Publishing posts

Amazon Unlimited scams hit authors

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. 

In 2015, Kindle Unlimited (KU) changed how it was determining how much to give authors who were part of the program, moving from a ‘per borrow’ system to a ‘per page’ one.

At least one of their motivations for doing this was to prevent authors from trying to game the system by turning out lots of short works. Per-page payments meant that authors of longer works should, theoretically, be paid more.

Over a year on, and I think it’s safe to say that Amazon didn’t achieve their goal. In fact, they seem to have made the scamming problem worse: it got to a point where scam books were taking over the bestseller list and utterly devaluing KU for non-scamming authors.

The Big Flaw

How did they do this? Because, despite the paranoid reactions about Amazon being big brother and collecting all kinds of data on you through your Kindle (including mine!), they can’t tell what pages you’ve read. We gave them way too much credit. They can only tell the latest page in the book that you have viewed. From there, they assume that you’ve read everything from the front cover up to that page.

Hyperlinks are a common – and required – element of an ebook. If you click one that takes you from page 20 to page 300, KU records that you’ve read 300 pages (and pays the author accordingly), rather than the actual 21 pages. There’s also the front matter (copyright statements, etc) that everyone skips past but still counts as pages read.

How the Scammers Scam

You’re probably already seeing how easy it is for scammers to game the system. Where some people said that this would make authors write better stories, to keep people reading page after page, instead you have scammers creating ebooks with links at the start of the book to offers and competitions on the last page, to make them get paid for the entire book’s worth of pages even if you haven’t actually read them.

In the middle, scam books typically have junk. There might be enough legitimate, story-like text to fill up the 10% preview to entice readers to borrow it, but the remainder of the book (usually thousands of pages) is trash text, or repeated copy-and-pastes of that first preview section.

If the text isn’t entirely trash, there might be translations of the story at the front, making readers click past pages and pages of Google-translated gibberish to find the English version.

Or, similarly, ‘bonus content’ at the front of the book (instead of the back, where it typically goes in a print book), so readers who want to read the story they’re there to read click past it, racking up a chunk of pages that no-one has read. (This can be used legitimately, because readers can react negatively to a story ending 70% of the way through the book and the rest is ‘bonus’. One author specifically moved her bonus content to the front to respond to feedback and improve reader experiences.)

Another tactic that scammers have used is to put the table of contents (ToC) at the back of the book. As it’s a useful navigation tool, it’s common that a reader would use it, and record a full book read without reading a single page of the story. (It’s worth noting that this could be invisible to the reader; they’re not going to care where they are in the ebook, as long as they know what to read next!)

A ToC is a required part of an ebook, but its location is at the discretion of the author. Many (legitimate) authors move it to the back to reduce the noise at the start of the book, because the beginning section is used as the preview. The preview an important tool for enticing readers to read or buy a book, and they want potential readers to get to the story as quickly as possible. So, having the ToC at the back of the book can aid sales and support readers; it’s not necessarily a sign of a scam.

So, it’s easy for scammers to rack up huge numbers of page views with very little effort. They’ve been so successful at it that scam books started to take over the bestseller lists on the Amazon site, because Amazon factors in the ‘borrows’ and likes to pump up books in the KU/Kindle Select program.

Real authors are the ones who have been paying the price. Because the money paid out to KU authors is a fixed amount, and the portion given to authors is determined by their percentage of the total page views for the month, it means that authors found their incomes dropping at a startling rate.

Amazon’s Response

Unfortunately, Amazon’s response to this issue has been in typical Amazon style: wild and indiscriminate use of the ban-hammer. They went on a campaign of ripping books off the shelves if their ToC was in the rear of the book, despite this being used for legitimate reasons by real authors. The backlash against this was so huge that they wound up back-pedalling on it and allowing rear ToCs. However, by then, the damage for many was already done.

The impacts for legitimate authors are huge. Due to the way Amazon’s algorithms work, books that were removed from the store lost sales ranks and visibility. It takes a lot of work and money to recover the sales position of an affected book. Due to the timing of the bans, at least one author wasted a whole bunch of money on a promotion that coincided with his book’s removal. This has real impacts on visibility, saleability, and future earnings. In short: it hurts authors’ livelihoods.

For some authors, it has been worse than that. One author, Pauline Creedon, had all of her books removed from Amazon, lost all outstanding royalties, had her account cancelled, and was banned from ever selling through Amazon again. The reason? Some of her KU borrows came from ‘systematically generated accounts’ – the type of system a scammer might use to artificially inflate page read numbers.

While it’s great that Amazon is cracking down on this type of behaviour – paying click-farms to bulk up your page reads – it’s clear they’re hitting legitimate authors as well. Pauline says she did not pay anyone to do this, and it’s not like authors can prevent click-farms from going nuts on their book. The spike that she – and other legitimate authors like her – received wasn’t enough to earn her a significant amount, either. Speculation says that click-farms attempt to hide their scammy activities by clicking through ‘real’ books, which is why Pauline is not the only author to be hit by this accusation and ban-hammering. Pauline’s case was a little while ago now, but I saw another report of a legitimate author being punished for this reason just this week – it’s clearly an ongoing issue.

This seems like a particularly extreme response on Amazon’s part (banning for life? on an unsubstantiated violation?), especially when compared to their actions towards real scammers.

Because, on the flip side, when books are reported as scams, Amazon takes a long time to respond. When they do, they might take down an individual book, but do nothing about the account. These accounts typically have a massive catalogue of scam books. Let’s be clear: these scams are not very well hidden; a quick, cursory glance is enough to confirm what is or is not a scam, but Amazon simply aren’t bothering to do anything but the bare minimum.

They are quick with the automated ban-hammers, but slow and minimalist when responding to reports of real problems. It’s pretty clear that their focus is on the quick, easy action rather than solving the real problems.

Since mid-2016, chatter has grown quieter over KU and Amazon’s shenanigans. But nothing has changed: authors must still be on their guard at all times, and we’re still getting reports of legitimate authors being banned out of hand. One particular blog post suggests that authors should query any spike in sales with Amazon, to get ahead of accusations of fraud, rather than simply celebrating a book doing well. It’s pathetic that this is probably good advice, but even that isn’t working for authors who try to do the right thing.

I remain sure that I will not be making my books exclusive with Amazon any time soon, nor will they be available through KU. Amazon has a long way to go before their service is anything other than a waste of everyone’s time and effort.

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Trigger-happy

(Picture: not mine. Thanks, interwebs.)

(Picture: not mine. Thanks, interwebs.)

AKA: Trigger warnings

I started noticing trigger warnings on the internet a while ago (probably two or three years now). They’re usually pretty obvious, screaming from the top of posts or articles about depictions or discussions of rape or paedophilia or specific types of violence.

Since then, they have taken root in the subconscious of the interwebs and spawned in random, haphazard ways. They’re more numerous now, popping up at the top of vague posts that touch any potentially ‘touchy’ subject. Gay relationships. Transsexual issues. Harm to animals. Radical new diets. Swearing. If someone might be offended or made uncomfortable by a subject, people are slapping a trigger warning on it.

This usage annoys me. That’s not what they were intended for. It’s the nanny-state intruding on the interweb, treating us like we’re all delicate snowflakes who can’t behave like conscious, thinking, breathing adults. I find it insulting, unnecessary, and counter-productive.

In my opinion, the meaning of a trigger warning is being watered down and made meaningless. They’re actually becoming less useful and less protective for those who might need them. I think in most cases that the over-use is well-intentioned, but please, let’s think about why we’re warning people about upcoming content.

 

What trigger warnings are for

This is, I suspect, the root of the problem: a lot of people (yes, I’m generalising here) don’t know why or how to use these warnings. The warnings are being used because they’re trendy, they look informed and supportive and like the thing we should be doing, but little understanding is being given towards the actual reason for them. I’m all about encouraging and enabling understanding, so this is a good place to start.

So what is a trigger warning for? How is it different to a content statement or rating? Why should we use it?

The original intent behind trigger warnings was to go above and beyond the standard content statement or rating: it was to warn survivors of trauma that the content might trigger an anxiety or panic attack.

This is (was?) primarily aimed at those who suffer PTSD, who may suffer flashbacks or anxiety/panic attacks when triggered by sensory stimuli, including visual or worded imagery. When discussing trigger warnings, I most often see survivors of rape or assault mentioned, but I think the list is broader than that: it includes war veterans and those who have witnessed or been part of something mentally scarring (including abusive relationships and situations; the list of possibilities is too long to mention here but hopefully you get the idea: trauma).

The incidents or attacks that these warnings are intended to prevent can be physical as well as psychological. They are debilitating and upsetting, and can cause real harm. Helping survivors to avoid these attacks is key to their healing process, as warnings give them a way to manage their own feelings of safety.

This is not to say that trigger warnings are flags for ‘stuff PTSD sufferers shouldn’t expose themselves to’. This is a flag that says ‘some might find this content triggers their trauma’, and gives the person the opportunity to prepare themselves for it. It’s about preparation, not avoidance. (In fact, avoidance can worsen PTSD.)

I read an article recently (I can’t find the link, sadly 🙁 ) in which a PTSD sufferer said that the warning was enough for her to prepare herself for the content ahead. It meant that she wasn’t surprised by the content, and instead was able to marshall her internal defenses to deal with the reference without being triggered.

In this way, trigger warnings can help us to open up our content to those who might otherwise be triggered by it. It isn’t an exclusion or an excuse to avoid something; it’s the opposite: an opportunity for inclusion.

 

What trigger warnings are not for

Trigger warnings are not intended to warn users about something that might upset or offend them. A triggered reaction is so much worse than merely ‘upset’ or ‘miffed’ or ‘that offends my sensibilities’ or ‘ew, I’d rather not look at that, thanks’.

(I have seen all of these reactions in response to content posted on the internet, paired with ‘why didn’t you put a trigger warning on it’. The short answer is that trigger warnings aren’t intended to protect delicate sensibilities: if you’re on the internet regularly, you learn fairly quickly how to filter the information you do and don’t want to see. Accept that it’s a plethora of information, that some of it is not going to be to your liking, and move the hell on.)

Becoming angry or upset over the mention or advocacy of gay marriage (just one example I have seen) is not the same as suffering traumatic flashbacks because of a vivid depiction of a rape. Pretending that these things are the same makes me angry. It cheapens the struggle that PTSD and trauma sufferers have to go through, and it blurs understanding of an issue that deserves our empathy and consideration.

I don’t expect those who disagree with me to put trigger warnings on their opinions. Ultimately, I expect people to be mature when they encounter content of different kinds, even if it’s not for them.

However, I do believe that people should be able to make an informed decision about what they’re reading. I’m a big believer in setting appropriate reader/audience expectations (there’s likely to be a separate post about setting expectations; this subject is only one part of that).

Content statements, ratings, or warnings are intended to help the audience decide if the content is something that they want to expose themselves to. If something might upset or offend (like swearing, sexual content, violence, religious content, etc), then it deserves mention in a content statement.

(Content statements have existed for far longer than trigger warnings: they’re just less obtrusive and less trendy than the latter. We already had a system that was working, people!)

This is why I put content statements on all my fictional work, usually stating that I write about adult subjects (violence, sex, swearing, etc) and that readers should proceed under their own recognisance. I expect readers to decide for themselves if they are likely to enjoy that kind of content.

(TL:DR: stop whining and put your adults panties on.)

 

Why trigger warnings are tricky

Knowing the line between ‘discomfort’, ‘offense’, and ‘triggering an attack’ is not an easy thing for creators, particularly those of us who haven’t gone through a trauma on the scale of those we seek to help and support. (I suspect this is one of the main factors behind the blurring of trigger warnings and their use: people err on the side of caution.)

The thing with triggers is that they’re not always obvious. Yes, a vivid depiction of a rape scene might be an easy one to pick as needing a trigger warning, but there are other, subtler triggers as well.

It could be a single detail in the scene that does it: a particular scent, or the shade of orange that a streetlight makes through rain, or a specific turn of phrase. Any little detail that the brain might latch onto could throw someone back to that moment of trauma, because brains are weird like that and a traumatic event stamps itself on us in unexpected ways.

The really tricky part is that these details may not be part of an easy-to-spot triggering scene at all. They might crop up anywhere in a piece and catch a reader unawares.

These, sadly, are the ones that are difficult – impossible? – to predict and warn against. They are entirely circumstantial and unique to each person, and the person themselves may find it difficult to predict or understand their own triggers.

I do believe that trigger warnings have value, though, and we should try to make them useful. Sadly, we have to put aside the stray detail triggers as too unpredictable to try to account for, but the big, obvious stuff can be warned about appropriately. I think there is another danger here of making the trigger warnings too common or too vague to be useful.

I haven’t yet put trigger warnings on my work because I don’t believe that any of it is particularly triggering. Any rape that occurred in The Apocalypse Blog happened off-screen, and I can only think of one particular torture scene in Starwalker that came close to getting a trigger warning.

(If anyone has found any of my work triggering, please let me know!)

I imagine that, one day, I’ll write something visceral enough to warrant a trigger warning, and I’ll do my best to spot and tag it appropriately. Until then – or until I get notification of someone being triggered by my work – the content statements that expect readers to be mature enough to deal with my content or turn away, will have to be enough.

 

Recent controversy

In recent months, there has been some discussion about ‘coddling students’ with trigger warnings, because some universities started to put trigger warnings all over their syllabus material. The anti-trigger-warning campaigners think that it is scrubbing the colleges of uncomfortable subjects and giving students permission to avoid ideas that make them uncomfortable. Mental health supporters counter that it’s important to support the students’ mental health by warning them about potentially upsetting content.

This is an interesting area, particularly because this is a time in a students’ life where they are exposed to adult/mature ideas and subjects, but are still learning how to handle them. Hiding them away is not helpful and not teaching the students how to deal with them at all, but at the same time, students need to be brought to these subjects and ideas in a way that’s accessible and not damaging to them.

I can see both sides of this coin, but from the reports I’ve seen, this is another case of trigger warnings being applied to content that might upset people (’cause a strong emotional response’), rather than something that might trigger a traumatic flashback or anxiety attack. Again, the scale of the negative response to the content is quite different.

Also, I think the base misunderstanding about the purpose of a trigger warning is at work here. Complainants are assuming that students will use these warnings as an excuse to avoid content, when, as stated above, they’re intended to allow those who might be triggered to take part safely.

Worse, some parties seem to equate trigger warnings to censorship. This is ridiculous, but only if one understands (and accepts) that they’re intended to do the opposite.

Some colleges have made clear statements about the type of content in their courses to allow students to prepare themselves accordingly, and these seem to work well. These are content statements; they don’t feel the need to staple ‘TRIGGER WARNING’ on the front. I appreciate this approach, though even these content statements seem to be clumped under ‘trigger warnings’ in some reports, despite them not being actually labelled that way and having a different purpose.

Here’s hoping that more people and institutions embrace the simpler and less evocative content statement, rather than overusing the trendier trigger warning.

 

Are trigger warnings still useful?

After some recent conversations with friends, I found myself asking the question. Sadly, I suspect they’re not – at least, not to those who were originally supposed to benefit from them (for those paying attention, by that I mean trauma survivors / PTSD sufferers).

Unfortunately, the compassionate intent of trigger warnings has been latched onto by the whinier SJW types, applied everywhere, and pretty much ruined. By expanding their use to elements that might cause any kind of offence to anyone, their purpose and usefulness has been watered down so much that I can’t see how they would be much use to anyone who actually needs them.

I’ve seen trigger warnings put on posts that discuss gay marriage. I’ve seen trigger warnings on posts that contain some swearing. I wish I was kidding. A simple tactic here is to start your post with ‘hey, I have a question/thing about gay marriage I want to share with you all’ or ‘excuse the language, but fuck me sideways’.

(On the flip side, I’ve seen requests for trigger warnings on things that discuss suicide when suicide is mentioned in the first sentence and can safely be assumed to be the topic of the post. Have people lost the ability to comprehend anything but their own twitchy ‘I have been offended!’ sense?)

I’ve seen so many trigger warnings on so many inconsequential things that they make me roll my eyes now. Seeing them misused so ubiquitously is essentially devaluing them. I’m offended by how many types of content that they’re inappropriately put onto, because it associates those topics with trauma and that is bad for many, many reasons. (See some of the examples above.)

How do we make trigger warnings useful again? Is it possible to pull them back to where they’re supposed to be? Are trauma survivors supposed to come up with a new way to identify the type of content they need to prepare themselves for?

I don’t know the answers to those; I ask these questions in the hopes of prompting thought and consideration, because I think those are valuable things. I’d love to hear from anyone who uses or needs trigger warnings, and their thoughts on the subject. I’d also love to know if there’s anything that I, as a creator, can do to improve the situation, on my own work if nowhere else!

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New edition, old habits

Book 0's new cover!

Book 0’s new cover!

I have been talking about re-issuing the Apocalypse Blog ebooks for some time now. I received a few comments on the first book that proved it needed attention (much to my own chagrin, but we live and learn). In an effort to address the issues identified, I had an editor go through the whole series and give me feedback. After the sales started to flag, I also had new covers  created.

And then life got in the way and the project fell by the wayside. Sadly, it hasn’t been at the top of my list. Until now.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been going through the first book(s) (Book 1: End of the Old and the short prequel Book 0: Before the End), editing pretty heavily, and updating things like links and covers.

It has been an interesting process so far. Going back over writing I did in 2009, I’ve been noticing patterns and habits, some of which I have since made an effort to rid myself of.

For example, I use the word ‘that’ a lot in unnecessary places. ‘He said that’, ‘the reason that’… the list goes on. During this edit, I’m challenging every instance of the word ‘that’ and removing probably 80% of them. (‘Just’ is similarly challenged, but there are much fewer of those because it has been a bugbear of mine for much longer.)

I also have too many commas. It’s something I habitually try to edit out of my work (my first drafts are always riddled with unnecessary commas). The Apocalypse Blog isn’t too bad in this regard, but there are still too many and it reads better now I’m taking some of them out.

I used dashes between clauses instead of proper punctuation. I think I noticed this habit sometime during writing the Apocalypse Blog and stopped doing it, but apparently that wasn’t during the span of the first book. Now, it’s not something I would ever do (on purpose); I’ve become something of a fan of the semi-colon for the type of pause in a sentence that a dash used to stand for.

As I’m going through this edit, where a sentence has only one dash in it – that is, it’s not used for an aside like this – I am replacing it with a colon, semi-colon, or just breaking the sentence off. I’m much happier with the sentences after they’re challenged this way.

The new look for Book 1

The new look for Book 1

Something I’m noticing for the first time is: I hyphenate often. Usually this is for double-barrelled descriptors, which is fine, but sometimes it joins two words together to make something new. Faith’s voice played around with language a lot and some of what she was describing gave me scope to do this.

Reading it over again now, I notice that there are a lot of instances of this and I’m changing many of them. Some I’m removing the hyphen from; others I’m rewording to remove the phrase entirely and creating something that’s a little more easily understood. In places, I was ambitious with what I was trying to do with the language and imagery; sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I figure that if any of the images don’t flow for me now, my readers probably have the same issue, so they can be improved by being changed.

Writing is a process of changing and learning and changing some more, and I think this retrospective has been a valuable opportunity for me. Some of it is in how far my writing has come since I first penned the Apocalypse Blog. Some of it is seeing my work through an editor’s eyes as I go through the feedback, and some is picking out other things that I can improve upon (like the hyphenation).

It’s also taking me a lot longer to work through this edit than I had anticipated. I’m glad I started it when I had some time to play with; this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be rushed.

I’m excited to get these new editions tidied up and releasable. While I’m updating and refining things, I’m going to be taking a look at the layout and general appearance of the ebooks, and making improvements there if they need it. Pricing will also be reviewed and most likely changed.

I’m looking forward to relaunching these books, sending a fresh version of this beloved story out into the world. For those who have bought it already, you should get the changes for free. Watch this space. Hopefully it’ll entice new readers to try the series, too!

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An erotic experiment

Cover by the wonderful Willsin Rowe

Cover by the wonderful Willsin Rowe

(Tip: the title might suggest a more lascivious experiment than actually happened. Adult material ahead!)

It’s a common thing for writers, particularly those of us who have not been traditionally published, to both despair and take heart from the trash that sells really well. Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, etc: they’re not great books or good writing, but they are very good sellers.

When I came across comedy erotica books (for example, those by the inimitable Chuck Tingle), I had another such moment. Chuck Tingle writes erotic shorts around 5,000-7,000 words, involving sex between (human) men and dinosaurs, unicorns, and ghosts (and combinations thereof), and with inspiring titles like: Space Raptor Butt Invasion.

I wish I was making this up.

They’re hilarious. They’re crappy. They sell for around $3-$4 each, and they sell well.

So I decided: fuck it, I’m going to have a go. I want to know if I can write satirical erotica and sell it to people.

Thus, The Adventures of the Detachable Penis was born.

Once I had the title, I knew I had to write it. It’s ridiculous, and fun, and features the silliest protagonist who is constantly bewildered by the predicaments he finds himself in. First he shoots his own penis off, then he gets himself into debt to replace it. After that, he manages to get himself into more hot water and winds up chained to a wall, and that’s when he discovers that his cybernetic prosthetic can detach and wander off on its own.

(There may be a reference to an 80s robot movie in there, too. Bonus points to the first person who picks it up.)

Thanks to Willsin Rowe, who does glorious romance/erotica covers, I now have a cover with an expression that perfectly matches poor Jake Asunder, the ‘owner’ of the wayward detachable penis.

I thought long and hard (he he) about whether to do this under my own name, and decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea. Those who read the erotica are probably going to be bewildered by my other works, so best to keep them separate. This led to the birth of a new pseudonym: Slip Rhee.

This led me to a curious predicament. How do I promote it if I am not writing as ‘me’? How do I make this thing work? Why is it so hard?

So I’ve decided to be shameless, admit that this is me, and go all out. Obviously, those readers who pick up my other work can take or leave this particular piece; it is ever your choice. It’s silly, it’s filthy, and it’s definitely NSFW (not safe for work, or small children, or those who don’t want to read smut). I completely understand that it’s not everyone’s thing.

The Adventures of the Detachable Penis: Part 1: Penis Free is complete and now available to buy! So go get a copy and enjoy (if you’re tempted, that is). Tell all your friends! Share links like candy! Let’s see if we can make the detachable penis a phenomenon. Everyone will want one!

Handy links to the ebooks, so you can pick up the copy you prefer:

Watch this space for more news as the adventures swell and grow bigger and better.

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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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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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How to make the best of a hiatus

You might expect this to be a how-to guide, given the title. Consider it more of a question that I’m currently pondering. I won’t promise that this will be a useful guide for everyone. It might not even be useful for me. Let’s see!

So, the reason for taking my current hiatus was equal parts:

  • Taking a break from Starwalker
  • Catching up on projects that I have been delaying for a while
  • Trying some new stuff
  • Moving things to a new server
  • Doing something with the first four Starwalker books
  • Planning the next phase of the Starwalker saga.

Like with battle, plans for how to spend my free time tend to fly to the wind as soon as you engage the enemy (with ‘the enemy’ being ‘life and reality’ in this case).

Currently, I am successfully taking a break from Starwalker. Tick!

Let’s see about the rest…

This. So much this.  (Picture: not mine)

This. So much this.
(Picture: not mine)

Catching up on delayed projects

I’m not sure if this blog counts as a ‘delayed project’ (it’s probably more of a ‘neglected outlet’ for me), but you’ve probably noticed that I’m posting more often again. My goal is to build up some momentum here, along with a nice, healthy backlog of stuff scheduled up, and to knock over some of the posts that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I’ve got over a dozen draft posts here on the site, capturing thoughts that were relevant when I had them: it’s time to go through them, sort them out or throw them away. Expect more posts to come! For at least the next little while.

As for actual fiction-writing projects, the VVSG is going well, and looking good to keep going that way. I haven’t looked at any other existing projects yet. Boomflowers kinda snuck up on me, so that could count as a bit of ‘new stuff’, but is also something that has been percolating for a little while. Half-and-half, really.

The other projects that I am hoping to work on soon include the Apocalypse Blog. The ebooks need a fresh go-through, edit, and new covers applied. I’ve been talking about doing this for ages. It’s about time I just did it! Now that I’m in a good place with the new short-serials (VVSG and Boomflowers), I’m hoping to dedicate some time to this over the next couple of weeks.

I’d also like to get back into the Starwalker shorts. I have a whole list I’d like to do, and a couple of tickling ideas here and there. It would be nice to post something on the Starwalker site for the readers to enjoy while I’m taking this break from the main story! However, that’ll be once I’ve had a stretch of a break from that world. I want to knock over some of the big stuff before I delve back into that universe, and I’ve got to be careful of not starting too many things at once.

Trying new stuff

This is something I chase on a semi-regular basis. Most often, it applies to the events and things that I do locally, rather than with my writing itself (keep an eye out for some NaNoWriMo-related posts coming up soon, for this year’s fun in the works). Overall, I guess I’m pretty happy with my writing itself (though I always look to improve my skills): it’s the periphery that I tend to experiment with. For example, how I publish, or my editing work, or events.

What does this mean for the hiatus? Well, I guess the first new thing I’m trying is Inkspired, and seeing how that works as a serial outlet. I’m spamming them with feedback and suggestions, so I guess we’ll watch that space.

I’m also in the process of setting up an editing and ebooking service. I’ve got skills in those areas and a good friend who’s building it with me. I think we can make a good go at it, and are in a good position to do well with it.

Linked with that but not entirely under that banner is an anthology idea or two that I have. I’m putting together a project to create an anthology with some local writer friends, capitalising on some research I did a while ago with a publishing/editing contact of mine. I’m confident we can put together something pretty awesome. After a suggestion from a local writer, we’re going to make the first one with a view to raising money for our NaNo community writing events.

This is going to be a bit of work, but it’s not going to be just me working on it, and it’s something I really want to have a go at. Ideas abound, and I’m hoping to get the bulk of it off and running pretty soon, so I can make the most of my hiatus time (that is, so it doesn’t wind up sucking up too much time once I’ve restarted Starwalker!).

There’s also some movement in the serial writing circles about setting up an endeavour to expand and promote quality serial fiction. I’m involved in a few conversations there, and I’m really keen to see where that goes. I think I’ve got useful experience to lend to the cause there (mostly in editing, layout, ebooking, and so on). This could explode somewhat, which would both be exciting and potentially derailing.

I’m going to have to be careful what I commit to! For now, I’m enjoying all the opportunities that are spreading out before me, and generally trying not to get too distracted by all the shiny things.

The server move

I started the process of moving all my websites over to a new web host recently. This blog was one of the first things I moved, and is the only one that is also changing its domain name. For the rest, I have a whole slew of domains that need to be shifted (most of which are reserved for projects that I plan to serialise or otherwise put online someday), a couple of websites that I host for family, and lastly the rest of my websites with content.

I’m planning to use the hiatus to shift the Starwalker site over to the new host. There’ll be a short downtime while things get moved across, but it should be quieter on the activity front, so there’s less chance of losing data (comments, etc). It’ll be nice to move to a fresh WordPress install, because the Starwalker one has been a little broken ever since it got hacked. This has been something I’ve been wanted to do for a long time; it’s nice to have the opportunity to do it!

After Starwalker and the Apocalypse Blog sites are moved over (the last big websites to shift), I should be able to close down the old hosting account. Then dust off hands, all done there.

Starwalker so far

I have four whole books of Starwalker shenanigans. What to do with them!

This is something I’m planning to sit down and figure out. I would really like to get them published but I’m still tossing up what kind of publishing I should go for. I could self-publish ebooks again. I could try the traditional publishing world. I could run a Kickstarter and do an actual physical print run.

This particular story is positioned in a way that would make it a good candidate to sell to a traditional publisher. Hybrid authors tend to be the most successful: traditionally-published books bring in the exposure and breadth; self-published books bring in greater revenue. All the stats from the past few years tell us this. And I still have that lingering dream to see my books on bookstore shelves.

However. Starwalker is already sprawling into a fifth book. There are shorts and spin-offs planned. I’m a little bit leery of selling all of that to a publisher.

Pros and cons are yet to be fully weighed. We shall see!

In the meantime, I am aiming to get the first four books collated, edited, and cleaned up, ready to be published. That’s going to be a huge chunk of work on its own, and I may or may not get it done before the end of the hiatus. Let’s start with getting the first book done and go from there, shall we?

Starwalker Book 5

The last big bit of work that I want to get done while I’m on hiatus is to plan out the next phase of Starwalker. Currently, I’m calling this Book 5. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the story creeps out beyond a fifth book: not only is this me we’re talking about – I’m good at sprawling stories – but also I have some suspicions that there are enough questions left to answer to take our favourite little ship on a few loooong journeys.)

I’m not quite sure what it’ll take to do this planning. Hopefully just a couple of days dedicated to laying out the pieces I’ve got to play with.

After that, I need to figure out the timing of the writing. With all the stuff that’ll be in progress over this hiatus, I need to work out when I can responsibly restart the serial. Too soon, and I’ll be too overloaded to do it well. Too long, and I’ll lose a chunk of my readership. It’s a balancing act.

One option might be that I start Book 5 as this year’s NaNo project. That would mean sacrificing the next scheduled chunk of progress on Vampire Electric (which is still halfway through the second draft). I’d have to weight up the pros and cons of that.

This would be a departure in how I write the serials. I tend to write and post as I go, literally week to week. Over the last year and a half, I’ve had mixed success with this, and been far more unreliable than I like. Spending a month writing nothing else, powering through a huge chunk of it: this is pretty attractive. I could have a buffer again!

There’s 6 months between now and NaNo, so I’ve got some time to figure it out. Let’s see what happens.

 

So there you go: that’s what I have planned for this ‘break’ I’m taking. Ambitious? Maybe. I’m enthused and happy to be able to delve into all these things. There’s a lot to get through and I’m trying not to take my time too much. Wish me luck!

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Invisible serials

It feels a lot like this. (Picture by Lisa Brewster)

It feels a lot like this.
(Picture by Lisa Brewster)

An article recently came to my attention that made me want to facepalm so hard that it could be heard reverberating across the internet. According to the Washington Post, it would be great if serialised novels were brought back.

Brought back. From where, precisely? I wasn’t aware that it had gone away.

The premise of the article appears to be that serials died with the 19th Century, harking back to the glory-days of serials in newspapers and magazines by authors like Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins. Now, it’s true that newspapers don’t host this sort of material any more (as far as I’m aware), but I believe there are still magazines around that serialise stories across several issues, including novels.

Publishing has shifted since those long-ago days of the illiterate being read to from master’s newspaper, and it is shifting even more rapidly now. Serials are, if anything, experiencing a blossoming in material and readership.

Just check out the amount of options out there already, right now, waiting to be read (the Web Fiction Guide listings are a good place to start!). There are entire services dedicated to discovering and delivering serials right to you (like the recently-mentioned Inkspired, Wattpad, Jukepop Serials, or Tuesday Serials, to name but a few). Whatever device you prefer to read from, serials are available and abundant.

The motive behind the aforementioned article seems to be that publishing is in the doldrums and traditional publishers are completely missing this potential marketing windfall. Serialisation is a great way to build audience, gain exposure, and build up chatter and excitement for a novel’s release.

I completely agree with all of that. Serialisation achieves all of those things, and could be a great marketing tool if used that way. Traditional publishers don’t tend to use this, spending their marketing time and money elsewhere.

However, it’s not completely unknown. Stephen King serialised the Green Mile, and Max Barry initially wrote Machine Man as a serial as well. As far as I’m aware, neither of these authors did it to bulk up their book sales; the serials served different purposes.

But so did the serials of old. Dickens didn’t cleverly serialise his work so he could sell more novels; he was paid to write a serial (by the word!), and the novel versions came along much later. The novel was not the original goal. So twining these things together is misleading, at best.

What about the people who have used a serial to gain interest, audience, and exposure? Indie writers. Me. Many others. It’s another place where traditional publishers are missing a trick in the e-publishing world, and another place where indie authors get to shine. Many of us go on to publish our serials as e-books, and do well a a result.

Should more novelists serialise their work? Maybe. Having more completed works serialised would be good for serials as a whole, because of the reputation it has of being unreliable; many serials are simply abandoned, leaving the reader frustrated. More good stuff in the market is good for everyone.

It’s worth recognising that the serial and novel audiences are not synonymous, however. Many readers despise serials and don’t like having to wait. Others love it. It’s not a solve-all, by any means!

“Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works.”

I had to call this particular part of the article out, because of how completely ignorant these critics are. Sure, sometimes serials can be heavy on cliffhangers, but I know from personal experience that overuse of them annoys serial readers. Serials work just fine without them. Just like TV shows don’t need to have cliffhangers on the end of each episode to pull the audience back every week, text serials don’t need it either. There are so many different ways to be compelling and immersive.

Corrupt ‘serious’ work? Be light on subtlety? These critics are reading the wrong serials. You can be subtle, clever, obtuse, and literate, and if you write a good story, readers will come. Do it well, and you’ll be fine.

Dickens wrote popular, ‘pulp’ stories (which we now call ‘literature’), designed to string the story out and keep his readers scrabbling for more, but Dickens does not define serialisation. He is a model for a specific kind of serialisation that happened at a specific time. Things have changed. Reading habits and audience have changed. Move with it, people!

““Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” the critic Adam Kirsch says, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.””

Dickens? James? What about modern versions? What about something written in this century? What about just reading a good story? I’ve read many a good, compelling story that was written within the last century. What is this ‘modern novel’ that they speak of? If they’re talking about literary novels, then perhaps they need to realise that literary novels tend to view plot and characterisation as secondary to their purpose, and so intentionally throw their best tools to the wind when it comes to creating something ‘compelling’.

My exasperation with this article only continues. It seems to have a very narrow view of the publishing world, how writers publish these days, the works that are out there, and what’s actually going on in the wild.

The article has identified three different places that are serialising fiction: Mousehold Words (which apparently serialises public domain works like Dickens), Kindle Serials (one of the worst serial services around, and one that is currently not accepting submissions), and DailyLit (an email distribution of fiction).

These are bad examples of the wide range of serial services out there, never mind all the self-hosted or single-hosted serials (like mine). Even Hillary Kelly, the article’s author, says how inadequate they are, but without recognising that they are only a very small and unrepresentative part of the serial world.

No, according to Kelly, a great serial route would be to stick them in publications like Time, or the New Yorker. Are those kinds of publications likely to welcome fiction in their non-fiction? Is that at all the right kind of audience?

You’re writing for the Washington Post, Ms Kelly. Why don’t you get THEM to start doing this, then come back and tell us how awesome it is? I would love to see some real stats, rather than blind and badly-informed speculation.

Then again, the author also states that reading novels is “a slowly fading pastime.” The fact that more books are being sold than ever has apparently completely missed this author’s attention; novels are not in danger of dying out any time soon. Quite the opposite. But I suppose that’s true only if you count ebooks and indie sales in the figures; if all you’re looking at is the traditional publishers’ numbers, you’re likely to get a dire view of the situation.

The author doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between a serial and a series, either.

“Young-adult literature has already embraced the spirit of serialization. With the first Harry Potter novel came a guarantee of six more….”

There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start. A series of novels isn’t the same as serialising a novel. The readers who eschew reading serials may thrive happily on a series, because they’re delivered in complete stories, not bite-sized parts, and they know there’s a finished story there. Lumping the two approaches together this way confuses the issue and won’t help writers to make the right choices about their work.

Harry Potter did not start a trend by being a series with many books; series have long been popular with traditional publishers, and they have been staples of the speculative fiction and children’s genres for over a century. That books that are both speculative fiction and for young audiences are in series isn’t attributable to Pottermania (there were many around when I was growing up, well before Potter was stuffed in the cupboard under the stairs). There isn’t a change in reading habits here; Harry Potter simply helped to draw in more readers and bulk out a particular part of the market. Traditional publishers knew long ago that building a series is a great way to build sales and retain audience.

So what’s the tl:dr version of this post?

Traditional publishers have long known that publishing series of books is a good sales tactic. They have yet to cash in on the current serial boom, however.

And there is one. Serials are live and thriving. Indie and self-publishing authors are using this tactic. Traditionally-published authors have been doing this on and off for years. There are many ways to get your work out there to readers, one post at a time, and people are using them.

Thank you, Hillary Kelly, for completely disregarding a whole section of the literary community and industry. Thank you for making us feel invisible and unimportant. As the comments on your article show, all you’ve done here is show the breadth of your ignorance of what’s really going on in the market.

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Inkspired: shiny new toy

Get Inkspired! (Picture: theirs)

Get Inkspired!
(Picture: theirs)

I have been involved with a new publishing venue for a little while, and I figured that it was about time I shared it with everyone. It’s still in beta, but that doesn’t mean you can’t jump in and see what it’s all about.

It is called Inkspired, and it is a free, serial-friendly publishing and reading portal. It’s pretty simple to use: as a writer, you copy in your story, fill in a few details, and click ‘publish’; as a reader, you can read stories on the website or through the app.

(Tip: not to be confused with the tattoo magazine of the same name.)

Let’s get the scary legal stuff out of the way: Inkspired don’t take any rights to your work; it all stays with the author. You’re free to do whatever you want with anything you post up there and you’re not tied to them in any way.

As a writer, Inkspired offers:

  • An easy-to-use interface.
  • Basic text formatting only. If you want something complex, this probably isn’t the venue for you.
  • Access to their readership*, through:
    • Their home page
    • Discoverability / searchability
    • Weekly bulletin emails
  • Automatic notifications to readers who follow your story, whenever a new chapter is published.
  • Automatic reminders when you’re approaching your next chapter due date.
  • The ability to send broadcast updates to your followers.
  • Reviews on a chapter before it is published**.
  • Comments from readers on published chapters, and the ability to reply to them.

* The site is pretty new and the reader base is pretty fledgling-sized. I’d be curious about their actual numbers and how it goes as the reader base grows.

** This is a new feature, added for a recent event I held for them. Writers can get comments directly on a draft of a chapter from invited Inkspired users. It’s great! Some functionality still being ironed out here, though.

I think it’s a professional-looking site and pretty reliable. The creators are open to feedback and have implemented a bunch of features from suggestions. There’s a donation system on the way, so readers can donate to their favourite authors/stories, and likely to be other features in the works I haven’t heard about yet.

Overall, I’m still not sure what I think about it; it’s early days. I like the site and the interaction with the readership. I like that it’s easy, and looks good without much effort on my part. I like that people are discovering my stories on there (more on them soon!), liking and following them, and I get happy little notifications when that happens.

It’s still growing and developing, and it’s exciting to see it shift and change, especially when I get to have input into those changes. At this point, I can’t really tell how the long term or the big picture is going to pan out. Is it a good publishing portal? Will it be successful? I’m not sure and don’t really have the direct experience to predict it. I hope it does work out.

Right now, I’m treating Inkspired as an experiment for me, my writing, and publishing. I’m trying different things, and trying to get the word out there to see what input others have on the subject. Already, I’ve had it compared to Wattpad and realised that they’re fairly similar. As a result, I’m considering doing a compare-and-contrast with Wattpad, just to see what’s what.

As part of my work with Inkspired’s creators (they are local to me here in Brisbane), I ran an event with them recently that we dubbed the Write – Review – Publish event. It went well and was an interesting endeavour, and I hope to do something similar again soon. I’ll write more on this when I’ve had a chance to digest it more fully.

Hopefully, there will be a lot more news on this front over the next little while. Fingers crossed! In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think about Inkspired.

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Movie trip-ups and pitfalls

cinema_by_Indi_Samarajiva

Wouldn’t it be cool to see your story on here?
(Picture by Indi Samarajiva)

When I think about the possibility of selling a story to a movie studio and one day seeing my work up on the big screen, it seems like an impossibly exciting and terrifying thing. Of course, it’s a lot of work (if you happen to be involved), and they’re going to change stuff, and it might not match my own vision entirely, but still. My story. My name. Big screen.

I dare say I’m not the only writer who quivers at the thought. It’s hard to imagine being that lucky! Who wouldn’t be thrilled to sell the movie rights to a studio, particularly a big studio? (Sure, the chances of it actually being made into a movie might not be all that high; it might languish in pre-production hell for years and never wind up going anywhere. But it would still be thrilling to have the chance!)

It’s a tricky business to get into, though. Navigating the contract is the first minefield and you’ll need an expert to guide you through it safely. Selling rights to your work has many pitfalls, and if you want to retain any creative control, that adds more complications and potential barriers. How much control? What can we veto? What can we demand? When does the studio/director/creative controller get to tell us to pull our head in? We can’t all be George R.R. Martin and deeply involved in the adaptation. As the writer of the original work, we might not have any input at all.

We might not even have our name attached to it at all. Some writers might prefer that (particularly if the adaptation is vastly different from the original work), others might not care, while others might demand that the origin and inspiration of the work be attributed to them appropriately. If you want any kind of credit, you’ll have to specify it in the contract or risk missing out. You might even have to specify the placement of the credit as well, or risk winding up a footnote at the end of the end credits that only Marvel movie-goers sit through.

Like any contract, it’s best to get an expert to handle the details for you, someone who will defend your interests in the way that you want. I won’t pretend that the above is all you have to worry about; I’m sure there are many more details that will need to be worked out.

Until recently, I thought that once the contract was agreed, that would be it. Everyone signs the dotted line and the project goes along accordingly. Apparently, that’s not always the case, as Tess Gerritsen found out.

Tess Gerritsen has written many books and been adapted to screen a few times (for example, in the current TV show, Rissoli and Isles). She is currently embroiled in a law suit against Warner Bros. about the 2013 movie Gravity, because she believes that it was based off a story (with the same name) she sold to a different studio, New Line Productions. The original project died before fruition, and yet a few years later, after New Line was bought by Warner Bros., a very similar movie became a reality. Gerritsen was not involved in the Warner Bros. project, she wasn’t paid, and none of her original contract was honoured.

In a recent blog post, Gerritsen says that this could set a dangerous precedent for selling intellectual property (your story, project, or concept) in Hollywood. If the entity you sold that IP to is bought, the new owner inherits the contract, but they might not have to abide by the terms of that contract. This isn’t a case of plagiarism; it’s a case of breach of contract. In her words:

Warner Bros., through its ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. They had every right to make the movie — but they claim they have no obligation to honor my contract with New Line.

She’s right: writers who sell their work should be worried. We spend hours and hours of our lives on creating these stories; to have them stolen out of hand and profited from is unfair, immoral, and should be considered illegal (or whatever the civil breach-of-contract term is)*. Gerritsen’s case is not yet finished (she is in the process of re-filing her claim), and it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

I wish her luck, for her sake and for other writers who may find themselves in a similar position (and assuming that her claim is justified, of course, though I find her argument compelling). I hope this isn’t a symptom of another way creators are robbed by the industry.

If only it wasn’t so tempting (and potentially lucrative) to see our work on the screen!

* This doesn’t reflect my view on piracy, though it strikes me that the arguments are similar. That’s a whole other post for another time.

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