Random Thoughts: Amazon and the review system

Okay, so before I begin this little rant, I need to clarify that I don’t hate Amazon. I have my books available through Amazon services, and I love that this is something I can do. There have been a few changes to services lately that are hostile to authors. (Not new in Amazon’s history as a business.) And there have been a few changes that seem a bit hostile to customers.

Before I unpack all of that, I need to provide context. So here are some links outlining the issues I am about to discuss.

First, we have changes to how authors are paid through the Kindle Unlimited feature available to consumers through Amazon Prime: http://www.inquisitr.com/2221623/kindle-unlimited-kenpc-explained-self-published-authors-could-be-looking-at-massive-pay-cut/

Next, we have the increased importance of reviews to the Amazon ratings system: http://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/3bsuig/amazon_changes_its_rating_system_now_its_more/

Then we have Amazon deciding what reviewers relationships to individual authors are: http://imysantiago.com/2015/07/02/amazon-a-virtual-marketplace-or-big-brother/

Before the changes to Kindle Unlimited payouts went into effect, everyone who publishes through Amazon received an email detailing what those changes would be. Basically, KU will pay out according to pages read. It stinks for some of us, but we knew it was coming. As an individual, I can tell you that most of my sales do not come through KU. I am not stressed about this, but for a lot of us it eats a significant chunk of change. My stance on that was a sort of grumble and a shrug. Amazon, whether we like it or not, is free to change its business practices and we can always change where we distribute our work (even though right now it is the distributor with greatest visibility.) At the very least it’s a significant point of data for indie publishers to consider when making decisions. It is certainly a sign that it is not wise to rely on Amazon as a sole distributor. But we’ve had plenty of those signs in the past. I hope most of us are strategizing accordingly. I know I am. (The strategy to offset this stuff is to diversify channels of distribution. I enroll in kdp select for the first three months of an e-book’s life and then spread out.)

On the heels of this, however, we were made aware that Amazon plans to make reviews a lot more significant to a book’s rating. Okay, so reviews weigh more heavily the more recently they were posted, and how many up-votes the review received. It will also mean reviews from verified purchases matter more. I get the verified purchase thing. It helps to maintain the integrity of the review system if it comes from someone with a verified purchase. That part makes a lot of sense to me.

Okay, so the response in adapting to this, is to scramble for more reviews, if that’s a thing that worries you. I mean, scrambling for reviews is not new to indie publishers. We submit to bloggers and ask our friends who have supported the work by purchasing a copy to leave reviews when and where they can. It helps boost the signal of a book, spreads word of mouth, etc… Again, review systems being fluid and subject to change, for some weird reason, I don’t get anxious about them. I am grateful when they show up, because holy crap! Someone cared enough about this to take time out of their day to write a review when they were under no obligation to do so and what a gift! Hooray! Coffee for everyone!

Except here is where it starts to get weird and I think Amazon gets into some ethical gray area. (By ethical gray area I mean some seriously out-of-bounds shitake.) Here is where Amazon can say, “Hey, you know that thing we are always asking our customers to do? That feedback stuff? Yeah. We think you know the author so your gift isn’t good enough.”

Um. What?

I don’t think this kind of policing is okay. If that sentence sounds familiar that’s because it was part of a mini-twitter rant I had about this yesterday. How does Amazon figure out how you know someone well enough to invalidate feedback? Some of my harshest critics are people I know very well. Aren’t they telling a customer they just wasted their time? And why is Amazon defining relationships for you? It seems weird and hinky.

To be fair, there are author collectives that leave reviews for each others work, there are paid reviewers, and I’m sure there are a lot of other things that happen on a whole other level of shade that I am not familiar with. Here’s the issue, though. I have left reviews for other author’s works, some of whom I interact with via social media, some of whom I know IRL, some I do not know in any context except through reading, and some of whom I’ve since gotten to know better. I left those reviews because I had positive things to say about the work. Maybe it does look sketchy, but it was a way of showing support. Is it naïve to think maybe that I was doing a good thing? No one actually asked me to leave those reviews. I just did it. But I feel discouraged from doing so now. And if I feel discouraged from leaving reviews in the future, that suggests to me that there are other folks strictly on the customer side of things who might be reluctant to leave reviews because of the possibility that they will be wasting their time.

Oh sure, we all waste some time every day, but I don’t think we like to aim for that.

Another thing that I’d like to point out is that indie-publishing is not easy. It is difficult to generate buzz. We all start by making connections with other people, and let’s be real about this, our audience starts with our friends. If we work really hard, we can move beyond that circle, but our real life human connection is where all art begins to meet audience. That has always been the case. The internet has not changed that. It has perhaps made certain points of connection public,  but since when is it okay for a corporation to make a value judgment about the connections that you make?

My concern isn’t that Amazon is taking steps to enhance the integrity of the reviewing system, it is that it also appears to be making judgments on relationships between authors and reviewers. I get the motivation, I just don’t think it’s ethical.

 

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Random Thoughts: Rites of Passage for Writers Part the Second

So in part the first I talked about losing work to whims of fate (okay, technology.) This time I’m thinking about a few other uncomfortable firsts.

We’ve all been at that place where we are perhaps overly enthusiastic about a piece of fiction. I’m talking about early on, before we really know anything, like how to figure out whether or not what we’ve done has any real merit. I kind of miss those days of relative ignorance, when your excitement about a project overreaches your skill and whenever you talk to someone you’re like a child discovering their own creativity for the first time, shoving coffee stained papers into people’s faces with the proud declaration of “Look! I made this!”

And then your friend, because they are your friend and as such are equally excited, begins to read the nascent piece of work out loud, in front of other friends and you realize for the first time how deeply “not ready” the piece is. It is so not ready, in fact, that you want to bury it and yourself inside of some undiscovered cave until most of the people on the earth have forgotten your name. Ah! The shame! The beautiful golden glowing story you thought would change your life forever is filled with overwrought prose and inconsistencies and resembles the scribblings of your pre-k self. You have unleashed this piece of dreck, in however limited a way, on the public because you’ve yet to figure out how to express the story that resides, perfectly, brilliantly, inside of your skull. You THOUGHT you managed to convey it well on the page, but alas… the opposite is true.

You are made aware of your painful status as a novice.

Part of your brain says, “But I have talent! I know I do!”

That’s probably true. But without putting in the work and learning stuff about craft, it’s all still scribbles on a page.

This is one of those testing moments. Do you love crafting stories enough to continue? Do you take that moment of terrible realization and turn it into  an opportunity to learn? Do you dig in and work harder or do you give up?

I know what the answer was for me. I kept going. But what about you guys? Have you had a moment like this? How did you respond?

Random Thoughts: Rites of Passage for Writers: Part the First

So, there are a lot of things that writers go through that are shared with anyone working at other professions that kind of suck, and then there are the things that for writers feel like the end of the known universe.

Last week, I was catching up with Devon Miller, who just moved to the other coast, and she experienced the dreaded LOST BOX OF MANUSCRIPTS.

I’ve done that. Lost whole manuscripts. Once to a computer meltdown, once to wind. Yep. That scene from Wonderboys where the main character watches thousands of pages ride the wind into Pittsburgh’s three rivers? That happened to me. Except it was a much shorter piece, it was not in a major PA city, and there were no rivers. I was later able to reconstruct the story. The second version was probably better. (That particular piece was the novella, Fork You, which appears in Panverse One as well as Aliens in the Soda Machine in Other Strange Tales.) That first piece? I did recover it, but you know, that was my first novel  so it is probably best as something that disappeared. It is easy to say that now. If I recall correctly, when it happened there was weeping. Probably drunken weeping. Of course, having gone through this I’ve learned my lesson, always back your stuff up, and do it in multiple ways. Also, maybe next time don’t drink so much when upset. Friends REALLY don’t like the drunken weeping. Unless it’s in a rom-com or something.

The novella I lost was a different story though. The first draft had been written on scrap paper at a job I was working, many moons ago. It fell out of a hardcover book I was reading at the time. I lost it on the way home where the plan had been to enter it into my computer. I didn’t weep that time, I just re-wrote it. I was frustrated but not devastated. I suppose that’s progress?

One of the worst things that can happen to a writer is to lose the very tools with which we ply our craft. In olden-times, that meant you broke your typewriter ribbon or there was perhaps no ink for your quill. “Egads! I’ve run out of parchment!” one might have exclaimed. You can see where I am headed with this, right? THE COMPUTER CRASH OF DOOM!!!

That’s what’s going on with me right now. No computer. Right now, I’m doing this on a borrowed device. It feels kind of wrong. My work is backed up, but I still feel a bit lost. It seems like I should be able to just shrug it off, pick up a pen and a notebook and perform the writing work as scheduled while I wait for Ye Old Compy to get fixed. I’m surprised by how anxious I am without it, even though I’ve been through it before. Here’s the likely scenario going forward: it will take a few days to get used to working without a net (see what I did there?) and then just as I am getting comfortable again, the problem will be resolved.

How about all of you other writer peeps out there in the blogosphere? What are some writerly rites of passage that send you running as if from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

 

Random Thoughts: The Writing Life – Stock Answers for Uncomfortable Questions

So, on June 7th I have a guest blog post appearing over at http://novelspaces.blogspot.com/

I won’t get too spoilery, but in it I talk about questions that people often ask authors and writers.

As an extension of that, I have a few stock answers that you may feel free to use in the event that you, writer, are asked an uncomfortable writing question.

(These are not serious, by the way. I’m pretty sure following this template will guarantee that people stop asking, though, if that’s your goal.)

Q: How many books did you sell?

A: A bunch. OMG! DO YOU SEE WHAT THAT SQUIRREL IS DOING TO THE STUFFED PANDA IN AISLE SIX?

Q: Is that really how you have sex?

A: Stop trying to flirt with me!

Q: What do you wear when you do your writing?

A: Seriously, stop trying to flirt with me! Your spouse is right there. Also it’s not very sexy. *coughmumbles Union suit.*

Q: Could you write me into your story? Especially into a steamy sex scene?

A: Oh, you mean like where you get chopped up and steam-cooked with rice and vegetables? Like that? Wow. That’s weird. Are you sure you’re okay?

Q: Do you know James Patterson?

A: Are you talking about your sock puppet friends again?

Q: Did you finish writing that book yet? What’s taking so long?

A: Well, it needs to make sense when it’s finished, so there is that.

Q: So that scene in your book… That’s about me, isn’t it?

A: Um, no. And stop it.

Q: Also, how are sales? When are you going to see some money from this?

A: As soon as you wave some in front of my face and buy this copy I happen to have right here.

Q: Do you have a deadline?

A: *looks at watch* Shouldn’t you be at work?

Q: Soooo, how DO you pay the bills?

A: On time.

Q: Have you published anything lately?

A: IF YOU REALLY CARED YOU WOULD ALREADY KNOW THAT! *runs away crying*

Random Thoughts: The Writing Life – Genre Hopping

So on May 28, my friend (and the person who wrote the introduction for Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales)  wrote this excellent blog post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University and in it he mentions genre hopping. It is something that I have a tendency to do. What Dario says in there about experiencing great success with a non-fiction travel book versus the excellent thriller Sutherland’s Rules got me thinking about that. Genre distinctions are useful in terms of pointing potential audience in the direction of fiction that they might like, from the publishing standpoint it’s a marketing category. Genre tells publishers something about audience and gives them/us a starting point in terms of how to market a work. For indie publishers, particularly just starting out, we are just beginning to navigate marketing. When we genre hop, we set ourselves up for extra challenges in that regard. Moving from contemporary fiction to, for example, a  collection of short stories in the new weird genre as I have done between Haunted and Aliens in the Soda Machine can mean that we are starting from scratch between marketing approaches. What is more interesting to me (and probably tells you where my heart really is in all of this) is the writing process, and what leads us, as authors in the process of creation, to do things like genre hop when conventional wisdom indicates that we shouldn’t do it. I think, in my case, it starts with reading habits that began well before I started to write fiction seriously. I’ve always read widely. Even since I was a little kid. I read everything I could get my hands on. When I ran out of books I would break into my parents’ collection and read things meant for adults. I think what that has meant for me in terms of writing is that my writer brain refuses to align itself with a singular category. The stories that take proto-shape in my head naturally genre hop. So the focus becomes not categorization but just telling the best story that I can in whatever form best suited to that story. It also means that things will happen during the proto-stages of a project to change the direction of a story. Haunted was an example of this. I’ve mentioned it in interviews, but Haunted was a novel meant to be contemporary fiction about a family dealing with grief. As I was writing it felt that something was missing. The missing thing turned out to be the voice of the deceased. And so a paranormal element was introduced to the work. There is a sequel, and of course a third book planned to follow the misadventures of the McTutcheon sisters. The second book explores the relationships within the family as they move on with their lives and as such is straight up contemporary fiction. By the time we get to the third book, however, it fulfills the promise of the first novel, with multiple ghosts haunting a bar. I am aware that makes this particular trilogy a bit wonky for purposes of categorization. As fiction, the hope is that each book will succeed because the reader cares about the characters. But in terms of genre distinction and marketing I’ve definitely set myself up for some serious challenges. I mean, this is a trilogy that will hold together but within that each book has a distinctly different flavor. My genre hopping writer’s brain has dictated the terms here. As an indie publisher, it is a pleasure to be able to experiment in this way. The weirdness of genre as it presents in this series is one of the reasons that I chose this particular set of projects to self-publish. Sometimes, writer-brain wants what it wants. (Which is not to suggest that I’m whimsically following the mythic muse down whatever path s/he chooses. Far from it.) I also have the freedom to do this right now because I’m a relatively unknown writer. Point 1 for obscurity, here. In the works, I have other things that more readily fit into distinct categories. But they aren’t necessarily all the same genre. I have never read that way, so it makes sense to me that I don’t write that way, either. I think the trick is to genre-hop with some sort of purpose, but there isn’t an established path for genre hoppers, even though I suspect that there are more of us out there than is immediately evident. So, what about you guys? Readers and writers alike, do you genre-hop? What are the benefits and challenges you experience there?

Random Thoughts: 19 Days into Book Launch 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Hey everybody!

So this post is bound to be a bit… uh… scattered. I am 19 days into the official release of Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales.

This is not my first day at the rodeo in terms of Indie book releases, but I don’t remember being this scattered at this time last year when I released Haunted.

Then again, maybe I am blocking that memory. It’s been a fairly intense writing year for me. Since the release of last year’s Haunted, Devon Miller and I have started and completed the first book in a trilogy, I have started and completed the sequel to Haunted (which should be available in 2016.) I’ve started an sf novel and released a collection of short stories.

Perhaps I am due for a bit of scatter, a sort of forced slow down. But I think the issue is that I keep forgetting about all the things that have to be juggled when a book is released into the wild in addition to the day to day goings on in this particular corner of writer-land. Marketing and promotion is ongoing, but it is particularly intense leading up to a launch, and in the weeks immediately following. I’m still learning, still trying new things and doing things from the last big push that worked. I think when it comes to that side of this that will always be the case. The tools are constantly changing. When this is all happening I tend to forget how much time and energy it really takes and when current projects slow down my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder, “Why is the writing taking longer? What’s wrong with me?”

Yep. I know. Moronic right? I have to remind myself that my attention is also on other tasks that are consequential. I’m not sure why that is.

Another thing that’s happening is that I keep thinking about the next publishing project, and the one after that. There’s an impatience to work on those things. The problem there is that the sequel to Haunted needs to sit untouched for a while. I need critical distance before edits. (Some folks can dive right in, but I’ve learned what works for me, and distance is key.) To round out the tale of the McTutcheon sisters, there is already a third book percolating in my brain. Of course, writer brain wants to work on that, too. But that would be unwise, as I’ve begun the sf novel. This order of projects was planned, by the way. There’s a rhythm to these things. If I dive into the third book about the McTutcheon sisters before the second book has been edited, that sets me up for bigger problems with inconsistencies later. A book changes dramatically from first draft to final version. So, between those books, I’m working on the sf novel. My head is getting turned by other ideas, and maybe a bit of self-imposed pressure to get that next book out, asap. In the midst of it all, I’m thinking, “WHY AM I NOT GETTING MORE DONE!”

My own advice dictates that I’ve got to finish the thing I’m doing right now. My own advice also says that a rushed book is a shitty book. So when my head is spinning like this, I have to tell myself the things I would tell another writer going through it.

Worry about one thing at a time. Stay calm. Make sure you’ve got enough coffee.

How about you guys? How do you handle it when your head starts doing this?

Random Thoughts: Writing Myths

So, writing myths come up a lot in the course of doing this kind of work. From the beginning stages when you are starting out and you half believe them all the way to having that first book put out. By the time you’ve got something out there you know that the myths are false and they start to sound increasingly harmful and ridiculous over time.

I’ve already written about one of the most pervasive myths about writing, regarding the muse in the writers and self-sabotage series of blog posts, but I wanted to talk about some of the other ones that pop up every once in a while.

This blog post is not likely to be comprehensive because there are a lot of them. Mountains.

One of the myths about writing, or any creative path, really, is the belief that in order to do art one must, in some way, be tortured. No. I cannot emphasize this enough. Not true. Artists who happen to be tortured for any number of reasons create in spite of also facing down drug addiction, depression, poverty, etc… While it speaks to enormous personal strength to be able to create in spite of such conditions, the “torture” is not the thing that propels the art. We might make that part of the art, it might provide some real world knowledge of struggle to help lend verisimilitude to the writing, but it is not necessary and I don’t think it helps to glamorize this. The starving artist is not an ideal. I can tell you personally that certain types of struggle make it much more difficult to create. If I am not feeling well it is difficult to overcome that in order to apply the focus that is required to write. What the narrative of a tortured artist gives us is a compelling narrative about the artist, it does nothing to improve the work unless the artist takes that struggle and applies it to the work, which is an artistic choice. In and of itself, the suffering of the artist does not necessarily equal greater art, or any art at all. I’d also like to point out that there are plenty of people with personal struggles in other types of work that perform in spite of those struggles.

This leads me to the myth that drinking and/or drugs help with the creative process. While there may have been some rare folks who were able to fuel their art in this way, for most of us arting while intoxicated is a very bad idea. I’m not going to lie. A few sips of wine might loosen self-imposed inhibitions and help creativity initially, but keep drinking and the words on the page look more like your cat was dancing on the keyboard. If you have to use a psycho-active substance to keep the ideas flowing, coffee is your best bet. Or tea, if you are a tea person.

Writers and coffee… well. That one, with a few exceptions that I know of, is true. Most writers love coffee. A good way to show support for a writer (aside from buying their books, leaving reviews or recommending their work to friends) is to offer them a cup of coffee.

Writers and money. Man, this deserves its own series. Writers are rich. (Um, no. A few are, but that’s it.) Writers are always broke. (Sometimes true, but most of us have day jobs and if we’re smart, we keep them until we can afford to let them go.) Traditionally published authors don’t have to do other work. HAHAHAHAHAHA! (Some don’t, most do.)

Writing is fun, or a luxury. I actually had a woman very bitterly say to me once, “I wish I could afford to work part time and just write books.” In the moment, I didn’t respond but that one really pissed me off. Working part time is a sacrifice I made so that I could pursue the very hard work of writing fiction. Is it fun? Sometimes it is. In fact I am one of those annoying people who just LOVES to work if the job is right. But writing is fraught with difficulty, challenges and uncertainty.

JUST write books? JUST? Are you kidding me? Don’t even get me started on the huge skill set you need to develop if you choose the road of author-publisher. While I love the challenge of learning new skills and the results that can happen when those new skills are put to good use, it is hard work. It is real work. It doesn’t suddenly become “not work” because I happen to like it. Interesting side-note, no one would have suggested to me that broadcasting was not work when I was doing that professionally, and that was something I enjoyed too. (Bonus myth-busting: A majority of broadcasters are not wealthy. At all.)

So what about you guys? Which myths about writing bug you the most? Which make you laugh the hardest?