Immortal Remains, after just over 5 weeks, has 19 downloads on Smashwords, of which only 7 are the complete story, of which only two were paid for (though those two sales did generate fractionally more money for me than 'Heaven Can Wait' did in four months back when it was in print).
The latest Second Realm episode has done even worse - zero Smashwords traffic after a week.
This is a fairly sharp kick to the optimism that 2012 gave me. It's tempting to fall into despair and worry that the 2300-odd downloads of Second Realm episodes so far have all been either by bots or people who aren't willing to continue to support my work when it's not absolutely free.
This time last year, that's probably where my thinking would have ended, and I'd have gone away to cry in a corner somewhere. However, I think there is actually another possibility; that people really aren't used to the Pay What You Like model. After all, the only real difference between The Second Realm 4.1 and 3.4 (which has, at time of writing, been downloaded 63 times) is that a reader has to click a few more links to get access. 4-1 is still available for free, it's just that you have to 'buy' it for nothing first.
The problem I'm running up against is that my following on Smashwords is quite opaque to me. My total download numbers go up by 30-50 most weeks, but I have no idea how many of those are real people, and of those who are real people I have no idea how many are fans coming back for the next episode as against people stumbling across a free short story and taking a copy just because it's there. About the only thing I do know is that almost none of those downloads represent people who are interested or passionate enough to leave reviews (hint hint ;) - and my thanks to the one fan who has left a review on Immortal Remains <3).
One possibility that has occurred to me in particular respect of the new Second Realm episode is that my regular readership - whatever its size - all value my work enough that they do want to give me some money for it (or at least feel that they shouldn't keep reading without giving some indication of support), but don't feel able to spare the money at the moment. It's a slightly comic, implausible idea, though (and, guys, if you are in that situation, take the story for free, because there'll be other opportunities to support me and you support me best by reading my work and telling others about it). Here are three data points I have noticed which might be of some minor interest:
First, downloads of earlier Second Realm episodes continue to rise more or less on the same trend as before. In fact, last week (being a launch week for a new episode) was the best overall since mid-November, in the wake of the last episode release. It actually looks like what happened was that the new episode aroused the same amount of interest in prior episodes of the series as all the other episodes have done when new, the number for the week only ending up low compared to other release weeks because there weren't the dozen-or-so downloads of the new episode to make up the difference.
Second, two people have added episode 4-1 to their Smashwords libraries without buying it. Now, I don't actually know what being added to a library means, except possibly that people are marking the story as one to come back to, but it must surely indicate someone taking an interest. Most of the Second Realm episodes are in 8-10 libraries (though 3-4, the finale of season 1, is still only in 3), but it is early days for 4-1.
Lastly, the overall position is less positive. Average numbers have been in a slow decline since the summer, and I don't think the pattern of downloads indicates the presence of a large dedicated readership; there's no obvious pattern at all to which episodes have more downloads than others. Episode 1-4 has 60-odd more downloads than its predecessor, and more recent episodes seem to come in pairs; 2-2 and 2-3 are separated by only 10 downloads, but each is 50+ downloads separate from its other neightbour - and the same is true of the next two pairs, as well.
So it's very difficult to get a handle on what's going on. If you think you know (and particularly if you're a regular Second Realm reader on Smashwords but haven't got the new episode yet), I'd love to hear from you with ideas. I can't rule out the possibility that this is just a post-holiday slump, with everybody working their way through the books they got for Christmas before getting back to more regular habits, but that flat zero is quite unsettling. Talk to me, folks!