too–which symbols have changed and how, how later writers misinterpreted the early legends, etc. etc. etc. Good lord. Just thinking about it makes my brain want to crawl out my ear and hide under the porch.

I try not to call a ton of attention to the historical contradictions within the world’s mythology. For the most part, it’s peripheral to the main story. Picking up on these little clues won’t change your entire reading of the book. They won’t teach you to sprout wings and flap to the oasis on the moon, either.

But it could change your perspective on their world’s history just a little. With that understanding, the conflict between the two kingdoms and their religions might look a little sadder.

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