Amazon’s BS Machine

I absolutely adore Ursula K. Lequin. I want you to know that right up front. She’s one of my favorite writers of all time. I love how passionate and outspoken she is about many issues, ranging from books to feminism. However her latest post on Bookview Cafe missed the mark on a number of levels. The post, title Up the Amazon with the BS Machine, takes Amazon to task for creating a system where the latest best seller drives out better books.

 

Her argument in a nutshell is that Amazon has an obscure algorithm for determining best sellers. It focus on selling books fast and cheap, favoring the quick pop success of fad titles and then burying books that have ran their course into obscurity.

I see three big issues with what’s she’s saying. The BS machine (best seller machine) predates Amazon’s rise and dominance by many years. Amazon’s admittedly murky algorithm actually works against the BS machine and Amazon doesn’t condemn any book to obscurity, quite the opposite.

The BS Machine

Let’s start with the rise of the BS machine. It didn’t happen overnight. It rose in large part due to the same market forces that slowly turned hundreds of medium sized presses into the big five corporate publishers we have today. You can glimpse the same complaints in books on publishing that were themselves published as far back as the 1980’s.

It goes like this, as publishing becomes more and more driven by corporate bottom line, publishers natural focus on “marketable” or “commercial” fiction. i.e. books that sell well enough to make the company a big profit. The hunt for the next big thing soon trumps keeping a stable of moderately successful writers happy.

The rise of big box stores and discount sellers in the nineties drove this to new heights. Suddenly books didn’t just have to sell enough copies at regular price to be profitable, they had to sell at a sharp discount and still be profitable.

Amazon came along in the mid-nineties and has slowly gained a greater and greater market share, eclipsing Barnes and Nobles and driving Borders out of business. Lequin is right to say that they have continued to force the trend towards highly discounted books, but wrong to say they are responsible for the best seller mentality, which came from publishers and big box stores.

Amazon’s Sales Rank

The way Amazon determines sales rank for books, and therefore best sellers, is indeed a murky business. They are notoriously secretive about their algorithm. But what we do know about the process actually works against the BS machine, not for it.

First off, the reason Amazon is so secretive is that they fear publishers or indie writers will game the system if the system is too well understood. After all, it happens all the time. Every time the algorithm becomes too clear, someone figures a way to make it work for them.

The best example is free. It’s also the best example of how the current system works against the BS machine.

Back in the early days of KIndle Direct Publishing, Amazon counted any download equally. Authors figured out that they could make their book free for a short time and shoot to the top of the bestsellers list. Once they put the book back to regular price it would slowly drop off the list. In the meantime, they would be on Amazon’s front page, getting a huge boost in publicity. This would result in a huge number of sales for the author, enough to justify the free promotions.

Problems abound for Amazon and for author’s in general. The value of being a best seller was watered down. Bad books often did come to the top. Clever marketers succeeded while good writers failed.

So, Amazon started changing their system. They no longer count free downloads towards sales rank. Free giveaways still have value for some writers but they aren’t a quick way to game the system anymore.

The murkiest part of Amazon’s algorithm is “stickiness.” What exactly counts as stickiness is uncertain, nor how they measure it or how much weight they give it. In general terms what it means is this, Amazon weighs consistent long term sales more than short term ups and downs.

For example another way to game the system was to get all of your fans to buy a book on a certain day. Authors did this through email lists, twitter or other social media. By micromanaging their sales they hoped to get enough downloads within a given period to push their sales rank up into the bestseller list. Like other ways of gaming the system, it worked for a time.

Then Amazon changed the system. They started updating the sales rank more often. That had the result that sales all in one day would boost your rank, but it would drop the next day, back to what it was. The benefits of gaming the system became short lived.

Now many indie authors have noticed they’ve taken it a step further. If your book has been selling at a certain rate and had a certain sales rank for several weeks, small bumps in sales have little effect on that rank. So do small dips in sales. Sales ranks have become “sticky.”

Amazon has done this to prevent gaming the system, but it also works against the BS machine. Stickiness means that books that sell reasonably well will be kept around and will keep selling reasonably well, while fad books rise and fall in the background.

“But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.”

Of all the arguments Lequin makes, this one is just plain wrong. Amazon had no mechanism to force publishers to take a book out of print and two important mechanisms in place to prevent it.

Amazon doesn’t want books to go out of print to make way for the next big thing. Publishers do. They can make more money off one title if they get the competition off the shelf. The generous return policies they offer retailers is in part aimed at that. Can’t sell title A? No worries, we will credit you for it and send you title B.

Digital shelf space is unlimited and Amazon makes far more money by selling a few copies of title A and a few copies of title B then they do by concentrating their efforts on a best seller. In fact they’ve driven Borders out of business, not by having more copies of one book but by having an enormous selection of books on sale, a selection no physical retailer could match.

How does Amazon preserve books? The most direct way is their own Kindle Direct Publishing. Digital books never go out of the print. Many authors have created large side incomes by taking older titles that went out of print and republishing themselves on KDP. Newer indie books are never in danger of being taken out of print by the vagaries of a traditional publisher.

The second way that Amazon keeps books in circulation, if not print, is through a vast collection of associate sellers. Anyone can start an online store through Amazon’s associate program. Used bookstores and book collectors run lucrative businesses reselling older titles.

I resisted online book buying for many years, preferring to shop at a local bookstore. But time and again, I couldn’t find the title I was looking for. Meanwhile, I’ve found hundreds of great out of print books on Amazon. I’ve been able to access some great books that publishers would have let die long ago, if not for Amazon.

 

I am no Amazon fangirl. You can criticize many of their business practices and I will be on board with you. They are a huge corporation. If you believe you can trust any corporation to serve anything other than it’s own best interests, you are dangerously naive. Publishers and authors should always keep one eye open to what Amazon is up to.

Amazon is also an online platform. That’s a big part of why I am not afraid of them.  Like Facebook and Google, they have a good side and a bad side. They have value to both consumers and publishers alike. In the future that might change, and we will all have to roll with it.

It’s important to be objective, to not blame them for every ill of modern publishing, or for market forces beyond their control. They have their good and bad side, but this one is not on them, in my opinion.

What is your opinion? I would glad to hear it in the comments below.

A Digital Expat — and an Answer to Hugh Howey

In Hugh Howey’s Confessions of a Digital Immigrant he asks for other people’s story about their adoption of digital reading. So Hugh, here you go.

If Hugh is a digital immigrant, I am an expatriate. I swore years ago that I would never abandon print books for ereading. And yet, I have. My reading is about ninety five percent digital.

My ereading story begins in 2010. I am transgender and I was preparing to take a trip to Thailand for my final surgery for my transition. I would be there for a month. I read at least two or three books a week normally, but I would be spending a lot of the month recovering from surgery, so I figured I would read more. How could I possibly bring enough books? Could I find English language books in Bangkok, Thailand?

The answer was to purchase my first kindle. I got it about a month before my trip and as soon as I started using it, it was magic. The device fit easily in my purse, dramatically reducing the amount of weight I carried.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Before my kindle, I carried a physical book everywhere. I used to joke, “happiness is a small book.” Small books are great for when you are waiting in line, stuck at the doctor’s office, or have a few minutes downtime at work.

There were two problems with this. Big, thick books are happiness, too, but they don’t fit so well in a purse. The second problem was that I often carried more than one book. If I was more than three quarters of a way through a book, I’d become afraid of finishing while I was out somewhere, and not having the next book to read. So I’d figure out what I was going to read next, and then carry that one as well.

With the kindle, those problems went away. It didn’t matter whether the book is long or short, the kindle still weighs the same. The next book is already there, on the same device. I downloaded what I thought would be a month’s worth of reading and headed to Thailand.

Two things occurred while I was in Thailand. I didn’t have all the books I needed. I was stuck there longer than expected and I needed more books. That was okay, I could easily shop and download more. That, too, was magic. To be sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, Thailand and buying books from the United States on Amazon, and then downloading them instantly, was magic.

The other problem was with my computer. To make a long story short, I needed a couple of reference manuals to fix what was wrong. In print they would have been big, expensive and I would have had to mail order them. On the kindle I was able to download them instantly for a fraction of the price.

In Hugh’s blog he claims that its older readers that have adopted ereading the most. That seems counter intuitive, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. When I came back from Thailand, now in love with my kindle, I started looking around the house. Could I replace some of my print books with ebooks?

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

I understand what he says about young people loving their print books. I was like that once upon a time. Now I watch book bloggers on youtube, flashing their copies of their five favorite novels and think, “five? That’s cute.” A life-long reader at age forty five, I could be smothered by a fraction of my favorite books.

Looking around my house at the end of 2010, I had one book shelf in the entryway to the kitchen just for cookbooks. I had another in the main room for books I kept for reference, or because I frequently picked them up and read portions of them. I had a library with three more bookshelves. That’s five full book shelves.

And then there were the flats. I had discovered years ago that paperback books fit well in those plastic underbed storage boxes. That became the most convenient way to store and move most of my books, which were trade paperback science fiction and fantasy. By 2010 I had stacks of them in my basement. Somewhere in my late twenties and early thirties a love of books had crossed the line into hoarding. I had to do something.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

The kindle became the solution and the excuse to declutter my life. Many of the reference books that I had to have were classics, books of poetry, mythology, etc. I would never know when I needed one for a quote, or to settle some debate.

(What? You’ve never suddenly needed to know what it says in the Bhagavad Gita? Or needed a quote from the finnish epic Kalevala? You haven’t been to my house, then. It happens.) The kindle and the Gutenberg project cut deep into that shelf.

I have a problem letting go of novels. The reason is that I’ve bought many books two or three times. I’ll buy a book, read it and think, “that was good but I’ll probably never read it again.” I give it away or sell to a used bookstore. Five years later I want to read it again and buy another copy. Then I get paranoid about giving up that copy, because who knows? In five years I might want to read it a third time. But the book collection keeps growing and there’s only so much room.

With my kindle I don’t have that problem. If I choose to keep a book, it doesn’t add any weight or take up any space. If I let it go, it’s still in my cloud somewhere if I change my mind later.

What else?

A lot of the same things that others have said about ereaders played a role in my adoption as well. I will admit that being able resize text is a lot easier than admitting that I’m getting older. Cheaply priced ebooks are a godsend to active readers who plow through many books in a month.

The ability to shop at home was another huge factor. I love going to the bookstore, I do. Going to the library is another treat for me. But let’s face it, life gets busy and sometimes it’s a pain. Just getting there isn’t the only problem. Buying books once or twice a month at the bookstore means knowing what I am going to want to read after I finish my current book. Sometimes I finish a book and find myself in the mood for something similar, sometimes I want something different. Pulling the next book out I would discover that I got it right, some of the time, and I would get it wrong some of the time. Now I choose what I want to read next when I am ready for it.

A note on Indie authors and pricing

As an ereader I’ve become far more price sensitive. There are three reasons. The most obvious is that I read a lot. The choice between one book at 9.99 and three books at 2.99 is an easy one for me, especially if I am just looking for something to read.

The second reason I am more price sensitive now is because there is one real downside to digital reading. Its not nearly as easy to share a digital book. With print it’s easy to hand the book off to a friend and say, “here, read this. You’ll love it.” When you are trying to tell someone they should lay down money to read something because you think they’ll like it, it’s a different ball game. With a cheap book, 2-3 dollars, I have no problem expecting friends to fork over for their own copy. But when publishers price their ebooks over ten dollars it creates a lot of frustration for me. Knowing I can’t share the book and feeling like I can’t recommend it, takes a lot of pleasure out of reading for me.

The third reason I am so price sensitive has to do with being an indie author myself. I have, or feel like I have, a good notion of how much work and cost goes into an ebook. I understand how the market works.

I track my expenses on each book and I know how much I have to make for each to break even. I hire a professional editor and professional cover artist. Once those set costs are paid, the cost of keeping an ebook on the market is marginal. I sell most of my books for less than five dollars. At the 70% I make from Amazon, it will take a few hundred sales on average for a book to break even and start making money.

So when big publishers tell us that they need to price the latest Patterson book at twelve dollars to make money, I don’t believe them. He has hundreds of thousands of fans. His books will start turning a profit almost as soon as they are out.

My point is that when major publishers push higher ebook prices, I assume they are just fleecing consumers, using ebook sales to prop up less profitable portions of their corporate structure. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s an important reason why I read so few big names these days, and so many indie authors.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

Do I buy any print books?

Yes, I do still buy print books. There are three reasons I still buy print.

When I meet a fellow author at an event or signing, I buy copies. I have a growing collection of signed copies from authors I know personally. I am very proud of that collection and I look forward to adding to it. That said I often come home, put the book on the shelf and then download the ebook to my kindle to actually read the book.

I recently decided to read a couple of books that are pretty popular. Unfortunately, the ebooks were more expensive than I usually care to pay. So I went to the local half price book store and found one of them for less than the ebook. That might be seen as a win for the “high ebook price to help conserve print sales” theory, except it was a second hand book and didn’t help the publisher.

There are a few books that aren’t available for the kindle. It’s getting rare in these days, but it happens. Current authors are almost all available in digital forms. Books old enough to be public domain have probably been uploaded by someone. In between, books old enough to have been published before the digital revolution but not so old as to be public domain, may only exist in print.

So there you have it, the confessions of digital expat.

 

Top Ten Posts of 2014

I’ve been blogging pretty consistently this year. This site has slowly been gaining a bigger following as well. What’s been your favorite posts? Here are the ten posts that resonated the best with you, the readers.

  1. Six books that prove book banners don’t read.

Back in August I wrote a tongue in cheek post about books that conservative book banners have overlooked, because most are not avid readers. Apparently you enjoyed that post because it’s been the most viewed blog post of the year.

  1. Ten Adult Dystopians to read now that you’ve read Hunger Games

Dystopians are all the rage these days. Or maybe not, publishers and agents have been quietly spreading the word through writers conferences that “dystopian is dead.” I’ll believe that when the sales start to drop. Until then, many young readers don’t realize that dystopian is nothing new. I posted a list of classic dystopians for those who have already whet their tastes on the likes of the Hunger Games but want something more adult.

  1. How to Kick an Internet Troll, Right in the Freedom of Speech

After the gamergate uproar, I got so sick of trolls trying to justify their actions with the freedom of speech mantra, I decided to shut them down. I guess most readers must have been sick of it, too.

  1. Ten Problems with being a Werewolf

I am guessing that people already know the good parts of being a werewolf, because the ten best things about being a werewolf didn’t even come close to making the list. However a lot of you were curious about the problems.

  1. Hiding in Plain View

Not my favorite post of the year. I hate bringing the news that a heroine to many was far less of a heroine after all. But abuse likes to lurk in the dark. If we are to ever live in a better world, we need to face the truth about sexual abuse.

  1. Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

My post about viking shield maidens didn’t get many hits at the time and I was pleasantly surprised to see it so high on the list at the end of the year. As in ancient times, viking women keep on coming.

  1. Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No one Reads

Another tongue in cheek post, poking some gentle fun at book snobs. There are books that lots of people talk about, but they rarely read.

  1. The Suckiest Superpower

The suckiest superpower arose from a conversation with my son, and like that conversation it was a fun one. I still get a chuckle every time I think about Chicken Man, he can’t really fly but he can sort of flutter places.

  1. Reviving an Old Manuscript with Scrivener

Scrivener is my go to piece of writing software. I love scrivener. It’s so versatile and useful for all sorts of writers. This tip on using Scrivener to revive old manuscripts was well received. I guess my writer friends like Scrivener, too.

  1. Trivia Time: Florence Nightingale

This humorous post about the founder of modern nursing, ends my top ten list. I am happy you’ve enjoyed these and other posts throughout the year.

 

What the Media is getting wrong about Kindle Unlimited

Amazon is one of those love em or hate em kind of companies, or so the media would have us believe. The truth for most writers is, I think, a lot more nuanced than that. A lot of indie writers have made careers thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing. And yet at the same time, they know that having all your eggs in one basket is a dangerous mistake. Other writers have made careers in traditional publishing, and when Amazon and Hachette had their dispute it was hard not to wonder how it was going to affect them. Still, at the end of the day we all understand that Amazon is a business with it’s own business interests. It’s an enormously successful business and it’s decision affect every writer, so we pay attention to anything it does.

That said, I am growing tired of how every Amazon related piece of news is spun to either show how much we love or hate the retailer. Kindle Unlimited has become the latest victim to this spin, even when that’s not what the very authors are saying.

According to the spin the Kindle Unlimited program has opened a huge riff with the indie community. We are being treated like second class citizens. Big name authors like H. M. Ward and even Joe Konrath are up in rebellion, leaving the program in droves.

There is some truth to all this. A select few authors have been allowed in the Kindle Unlimited program without exclusivity but most of us have to choose, enroll in select and have our books become Amazon exclusives or opt out. A few publishers have been offered their full cut on each borrow, the average indie gets paid out of a pot.

There are just a couple of problems with the spin. The first is that while many authors are disappointed with the way this program is working out, they don’t hate Amazon because of it. Even those pulling their books from the program aren’t pulling their books from Amazon. Even those praising the program are cognizant that it hasn’t been good for everyone.

The bigger problem with the spin is that it’s missing the central idea, the program isn’t working. It’s not an Amazon-is-a-terrible-company sort of problem. It’s not that indies are being mistreated. The program should be a good tool for indies wanting to get discovered, but it’s not working out that way.

Why isn’t it working? If we screw the spin and go straight to the source we see the problem. H. M. Ward pulled her books for two reasons, borrows weren’t paying enough and her sales were dropping. In fact, her sales plus her borrows were dropping.

I am nowhere near as popular as H. M. Ward, but I can see her point. The first couple of months I saw a lot of borrows and I got paid enough on each borrow that it was close to what my royalties were. Then borrows started to drop. Now, I can’t say that it’s worth it to stay in the program.

This combination of dropping pay out and dropping borrows points to a more specific problem then how Amazon treats indies. I think the issue has to do with the ratio of readers to writers. Most of the bloggers so far have focused on the huge number of indie authors jumping into the program, and the giant pile of books available. Not only is this disingenuous, since none of those writers is going to stop putting their books into the program, it misses the other side of the equation. How many readers have opted into the subscription service? I am guessing the pace adoption on the consumer side simply hasn’t kept up with the number of authors. That would explain the dropping payouts.

And it points to the real issue with a reader subscription service. I am not just a writer, but an avid reader as well. I opted in with the Kindle Unlimited early on. I loved it for about a month. I read a half dozen or more of the big names they recruited into the program, books I’d wanted to read for sometime because of the hype around them (like the Hunger Games books) but hadn’t wanted to buy. Then I started sampling from the large library of available books, many of them by indie authors. I got passed the ten percent mark, where the author gets paid, on many of them. But I didn’t fall in love with any of them either.

A couple months later I realized that I had stopped borrowing books and gone back to buying them. I just got tired of sorting through hundreds of titles that I might possible want to read and returned to picking out, and paying for, the ones I knew I wanted to read. I got tired of passing by books that I wanted to read, because they weren’t free. Just using KU, I could save money. But having some KU books and some bought books, I was losing money. In the end it wasn’t worth it. I cancelled my subscription.

And that is the problem with a reader subscription service. Books are a huge investment of time, even if they are free. That’s why libraries never destroyed bookstores. Readers don’t seem to care that there are thousands of books available for free at the local library. They only care about the few books that they want right now. The bookstore does a better job of providing those titles. So readers go there and fork over cash.

Libraries stay open because they are publically funded. Do you think it’s possible to have a subscription based library with monthly fees? It hasn’t worked so far. I think Amazon will discover the same thing with KU.

I know, Pandora, Spotify, changing the music industry, blah, blah, blah. Maybe Amazon will eventually pull this one off, maybe they will get around consumer reluctance and author concerns and make Kindle Unlimited work.

As a reader, I’ve ditched Kindle Unlimited. I’m not sure what would bring me back. As an author, I’m leaving some of my YA books in the program, and I will continue to monitor how it works. But I am not intending to put any of my new books in.

Contrary to what the media might say, it doesn’t mean I hate Amazon.

 

What’s to Come in 2015

I can’t believe it’s almost 2015 already. 2014 has been a really good year. I put out four books in 2014. The Best Boy Ever Made came out in February and it’s been my best selling book so far. Bear Naked 2: Wolf Camp followed in April. Rosie and the Quarry Ghost came out in late summer and The Mage Chronicles just this month.

I’ve been transitioning from mostly writing YA to mostly writing science fiction and fantasy. In 2013 I released my first book as R. J. Eliason. In 2014 it was even, two YA novels as Rachel Eliason and two fantasy novels as R. J. Eliason. 2015 will be slanted even more towards fantasy. I have four books I plan to publish in 2015 and three of them will be under R. J. Eliason. When they come out is the three and half thousand dollar question.

Bear Naked 3: The Hunter and the Hunted

The next installment in the Bear Naked saga is almost ready to go. It’s with beta readers now and I am starting to get the feedback I need to clean up the final pieces of the story. I hope to have it to my editor by the first of the year and publish it sometime this spring.

Blurb:

When Uncle Darren goes missing on a winter camping trip, it’s up to Amanda and her gang to find him. The only problem is that where he went missing is Idaho, that’s Skinwalker territory and the Native American cousins aren’t always friendly with to Werewolves.

Children of a New Earth

This is the first novel I ever wrote. Like most first novels, it’s taken dozens of rewrites and a lot of work to make it good enough to publish. It is finally ready for the editor. It is a post apocalyptic novel with a twist.

Blurb:

Amy Beland has grown up constantly at odds with the men and the views of Freedom Ranch, a survivalist enclave buried deep in the Rocky Mountains. And yet it will fall to her to journey outside their valley for the first since the society collapsed, before she was even born, to save the ranch.

The Banner of Kash

The Banner of Kash is the next Gilded Empire book. It begins a trilogy of interconnected stories about the gnome race.

Blurb:

Kendran has been a ranger in the Border Legions for over twenty five years, ever since his brother caught him with another man. Now he’s been called back to the reservation because the same brother is in trouble. He must walk a world of divided loyalties and old race hatreds to learn the truth about an ancient relic of his people, the Banner of Kash.

The Agony, The Ecstasy and the Buddha.

A memoir about my month in Thailand, having a sex change operation. It’s been done in rough form for some time and is almost ready to for it’s final edits. I will likely publish it under Rachel Eliason.

The Three and a Half Thousand Dollar Question

When will these books be out? Well, I don’t know. Three are essentially ready for the editor. The fourth could be made ready with one hard push, maybe a few weeks.

As an indie author I pay for the editing, cover design, etc. up front. Once I’ve paid those costs, I get the lion’s share of the benefit. That’s the good part. The bad part is, I pay those cost up front. It’s not exactly cheap either. I generally estimate a little over a thousand dollars per book.

If you look at the costs individually, about half my books have broke even and are now making me money. The other books are on track to break even and I have faith they will all at least make as much money as I spent putting them out.

Collectively they earn me a small but steady side income. I am hoping that my business as a whole will break even and become profitable within the next couple years.

The challenge is that books don’t start earning money until they are out, after you’ve spent the up front cost. So the fastest way to earn money is to get the books out, but that requires having the money to put the books out.

Which brings us to the three and a half thousand dollar question. Can I find that much money? If so, should I spend it all at once and get the three nearly ready books on the market? Or should I wait and put them out as I can afford to, later in the year? I haven’t quite decided yet.

My Writing in 2015

Writing a book is a long project. I already have many of the books I will write in 2015 in the planning stages, with an eye towards what I will publish in 2016. Bear Naked is a series and book four is in planning stages. It might even be ready for fall of 2015, but I haven’t decided yet. The Banner of Kash is a trilogy and book two has been started in planning stages as well.

I have a science fiction series I want to start this year as well. It’s about first contact with the Galactic Consortium. It will be serialized in an episodic format, like a television series. The first “season” is the Girl in the Tank.

Blurb:

Leaving her children with an increasingly deadbeat husband and their sometimes dysfunctional grandmother is just one of the hardships of military service, Cheyenne Walker knows this. When conflict arises between the Consortium and China over the island of Taiwan, America is drawn in as uneasy Allies. A Chinese Nuclear Sub rises less than two hundred feet off the bow of the aging Burke Class Destroyer, the Cambridge, and Cheyenne’s duty as gunner, however painful, is clear. She must destroy the missile.

She finds herself floating in a Consortium medical tank, wondering if they really have the technology to rebuild her broken body, wondering if the political situation will stay stable enough for her to ever get back to America, or if she will see her kids again.

Stateside she is herald as a hero. On board the medical evac ship Corelean she struggles with divided loyalties and a growing attraction to her master healer, Lana. Will she return to America and the life she knew, or forge a new one among the stars?

Why Buying Likes Hurts Everyone

(Re-published from my Nuts and Bolts Newsletter)

As Social Media marketing has become vital for advertisers, a black market has emerged. It is a black market in likes, friends and followers. It exists on almost every platform. You can buy Twitter followers, Facebook friends, likes for a post, retweets, you name it.

Why do people buy likes?

There are three reasons why people buy likes, friends or followers on social media platforms. The first two are dishonest and the third is stupid.

Companies buy likes and followers to give their company an inflated imagine online. For example let’s say you just started an online dating site. You have recruited every developer, friend and family member you could and you have 35 members. Who is going to join a dating site with almost no potential dates? So you pay some website to get you tens of thousands of Twitter followers. That way when potential customers see you on Twitter they assume there are thousands of people on your site.

Many websites survive on advertising. Banner ads and sidebar ads pay the bills and allow the creators to do their thing. How much you can reasonably charge for a banner ad depends on how much reach you have. Remember reach equals how many people see what you do. By buying likes and followers, some dishonest bloggers inflate their reach and overcharge their sponsors.

Finally many newbies to the social media marketing game simply don’t know any better. They know they need a big reach to get sales, but they don’t fully understand how it works. They are drawn in by ads for thousands of followers. So they buy likes and then sit back and wonder why sales aren’t coming in.

Where do paid likes come from?

One of the big problems with paid reach is where these likes come from. They mostly come from “click farms” in third world countries. Yes, you read that right. They have sweatshops in third world countries where people are paid to sit and like things on facebook, all day, every day for up to twelve hours a day. It sounds insane, but it’s true.

When I first encountered the idea of paying for Twitter followers, I couldn’t understand how it could possibly be a sustainable business for anyone. You can find people offering up to a thousand new followers on websites like fivver.com. A thousand followers for five dollars? It sounds cheap.

I could offer that service. All it would take is for me to have a thousand separate accounts on Twitter. The only thing Twitter requires is an email address. I could easily spend a couple of days on Google or hotmail creating email accounts and then using them to produce Twitter accounts. All for five dollars. Thanks but no thanks.

The economy in places like Bangladesh, where many of these click farms are, makes it feasible. The average income in Bangladesh is 840 U.S. Dollars a year. Clicking farming is not only feasible, for some it is preferable to other forms of labor available.

 

The problem with paid reach

I have said before that buying likes is a fools errand. But it’s more than that, it hurts everyone. There are a number of reasons. But first, why is it a fools errand?

The simple answer is that a purchased followers isn’t going to buy your book, pure and simple.

But a paid follower doesn’t just waste your money once, they waste it over and over again. Every time you craft a new blog post, create a new ad campaign or run some sort of online promotion, a share of that effort goes to your paid followers, who promptly delete it.

If that’s not bad enough, they dilute your organic reach. Organic reach refers to how much reach you have without promoting a given post. Organic reach means fans, people who want to engage with you. Since platforms like Facebook only show your posts to handful of your fan, even a small number of fake friends can mean none of your real fans see your awesome posts. And that is sad.

If you have fallen for buying likes or followers in the past, now is the time to clean up your newsfeed. Twitter Audit will check your Twitter account for fake accounts. They even have premium services that will help you unfollow the ones you don’t want. I don’t know of any automated way to check your facebook feed but here’s a great article on how to spot fake accounts. Eliminating fake accounts from your friends list, your fan page and your twitter account will help improve your targeted advertising, getting your book in front of the people who actually want to buy it.

Paid reach hurts everyone

If paid reach only hurt those foolish enough to pay for it, I would let them go. But it hurts all of us. There are several reasons.

Paid reach is eroding consumer confidence. The average person is no fool. They catch on to tricks quick enough. A blogger friend of mine took a radical feminist group to the carpet on this recently. They had a hundred thousand likes on their facebook page, mostly from men in Bangladesh. Its hard to believe that excluding trans women from a minor feminist conference could get that much international support. My point is, people do notice. And it affects their view of social media in general.

Paid reach dilutes organic reach for everyone as well. Paid likes is against the terms of service on both Facebook and Twitter. There is a constant cat and mouse chase as those platforms seek to eliminate fake accounts. Suspicious accounts get suspended or deleted. As a countermeasure, click farms instruct their people to like lots of things, not just what they are paid to like. That prevents Facebook from picking up on them so quickly. You might well have a few followers/fans from Bangladesh. The first time I saw one I thought I had become an international sensation. More likely it was a click farm employee trying to imitate a real person with a few random likes. Here is a great video that illustrates this well.

The large amount of paid reach out there also dilutes advertisers confidence. That doesn’t affect the indie writer so much, but it threatens many bloggers. Their ad revenue is based on reach, but as advertisers realize how little reach is authentic, they are less willing to pay.

Fake likes hurts your fan base. I like pages on Facebook because I want to be kept informed about authors I like. However it doesn’t work anymore, because Facebook now decides what I see and it may be sharing news about some new release with a click farm worker in Indonesia instead of telling me.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fake likes hurts the people who work in the click farms. We already have too many industries built upon sweatshop labor. Do we really want to create another, virtual one? Clicking on web pages might be better than sewing fashion garments or assembling iphones, but it’s still not a real career. There are much better and more humane ways to support third world economies than buying twitter followers.

As you wade through the social media landscape you will find yourself at times awash in people wanting to sell you followers, likes and what not. It’s not worth it at any price. If we spread the word and get everyone on the don’t buy likes bandwagon, we can keep social media marketing effective for many years to come.

 

The End of an Era (and a site)

 

 

Wiredthatwaylogo1

For nearly two years I wrote a column for Accessline Iowa called Wired That Way. The column was about the intersection of technology and the LGBT community. It was great fun to write. It was also my first experience with a real editor and I learned a lot about writing.

I set up a website to go along with the blog and to provide a space for extra writing. I envisioned it leading to a sideline as a tech blogger.

My mother used to tell me, you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Funny how we never appreciate these tidbits of wisdom until we are older, right?

While writing that column and blogging on that website, I was also working on a couple of YA novels. I never forgot my first love, sci fi and fantasy, either.

My first novel came out and it got decent reviews and sales, enough to encourage me to put more time and focus into fictional writing. The Accessline went to an all digital format and I decided that was a good time to bow out of my column. The website remained and for a long while I continued to post regularly.

Can you make it a business out of blogging? Lots of people do, but it’s a full time job. Can you make a business out of writing novels? Certainly, but again it’s a lot of work. My mom’s words of wisdom have become increasingly important to my writing career. I could do one or the other, but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to both. So Wired That Way has taken a backseat to fiction. Contemporary YA novels are slowly taking a backseat to fantasy and science fiction. So it goes.

Wired That Way was hosted through a different company as my other websites. As of December 2014, my hosting account came up for renewal and I just couldn’t justify a two year contract on a website I don’t use anymore. So I’ve redirected the site here for now. This is the site I am most active on, and where what tech writing I do will likely go. Maybe in time I will create a new wordpress site on this host for Wired That Way, but for right now I am going to combine it with this site.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

 

How to Kick an Internet Troll, right in the Freedom of Speech

From Gamergate to homophobia to this piece of crap, trolls are everywhere on the internet. When challenged about their behavior their first fallback position is almost invariably freedom of speech. “You are violating my freedom of speech. I have a right to my opinions.”

In making this argument they are taking the moral high road. The argument ceases to be about their behavior and becomes about some higher principles.

It’s also pure bullshit. Yes, freedom of speech is an important right. However it’s not as gray as trolls would like you to believe, nor is it applicable to their behavior.

Here are three simple ways that the freedom of speech argument fails and how to shut down trolls when they try to use it on you.

1. You have freedom of speech, too.

When you speak out on an issue you feel strongly about, that’s freedom of speech. When a troll responds in the comments, or in person, trying to shout at you to shut you up, that’s not freedom of speech. That’s the exact opposite. When Gamergate “activist” attack feminist who critique gamer culture, they aren’t expressing their opinion, they are attempting to silence their opponent, and then trying to claim that is freedom of speech.

2. freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequence

Remember in high school when you had to debate that ludicrous situation where someone yells “fire!” in a crowded movie house. That always drove me nuts because the solution seems so obvious. Having the freedom to do what you want or feel is right doesn’t mean you are free from all the consequences of your behavior.

The right to bear arms doesn’t make murder legal. You might have the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded movie house, but if people die in the stampede to escape and it turns out you just thought it would be funny to see people run, you can still be charged with manslaughter.

Yes, trolls have the right to their opinion. But when they phrase those opinions as insults or threats, they may face consequences. That’s life.

3. Speech may be a right but publishing is a privilege.

You have the right to free speech but no one owes you a platform. I have the right to write whatever story I want, but I can’t force HarperCollins to publish my thousand page rant on how mice don’t really like cheese. HarperCollins gets to choose what it publishes.

What we often forget is that anything posted on the internet is actually being published. Most of the websites we use don’t belong to us and the owners have a choice of what to publish and what not to.

If I am running my own personal blog, I don’t have to publish any comments. I can, and most bloggers do, because it builds a sense of community around a blog and brings readers back. However if I feel a comment is from a troll, or has no value to the discussion, I can choose not to display it. If you disagree, you are welcome to start your own blog and respond there.

Most public websites have clear terms of service. They vary in details but most clearly forbid certain behaviors. It is Facebook, Google plus or Twitter’s prerogative to decide what these are and to decide what is acceptable on their website.

The users are faced with the choice of playing by the rules or not using the site. Sometimes that means they allow posts that we personally find offensive. Sometimes that means they remove our posts because someone else found them offensive.

 

Trolls may be a fact of life in the internet age, but the damage they do, and the number in your life, can be controlled. It starts by realizing that insults and attacks in comments aren’t free speech, they are an attempt to silence the original poster’s free speech. It’s possible to respectfully disagree with someone without being a troll.

Second we need to recognize that online behavior does have consequences. If someone violates the rules of a given website by posting threatening or derogatory language, flag them. If they want to cry that their freedom of speech has been violated, they can do so somewhere else. Believable verbal threats, doxxing someone and adding rape threats, for example, might also violate the law. Contact your local police to see what sort of evidence they need and how to gather it.

Finally, all of us are webmasters, even if all we have is a Facebook page. You control, to a large extent, what lands on your webpage. If you are a journalist or a blogger, you are also an editor. It’s up to you to make sure that each comment on a post adds to, rather than detracts from the discussion. You have the right to delete or unapprove comments. On social media you have tools to delete, block or untag people and photos. Use your power wisely, to strip internet trolls of the one thing they were never guaranteed in the first place, an audience.

 

Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No One Reads

There are books that everyone has heard of, are frequently discussed in various circles and yet almost no one has ever actually read. Here is my list.

1. The Bible


When I was a young person, the Lutheran church gave every kid, upon reaching a certain age, a copy of the Bible. Being an avid reader even then, I plowed through it from start to finish. Chapter upon chapter of so and so begat so and so. All the disjointed stories of the old testament, the list of rules in Leviticus that make almost no sense to the modern reader, you name it. I only recall a fraction of it now, but I read it once upon a time.

It is not my intention to get into a religious debate. But there is something that has always bothered me about a lot of fundamentalists. If you believe this one book is the actual written word of God, shouldn’t you read it? But in many churches, this is not how it’s done. Instead “Bible Study” is largely learning a few choice phrases out of context and very little actual reading of whole books in context.

And yes, I know, a lot of people have read the Bible. Still it belongs on this list because the number of people who have read it pales to the number of people who claim it as the holy testament of their religion.

2. The Big Book


Sometimes called the blue book or even the big blue book (not the one you find car prices in) because the dominant cover is a light blue. Written in 1939 by Bill W. one of the founders of AA, the Big Book is a long rambling testament, laying out the twelve steps, peppered with lots and lots of anecdotes about people who have been helped by them.

As AA has grown to become the predominant treatment for addictions of all kinds, the Big Book has undergone many editions and printings. It is handed out in meetings, sold in bookstores and passed from hand to hand by many people.

The quintessential symbol of what the Big Book has become was a recent TMZ photo of actress Lindsay Lohan entering a nightclub clutching the Big Book, as though it were a talisman to prevent relapse. Perhaps her recovery would have gone better if she had stayed home and actually read the damn thing.

I work in mental health and our unit always has a half dozen copies of the big book floating around. One night I got curious enough to crack the Big Book and see what it’s all about. And I have to say, I tend to agree with the non-readers on this one. It’s long. It rambles. The twelve steps are pretty well known by now, and explained more concisely in other books. The Big Book remains important as a testament to the history of the movement.

3. The Constitution


The Constitution of the United States of America is not really a book. I include it in this list because it shares so much in common with the first two books on the list. It’s often held up as a symbolic emblem by people who haven’t read it and are often arguing against it.

I won’t open an ugly can of worms by discussing politics here. However, in my school days every student had to read the Constitution and at least attempt to understand it. Judging from the state of politics today, I doubt many people have done either.

4. Atlas Shrugged


Love it or hate it, Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, Atlas Shrugged in one of the most important works of the twentieth century. A large chunk of the Neo-libertarian Republicans in politics today swear by Ayn Rand’s philosophical world view.

If you want to appear intellectual and hip among that crowd, you must have a passing familiarity with Atlas Shrugged. But if you try to engage such people in debate you will find that it often ends at a passing familiarity.

Honestly I am not a fan of either the philosophy or the book. Judging the book solely on its literary merits, it’s long, dense and stilted. The characters are flat and spend most of their time espousing Ayn Rand’s philosophy rather than interacting with each other. I tend to agree with reviewer Dorothy Parker, who said, “This is not a novel tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” And all the pseudo-intellectuals that quote Ayn Rand should be forced to read her entire collection for themselves.

5. Anything by James Joyce


“For this, O Dearly Beloved, is the genuine Christinne: body, and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, Gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.”

James Joyce is the great grandmaster of the modern novel. Stream of consciousness? He practically invented it. He revolutionized novel structure. He wrote in his own Irish accent and voice, and in doing so championed a new literary form. His work is some of the most scrutinized and studied in all of literature.

The literary snobs of the world will sneer their contempt at anyone who suggests that they would prefer to read something, well, a little more readable than most Joyce. Which probably explains why literary aficionados everywhere tend to agree with the snobs, mutter an apology for not having “gotten around” to Joyce and quickly change the subject.

6. War and Peace


Tolstoy’s great masterpiece about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia is a giant of a book. Everyone knows its a masterpiece and one of those books you ought to read. But they never seem to get around to it, put off by the size of the book or the long Russian names.

It’s too bad, because it really is one of my favourites. How I finally got around the size of the book was to realize, it’s not any longer than many of the fantasy series I read regularly. If you have read all seven of the Harry Potter books you’ve devoured more pages than War and Peace. So grab a copy and get cracking.

7. The Communist Manifesto


Karl Marx’s short little book, The Communist Manifesto belongs on this list because it’s influence far out reaches it readership. It has spawned revolutions, been the primary influence on numerous communist, socialist and marxist governments. But how many people have actually read the manifesto?

8. The Tao Te Ching


The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese classic, penned by the sage Lao Tsu. The book is second to only the Bible in terms of the numbers of language it’s been translated into. It has been enormously influential in the east. It has been seeping into western thought since it’s translation in the mid eighteen hundreds.

Carl Jung was influenced by the Tao Te Ching. Many of the new agers, from Wayne Dyer to The Secret, will quote freely from the Tao Te Ching.

But reading the book is another story. It’s an ancient spiritual text and it tends to be dense and obscure at times, not what you would call light reading. Which explains why so many people talk about it, own it, but few have actually read it.

That’s my list. What books would you add?

A Quick Update on 2014

It’s hard to believe it’s almost summer. I had the goal at the start of this year to publish four new novels, two YA novels under Rachel Eliason and two fantasy novels under R. J. Eliason. Here’s the quick update.

The Best Boy Ever Made came out towards the end of January and it’s doing nicely. I have had several good reviews and sales are good. A huge thanks to all my YA fans for making that happen.

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