I Broke my Near Perfect Followback Record on Twitter. Here is Why.

Some time last week I got followed by an aggressive bot. (The TL;DR version right there.) How do I know it’s a bot? Well, the first hint is also why I describe it was aggressive. I noticed a suddenly rush of new followers. And I mean a lot of followers. In one day alone I had 235 new followers.

I typically get five or six new followers a day. It’s not much but you’d be surprised how quickly your follower count grows when you consistently get even a small number of new followers like this. When I am trying to build my follower count by actively following new people, interacting with people or running promotions I can add more, but never in the range of two hundred a day.

I noticed these new followers were all from the Middle East. In fact around ten, twenty new followers with Arabic profiles I started to wonder what was going on? Had I suddenly gone viral in that region and not known it? Was some Arabic reader rushing around with his/her kindle saying, “you all got to follow this American writer, she’s awesome!” (We all wish this was at the root of every mysterious bump in followers, page hits or sales. But sadly it’s rarely true.)

Here Temporarily and Tomorrow I will spend,, Thief, My Character. -Unknown twitter bot

Bots are automated software systems designed to tweet and act like real users. Some are very sophisticated. Others, not so much. Bots follow new accounts based on algorithms. I don’t know what keyword I used, what followback ratio or klout score led them to my doorstep, but here they are.

Bots can also be automated to create new accounts, so skilled bot owners may have hundreds or thousands of twitter accounts at their disposal.

But what can you do with a thousand twitter accounts? Most twitter bots are created with the sole purpose of boosting other accounts follower numbers. All the ads you see for ten thousand twitter followers for five dollars, are bots. There is simply no other way for such businesses to be viable.

More sophisticated bots can not only create Twitter account they can create the profiles as well, taking pictures from a database or from the internet and adding text to make it look like a real person’s account.  As you know automated text is not a perfected technology and the bots are often programmed to use keywords and any large body of text written with keywords in mind often comes across as funky.  Google translate is far from perfect as well. Put the two together and looking at some of these profiles can be downright hysterical.

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 8.59.49 AM

One my new bot follower’s profile.

Having decided that most of this rush of new followers were bots I decided not to follow back. I usually have a pretty liberal followback policy, including eggs and accounts that under other circumstances may also be bots.  A few bots here and there don’t bother me but a huge rush like this this did.  Here is why I chose not to follow them back.

Another wonderful bot profile

Another wonderful bot profile

1. Bots are usually created by people who are looking to sell followers. I do not buy followers. Having a huge run of automated bots following me might create a different impression.

There is an interesting  parallel with the recent controversy around paid reviews. An expose was written about well known Indie authors buying reviews from review websites. What the expose didn’t cover was whether or not all of the reviews written by paid reviewers were paid for. Twitter bots and fake likes on social media sites often do a lot of legitimate following and liking, to avoid suspicion. It would make sense to me that to sell paid reviews, reviewers would have to do the same, write many legitimate reviews of popular works so they look like legitimate reviewers.

Either way, it’s clear that people notice. Even though I didn’t pay these bot accounts to follow me, it’s likely that some people will notice and assume I did. Which Is why I won’t follow them back. If they unfollow me in a few days, all the better.  

2. Bots will never buy my book.  no matter how many bots you have in your following list not one of them will buy your book, review your book or give you any tangible benefit. Bots and paid followers are the perfect example of failing to understand what social media metrics really mean. Paid following does not equal a large fan base, any more than political candidates hiring crowds for events equals votes in the voter booth. If you stoop to paid followers, or encourage others to do, you will lose in the most important sphere of all, long term success.

3. Bots do not  interact the same as real people and their value as followers isn’t the same. It is better to have 100 followers who are real people and want to interact with you then ten thousand bot followers. Bots do what they are programmed to do and little else.

4. Like attracts like. I have five thousand and some followers. As a writer, I find the majority of my followers are also writers, bloggers or book lovers, as it should be. Bots follow by automated algorithms. Invariably they will end up following other bots, who share their online behavior. Then it becomes a vicious cycle of triggering each other’s algorithm. So bots may have hundreds of thousands of other followers, all of whom are also bots. They share what they’ve been programmed to share and retweet what they’ve been programmed to retweet, all to other bots. Interacting with such accounts is like shouting into the void. Your post might get shared a hundred times and never seen by a human eyeball. Don’t waste your breath.

 

5 reasons that Twitter power users hate DM

I see it all the time, twitter power users with a little message in their profile, “No DMs.” These users won’t respond to direct messages, they don’t read them and woe to the user who tries to DM them. Why do so many power users seem to hate Twitter’s direct message feature? Here are five reasons:

  1. Hi! Generic greeting – via thirdparty app.

Nothing says engagement like using a third party app to auto message people. I understand that social media takes time. I schedule posts and automate some things as well, but not DMs.

I don’t expect every follower to interact with me personally, but getting hundreds of DM’s from autoresponders wastes my time and it looks tacky. If you use an auto-messaging app, you might want to rethink it. It won’t make me unfollow you, but it does make me tune out DMs.

 

  1. Hi! Thanks for following me. Want to follow me on Facebook here?

Yeah, I get this one daily. You follow someone and they send you a dm requesting you like their facebook page as well. You know what? I followed you on Twitter. If I wanted to follow you on Facebook I would have done that instead. Twitter is an actual social media in its own right, not Facebook’s recruitment app, so stop treating it as such.

 

  1. Thanks for following me! Want to buy my book now?

This one is often followed by the little via third party app tag, making it a double whammy. I love connecting with authors, but if I wanted to buy your book I would have looked you up on Amazon, not Twitter. DMing your book link is spam, pure and simple.

 

  1. DM’s from people who don’t follow you.

Yes, it happens. Why is that a problem? Because Twitter won’t allow you to respond if you don’t have a mutual follow relationship. Obviously you didn’t know that, or you wouldn’t have wasted both our times with this message that I can’t reply to even if I wanted to. Stop it.

 

  1. It’s called social media for a reason.

People forget what social media is all about, being social. I can understand people being more hesitant on Facebook. You have personal pictures, you’ve friended family and close personal friends. You want to share with them, not the world.

But Twitter is an entirely different beast. Everything you do on Twitter is public. That can be a downside as many of the conservatives that treated the president’s arrival on Twitter with racist scorn may soon find out.

But that’s also the beauty of Twitter. Twitter is the cocktail party of social media sites. It’s all short conversations held in a public forum. Twitter power users get that. They are on Twitter to promote themselves, not by constantly spamming people with buy my books links, but also not to spend most of their time in private conversation. They want to mingle, to share tweets with followers and talk to each other in a semi-public forum.

The @ mention is the secret to being a Twitter power user, not DM. @ mentions are seen by both your followers and theirs. Public interaction with the right fellow authors can increase your visibility and announce, in a not so spammy way, that you, too, are an author.

As a bonus: One reason I personally dislike all of the social media messaging features, be it Twitter, Facebook or wherever:

I have an email.

I get plenty of emails. It’s hard enough to keep track of everything when it’s one place. (Two places, actually. I have a second email I use specifically for newsletters, or websites where I have to sign in.)

What’s worse is trying to keep track of hundreds of contacts and messages across a half dozen platforms. To keep things simple, I keep Facebook chat off and redirect any important contacts to my email address. Otherwise things get lost in the shuffle.
That’s my take on why Twitter power users don’t use direct messages. What is your take? Any issues I missed?

Online Bullies, Trolls and Open Dialogue

The toxicity of online trolls is getting worse, or so says Wil Wheaton. I don’t know that I agree but he’s pretty active on sites like Tumblr and Reddit, where I am not. So maybe he’s on to something. Maybe it’s just those sites.

Most discussions of trolls, trolling behavior and the state of the internet are steeped in a sense of helplessness. The problem seems so intractable, so impossible to cure. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about this issue.

I disagree. I think the problem is really quite simple. But first we must recognize how we got to our current state of affairs. Three separate and distinct issues have become so intertwined in our daily experience of the web that we fail to see them as distinct. They are the right to privacy, the right to free speech and the notion of an open dialogue. If we can separate these issues out, the problem becomes clear, as does the solution.

Open Dialogue

The idea of an open dialogue is at the heart of the social web. Facebook, Twitter and Google plus have trained us to see the entire world as an auditorium with an open mic. Every post, every picture, every link has a comment box right below it, inviting us to share our opinion with the world. News sites and blogs have comments sections. Some people feel like they don’t really know the whole story unless we read each and every comment. The whole point of sites like Reddit is to create an open dialogue on a diverse range of subjects. It’s symptomatic of our times that the news has become less and less about news and more about people’s reaction to the news. No news report is complete without some reference to social media, the story going viral, or reactions from Twitter, Facebook, etc.

But do we need to have a dialogue on every aspect of our lives? Just because there is a comment box beneath a post or picture doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about that photo.

A picture of a woman is not an invitation to comment on her body. Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out is important news, without it a lot of people would have been left wondering why the person they knew as Bruce was now a woman named Caitlyn. But why should it be an opening for the entire country to discuss their feelings about trans people? It’s Caitlyn’s life and choice, not yours. Sometimes the news is just, the news. We can accept that this or that event happened without turning it into a debate.

Slowly across the web people are starting to wake up and ask this question. Do we really need an open forum for every piece of news that comes along?

After looking at the evidence of what online trolling does, Popular Science shut down it’s comments section entirely. Plenty of other magazines have made less drastic steps to limit comments, often hiding them behind a button.

Even a year ago it was a given that bloggers must encourage reader participation in comments. Now many big name bloggers have partially done away with comments or moderate them with a heavy hand. Blogs often allow comments on some posts and not others.

Users on social media are even showing signs of becoming jaded. They are quicker to delete comments, block or unfriend users and move on.

And honestly, I think it’s a good thing. An open dialogue is a privilege, not a right. It’s time to reassert this fact. Implicit behind the whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, behind the first amendment’s freedom of speech and religion, is the right to have an opinion without having to constantly defend it.

Women shouldn’t have to be subjected to comments about their bodies from random men online. A woman can post pictures of themselves wearing whatever they want. They can tag it with a comment like “I look hot today.” They are not required to leave those comments open so you can chime in your opinion about how she looks.

A statement about my gender identity or sexual orientation does not require you to chime in with your opinion on LGBT acceptance. When I went through my transition, I was crystal clear about this fact. I informed people that this thing was happening in my life and I would have a new name, gender role. I was not asking for their approval or acceptance of this fact. Not everything I share is an attempt to engage you in a public debate, believe it or not.

What about freedom of speech?

One of the problems we have when we try to school online trolls is that they insist it’s their right to not only have but to publicly air their opinions. This is, at best, a half truth. I’ve blogged about that before: How to Kick an Internet Troll right in the Freedom of Speech.

The short version is this, you have the right to free speech. But I don’t have to provide you an audience. You can have an opinion about my body, but I don’t have to share that on my Facebook or Twitter page. And if you are upset because I deleted a comment or unfriended you, you are welcome to rant on your own page.

Not only am I not obligated to give you an audience, I am not obligated to be part of your audience. Maybe it’s time to stop reading comments. There are many websites, especially news sites, where I never read the comments. Part of it is the over abundance of trolls. Part of it is what do the comments really add to the news piece? Will reading John Q’s opinion on police in America or Caitlyn Jenner’s transition really tell me something? Often the answer is no.

If anything a lot of public debate is degraded by the constant stream of dialogue from people who know nothing about the situation. Climate change remains controversial despite the overwhelming number of scientists that believe it’s real. Why? In large part because of the constant stream of news commentators, politicians and online “sceptics” that have no background in science but still feel empowered to tell the scientist why they are wrong.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri became a flashpoint for millions of Americans who had never heard of the town and probably couldn’t find it on a map. Yet, they were all quite sure they knew what “really” happened there and were happy to share this valuable insight with residents who lived in the city their whole life.

The bottom line is that freedom of speech does not include the right to make your opinion heard on every single forum or every single issue. It might come as a bitter pill for certain people, to realize that their opinions don’t always matter. But they are welcome to pay for web hosting, launch their own personal website and rant to their hearts content. But I do not have to publish your rant on my website, or visit yours.

The Right to Privacy

The third issue is right to privacy, and it’s gotten intertwined with the rest of this debate due to a couple of website’s heavy handed attempts to deal with online trolls. First Google tried to clean up the horrible cesspit that the Youtube comments section had become and then Facebook tried to clean up it’s online bullying problem.

Both companies took the same approach. They figured if people had to come clean about who they were, they’d be nicer. Their approach to accountability was to insist on real names on their social media.

In doing so they made the online troll problem a privacy issue. It backfired on both of them. There are too many legitimate reasons why people might not want to use their real name online, and many issues with providing real names to companies like Facebook or Google.

Facebook continues to waffle on this issue, stating they are enforcing the real name policy, ignoring it in some cases and enforcing it in others. They continue to claim that it will stop bullying, but without much proof of whether it works or not.

Google blinked and in doing so, created a half ass solution that works better than what Facebook is doing. First they tied Youtube comments to Google Plus, then they blinked on the real name policy on Google plus. So now you can no longer comment anonymously, which at least gives Google some way to block abusive accounts. (That doesn’t prevent them from opening a new email account and then a new Google plus account. But it does make trolling a lot more work.)

Conclusions

The solution to the right to privacy issue might require some compromise on both sides. Social media sites are focusing on real names in an attempt to avoid looking at their other problems, namely an inability to effectively enforce their own rules of conduct.

On Facebook the problem comes down to two issues, they automate most complaints, applying simplistic algorithms to determine what is and is not a valid complaint. Secondly, when a human decision is required, those decisions are often outsourced overseas and the people judging the complaints might have little cultural understanding of what is going on.

Websites need to focus more on policing comments in ways that don’t infringe on rights to privacy. There are numerous options, but the problem is simple. The solution to both problems is to have better oversight, an expensive proposition in terms of manpower on a site used by more than a billion people. It’s no wonder they prefer the band aid of a real name policy.

The compromise for privacy advocates might be to realize that while you should have the right to surf the internet anonymously, you may not have to right to engage in public discourse on those terms. Blog comment sections might require an email or some other account validation process.

Trolls would have us believe that these requirements are a violation of their right to privacy. I would respond by saying that engaging in a discussion on my website isn’t a right, you can do it on my terms or not at all. The choice is yours. Those wanting to protect their privacy sometimes have to make hard choices about whether to use a particular app or website. Sometimes they have to do the same about engaging in public dialogue.

Websites or social media could perhaps accommodate both sides by allowing anonymous comments but treating them differently. A button would toggle them on or off, allowing readers to decide if they want to include anonymous comments or not. I’m guessing that most readers would choose no.

Another really simple fix would be for Facebook or Google plus to provide a simple way to disable comments on certain posts/pictures and to change your account settings to allow you to moderate comments on your own posts. (You can already delete comments, but those comments have already been posted and seen by followers if you aren’t online when they come in. Websites allow you to hold comments and only post the ones you approve.)

 

The bottom line is that we can reduce, if not eliminate, a lot of the online trolling problem, but it will be work. We need to start by understanding that this behavior is not a right. As I have said before, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. And the consequence of being an online troll is that you might be banned from making future comments.

Those who run websites, be they personal blogs, news sites or social media, will have the most work to do. They need to recognize that some news and announcements aren’t open to discussion and comments can and should be closed. In other cases, comments might have to be moderated. If a comment doesn’t add to the debate, don’t allow it. Most social media sites don’t allow personal attacks or threats. They need to work on applying those standards in a more even handed way.

There is an old saying that it’s the darkest before the dawn. Perhaps Reddits problem is a sign that the tide is turning against the trolls. More and more websites are working to stop troll  behavior and the trolls have fewer pastures left open to them. We can only hope.

 

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.

Why Give Books Away for Free?

I just wrapped up a big free giveaway of my latest novel Children of a New Earth. Why giveaway books? Some indie authors and a lot of traditional publishers, hate free giveaways. They argue that a writer works hard and shouldn’t devalue their work by giving it away free. They argue that free and bargain books are creating a glut and a race to the bottom, where the only way to succeed is to give things away.

Other indie authors were happy to use free promotions, a couple of years ago. Free is dead, they say. Amazon algorithms once favored free. A free giveaway still counted as a sale and a big free promotion could drive up your sales rank significantly. Now the algorithm has changed and that no longer works.

I am sensitive to all these arguments, but free remains an important part of my marketing strategy and here’s why.

One of the best books I’ve read on marketing is Write. Publish. Repeat. One of the most important things I learned from the books is that you have to have a marketing strategy. A marketing strategy means an overall philosophy about how to market yourself and your books.

Without a strategy all you have is a collection of techniques. Some techniques work some of the time but not others. Some work for awhile until something changes. Other techniques work, but may work against each other if not guided by one philosophy.

Free promotions are a great example. They used to work great, propelling some indie to renown. Now they work less well. Amazon will change its algorithm again and we’ll see, they might work well again or they might work against the author.

Free compliments certain techniques but works against others. Imagine that an author uses any sort of hard sell technique to create a sense of urgency about buying their book. You hand over your money. Next weekend the same book is free. I’d be pissed.

According to the Write. Publish. Repeat. guys any artist in any medium can support themselves doing their work if they have one thousand true fans. True fans will buy your book as soon as it’s released. That alone makes them a valuable resource. Imagine getting a thousand sales the day you release. Imagine if one in ten wrote a review. That would be over a hundred reviews on your book.

But true fans will do more than that, they’ll talk about your book. They’ll share your message. They’ll come to your events and build buzz around you. Basically they’ll do all those things that authors attempt to fake with social media buzz and “street teams.”

One of the marketing strategies they talk about a lot in that book is finding your tribe. Finding your tribe means finding those thousand fans, those people who will love what you write, talk about what you write and share your message. To say that these fans are worth their weight in gold might be an exaggeration, but they are certainly worth the cost of one book, especially in the digital age.

My marketing strategy is heavily based on the notion of finding my tribe. I will bend over backwards to give you, or anyone, a chance to read my work, no strings attached. I have a couple free stories on Wattpad. I have a couple on my website as well. If you sign up for my newsletter I will give you a free book. I also run free promotions regularly. I do this because I have confidence that at least some of you will come back and join the tribe.

Join my email list right here:

Free when you sign up for my newsletter.

Free when you sign up for my newsletter.

Marketing in this way means I also measure success a bit differently. I like sales. Everyone likes making money and I do have the dream of doing this fulltime someday. But right now sales aren’t the only or even primary means that I measure success. I measure success in many milestones, followers on various social media, reads on my wattpad site, reviews on my published books. The one I love the best is personal feedback, of course. There is no greater thrill for an author than a letter or email from a reader who was touched by something you wrote.

However I choose to measure success on any given day, the point is to build a tribe around my work. That’s why I run free promotions of my books. Maybe someday, when I have more than a thousand true fans, I will reconsider my strategy, but I doubt it. This is the author I want to be, one who is known for being generous with her work and her time. One who values her fans as much as they value her.

And by the way, it’s not just indies that think this way. I would like to end off with an interesting interview with Neil Gaiman about putting his novel American Gods out for free.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Ten Music Parodies that are Better than the Original

I have to tip my hat to pop musicians. They are good at what they do. What they do is write catchy tunes that get stuck in your head for days at a time.

What pop musicians seemed to less good at is writing songs with depth, positive messages or, in some cases, showing a bit of common sense.

Thankfully parodies have come into their own. In the eighties, when I was a teen, we would stay up late listening to Doctor Demento on the radio to get our parody fix. Later on I would lurk at the back of the filk room at science fiction conventions. Now parodies abound on youtube, with high production qualities, great videos and often, better lyrics than the original.

Here are my top ten parodies that are better than the original.

 

  1. Word Crimes

 

Weird Al is the master of parody, so it’s not surprising that he tops this list.

However catchy the original tune is, it’s lyrics are more than a little problematic. Even the title Blurred Lines, is about the supposedly blurry lines of sexual consent. Nothing like a creepy rape vibe to kill a songs appeal.

Weird Al’s rendition, Word Crimes skewers the internet’s poor grammar and spelling.

 

  1. A Brief History of Robin Thicke’s 2013 summer hit “Blurred Lines”

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The puppet combo of Glove and Boots gives you a thorough run down of Robin Thicke’s legal woes over the copyright suit, all set to the tune of his song.

  1. All about the Base (no rebels)

In Meghan Trainor’s defense, I like the message behind her song, all about the bass. But I can’t help like this nerdy star wars parody a little more.

 

  1. Talk Nerdy to Me

Talk Sexy to Me gets a nerdy make over in this catchy parody with nods to almost all corners of geekdom.

 

  1. Roll a D6

Who would want to go out and party “like a G6” when they can stay home and play Dungeons and Dragons?

 

  1. Sorted this Way

For the record, I do really like Born this Way by Lady Gaga. It’s one of the best pop anthems of the last few years with a powerful message about self acceptance. It’s so great in fact, that its strong enough to share the limelight with a couple of witty, geeky parodies, like this Harry Potter video.

 

  1. Form this Way

Or this Minecraft video.

 

  1. Do you wanna go to Starbucks

I am probably the last person alive who hasn’t seen Frozen. The music, however, is inescapable. It’s been turned into some great parodies, but this one about coffee is the nearest and dearest to my heart.

 

  1. All about those Books

Another great Meghan Trainor parody, advocating reading. What’s not to love?

 

  1. I’m Nerdy and I Know it

Sexy and I Know It was 2011’s inescapable pop sensation. The song makes fun of the beach body builder culture, but it was ripe material for someone to come along and make fun of it. Thankfully someone did.

 

Honorable mention:

It’s not a parody but if you’ve watched any of the guild, you’ve probably seen Game On:

If you haven’t watched the Guild yet, what are you waiting for? It’s one of the geekiest, funniest shows out there. It started as youtube channel and can still be found on the site, as well as Netflix and elsewhere online.

 

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.