My Kindle free short story experiment.

In June, shortly before my book THE SILENT GIRL went on sale, my publisher and I decided to try a little experiment. We put up a free Rizzoli & Isles short story called “Freaks” that had earlier appeared on the TNT website to promote the TV show. It was intended as a fun little piece, a complete mystery told in about fifteen pages. It opens with a dead girl’s body in an abandoned church. There are hints of vampires, there’s a chase through an alley, an autopsy, and a final confrontation with a gunman. Mystery solved, with a twist. All in fifteen pages.

Also included in the free download were the first two chapters of THE SILENT GIRL, and a script from the TV show. We wanted to give readers just a taste of Jane and Maura, to offer a sneak peek at the new book, and maybe entice viewers of the TV show to give the books a try.

And did I mention this was all free?

“Freaks” shot to the top of the chart for free offerings and was downloaded tens of thousands of times the first week. It looked like the experiment was working. I waited and watched the reader reviews, to see if folks were getting a kick out of it. To see if it was leading them to buy a book.

What I found instead were complaints, complaints, complaints: The story was too short! Hardly any character development! Not as good as the books! Some people were pissed about the two free chapters because they resented anything promotional, and were disgusted that they got a free peek. (You know, no one forced you to read the chapters.) And for some, “free” wasn’t cheap enough; they complained that the offer wasn’t “worth it.”

The objections made my head hurt. Do people really expect a short story to be as good as a book? Do they really expect deep character development plus a complete mystery in fifteen pages?

My conclusion: I don”t think it was worth it on my end, either. Short stories are killers to craft when you’re used to writing novels. I had to distill a plot down to its basic elements, make it punchy enough to work for a TV website, keep the action tense and the twists unpredictable, all while establishing a feel for the characters. My hope was that the story would serve as a bridge between the slightly different TV and book versions of Jane and Maura, helping readers enjoy both interpretations.

For all the effort I put into it, I think the free short story experiment was, if not a failure, a disappointment. I think I’ll stick with Twitter.

18 replies
  1. dlmchau
    dlmchau says:

    It is unfortunate to hear that you received such negative feedback. This may not counteract your disappointment, but I would like you to know that as a long time fan of your books, I also enjoyed the short story. Indeed it is hard for extensive character development in a short story, but that is not the point. That is something that can only be accomplished with a novel, and perhaps even a series of books. It is always harder to keep things short while ensuring that you get the story and important points across. Additionally, I have experienced difficulty and lacked the endurance to read novels due to my cancer treatments. It was a treat to get a story in a short format with characters I was familiar with (and it was FREE)! Although I struggled to read other novels, I could not put down your most recent novel! It was great! I have shared your short story and book with other cancer patients. We have a book sharing program at my hospital. I just thought you should know that your short story efforts were greatly appreciated by some patients and gave us a brief break.

  2. mochamaker
    mochamaker says:

    I enjoyed it. I was very excited when I got to the free excerpt from The Silent Girl. It was like getting an extra present on top of an already awesome present. As for the complainers, if you gave them a free car then they would probably complain that now they have to pay for the gas. That’s just human nature. I wish you wouldn’t let them dissuade you from writing another short story. If you don’t want to then that’s okay I suppose. *pouts*

  3. Ruwani
    Ruwani says:

    I really liked the short story! short stories in general aren’t the same as books, but both are special and good in their own way, some people are just glass half empty types.

  4. Nikki
    Nikki says:

    As a writer, you put yourself out there. Originally, I was a fan of the show and was afraid of the books because I didn’t know if it would be like the show at all. Then, the free short story allowed me to get a taste of what I was missing, prompting me all the way to the store to buy your first two in hardcover for the series. It was a smart move, it probably exposed a lot of people to your writing who otherwise wouldn’t have even thought to read your books because they were satisfied with the show. As for the negative criticism. You let the good in with the bad. Remember, people who really love something seldom every say so unless it is taken away. People who hate things are sometimes quick to complain… and sadly, those complaints are sometimes louder than the praise. For every ignorant person who has criticized your move, or experiment as you put it, there are plenty more who not only enjoyed it, but truly appreciated it. Thank you.

  5. Dru
    Dru says:

    I enjoyed it. For someone to complain about a short story not having enough, did they not see the word “short?”

  6. Kimble
    Kimble says:

    I haven’t read the Silent Girl or Freaks yet (pressure on the YET!) I bought Silent Girl on Kindle, but will be buying the book later this week…something about holding a book is better for me but back to the point….try not to get disheartened by the feedback, try looking at it like this every single one of those people who were saying it was too short must have enjoyed it still, too short in my mind means “i was enjoying it why couldn’t it have been longer!”

    try to remember for every 10 praise and you get 1 negetive comment, it’s always the bad one that stings.
    I down loaded the first 2 chapters off the book from here i think you pdf’d them, and I without shame sat and read them at my desk at work and waved anyone away who came to talk to me about work.

    Chin up Chick ! we think you’re awesome ! bring on more short stories, medium stories and long stories !

  7. Tess
    Tess says:

    Thanks so much for the nice comments! I guess it was the “free” part that really got to me. I’m accustomed to bad reviews for my books, but to get them for something you give as a gift is more than a little irritating!

  8. cjewel
    cjewel says:

    I *Completely* understand about the complaints. I get them too for my shorts. The word “short” is there in the title and in the description and yet people complain about it.

    However, I think you measured apples and are analyzing oranges here.

    Your experiment wasn’t to find out if people liked your short story. Your experiment was to find out if people who downloaded and read your free short story went out and bought other books by you that were NOT free.

    All we really know is that a number of readers failed to notice and absorb the information about SHORT and therefore complained to you because it was short. You also don’t know how many people read it, liked it, and didn’t let you know (which is probably a substantial number, simply because people are more motivated to complain, or so it seems to me.)

    What we don’t know (you or your publisher might, though) is whether there was a sales bump in your non-free books after the free short story was available. A quick fairly raw check is to look at the amazon rankings for your non-free books. Have the rankings increased?

    I also think that you need to look out at least 3-4 months for sales effects because people download free offerings and then they sit on the reader (the device) until later.

    If you wanted to track reader response, what you could have done is include a link at the end of the short story that said something like “What did you think of this story? I’d love to hear.” There are dozens of ways that link could be set up — using Google Analytics, directed to your “contact me” page on your website or to a poll (on your website) or a combination of those.

    You could/should also have included buy links to your paid books in the short story. I bought, read and very much enjoyed the short story and I don’t recall that there were any. And if not buy links, then at least links for more information about your other titles.

    Lastly, a free offering is going certainly going to pull in people who just don’t connect with your work, but it will also bring in new readers that you probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

  9. jenneva72
    jenneva72 says:

    I loved the short story. I was so excited to see it in the Kindle store. Your books are on my auto-buy list, so I already had The Silent Girl when I read Freaks (I saved them for awhile) and it was the perfect appetizer. I hope you won’t let the negativity keep you from writing more short stories, but if so, well…I can certainly see why. It would upset me too if I had given something away only to get a bunch of complaints about it. Which part of “free” did these people not understand? And as for those who said it wasn’t worth it? What, did they sprain their fingers clicking the download-for-free button or something? Give me a break.

    But anyway, I for one would like to simply say thank you. It is unfortunate that the whiners’ voices are so loud, and that the appreciative among us didn’t speak up just as strongly.

    Also, to dlmchau who commented above, I too had problems reading when I was undergoing chemotherapy and in and out of the hospital constantly. I found that short stories and magazines were about all I could manage.

    I am (obviously!) a complete stranger to you, but I sincerely wish you the best of luck.

  10. Tess
    Tess says:

    cjewel, you raise some good points — what, exactly, do reader comments really mean? What do they measure? I’m still getting data about the results of the experiment. So far, it looks like those who troll only for free material may be a different subset of people — a subset that simply doesn’t like to pay for content, period. So they aren’t crossing over into buying books at all.

  11. Marbles
    Marbles says:

    I am sure I would have loved the short story however since I don’t have a Kindle but have a Kobo was not able to get it. I love all of your books so I am sure this would have been no different. I live in Canada. Wish it would have been available to me as well.
    Thanks Tess and keep them comming. Just finished The Silent Girl and can’t wait for a new one

  12. jennofahhh
    jennofahhh says:

    Maybe you could take the complaint of a short story being too short as a compliment? I found it enjoyable but I also read the series and watch the TV show so I didn’t feel there was a need for character development because I already knew the characters. Hopefully the show has brought in more readers to make up for all the complainers from the short story!

    By the way thank you for writing such relatable characters, I have suffered from depression since for years and reading about Maura and Jane is like therapy for me. No other writer can capture the feeling of loneliness like you do. Even though the characters are fiction it helps to read something so relatable. As I enter another year at a very small and cold Catholic college in Boston, its comforting to know that I will at least have my Rizzoli and Isles series to keep me company.

  13. dayya
    dayya says:

    Hi Tess. I’m a long time lurker, wanted you to know I downloaded your short story and enjoyed it! Well done! Reading about the negative reactions, I wondered if a part of the problem is the chaper format Kindle uses for short stories; short stories aren’t written in chapters and this might’ve confused those who don’t understand the differences between a novel and a short story. d:)

  14. Warrior
    Warrior says:

    Hi Tess, hi to all,
    for what i understood, people just look for the word “free” rather than others (like “short”).
    On the other side, for what is my personal experience, when i have to buy something and i try to find info over the Internet, i find JUST and ONLY negative feedback… few of course, but i still haven’t found what i was looking for (thanks to U2 for the words 😀 ), that is, some positive feedback about the thing i have to buy.
    Well, for this little experiment i deeply believe it’s the same. As someone already have said, there are veeeery few people who write positive feedback about something, then, cjevel is right when he/she says to check eventually some increasing of your selling.
    Beside that, why don’t you open a thread when you clearly ask who liked the short story (i’m sorry i couldn’t read becuase i still haven’t found where to download it) and if, after reading this short story, they are pushed to buy a book? Wasn’t this the meaning of your small experiment?
    Regarding me, i’ve read only “Keeping the dead”, and this was enough to make me crave for your books.
    Greeting from hot Sicily.

  15. ckshubin
    ckshubin says:

    Tess –

    I just wanted to say that I’m glad that you wrote the short story for and Kindle. It was BECAUSE of that story that I found your books and have now read almost all of them over the summer and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I’m on the last Rizzoli & Isles book – The Silent Girl – and will be starting that soon.

    A big fan of the Rizzoli & Isles show it wasn’t until after reading the free short story “Freaks” that I noticed the show was based on the books since I DVR everything and speed through all the commercials and intro’s.

    So thank you!

  16. Charmaine
    Charmaine says:

    I saw your interview with Writers Talk on Facebook today. As of an hour ago, I had never heard of you! I decided to visit your site and sample your writing. I saw “Freaks” was free so I downloaded it and read it.

    Thanks for the story! I enjoyed it! Sometimes, the simplest things are the solution to many a puzzle. And our first obvious guess is usually the wrong one.

    I am a member of a writers’ critique group and we mostly write or critique short stories. I like short stories, I like quick reads. As a mother of seven and writer myself, gone are the days when I can stay up hours and hours or days even reading tomes of entertaining stories. Nowadays, I have to get my reading fix on and go about my life. If a book has too many pages, I pass on it. Again, thanks! Keep the shorts coming!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply