The Curse of Vella

This is the time of year for curses. With Vella, it’s a mixed bag.

I picked this image for aesthetic reasons, i.e., I like it.

For those of you who may not know, Vella is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing’s self-publishing serialization platform. It’s not a subscription service. The first few chapters are free to read. After the first three gratis e “episodes” (as Amazon calls chapters) readers “unlock” subsequent chapters with tokens. Amazon gives readers 200 (!) free tokens. The number of tokens it takes to read a chapter depends on how long it is. After that, if readers want to keep reading they buy tokens. This is the first of Vella’s curses. At least for writers.

Writers have to promote the heck out of their novels, hence this picture once again.

In my historical romance, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, readers can read nine chapters without paying anything. Of course, that means that neither Amazon nor I get our percentage. It’s a good thing for Amazon and me that my novel is long. I didn’t write Exile with Vella in mind. It didn’t even exist when I finished my manuscript. On the plus side, Amazon pays bonuses when people read and order more chapters that they pay for. The bonus amount varies from month to month. Amazon should give away fewer tokens. If readers haven’t been hooked by the first three chapters, are they likely to read the next six or more even if they’re free?

It’s good to have options.

It’s not necessary to have an e-reader in order to read stories published on Vella. Any electronic device will do, including smartphones, laptops, and even desktops. I learned this by trying it myself. The customer service rep I asked told me that Vella books can only be read with mobile devices. Either he didn’t know what he was talking about or Vella’s options have been updated since then.

Looks painless. It’s not.

One of the biggest curses of Vella, and every other self-publishing platform is DIY marketing.

Years ago when I was in San Francisco, walking in Union Square, I encountered a poet standing on a street corner peddling his poetry chapbook. I can’t remember how much I offered to pay for his anthology. Whatever the amount was, it wasn’t enough. He said, “Most people give me [X number of] dollars.” Talk about nerve. I’d have expected him to be grateful for any amount. It’s not the kind of gumption I have. I can’t remember if I gave him his asking price. Probably not. I’m not “most” people.

Thanks to the internet, writers don’t have to stand on street corners hawking their books. Nevertheless, I still hate marketing, as many writers do. I want to write, not to have to market. When I post links to A Home for an Exile’s Heart on social media, I feel like I’m not much different from that street corner huckster. I do it anyway but it’s pretty much the only thing I do in order to sell my book. That and write about Exile on my blog.

Something I strive for.

It’s a toss-up as to which is the biggest curse. Marketing? Or the fact that Vella allows writers to edit their published material any time they want as many times as they want. I must be a compulsive editor. I can’t seem to leave my novel alone and go on to something new. I love spending time with my characters so I sometimes reread a chapter or two. In doing so, I discovered that my story’s not nearly as complete as I thought. Reading an article in The Washington Post about what writers should look out for only made matters worse. I discovered a bunch of words that I’ve been unconsciously abusing that I had to get rid of or change. Once I finish editing the whole darn thing, I promise myself to stop and go on to something new. Even The Washington Post and other prestigious publications have typos and other glitches and people still read them.

Now that I’ve finished writing this post, I will let it sit for a while before reading it again to see if it needs more editing. Then I’ll do some more editing on Exile.

When Truth Doesn’t Belong in Fiction

We’ve all heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Examples of how accurate that saying is are all over the media. They prompt me to do some quick fact-checking–could this really have happened or is someone messing around with the facts, provided there are any facts to sensationalize. But how many of us have heard the saying, “Just because it happened doesn’t mean it should go in a story”?

When I was writing my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, I questioned friends and family members whose relatives had also been refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Did any of them have anecdotes they could share, something that would add drama to my novel and express the desperation of Latvians to escape the Red Army? Our people knew from long experience the horrors that would follow when the Soviets took over.

One friend, whom I’ve known for decades told me of an incident that involved her aunt; let’s call her Velta.

Velta and her family were departing the Latvian port city, Liepāja by ship. Velta was standing at the rail, for a last glimpse of her homeland, as the ship started to pull away. Down on the dock, a desperate woman, who had not been able to get on board, threw her baby to Velta, who succeeded in catching the little girl. Velta and her family treated the baby as if she were their own. Later, the mother was able to track down her baby in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany. Mother and daughter were happily reunited.

Liepāja, Latvia. The city and the steeple of St. Joseph’s Cathedral was the last glimpse of home that many Latvian refugees had.

Wow! I thought. What a great true story. So illustrative of this terrible situation, how a mother would do anything to keep her precious child from having to grow up under the Soviet rule of terror. With my friend’s permission, I decided to give Velta’s story to my heroine, Līvija Galiņa.

My Latvian beta reader objected. “This scene is not believable,” he said. But it really happened, I replied. “That may be so, but it’s still not believable,” he insisted. “However, you’re the author, so it’s your decision.”

Writers have many tricky choices to make.

After thinking it over, I realized that he was right. The incident really happened. It was related to me by a trusted friend. But it didn’t belong in my story. Fiction though it is, I want my novel to be plausible. Including the story of Velta and the baby she saved would be an unnecessary distraction from my narrative. I don’t want readers thinking, “Nah, this can’t have happened.” Or, “This is preposterous.” Or, have the detail-oriented, over-thinkers like me, who read in my author’s note that I’d based this account on a true incident, wondering, “How far was the ship from the dock?” “How fast was the ship going?” “Was the mother a basketball player?”

Striving for believability, I took the story out. Other incidents in my novel that involve the Latvian refugees are based on true stories, but this one does not belong.

The link to my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Hart. Available on Kindle Vella. The first few chapters are free to read.

Vella: 132K Words=$1

Yep. One buck.

To clarify, Vella does not buy anything. It’s a free platform for writers to self-publish their books in serial form. Amazon takes a cut of royalties.

This is a depressing piece to write.

Of course, my chapters have been “live” only since July 14. It takes time to build an audience. It also takes promoting, promoting, promoting. It takes readers who are willing to buy 200 tokens for $1.99 and up to $14.99 for 1700 tokens. 

Marketing is not much fun. I hate it.

I’ve published only twenty-two chapters of my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart. I have more chapters I could publish, but why should I bother if no one but one of my relatives is willing to spend a few bucks to read more chapters? He’s the one responsible for that one buck, for which I thank him.

 Amazon is offering 200 free tokens, which in the case of my novel takes readers through chapter nine. It might help if they went back to their original plan of offering three free episodes to entice readers. Because of those two hundred fee tokens, they’re not getting their cut and I’m not getting mine.

As far as I can tell, Amazon is doing little to promote Vella stories. The Vella banner does not automatically show up whenever someone visits their site. Readers have to know to click on the drop-down menu and scroll to Kindle Store; not everyone knows Vella books can be found in the Kindle store. If potential readers are not looking for a particular author or title, they need to just hit “enter” and thumbnail cover illustrations in their little circles will pops up. Some of the stories have star ratings, others do not. On the far right side, “see more” shows in a tiny font. You can get a list view or a grid view of titles Big deal. Writers have to educate their readers. One person on Facebook wanted to read my story; he couldn’t find it, so I sent him the link.

A screen shot of Vella instructions for readers. I couldn’t find it again. The site’s not exactly user friendly.

I have the Vella page bookmarked. It shows favorite stories and trending stories. I don’t remember how I got there. That’s why I bookmarked it; I knew I wouldn’t remember. 

Self-publishing on any platform requires the writer to promote like mad or to pay retail juggernaut Amazon to do it for them. That goes for KDP, too. I don’t know if Amzon expects payments in order to promote Vella books. I could also create a Facebook page for A Home for an Exile’s Heart. The page would be free, but people would only find it if they happened to stumble on it. Facebook would be glad to “boost” the page for me, but since Zuekcerberg must be broke, I’d have to pay to get my page “boosted.” I think it’s thirty dollars to boost a page, but don’t know if that’s monthly or for a year or what.

I’ve done only a little promoting. Writing about my novel here is one way to publicize it. My Word Press account is linked to Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn. I can click on the “F” icon on my Word Press page to share my post on Facebook. I haven’t succeed in linking it.

 Because my heroine is a Latvian World War II refugee, I’ve also posted links in several Latvian Facebook groups. People have congratulated me and clicked on “like” but seemingly no one cares enough to read even free chapters. Those who’ve read my chapters haven’t given Exile a thumbs up. I may have to post the link again with the screenshot.

I’m not sure it would be worth the money to pay Facebook to boost a page dedicated to my novel.

Maybe Exile doesn’t belong on Vella in the first place. There are no categories for women’s fiction or mainstream fiction. None of my characters are billionaires, Highlanders, or werewolves. Exile’s not paranormal, a fantasy, or a mystery. The Latvian refugee and the dashing fighter pilot live in non-dystopian Seattle in 1952. It didn’t even have the Space Needle back then.

What next? I guess I’ll leave A Home for an Exile’s Heart on Vella for the time being, but I will not publish any more chapters. I have no reason to. And I’ll go back to querying agents.

BUT, depressing as it was to report this stuff about Vella, it was writing. Writing is what I do. I feel better for having written.