2 September 2015 - 6:29 pm

Amazon vs Authors: Review policing

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Part of the Amazon is not your friend series.

Any author, whether traditionally or independently published, will tell you that reviews are important when it comes to exposure and sales. They directly influence our bottom line. It’s to be expected, then, that any threat to an author’s ability to get reviews – particularly positive ones  – will cause a stir.

When word started filtering through the internet about Amazon removing legitimate reviews from books, it’s not surprising that authors got upset and vocal about it.

Let’s take a walk through Amazon’s recent review saga.

How it started

Amazon actively encourages reviews from its customers, so that other customers can know how good (or not-good) a particular product is. In 2012, a debacle about unethical reviews and sock puppets occurred: authors were caught paying for reviews, and review providers were creating multiple accounts to leave multiple reviews for the same book. Some authors cut out the middleman and created the sock puppet accounts themselves to spoof good and bad reviews on books, depending on whether the author was a competitor.

As Writer Beware points out, late in 2012, Amazon changed its review policy (and started to enforce it more stringently) to try to stamp out unethical and paid-for reviews. The review criteria are pretty clear (if you know where to look, which is not clear) about reviews being disallowed from anyone who has a financial interest in the product’s success. It also excludes those with a familial or ‘close personal relationship’ with the author.  Amazon appeared to interpret these guidelines pretty broadly when winding up the ban-hammer and aiming it at reviews.

This led to a slew of criticism and complaint, because fans and fellow authors were finding that their reviews were being removed or rejected. Inquiries received a response that stated the review was a violation of the terms and conditions. Pushing the issue (which could mean just asking for more information) resulted in a threat to remove the book from Amazon entirely.

On top of this, there were obvious fakes who were not affected by the wildly swinging ban-hammer (that’s my name for it, and I’m sticking with it).

The situation today

After the end of 2012, the furor died down and it has been pretty quiet since then. Recently, the issue has reared its head again, as more fans and authors trip over this problem. It’s hard to tell if this is a resurgence of the same issue, or if Amazon are enjoying a fresh spree with the ban-hammer.

Some criticism has emerged about the original complaint that brought this issue back into the limelight. However, it’s not an isolated incident. I think there’s enough history and additional instances of the problem that it’s worth taking a look.

It seems that Amazon’s interpretation of ‘close personal relationship’ can mean anyone who has interacted online (it’s impossible to say for sure, because Amazon isn’t telling). Authors who have never met but have exchanged e-words online have had their reviews on each others’ work removed. Fans who chat with the author too much (or at all?) also suffer.

There are a couple of things about this that deeply disturb me. First (and probably least), Amazon is gathering a lot of information about its authors and customers, in order to be able to identify these relationships. It’s unclear if this data-mining is done purely through Amazon’s site (and links from author pages to blogs, Twitter feeds, etc), or if it casts a wider net. Just how much is it watching us? (Though this is hardly surprising in light of what we know it can scrape off its customers’ Kindle devices.)

Secondly, this behaviour from Amazon means that the relationships that make being an author awesome are under fire. Indie authors, in particular, do well because of their interactions with their readers, with being accessible and visible. We enjoy great communication with our readers, and I think they enjoy being able to talk with us. (The same is true for traditionally-published authors, but usually to a lesser degree because they have more marketing options and support available than indie authors. However, it’s not my intention to under-value the impact on them; it affects all authors.)

Amazon is actively discouraging this. They’re punishing authors and readers alike for talking to each other by removing legitimate readers’ reviews. How is this good for sales? At the very least, Amazon is a business and should care about this. Fans who love a book or an author’s work are more likely to seek out contact with that author, so this could potentially remove an author’s most fervent support. Fans and readers don’t have a financial interest in the success of a book, so I don’t see how this violates the terms of service. Since when was it wrong to support something you love?

Similarly, this review ban-hammer affects authors who have had contact with each other. The author community is supportive and lacks the competitive viciousness of many industries. This is part of what I love about being a writer. We interact online. We swap notes and advice; we help promote each others’ work, because we know that a sale for other authors doesn’t mean less for me. And we know how important reviews are, so we like to leave them for the work we enjoy. Now being part of a community is wrong, too?

I’m not sure why Amazon thinks it’s a good idea to target these reviews. Direct review swaps between authors may be common, but does that mean that the reviews are any less honest? Of all the nefarious behaviour that has been identified around reviews, this has not been mentioned as being a problem, and it only covers a fraction of reviews by authors on another authors’ work.

Interestingly, the Amazon ban-hammer could lead to an unfortunate side effect: in order to be able to review books, reviewers are likely to create new (anonymous) accounts. So, instead of getting rid of anonymous sock-puppet accounts, Amazon is actually encouraging the practice, making it even harder to spot the ‘real fakes’ that caused the original problem. (This is an unverified prediction so far – has anyone seen this happening? Would you do it?)

Well done, Amazon, well done.

Thirdly (and possibly the saddest of all), they’re targetting the wrong reviews. There have been cases pointed out where obvious fakes are being left alone, while legitimate fan or fellow author reviews have been removed. On top of that, Amazon only seems to be targetting the positive reviews: viciously negative one-star reviews don’t seem to be affected. The revenge or false-negative review has been identified as being just as much of a problem as the false/fake-positives. So what’s being done about that? Nothing that we can see.

What this all means is that the quality of reviews isn’t being improved by the ban-hammer. It also means that the average star-count for books is being destabilised, because even if Amazon was removing the right (false-)positive reviews, it’s not removing the false-negatives.

So what does it all mean

It’s hard to know what to take away from all of this. Certainly, Amazon doesn’t understand the author-reader relationship, and it doesn’t understand the author community. It definitely doesn’t support these things. It’s one of those things that makes me very nervous about Amazon’s attempt to build a monopoly in the book industry, because if it succeeds, it won’t even have to pretend to care any more. It barely seems to give a crap now.

I don’t like that authors feel like they have to create anonymous accounts to leave reviews; that might be a natural reaction to the issue, but it’s a step in the wrong direction in my view. I hope this isn’t happening, or the sock puppet issue will only get harder to eradicate.

I think we should keep in mind that shoppers are pretty savvy these days, when it comes to reviews. They’ll ignore the obvious too-good and too-bad reviews, and look for the ‘honest’ ones. So why should Amazon headache about it like this? It feels like a badly-aimed reflex in response to the reported problems and abuse.

What do I think Amazon should do? Whatever algorithms it is currently using are clearly faulty. Stop it. There is a facility to report something that looks dodgy, so let people report dodgy reviews and investigate them properly when they’re identified. Identify the markers of actual fake reviews and step on them. Make the criteria clearer for what qualifies as a ‘close personal relationship’ (the mechanism they use to assess it might be intellectual property, but the basic criteria it has to meet should not be). Stop using lazy measures that annoys everyone involved (including our customers!).

One thing all of this has meant is that there is now a petition accepting signatures to appeal against the review ban-hammer at Amazon. As of this posting, it has over 15,000 signatures. Indie author Jas T Ward explained the petition’s intent in an email to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos just a few days ago.

If you feel strongly about this issue, I suggest you sign the petition. If you have had a review wrongly removed from Amazon, shout out about it! Affecting the direction of a behemoth like Amazon might be a difficult task, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I am going to be writing up some reviews in the near future (less writing means more reading time for me!), so I’ll be curious to see if the ban-hammer swings in my direction. I’ll be posting the reviews in multiple places (including here), so they won’t be able to remove all of them!

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26 August 2015 - 6:34 pm

Editing frenzy

Considerate dinosaurs are important (Picture by P. Byrnes for Reader's Digest)

Considerate dinosaurs are important
(Picture by P. Byrnes for Reader’s Digest)

‘Frenzy’ might be overselling this a little, but the creative work has restarted! After struggling with writing and life and everything, and an only partially useful attempt to get back on top of things, I have finally started working on a creative project again. Not writing this time, but editing the submissions for the Everyday Heroes anthology.

It has taken a while to get to this point, and some coordination with the rest of the anthology team. We recently managed to get together, compare some notes, and make a plan of attack. We have split up the submissions and will work with the writers to get them to a publishable state. This week, we are starting our initial edits of the pieces and are getting together the first set of feedback.

It’s exciting, and I’m enjoying the pieces. I can’t wait until they’re ready to share with everyone!

For a few weeks now, I have been feeling overwhelmed and burnt out when it comes to my writing, mostly due to the other stuff going on in my life. Creative energy is hard to summon up on demand, particularly with my energy-related issues. I have been reading a lot more than usual instead, and that has helped keep the embers glowing.

Thinking critically about fiction always inspires me in some way, and there’s always something new to learn: a particular technique, or turn of phrase, or an example of boldness in the writing that is refreshing.  It’s important to understand what you don’t like and shouldn’t do, as well as the opposite, too. My recent forays into my bookshelves have shown me lots of both sides of the coin, and some will turn up in reviews just as soon as I can coherently commit my thoughts into words.

Reviewing a piece and editing it are similar exercises, and the progression from passively reacting as a reader to proactively examining as an editor, has been a good one. I can feel the creative juices fermenting, ideas starting to nose out of the mirk, the itch to write fluttering just below the skin. It’s like old friend waving from down the street, not quite close enough to grab and hug yet, but getting closer.

So, right now, I am throwing myself and my focus into editing some of the wonderful pieces submitted to the anthology project. I am deeply grateful to my anthology team’s input, understanding, and energy. Despite being an introvert, I do love collaborative projects, and in this one I get to work alongside other editors and with writers. So much fun!

After the first round of editing is done, the next step is getting back into the swing of putting pen to paper (figuratively speaking). I’m looking forward to that so much, and getting my writing back on track.

Onwards and upwards, my friends. Onwards and upwards.

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19 August 2015 - 6:38 pm

Best laid plans

Here's how my plans ended up (Picture via Pixabay)

Here’s how my plans ended up
(Picture via Pixabay)

So, I wrote recently about how stressed I’ve been lately, and how I was taking a week off work to rest and get some things sorted out.

I’m back at work now, so I figured I should consider how my week off went.

It started out well enough. I made myself a to-do list. I made some inroads into the sorting and tidying I wanted to do at home (minor stuff, but I was also collecting visiting family from the airport, with the usual related hugging and chatting). I had appointments lined up to look into my health and get that ball rolling.

The appointments happened at the beginning of the week. An attempt at a root canal was aborted and I now have to spend a small fortune to go to a specialist, because the tooth in question is in a challenging location. As a result of the attempt, I spent a couple of days feeling like I’d been punched in the mouth, without anything like the progress I was hoping for and with another scary appointment to look forward to (this is now next week).

The visit to my doctor started with a problem I’ve been having with my knee, and stayed focussed on that. I was sent off to get tests done, including an ultrasound. Every time someone poked me in the knee, I was limping for a day; after the ultrasound, I was limping for the weekend. I get the results of those tests back in a few days. There’s definitely something wrong in there (the ultrasound showed up a Baker’s cyst); the question now is what’s causing it and what I need to do to deal with it.

If I wasn’t out having someone poke, prod, or otherwise pain me, I was getting my car serviced (it’s that time of year) or trying to spend time with visiting family (another time-limited opportunity!). One way and another, I wound up being out every day of my holiday, in pain to varying degrees and in varying locations. My well-meaning to-do list didn’t get much of a look-in – because when I was home, I had to rest – and pretty much all of it is still outstanding.

I’ve had better holidays.

It’s frustrating. I’ve got some busy weekends coming up and not that much time before this year’s NaNoWriMo rolls around. I don’t have any more vacation time I can take off work. My available time and energy to get stuff done is pretty limited for the foreseeable future.

But there is progress. I’m getting important stuff sorted out, and it’s crucial to remember that. I haven’t wasted the time – I was busy the whole week, and some of it was fun stuff! Being with family and catching up with friends were welcome distractions from the cost and discomfort of everything else that was happening. Now I need to reorganise myself, redo the old to-do list, and figure out how to get the most important stuff done with what time I have available.

The good news is that the work situation is settling down and the stress is lifting. I’m struggling with my health and the painful hangover of last week, but there’s progress being made there and I have to keep that in mind. Overall, I’m already feeling better and more positive. I’m getting into the groove of being a full-time technical writer again and I’m enjoying the shift of focus.

So, here’s to making progress and the long upward climb. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and plot a new path.

Still moving, though, still pushing onwards. I’m a long way from giving up.

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15 August 2015 - 4:51 pm

Trusting monsters

Lullaby make Hulk sleepy (Picture: not mine)

Lullaby make Hulk sleepy
(Picture: not mine)

[Contains spoilers for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron]

I’ve babbled at length about Natasha, sterilisation, and monster-hood. Now I’d like to turn my attention to the other side of that almost-relationship: Bruce Banner and his struggles with ‘the other guy’.

One element that I think Avengers 2 handled poorly is the Hulk’s departure. To be clear: I have no objections to him leaving; it’s how it was shown in the movie that fell down for me. (Maybe there are some deleted scenes that go into it more; it’s too early to say!)

This is another one of those things that you have to watch for clues about, and try not to blink or you’ll miss it (much of the character work is like that in Age of Ultron). The clues are there, but they rely on being familiar with the other MCU movies and take a bit of piecing together. Personally, I think we (the audience) are being asked to work harder than we should have to to understand why Bruce left.

Ultimately, in my opinion, it comes down to trust. To understand why, you have to understand the thing that is most important to Bruce: control. Specifically, control over himself. At the end of The Incredible Hulk, we see (Edward Norton’s) Bruce learning how to bring the Hulk out on purpose through training and meditation. In The Avengers, (Mark Ruffalo’s) Bruce makes a kind of peace with that part of himself and reveals that he can be in control of when the Hulk comes out – and that he’s willing to do it when necessary.

In Avengers 2, Bruce has been working to extend his control with Natasha and her ‘lullaby’. She helps him to put the Hulk away; shutting down that part of himself that he still resents and dislikes, though he’s willing to use it when the team needs him to.

Still, he’s reluctant to try for anything like an adult relationship or a normal life. He doesn’t think he’s able to have those things with the monster inside him. He takes a lot of convincing, and it’s no accident that Natasha – the one person who can consistently put the Hulk back in his box and give Bruce back to himself – is the person he might have this life with.

Eventually, he comes around. In one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moments, he says yes to her. They might not be running off and abandoning the mission like she suggested, mostly because they’re in the middle of a fight at the time, but it’s definitely on the cards. He says yes.

Unfortunately, his way of saying ‘yes’ is to tell her that he won’t change into ‘the other guy’ (“I have a compelling reason not to.”). Natasha’s response isn’t to tell him that they have a ‘code green’ or ask him to change just this one last time because they need the other guy: she pushes him off a ledge and forces the Hulk out.

That, I believe, is the moment she loses Bruce. He said no to the change and she ignored his choice. She disregarded his consent, took away his control, and betrayed his trust. The one person who is supposed to put the monster away proved herself willing to force it out, too.

We don’t really get any explanation of that. The Hulk is angry when he appears, but he’s always angry, and he’s quick to rush off into the battle at hand. He doesn’t take it out on Natasha (she’s standing right there) and doesn’t seem any different towards her. He looks out for her during the battle and makes sure she’s safe. And then he leaves.

Curiously, now that I think about it, he’s still in the Hulk form when he steals the plane and disappears. Is leaving something that the Hulk and Bruce agree on? Did she hurt them both with a single move?

I would have liked some clue in the movie about why Bruce left. No-one seems to have an explanation, not even Natasha. As the group’s chief manipulator (she charms the Hulk and manipulates Loki, for goodness’ sake), I would have expected her to have some understanding of the situation. Yet all we see is her staring off into space. Is she trying to figure it all out, or wondering how she could be such a huge idiot, or wondering if she’s destined to die alone for all she’s done? We’re not given any clues (that I could see), except that she’s clearly deeply affected by Bruce’s departure.

That’s the only way I can make this make sense. One small push shattered their relationship. One brief moment of pragmatism spoiled a romance. All of it very much in-character for each of those involved.

I just wish that we didn’t have to fill in the gaps ourselves.

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9 August 2015 - 7:21 pm

The weight of stress

Stress: it squishes your fun (Picture by bottled_void)

Stress: it squishes your fun
(Picture by bottled_void)

I’ve been carrying a burden for some time now. Lately, I’ve been struggling to stand up under it. Over the past couple of weeks, it finally got to a point when I couldn’t ignore it any more: it was too much and something had to be done.

I don’t talk about my day job much here, and that’s because I don’t like to cross my personal and professional lives over. It tends to be unprofessional, easily becomes immature, and can be career-limiting if you’re not careful. Besides, this is a writing blog, not a ‘whine about the day job’ blog.

But the day job does impact my writing, (particularly when it impacts my health) and that’s part of what I want to chronicle here. Some cross-over is inevitable. My day job is an essential part of my life: it pays my bills, including the hosting for this blog (and all of my serials), and it’s the single biggest drain on my time and energy.

So here we are, talking about the day job. I’ve mentioned it in bits and pieces: how I was moved into a challenging team situation last November, with issues to resolve and a delivery to salvage (let’s call it project 1). I worked my ass off to pull that together and it paid off: we made our delivery and everyone was very pleased.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I had to keep the team running, move up a notch to high-priority and high-scrutiny work, and hit a pretty ambitious target. There was no time to pause and catch my breath; we finish one project and move right into the next in my line of work (which is software development). The ends of projects overlap so we’re always moving forwards. It’s a system that works.

It’s not a system that is kind to chronic fatigue. In hindsight, that first delivery took more out of me than I realised and I had no real opportunity to recover. It was right on into another, high-pressure project with a longer timescale and even more stress (project 2). The stress began to tell, and it didn’t go well.

That finished three months ago. We delivered what we needed to, by the skin of our teeth, but I’ve been catching flak for it ever since.

Three months ago, at the end of project 2, I was moved onto a different team and into another way of working (for those familiar with these things, I went from SCRUM to kanban). Changes of focus and challenge tend to be pretty good for me, and it was nice to do something different.

I tried to shuck off the stress and sour taste of the previous project, and immerse myself in this new team. Once again, it was high-priority work, with ambitious targets and a lot of management focus (project 3). It was an area that had been compromised previously to get other stuff done, and we were tasked with getting it back on track.

We smashed our targets. If I list out everything we achieved (which I’m not going to do here; you’ll have to take my word for it), we did pretty well.

But that one sour project (2) wouldn’t leave me alone. There was analysis done, so it wouldn’t happen again, and patterns identified, and things to work on (though I wasn’t able to work on those things at that time). It was high-pressure again, and I was one again under intense scrutiny, this time from several directions.

Finally, project 3 drew to an end and I was moved to another team. Once again, I was given challenging personalities that I would have to make work together in a team, and high-priority, high-scrutiny work. It was, I thought, my chance to prove that that one project that didn’t go well (project 2) was an anomaly; I had learned from it and could make a similar situation work, even under those conditions.

That’s when management decided to add more to my burdens: yes, I’d have a chance to prove myself, but as part of the official performance review process. Basically, it was sink or swim, and doing anything other than swimming like an olympian would mean I was only a step away from getting fired. It’s the highwire without a safety net; the tiniest slip meant I would fall, and fall, and fall.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that one of the worst elements for my CFS is stress. It’s this fun domino effect where it messes with my ability to rest or sleep, so I wind up more tired, and the symptoms get worse, and then I get more stressed because I can’t catch up with myself or do as well at work as I should.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’m currently supporting my family, which means that I cannot afford to lose my job. I literally have no safety net at the moment, not even to cover a gap while I look for another job. Me and the family that relies on me would be out on the street. So putting my job under threat is a sure way to stress me all out.

So I wound up with a choice: push forward where I was, and try to both deliver what the project demanded and meet all management’s requirements for ‘improvement’, or step sideways out of that role, and become a full-time technical writer again.

This choice was put before me at the end of our project kick-off week (for project 4 in this particular chronology), which is an intensive three days of meetings and planning, with loads to set up and sort out, particularly for those of us managing the teams. After those three days were over, I was already run down, and when I get really weary, I lose my resiliency and become brittle. Part of it is that the emotions are way closer to the surface than usual (for me). So the ‘we’re putting you on performance review’ news and ‘you need to make a choice about your role’ both came when I was already exhausted and running on empty, and the added stress and upset of it all only made it worse.

I kept my mouth closed and asked for the weekend to think about what I wanted to do. On the plus side, I know that I tend to get emotional when I’m exhausted, so I can try to manage it by not making rash decisions, taking my time, and nursing myself to a healthier state of mind. On the other hand, I really despise getting emotional, shaky, and on the edge of crying when I’m at work. I refuse to be That Girl.

I thought about a lot over that weekend. My chances of pulling off everything they were asking me to, if I stayed where I was. The impacts that it was having on my health. The impacts it was having on my writing. It all ripples through.

My health has been spiralling downwards for some time now, and in hindsight, I think the stress of those situations had a lot to do with it. I’ve been trying to find a time to go back to my doctor (and the money to do it) to see if there’s anything new we can investigate or try to help manage it better. (I’m currently dealing with an infected jaw that needs a root canal, and my finances will only support solving one problem at a time right now. At least there’s a solution for the infection and bad tooth!)

It has been getting harder and harder to write. I haven’t done anywhere near as much as I wanted to on my hiatus from Starwalker. Over the last couple of months, my writing has dried up altogether.

(One of the first signs that I’m getting tired is that I stop posting on this blog so much. When the gap between posts yawn wide, I’m probably struggling with writing anything else, too.)

You can probably see where this is going. I had to be brutally honest with myself about where I was and what I was likely to be capable of. I had to figure out how I was going to get to a better place.

At the start of the new week, I went back to work and told them that I’d like to move into a technical writer role again and away from the stress that was making me so sick. They supported my decision fully, and by the end of the day, there was a plan to get another team leader in my team to take over.

It was the right decision for me and my health. It’s the right decision for my writing, though I’m still building that back up again (step one is writing more often here, while I rekindle the creative drive).

I am immensely grateful for my work and how understanding the management has been about all of this. Sure, I could go get another job; that’s always an option, but is also somewhat stressful in itself. I’m lucky that I had the option to move to a role that suits me better right now.

And, in a way, I’m lucky that things came to a head now and not when my health was even worse. It has forced me to look at a few things in my life and make choices. I’m glad I made it now. I wish I’d made it three months ago when it was clear something was really very wrong with how I was handling things.

Since making the decision, I’ve been handing my team leader role off to my replacement, and getting back into the swing of full-time writing. I pushed through to the last of the meetings that I was leading, the last of the items to hand off, and then I wound up taking a day off sick. Sometimes, you push so hard for so long that it has to snap back, and I needed to take some time to look after me.

That was last Friday. I have the next week off work (a week of holiday time I had booked months ago). Tomorrow, I have an appointment with my doctor. The day after that, I have a root canal booked in (I’m not looking forward to that, but it has to be done). Today, I’m making a to-do list, because there are things I want to do while I have this time off. Sure, some of them are ‘clean up my bedroom’ style chores, but every little helps.

I want to take this time to rest, catch up, readjust my focus, and refresh myself. I want to get back on top of my writing again.

Wish me luck; it’s a long road and I’m going to need it.

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8 August 2015 - 4:49 pm

Amazon vs Independence: Kindle Unlimited

(Picture: not mine)

(Picture: not mine)

Part of the Amazon is not your friend series. 

I’ve had this post percolating in the background for a while now, quietly collecting feedback and opinions, and ruminating on what I think it all means. As much as the name of this series might suggest a bias, I strive towards objectivity.

(I have to say: Amazon have yet to prove the title of this post series inaccurate.)

Let’s start at the beginning, then, and look at the path that the Kindle Unlimited program has trod.

How it started

It opened around the middle of last year: a shiny new subscription service for Amazon customers, whereby customers could pay just US$9.99 per month to borrow as many books as they wanted. It’s only available to KDP Select authors (that means only books exclusive to Amazon), and it is paid for out of the KDP Select Fund (which I have written about before).

How authors are paid is interesting, and has changed recently (more on that below). Originally, it was paid per ‘borrow’, which Amazon determines to be whenever a customer has read more than 10% of a book. At the end of the month, Amazon would tally up all the borrows in the KU program and Lenders’s Library, divide the total KDP Select Fund amount by that number, and then divvy out the money according to how many borrows each author had that month.

Sounds fair and logical, on the surface. But there were a lot of concerns raised about what it would do to the book market, and what it would mean for authors. A few months into the program, Smashwords’ Mark Coker raised the important question of: was this devaluing books? The amounts paid out per-borrow were proving to be very low, and not related to the value of the book in the paid market: it could be a 5,000-word short story or a 100,000-word novel; it could cost 99c or $9.99 to buy; regardless, borrows were all paid the same (typically, much less than they’d get paid for a sale of the same book).

Some authors saw an increase in earnings, but many were abandoning the program due to the massive drop in earnings they experienced, some as much as 75%. The success stories remain the exception to the rule, just as any success stories in publishing are.

KU has other problems as well. Its navigation is poor: customers have to search for regular, paid books, and then navigate to the KU version (if it has one). There’s a general feeling that the listings are too limited, which may be partially caused by the Big 5 publishers’ backlogs not being included, and partially by the KDP Select (and its exclusivity) requirement. (Sources: this review of KU, and one subscriber’s reasons for cancelling).

So, authors are being short-changed and readers aren’t having a great experience. The New York Times attributed at least some of this to loss leading:

“Amazon, though, may be willing to forgo some income in the short term to create a service that draws readers in and encourages them to buy other items. The books, in that sense, are loss leaders, although the writers take the loss, not Amazon.” (source; emphasis mine)

(I predicted this a while ago; they are like a supermarket in that way.)

Then there are the impacts of the pricing model, and the publishing behaviour that it started to drive. Authors are paid per-borrow, no matter how much their book is worth or how long it is. So, it was encouraging authors to turn out a lot of short books or chop them up into serial offerings to get more borrows.

The new KU

Recently, Amazon changed its pricing model for KU. For subscribers, nothing has changed. For authors, the story is quite different.

From July, KU now pays per page read, not per ‘borrow’.

This is expected to reward writers of longer works with more money, and thus curb the impetus to create more shorter works to ‘game’ the system.

Some claim that this will encourage writers to write better-quality stories, so that readers will stick with them for longer, but I think that’s somewhat hopeful. Writers should already write the best stories they can, so that readers pick up more of their books. I can’t see this making a huge difference in this regard.

There has been a lot of speculation about what this change will really mean. More money for authors! Less money for authors! Personally, I think both of these predictions are useless: not because they’re wrong (they’re actually both wrong and both right), but because they miss the fundamental truth that the amount of money being paid out to authors isn’t changing; only how it is being split up between authors.

It doesn’t help that Amazon used a really ridiculous example of what the payout would mean when they promoted this to authors. Their example used the price point of $10 per page. Predictions state that a more realistic figure is 1c per page, but it’s actually likely to be much less than that. It’s also likely that the KU borrows will still not produce anything like the revenue that an actual book sale would, too.

Amazon has also standardised what a ‘page’ is, to make the new payment system fairer. This is the only way to make the system work. I don’t think it’s worth worrying overmuch about what the exact definition of what a ‘page’ is, because what authors end up with is still a relative percentage of a fixed pot of money.

Some sources have questioned the ethos behind this move, likening it to only paying for the amount of a meal you eat at a restaurant. Others say that it means authors should earn every page read they get (i.e. write better stories). It’s also worth pointing out that, by making authors split a fixed amount of money, Amazon is limiting the amount that any author can earn from their work, and they’re forcing authors into direct competition with each other.

Something that I love about writing communities is how supportive and non-competitive they are. Encouraging readers to read more is never a bad thing, even if they aren’t reading our work. Amazon’s system doesn’t enable a supportive community: it does the opposite. It enables a competitive market, where to get ahead means pushing someone else down; to gain more, you have to take from someone else. That’s a sad turn of events in my mind.

This also harks back to a concern I’ve raised before: the KDP Select Fund is an arbitrary amount that Amazon decides to allocate to the program. It’s not tied to sales, subscriptions, or any other part of their actual business model. That means it’s not sustained by the book market, and is an artificial limit that Amazon have placed on authors’ revenues. This isn’t good for authors, any way you look at it; it’s good for Amazon. As Amazon encourages more readers to read more, the limited fund is splintered even more. Great for Amazon, but where’s the authors’ payout? It’s especially concerning when coupled with the fact that Amazon has never made any actual money: so, how can it be sustainable?

(Note: other subscription services like Scrib and Oyster tie their payments to their subscription income, and so their success is dependent on their business model. The royalties to authors are also a percentage of the sale price of the book, not an arbitrary amount. This is an ‘open’ system, where the more readers they have, the better for everyone. Amazon is a ‘closed’ system, where the success of the subscription service doesn’t flow through to the authors at all.)

So why all this fuss over the payment model? Why did they change it? Speculation seems to be on the side of Amazon trying to counter the ‘gaming’ of the 10%=borrow system that encouraged more short books. I suspect that’s true. On the surface, it produce a fairer system for short books vs long books.

But what about different genres that typically earn different amounts? Erotic shorts, for example, tend to be higher-priced than non-erotic shorts (if you buy the book outright rather than borrow it). This move doesn’t attempt to address the disparity between the value of the actual book and the revenue returned to the author. There have also been concerns raised about how this might impact non-fiction books, which may not be typically read from cover to cover, and choose-your-own adventure books.

What I find most disturbing about this change is that it’s proof of how much information Amazon is collecting about its customers. Not only do they know what books we have in our library, but how many exact pages we’ve read of them. What other data are they collecting?

(Interestingly, several of the authors I’ve read blog about this subject have said that the exclusivity requirement means they won’t go into KU any time soon. This is also my position.)

The rumblings that I’m hearing on the grapevine indicate that authors are becoming increasingly disillusioned with KU and leaving in numbers. The big publishers opted out before it started. I can’t see this particular change having any impact on this trend.

As far as I’m concerned, Amazon is a leopard that hasn’t changed its spots: it’s still a wild thing interested only in its own survival. Use with caution and look after yourself!

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1 August 2015 - 6:44 pm

Defining monsters

Natasha and Bruce (Picture not mine)

Natasha and Bruce
(Picture not mine)

[Contains spoilers for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron]

There are a few things in the criticism of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that surprised me. A couple of them are related to the Natasha-Bruce dynamic, so I thought I’d write up some thoughts.

First up, let’s talk about the controversy around the ‘should we date’ conversation between Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner in the Avengers 2 movie. I thought it was a nicely-pitched dialogue in a movie that didn’t have much room for character development or exploration. Other opinions vary widely.

When I come across heated debate that surprises me, I tend to get introspective, turning the opinions inside and around me over like rocks. Did I miss something? (I’ve only seen the movie once, so entirely possible.) Did I misinterpret or misunderstand what happened? These are the things I ask myself.

For those who haven’t seen any of the discussions about this yet and who are wondering what I’m babbling on about, here’s a quick rundown: in the scene, Natasha talks about how the Red Room made her into a killer, and how part of the process was a ‘graduation ceremony’ that sterilises the candidates, and how she’s a monster.

The criticism (that I have seen) about it revolves around the assumptions that the movie is saying that infertile women are monsters. I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating a lot here: please don’t shoot me.

I don’t think this assumption holds water. But before I get into how I read the scene and the intent of both the character in revealing this information and the writers who wrote it into the movie, I have to point out that part of size of this particular issue is that Natasha is the one of only two major female characters in the movie. Until this movie, she was the only female ‘superhero’ in the franchise (Pepper Potts and Peggy Carter are awesome but included as love interests; you have to go to the Agent Carter series to see Peggy being a true heroine).

Natasha has had a lens of representing women focussed on her, and I don’t think that’s fair. She’s one character, not every-woman, so it’s fallacious to lump generalised assumptions on her. For her to be a ‘realistic’ character, she has to have her own personality, history, failings, strengths, and goals. She can’t represent every woman everywhere – and I believe she shouldn’t. So using one small part of her character makeup to make statements about how it reflects on women in general is specious at best.

The movie’s makers are partly to blame for this generalised approach by having so few women in the cast. The only other one we really get to see in Avengers 2 is Wanda Maximov, and while she has a character arc in the movie, we really don’t get a lot of her. Certainly, not as much as Natasha. Maria Hill is present and functioning, but she has yet to have anything like a story or a character arc in anything I’ve seen (I’m behind on Agents of Shield, so I can’t comment on what season 2 might have wrought for her).

If they gave us more diversity in the MCU in general and the Avengers in particular, it would help dilute the strength of issues like this. I hope, at least. So get on it, Marvel people! Hurry up with Captain Marvel and add more to the list (I’d love to see a Spider-Woman turn up).

With that in mind, my first point has to be: you can’t generalise from one character to a whole gender and make a ‘statement’ out of it. Stop it.

Also, when it comes to making statements about genders from an issue like sterilisation, in this case I have to point out that there was no indication that the Red Room only sterilised girls. I’m fuzzy on the (comic) canon and the movie showed only fractured flashbacks, but do we have any evidence that the Red Room only trained female assassins? I think the comic version was girls-only, but the MCU changes stuff so I try not to make assumptions. If it was girls-only, was there a boys’ version somewhere? (It makes sense that there would be.) If both genders were being trained, how do we know that the girls were treated any differently to the boys? Natasha uses the term ‘sterilisation’, which gives us nothing to make gender-based assumptions on.

(Who knows, maybe we’ll get that Black Widow movie they’ve been teasing us with and find out for sure. But from the Avengers 2 movie alone? There’s just not enough there to make that assumption.)

Also, the assumption that sterilisation is worse for a woman than a man is sexist in itself and I don’t hold with that. Some men are deeply driven to be fathers. Some women hate the idea of having children. It’s all perfectly natural and valid.

So, let’s take the gender-based pouting off the table.

What about the assertions that the movie is presenting sterilisation as a way to make a monster? I’d like to break this down a little.

First of all, let’s assume that that is the statement (I’m not saying that it is; bear with me here). Consider the source: what Natasha tells us is that the sterilisation is done because the Red Room believes it makes them more effective agents. The Red Room believes this: the people who are shown training children in ballet and marksmanship, and, in one tiny flashback, telling a little girl she must kill someone. These are the same people who trained Natasha, turned her into a killer and made her do awful things to get ‘red in her ledger’. They’re the bad guys of Natasha’s story.

So, a group we’re supposed to view as ‘evil’ (or at least ‘bad’) believe that sterilising kids is a good thing to do. Personally, I don’t tend to put a lot of stock in a judgement that the bad guy spouts, and it’s very seldom the point that the movie is making or promoting.

Moving a little further along this particular thought pattern, let’s recall that the Red Room lost Natasha to the other side (where she’s now working towards redemption). So, despite the many varied ways they tried to screw up a child’s moral compass, Natasha is proof that they failed. That means that their training failed, including the sterilisation (which was a means, not an end), and that the Red Room’s assumptions about sterilisation were wrong.

Consider, also, the nuances of how Natasha speaks about her ‘graduation’. She says that she has come to peace with it, but it’s pretty clear that it’s still something she struggles with (she’s almost in tears at this point). It was done to reduce the potential distractions for the agents and, while on a practical level this might be true, it clearly wasn’t that successful.

The fact that she struggles with it shows that she didn’t lose that particular part of who she is (beyond the physical capability to bear children). Whether or not you believe it makes her less feminine, the sterilisation cut off a life choice for her but not her maternal urges. The way she is around Hawkeye’s children and how they react to her are shown pretty clearly to us.

I think I’d be more disturbed by the whole thing if she was okay with it.

Next, it’s worth looking at why she mentioned it at all. Bruce is telling her that he can’t be in a relationship because he can’t give her what he thinks she wants and needs: children. Her response is to tell him ‘it’s okay, I can’t have them either’. Her point is that they’re more alike than he can see. They both want essentially the same thing and have similar limitations.

Natasha is more willing to take the relationship further, however. She’s trying to convince Bruce to run away with her, abandoning the Avengers and everything that’s currently going down (pesky robots). She wants to make a life with him, without the team and the science and the missions. She is, basically, suggesting that they do exactly what sterilisation was supposed to stop her from wanting to do (being distracted by emotions in the middle of a mission). This is another sign that the Red Room’s tactics failed.

What about the monster part, I hear you ask? Didn’t she equate sterilisation to being made into a monster? No, not directly. She tells Bruce about the Red Room’s graduation ceremony and how it was designed to make her a better killer, a more efficient agent. The end is what makes her a monster, the fact that she was a killer, not necessarily that particular means.

Killing makes her a monster, not the sterilisation. It’s a pretty fuzzy speech and could have been better structured, but from the phrasing and delivery, I didn’t take away the meaning that sterilisation = disgusting monster. Natasha is far more complicated and conflicted than that, and it’s pretty clear that her main problem with herself is the violence that she has committed.

As far as her inability to have children goes, she isn’t brought low by it (as some critics would bemoan). Yes, it’s tough for her to talk about, but it hasn’t broken her. She’s pursuing a family anyway, involved with Clint’s children, and chasing a romance without fretting about it. She’s still kick ass and one of the most powerful Avengers (in terms of end results, at least). For me, it’s something that humanises her; it doesn’t reduce her, and I can appreciate that the movie didn’t shy away from a tricky topic.

Here’s the TL:DR version:

  • Let’s not read too much into the opinions of bad guys
  • Sterilisation failed to have the intended effect
  • Natasha doesn’t let it get in the way of being who she wants to be – or who she wants to be with
  • She hates herself for killing people.

Personally, I think it’s great to have a prominent character like Natasha dealing with an issue like this. In my eyes, it makes her more human, not less. (I have a fondness for extraordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, as well as vice versa.)

Coming up soon: Trusting Monsters (aka why did Bruce leave?)

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4 July 2015 - 11:44 am

Everyday Heroes: anthology opportunity!

Superheroes and dinosaurs or superhero dinosaurs: the choice is yours! (Picture by Legitimus Maximus)

Superheroes and dinosaurs or superhero dinosaurs: the choice is yours!
(Picture by Legitimus Maximus)

Brisbane writers and artists: our anthology wants you!

I’m working with a small group to put together an anthology of stories by local writers, to raise money for the Brisbane writing events I organise. We’ll be publishing it under a new publishing banner that I’m putting together: BST Books.

We’re looking for stories featuring super-powers and optional dinosaurs, between 5,000 and 10,000 words long.

We’re also looking for cover art.

Got an idea? Get to work! The deadline is next week (12th July), so now is the time to move on it.

I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!

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9 June 2015 - 6:52 pm

Riding the Fury Road

Tom Hardy as Max (Picture from Business Insider)

Tom Hardy as Max
(Picture from Business Insider)

I don’t often see movies as soon as they’re released. I usually prefer to wait until the cinema is a bit less crowded, which takes a few weeks, depending on the movie. I’m fine with that! I’m seldom impatient about these things.

With Mad Max: Fury Road, however, I felt the need to see it sooner rather than later. The amount of internet chatter is was generating was both eye-roll-worthy and intriguing, and I knew I’d get spoiled if I waited too long. I hate spoilers. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, plus the trailers looked pretty kick-ass. The only solution was to go see it.

[Spoilers ahead, people. You have been warned.]

I loved it. The movie was pretty much everything it promised to be: lots of cars, huge chases, explosions, dust, dystopia, leather, and chains. It felt like a Mad Max movie on a fundamental level that is hard to describe. It was grotesque and violent, and weird, and kick-ass, and weirdly hopeful.

They had the balls to make Max more broken than usual, suffering from PTSD at inconvenient times and stumbling through the first half of the movie. He doesn’t speak much, which is something that critics* have complained about, but I don’t remember him speaking much in the first trilogy either. (It has been a while since I’ve seen the old Max movies, but I’m sure he was never a chatty character.)

His personal story is almost subsumed by what is happening around him and the situations he is thrown into; as lead characters go, he’s not one with a lot of agency. He reacts, he works to get himself out of where he is, and he helps those he feels some empathy with along the way because he can’t quite seem to help himself. This also gels with what I remember from those original movies, particularly the third one (who can forget Tina Turner and her iconic chainmail dress; not that he helped her, I just wanted to point it out).

He does have something of a personal journey, though, if you look beyond the explosions and spiky cars. He speaks more towards the end, and one of the more notable times is when he decides to take a more proactive step to help the group he is/was travelling with, by giving them advice about where to go next. He seems to make a kind of peace with his ghosts. At the end, he does something that I don’t think he has done since the first movie: he tells someone his name, and it’s important to him that that someone hears him and knows him. He feels like a less broken character than he was when we started, though he’s still a lone wolf road warrior (I don’t want to give too much away).

It seems to be something of a pattern in things I’ve watched lately: subtle character arcs that you kinda have to be paying attention to spot. Easy to miss in an action movie with a lot of other stuff going on. I love watching the little nuances in character actions and reactions, and I try to pick up on this stuff. Watch closely, people: it’s worth it.

But Max isn’t the brunt of critics’ complaints about Fury Road. He’s a feature of them (he’s the main character and he barely speaks!), as is ‘how dare they abuse a piece of American culture this way’ (which I find hilarious, because it’s an Australian film series currently featuring actors and creators from all over the world). No, the biggest complaint about the movie is what boils down to ‘omg, you got icky girl stuff on my manly action movie‘ (I’m paraphrasing all the ‘you tricked me into watching a feminist movie’ and ‘why girls why’ whining).

In the purest sense of the term, this is a feminist movie, in that women are shown driving, fighting, dying, and kicking ass right alongside the men. Women save other women, and some men. A woman saves Max (and he later saves her right back). Women fight for their own freedom from being sex slaves.

George Miller, director of the franchise, told reporters at Cannes that to rescue the five wives: “I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.” (Via The Mary Sue.) This explains so much.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa (Picture via wikia)

Charlize Theron as Furiosa
(Picture via wikia)

The warrior he’s talking about is Imperator Furiosa, played by the ever-awesome Charlize Theron.

Not only does Furiosa have the gall to be a woman, she’s also handicapped (handi-capable? disabled? partially limbed? what’s the PC term these days? wait, no, I don’t care) because she’s missing half an arm. I can’t help but be reminded of Max’s damaged knee that means he has to wear a brace so he can walk properly: the brace is present in the movie but they don’t make a thing of it at all. Furiosa does quite well without a fleshy left hand, thank you very much, and she’s certainly not less capable because of it.

Despite the presence of boobies on her body, she commands respect from the men in her convoy, drives the entire movie forward, and proves herself a capable sniper, driver, and hand-to-stump fighter (she goes head-to-head with Max without her scary-looking metal prosthetic hand and holds her own). She’s a great character, fleshed out with a backstory and personality, and she’s not afraid to stand up and demand the respect she deserves. She kicks ass and gets where she’s going (which in a chase movie is something of an achievement on its own).

She’s not alone in the fierce female ranks, either. The five wives she’s rescuing (from sex-slavery to a grotesque being that it’s best not to contemplate too deeply) are all somewhat soft, but they still pick up guns and other assorted weapons to defend themselves, stand watch, and generally help in the whole endeavour. They are brave and determined, and not one of them whines about needing the protection of a man.

Then there’s the all-female clan that Furiosa is from: tough opposition for anyone in the Mad max world, even though some of them are ageing. They’re survivors, perfectly capable of holding their own, and not above using men’s weaknesses against them.

It’s not just the characters in the movie that do it, though: there are many other ways in which Fury Road is an equalist movie (or feminist, but go with ‘equalist’ if the ‘f’ word is too loaded for you). For example, it starts off with the wives already having been freed; the women are doing their kick-ass thing and Max pretty much blunders into their flight, through no will or action of his own. If you’re interested in more of the movie’s feminist aspects, Tansy Rayner Roberts has done an interesting analysis.

So I can see why the movie is called a feminist masterpiece. I can see why the whiny man-babies are pouting. See it anyway!

From a writer’s perspective, there are many wonderful things about this movie. It turns a lot of standard writing advice on its head, but it does it well – which is the key if you’re going to break rules. Chuck Wendig gives a detailed rundown of just how this movie blows apart the rules, in his usual entertaining, profanity-laden manner.

I think there’s a lot we can all learn from this movie, particularly as writers and artists. Part of what makes it work so well is just how hellishly entertaining it is – it’s a great example of the place I try to hit with my own work, mixing up entertainment and art. Perhaps one day I’ll do a more detailed analysis of the movie from this perspective, most likely after it is released on disc.

So there you go! Like I said: see it. They’ve already announced there will be a sequel, and Tom Hardy has confirmed that he’s signed up for three more movies. Personally, I’m looking forward to them already, whether or not Furiosa is involved.

* By ‘critics’, I mean people who have criticised the movie, not ‘film critics’, who are their own breed.

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29 May 2015 - 6:02 pm

Random Writing Tip #12: Rest

Cats are masters at resting. Look at Jasmine. Resting. (Photo mine)

Cats are masters at resting. Look at Jasmine. Resting.
(Photo mine)

Getting caught up in a piece is great.Slogging to the end of a piece is, in some ways, better.

But what happens if you get stuck along the way? What happens if trying to move forward with the writing feels a lot like bashing your head against a wall?

I’m a firm believer in pushing through, pushing yourself, and not letting things stand in your way. It’s important to recognise that that’s not always the best thing to do.

Sometimes, you have to recognise that forcing the writing isn’t going to be the best thing for you or your writing. Sometimes, forging ahead regardless can lead your story down the wrong path, or bog it down as your disgruntlement bleeds through, or make you hate it as much as you’re hating the process of writing it.

Sometimes, you just need a break. Step back. Take a breath. Close your eyes and let the words fall away. Rest.

Sometimes you have to find the right way to 'rest'. (Photo mine)

Sometimes you have to find the right way to ‘rest’.
(Photo mine)

The same goes for when you reach the end of a piece. You’ve finished the first draft, so now what?

The next step is to re-draft it, edit it, tidy it up. The problem is, you don’t know if it’s any good. Trust me, you don’t: you’re too close to it. So how do you see it clearly enough to know what you need to fix?

Step back. Know that getting to the end was the first stage, and that the second is to put it down. Take a break.

Let yourself rest. Let the piece rest.

Close the file and put it away. Tuck it in a drawer, file it away in a folder on your desktop. Put it where you won’t see it. Put yourself in danger of forgetting about it.

Try not to think about it for a while. How long? That’s up to you, but at least a week. If you can, a couple of months. The longer the piece and the longer you’ve been working on it, the more time you should allow yourself before going back to it.

It may not be graceful, but if it works, it works! (Photo mine)

It may not be graceful, but if it works, it works!
(Photo mine)

Do something different. Clean the house. Join a gym. Paint a self-portrait. Do some spring-cleaning.

A change can be as good as a rest, so you could write something else. Occupy your brain with something different. Try not to think about the thing you’re resting.

When you come back to it, you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll see things you couldn’t before. You’ll have fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Some ideas may have cropped up during your rest, blossoming the moment you weren’t looking any more.

Then you can get to work and do wonderful things with your words. So do it! Rest, and then kick ass.

(Note: yes, these cats are all mine. From the top, it’s Jasmine, Cinnamon, and Honey.)

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